Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gangsters, dictators, monsters, and a crazy boss: Deceased Artiste Herbert Lom

When Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru, better known as Herbert Lom, died last week at 95, most folks had assumed he had been gone for a while, as he effectively quit acting back in the early Nineties. Lom could be a very menacing and “mysterious” presence on film, but he is best known for doing a phenomenal job as Sellers' harassed boss in the Pink Panther films and for playing in an endless slew of mysteries, thrillers, and horror pictures.

He was born in Czechoslovakia as the son of a count (!) in 1917. By 1939, he'd already appeared in small roles in two Czech films, but he wanted to “make good” and someday meet Greta Garbo (he finally did, but after she had been out of the biz for many years).

His 1939 journey to England with his girlfriend changed his life forever – the trip sadly ended her life, as she was turned back at Dover and wound up dying in a concentration camp (Lom spoke fondly of her in one of the last newspaper interviews he did, nearly six decades after the end of the war). He parents survived the war and joined him in England in peacetime.

Lom had an auspicious debut in British cinema, playing Napoleon in The Young Mr. Pitt (1942); he later played Nap again in War and Peace (1956). He worked steadily in British film and TV for the next half-century, with two of his early roles catching attention elsewhere, as a therapist in The Seventh Veil (1945) and as a refined but dangerous gangster in the wonderful noir Night and the City (1950).

His varied career found him singing onstage as the King of Siam in the West End production of The King and I and writing two novels (about Christopher Marlowe, and the inventor of the guillotine). As noted, he played in a LOT of thrillers and horror films, including not one but two versions of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (the 1974 and 1989 versions; the trailer for the former can be found here).

Perhaps his worst credit (I'm going to take a bet this is the worst by far – and that includes Mark of the Devil, about which more below) – is Going Bananas (1987), a comedy with Jimmie Walker and Dom DeLuise (here's a Lom-less sequence that is mind-boggling).. But let us not dwell on the worst moments of Lom's career, and instead celebrate the finest. Or at least the most notorious...

A year before he supported James Mason in The Seventh Veil, the two appeared together in Hotel Reserve (1944). Here you see Lom as an average, ordinary husband – of an all-to-gorgeous babe (start the clip at 2:14):

Lom was a member of two great ensembles in Fifties British films. The first was obviously The Ladykillers (with Guiness and Sellers, 1955) and then Hell Drivers (1957), with Stanley Baker and Peggy Cummins, as well as a then-unknown trio of future super-spies: Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, and David McCallum.

Those films are a lot easier to digest than a movie that Lom probably made a lot more money doing, namely El Cid (1961). Here he tells off crucifixion victim Raf Vallone (why not?):

Lom played many larger-than-life characters. In Mysterious Island (1961), he inherited the mantle of Captain Nemo from his old castmate James Mason:

In Count Dracula (1970), the somewhat lame adaptation of Stoker by the always-working Jesus Franco, Lom inherited the mantle of Van Helsing from Peter Cushing (and Drac has a mustache – Why? Because it's a Jess Franco film!):

And speaking of Franco, here's the trailer for his lurid (but still not entirely satisfyingly sleazy) women's prison film 99 Women (1969), starring Lom and Mercedes McCambridge amidst all the chicks in chains:

The most notorious of all of Lom's films was the West German horror pic Mark of the Devil (1970), directed by a Brit (Michael Armstrong). The film was promoted in the U.S. with the distribution of “vomit bags” that were given to every person who bought a ticket.

I remember wanting to go to the film as a kid just to get the bag, since it was such a sublimely gross idea. I'm sure the movie would've messed my mind up, but I wanted that bag! I later found an old one laying on the street and was forbidden to bring it home by my mother. Ah, memories...

I've never sat through the film, but the trailer makes it look like any number of cheesy Euro horror flicks. The gore effects were the main thrust of the film, but Udo Kier's piercing eyes are clearly the most important effect for those of us who are mesmerized by Udo:

Lom was SUCH a familiar face that he appeared in a Benson and Hedges “small cigar” TV ad:

In terms of monster-movie mythology, Lom was assigned a very important role in 1962: he was the screen's third Phantom of the Opera. The film is up in its entirety on YT (twice!) and is worth a look. It is not a great horror picture, but Lom does his best as the Phantom and has a very cool full-face mask:

And the last clip has got to be Lom in his best-remembered role as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films. The character is in all but the first of the series and was the invention of Blake Edwards and coscripter William Peter Blatty for the film version of the play A Shot in the Dark (1964), which was retrofitted for Sellers' Inspector Clouseau character.

Lom was quoted as saying that he did the series for 20 years, but they ran out of good scripts in the first ten years. Actually there were no Pink Panther films between Shot in '64 and The Return of the Pink Panther in 1975 (a boon for both Sellers and Edwards, whose careers were floundering).

The films after Sellers died were godawful. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), a piece-o-shit collection of Sellers outtakes extended into a feature. The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) was another awful pic featuring Ted Wass as an accident-prone NYC cop who goes looking for the missing Clouseau. I love the work of Roberto Benigni, but one of his worst-ever vehicles was Son of the Pink Panther (1993), where he plays Sellers' son, who bedevils Dreyfus like his dad did. As I argued in my obit for Edwards, his career was filled with extremely bad, indulgent films among the few great ones.

Here is a fan's wonderful montage of the best Lom moments from the Pink Panther pics. It was put together in 2009 by someone who adopted the YT moniker “Dreyfus fan” and shows exactly how expert a straight man Lom was, and why he will forever be remembered for that role:

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Passing Parade 2: Deceased Artiste Al Freeman, Jr.

Staying with thoughts of characters actors, I turn to Al Freeman Jr., who died a few weeks back at 78, after having had a long career on the stage and in movies and television. I talk a lot about the “high” and “low” on the Funhouse TV, and Freeman’s career embraced both aspects of show business, as some of his greatest triumphs were in important Broadway and off-Broadway productions of the Sixties, but he was seen by the largest number of people playing a regular role as a police detective on One Life to Live.

Freeman’s Broadway work included his debut in 1960 (The Long Dream, a play based on a Richard Wright novel) and the 1965 production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie. His first important movie role was in the wildly undershown film version of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (1967). At least that film has had a DVD release — the interesting-sounding features that Freeman directed (A Fable, 1971, scripted by Baraka) and wrote (the Ossie Davis film Cool Red) have never been released in any home-entertainment format.

While appearing in pioneering works of theater, he dabbled in the mainstream with parts in TV episodes, in series including The Millionaire, The Defenders, and The Trials of O’Brien with Peter Falk. He later had supporting roles in the Hollywood features Finian’s Rainbow (a mess of a musical directed by Coppola) and the Frank Sinatra vehicle The Detective (both 1968).

In 1988, Freeman basically quit acting to teach theater at Howard University. He did appear in a few more TV episodes and films, most notably Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, where he had the plum supporting role of Elijah Muhammad. This was an interesting casting decision, not only because he was excellent in the role, but because he had played Malcolm X in the TV miniseries Roots: the Next Generation (1979).

On to the pieces of Freeman’s career that I was able to find in “public view” on YT. First there is a short slice of him directing students in a theater class. I’m not sure of the date of the class or its location, but it was uploaded earlier this year.

The network TV movies of the Seventies definitely have their own, very strong cults, and one that has a following is My Sweet Charlie (1970), a telefilm about a pregnant Southern girl (Patty Duke) and a NYC lawyer (Freeman) who meet and bond in Texas. The whole tearjerker can be found here (1970).

This has nothing to do with Al, but I also suggest you check out Patty’s Emmy acceptance speech for her role in the film. She’s a little… “off,” shall we say. (It’s wonderful.)

A segment from One Life to Live featuring Freeman as Captain Ed Hall. He was with the show for fifteen years (which is an eternity in daytime TV), won a Daytime Emmy for Best Actor (he was the first African-American to win that award), and directed episodes of the show. This sequence illustrates one of his best assets: a smooth voice that made the dialogue sound realistic (whereas it can often sound like it was phoned in from outer space):

As an ABC star he showed up in various places including an ABC promo ad (with a voiceover by Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson) and an appearance on “Soap Opera Showdown” week on Family Feud when it was hosted by Richard Dawson:

During the time that Freeman was teaching, he still did occasionally make appearances on TV and in the movies. His last movie role is one that was worthy of his talent, as the uncle in Maya Angelou’s directorial debut (curiously written by someone else), Down in the Delta (1998):

And I close out with a show that I have fond memories of, but which I haven’t seen since it initially aired (and I was quite young). Since it has surfaced nowhere, I’d need to make an expedition to the Paley Center to see if my memories of it as being very funny are accurate or just rose-colored nostalgia about a show that was deemed "dirty" at the time.

In my entry below about Norman Alden I talked about Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which was a very offbeat show that became a massive hit for a short time in ’76-’77. The preceding year (1975) Lear did another sitcom that was controversial but never got the chance to find an audience. It was a VERY strange project — a TV sitcom version of Lanford Wilson’s play The Hot L Baltimore.

The show only aired for half a season, 13 episodes in total. The characters included a gay couple, two hookers, a con-artist preacher (Freeman), and a very strange unseen character who was an adult baby, cared for by his doting mother (Charlotte Rae). This is the only small bit from that show that has shown up on the Net:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The passing parade 1: Deceased Artiste Norman Alden

Summer is over, fall is here, and now I finally have the time to catch up to the show-business deaths that have racked up in the last few weeks. I take pride in saluting the folks that the mainstream media either notices for a few short minutes when they depart, or ignores entirely. These are individuals whose faces, voices, and talents have been burnt into our brain from hours of watching TV and listening to the radio (when that medium had a central place in American life). Their names are forgotten, but their contributions stick around for quite some time.

I paid tribute to Phil Bruns some weeks back, and one of his Mary Hartman castmates, another veteran character actor, died in the early part of the summer. Norman Alden had a half-century career on TV and in the movies, and was literally everywhere in the Sixties and Seventies.

After serving as a soldier in WWII, Alden came home and attended college on the GI Bill. He studied theater in school, and shortly thereafter began his long career as a character person (a noble profession indeed). The list of his TV credits spans the Sixties in every direction: Richard Diamond, The Untouchables, Honey West, both Kildare and Casey, Batman, The Andy Griffith Show, The Big Valley, My Three Sons, Hogan's Heroes, Mission: Impossible, and The Mod Squad.

The best notices he received for a movie role were for his starring turn in Richard C. Sarafian's Andy (1965), which I have never seen. He also played a very old-looking high school student in The Nutty Professor and had a small role in Jerry's The Patsy as well. One of his later prominent roles was in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (the title of which will be evoked in a later blog entry).

BUT he is best known by TV and movie buffs of a certain age for three roles:

— As Frank Heflin, the scientist friend of “ElectraWoman and DynaGirl” on The Krofft Supershow in 1976. This show seemed to have been on for a few years, but true to the Krofft tradition, there were actually only 16 “ElectraWoman” segments made in that one season, no more. Here is a sample episode where the ladies take on a villain named “Glitter Rock”:

Alden also impressed as the roller derby teammate of Raquel Welch who goes insane in the rink in Kansas City Bomber. I couldn't find his freak-out scene, but he can be briefly seen in the film's trailer:

Although he appeared in countless movies, TV shows, and commercials, Alden is best remembered by many TV fans for his memorable death scene on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The full scene is here, and it is quite as wonderfully dippy as I remembered.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Techno-peeves: rampant incompatibility, planned obsolescence, and the windowboxing of TCM

I’ve felt lately like the Funhouse has been under siege. Not by hacking or other extraordinary threats, but by the one problem that is all too common — and far too easily accepted by everyone these days — the notion that consumer tech products have only a scant few years to last, if that much, and then you toss ‘em out (whether they’re broken or not) and buy the latest model (whether you have the money or not).

The mini-DV camera that I’ve used to produce the Funhouse TV show started malfunctioning several weeks back. The computer that is my main tool to produce this blog had a hard-drive collapse two weeks ago. Both items are a few years old and have served me well, as is apparent when one considers I’ve produced several dozen episodes each year at and at least one chunky blog entry every week or so.

In this current, debt-driven economy, one isn’t supposed to repair one’s tech-tools; you’re supposed to “upgrade” to the latest model, and sink hundreds of bucks into a newer version that will be outmoded and inoperative in 2-3 years at best.
Although “planned obsolescence” is a phrase that was popularized in the Fifties (it was coined in the Thirties), it has only been in the last two decades that it became the sole operating principle of electronic tech, primarily because of the influence of money-grubbin’ “visionaries” like iCapitalist Steve Jobs, who hit on the master stroke of not only making his products entirely incompatible with the competition, but also making them incompatible with themselves, in past or future iterations.
This approach to electronics — constant upgrading, the incompatibility of everything with everything — has made the tech game (and a game it most surely is) a massive goddamned headache for those of us who want to buy a product that will last and can be repaired. To the average consumer, bells and whistles count for more than quality and durability. The “mad men” of advertising obviously won.

It was as the above techno-strife hit, and issues of incompatibility became the focus of my existence, that I discovered that certain networks on my cable carrier, including top fave Turner Classic Movies, had begun to windowbox their programming for compatibility with widescreen TVs. TCM is one of the cable networks, at least on my carrier (TW in NYC), that has an identical signal on its standard channel and its high-def alter-ego. In fact, the horrid-looking windowboxing of the channel seems to be an outgrowth of the clamor by some hardcore fans for a version of TCM in “true high-def.”                                           
That argument is discussed in detail here, but it doesn’t matter to me at all — all I know is that the two channels are now identical, you can switch from one to the other and wouldn’t even know that the channel has been changed. I have no interest in high-def, since I have a regular square TV and am deliriously happy that it has worked perfectly well for me for over 15 years at this point. On a related note, I believe that watching a great movie on TV is watching TV (albeit exceptionally wonderful TV), while watching a movie in a theater is cinema (but more on that below).
For those who don't know what windowboxing is, it's a measure taken to ensure that every single millimeter of a square film image can be seen. Black bars are placed on both sides as well as the top and bottom of an image. I first saw a windowboxed film on AMC (remember when the channel was aptly named American Movie Classics?), the silent version of The Last of the Mohicans (1920). The film was shot in a ratio that differs from the square (aka "flat") one (1:33) that fills a standard box-like TV screen.
I do want films to be shown in their proper ratios in theaters and on TV. I think letterboxing is absolutely essential for any film that differs greatly from 1:33, as with the three “widescreen” ratios that are the most common (1:66, 1:85, and 2:35). Fer chrissakes, we went more than four decades in the U.S. before any networks would show a letterboxed film at all (Manhattan was the first, thanks to Woody demanding it; AMC was the first network to present letterboxed films on a regular basis).
These days, though, one doesn't need to wait 40 years for technology “updates.” Now updates happen overnight, and the user is left trying to catch up. Remember the digital TV debacle? The U.S. government decided that we were going to become a digital nation and forced poorer folk and seniors to scramble and figure out some way to cope with a change that didn't need to be made. I wrote about it at the time.
But once it did take place, cable carriers and TV manufacturers were delighted, and seniors like my dad had to suddenly subscribe to Time Warner Cable to be able to continue watching their TV. Other folks bought new TVs since they couldn't deal with the annoying and unnecessary switchover (those digital conversion boxes are a joke, barely functioning in many urban areas where "clearance" is an issue).

The single funniest (and most accurate) comment on the digital TV "upgrade" was made on The Armando Iannucci Shows:

The TCM conversion to windowboxing isn't equal to the rupture-ous loss of over-the-air signals — in this case, possessors of regular TVs are still “allowed” to continue to watch what they love without a converter, but the image will look a whole lot odder. Those like myself, who have no desire to upgrade to a widescreen TV while my boxy stalwart still works, are being encouraged by the switchover to windowboxed transmission to join the cool kids and buy one’a those sleek rectangular TV sets. Join us in pretending your house is a movie theater! (Two words: it ain’t.)
So the fate of the viewer who cannot resize his/her screen is to watch the movies on TCM as if they were broadcast (to borrow an Internet poster's phrase) “through a postal slot.” Now every credit can be read on every film, since not a SINGLE millimeter of the cinematic space is ever lost. But those of us with square TVs wind up seeing a box within a box — so that means when and if Hellazapoppin' plays, the movie-watching scene that spawned MST 3K would allow us to see a box within a box within a box....
The “perfection” of the television image brings up another peeve, one that doesn't have to do with planned obsolescence, but is all about the acquisition of the latest viewing tools (from big-ass widescreens to tiny video-file players) and the notion certain cinephiles have that watching movies on TV makes one a self-contained, hardcore movie buff. These folks have indeed made movie-watching a regular part of their life — but they rarely if ever set a foot inside a movie theater.
The folks who live in an area that has no arthouse cinemas, no rep houses, and no university screening rooms are not who I'm talking about here. I am stunned more by the lazyfolk who reside in major urban areas that are filled with “alternative” screens and only watch their cinematic fare on some form of a TV screen (be it a giant TV, a laptop, or a variant of Dick Tracy's goddamned wristphone). It's a fascinatingly limited path, akin to being a voracious music-lover who never, ever attends live concerts.
As for the many corollaries to this ridiculous “the-technology-of-the-moment-is-best” mindset, I took the time to read the wildly indulgent “conversation” between the two critics in the New York Times this past Sunday (on a related note, is there really that great a need to import the reviews of the one who lives on the West Coast — or did she ever deign to move and actually reside in our cramped little city?). The two critics pondered the difference between films being made and projected digitally, and the stalwart filmmakers and movie houses that still use film.
I fall on the side of the true-film advocates (thus, I guess my spokesperson is the West Coast NYT critic?). To extend the musical metaphor above, seeing digital projection in a movie house (which has, of course, become the norm because it's cheaper and far closer to “perfect,” right?) is akin to attending those live concerts where people gather to watch freshly restored digital and holographic images of icons like Elvis and Tupac. The activity has the semblance of art, but it's closer to experiencing the stuff at home — and that, in most folks minds, is the only “perfect” way to receive the information.
This trendy, “perfection”-seeking mindset conforms to the laughable dictum that “all information is on the Internet, somewhere.” It's an oddly hermetic concept and offers a reliance on, and a wildly misguided confidence in, technology that I don't think I'll ever have. 

Technology drove the arts throughout the 20th century, but these days it's overwhelmed it, because folks who only desire a limited range of information in the first place believe that “everything” is on the Internet and “everything” is available on DVD or as a download or... pick your platform (it will change in the next several months). My friend Brian Camp wrote about the digital/film debate — with a side-trip into the notion that "everything" from the last two decades is on the Net — in this blog entry.
The incompatibility factor between old and new technologies is most pronounced in relation to computers and Internet access. Consider, for instance, the average interactive website. Not video sites like YouTube or Daily Motion, that seem to function strictly by their own rules, but sites that are supposed to truly cater to the user, like a bank site or, let’s say, BLOGGER, for instance.
These sites now update their interfaces and announce to the user “We detect that you're viewing this site with an older browser. For best results, upgrade to these browsers....” The translation is obvious: we’re all a part of the great consumer culture that doesn’t request but demands that you buy the latest model, or you won’t be able to use a website that formerly was VERY elementary in its approach. Pay a bill, write a blog — don't you think you need a new computer?
Back in April of of this year Blogger updated its interface, so it would be more attuned to its parent and sister sites (Google, YouTube, etc, etc). No matter that Blogspot was without a doubt one of the easiest sites to use before April of this year — now the Forces That Be at the site would prefer that I have a newer computer. Thus, countless changes have taken place, and if the user has any questions, well, he/she can just leave a message on a forum board and hope that some friendly person has an answer.
I have written into the Blogger forum and have received very polite answers on occasion. They all seem to require inserting something in the raw HTML code, an aspect of this blog that I NEVER needed to tinker with before the accursed upgrade that took place in April of this year. 

What I take this to mean is that Google/Blogger would prefer that those of us with computers older than a year or two, computers equipped with the dread “older browsers” (used because the newer browsers won’t WORK with the computers we’ve got), simply go away and stop using their sites, since only those with the latest, coolest consumer products need apply.
If the devices had been kept simple and had been manufactured to be durable and long-lasting, the user/consumer would never have bought anything new until the old things broke on them. Thus, the digital revoluton! Just take a gander as the suckers on line (while their “smart” phones are online) in Best Buy, the Apple Store, and Brookstone haul out stuff that won't be operative in a few months, never mind a few years.
But back to the windowbox dilemma (searching for images for this piece produced the cover of Toledo Window Box, George Carlin's LP from a million years ago — on vinyl, the format that became trendy again when the suckers who flocked to CDs finally realized digital sound is “pure” and perfect, but a lot less rich). As my final argument that TCM's windowboxing is an unnecessary, distracting extravagance solely meant for those with cine-OCD and others posing as purists, I will merely point to the Criterion Collection.
Criterion has been making available the most pristine copies of films in the home-entertainment sphere since the days of the laser disc (back when “film grain” was still part of the restoration process — I miss it dearly, but that's a discussion for another time...). The folks at that company dote on the ways in which to best present classic films on a TV screen. They haven't seen fit windowbox films made in the 1:33 ratio-purists because, again, it is not necessary (and looks godawful on a regular square TV).
Last week, TCM aired Godard's masterwork Vivre Sa Vie (aka “My Life to Life”) with windowboxing. The print that was shown looked identical to the Criterion copy, but on TCM it was reduced to a square within a square. The result wasn't a better presentation of the film — it was a pointless and irritating variation on what is on the Criterion disc.
So to those individuals lacking funds who remember a time when it was not uncommon to have a portable radio for five years, a wristwatch for ten, a TV set for a decade or two, and a stereo system for nigh unto a childhood or adolescence, I salute you. Quality is not a major issue in debt-ridden America — having the latest, coolest device is.
And if you feel tired after a long day’s work, please do go and experience film in a local arthouse or rep theater, where classic films are presented as they should be. OR you can just turn on the TV and watch a classic picture. Through a postal slot.