Thursday, June 14, 2007

When Alfred Hitchcock met... James Brown?

An unlikely meeting of immortals, posted on the occasion of Mike Douglas's death. Here's my obit on the old Funhouse blog:

What better way to recover from a cold/fever bug that floored me for the majority of last week than by digging up the most obscure footage I had in the “vault” to celebrate the passing of the great afternoon talk show host of the 1960s and ’70s, Mike Douglas? Mike was one of those people who drifted into the talk-show world by way of the big-band scene, as did Merv Griffin: Mike was a singer for Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge (no word on any feuds between Mike and the greatest-named singer of all time, Ish Kabibble). He kept right on singing as he became the friend to all homemakers during the period from 1961-82 — his “Men in My Little Girl’s Life” ain’t as catchy as “Daddy, Don’t You Walk So Fast,” and he sure seemed square when you stacked him up against the king of maudlin family-tunes of that time, Bobby Goldsboro, but he was a helluva lot more convincing playing the charming dad than Art Linkletter (now, we won’t comment on that simpering voice he did for the daughter in the song — I don’t wanna be snotty, the guy’s dead, fer chrissakes!).

In the mid-90s, select reruns of the Douglas show started being featured on VH-1 in the “Archives” series that also included music-themed episodes of Dick Cavett and David Frost. The Douglas shows were immediately jarring because of the really bizarre juxtapositions of guests. The recent Dick Cavett box sets released on DVD have shown how his bookers also indulged in some very weird pairings (the legendary Janis and Raquel show, or Janis and Gloria Swanson, or how about that Stevie Wonder/Elsa Lanchester/Alain Delon/Tex Ritter colloquy?). Cavett, however, somehow pulled a coherent conversation out of these really insane meetings of people from different disciplines. Mike just, sorta, had ’em, well… sit around and act really serious like they were saying something important. Or joke about how the tough the Business is. Or remark how it’s great to be nice and charity is a good thing. No profound, big-time thoughts on the Douglas show.

The legendary week of John Lennon/Yoko Ono-cohosted programs from ’72 — which got released on VHS, and never have seen the light of day on DVD — showed what happened when you had really timely, important issues being presented on Douglas. Need I refer you to the glorious episode when Bobby Seale presents a very sober-minded and serious discussion of the Panther Party’s good works in bringing food to inner-city children. His segment (featuring extremely rare 8mm footage of the foodbanks the Panthers ran) is followed by an appareance (Mike’s bookers at work here) the Ace Trucking Company, who perform the immortal “Ahhhhhhhh, you doesn’t hasta call me Johnson!!! You can call me Ray, you can call me Jay….” (I can do the whole thing, stop me now, someone.)

Granted, the show was 90 minutes long and on five days a week, so the guests had to be stacked up like cordwood, and very often they had nothing whatsoever in common with the week-long “cohost.” VH1 actually presented two of the more absurd four-way encounters: the first is the appearance of scruffy young Tom Waits, still in the process of refining his world-weary beatjazz nighthawk-at-the-diner character; Tom’s fellow guests were Glenda Jackson (whatever did happen to her? Come back to film, “Stevie”!), a very motherly Marvin Hamlisch, and a properly sprightly Arte Johnson. The second is the clip above, which features a daytime talkshow appearance by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch has nominally come on to promote what might be his worst American film Topaz, and gets to shake hands with the three guests who are already on the panel: bestselling poet and songwriter Rod McKuen (“Seasons in the Sun,” Listen to the Warm), Joan Rivers (when she was a mousy housewife comedian you could look at without wincing), and the One and Only James Brown. Yes, the two legends from completely different disciplines were on the same stage, just because the bookers decided that was the best day to get ’em both on the air. (One pairing that made a bit more sense that was shown on VH1 and has since gone into SEVERE limbo — what’s going on with the DVD folks??? — included Muhammed Ali and Sly Stone, who didn’t exactly like each other.)
The VH1 host of “Archives,” John Fugelsang, went on to mock Brown for getting the name of Psycho wrong, and calling it "Homicidal." How many people think that the Godfather of Soul was referring to the Hitchcockian William Castle 1961 chiller of the same name?

My own memories of the Douglas show are comforting ones of checking it out when homework wasn’t an issue, and there was nothing better on the other channels (as a kid, you’re really only attracted by the guest rosters on these afternoon talk shows). The show got none of my youthful enthusiasm, as did the better “4:30 Movie” entries, but for his 21 years of doling out placid, homespun entertainment (and yes, for having oddball moments like the one where Totie Fields outed Gene Simmons as Jewish [available on YouTube]), you hadda love this somewhat overripe “boy singer” with the imposing looking hair.

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