Monthly Archives: August 2015

RIP Yvonne Craig, 1937-2015

I’m very sad to read that Yvonne Craig passed away on Monday. She made crimefighting fun and inspired millions of children to want to be superheroes. I’m looking forward to seeing her episodes of Batman again in a few months.

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The Bugaloos 1.1 – Firefly, Light My Fire

I do have a few regrets in life. One of them is that I didn’t buy the complete Bugaloos DVD when it was released eleven years ago. We sort of figured they’d be around forever, and not commanding $120 on Amazon. Somebody’s pricing these sets a little high, I think.

So we’re gathering around the laptop instead of kicking back on the couch, and watching the first three episodes of this adorable and silly series from somebody’s bootleg copies online. Daniel said that he liked it, and also even said that he wanted to watch the next episode tomorrow, but he also didn’t like the bad guys at all. Again. It was amusingly appropriate that some of the plot involved encouraging Sparky, a pitiful firefly who is afraid of the dark and cannot fly, to be brave. When Benita turned on our heroes, he slid right off of Marie’s lap and crouched down between our chairs, looking up at the laptop with a scowl.

If you’ve never seen The Bugaloos, it’s completely wonderful. Sid and Marty Krofft passed on making a new season of H.R. Pufnstuf, instead pitching NBC on this gentle-but-edgy and surreal series. They took what they learned from the production of Pufnstuf to make this for a good deal less money. They still went over their $1 million budget from NBC, but they didn’t spend twice as much this time.

The story is about four humanoid “bugs” in Tranquility Forest, “the last of the British colonies,” who are happy to spend their days singing and helping anybody who needs them, and who are pestered by a remarkably weird and selfish woman who lives in a jukebox. Her name is Benita Bizarre, and she thinks that she’s a singer, and she knows that she needs a backing band.

It was a little mean of Martha Raye to steal the show from her co-stars every single week, but she really couldn’t help it. Cast as the Bugaloos were two young musicians who really could not act – John McIndoe and John Philpott – and two young actors who were fresh out of stage school – Wayne Laryea and Caroline Ellis – and, as attractive and engaging as they all are, they’re nevertheless pine straw in front of Martha Raye’s hurricane.

Each episode of the series featured at least one new song. Most of these were written by Hal Yoergler, although Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel did the theme tune, and Fox wrote at least one more tune for the show. This time out, the song was Yoergler’s absolutely charming “Senses of Our World.” Benita’s song, which recurs in multiple episodes because she refuses to admit that it is a turkey, is apparently called “Supersonic Sneakers.” I’m not sure who gets blamed for writing that thing. Every performance is hilarious: a fabulous actress deliberately making hash of an execrably stupid tune.

It’s interesting to compare how this program was made against Pufnstuf, which was a single-camera film production. This was videotaped, allowing the director, Tony Charmoli, to use chromakey for the first time on a Krofft show, filling the windows of Benita’s penthouse with a pulsating psychedelic pattern. They also shot an entire season’s worth of material on each set before moving on to the next one. This leads to oddball little continuity mistakes throughout the series, like in this episode IQ sneers at Benita’s singing before he has actually heard her sing. The result is something that was made for much less money than Pufntsuf was. It still cost more than NBC was paying the Kroffts, though!

photo credit: Voices of East Anglia

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Thunderbirds 1.24 – Attack of the Alligators!

So this was Daniel’s first monster movie, and you could not ask for a better one. It’s fantastic fun and just a little bit scary. It dumps International Rescue into one of those 1950s creature features where some chemical turns ordinary beasts into gigantic ones. When one of the thirty-foot alligators – I won’t tell you how many there are, but I remind you of the rule of these films that says there’s always at least one more than the heroes think – makes itself known and attacks a boat, Daniel was behind the sofa like a shot.

He stayed in the room until Alan decided to draw an alligator away from the house. He watched nervously as they played a slow cat-and-mouse. Alan was on a hoverbike, looking over his shoulder, moving when the monster moved. They inched forward, and forward, and forward, and Daniel gripped the sofa for dear life, his face peaking over the top, eyes wide…

And then Alan, not looking, smacked into a rock and was pitched forward, over the handles and off the bike, smacking his head into a log and rolling over, bruised and eyes closed… and Daniel was out of the room like a rocket. We called him back once the danger was passed.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for this episode’s production meeting. Beautifully, it opens with what looks like a totally fake rear-screen projection shot, superimposing a live alligator over footage of the swamp set. Then the very next shot has two real alligators interacting with the puppets on a boat on the set. They really did dump real animals onto the set, and let them snap at each other, charge boats, and demolish the miniature house. An ordinary episode of Thunderbirds presented production challenges we can only guess at. This thing must have been a complete nightmare to make!

Although actually, as impressive as all the usual puppetry and animal wrangling are, I think the most impressive shot features a puppet flawlessly pouring liquid from a beaker into a test tube. Gerry Anderson’s programs always got some teasing for the marionettes bouncing around, but man alive, that was some precision work.

In fact, the only letdown in this great production was in the script. The sealed vial containing the last of the chemical gets dropped into the swamp river and Gordon, in Thunderbird 4, goes to find it. I’m more likely to believe in thirty-foot alligators than I am Gordon being able to see anything in that water!

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Batman (1966)

The Batman film has been written about and dissected far more than the episodes of the TV series has been, since, for many years, only it and not the show was available on home video. It’s still the most entertaining Batman movie that Hollywood’s ever made. Sure, the one with Heath Ledger is certainly an objectively better film in every regard, but entertaining it’s not. And, to be honest, as much as I’d love to champion this from the rafters… it has a lot of problems.

They’ve been discussed by many, and so I won’t belabor them, but it is unfortunate that it leads with ten completely awful minutes – all the over-narrated stuff, the Bat-shark repellent, the press conference, the “it happened at sea… C! C for Catwoman!” line – which is more than enough evidence for anybody skeptical about the Adam West series that the party line is actually true. The movie’s not so much campy as it is smug, the work of people who can get away with lousy, hasty work just because they can.

And plotwise, much of the movie’s like that. It’s all first-draft stuff, with things just falling into place out of sheer laziness and conviction that the audience will be perfectly willing to accept anything given. It’s not a story that works; it’s a story that happens.

And yet it’s entertaining because some of the performances are completely terrific. Some. The director seems to have told West and Ward that they’re on the big screen now and so they should play to the back of the theater, leading in the awkward feeling that the two leads are trying a lot harder than the screenwriter did.

But the bad guys… they’re all having a blast. Gorshin, Romero, and Meredith were all old hands at their parts, having done three or four stories apiece. Julie Newmar was unavailable, and filming actually began on the movie without a Catwoman, with Lee Meriwether joining them during the second or third week. She’d been in a couple of dozen small guest star parts for TV, and this was her first really big role.

A word of revisionist thought about Lee Meriwether: she’s fantastic. Conventional wisdom holds that she’s a poor second to Newmar, but at this point, we can compare just a single performance each. I had the feeling, watching “The Purr-fect Crime”, that a lot of what we remember Newmar for came from the show’s second season, but what I think now is that Newmar kept the character evolving in response to Meriwether’s portrayal here. As Catwoman, Meriwether is all tight curls and loud meows, while in Newmar’s first story, she is more languid and purring. There’s an astonishing bit where she’s at the periscope in the Penguin’s submarine, her hips gyrating as she lets out a loud “reeee-OWWWW!” and the henchman standing next to her gives her an eye that clearly says “this woman is insane.”

Her comrades in Underworld United all tackle their parts with relish, and they each playfully work to steal the scenes from each other. Gorshin gets a great one about sixty seconds before the image above. Lying on the floor with Meredith, he repeats the instructions for phase whatever of their latest plan, wide-eyed and crazy. But Meredith is the real star. It’s a little unfair to the others that he has the most to do, and doesn’t have to work the hardest, but when he growls “Run silent, run deep” in that submarine, you can turn off all the other Bat-movies, starring Keaton or Bale or whoever, because there’s not a more perfect moment in any of them.

Daniel ran hot and cold on this movie. As I feared, it was a little long for him, and the bits where Bruce Wayne is on a date with Miss Kitka sent him to the floor to roll around with toys, although I’m sure that Adam West appreciated the opportunity to do something different. Incidentally, since Meriwether didn’t join the production for at least a week, that blows a hole in a silly hypothesis of mine. When the couple goes dancing, you can spot Julie Gregg, from the last TV story, as the torch singer who’s performing “Plaisir d’amour.” She’s even wearing the same dress that she wore in the final scene of that episode! I sort of envisioned that after the director called a wrap on that episode on Friday, the producer said, “Julie, you were wonderful, can you come back Monday?” I guess there must have been more than just two days between them!

My son’s favorite scenes in any Batman story are the climbs. Good for him, because season two is full of them. This time, when they’re climbing the outside of the baddies’ lair, he was sitting on the couch between us imitating the climb, one hand in the air after another. Of course, he also loves the fights, and the movie got the biggest laugh from him during the big fight on the submarine, when Joker accidentally socks Riddler into the water.

And all the big new Bat-gadgets got the seal of approval: he loved the helicopter, speedboat, and motorcycle. We’d actually seen a different Bat-cycle in the second Penguin story. This new one Batman keeps hidden by the side of a coastal road covered in greenery camouflaging it. I can understand wanting to have various equipment stored in an assortment of hidey-holes around town in case of emergencies, particularly as the Batmobile gets pilfered for the fifth time in eight stories, but surely some shed, with a lock on it, would be more sensible?!

Finally, the ending is really, really fun, but it’s silly even by this show’s standards. It involves a cameo by an impersonator of President Johnson, stock footage of crowds cheering around the world, the most delicate operation in the history of medicine being performed in a very unsterile meeting room, and, wanting to make a discreet exit, our heroes climb out a ninth story window. Insanely, the villains don’t get a scene of final comeuppance, one last chance to jeer at our heroes and snap at each other before being marched off to prison, and the movie really misses that beat, that punctuation, needed before the long and silly epilogue.

So in conclusion, I’m of the opinion that almost all Batman movies are terrible. I’ll give you The Dark Knight, because Ledger was so, so good in that, and this is certainly the second best of them, but man, you watch this film and know that, as entertaining as it is on its own modest merits, if only the script worked a little harder and didn’t rely so much on coincidence and chance, it could have been great.

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Pufnstuf (1970)

Very soon after the production of the TV series finished – very soon indeed, as the opening sequence really looks like it must have been filmed in the fall – the Kroffts took a million dollars of Universal’s money and made a terrific feature film version of the show. The budget for the feature was the same as for the seventeen episodes. Some of the costumes are reused, in whole or part, but many, including Pop Lolly, Dr. Blinky, and Pufnstuf himself, who has a new head with a much softer mouth, are different. Some of the voices are also new. Lennie Weinrib, who had originally voiced Pufnstuf and Orson, among others, was busy doing other projects. Allan Melvin and Don Messick split the work of all of Weinrib’s characters.

The larger budget meant that Hollingsworth Morse could also shoot on much larger sets at Universal than he had at Paramount. Three of the main places on Living Island – the Clock House, the Candy Factory, and Dr. Blinky’s house – are all now seen to be in one village instead of on separate sets where it was suggested that they were in different places. And Witchiepoo’s castle gets a fabulous makeover, with more stairs to climb and places for people to interact. It looks lovely. Oh, and Morse and his cinematographer, Kenneth Peach, pulled off a completely astonishing done-in-one-shot version of Witchiepoo being so ugly that she breaks the mirror in her hand, requiring Billie Hayes to hit a precise mark with the mirror held perfectly for her reflection to be captured.

$1,000,000 in 1969-70 money is equivalent to $6,228,435 today, and you don’t hear of movies only costing that little anymore. This wasn’t a film meant to dominate the box office; it was meant to make its money back and then play summer film fests for kids for years to come, which it did. It was the sort of movie that spent every July in the 1970s being screened along with a few Disney live-action pictures and the Pippi Longstocking films in libraries in front of kids on the carpet while moms took a break.

Unlike many movie versions of TV series, this isn’t a “bonus episode” of the narrative. It’s an alternate take on things, reusing plot elements from several of the original stories. It means we get to see Jimmy meet Freddie after the flute comes alive, and get abducted by the witch’s boat, and meet all the people on Living Island again for the first time. In the short time between making the show and the movies, Jack Wild’s acting improved tenfold. He really sells the wide-eyed disbelief of what he’s seeing.

So how’d it go over at home? Well, at 95 minutes, it’s right at the limits of how long our son can be expected to sit kind of still, but the bleakness of the story, and one visual, really got to him, I fear. There’s an urgency to the plot that the series really doesn’t have. Witchiepoo makes the mistake of boasting to her rival, Witch Hazel, about the golden flute with the diamond skin condition, and Hazel gossips to everybody about it. Word gets to Boss Witch that Witchiepoo’s got something especially amazing, and so when she loses it to those goody-two-shoes in their rescue, she has to get it back at all costs. Boss Witch has phoned and told Witchiepoo that the annual witches’ convention is being held on Living Island.

Witch Hazel is played by Mama Cass Elliot in what would be her only film role and she’s very good. In her first scene, she’s bathing in a tub of fruit while gossiping on the phone. Billie Hayes plays her end of the conversation like a hyperactive teenage girl, bouncing and flouncing on her bed while kicking her heels. She’s hilarious. (Actually, speaking of phones, Don Messick gets the line that made me laugh the loudest, when Orson answers the phone and calmly says “Miss Witchiepoo’s Residence.” I don’t know why that slayed me, but it did.)

At the convention, Mama Cass completely steals the movie with a musical performance. It’s written, as all the music in the movie, by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, who’d later write “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” It’s called “Different,” and even with a cucumber on her nose and a plastic rat in her hair, Mama Cass is amazing. I love this song so much.

Daniel was a little restless during all the music, sad to say, but Witchiepoo really horrified him with her rottenness this time out. Capturing all the good guys – except Jimmy and Freddie, who’ve run away, ironically, hoping to stop endangering their friends – by shrinking them and sweeping them into her hat was awful enough, but then she plans to feed her guests by cooking Pufnstuf! The sight of poor Puf strapped to a rotisserie with a huge apple in his mouth caused some tears, and we had to hug and reassure him that even though this was a movie and a little different from the show, Witchiepoo was still going to lose.

I thought that if anything was going to get under Daniel’s skin, it would be Boss Witch and Heinrich. Now, she’s played by the great Martha Raye and we’d see her, and the Heinrich costume, again in the Kroffts’ next show. This series, The Bugaloos, would feature music by Charles Fox and several stories written by this movie’s screenwriters, John Fenton Murray and Si Rose, so this film really is the link between the two TV programs. Heinrich actually unnerves me ever so slightly. Unlike Witchiepoo’s bumbling gang, Heinrich is played straight, and he’s a no-joke Nazi rat, who snaps to attention and barks commands in German.

And then there’s Boss Witch, and she’s trouble. I interviewed Sid Krofft about twenty-five years ago and one of the proudest moments of his career, he said, was reviving Martha Raye’s. She had been a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s, but roles had been tapering off, as they often did, and sadly still do, for women over the age of forty. In Raye’s case, however, she had been very slowly brushed to the side by people who didn’t agree with her politics. Raye was a firm supporter of the USO and made many tours to Vietnam to entertain the troops. Krofft told me that she’d been “blacklisted,” and this was the first real role that she’d had in years.

She’s not funny-evil like a usual Krofft villain, and like she’d be in The Bugaloos, and so, teamed with the harsh Heinrich, she strikes an unusually discordant note in the movie, but it still works wildly well. When she does get a funny line – Witch Hazel protests that the Witch of the Year award is a fix and Boss Witch says that of course it is, because witches don’t play fair – it brings down the house.

One final reminder that we’re not on Saturday mornings anymore, by the way, comes from the devilish jokes in the script. NBC would have never passed lines about Lucifer or Satan, or Witch Hazel’s final insult of “Go to Heaven!” They certainly wouldn’t have approved Witch Way, who is drunk throughout the convention. And in a G-rated movie, too!

Apart from weeping over Pufnstuf being roasted on a spit, Daniel enjoyed the movie and laughed and cheered. There’s plenty for grownups to love and, for kids, there’s lots of slapstick action and Stupid Bat crashing into walls repeatedly and fire extinguishers in the face and one last comeuppance for the meanest and most rotten witch of them all.

Wait, did I say last? You know I didn’t mean that, right?

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Thunderbirds 1.23 – The Duchess Assignment

I figured that there would sometimes be an episode about which I have nothing to say. This is one of those. At least Lady Penelope’s outfit is completely fab.

Daniel enjoyed it more than I thought he would. I had to walk him through some of the talky bits in the casino, explaining what roulette was and how the baddies are cheating the duchess with a rigged game, and we enjoyed the utterly irrelevant padding involving an air show demonstration of a fighter jet being able to land on a slightly larger fighter jet. Scott and Virgil break out the Mole to rescue the Duchess, which is always entertaining. Overall, though, I thought this one was pretty forgettable. Better luck next time!

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Batman 1.34 – Batman Makes the Scenes

Well, there’s an image that’s got just about all you want from Batman, yeah? A bad guy in a silly costume, a babe-of-the-week, great big props and labels on everything.

Daniel was alternately bored and thrilled by this episode. It is a little talkier than many, with some more Bruce Wayne scenes than many episodes. And the big set piece at the millionaires’ dinner is… well, these one-percenters are happy to let go of some of their cash if they get a floor show first. They literally throw money – one million dollars a head – at the bathing suit beauty posing as “Miss Natural Resources.” Good grief. I think half the room then went to some masked naughty party in the Hamptons that Tom Cruise wandered around.

But as much as he enjoyed the fights and the nonsense, there is surprisingly little of it in this episode. Victor Lundin continued to overact and try to steal every scene as the henchman Octopus. He just moves really weirdly, with bizarre body language, waving his hands behind Penguin as they’re looking over the loot. Then he loudly announces that he’s going to use his cut to go to the South Seas and open a school for pirates. What an incredibly odd character! Daniel got downright bored, however, and a lengthy epilogue, that sees the millionaires back at Wayne Manor along with more babes in bathing suits, was dull enough to send him out of the room. Commissioner Gordon escorted Julie Gregg’s character to the party on a day off from prison. She’s not the first young lady led astray by crime to get a brief look at Wayne Manor before paying her debt to society, and she probably won’t be the last.

This story was the final one in the first production block for the series, made in April 1966 and broadcast in May. The first season has an incredibly high episode count for a midseason replacement, but that’s because it was budgeted as seventeen one-hour episodes. That was a standard midseason order for ABC in the mid-1960s. At the time, it was less common for shows to be canceled midway through the year than it would later become; networks then stuck with their shows for much, much longer, and usually didn’t axe anything that launched in September until Christmas.

After the first story, “Hi Diddle Riddle,” was finished in the fall of 1965, the plan had been to shoot a feature film, launch with that in movie theaters in the summer of 1966, and then start a series that September. But ABC’s 1965 lineup was a complete disaster, and the network was deep in third place in the ratings. Before October was finished, ABC had decided that they wanted to cancel their weakest program, the variety show Shindig!, after Christmas and start Batman a full nine months early.

So the film was postponed until production of season one finished. In his memoir, Back to the Batcave, Adam West recalled that they literally began filming the movie after only one weekend’s break in mid-April.

One interesting thing about the film, by the way, is that ABC suddenly had a massive hit on its hands and the producers were about to make a movie. Watching this from across the street, somebody at Universal looked at the CBS sitcom The Munsters, dying in the ratings and about to be axed, and said “Make a movie of that, quick!” And somebody else at David Susskind’s Talent Associates looked at the sitcom Get Smart, which had just debuted, and said “Make a movie of that, too!”

Munster Go Home! was released first, and it bombed. The Batman movie came out a month later, and did sort of okay. The Get Smart people, seeing that neither had set the world on fire, put the brakes on their idea, and rejigged the in-progress script into a really terrific three-part story called “A Man Called Smart” that finished season two of that show. It might be my favorite episode of that series; I’m glad that they saved it for television.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie with Daniel this weekend. I haven’t seen it in a long time.

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Batman 1.33 – Fine Finny Fiends

Normally, I have to brace myself a little bit when we get to the end of part one of a Batman story. Daniel just plain does not like the cliffhanger deathtraps. He’ll either hiss or grumble or hide his face or, once in a sad blue moon, cry a little. But this story, the third to feature Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, confounded my expectations completely.

In the story, the Penguin’s goons abduct Alfred, who has, bizarrely, been sidetracked on his shopping by a handbill advertising cut-price caviar. I can see how he might want to watch his pennies because he needs twenty pounds of the stuff for a multi-millionaire’s dinner, but really. Penguin brainwashes Alfred so that he’ll forward him the address of this dinner once the location is decided. Caged in the Penguin’s waterfront headquarters, Alfred is stiff-upper-lip defiant, but Daniel was nevertheless very worried about him, and hid his head under his blanket (which is called “Bict,” by the way).

So Alfred’s brainwashed and then released, but Batman knows something is up, because Alfred has (a) developed a bizarre twitch, and (b) he does not recognize a photograph of the Penguin. Actually, the show doesn’t draw attention to that, because American teevee programs in the sixties cared very little for episode-to-episode continuity, but Alfred met the Penguin on both of his previous appearances. But there’s no time for that, because there’s a rehearsal dinner for the multi-millionaires, during which time Aunt Harriet boasts that Bruce Wayne’s great grandfather founded Skull & Bones at Yale. Well, there’s something you didn’t know.

Anyway, since Alfred’s imprisonment bothered Daniel a lot, I was worried about the cliffhanger, but I needn’t have been. Our heroes are locked in a vacuum chamber and the baddies are pumping out the air. The room is full of balloons that pop as the air grows thinner. It’s actually a really grisly way to go – man, the Penguin’s traps don’t mess around, they’re all sick in the head – but it was, mercifully, a little above my son’s head, and he was bemused by the odd room of popping balloons. It didn’t bother him at all!

As for the other guest stars, Julie Gregg, who later played Sonny Corleone’s unfortunate wife Sandra in The Godfather, is the dame-of-the-week, and the most blatant one to date. She spends her time in the Penguin’s hideout wearing a one-piece swimsuit, practicing to be a “bathing beauty.” Victor Lundin was a regular face in ’60s television, and would be back in a different role in season three. This time, he’s the Penguin’s goon “Octopus,” and he does a remarkably silly little dance when Batman catches him in the back with a fishing pole in the fight scene.

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