10 September, 2009

The Little Engine That Did

Most of the time when it comes to blogging, I think of something, usually for quite some time, eventually conjuring some thousand-word piece, because (I feel) I have something to say. Because it’s important! And it must be shared! Well, this one was a little different in that I didn’t think about it at all. No planning, no thinking; not overtly, anyway. While I feel it’s important -- and must be shared! -- this one’s right from the heart. I hope you enjoy.


I, as you may well know, am not a sport's fanatic -- my cousin John just laughed out loud at the understatement -- but when good sport is undeniable, I too undeniably watch.  For instance, I remember being glued to the TV for the now famous – and nearly eight-hour; eight hours! – Federer-Roddick Wimbledon Final; and, yeah, hell of a match. So I figured I’d enjoy watching a few more. After all, it’s several of the best players, over several consecutive days; a veritable feast of suspense in sport! How could I NOT enjoy watching a few more?


Well, enjoy it I have; no I've been loving it, thrilled by it, glued to the TV yet again. Why? Sure, Federer’s playing well. So are the Williams sisters. And The Queen’s Own Andy Murray. But you know that, right? Probably heard about them some more. But they’re not the reason I’ve been glued to the series. No, that honor goes to someone you may not have heard of, but certainly should have. A young lady named Melanie Oudin.


I don’t know if you’ve been following The Open at all, but Miss Oudin (pronounced ooo-DAN) has surprised everyone by steadily climbing the charts to the Quarterfinals. It all began a week ago when the 70th-seeded 17-year-old (and keep those two stats in mind) beat No.36 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round. A surprise to be sure; shocking even. But No.4 Elena Dementieva was next, and The Georgia-born-and-raised Oudin (her father is French, hence the name) didn’t even have a hotel reservation past the match. But beat Dementieva she did (and had to move hotels to accommodate). Then the third round brought No.31 (former No.1) Maria Sharapova. No way Oudin will beat her. Well, she did. And then in The Round Of 16 it was No.13 Nadia Petrova. “Match is over except for the playing,” they said! True. For Petrova. That all were Russian is a coincidence. That all were at least 34 seeds ahead of her (not to mention 3 to 8 inches taller with several years more experience) is something to talk about. She is The Little Engine That Could, that has, that is. And yesterday at 7:00 PM (EST), she played No.9 Caroline Wozniacki in the 2009 Quarterfinals, the farthest she’d ever progressed in any major tournament.


I wish I could say that Oudin won, but she didn’t. In fact, the powerhouse Wozniacki played extremely well, beating Oudin in the first two sets by a fairly wide margin. It was the kind of match that everyone expected from Pavlyuchenkova in Round 1, and Dementieva in Round 2, and Sharapova in Round 3, and Petrova in The 16. Where Oudin was expected to just show up in The 2009 U.S. Open, play as well as she could, and go home gracefully, it wasn’t until The Quarterfinals of the Grand Slam Match that she was outplayed by a better player. Fairly? Yes. But anyone that saw yesterday’s match saw that uncertain and just a little bit fearful look in Wozniacki’s eyes when she stepped onto the court. And you had to respect that she didn’t give Oudin anything; believing, as we all did, that Oudin could very well clutch the win away from her.


And “believe” is the word of the series, right down to the word literally printed on Melanie Oudin’s shoe; a battle cry to her opponents, just as much as a prayer of her own. And for those of us watching, a rallying chant that we came to … well, believe as we watched her win again and again, all the way through the valiant effort in yesterday’s Quarterfinals, knowing that it was not the end of her run in a Grand Slam Match, but just the beginning. Because if you think that this was a fluke, just a storybook tale, that that Little Engine won’t be back, with more determination, not to mention more experience, with more drive to go even further, then you never saw her play. You never saw her win. When everyone believed she wouldn’t, and grew to believe that she could. And you didn’t see her when she lost yesterday’s match, and instead of sadness or anger, there was, far more prevalent, burning in her eyes, the very determination that this WAS just the beginning.


Something we now ALL believe.



26 August, 2009

The One That Got Away

When you work in this business long enough, there’s bound to be a moment when you look like an ass. Could be relatively big – studio that passed on E.T. (happened) – could be relatively small – an Assistant asked an Executive when she was due, though the Executive wasn’t even pregnant (happened, I was there) – but, big or small, they’re eventually inevitable. And, while of course these blunders happen in businesses other than the movie one, they just seem bigger in a town as small as L.A. where everyone talks, and simple little blunders are simply never little (at least not in a business as crazy as this one, in a city as crazy as L.A.). I’ve certainly made my fair share, but there’s one that keeps staring me in the face, at least lately. Lather on a heavy glob of coincidence – there’s a tie-in story with the same TV Show, the episode RIGHT BEFORE IT – and I thought, well, blunder or not, I’d better share. I hope you enjoy.


When we were in Pre Production on Backstage Pass, everyone wore many hats, especially Jace, Andy Barth and me. Well, one of mine was Casting Director; that is, while Jace, Andy and I sat in on the three-full-weekend sessions, and Jeff Hamm and Stephanie Chernak were key in helping out, I was the one that took it upon myself to set up with Backstage West and the like, be sent the boxes full of headshots to go through, weed-out, and prep-for those weekend sessions, AND then deal with contracts (some of our Cast were SAG) and negotiations thereof (because they were SAG, I then had to set us up as SAG-signatory; a daunting task to be sure, but one I’d never personally dealt with before, so interesting and educational indeed. Anyway …) One of the young ladies that sent in her headshot was Kate Mara, and for a long while she was on “the short list” to be called in for the female lead. But then – ready to see the egg on my face? – I pulled her out. Don’t remember why, really, just didn’t feel it for whatever reason. But, no, I never even called her in to be seen.


And who’s Kate Mara? At the time – remember, while Backstage Pass came out in 2006, we shot in 2003 – she was in an Ed, a couple Law & Orders. In 2003 and after? She exploded. Four Nip Tucks. Six Jack And Bobbys. Brokeback Mountain. Five 24s. We Are Marshall, Shooter, four or five others and … wait for it … the upcoming Iron Man 2. It seems ever SINCE I put her picture back in the boxes-full of hundreds of others, she not only didn’t get to be part of our little movie but (and, let’s be honest, perhaps better off for her) went on to much bigger and better. But for whatever reason, out of those hundreds of photos that came in, I still remember hers – not many others, and I’m sure there are others that sent in photos, didn’t get called, and are now “somebody” – but every once in a while, there’s Ms. Mara, smiling back at me, laughing it seems at my badly played hand.


And who DID get the female lead in Backstage Pass? Why, the lovely Tiffany Brouwer, of course. I remember seeing her picture in those hundreds and thinking, “She looks like Katie Holmes.” (I, it’s no secret, have always had a crush on Katie Holmes.) So I brought Tiffany in; really, just because I liked her photo. And she not only read well, but looked the part, was incalculably polite AND professional, and we cast her immediately. She hadn’t done too much before, and, really, hasn’t done too much since (though I do give her credit for How I Met Your Mother and CSI: Miami, both shows I enjoy). We’ve kept in touch, last saw each other at Lucas & Katia’s wedding, and she definitely deserves her big break, but you know how this town is. Time goes by and we cut to me watching Entourage two episodes ago (“Murphy’s Lie”) and who do I see with Vince – and then under Vince – on the college campus? “Hey, it’s Tiffany Brouwer!” I said! “Good for her!” A crazy town indeed.


So there’s one of my friends, the female lead from my first feature, in an episode of Entourage (not just a hit show, but one I’m a fan of). Good for her, indeed! Of course, I can’t help but think of Kate Mara, who I always seem to think of not just when I think of Backstage Pass BUT WHEN I SEE HER IN ALMOST EVERYTHING SINCE (I’m not bitter). And, so, who do I see in the very next episode of Entourage as E’s secretary at George Segal’s Management Firm ("No More Drama")? Why, only Kate Mara, of course.  But there it is, yet again, my own little blunder staring me in the face. (It’s not terrible, I know, but I hate missed opportunities; while working with Tiffany was a gem both professionally and personally, I never got the chance to work with Ms. Mara RIGHT BEFORE SHE HIT!  And, well, cest la vie.)  There I am watching Entourage, and in two episodes in a row, there’s the girl that got the lead in Backstage Pass, and the one that got away.


21 August, 2009

On Comics




Friends and colleagues seem to be amazed at how quickly I write. A screenplay only takes a couple of weeks, blogs a couple of hours. “How do you do it?!” Well, all they’re seeing is me sitting in front of the computer typing. What they don’t see is the actual WRITING, which I do in my head for months, YEARS beforehand. I’m not one of those that can sit in front of a blank page for very long. It taunts more than teases; drives me nuts. I’d much rather be thinking about a story for some time – and usually multiple stories at once – before something clicks and I feel like I can sit down and type it. And then, yes, it is pretty quick. Because by then all the hard work is done, and I’m just spilling it out onto that blank page before I forget it all. (Broken Tape, Mr. Barth?)

What’s the point of this, you ask? Well, the blogs – any of my writing – aren’t different from a story. I think about them looooong before I sit down to type them. Perhaps not in as much detail as fiction, but, after finding something I want to write about, there’s still the inevitable “How do I want to approach it?” For a while now, I’ve been thinking about doing something on my love for comic books, but for almost all that while had no idea what it would be. A love letter to them, sure, but what else? My being a fan, the medium, as an artform, their history, cultural impact, all that good stuff. And then I started this blog (for I’d been thinking of writing something on comics before that) and I wrote two pieces that helped things click (always love when something helps things click). The first was The Chain where I talk about Mr. Whedon sharing his love for comics by dedicating one to a friend (I particularly like his line, “unless you care about [them] as much as I do”) and It’s On! (Alas) where I talk about the evolution of watching TV. And suddenly – click! – I thought, “There’s my in.”

As Whedon has often and openly voiced his passion for the medium, I thought I’d also share how magical I think they are – and they are – but also why it’s an important medium, especially today. (And while I perhaps talk more about movies and TV, books and comic books are equally weighty in not just my fandom but my life.) And then I wrote about our TV viewing evolving (multi-platform access, TiVO, ever-evolving “seasons,” and therefore the diminishing event-ness of that viewing) and I thought, “You know, comics aren’t too different from TV. As much hard work goes into them, they’re episodic, they allow for character development, long-arcing stories and stand-alone adventures, BUT, unlike how the airing of TV is evolving, we still (wonderfully) have to wait for each issue, that ACTUAL episodic nature still intact.” (Though, no, I’m not missing that Trade Paperbacks mirror DVD boxsets, but to continue mirroring the two is indeed topic for another entry. And I digress.) And so I thought, “There’s my in.” Or, rather, “There’s at least a nice-enough segue for those of you, dear readers, who stop by here.” (And thank you for that.)

With my son Jack about to be born (just two months away now!) I can’t help but think more and more-often about my dad, who unfortunately passed away almost three years ago. And speaking of being a comic-book fan, he was a big one. Not so much in today’s titles, but certainly in the Silver Age of his youth, picking up (at various conventions and the like) single pages of his favorites (at often $200, $250 a piece) such as The Lone Ranger and Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon. Like movies and TV, it was his imparting his passion for comics onto me that left such an indelible mark; like his being supportive of my writing, he was as-supportive of my enjoying the worlds of comics and TV and movies; and, as significantly, teaching me the importance of their affect on us. (I particularly remember him buying me an original G.I. Joe Annual #1 that I desperately wanted – for $30, an ungodly amount to a ten year old – but, I think to him, money well spent to support that continued passion in me.)

In fact, that’s a good-enough segue as any to talk about the first series I fell in love with, Larry Hama’s great G.I. Joe. I remember the first issue I saw, #43, with its (haunting, frankly, especially to a ten year old) hooded-skeleton firing a machine gun. “What is THIS?!” I thought.  And a friend lent it to me.  And I was hooked. I went to my local shop (Continental Comics, still there at Balboa and Devonshire in Granada Hills) where I scrounged my measly allowance to pickup the next issue. Then as many back-issues as I could. Then each month, when a new issue came out (when I had the money) there I’d be, purchasing the next paper and ink treasure. I remember quite vividly being enthralled by that next year, as it was the best of series, those roughly fifteen issues, with the rise of Serpentor, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s history, and Cobra Commander’s “fall.” To this day, G.I. Joe still holds a special place for me; every time I see an issue, or flip through one of mine (of the 155-issue series, I’ve off and on continued to accumulate nearly 100 of them) I still find myself awed.

***** RARE SPOILERS PARAGRAPH ***** I had always been a fan of the biggies -- Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman -- but mostly through movies and TV, so it wasn’t until G.I. Joe that I “discovered” them in comics, and became a BIG Batman fan, collecting regularly through the Bane storyline. At the same time, I became a big Spider-Man fan, another series I collected regularly, beginning with one of the to-this-day great crossovers, Kraven’s Last Hunt, in which Spider-Man is buried alive, and Kraven kills himself! A hooded skull firing a machine gun? The Joker beating Robin to death with a crowbar? Spider-Man climbing his way out of a coffin as the villain blows his own head off with a shotgun? I thought comics were supposed to be for kids! Right, Archie? Wow, my eyes – and imagination – were opened. (In one of the forewords to either Year One or Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller – who I had the honor to meet when I worked on The Spirit – talks about one of the Batman comics he picked up as a kid SCARING him. “Well you know what?” he said, “It’s Batman. It SHOULD scare me.” And I have to agree.) ***** SPOILERS OVER *****

In High School and College I discovered "lesser known" greats (outside of the fandom) like Sin City and Cerebus and The Sandman, three series that carried me through those years, one of which springboarding my own “work.” While Cerebus was the first comic I ever tried to adapt into a screenplay – and if you haven’t read that seminal work -- it truly is one of the great sagas of any medium, especially the “Church And State” collection – Sandman WAS the first screenplay I officially finished, first (my personal favorite) The High Cost Of Living (I have an ankh tattoo on my left Achilles heel because of Didi) and then Season Of Mists; both of which, even if I have nothing to do with them, would LOVE to see produced. (It was after the adaptation of Mists that I wrote my first original, Ireilas.) It was also during this time that my friends Steve Demarest and Jeremy Warner and I made two attempts at our own comic, respectively a Batman tale and an original (Watchmen-esque thing set in World War II).  I wonder what ever became of those ...

After college, I started work at Modern Videofilm where I met my friend Andy Gattuso, a big comics fan; not just a fan, but quite an archivist for them as well. Andy and I have since been friends for fifteen years, and to this day enjoy perusing a shop together, certainly talking about comics. While I was certainly a fan, Andy was a FAN, introducing me to all sorts of things, with as much care as a bartender coming up with a special drink. He didn’t just introduce me to The X-Men but certain Chris Claremont storylines he thought I’d like. He didn’t just introduce me to Daredevil but the Frank Miller origin story. The same with Conan (I’m sure I’ve said this before but Kurt Busiek’s great retelling needs to be a movie) and Superman For All Seasons and Hellboy and Barry Ween. Not “Pick an issue up, I think you’ll like it,” but (handing me issues) “Read this story, I think you’ll like it.” Like the great bartenders that save us with that special drink or untiring ear, it WAS always something I’d like. But, then, that’s Andy for you.

And to this day, I still continue reading them. Not collecting per se, at least not regularly, and I do miss that. [Speaking of missing, I was excited when Jay & Silent Bob’s (comic shop) moved into Lazer Blazer (DVD shop) and two of my favorite places were under one roof, walking distance from my apartment. And I was as-equally disappointed when Jay & Silent Bob’s closed in L.A. for good. Alas, Mr. Smith.] There’s the practically incomparable Kingdom Come, and the fun as hell Danger Girl. And I was a Witchblade and Fathom and Ultimate Avengers fan. (I know at one point New Line was prepping a Danger Girl film, which, if whomever does it just takes the first series to set and starts shooting, will be GOOOOOLD.) While Batman Year One is the character’s best story, the great Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale hit it out of the park with The Long Halloween and Dark Victory (not to mention Daredevil Yellow). And, of course, there are Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season 8. Gattuso and I still get together, when we can, and geek out; but, like getting together to watch TV way back when (he was always there for Tuesdays At 8:00), it’s mostly reminisced treasures, scrambled-at and longed-for. (Alas indeed.)

But what continues, what I don’t think is even remotely slowing down (and thank The Powers That Be for it), is the very tradition of comics. Their ongoing production, their ongoing popularity. And I’m not just talking about their birthing hit movies. Or the annual San Diego Comicon (which, of late, is more and more about birthing hit movies). I’m talking about the pen and ink on paper medium itself. The talent involved in them, and the well deserved RESPECT comic writers, artists, letterers and editors are getting now. The notion that kids – of all ages – are still excited about a thirty-page episodic story coming out once a month, that they can’t wait to see how it continues, arriving at their local shop that Wednesday, putting down their hard earned money for each next installment.

Not to mention it’s a thirty-PAGE episodic story coming out once a month. Because in the days of The Internet and Playstation and iEverything, the notion that there’s an audience out there for the written word, for anything on a piece of paper you still physically hold, impresses me. Call me old fashioned, but it does. Getting kids – anyone – to be interested in READING anything is a blessed thing, not just because there’s so little of it these days. Sure, books still bound (no pun intended) but in the days of books on tape, books as an iPhone app, Kindles, et cetera, it’s nice to see, especially for kids, the PHYSICALITY of the medium, their sitting and reading, still doing so well. And it’s without a doubt a credit to the team behind each issue, the level of talent that’s there, month-in and month-out.

Because remember, like TV, they’re doing this on a (fairly) consistent basis. As I wrote in the My Favorite Brunette review, “I’ve often defended TV – good TV – to near fisticuffs because of how difficult it is to put out such good work week after week. I love movies, but nowadays as much as two or three years can be spent on telling one two-hour story (and often for good reason) but a TV show is there, in the trenches, giving it to us again and again, each episode often as good as most movies. They’re two different mediums, sure, but good TV? Being that good, engaging us that often? Bringing us back for more on such a steady basis? Let’s not get to fisticuffs, but I do applaud them.” And I feel the same way about comics. Sure, the talent may ebb and flow. (I don’t like to say the quality ebbs and flows, because it’s still quality work, even if, for whatever reason, it may not click that month.) But putting that much hard work into something entertaining again and again IS impressive. And think of it, they’re doing it without sound and score. (And if you think sound and score are overrated, watch Jaws without them.)

Think of it, how important the LAYOUT of a comic is. I don’t just mean what pictures (and remember they’re single, specific images) are shown to convey the story; a close-up of her eyes, a single empty shoe laying on the ground, a fist hitting a jaw, a fluttering of cape leaving a phonebooth. All key, to be sure. But I also mean how those images are laid out THROUGHOUT the issue. The big images as expansive “wide shots,” the small images as “close ups.” The big splash pages creating a faster pace so you speed through them, and the multi-paneled pages that slow you down to pause and read. And this is my favorite, how well thought out they are: the surprise revealed as you turn a page. All of these things are thought out well in advance, so, like cinematic editing, the storyteller can lead the audience through the story. You may not think of it as you read – frankly, you’re not supposed to – but they’re there, very much part of the process, part of the hard work put into the entertainment. Words and pictures. No sound, no score, practically all of the crutches we’ve grown to rely on in entertainment today gone, boiled down to those two crucial elements, year-in and sometimes decades-out. And when it’s done well, when it makes you laugh out loud or tear up? (Swear to God, it happens!) In a word, breathtaking.

I recently started a gig at Encore in Hollywood, Post Supervising for TV, and the office is just a few blocks from Golden Apple on Melrose, perhaps THE comic shop in Los Angeles (I once had the honor of meeting Bob Kane at their old location down the street). A week or so ago, my friend Cliff Dugan and I went to lunch and, he a big comic book fan as well, couldn’t help but stop off on our way back. Just walking in there – I feel the same way about walking into a book store, especially a used book store – I love being wrapped in the stories, the possibility of all the stories there. Just a page-turn away, you can be in the desert, on the high seas, in an underground cave or an orbiting space station, in the 1940s or the far distant future. The possibilities are, indeed, endless. I walked around, looking at this and that, and (because the movie has just come out) there was an end-cap of G.I. Joe issues. I looked at a couple and thought, “Yeah, I could go back and read a few.” (I went home, started at #25, and have been enjoying an issue a night since.)  I was standing there, reminiscing about that ten year old that was first entranced by those stories when Cliff (he a well-connected Vice President, mind you) walked up to me with an issue, pure glee in his eyes, and said, “Have you seen this one? It’s great!”

And twenty-five years after I picked up my first issue, I thought, “Yes sir, it absolutely is.”

While I was writing this – sorry, typing this, in these couple-of-hours it takes me to put the months-of-thinking-about-it down on the page – this popped up in the news. A man, outraged by a recent storyline in a nearly 70-year saga, sold his copy of the character’s first issue. For nearly $40,000. It seemed so relevant, I had to share. After all … just for kids, huh?

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090814/ap_en_ot/us_archie_comic_protest



13 August, 2009

Learning How To Type




If I’m a good writer at all, it’s because of three people.

The first is my late father, Dave Holland, a Published Author and once Journalist & Theatrical Press Agent. (If you recognize his name, it might be because he was Director of The Lone Pine Film Festival for its first fifteen years, including writing a book and producing & hosting documentaries on the area, all aptly titled On Location In Lone Pine.) Not only did he encourage my creative writing, but he always pushed me to write better. The same can be said of my schoolwork; English papers, History papers and the like. He’d suggest and nudge and nurture late into the evening right along with me (frustrating when you’re ten, invaluable – and missed terribly – now). He taught me how to tell a story, be it an Errol Flynn adventure or a Mockingbird book report. Fiction or non-fiction, it’s the same altruism (and tattoo this behind your eyeballs): know your audience, and entertain them. Good writing is good writing – informative, entertaining, both of those a must – so long as you tailor WHAT you’re writing TO WHOM you’re writing it. ‘Cause, let’s be honest, Errol Flynn and Boo Radley may not be the same audience, but the writer CAN write both, so long as he or she is doing it well. After all, none of it’s worth a damn if they’re not turning pages. (Not an exact quote, but one with which I whole-heartedly agree.)

The second is William Goldman, Academy Award-winning Screenwriter of Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men. Sadly, I’ve never met Mr. Goldman, but that doesn’t diminish the effect he’s had on me; rather, one of his books on Screenwriting that I’ve read six or seven times (no exaggeration), Which Lie Did I Tell? It’s so good, so invaluable, that I’ve bought it for several people, telling them, “If you’re a writer, have ever wanted to be a writer, can spell the word writer, read this book.” It’s great for a couple of reasons. One, so many books on Screenwriting are by Professors of this, or Doctors of that, and are perhaps perfectly valid and usable information, but what test is it put to? Well, Goldman talks about his movies, what worked, what didn’t (he’s brutally honest, especially with himself) AND THEN YOU CAN WATCH THE MOVIE. Do you agree? Did it work? Did it not? Did it live it up to what he intended? Or surpass it? He talks about other movies too, other writers too, what works, what doesn’t, but all very hands-on and personal. The other reason it’s great? He writes about fifty pages of a totally original screenplay, sends it to friends to critique, AND THEN PRINTS WHAT THEY WROTE. Read that again, if you need to. He sends it to his friends to critique, and prints what they wrote. Here’s a writer, an artist, wanting desperately to be accepted – yes, even Academy Award-winning artists want desperately to be accepted – putting original material out for people to praise or rip to shit, and then he publishes what they wrote. And how many artists will do that?

The third is Terry Rossio, Screenwriter (along with his partner Ted Elliot) of Shrek, the Zorro movies, the Pirate movies, and others. Many others. Really good and really profitable others (both of which all writers strive for, and these two hit again and again). But a word of warning, fellow writers. Pull up his resume with caution. Either you’ll be as impressed as you should be, or you’ll be as depressed that you haven’t done an eighth of his work as I am. The reason I don’t say Ted & Terry (as they’re known) are the third and FOURTH people that have molded yours truly is because Terry, in his spare time, writes a blog about Screenwriting. Sorry, just to say that sounds admittedly blah. How about this? He writes the most informative and most entertaining blog about Screenwriting in the history of the written word (and I’ll stand by that). At your leisure, please visit Wordplayer. It’s a series of Columns ranging from “A Foot In The Door” to “The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake.” And when you get to “The Off-Screen Movie” you’ll enjoy one of the best written tutorials I’ve ever seen. But why is Wordplayer so good? Because it follows suit with what I appreciate from my father and Mr. Goldman: it’s entertaining and informative, sure, but it’s also from someone who works in the business. “Remember that scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? Here’s why it works.” Or, as honestly as Mr. Goldman, “Remember that scene in Treasure Planet? Here’s why it didn’t work.” It’s a wealth of information, delivered by someone who feels like he’s just sitting on the couch next to you, drinking soda, eating popcorn. And God bless him for it.

For the past twenty-five years (a benchmark, given that I really dove into writing when I was ten or so), I’ve emulated Chandler and Conan Doyle and Hemingway and Sorkin and Whedon. And if there’s a semblance of my following in their footsteps whatsoever – though MY GOD what footsteps to traverse – I have to tip my hat to my father, Mr. Goldman and Mr. Rossio. Without them I’d never have enjoyed learning so much about how to type as much as I do.


04 August, 2009

Bert & Ernie In 'Casino'



I feel a little bad about posting something so ... expletive-y (it's a word) but I also couldn't resist sharing one of the funniest -- not to mention most inventive and well-edited -- web uploads I've seen in a long time. You don't necessarily have to be a fan of Sesame Street or Casino to appreciate; but, if you're a fan of both, you're in for a real treat. I hope you enjoy.

On Love (As It Once Pertained To My Art)



There's something about my perception of relationships that's changed over the last couple of months. [This was originally written in 2005.] Or at least I've realized it over the last couple of months, so that's pretty much the same thing. And I don't mean me THE MAN, per se, but me THE ARTIST (and, however linked they are, and they are, this realization was born through that latter part of me). And I'm sure something to this effect has crossed my mind before, but I haven't really thought about it (maybe didn't truly realize it) until now.

For the first third of my career - for somehow I see myself living to ninety, and that I shall somehow be writing right up until the end, my final masterpiece simply unfinished - I've written about love-lost. Much like the greats - Casablanca comes to mind, but there are many - most of my heroes don't "get the girl:" Ireilas, Three On A Match, Didn't We?, John in the novel, Moses in Pair Of Kings. If they do, it's a "down" ending (Backstage Pass), straight fantasy (Season Of Mists) or doctors (i.e. not originals such as Greetings From Asbury Park and Decapitator). Or it's a non-issue altogether: Sexton and Didi in The High Cost Of Living, Santeria, Pair Of Kings, The Magic Carpet and The Crown Of The World. In fact, it's only the comedies where I let love reign: the 100 Proof series and Nantucket Sleighride, and only then because comedies all but demand an "up" ending. [And forgive me for discussing so many titles like that, as if most of you have heard of them, much less seen or read them. But this was originally a journal entry and I’ve left it as in-tact as possible.]

When I have put people together - two couples (planned) in Another Day So Far, Tom's moment with the bar-girl in Kings, the parents in Carpet or Crown, and you presume both Sexton &Gloves and Tommy & Christina get a shot after credits roll in High Cost and Match, respectively -- it's really just the b-story. Because the real story, the meat and potatoes of the thing, is the love-lost one. Like Casablanca (it really is the perfect example), I'm infatuated with the idea that, even if my hero wins, he or she's lost the only thing the adventure was fought-through to begin with.

Love.

And this, dear readers, is the man-behind-the-curtain insight here. This is what I'm admitting to. Since for this first-third I didn't have someone significant in my life (or, more accurately, the significance was scattered over too many someones), it was easy (and, let's be honest, therapeutic) to write the same for my hero. If I should lose love, then so should he or she. It wasn't a conscious thought but, as I say so often, hindsight's twenty-twenty. So as I look back on this first-third, there it is, clear as day. And, sure, it can easily be attributed to that great author's adage of "write what you know." And, sure, Casablanca is great to aspire to. But neither knowing a lot nor aspiring to a great movie will help you write better. (However therapeutic it is. And it is. But that's for another entry.) I wrote about love-lost because that's how I felt. That cynicism. That noir-like sense of self-sacrifice for a greater good. The "down ending." More Out Of The Past than Holiday Affair (look them up if you have to; see them if you haven't). So that's what I wrote about. That's what I tried to write OUT of. (And BIG man-behind-the-curtain moment there.) Look, Beck didn't write Sea Change cause he'd just fallen IN love with someone. And Richard Curtis didn't write Love Actually when he was twenty (hell, even thirty). They are both -- while both MAGICAL -- products of what each knew, what each aspired to, and, just as importantly, where each was in their lives THEN.

Yep. I'm talking about love again.  And how a different ME has given effect to a different artist IN me.

For the past couple of months, it's the ARTIST in me that's evolved from the first-third to the next-third. Or, as I wrote, it's there that that realization took hold. As I think about stories now, they all have a more hopeful tone to them. Or, rather, the stories that I'm thinking of telling next have a more hopeful tone to them. Of course, I don't mean to imply that, as Barth and I finish Didn’t We? [as of this blog-post in 2009 STILL not finished] I all of a sudden want to give it a happy ending.  No.  The storyteller must always serve the story. (And tattoo THAT behind your eyelids, as one of my mentors, William Goldman, has often said.)

As I think of new stories now, I want them to be happier ones. Less cynical, and more hopeful. Less "down," and more "up." Love-FOUND. Much like when you've broken up with someone, you listen to break-up songs, and when you fall in love with someone, you listen to fall-in-love songs.  I don't mean I want my stories to go G-rated. I think you can give hope an R-rating. (I also think you can make a good GANGSTER picture with a PG-rating -- White Heat and Key Largo come to mind -- but I digress.)  I'm just saying that I want to see my next hero have a little hope.  To ENJOY life a little.  Win the game AND fall in love.  Why not?  After all, it's a story.  So win-win.


And I've recently read/watched stories differently;  especially, say, a Woody Allen. I think about relationships differently;  have relationship-conversations with friends differently. It was easier in life's first-third to write an Ireilas than it would be now. Perhaps I could (of course I could) but it wouldn't be what I'd CHOOSE to write. At least not right now. Didn't We? maybe, but even that's a little "down," isn't it?  Any, second-third is a little more grown up, a little more mature.  And I find myself appreciating that.  At least to a point that that's what I want to write about.

Have you seen The Notebook? Not only did it make me (and half the world) cry, want to move to South Carolina, and fall in love with Rachel McAdams, it renewed my faith in this silly little emotion we're talking about. I remember the first time I saw it; alone, on the couch, half in the bag, simply blown away by the thing. Take a bow Mr. Cassavetes (director), Mr. Sardi (adapter) and Mr. Zigman (scorer) for making this old man feel young again. And it's a PERFECT example of what I'm talking about;  the kind of story I'd like to tell.  Dramatic, sure. That's necessary. But sweepingly romantic in its look at love (something, I believe, is too often lost in today's aesthetic).

My God, if you haven't seen it, as gripping as this journal entry [blog] is, minimize it, run out, and buy it. Don't rent it, don't NetFlix it, BUY it. You'll thank me. I promise.

Anyway, Nicholas Sparks (the book's author) does a really good commentary on the DVD. (So does Cassavettes, but that -- and how I met him, and we got to chat about the movie -- is, again, for another entry.) On his commentary, Sparks tells a great story about his wife's grandparents. They were unable to make it to Sparks and his wife's wedding.  So, the next day, Sparks and his new bride got back in their tux and gown and drove however many hours to her grandparents' house where they ate wedding cake and watched a friend's camcorded video. And it was while there, enjoying that time with them, that Sparks saw the same love in his grandparents' eyes as he and his own wife now shared.  ALMOST SEVENTY YEARS LATER.  So he decided to tell his story from that point of view. And, so, The Notebook was born.

It really is a great story, and I hardly do it justice. Well, Sparks does it WONDERFUL justice, as you'll hear when you watch the commentary on your new DVD. Now, see? Aren't you glad you ran out and bought it? Good looking cover isn't it? Beautiful people kissing in the rain.  Yeah, the marketing guy that came up with that is mighty proud of himself.  It's on the one-sheet, the DVD cover, any new printings of the book, everything you SEE for The Notebook has that image on it now.  Anyway ...


It's Sparks wife's grandparents' story that's the kind of story Sparks likes telling. He goes on to say that he could easily make more money in thrillers than he does in this "romance business" he's in, but those aren't the kind of stories he wants to tell. He doesn't want to spend eight hours a day - ten, twelve, FOURTEEN hours a day - coming up with how to kill someone. He'd rather spend his time coming up with how to make someone fall in love.

And I can't say I blame him. In eighteen scripts (and four more unfinished ones), half a novel, a handful of short stories and TV shows, and these musings [journal entries, blogs, however they're viewed], I've killed and broken-hearted my fair share, played sociopath to more than that, and peppered too many plots with more profanity and promiscuity than were necessary.  And maybe that's why I dove into the kids fair -- Carpet and Crown -- for a bit. I'd just come off Backstage (writing and shooting) so it was time for something light. Well, now it's time for a bit more. I don't know what yet. But something ...well, “nicer."  And THAT'S the meat and potatoes of the thing, isn't it? I mean, really?  If not for the whole next-third -- Christ, I'd be sixty -- but at least for a little while. Lord knows there's enough booze, bullets and babes left to be enjoyed. 


So for now -- as the great Lenny Kravitz says -- yeah, let love rule.



03 August, 2009

On Breakups



[This was originally a 2005 journal entry.  Hope it plays as well now as the genius I thought it was then.  Thanks or apologies in advance ...]

You never think the last time something happens is its last time. This is the last time we're going to talk on the phone. This is the last time we'll eat at this restaurant. This is the last time I'm going to shower at her place. Or, perhaps, you rarely do. God forbid you ARE conscious of saying goodbye; the only example I can think of is as someone close to you is about to pass on. But I'm not talking about those goodbyes. I'm talking about the other ones. The far more innocuous (though seemingly more devastating) ones. I'm talking about breakups.

There are two great bits I always think of when someone mentions a breakup. One is the old exchange that goes something like this: "Why did it have to end so badly?" "That's why they call it the end." (Poignant and true.) And this: How long til the pain goes away? (THE age old question, huh?) Well, if Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn are right – and aren’t they? – you take how long you were with the person, divide by two, and that's how long it'll take to get over them.

My entire perception of breaking up with someone has changed over the years. Of course, my entire perception of BEING with someone has changed over the years. I'm not a teenager anymore, with a teenager’s perception of relationships and everything they entail. I'm an adult now, thirty, with a thirty-year-old's perception; everything from what's important in a relationship's chemistry to how much a realistic outlook should find its way into romance. And me, I'm always the romantic. Some have even said I fall in love TOO easily. 


Another digression, if I may. I wrote this in a journal a while ago -- 27 October, 2003 -- and love the bit about that.

          “I wrote the following in another notebook where I jot down thoughts for stories from time to time. I wrote at the top of it ‘Something For An Epitaph?’ thinking it might be nice for an old friend to say at a cloud-covered funeral before a rose-covered casket. It reads, ‘He said once, early on, way back at the beginning of his career: I'm a drunkard, that falls in love too easily, and likes to tell stories. Why'd he say them in that order? Did he think so little of his stories? We can only hope not. And after everything he gave us, what can we give back? Too little in comparison. The best I could come up with was this: may the bottle be full, her arms open, and the audience kind.’"

I like that.  


Anyway, one's viewpoint of love as a teenager is vastly different than at thirty. And it SHOULD be. It's easier to be more romantic as a teenager. And it's (sadly) easier to be more realistic at thirty. But thirty can be good, too. Not because of the realism, per se, but the little bit of wisdom you pick up is good. And UNDERSTANDING others in a relationship is good. Understanding that there IS an other, for instance. That it's not all about you. And that The Other has a past of his or her own to deal with. To let go of. Or fold into yours. As a teenager there's not enough of a past that it decrees to be dealt with. But there sure is at thirty. And that's okay. Because it's part of growing up.

And -- believe it or not -- it's easier to let go as a teenager. (May not feel like it then, and fair enough.) Well, at thirty, you kinda feel like hanging on to a few things. And lovers, some of them anyway, start to fall into that big time. When you're a teenager, you spew so much hate after breakups. "I never want to see you again!" Well, that isn't love. (And I’m not saying a teenager can’t love; rather, I’m just saying that, at thirty, I try not to fold so much hate in.  Anyway …) The more I've been in relationships, especially in the last, say, five years (with the maturity and wisdom I hope I’ve sponged) the more I've been able to appreciate them; and, therefore, the less I've found myself damning them. I wouldn't damn my ex-wife, for instance. Some of my girlfriends, maybe.  But, really, it's not as easy as it used to be to cut people out of my life. So being able to stay friends with some lovers - not just me, I'm generalizing again - becomes easier because Love, for all the different hats she wears, still means something. You realize you still want that person in your life, even if you realize you don't work as a couple. And somehow that makes the breakup easier. (Well, less BITTER, anyway.)

In the end, however wonderful the relationship was, or how perfectly it ended, it's still an end. A breakup. And, so, it can't help but be dealt with as such.  Perhaps with a laugh, or a quipped "Yeah, you know," or a melancholy revel and a bottle of Crown.  After all, if Love really is the only emotion everybody knows but no one understands -- and what a great line THAT is -- well, we're each-of-us only all-too-well friends of that great End Of The Affair;  when, dumped or dumpEE, we start over. The end, then, just the beginning.

A final thought, if I may. A rare P.S. to these scribblings of mine. I mentioned at the beginning of this that I was thinking about how breakups end (of course) ... but, as I write that last bit, I can’t help but think about how they begin. And I suddenly thought of the 311 song 'First Straw,' and how it talks about not allowing ourselves to get to that cliché place that so often breaks more than just a camel's back. When we look back at lost relationships, with our twenty-twenty glasses on, we try to figure out what went wrong or, worse, where we can place blame. And somehow that last straw is always so clear, isn't it? Sure. Why? Because it's usually something as stupid as leaving the toilet seat up, or decorating with one too many doilies. It never has anything to do with what the problem really is. It was simply the one last thing to push you over the edge, down into that great pit of "get the hell out." Toilets. Doilies. Bullshit. When all you have to do is talk to each other. Be honest with each other. Share. So that that first straw -- the one we never recognize -- never has to lead any further.  And, God, what a truly perfect end THAT would be.




31 July, 2009

The Road To Utopia


               Old Ski Nose himself wrote in 1977’s The Road To Hollywood -- ghostly written, no doubt, by his able Writing Staff;  and the legitimately great Bob Thomas -- “I didn’t get to Hollywood as early as B.C.  That’s Bing Crosby;  crooner, father, and member of the Lewis And Clark expedition.  When he arrived, there wasn’t anyone in town but a bunch of Indians waiting for John Wayne to show up.  Cecil B. DeMille was a prop boy.  Of course I’d have come sooner but I had an accident.  It was called a Screen Test.  But I’m getting ahead of my story, I’d better start at the beginning.”

               Bob Hope and Bing Crosby first met in 1932 when they bumped into each other on the street near a favorite hangout, The New York Friars Club.  They traded stories over drinks and eight weeks later were on the same bill at The Capitol Theatre.  Friendly, but only amiable off-and-on co-workers, each did his own thing, and their acquaintance was renewed in 1939 when Bing invited Bob to do some of the old Capitol shtick at the opening night of The Del Mar Racetrack.  The two were a huge hit with the audience, among them Paramount’s Head Of Production, Bill LeBaron … who got an idea they ought to do a movie together.

                  And so we come to (finally in some people’s opinion) one of the famous Road pictures -- and this one my personal favorite of them -- the hilarious, and certainly most outrageous of that Series:

                   The Road To Utopia
                   w Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
d Hal Walker
           
               The fourth of the famous Series finds Bob, Bing and Dottie in a race to find an Alaskan gold mine.  It all begins when the boys, lovable con artists that they are, take on the identities of two notorious killers, only to find themselves over their heads as those very killers, not to mention Douglass Dumbrille and his gang, race after them.  Toss the beautiful “Scagway Sal” in the mix, and it’s gags galore as our heroes survive the snowy tundra with vaudevillian vex and witty one-liners!

               I sat here for some time trying to come up with a concise yet entertaining synopsis, finally working out the above, but only after scanning the web for some inspiration, where I came across this from Jim Gay:  “[Utopia] has the boys in the Klondike masquerading as the killers Sperry and McGurk, from whom they've stolen the map to a gold mine, which really belongs to Dorothy Lamour, who’s really ... it doesn't really matter.  This is arguably the goofiest of the road pictures, with just enough plot to hang the jokes on, and a certain amount of time spent to see who gets the girl, while maintaining [Hope’s and Crosby’s] fierce and friendly rivalry. Along the way, animals talk, including the humorist Robert Benchley.  You don’t care where you're going, just as long as you're with them.  Put it there, pal.  Put it there.”

I couldn’t say it better myself.  And it goes back to what I was saying in the Ghost Breakers review about that picture being a Bob Hope vehicle.  “If I say [he wants to] play Private Eye, you get the idea.  And if I say [he’s] battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea.  The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone’s playing, really – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope vehicle.”  And that certainly applies to the Road series.  No matter their character names or where the adventure is set, it’s Bob, Bing and Dottie on the road.

We’ve been talking about Hope hits based on plays, and those hits already filmed remakes (Canary, Ghost Breakers and Truth).  But Utopia is an original screenplay, this time by the great Norman Panama & Melvin Frank.  In fact, Utopia was nominated for Best
Screenplay (alongside Notorious, lost to The Seventh Veil;  as if either of those are actually better).  And speaking of pedigree as I do in the Truth review, take a look at Panama & Frank’s.  For you writers out there, imagine that list being yours?  Yes, I’m jealous too. 

A Utopia-specific aside, if you’ll permit:  For our movie today, Panama & Frank wrote the famous line of all the Roads.  It happens when Bob and Bing first arrive in The Klondike, posing as the killers.  Bing tells Bob to act tough when they go into the bar.  “What’ll you have?” asks the heavy, Douglas Dumbrille.  Bing growls, “A couple of fingers of rotgut” to which Bob quips, “I’ll have a lemonade,” then growling, “In a dirty glass.”  Melvin Frank has said the line has always haunted him.  Whenever he did interviews, he expected to be asked about Writing & Producing & Directing the likes of Cary Grant and Danny Kaye (sure, even Bob and Bing).  But he was always written up as “the man who wrote the line, ‘I’ll take a lemonade … in a dirty glass.’” 

While we’re talking pedigree, there’s director Hal Walker, who would also do The Road To Bali six years later, but take a look at where he started:  working his way up through Zanzibar, Truth and Morocco.  Is there a better training ground for our motley crew?  I think not.

Rounding it all out is the great Robert Benchley who acts as Narrator, first introducing the film, then appearing pop-up-video style, fifty years before the popular show on VH1.  You probably recognize his name from being one of the great humorists of his time -- he was pals with Dorothy Parker and is credited with the line, “Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” * -- or perhaps because his son Nathaniel Benchley wrote the novel The Off-Islanders (which became the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming) or perhaps because his grandson Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws.  It’s too bad R. Benchley passed away before Utopia’s release, because, while he was his own worst critic, I think he would have loved this.

Wait a minute!  Benchley passed in ’45 and Utopia was released in ’46!  True, but the film was shot in ’44 and not released for two years.  Why?  Couple of theories.  One, Crosby’s pious turn in Going My Way took precedence over his wisecracking scoundrel here;  and, two, his being absent from his NBC radio show at the time would have prevented his promoting the film’s songs (both Personality and Put It There, Pal became big hits).  Both are possible, but my money’s on -- theory three -- the fact that every studio had a lineup of war-related movies in the pipeline and, with the war coming to an end, they needed to get those released first.  A comedy could easily be pushed a year (or two) while a war movie would need to get out while its propaganda carried it.  (But, yes, I digress.)

After three previous Road pictures – including Zanzibar and Morocco which, alongside Utopia, I consider to be the top three of the series – we find Bob, Bing and Dottie in what plays as a grand-slam after three previous homeruns (swear to God they talk like that).  Everything is bigger, everything is broader.  It’s as if they knew they had a good thing on their hands but, instead of playing it safe, went for broke.  Bosley Crowther, in his original New York Times review, writes, “A ‘Road’ show is always an occasion for the cut-ups to have a marvelous time and in this case the comic inventors (stars and writers and director) ran wild.”  Wild longshots with no less than Benchley’s bits, talking animals, multiple breaks of the fourth wall, a visual Paramount logo in the middle of the movie, an actor cutting through a scene to get to his soundstage, a cameo by Santa Claus, and (the grand culmination) the Road song, Put It There, Pal.  (And if you’re wondering just how well it holds up, measure it thus:  Family Guy has paid homage to it.)  **  But where Utopia could have easily gone off the rails, Panama & Frank wrote -- and Cast & Crew executed -- a script that works.  That works well.  That, even more wonderfully for us, works just as well today.  Crowther goes on to agree that, “Where this sort of clowning might be juvenile and monotonous in other hands, it has rich comic quality in the smooth paws of [all] involved.”  Indeed, as goofy as some of it plays (and, admittedly, some of it does), it’s goofy so grand that by the time you question it, we’re already on to the next bit.

Bob Thomas, in his section of The Road To Hollywood, writes, “What is farce?  Critics and lexicographers have agonized over the question for centuries, and none has provided a satisfying definition.  The Random House Dictionary of the English Language offers as good an explanation as any:  ‘a light, humurous play in which plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather thn upon the development of character.’  However it’s defined, farce is indisputably the most hazardous of comedy forms, requiring a touch that is sure, yet transparent.  Without the proper ingredients and the finesse of master chefs, the soufflé becomes a pancake.  No comedian of the sound era can play farce with greater surety than Bob Hope.  His deftness with lines, no matter how outrageous, makes him an ideal farceur.”

Whenever I rewatch a movie for the purpose of a review, I always have a pen and paper handy, to jot down things I might want to talk about.  And I usually get through half a page or so.  “Oh that’s funny,” I’ll say.  Scribble.  “Oh that’s an in-joke I ought to talk about.”  Scribble.  “Hey look, there’s Jack La Rue as a henchman.  He’s a henchman in Brunette as well!”  Scribble.  For Utopia?  Three full pages.  Looking back on them now, I think, “So where do I start?”  And the truth is, nowhere;  rather, I can’t start anywhere for fear of not being able to stop.  And, honestly, you’re lucky for it.  First because you don’t have to sit through my scribbling when Panama & Frank’s (and Burke & Van Husen’s songs) are so much better.  And because it goes back to what I said about talking-plot in the Ghost Breakers review:  These films are treasures to be discovered.  You don’t need me telling you how great the story and jokes are.  Obviously I think so.  So hopefully I’ve done enough here to make you want to watch it.  And if you’re a Hope fan -- certainly if you’re a Road fan -- well, then you’re in good hands.

Put it there, indeed.

* I didn’t want to dive too deeply into this, particularly in the middle of a review of a Hope film, but couldn’t help but share;  hence here in a footnote.  Regarding the origin of Benchley’s famous “martini” line.  In Billy Wilder's The Major And The Minor, he says to Ginger Rogers, "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?" and Billy Wilder (co-writer and director) credits Benchley with the line.  Benchley, in turn, credits it to his friend Charles Butterworth.  Indeed, in Every Day’s A Holiday, we see Butterworth tell Charles Winninger, "You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini."  Mystery solved?  You be the judge.
** Throughout this Top Five Retrospective, I’ve talked a lot about the in-jokes in Hope’s films (and there are many) but never have they run so rampant as in Utopia, certainly not to the extent of their getting their own song, “Put It There, Pal.”  I didn’t want to spend time during the review itself to talk about it (specifically), but I also can’t help but share some of the backstories to its great lines (in-jokes audiences would have certainly been in-on when the film was released).  You can find the song on iTunes and it’s certainly worth the purchase.
Hope’s line to Crosby:  “I’ll be just like your horses …”  Crosby was a fan of Thoroughbred horse racing;  so far as to, along with Charles S. Howard (owner of Seabiscuit), found The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
Crosby’s line to Hope:  “I’m glad you’re fooling Pepsodent”  Pepsodent toothpaste was the sole sponsor of Hope's radio show from 1938 to 1948.  The program was such a success, for both parties, that he became inextricably tied to the product.
Hope’s line to Crosby:  “I hear your show on Thursdays, what a lot of eggs you smash” Crosby’s NBC radio show aired Thursday evenings and, when singing, he habitually juggled eggs (no joke).  Frank Capra once said of him, he was the only actor you could confidently ask to "juggle eggs while reciting the Gettysburg address" and get it right in one take.
Crosby’s line to Hope:  “Well at least I don’t depend upon Colonna’s big moustache”  Popular comedian Jerry Colonna (who shines in Fred Allen’s It’s In The Bag) was a regular on Hope’s radio show, and on the U.S.O. Tours.
Hope’s line to Crosby:  “You’ve got that something in your voice so right for selling cheese”  Crosby’s NBC radio show was sponsored by Kraft.

              As Paul Harvey said for so long on his popular radio show, “And now you know the rest of the story.”


Nothing But The Truth


SYNOPSIS:

Steve Bennett (Bob Hope) is an up-and-coming Investor who makes a bet with his new coworkers that he can tell the absolute truth for twenty-four hours. Only trouble is, it’s not his money he bets, but $10,000 he’s asked to invest by his new boss’ niece, Gwen Saunders (Paulette Goddard). Those twenty-four hours are spent aboard the family yacht, and Hope’s bet might just cash-out big, IF he can outwit all the hot water his unwavering honesty gets him into!

REVIEW:

In this continuing retrospective of Bob Hope’s Top Five Movies (at least in this reviewer’s opinion), I thought I’d follow The Ghost Breakers with Hope’s and Goddard’s next (though unfortunately final) helping together – and this one a wide change from the ghouls and gags mode of their first two – the sit-com shell-game of the wonderfully witty Nothing But The Truth.

Released just a year after Ghost Breakers in 1941, Nothing But The Truth once again reunited Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Director Elliot Nugent (who had done The Cat And The Canary with the team; and Nugent would later direct My Favorite Brunette). The script, by Don Hartman and Ken Englund is once again based on a hit play, from 1916 by James Montgomery; and that play was based on a novel, from 1914 by Fred Isham. Like Canary and Ghost Breakers before it, our 1941 version of Truth was not the first time the story was filmed, as there are both the 1920 and 1929 versions proceeding it. (The other films or TV works with the same title are not the same story.) I say in the Ghost Breakers review how, even then, Hollywood enjoyed a good remake. And why not? When it works, it works. And here it works just splendidly.

Speaking of what works, an aside about pedigree. If you’ve been reading all of these Bob Hope reviews – so far there’s My Favorite Brunette, The Cat And The Canary and The Ghost Breakers as well as this one (and bless you, dear readers, for putting up with me through them) – you know I’m working my way through this five-part review; my five favorites Hope made in those special eight years that spawned ten monstrous hits (the Canary review has an easy list to reference, if you’d like). Do yourself a favor and take a look at the talent involved in those. How many Hornblow Jr. produced. How many Nugent directed. How many Lamour costarred in. How many Goddard co-starred in. How many their respective writers worked on! The overlapping will astound you. Well, that overlapping isn’t so surprising, really. Especially then, but even today. (As I also mention in the Ghost Breakers review, it’s similar to how the McKay-Ferrell and Apatow camps work now.) And, if you’ll indulge me a moment, I’d like to spotlight our Truth writers, Don Hartman and Ken Englund.

Don Hartman has the best list. Not only did he write these other Hope hits – The Road To Singapore (BEGINNING that great Road series, mind you), The Road To Zanzibar, My Favorite Blonde, The Road To Morocco and The Princess And The Pirate – but he also wrote these great Danny Kaye hits – Up In Arms and Wonderman. (And if you think I’m jesting what a pedigree THAT is, try getting a pint of Prospect Park out of old Cuddles Sakall sometime!) As for Ken Englund, well, he might not have done another Hope, but he did do MY favorite Danny Kaye movie – and, interestingly enough, completely separate from Hartman doing the two of his own – The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. And in my book, for that alone he can retire proudly. (I still wish Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey would get on THAT remake. They’ve been talking about it forever! But, yes, I digress.) Point is, if you look up a few titles, a few names, you’ll be pleasantly surprised what you’ll find. For instance, just think about Cary Grant in His Girl Friday saying, “Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat!” I’ll leave you to make the Archie Leach connection.

Now. Getting back to Nothing But The Truth.

The basic plot is so simple it’s no wonder it’s been done so many times. Our lead swears to tell the absolute truth for a given amount of time, which he or she does, albeit causing shenanigans all around. (By the by, never pass up an opportunity to use the word shenanigans.) The original novel was so successful it birthed a play and three film versions. And do you remember the I Love Lucy episode where she swears to tell the truth for twenty-four hours (ep72, "Lucy Tells The Truth")? Not to mention Jim Carrey makes a second cameo in this review with his hit Liar, Liar (though more on that in a moment). Where this Hope vehicle in particular shines is in those very shenanigans. Having to tell the truth is one thing, but the sit-com shell-game it leads to is quite funny indeed.

Mainly because of – quelle surprise – the once again wonderfully charismatic Hope and Goddard, who are so easy to root for. (And I hope I’m not getting near fisticuffs here, but, for my money, even more so than Hope and Lamour.) It really is a shame they didn’t get to do more together, but, if all we get are Ghost Breakers and Truth – for while Canary is a personal treasure, the other two shine – I’m happy. And speaking of shining, it’s the almost Shakespearean game of mistaken identity and mix-matching on the yacht that really makes this movie. The triangle between Hope, Goddard and her suitor, Hope’s valet (the great Willie Best reprising his Ghost Breakers role), the suitor’s parents, a visiting Psychiatrist, and of course Hope’s coworkers who try desperately to catch him in a lie, and win the $10,000 bet. Add to that the gentleman from whom Goddard originally got that $10,000 plus a blonde actress who it appears has something on the side with one of those coworkers, and Hope indeed has his hands full of desperate truths.

I mention it being Shakespearean because, like his great comedies, it’s one of those plots that could so easily be convoluted (and fall apart) if it weren’t for the wonderful handling of it. I’ve never read the book or seen the play (though, again, if anyone knows of a revival happening in or around L.A. please let me know), but I like to give them credit. And we must certainly praise Hartman & Englund’s script thereof, plus Nugent’s wonderful telling of that script. And above it all, after all, we remember it as a Bob Hope movie. And does he shine here? You bet. Just watch him hit his stride, especially in the early office and hotel scenes, and when he’s moving around the yacht in that negligee. Brilliant. It’s no wonder the hits – big hits – Zanzibar, Morocco, Utopia and Brunette would shortly follow.

One final aside, if I may. Before when I talked about the oft-used plot, I mentioned the great (and, frankly, very funny) Jim Carrey hit Liar, Liar. Reason I wanted to touch on it again, just briefly, is that it can’t help but occur to me how times have changed since Truth in 1941 (or even that Lucy episode in 1953) and 1997 when Liar premiered. Where all Hope or Ms. Ball had to do was SAY they’d tell the truth for twenty-four hours, people believed them. We the audience believed them. But forty (fifty!) years later, it took a MAGICAL element to ensure Carrey’s character would tell the truth. No one – and no audience, for that matter – would believe he was telling the truth just because he SAID so! How times have changed indeed. Alas.

But what hasn’t changed over the past almost-seventy years is how great a movie Nothing But The Truth is. How well it holds up. I’ve seen it a handful of times, always remembered really enjoying it, but (admittedly) had to watch it again before writing this review. And there was just enough I’d forgotten to where I laughed out loud several times throughout. Once again this review hardly does justice to the supporting cast, especially Edward Arnold (for whom this, perhaps neck and neck with Dear Ruth, is my favorite of his). Or Glenn Anders (perhaps best known for Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai) who, even when bordering on dislikable, has some great off-the-cuffs here. But what would CERTAINLY be an injustice is if you missed this film. So many friends I’ve mentioned Truth to say, “I’ve never even HEARD of that one!” Well, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to put it in here. It holds up just fine as a Top Five. But it also, hopefully, will finally get a little bit of the recognition it deserves.

Trust me.

The Ghost Breakers


As we continue these Top 5 -- and remember we’re only numbering them like that -- 1,2,3,4,5 -- by when they were released -- we come to The Cat And The Canary’s sort-of sequel, another great comedy-thriller, and my personal favorite of Old Ski Nose:

The Ghost Breakers
w Walter DeLeon from                      the play by Paul                            Dickey & Charles                                 W. Goddard
d George Marshall

It’s ghosts and gags galore again as Mary Carter (Paulette Goddard) travels from New York to Cuba to see the castle she’s inherited, said to be haunted of course.  Enter radio star Larry Lawrence (Bob Hope) whose mistaken-identity run-in with the mob has him stowing away for the ride.  Soon the two are battling ghosts and zombies -- and the bad guys that want the castle for themselves -- with nothing but a trunkful of witty one-liners to save the day!

In his original 1940 Review, The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote (in part), “It looks as though Paramount has really discovered something: it has found the fabled formula for making an audience shriek with laughter and fright at the same time.  And apparently the necessary contents for such a valuable witch's broth are nothing more esoteric than a thoroughly haunted house, a web of tangled intrigue with some sort of treasure at the end, and Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope to grope their terrified way through and to same. It worked out very nicely in The Cat And The Canary last year, and it is working quite as nicely -- and even more amusingly, in fact -- here.”

And, “A hand reaches out of the darkness or a sinister figure appears through the gloom; Miss Goddard -- who hasn’t a great deal to do but looks great doing it -- casts her fear-shattered self into Mr. Hope's trembling arms, and he, witty fellow that he is, pops out a withering gag.  Some are bad enough to throw any spook that ever lived, but most of them are lively snappers which chase the creepiest chill with a laugh. As a consequence, the picture leaps nimbly along from gag to gag, never making much sense but always making merry.  Not many pictures can make your goose-pimpled sides shake with laughter, but this one does -- or should.”

Released just a year after Canary in 1940, sometimes a pseudo sequel -- second helping, whatever you want to call it -- is a very good thing and The Ghost Breakers shines for the treatment, as everything about the film – scares, laughs, and especially story – are heightened to their utmost potential;  and our utmost enjoyment.  The most significant reuniting was, of course, Hope & Goddard whose enormous success with Canary all but demanded it.  And why not in the same genre, even the same scenario?  More thrills and chills that tickle your funny bone as the wise-cracking Hope accompanies the brave and beautiful Goddard, once again the inheritor of a gloomy old place, supposed to be haunted, with a hidden treasure, all hampered by nefarious foes who want her out of the way.  (And people say today’s Hollywood has run out of original ideas.) 

Vis-à-vis my talking about the Series of the 40s -- see the My Favorite Brunette review -- I’m sure Paramount would have loved to continue something with Hope & Goddard beyond the upcoming Nothing But The Truth, but his Road series and her relationship with Charles Chaplin -- not to mention her becoming a star in her own right -- hampered that (and perhaps a little bit more on that in the upcoming Truth piece).  

The Ghost Breakers reunited several of the Canary team, including Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Scorer Ernst Toch, not to mention most of the team would reunite yet again for Nothing But The Truth.  Particular to note is scribe Walter DeLeon -- who shines here -- reunited with a hit play, this time by Paul Dickey & Charles W. Goddard (no relation to our leading lady, although Dickey and Charles W. were brothers-in-law).  Interestingly, this was not the first time DeLeon tackled the Ghost Breakers material.  He had done so for the 1922 version, and even that wasn’t the first time the play had been filmed.  The first was in 1914, handled by none other than a young Cecil B. DeMille.  And our version today won’t be the last time the story is told, as our Director, George Marshall, will tell the story again with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis in their Scared Stiff.  (And people say today’s Hollywood is obsessed with remakes.)

Marshall himself remembers Hope’s “professionalism, impeccable timing, wonderful story sense, adaptability, superior sense of humor.  Maybe other directors had problems with him, but I always found him wonderful to work with.”  And, “I still laugh remembering the goofy times we had and Bob’s ability to make light even of heavy situations -- on screen and off.”  While this was their first picture together, he’d go on to direct Hope in Monsieur Beaucaire (which many consider to be his best) and Fancy Pants with Lucille Ball (which came this close to edging Nothing But The Truth out of these Top 5). 

You’ve probably noticed I don’t delve too much into plot in my reviews.  Well, that’s for two reasons.  One, I don’t want to give it away, nervous that someone might be reading this without having yet seen the movie (and they are treasures to be discovered).  Two, that plot, character names and the like aren’t necessarily why they’re treasures.  If I say such-and-such is a Bob Hope movie where he plays Private Eye, you get the idea.  And if I say such-and-such is a Bob Hope movie about his battling ghosts in a haunted house, you get the idea.  The plot and who he’s playing – who anyone in the movie’s playing – is sidelined for it being a Bob Hope movie.  The same, with great respect, goes to most films of the 40s.  It’s the new Humphrey Bogart film!  And that packed 'em in.  The 40s were when stars and their types of films were what mattered.  (Imagine today’s marketing allowing the same stars, writers, et cetera being in Film #2 without calling it that?  Ford had his Stock Company -- 'A Company Of Heroes,' as Dobe called his autobiography -- and there’s the McKay-Ferrell and Apatow camps, but you get the idea.)  So please forgive me if you’re looking for more in-depth play-by-play.  For that, I dare say the film does just fine on its own.

Next to My Favorite Brunette and, of the Road pictures, Utopia, I’ll stand by this film holding up the best.  As a thriller, it has some genuninely creepy moments (bed so well by Mr. Toch’s score):  the zombie laying in his bed, turning his head to the light.  His walking up the path to the staring, petrified Goddard.  Don Santiago’s midnight stroll (to this day a better than decent effect).  And the hand creeping up the glass coffin, trying desperately to get Hope’s and Goddard’s attention.  And as a comedy?  You bet it’s funny, with the rapid-fire wit only Hope can deliver.  And not just Hope – and without leaving the best for last – there’s Willie Best delivering right along side him (and for whom, I’m afraid, once again this review hardly does justice).  In fact, some of the funniest moments are Hope and Best simply interacting;  in the New York apartment at the beginning, on the cruise ship, and skulking around the castle.  What a great “buddy picture” in the middle of our comedy-thriller. 

Not to mention, going back to the in-game I talked about in the Brunette review (mastered by Hope & Co. by that picture), there are some great uses in this one.  Did you notice Hope humming “Thanks For The Memory” just before he’s introduced?  He was already so well linked to it, and he’d only introduced it two years before in Big Broadcasst ’38.  And quipping about the New York storm (and city-wide blackout, thirty years before the real one), “Basil Rathbone must be having a party.” 

Sorry, quick aside here.  Why was that line so funny to audiences then?  Sure, that big a storm is a funny quip about Rathbone’s oft-gothic roles but it was more than that.  Rathbone’s wife Ouida developed a reputation for hosting elaborate, expensive parties in their home.  So well known and coveted were these – and covered by the publicity mags – that of course the theatre going public were enamored of them.  Rathbone and Old Ski Nose will eventually co-star in Casanova’s Big Night.  Okay, back to the in-game.

There’s the great Pamphlet Scene as they’re pulling into the Havana harbor -- the Mad Lib esque back-and-forth -- Hope saying it sounds like a Cecil B. DeMille picture (which, remember, it would have been, if we were watching DeMille’s own Ghost Breakers just twenty-six years before).  And, as we heard Hope take a shot at the Republicans in Canary, it was only fair he address the Democrats in this one (with, as much as I’m a Democrat, one of the funniest quips of his career).

And our movie today was such a hit, it’s literally referenced in another movie, the Paramount / Fred MacMurray comedy-thriller Murder He Says.  MacMurray and Helen Walker are maneuvering their way through an old house -- I won’t give too much away -- when, stumped by a clue, he spots an organ, thinks a moment and --   

MacMURRAY
Nah, it’s stilly.

WALKER
What?

MacMURRAY
Did you see the Bob Hope picture ‘Ghost Breakers?’

WALKER
The one with the zombie?

MacMURRAY
                 Yeah.  Remember when they had the organ in it?  Come here! 
                                (he moves to it, she following)
They played a combination of notes that operated a gimmick that
opened the door to the hiding place.
                 (sitting at it now)

WALKER
In a place like this?  It couldn’t be.

MacMURRAY
Well what have we got to lose?  Worked for them, didn’t it?
                  (he positions his hands to play)

And let’s leave them there, because if you haven’t seen that film, it’s well worth the watch (and if I do a Fred MacMurray Top 5 it will definitely be on that list).  How good is it?  Well, none other than Gene Wilder homages it in his comedy-thriller, Haunted Honeymoon;  and I’ll leave you to discover how and where.  Interestingly, in his Family Film Festival episode of Murder He SaysTom Hatten notes, “Bob Hope was the king of the Paramount lot as far as comedy was concerned at this time.  How in the world did he ever let this script get away from him?  It’s the perfect Bob Hope movie except it’s better, as good as Bob is, it’s better with Fred MacMurray.”  And I dare say he’s right. 

Okay, back to our movie today.

Speaking of not doing these write-ups justice, at least in terms of plot, I’d certainly be remiss to not mention our wonderful Supporting Cast in Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Pedro De Cordoba, a young Anthony Quinn, Noble Johnson, Tom Dugan and Paul Fix.  And Virginia Brissac as Mother Zombie (I kid you not that’s her credit) who you might recognize as James Dean’s grandmother in Rebel Without A Cause.  Great character actors, all of them.  Look them each up;  you’ll be surprised how well you know them.  And I have to say Tom Dugan as Raspy Kelly is the butt of my favorite joke in the movie:  with that near whisper voice of his, he just barely raises it and Hope interrupts, “Don’t shout.”  Priceless.

One Supporter I’ll single out is Lloyd Corrigan.  That’s his real name, but you know who I mean;  the short pudgy fellow that seems harmless as he accidentally keeps bumping into Paulette Goddard;  first on the pier, then on the ship, then in the Havana Club.  (And for you Boston Blackie fans, yep, that’s Arthur Manleder.)  Well, what happens to him?  Granted, the plot is incidental, and fair enough, but he just sort of disappears, doesn’t he?  After the turn from bumbling to seemingly plotting in The Havana Club.  But then that’s it, he’s gone, never explained.  Is there info on an earlier cut with him as a cop or cohort at the end?  If anyone knows, please share.

As The Ghost Breakers is the second comedy-thriller from such a great team, I of course wish there were more.  But even if this was the only one, it’s well worth a night in a haunted house.  As Hope says to Goddard at the end --

HOPE
It’ll give us something to talk about on our honeymoon!

GODDARD
Our honeymoon?

HOPE
Yeah, didn’t I tell ya?

GODDARD
No, but I’d like to hear more about it!

HOPE
You would?

She smiles, nods and they kiss.  (And stop questioning the fact they’ve only known each other a week.  It’s Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard!)

                  Indeed, if Canary was the wedding, then The Ghost Breakers is quite the honeymoon.