Monday, January 22, 2018

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In 50th Anniversary and Second Season

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In

On January 22nd, 1968, 50 years ago today, the Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In premiered for its very first season. After a successful pilot aired the previous year, NBC, in beautiful downtown Burbank, ordered a full series. You bet your sweet bippy that Laugh-In became one of the zaniest shows ever to grace the small screen. With it's wacky skits, rapid fire jokes, political commentary, self-deprecating humor, and it's sock it to me gags, the show quickly became a hit with audiences. It was all verrrrry interesting. The name Laugh-In pokes fun at the protests and gatherings of the era which included sit-ins and love-ins. You didn't know that? Well look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's!

Dan Rowan and Dick Martin on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Dan Rowan and the beautiful Dick Martin (or so-and-so)

Gary Owens on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Announcer Gary Owens

"A wonderful world of fantasy. That's what Laugh-In brought to the public." - Gary Owens

Comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin met in 1952 when Rowan was a used car salesman and Martin was a bartender. They both had an interest in acting and comedy and when a mutual friend suggested they work together as a comedy team at nightclubs, the Rowan and Martin act was born. They worked their way up the ranks as a comedy duo. In the summer of 1966, they covered as guest hosts on The Dean Martin Show. The exposure catapulted them and producers took notice. NBC needed something to replace the recently canceled show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and to compete with rival network programming Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show. Variety shows were popular in the late 1960s and would be easy to produce and inexpensive. Producer George Schlatter and Ed Friendly developed the concept and produced it under their joint production company. NBC booked a one hour special for September 1967. After premiering as a series, Laugh-In went on for 140 episodes and 6 seasons before being canceled in 1973. The show was insanely popular and helped launch the careers of regulars like Goldie Hawn, Dave Madden and Lily Tomlin. Many writers worked for the show, including SNL's Lorne Michaels, and went on to successful careers in the business. It won several Primetime Emmys and two Golden Globe awards.

Judy Carne on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Judy Carne in beautiful downtown Burbank

Henry Gibson on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Henry Gibson

"Blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere."

Laugh-In was one-of-a-kind with rapid fire delivery of humor. Inspired by burlesque and vaudeville, a series of skits and gags were stitched together. The end result was a show that jumped from joke to joke at almost a blindingly fast pace. In the earlier days of TV, the only way to put together a show with so many small parts the editors had to splice the footage with a razor and piece it together. Because of this a master was created for each episode which helped preserve the show for future audiences.

Arte Johnson on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Arte Johnson
Alan Sues on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Alan Sues

"This won all those Emmys?"- Don Rickles

I started watching Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In last year with episodes airing on the TV network Decades. The zaniness took some getting used to but once I warmed up to the show I was hooked. So far I've dipped into pretty much every season of the show. Time Life recently released season 2 in a DVD set and having seen the episodes I have to say this one is the highlight of the series. It contains some of the best moments from the show and the cast of regulars had great chemistry.

Chelsea Brown and Goldie Hawn on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Chelsea Brown and Goldie Hawn

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson in the Gladys and Tyrone Skit

"Anne Bancroft is an undergraduate."

On season two you can expect some great comedy and a plethora of extra special guests. Dan Rowan, the straight man, and Dick Martin, the daft womanizer, are lovingly referred to as the big kids. I adore them as a comedy team. Today you can't get away with two middle-aged men dressed in tuxedo, with Rowan puffing away at a cigarette or pipe, delivering some rather adult jokes. Although technically the stars, its the motley crew of comedic talents that steal the show. These include announcer Gary Owens, actresses Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley and Chelsea Brown and actors Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Dave Madden and Dick Whittington.

Arlene Dahl on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Arlene Dahl

Don Rickles on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Don Rickles, AKA the best special guest ever in the history of mankind

Recurring skits on the show include:

Cocktail Party — The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate — News: past, present and future — Gladys the spinster and Tyrone — Sock it to Me —  Here Comes the Judge —  C.F.G. Automat —  It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World with the painted go-go dancers —  Discovery of the week — Good night Dick — the Joke Wall

My favorite recurring skit? The cocktail party of course!

Classic film enthusiasts will love spotting some of their favorite stars as special guests on the various episodes. And anyone who was anyone made an appearance was on the show. Some of the guests on season two include:

Eve Arden —Jack Benny — Mel Brooks — Rosemary Clooney —  Joseph Cotten — Robert Culp— Tony Curtis — Arlene Dahl — Bobby Darin — Sammy Davis Jr. — Phyllis Diller — Kirk Douglas — Douglas Fairbanks Jr. — Zsa Zsa Gabor — James Garner — Greer Garson — Mitzi Gaynor — Frank Gorshin — Hugh Hefner — Bob Hope — Lena Horne — Rock Hudson — Van Johnson — Martin Landau — Peter Lawford — Jack Lemmon — Gina Lollobrigida — Ann Miller — Bob Newhart — France Nuyen — Otto Preminger — Vincent Price — Don Rickles — Cliff Robertson — Rod Serling — Sonny Tufts — Robert Wagner — John Wayne — Shelley Winters and more...

"Raquel Welch Smothers Brothers."

Guests performed skits, delivered one-lines and jokes while poking fun at the fact that they were on the show. An appearance on Laugh-In could do wonders for a guest. Presidential candidate Richard Nixon appears on season 2 in a short clip asking "sock it to me?" His appearance was credited with helping him win the election. His opponent Hubert Humphrey refused to be on the show and the rest is history.

Second Season

First Season

Time Life's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In Season 2 DVD Box set includes 26 episodes on 7 discs. The first disc includes three interviews with Dick Martin, Gary Owens and Ruth Buzzi. All 26 episodes have been remastered and the set comes with a small booklet highlighting the content on each disc. I encourage you to pick this up because it's infinitely much more enjoyable to watch these restored episodes on DVD than on Decades where the quality is poor and the episodes are highly edited to fit in more commercial time.

Last year Time Life also released a 50th Anniversary set featuring all 140 episodes and 6 seasons of the show.

Thank you to Time Life for sending me the second season set to review!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Miracle Worker (1962)

Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)
Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)

It seemed like an impossible task. How does one teach a young girl who is blind, deaf, and mute how to communicate with the world? It would take a teacher of great strength who would persist against all odds. It would take a miracle worker.

As a toddler, Helen Keller (Patty Duke) contracts a serious illness which leaves her blind then deaf. There are few resources for the Keller family and they raise her as best as they know how. Mother Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) dotes on her child, Captain Arthur Keller (Victor Jory) fusses over the situation and their oldest son James (Andrew Prine) thinks it's all a hopeless cause. Years pass and Helen has gotten worse. Spoiled by parents and servants who want nothing but to calm her down, Helen is in a chaotic state. Unkempt, erratic and with little understanding of the world around her, the Kellers are at their wits end. They take a chance on a teacher who offers to work with Helen. As soon as Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) arrives she gets to work on Helen. Trying to teach her words through sign language, decorum through example, and everything through repetition. It's an exhausting task as Helen fights her tooth and nail and the Kellers, including Aunt Ev (Kathleen Comegys), get in the way more than they help. It seems like Annie has the most difficult job in the world: to teach Helen how to communicate and to be a part of the world around her.

Inga Swenson, Victor Jory, Andrew Prine, Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft in a scene from The Miracle Worker (1962)

The Miracle Worker (1962) is based on William Gibson's play about Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. Much of the inspiration comes from Keller's own autobiography. Gibson's play debuted on live television on Playhouse 90 and went on to become a popular Broadway production starring both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Bancroft won a Tony Award for her performance. It was inevitable that The Miracle Worker would be adapted to film. According to Anne Bancroft biographer Douglass K. Daniel, William Gibson was dismayed by the play-to-film failure of his work Two for the Seesaw and wanted to make sure that didn't happen again. He collaborated with producer Fred Coe and director Arthur Penn. The three started a production company called Playfilm Productions and United Artists financed and distributed the film.

Bancroft and Duke almost didn't get their parts. United Artists wanted Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor to ensure a financial return on their investment. Duke was almost not considered because it was thought she was getting too old for the part. Thank goodness Gibson stood his ground because Bancroft and Duke deliver masterful performances and I can't imagine the film without either of them.

Patty Duke and Helen Keller

The film was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Director (Arthur Penn), Best Writing (William Gibson) and Best Costume Design (Ruth Morley). It's no surprise that Anne Bancroft won for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Patty Duke won Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Bancroft was not at the ceremony to accept her award and actress Joan Crawford accepted it on her behalf. Duke was the youngest actor to win a non-honorary Oscar until Tatum O'Neal broke the record in 1974.

The Miracle Worker (1962) is a film that grabs hold of you and won't let you go. It requires all of your concentration which you will so willingly give because the subject matter is fascinating. The film itself is not a miracle rather a result of hard work and a lot of talent. When I watched it I felt equal parts exhausted and enlightened. It's a complicated and brilliant film that breaks you down and builds you back up.

The Miracle Worker (1962) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

Thank you to Olive Films for sending me a copy of this film to review!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Young in Heart (1938)

The Young in Heart (1938)

"And here came the Carletons, a merry little streamlined family exuding charm and a touch of larceny with every fortune-hunting smile..."

Producer David O. Selznick was in a bind. Gone With the Wind was costing his production company Selznick International Pictures a lot of money and they hadn't even started filming. Selznick knew that without any incoming cash flow there was no way he was going to be able to continue. He set out to make a few pictures in the interim that would generate some much needed box office returns. One of those movies was The Young in Heart (1938).

The Carletons are a family of con artists. There is Sahib (Roland Young) the monocle wearing, poker playing patriarch, his loving yet ditzy wife Marmy (Billie Burke) and their two kids the suave Richard (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and the head strong George-Anne (Janet Gaynor). They travel around targeting wealthy socialites in hopes of conning them out of their money. The Carletons are working their prey at a resort in the Riviera. Richard has his eye on a plain jane socialite with a bankable dowry. George-Anne has a handsome yet not-so-rich Scotsman, Duncan (Richard Carlson) at her beck and call.

"You're so young. When you're old night comes too soon."

When the resort proprietors catch on, the Carletons are presented with a one-way train ticket back to London. On their journey, they meet a sweet older woman with a peculiar name, Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree). She recently inherited a mansion and much wealth from an old beau. George-Anne sees an opportunity to get into the lady's good graces. She convinces her family to be kind to the lady in hopes they might be written into her will. But they all get a lot more then they bargained for. When George-Anne suggests they start acting like normal, hard-working folks instead of socializing gadabouts, they're reluctant at first. But then they find that they kind of like this new lifestyle. Sahib becomes a successful salesman at a car dealership. Richard gets a job at an engineering plant and falls for the secretary Leslie Saunders (Paulette Goddard). And they begin to care for Miss Fortune in a way that hadn't expected. George-Anne doesn't think any of them are capable of change and keeps beau Duncan at bay because she doesn't think she's good enough. Will the Carletons be able to con their way into Miss Fortune's will? Or will their true nature be revealed?

Richard (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Leslie (Paulette Goddard) buy Miss Fortune a puppy.

Based on the novel The Gay Banditti by I.A.R. Wylie serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, The Young in Heart was the perfect picture for Selznick to produce pre-Gone With the Wind. According to to author Steve Wilson in his book The Making of Gone With the Wind, some of the cast members of The Young in Heart were considered for GWTW including Billie Burke, Paulette Goddard who had tried for the part of Scarlett O'Hara and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who turned down Ashley because he wanted to be Rhett.

The film was directed by Richard Wallace with some directorial work also completed by Lewis Milestone, Gilbert Pratt and Richard Thorpe. If the end of the film seems to have a different tone from the rest of the picture, it's because it was a new ending tacked on after the production had wrapped up. Test audiences reacted very negatively to the original ending. As a result, the plot was changed and the actors were called back to reshoot the final scenes.

The Flying Wombat, The Young in Heart (1938)
The Flying Wombat

William Cameron Menzies did the production design and went on to work with Selznick on Gone With the Wind. Vintage car enthusiasts will be mesmerized by the scenes at the Flying Wombat car dealership and by the car itself. These scenes are a final hurrah for the Art Deco era with its minimalist style and clean lines. The Flying Wombat was a Phantom Corsair that cost $12,000 to make. According to the AFI, it "was an experimental vehicle built by Rust Heinz of Pasadena, CA, with a body design by Maurice Schwatz." It was going to be produced in a limited run for the general public but that plan was canceled when Heinz suddenly died,

The cast of The Young in Heart is one of the best. Roland Young and Billie Burke are simply charming. I was blown away by Minnie Dupree who plays the kind hearted Miss Fortune. When I did some research on her, I was sad to see that she had only made two movies. Dupree was a celebrated stage actress and was brought on to this production when another actress dropped out at the last minute. Dupree gives the film much heart and I suspect she's the main reason why the ending was changed.

This film was not only Dupree's screen debut but also Richard Carlson's. Selznick offered the young actor, who proved to be quite the self-starter, a contract and Janet Gaynor encouraged Carlson to appear in the film. Besides delivering the worst Scottish accent ever, Carlson does a decent job in his debut. Paulette Goddard was also getting her start in film and this performance comes after Modern Times (1936). Gaynor at 32 and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at 29 were a bit too old for their parts. But they pull it off giving the film the youthfulness that was needed for the story. For Gaynor, this movie would be the last in a celebrated career before she retired (she made one more film appearance a couple decades later). Just the year before she had a stand out performance in the much celebrated A Star is Born (1937) and won an Academy Award. Gaynor married costume designer Gilbert Adrian and retired from the industry.

Selznick's film did well at the box office and went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards: Leon Shamroy for Best Cinematography and Best Music (Scoring and Original Score) for Franz Waxman.

I was utterly enchanted by The Young in Heart. It's just the sort of feel good movie that isn't sickly sweet with it's message. Rather it gently tugs at your heart strings. While the ending does feel rather abrupt and disjointed, I don't think my emotional state could have handled the alternative scenario. I loved watching the evolution of the Carleton family. They're an endearing foursome and I enjoyed watching them transform from no-good con artists to upstanding citizens.  If the film has one message it's that it doesn't matter what stage in life you are in, change is always possible.

The Young in Heart (1938) is a hidden gem, an obscure little film from a glorious era of filmmaking. It deserves more recognition than it currently receives. I dare you to watch it and not be charmed by it. Impossible.

Kino Lorber has released The Young in Heart (1938) on DVD and Blu-Ray. It doesn't have any extras yet it looks absolutely glorious on Blu-Ray.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of The Young in Heart (1938) to review.

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