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Far Out Space Nuts (1975)
From an Adult Perspective, What Episodes I've Seen Aren't So Bad
Growing up in the 1970s, I remember watching FAR OUT SPACE NUTS, first on CBS in the 1975-76 season and then in reruns on New York City-based syndicated station WPIX later in the decade. Since I was a child, my critical faculties were not fully developed. Since reaching maturity, I've only seen three episodes- "Tower of Tagot," "Secrets of the Hexagon," and "Birds of a Feather." My impression from these episodes is that the television show was hardly remarkable, but it had its amusing moments. In my opinion, FAR OUT SPACE NUTS holds up better than other Saturday morning children's programs like SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? and JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS.
Two assets are the stars. It's true that Bob Denver is basically reprising his famous "Gilligan" characterization as the bumbling Junior, but this personality perfectly suits him. He conveys the same sweet naiveté he did as Gilligan, thoroughly endearing himself to audiences despite his klutziness. As Denver's domineering partner Barney, Chuck McCann amusingly registers annoyance at Junior's bumbling. But like Denver, McCann's character lacks malice. Indeed, Barney loves Junior like a brother, giving Denver and McCann's partnership an underlying warmth.
The show's premise is that NASA janitors Barney and Junior accidentally launch themselves into space and they struggle to get back to earth every episode. The production values are astonishingly cheap, looking like the show was filmed in someone's backyard. From what I've seen, I feel the writers (including McCann) missed an opportunity to satirize the show's low budget. The characters could have addressed the television audience like those in ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS, reminding them that FAR OUT SPACE NUTS was just a TV show. The humor presented on the show is uneven, ranging from clever to infantile. Usually, however, Denver and McCann put the jokes over with their droll expressions and lively delivery. It's a pity they split up after this show.
Supporting performances are generally good. It seems to me that at least some of them acted with tongue in cheek, fully aware of the show's utter silliness. In particular, Robert Quarry playing a villain on "Tower of Tagot" came across as deliberately campy. In my opinion, this approach enhanced this episode.
For me, the greatest appeal of FAR OUT SPACE NUTS is its nostalgic value. The program's good-natured innocence and inoffensiveness not only convey the joys of childhood when one enjoyed this entertainment without any concerns of the world's problems, but also the golden age of comedy in the 1930s and 1940s where nothing off-color or cynical was suggested- just clean, slapstick comedy. I'm no prude, but I feel that today's entertainment is generally over-saturated with smut and mean-spiritedness. FAR OUT SPACE NUTS is no masterpiece but it comes across as wholesome escapist entertainment for the family.
Little Swee'pea (1936)
Swee'Pea's Animated Debut
Like cartoon producer Max Fleischer's star character Popeye the Sailor, Swee'Pea first appeared in E.C. Segar's comic strip THIMBLE THEATRE. In the baby's animated debut, LITTLE SWEE'PEA, he is an effective foil for Popeye. Here, the sailor takes the baby to the zoo. However, Swee'pea escapes from his carriage and wanders along the cages of various large and dangerous animals. The bulk of the cartoon concerns Popeye's efforts to rescue Swee'pea from these beasts while trying to avoid being mauled himself.
As in most of the Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons I have seen, LITTLE SWEE'PEA has a lot of clever and enjoyable gags. One particularly inventive sequence has Popeye searching for Swee'pea in a hippo's cage only to find the baby right inside the hippo when the beast opens its mouth. One wonders why this particular zoo lacks any staff to prevent babies like Swee'pea from entering these cages. Then again, if anybody was around to stop Swee'pea we'd be denied the joy of seeing Popeye struggle with the animals, wouldn't we? For this cartoon, the Fleischer staff used live-action backgrounds. The results are impressive, creation a 3-D illusion. I've never seen the colorized version of LITTLE SWEE'PEA, nor do I desire to. From what I hear, the people who recolored this black-and-white cartoon obliterated these attractive backgrounds.
And there's always the joy of listening to Jack Mercer as Popeye. He provides an ideal voice characterization, a deep gravelly voice that nevertheless conveys a jovial warmth, revealing the sailor's golden heart beneath his rough exterior. One also gets to hear Mercer's muttered ad-libs, although in my opinion there aren't enough in this particular cartoon.
LITTLE SWEE'PEA, like most of the Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons I've seen, remains fresh and funny after over sixty years. Like all fine cartoons, this is essential family entertainment, testifying to the greatness of both the Max Fleischer studio and Jack Mercer.
Judging From One Episode, It Seems to be a Buried Treasure!
Having been born and raised in the United States, I have only seen one episode of IT'S MARTY at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City. From watching this one episode, I feel it's a shame that Marty Feldman's show is currently unavailable to the American public. (I understand segments from it were shown on American network television in the early 1970's).
The one episode I've seen seems to precede Monty Python with its iconoclastic and surrealistic humor. In fact, individual members of the Python troupe wrote for this show. One delightfully bizarre sketch features Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor as flies discussing their relationship with humans. Another zany sketch is entirely silent- Feldman plays a tramp who joyously romps on a playground only to be arrested by a child in a policeman's hat because he is too mature to frolic there! This particular bit displays Feldman's pantomimic gifts. Indeed the whole episode is sufficient evidence that he was a marvelous comedian. Proving that there's much more to him than his grotesquely protruding eyes, Feldman conveys a droll nuttiness that is both humorous and endearing. With a wryly expressive mouth, a disheveled tuft of hair, and a twee English voice, Feldman suggests a human pixie who is quite at home in these zany sketches. But Feldman may have seemed too strange to American audiences accustomed to conventional comedians like Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason. This may explain why until he appeared in Mel Brooks's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Marty did not make much of an impression in the United States.
With America's DVD explosion unearthing previously unavailable British programs like the original BBC version of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN and BOTTOM, shouldn't the BBC provide Americans with all the episodes of IT'S MARTY? Of course, Feldman has been gone for a long time, but he left behind some significant work that most Americans haven't seen. Marty Feldman was such a notable talent. From watching one episode of his show, it seems to me that IT'S MARTY was an even better showcase for him than YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
Saps at Sea (1940)
On a Sweet, Simple Note, the Boys End their Association with Hal Roach
SAPS AT SEA is evidently a pun on a Gary Cooper film, SOULS AT SEA. The title aptly describes the starring team, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. who go on an ocean voyage to soothe Ollie's nerves only to run into escaped killer Nick Grainger. As played by Rychard Cramer, this criminal is both amusing and chilling, making him a fine foil for the Boys' comedic characters. Despite his powerful presence, Cramer never upstages the Boys, a tribute to Stan and Ollie's beguiling charisma. That is as it should be, since the Boys are supposed to be the protagonists in this film.
Such is the charm of Laurel and Hardy's personas that they elevate average material. For SAPS AT SEA has its slow spots. For instance, as a previous commentator has noted, a bit where a doctor (the delightfully flustered James Finlayson) tries a balloon called "lung tester" on Ollie, lacks punch. The scenario is very episodic, with the first part, taking place in the Boys' apartment, almost completely unrelated to the second part where they go off to sea. But on the whole, the film is highly pleasant entertainment with a sufficiently brief running time so that it doesn't wear out it's welcome.
There's a certain poignancy viewing the final collaboration between Laurel and Hardy and producer Hal Roach. I haven't seen all of Laurel and Hardy's post-1940 films but those that I have seen don't measure up to even the weakest Hal Roach products. In these later movies, Laurel and Hardy seem to be in an alien environment, deprived of such colorful supporting players like Finlayson and Charlie Hall and Marvin Hately and LeRoy Shield's sprightly musical scores. They also aren't the well-meaning and optimistic bumblers we know and love but in the later films, are either exasperating blockheads or pathetic misfits.
It is a pity that many Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy films are now generally unavailable to the public. Even in a minor entry like SAPS AT SEA, one can see that Laurel and Hardy were great comedians. This was because Hal Roach, for the most part, allowed Stan Laurel, the guiding force behind the team, complete artistic freedom. Once Laurel lost his autonomy at other studios, the team lost much of its uniqueness.
The Heckler (1940)
A Generally Rollicking Change of Pace for Charley Chase
In most of the Charley Chase shorts I have seen, Chase delightfully played a likable everyman who innocently stumbled into trouble. In THE HECKLER Chase abandons his usual persona to play an obnoxious loudmouth. Although he projects his usual winning vulnerability when his character gets into a jam, Chase's character is devoid of any redeeming qualities. But due to his cheerfully enthusiastic performance, Chase's character is a riot.
The scenario, in which Chase's heckling affects baseball games' outcomes and some shady characters hire him for their own advantage, is slight. This doesn't matter since THE HECKLER is a short subject. What makes the short work are the gags, adroitly presented through Del Lord's direction. One cannot help but laugh at all the things Chase's character does to inconvenience his fellow spectators at the ball game- using someone's entire tobacco and matches to smoke a pipe, tearing a bandage off a man to fix his leaky cushion, distracting everyone from the game in order to obtain a loudly demanded hot dog, among other offenses. The gags are not only enhanced by Chase's performances but by those of the supporting players as well. Particularly amusing are Vernon Dent and Monty Collins as two unlucky fellows who are forced to sit next to Chase.
The short slackens a bit at around mid point but it rebounds for an energetic climax. It ends on quite an offbeat note. The old cliché 'It has to been seen to be believed' perfectly applies to this finish.
As enjoyable as THE HECKLER is, one feels a tinge of sadness viewing it. This was one of Chase's last films before his early death. Although his performance is lively, he looks older than his forty-six years. One can wonder what Chase might have accomplished if he had lived longer. That he actually was able to do such wonderful work like THE HECKLER during his brief lifetime testifies to his greatness. Chase was a comedic genius who shouldn't be forgotten.
Slappily Married (1946)
Exemplifying Curly Joe's Pre-Stooge Career
For a long time before Joe DeRita joined the Three Stooges and adopted the moniker "Curly Joe," he worked solo. Between 1946 and 1948, while the Three Stooges made shorts at Columbia, Joe had his own comedy series at the same studio. SLAPPILY MARRIED was the first one.
It's fascinating to see DeRita in this short. Still a fairly young man in his thirties, he has a full head of hair which is often disheveled for humorous effect. Although stocky, Joe's considerably thinner than he was as "Curly Joe." Because of his youth and relative svelteness, DeRita engages in a lot more physical slapstick than he did as a Stooge, proving himself adept in this field. To his benefit, the slapstick, as directed by Edward Bernds, is smoothly executed and avoids the tasteless excesses that marred some of the other Columbia comedy shorts.
Nevertheless, Joe DeRita comes off as a unremarkable comedian. He's too colorless to project any pizazz. Joe's blandness is all the more evident when one realizes his character is reminiscent of Lou Costello, a bumbling, childlike patsy with a streak of brashness. The charm and vulnerability that made Costello so endearing is largely absent in DeRita.
Despite DeRita's lack of charisma, SLAPPILY MARRIED is an entertaining and amusing short. The scenario isn't much- Joe's wife thinks he's involved with another woman and he tries to win her back, but it effortlessly sails thanks to Bernds' adroit direction. It is also enhanced by a fine supporting cast, particularly Christine McIntyre, Dorothy Granger, and Dick Wessel. Talented casts seem to be a hallmark of Columbia shorts, bringing some spirit to these films even when the material was under par. This film is worth seeking out as an example of a good non-Stooge Columbia short even if in this case, the supporting cast outshines the star.
Bold King Cole (1936)
Cartoon has surrealistic flair even though its star is dull
Anxious to become a formidable rival of the popular and influential Walt Disney animation studio, the struggling Van Beuren studio acquired the popular silent cartoon character Felix the Cat for his talking Technicolor debut. Alas, their version of Felix the Cat in BOLD KING COLE is just an insipidly cheerful character devoid of the spunk that, from what I gather from seeing one silent cartoon, made the original Felix memorable. The uncredited actress who provides Felix's voice pleasingly carries a tune but the sweet singing doesn't provide anything unique about the character.
However, the cartoon's interesting scenario, for the most part, compensates for the lackluster star. Caught in a thunderstorm, Felix seeks refuge in King Cole's castle. This King Cole is not only a merry old soul, but a boastful one as well. The castle's ghosts can't stand the king's bragging, so they strap him to a machine to suck the wind out of him. It happens to be the wind that makes him a windbag. It's quite bizarre watching the rotund king deflate like a balloon. Then the ghosts expose him to the gas which exudes all his boastings. The king learns it's not nearly as fun listening to his speech as it is making it. A fascinating sequence that has to be seen to be believed, it effectively exploits the essential unreality of animation.
BOLD KING COLE benefits from other vividly realized sequences including a harrowing thunderstorm. The energetic animation is enhanced by Winston Sharples's spirited musical score. Watching this cartoon makes one regret that when it was released, the Van Beuren cartoon studio was on its last legs. One can only wonder if the studio would've reached Disney's artistic heights had it been allowed to last longer.
The 4th Tenor (2002)
Rodney Earns No Respect Here
Do you find Rodney Dangerfield amusing? Would you like to see an entertaining Dangerfield film? Then avoid THE 4TH TENOR. It is a pitiful vanity project where Rodney generally neglects his strengths and wallows in sickening bathos.
As a prosperous Italian restaurant owner named Lupo, Dangerfield falls in love with a young luscious singer Gina (Annabelle Gurwitch). She doesn't return his affections, especially since Lupo can't sing opera. So he goes to Italy to take opera lessons. There, he meets a sweet local girl named Rosa (Anita De Simone) and learns the secret of great singing. Will Lupo find true love? Who really cares?
Part of the problem with THE 4TH TENOR is that Dangerfield is far less interested in generating laughs than in endearing himself to his audience. Rarely does he spew his customary one-liners. Instead he spends an awful lot of time acting lovelorn and wistful. But his strivings for sentimentality are so humorless and effortful, he becomes embarrassingly cloying. Even more disturbing is the concept of the geriatric, physically homely Dangerfield romancing women young enough to be his granddaughters. Part of the appeal in Dangerfield's stand-up act was that he acknowledged he was ugly and therefore unsuccessful with women. If he wanted to be a romantic lead in his dotage, why couldn't Rodney pursue women his own age?
The pedestrian supporting cast cannot enliven the dreary material. They are the type of bland performers you'd expect in a film deemed too poor for theatrical release.
THE 4TH TENOR is truly a morbid experience. One watches an embalmed looking man who, in attempting to touch our hearts, dies in the course of his performance, a once bright star whose career has been dying. If this is the best Rodney can offer, it's time for him to retire.
The Dippy Diplomat (1945)
If You Want a Barbecue, Make Sure Woody Isn't Nearby...
...which Wally Walrus learns the hard way in this madcap cartoon. Under Shamus Culhane's direction, DIPPY DIPLOMAT attains the high comedic caliber of Warner Brothers and MGM's contemporary product. Like Bob Clampett and Tex Avery, Culhane understands that in such an action-oriented cartoon (in this case, the action consisting of Woody Woodpecker's pursuit of food), the gags must be administered at a frenetic, zippy pace to achieve the greatest comic impact. The gags are further buoyed by lively animation and Darrell Calker's sprightly score. Culhane builds up the situation to a rousing climax in which the walrus, his face engulfed in smoke, turns into a train!
Culhane utilizes Woody Woodpecker as effectively as he does the gags. At this point, the woodpecker's personality was toned down. He's no longer the hyperactive lunatic he was at the beginning, but he's still gleefully obnoxious as he uses ingenious methods to devour Wally Walrus's barbecue. Yet he is beguilingly innocent. He comes off not as a bully or a delinquent, but merely a impish child. How can one dislike such a character?
DIPPY DIPLOMAT represents the Walter Lantz studio near its artistic apex. It's a pity the cartoons declined in the following decades but this particular one demonstrates that the studio could produce authentic classics. For that reason, neither Walter Lantz nor Woody Woodpecker deserve to be forgotten.
Woody Woodpecker (1941)
Everybody Thinks He's Crazy- And I'm Crazy About Him!
When Woody Woodpecker debuted as an antagonist for star Andy Panda in KNOCK KNOCK in 1940, his zany antics immediately captivated audiences. Shrewdly aware of the woodpecker's star potential, producer Walter Lantz cast him in his first solo cartoon, WOODY WOODPECKER. Under Lantz's uncredited direction, this cartoon discharges an authentically wacky and convulsive energy that's reminiscent of the contemporary Warner Brothers cartoons. Indeed one of the writers, Ben "Bugs" Hardaway had worked at Warner's before Lantz hired him.
Most of the energy comes from Woody himself. He represents the uninhibited id as he darts all over the screen, pulls prankish stunts, sasses his antagonists, and employs his trademark laugh. And what an appropriately outrageous design for an outrageous character with his extremely long bill, buck teeth, goofy eyes, stumpy legs, and a garish mixture of blue, red, yellow and green all over his body. The brilliant Mel Blanc provides an appropriately loony voice that is as oddly endearing as it is funny. Thank to Blanc's work and the skillful animation, Woody Woodpecker never seems obnoxious; just a lovable nut. One senses his comic aggressiveness is not derived from malice but from a naturally manic temperament.
Undoubtedly the highlight is in the beginning when Woody sings "Everybody Thinks I'm Crazy." The lyrics aren't sensationally funny, but Darrel Calker's jaunty music, Blanc's hilarious singing, and the comical animation of Woody's strutting make this a showstopper. In fact, this song would be Woody's theme in his early cartoons. Some one ought to do a cover of this song.
Mel Blanc would've undoubtedly remained the voice of Woody Woodpecker until his death if Warner Brothers hadn't given him an exclusive contract. (However, he did later did Woody's voice on some children's records.) It's a pity because of all the actors I've heard do the woodpecker (I never heard Billy West's work on THE NEW WOODY WOODPECKER SHOW, Blanc was the most impressive. He conveyed a charismatic craziness that none of the other actors I've heard could capture. Although Lantz continued to produce fine Woody Woodpecker cartoons for some time, I feel the woodpecker lost a little pizazz when Blanc was replaced.