Friday, August 25, 2017

The Guardians (2017) Movie Review

It was bound to happen. With all these superhero movies someone in another country was going to create one of their own. In this case: Russia. 

Friends of mine and I were privy to a screening of The Guardians, a Russian science-fiction film that is clearly a rip-off of Marvel's The Avengers. Released theatrically in February, the action flick with a $5 million budget turned out to be more impressive than some of the $100 million Hollywood blockbusters produced today. During the cold war, an organization called "Patriot" created a super-hero squad, which included members of multiple soviet republics. For years these heroes had to hide their identities but when a powerful super-human threatened world domination, they joined forces to combat the threat. The Guardians met with strongly negative critical reception in Russian media but I suspect the movie may receive better reviews here in the United States. Fan boys of superhero movies will delight in the creativity of the battle sequences and top-notch special effects. Regardless of what the critics say, a sequel has been commissioned by Turbo Films, as a co-production company for the next picture.

When I watch a movie I usually ask for one of two things. Entertain me or impress me. The Guardians was entertaining and many times I was impressed. This is saying a lot compared to the junk Hollywood routinely puts out every year.

Sure, there were plot holes. How does the wolf man regain his pants after he transforms back into human form? Really, where did the pants come from? Suspension of disbelief was applied multiple times and one couldn't wonder if Yogi Bear went on a rampage when the wolf man started using a gatling gun... give that bear a picnic basket, for pete's sake!

Apparently there are two versions of this movie floating about in collector hands. One with English subtitles but the syntax with computer translation calls for a few unintentionally funny moments. The other is English dubbed. My review copy contained subtitles simply because I prefer subtitles with any foreign film. Each to their own.

You can watch the movie trailer here:

The movie gets released officially on DVD in September. You can probably watch it on Amazon Prime or rent the disc from Netflix or Redbox. Everyone I know who watched the film is split: half love it and the other half shake their heads. You may not have heard of this movie until today but mark my words: I predict The Guardians to become a franchise that will steadily grow in the coming years with multiple sequels. Give this one a try and let me know what you think.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Porky Pig Makes a Comeback

Contradicting Porky Pig, “That's NOT all, folks!” The first cartoon superstar to come from Warner Brothers (unless you count Bosko), was everyone's favorite pantless porcine, Porky Pig. It seems the pig is making a comeback, according to Jerry Beck, who announced the other day that a five-disc set is going to be released on September 19, containing all 101 Porky Pig cartoons. This means we get the opportunity to visit 99 black-and-white Looney Tunes (and two Technicolor Merrie Melodies) with bonus extras. The cartoons will be presented in chronological order, with key commentaries by noted animation scholars (including Beck).

This box set is a dream come true for fans of Looney Tunes. By account 61 of these 101 cartoons have never been released on VHS, DVD or BluRay. “Porky’s Aunt” and “Africa Squeaks” will be uncut and uncensored. Many of these cartoons have never aired on television in decades. The picture quality will be superb. And in anticipation of high consumer demand, initial pre-purchase orders placed this week and next will be shipped via traditionally manufactured (pressed) discs and not the DVD-R format Warner Archive has been offering for years.

One could be picky and say that three are missing of the 104, but those three are more Duffy Duck cartoons than Porky Pig cartoons. But here’s the plus side to the news: this opens the door for another cartoon set from Warners, a complete Daffy Duck collection. But quoting Jerry Beck, “Support of this collection will signal to the company that fans of classic animated films still wish to buy collections on physical home media. Its success will fuel further, more ambitious projects.” So do yourself a favor and click the link below and buy your set today. Right now. This will send a message to the studios that we want more.

I bought four. Three for gifts this Christmas.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mr. Novak: The Television Series

Mr. Novak makes a comeback. Rarely broadcast in reruns during the last three decades, the 1963-65 television series provided a realistic rendition of school teachers and the social problems faced by their students. Comedic elements ala Our Miss Brooks or Dobie Gillis were not part of E. Jack Neuman's grand design when he created a series that took place in a high school. Gaining insight to the educational system, he quickly developed a program that -- he hoped -- would provide social commentary with no interference from the executives at NBC. Dramatic storytelling was never better -- sometimes equalled with such greats as The Defenders, Sam Benedict, Naked City and Route 66. Sadly, the last this program aired over television was in the 1980s over TNT. According to offside sources, music rights have held up a commercial DVD release of this groundbreaking series.

Chuck Harter, co-author of the telephone book-sized tome about Harry Langdon (a book I recommend), wrote this 372 page tome, available in paperback and hard cover. He covers all of the bases, in extraordinary detail. From a biography of E. Jack Neuman, filming the television pilot, controversies that arose from various productions, memories from cast and crew, a list of the awards the series garnered, columns as they appeared in Teen magazine, and a novelization of the two-part Mr. Novak/Dr. Kildare crossover teleplay, "The Rich Who Are Poor."

What appealed to me the most -- and was a fascinating read -- was the history of the program in chronological order. Episodes that generated vast mail from viewers, how teachers across the country endorsed the program for the authenticity portrayed on camera, makeup magic, charity benefits, cast changes between seasons, fan mail, how one script was initially rejected by the network because the subject matter dealt with drug addiction and venereal disease, a spoof sketch on The Danny Kaye Show, LP records and premiums, and details about the episode I first saw twenty years ago on VHS -- the death of a school teacher as a result of a heart attack and how the students and other teachers coped. Yeah, this was serious stuff. 

Reviews from critics, commentary from directors who lensed some of the episodes, behind-the-scenes photos, and the board game are all included. Harter tracked down Neuman's family to seek out information not found available anywhere. This is the kind of book I wish were assembled for every television program out there -- no hack job here. It portrays an insightful viewpoint of how Mr. Novak came to be, the battles Neuman had with the network to ensure social commentary was evident, and is the kind of book you would consult piece meal -- watching one episode at a time while reviewing the write-up to gain deeper insight. My only complaint is not of the book but rather the film studio. I understand why the television series has never been released to DVD -- music rights take time to clear because third parties believe they have million dollar properties. If anything this book makes me want to petition the studio to make the series available for everyone to sample and enjoy. As of present, until a commercial DVD release happens, this book is the next best thing.

Chuck spent considerable time seeking out cast and crew who were still alive to gather any recollections they had during their film shoots. Beau Bridges, Richard Donner, Diane Baker, Frankie Avalon, Ed Asner, Brooke Bundy, Johnny Crawford, Patricia Crowley, Tony Dow, Sherry Jackson, June Lockhart, Walter Koenig, Tommy Kirk, Buck Taylor, Beverly Washburn, and many others. The late Martin Landau wrote a foreword for the book, who aptly mentioned: "The work that Chuck Harter has been doing over the last several years in researching his book deserves to be rewarded." I could not describe a book review any better than Mr. Landau.

You can purchase your copy of the book here:

and here:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Day Lou Costello Cried on Radio

The date was November 4, 1943. Lou Costello was rehearsing at the studios of NBC with the cast and crew, including Bud Abbott, Mel Blanc, Ken Niles and the beautiful Lana Turner, when an emissary of NBC walked in and gave Costello the shocking news that his one-year-old son had drowned at their Van Nuys home. Lou Costello, Jr., nicknamed "Butch," escaped his playpen, crawled to the swimming pool and fell in. Costello immediately sped from the studio to his home while a pulmotor squad worked futiley to bring back a spark of life to the youngster.

As Costello later recalled in 1954: “Racing into the yard, [my wife] ran to the swimming pool and found the child floating face-down in water a foot and one-half deep. She pulled him from the water and screamed for help.” Neighbors rushed over when they heard the screams and firefighters and medics worked over the boy for more than an hour before Dr. Vincent Kovner pronounced him dead. The baby drowned two days shy of his first birthday.

Driving home from the studio Costello was in denial, convinced that his son was still alive, because he was playing with his baby boy only hours prior. He even told the infant, nicknamed “Butch,” that he would hear his father over the radio speaker that evening. The comedian arrived at his home just as the firefighters were leaving, and discovered the news was true.

Meanwhile, at the studio, producer Martin Gosch and Costello’s partner, Bud Abbott, started making calls for a substitute. Everyone, cast and crew, understood that Costello could not bear up under such grief and go through with a slapstick comedy show. Contact was made with Mickey Rooney, who was on a golf course at the time. After learning the news Rooney tossed aside the clubs, sped to his car and raced to the NBC studio, under the impression that the broadcast time was 5:30 instead of 7:00. He arrived shortly after five and began looking over the script. Even when Costello arrived at the studio, reportedly 25 minutes before airtime, Rooney took a chair with other members of the cast and followed every line in the script, sitting on standby in case Costello needed to be replaced. (During the afternoon Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton heard the sad news and offered to take over for Costello.)

In the tradition of the theatre, "the show must go on," was deeply ingrained in Costello through his long years in show business, and most rationalized that was the motivation running through his mind. Even in his great grief he must have steeled himself against quitting, as the spirit of the trouper would call it. It was less than an hour before the Camel sign-in when Bud Abbott was called to the phone. It was Costello, telling him he would be there to go through with the show. He arrived at the studio a half-hour later and went through a final reading of his script. When Ken Niles signed in the show, Costello was in front of the mike, smoking a cigar and fidgeting with his script to contain his heartbreak.

None in the studio audience that overflowed onto the stage was aware of what Costello was going through. He gave no outward evidence of his great loss, ad-libbing quips and carrying on in the same old Costello way. The crowd howled at his gags, but as he read the last line and tossed his script to a WAVE in the front row, Abbott brought a hush to what had been a bedlam. Lou Costello broke down with tears moments before the closing commercial and supposedly rushed off the stage.

Following the announcer's closing commercial, Bud Abbott stepped up to the mike to explain to the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen. Now that our program is over and we have done our best to entertain you, I would like take a moment to pay tribute to my best friend and to a man who has more courage than I have ever seen displayed in the theater. Tonight the old expression ‘The show must go on’ was brought home to all of us on this program. More clearly than ever before. Just a short time before our broadcast started, Lou Costello was told that his baby, one year old tomorrow, had died. In the face of the greatest tragedy which can come to any man, Lou Costello went on tonight so that you, the radio audience, would not be disappointed. There is nothing more that I can say except that I know you, all of you, [will] join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to a great trouper.” Ken Niles then signed off with network identification, 40 seconds overtime.

If Bud Abbott had not apprised the audience of the tragedy that befell his partner three hours before broadcast, it is doubtful whether the average radio listener would have even suspected that there had been anything amiss about the show or its principals. Costello lost his place and ad-libbed a little more often than was his habit. What the nationwide audience was not aware was the sobs that were audible through the audience as the people left the auditorium following a three-minute silent tribute. Asked if Costello at any time had shown signs of cracking, Gosch replied to a reporter, “It was the greatest display of courage I’ve ever seen. Lou took it like the great trouper he is.” At one point in the script where Costello read, “I feel sad today,” there were dewy eyes on the stage. He closed it quickly with “I broke up with my girl today.” A less stoic performer would have asked for other lines.

It was the second misfortune to overtake that particular broadcast. The day before the broadcast, Veronica Lake, who had been booked as guest star, had to cancel on account of illness. Lana Turner was substituted. The actress, unable to suppress her own grief over Costello’s loss, read her lines woodenly and hardly above a whisper. In the audience were 25 convalescents from rheumatic fever with their nurses, brought there from the naval hospital at Corona as special guests of Lou Costello. He insisted that the party he had planned for them after the show be carried through, even though he could not attend.

Whether Costello, under the circumstances, should have appeared on the radio broadcast is a moot point. The cast went through the entire script but once and there was no opportunity for a dress rehearsal or final timing. For years a recording of the November 4, 1943, broadcast has been sought after by fans of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, not widely available to collectors for decades. Of recent, transcription discs were found and that very recording is now making the rounds among collectors. Some might consider the recording morbid but nothing could be further from the truth. Only at the close of the broadcast when Bud Abbott delivers his closing speech does it become apparent that the broadcast was monumental – now historical.

I have often said that collecting and listening to old-time radio is only a tip of the iceberg. Reading up on the history of vintage radio programs can -- many times -- be more fascinating than the recordings themselves. This particular Abbott and Costello broadcast is no exception.

Listening to the recording today I pose a few theories: At the close of the broadcast, when Bud Abbott steps out to address the audience, you can hear a reaction from those in attendance during the second sentence... before he even mentions the death of Costello's little son. I wonder if, when Abbott stepped out to address the audience, that was the moment Costello broke down and had to walk off the stage -- not after he concluded his final line. Else, why would the audience react at that moment? What would they have been reacting over?

Regarding the reason why Costello wanted to perform during a time of grievance, the comedian was off the air for nine months as a result of rheumatic fever (hence why he set up a party after the broadcast for rheumatic fever victims). It may be possible, because this was the first broadcast of the season and the first broadcast since he was back to health, that he felt a necessity to commit to the radio mike. Costello however, many years later, recalled bouncing his little boy on his knee earlier in the day and telling Butch that he would hear his father on the radio... and wanted to keep that promise.