Monday, June 27, 2011

Peter Falk

My first substantial memory of Peter Falk – aside from TV guest spots or secondary movie roles – is from a series he did in the 1960s, “Trials of O’Brien,” in which he played a lawyer who got involved in criminal cases and was always behind on his alimony payments.

(At least that’s how I remember it – I was too young and unsophisticated to “get” the series, though I somehow knew it was good. I also suspect the show marked the first time I’d ever heard the word “alimony.”)

The only specific episode I recall was called “Dead End on Flugel Street” and featured Milton Berle.

According to the Internet Movie Database, only 22 episodes were shot. I don’t know who owns the rights, but I do know that if the show ever comes out on DVD, I’ll snap it up.

A few years after “O’Brien,” I became one of the millions of fans of “Columbo.” It was hands-down the best of the rotating “NBC Mystery Movie” series, though “McMillan and Wife” had its moments. (And remember that neat “Mystery Movie” opening, with the Henry Mancini music?)

I think all the “Columbo” episodes are available on DVD, including the later ones that aired on ABC, but the only ones I own are those from the first season. This isn’t to say that the other seasons’ episodes are bad, but the first season was produced by the series’ creators, Richard Levinson and William Link (somehow I feel whenever I type those two names, I should genuflect), Steven Bochco was one of the writers, and one of the directors was an up-and-comer by the name of Spielberg.

Levinson (now deceased) and Link were, for my money, the best TV writing team ever. Some of the occasional TV movies they wrote – “My Sweet Charlie,” “A Certain Summer” and “The Execution of Private Slovak” – tackled social issues with scripts that were dramatic and literate but never ponderous.

But even as kids, Levinson and Link had always loved the mystery genre, and their mystery scripts were as literate and intelligent as their more serious efforts. It was almost physically impossible for them to write down to an audience.

In addition to “Columbo,” I recommend their stand-alone TV mystery movies, including “Rehearsal for Murder” and “Murder by Natural Causes.” (Another “Mystery Movie” series they came up with, “Tenafly,” starring James McEachin as a detective who balanced his work with his duties as a family man, should have caught on but didn’t.)

Their Emmy-winning first-season “Columbo” script, “Death Lends a Hand,” is required viewing for any student of fiction writing. And like the other first-season shows, it’s 90 minutes long.

After the first season, some of the “Columbo” episodes (with Levinson and Link staying on as executive producers) were two hours long. Eventually, I think, almost all of them were. I think I read that this was at the network’s request, but most of the time the extended length hurt the show because the padding – no matter how well written – was evident.

But even when an episode was too long and sometimes tedious to the point where I, as the viewer, was almost tempted to confess just to get it over with, Falk was still interesting to watch. Even given the talents of Levinson and Link, I doubt the series and the character would have lasted as long if it hadn’t been for Falk.

(And I also think it’s about time that I bought the DVD of the original version of “The In-Laws,” starring Falk and Alan Arkin. Can anyone who saw it ever forget Falk yelling “Serpentine! Serpentine!” as he and Arkin flee gunfire?)

I remember being saddened a few years ago by the news that Falk had Alzheimer’s disease – a particularly tragic twist, I thought, for someone whose most famous character was known for being (apparently) forgetful.

Although he is gone, I’m happy to say his character lives on in book form. “The Columbo Collection,” a collection of 12 stories by William Link, is available. If you’re a Columbo fan, you’ll want to get it – but don’t read it too quickly; these stories are to be savored. Me, I have three more to go. I hope that by the time I finish them Mr. Link will have come out with a second collection.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When dialogue is way too ahead of its time

About 10 years ago I was watching a new "major motion picture" that featured well-known actors and was set overseas in the 1950s.

At one point, one of the characters said, "Sounds like a plan."


Now, mind you, it wasn't as jarring as it could have been if the guy had whipped out a cell phone, called his girlfriend and asked her to TiVo something for him.

And I suspect that the actor may have been ad-libbing.

But still.

Yesterday I was reading a short story set during the late 1930s in Hollywood and featuring some celebrities of the time along with other characters.

As an old-movie buff I know a lot about this era.

At one point, a character said, "Who's the Marx Brother wannabe?"


A word whose first recorded use, according to Merriam-Webster, was in 1981?

Now it is true that the story was narrated by an anonymous character who wasn't there, who says this was the way he (or she, for all I know) heard it.

So maybe the author could argue that the narrator has a faulty memory or a tin ear.

But still.

I'm not trying to nitpick. But anachronisms like these "take me out" of the story, make me aware that I'm reading something, or watching a movie or TV show, instead of experiencing it.

And that's not where I wannabe.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Charley's Aunt'

Some notes from a gathering of the local cinephile society….

“Charley’s Aunt” (Fox, 1941) is one of several movie versions of the Brendan Thomas farce that was first performed in England in 1892. Back then the star was W.S. Penley, portraying Lord Fancourt Babberly, an Oxford student whose friends Jack and Charley persuade him (with at least a dash of coercion) to pose as the title character, a rich widow from Brazil, “where the nuts come from.” (That line must have been a hoot back in 1892, and it still plays well with a receptive audience.)

Penley (that’s a drawing of him in character at left) was unavailable for the movie, having died in 1912, so Fox obtained the services of Jack Benny, who does his best to pose as a British undergrad. Since this kind of material requires audiences to cheerfully check their common sense at the door anyway, what’s another implausibility among friends? (And Benny’s best is, as usual, very very good.)

Director Archie Mayo expertly guides the actors through the plot’s permutations. (Even if you’ve never seen this or any other farce in your life, you just know somehow – it’s probably in our DNA – that these complications will include the appearance of Charley’s real aunt, here played by Kay Francis.)

I suppose you can give the cast extra points (or extra marks, considering that this is a British play) for being able to pull off such a carefree, lightweight piece of material during a particularly heavy time in the world’s history. It helps a lot to have Edmund Gwenn around; he practically came out of the womb performing stuff like this.

A few casting notes of interest:

Charley is played by Richard Haydn in his first feature film. Haydn made a career out of playing eccentric characters who talk through their noses. (In Haydn’s case, it sounded as if he had several noses.) It’s always nice to see him in this character, but it’s particularly interesting to see him in this film, where he drops that character (which perhaps he hadn’t really established in the U.S. anyway) to play something closer to a real human being, or as real as one can get in a farce.

Anne Baxter is around – very young, very pretty, very underused.

Laird Cregar plays Jack’s father, Sir Francis Chesney. Because Chesney’s title is about all he has left to his name, he is especially eager to meet Charley’s rich aunt. Cregar was noted for playing villains, but it’s always nice to see that he can do stuff like this (and Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”).

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the movie (and the one that got the biggest laugh from our crowd) comes as Cregar, brandishing a big walking stick, swaggers in to meet the aunt (who is really Benny). The fake aunt is hiding his/her face with a fan. When Benny removes the fan and reveals the “aunt’s” face, Cregar’s walking stick instantly shrinks.

Never mind the elephant in Captain Spaulding’s pajamas – how that gag got past the censors, I’ll truly never know....

Before the movie: “The Antique Shop,” a 1931 short featuring George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Burns sometimes said that the secret to Gracie’s success was that she wasn’t a comedian – she was an actress. I used to think this was a pretentious thing to say, but I eventually realized that Burns, whose self-deprecating gags hid the fact that he was one of the smartest folks in show business, was, as usual, right.

Gracie didn’t just say dumb and silly things. For one thing, they were usually dumb and silly and very funny – the duo generally had top-drawer material. More to the point, Gracie was playing someone who fervently believed she was right – and felt sorry for you because you just couldn’t understand. If that isn’t brilliance, I don’t know what is.

I’ve sometimes wondered how Gracie Allen would have fared in a serious part – no gags. Kind of a reverse of what Leslie Nielsen did late in his career.

I guess we’ll never really know the answer.

But somehow I think I do anyway.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Leonard Stern

When I was a kid, I noticed that the credits of some of the better comedy shows included this man's name.

I'm thinking of "Get Smart," "The Governor and J.J." and "He and She," to name a few.

("He and She," by the way, was one of my family's favorite shows, featuring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss as a young Manhattan couple and Jack Cassidy as the quintessential ham actor. It was funny and sophisticated, and when it was canceled we and many others -- though apparently not enough of us -- wrote to CBS, asking that it be kept on the air.)

In the early 1970s, this man's name (with a middle initial -- B. -- added) showed up on the credits of a mystery series, "McMillan and Wife."

By that time, I think I'd found out that Leonard Stern had also written for "The Honeymooners."

Leonard B. Stern died this week, and the obits I've seen so far play up the fact that he was one of the creators of the Mad Libs books, which were popular with my family for a time. The New York Times, I think, goes overboard with this angle in its obit, but I suppose Mr. Stern wouldn't mind; these books probably made him rich.

But I think he deserves to be remembered more for his fine comedic mind and sense of taste.

(And if you ever get a chance, read one of his lesser-known books, a collection of idiotic network memos -- yes, I know, some would say that's a redundancy -- titled "A Martian Wouldn't Say That.")