Monthly Archives: January 2016

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

This was the first time that we sat down to watch a film together that didn’t have the safe introduction of a familiar TV series! Daniel did mostly well, but we had to take a short intermission break because this movie was a lot longer than I expected. It’s not fair to say that I was familiar with a shorter version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the one time that I saw it, back around 1979-1980, it sure was shorter than this.

B & B was originally released in 1971 and was made by many of the crew and team who’d worked on Mary Poppins. This was, it turned out, a backup plan had Disney not been able to acquire the rights to Poppins. As dramatized with some considerable liberty in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, that was a real possibility.

B & B is a pretty fun movie about Miss Price, an “apprentice witch” who has been burdened with three orphans who’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz. Simultaneously, her witchcraft correspondence course has been closed down. Searching for answers turns up her professor, who has actually been running a mail-order scam, having no idea that his spells actually work. Now that they realize that, in the right hands, the magic will work, they set off to find the missing half of the old book from which he’d been pilfering the incantations.

In its present form, the movie is badly bloated. I didn’t spot the problem until we realized that some of the film footage within the agonizing ten-minute (!!) “Portobello Road” musical number is of markedly inferior quality to the rest of the movie. Apparently the original cut of the film for the 1971 release is 117 minutes, the one that was reissued in 1979 was 96 minutes, and this is 139 minutes, which is way too long. They tried to restore everything, including cut scenes that no longer had an existing soundtrack and had to be redubbed entirely. (Another scene, which had a soundtrack but no film footage, is included as a reconstruction as a bonus feature.) To the Disney team’s, and the voice actors’, considerable credit, the only two times that I noticed that a scene was redubbed was when the fellow with David Tomlinson’s part read his lines. The imitation was good, but not quite right.

So the first half of the film is far too bloated and slow for a four year-old to embrace it, and so we took a break midway through the scene where Sam Jaffe and Bruce Forsyth, playing a shady book dealer and his criminal associate, briefly antagonize our heroes, but also give them a clue that the magic words that they need can be found on a fantasy island. The first half has some cute magical moments, but they were not paced well enough to hold his attention, and the long “Portobello Road” number destroyed what was left.

The animated section of the film livened things considerably after our break. It’s centered around a bad-tempered lion king engaging David Tomlinson as the referee for a soccer match. Nobody wants to referee his matches; they all get trampled underneath elephants and hippos and rhinos passing the ball around. Anybody who ever wondered why this movie, and Mary Poppins, have animated portions never watched them with four year-olds. He loved it, roared with laughter, and his interest was reignited at precisely the right time.

Anyway, Angela Lansbury is incredibly fun as Miss Price. I’m so used to her playing supremely confident and assured characters that it’s a complete delight to see her strung along by a con man and slowly – very, very slowly – falling in love. She and Tomlinson are really fun together and have a lot of genuine, believable chemistry. Other than the children, everybody else is really here in bit parts. Roddy McDowall has a small and insignificant role as the new village vicar. Jaffe and Forsyth had maybe a day on the set and that was that. Lennie Weinrib at least sounds like he got to have some fun with a couple of voiceovers for the cartoon animals.

Daniel enjoyed the movie, even if he did need an intermission, and while I think that the original, shorter theatrical cut must have been better, I enjoyed revisiting it. Now I want to read more about the restoration; it all seems really fascinating!

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Land of the Lost 1.5 – Tag-Team

Episode five of the series is another dinosaur runaround, this time written by Norman Spinrad, the author of Bug Jack Barron. Unlike the previous two writers, Spinrad did not come directly to this show via the Star Trek cartoon, but he was probably known to story editor David Gerrold via the original program in the sixties. Both men had written episodes for that show’s second season.

The highlight of this episode is seeing Grumpy and Big Alice meeting each other. It’s probably not the first time, but then again, we don’t know how long a memory dinosaurs had. As a kid, I completely loved the way that the tyrannosaurus and the allosaurus each had its own territory with the big crevasse separating the two. As children, we would often get chased around by one beast in one part of the backyard and the other elsewhere. The bit where Will, Holly, and Cha-Ka are stranded on a ledge between them was one we reenacted constantly. And I also love how the animators gave the dinosaurs such different and identifiable body language. Big Alice is quicker to lower her head as though she wants to charge, and Grumpy’s back is less flexible.

Daniel was in heaven, not scared at all, but almost hopping with excitement as the tyrannosaur chased everybody around. I was slightly disappointed that there’s a small continuity blip: the Marshalls evidently learned the names of the two older Pakuni, Ta and Sa, between episodes instead of onscreen, and the audience is never actually formally introduced to them, but of course the target audience didn’t mind at all. He’s getting ready for bed right now, reminding his mother “I love dinosaurs SO MUCH!”

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Thunderbirds 1.25 – The Cham-Cham

Back again to Thunderbirds for the last five of the episodes that we obtained. This one’s another of the Lady Penelope spy-centered episodes, and it’s terrific fun. The plot does not make a lick of sense, and the evil baddies who are shooting down US Air Force transport planes could not have come up with a more complicated scheme if they tried, but man, it’s fun.

Honestly, it requires the most popular group in the world performing their new hit single, “Dangerous Game,” live from the Swiss hotel where they’re performing a residency via a worldwide broadcast on Radio Maxwell every night with a slightly different arrangement that contains a secret code that the baddies can translate to find the location of the USAF plane DURING the broadcast. But the plot doesn’t matter; the show is just too entertaining and fun for that.

One of the things that impressed me the most is how well paced it is. Naturally, the spy episodes are light on the mayhem that four year-old boys love the most, but darned if this one doesn’t have a perfectly-placed moment of huge slapstick levity at exactly the right moment. You could set your watch by it. At the very second that our son Daniel started to get restless and squirm because nothing had happened for too long, Parker topples a would-be assassin out of a car atop a snowy hill, and, Hanna-Barbera-style, the two go barreling down the mountain into a giant snowball. Daniel howled. I’m sure that had I seen this as a too-serious teenager, I would have cringed, loudly, but that’s gold for a kid his age. It completely brought him back into it.

The grown-ups in the room weren’t squirming. From a production standpoint, this episode is just amazing. There are several “how’d they do that?!” shots in the scenes of Tintin and Lady Penelope skiing, and there’s an amazing bit where some butterflies are dancing around her garden, completely unnecessary to the scene, just there for brilliant color. Lady Penelope even dances as she sings with the band, and it looks great. They did a truly fantastic job making this episode.

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Batman 3.2 – Ring Around the Riddler

We think of Batman as a very old-fashioned program, very much of its time, but look what they did with season three: start the season with the new format and new character, and, in week two, bring out the big gun: Frank Gorshin, the villain who made the show so watchable and popular in season one, and heavily link him with the new villain who will take the lead in week three: the Siren, played by Joan Collins, with a big cliffhanger ending to get people to tune in next time. That’s pretty much what modern TV people would be doing to start the new season with a bang, isn’t it?

This was Gorshin’s final appearance in the series. I’m not sure how they persuaded him to come back, when he balked at returning for season two because he wanted more money per hour and this is only thirty minutes. Daniel said that this was pretty good and he enjoyed it, but it feels like the writer was really struggling to make the thirty minute format work. Batman has to act really out of character to get into the ring for a fixed fight against Riddler, and that’s done, bizarrely, with our hero wearing boxing trunks over his costume. The scene isn’t funny at all; it’s just silly.

Not much of this is worth mentioning at even this much length, but perhaps I should also point out that James Brolin made his third and final appearance on this show in this episode as a boxer named Kid Gulliver. It was nice to see Gorshin do his unhinged shtick again for a little while. We won’t see him don those green tights again for another eleven years…

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Land of the Lost 1.4 – Downstream

Further beefing up this program’s SF cred, Larry Niven scripted this episode. He’s another writer that Gerrold brought over from Filmation’s Star Trek cartoon from the previous season. Niven, who is better known for his novels and short stories than for television scripting, got the choice assignment of introducing the first big surprise to get dropped in the Marshall’s lap as they explore their world: there is no conventional way to leave the Land of the Lost. The river runs in a circle. This is a closed universe, a “locked door in space.”

From the swamp, the river goes out into a canyon before ducking underground into a series of caves, where it abruptly falls over a cliff as a waterfall. The Marshalls abandon their raft before the falls and meet an odd human who calls himself Jefferson Davis Collie III, who defends himself against Sleestak with an artillery cannon. He claims to have fought at Antietam, Bull Run, and Gettysburg, but is unaware how the Civil War ended, and has been mining crystals for what seems to be a few years. Collie returns to his cave at the end of the episode rather than deal with dinosaurs. While lonely, he’s happier eating fish and mushrooms – and the occasional Sleestak, which taste like lobster – than risking his life around Grumpy. Collie is played by Walker Edmiston, and we’ll see this actor again in a couple of weeks, although this is the best we see of what he actually looks like.

Daniel was slightly alarmed by the Sleestak in the caves, but thrilled by the explosions from Collie’s cannon, and by the first use of the crystals working together. I think they get the colors messed up in future episodes, but this time out, touching red and green together makes a blinding light that’s very painful to Sleestak, and adding a yellow creates a small explosion. But it’s the cannon blast that really surprised me; that’s a heck of an explosion to be setting off right behind a pair of tall sixteen year-old boys in green wetsuits. I’m going to assume their moms weren’t on the set when they taped that, because mine would have given Sid and Marty Krofft an earful.

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Captain Scarlet 1.24 – Traitor

There’s a pretty good whodunnit within this episode, but sadly running time that could have been spent developing the mystery is instead spent on a very long flashback to the climax of episode one. It’s all right, but I think it should have been a lot better. But Daniel really enjoyed it, telling us that all the action was awesome. He loved the Spectrum hovercraft, a couple of which get blown up real good as the story goes on.

We’re going to take a short break from Captain Scarlet to finish up the episodes of Thunderbirds that we haven’t seen yet. Hopefully when we resume this show in a month or so, we’ll get to see more from the Spectrum captains who never get to go out on missions anymore. (sadface for poor Ochre, Gray, and Magenta.)

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Batman 3.1 – Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin

The breath of fresh air that Batman badly needed, the incredibly gorgeous and sexy Yvonne Craig comes high-kicking her way into the show in the first of the self-contained episodes. Daniel was thrilled, figuring out that a new superhero had joined the show, and loved her motorcycle. “She is so cool!” he shouted as she drove after the bad guys.

This is actually much better than I remembered it. It’s incredibly zippy, doing the job of introducing Barbara and Batgirl really well and still having a bit of room to breathe. Some of it doesn’t make sense – who the heck built the secret Batgirl base on the eighth floor of a midtown apartment building, and why doesn’t Penguin recognize Alfred, despite having interacted with him at least three times previously – but it doesn’t matter much. It’s just plain fun and it’s always a treat to watch Burgess Meredith yelling at everybody.

What does look troubling is the immediately obvious slashing of the budget. In order to get renewed, ABC and the producers worked out an awkward compromise, cutting the numbers from what they’d pay for a one-hour drama to the cost of a half-hour sitcom. So apart from the new Batgirl theme, the music is all repurposed from earlier episodes (and, apparently, from The Green Hornet), Madge Blake was let go to pay for Yvonne Craig, other speaking parts get dropped except where absolutely necessary, and the set designers were thanked for their trouble. The Penguin’s lair is the first of many stark, minimalist sets, with a black curtain for a background, stairs to nowhere except a solitary door, and random colorful walls. It looks like a blown-up game of Mouse Trap done on a high school stage. Sadly, we’ll see lots more like it before we finish.

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Land of the Lost 1.3 – Dopey

After two child-terrifying lessons in world-building, the pace of this show slowed to a merciful crawl for a comparatively inconsequential romp for episode three, giving the audience a short break. Margaret Armen, who wrote this one, was another veteran of TV science fiction. David Gerrold, who was story editor for the first season, brought on board several people who had written along with him for Star Trek, both the original show and the Filmation cartoon version, people who thought things through in a big picture sense that most Hollywood writers of the time simply didn’t, and so there’s a level of competency here that’s fun to watch.

Things have consequences that come back later, and elements are introduced in one episode that we’ll see again, like the strange gold obelisk thing that was seen very briefly in episode one, and which will later become extremely important. I was very pleased when Marie mentioned tonight that somebody had written “BEWARE OF SLEESTAK” on a pillar in the previous episode.

I couldn’t quite get the image to freeze on the very brief shot – repeated during the end credits – of Holly riding on Dopey without blurring. That’s a remarkable special effect for its time. The green screen / chromakey effects of the show are undeniably primitive, but Sid and Marty Krofft’s crew, who’d been working with the technology since Lidsville in 1970, had come up with some amazing imagery within the limited resources.

Sure, you can tell the joins between the actors and the stop-motion photography, but look at that shot and notice how Kathy Coleman is balanced on a blue sawhorse or whatever and keyed on top of the little stop motion model of Dopey. But the model is moving, and the actress appears to be moving in sync with it. I know that Coleman is stationary and waving her arm and it’s the live action camera that’s moving, but it’s moving at just the right speed to create the illusion of movement that matches the motion of the model, perfectly. What I’m getting at is that the special effects crew on this show had the most amazing challenges on American television at the time, and if I were in their company, I would have had an absolute blast trying to figure out how to make these sequences work.

Speaking of which, Daniel concluded that he only liked the ending of this episode, before admitting that he also liked the middle, and the beginning. Another one for the win column!

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