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Toast of the Town (1948)
Time Capsule of the Mid 20th Century
Ed Sullivan always had brilliant timing. He came along as a gossip columnist and writer for the New York Daily News, as people were starting to tire of Walter Winchell. And he basically chased Winchell from his seat at the top of the newspaper world with his "Little Old New York" columns.
But also, at that same moment, television was in its infancy, and someone had to create programming for people to watch. Sullivan was a smart choice to use as a host, as he was already known by and equally aware of most of the stars of the day. So, he could easily cull performers to appear.
"The Toast of the Town," as the show was first called, eventually to be named after the host, was to be a showcase of the acts that were worthy of attention. And Sullivan, like the maestro he was, orchestrated every episode to provide something for every family member: comics, music, a performance from Broadway, something from Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera, a novelty performer like a juggler or acrobat, an act that appealed to the kids. It was the very definition of "Variety."
But beyond the performances of the day, Sullivan also frequently brought in politicians, sports figures, news makers who weren't in the entertainment business and did brief softball interviews with them, which made the program not just a variety show, but a record of what was going on in the country at the moment of that episode's airing.
The program was the original "Must See TV" and was popular right from the start, but Sullivan himself was parodied for his stilted delivery and rigid appearance on camera. Being of good humor about it, he frequently booked impressionists who did impersonations of him as a part of their acts. Notably Will Jordan, who appeared on the program, eventually played the role of Sullivan in the music video for Billy Joel's song "Tell Her About It."
Ed Sullivan was a true visionary, knowing what acts were on the verge of success and giving them the push to launch them into orbit! The down side was he was very strict about keeping the program "family oriented," and as the rock era began with Elvis Presley and eventually The British Invasion, he often forced musicians of the day to change their lyrics, wardrobe, act so that they didn't offend the sensibilities of "Middle America." And performers frequently, if not begrudgingly, kowtowed to Sullivan because they knew what it meant for their careers: Everyone in the United States would see them perform on the program, a literal "Overnight Success."
Eventually, tastes changed, and Fred Silverman, television programmer extraordinaire, decided that 1971 was the year to end the series. Though Sullivan did return for a few specials after the program's cancellation, the window onto this slice of twenty plus years of the 20th Century remains as a document, an historic record of the time, and notably collections of clips from the program have become treasured for their capturing performances of the superstars of yesterday, from when they were just starting their legendary careers.
A Rare Promotional Miss From Disney
Disney has perfected the art of promoting and cross promoting their films, home vid releases, theme parks and television series since this program, which should have been a showcase for both Walt Disney World and its syndicated series "The New Mickey Mouse Club" in 1977. It basically failed on both counts.
The group of kids were hardly ever referred to as Mouseketeers at any time during the program, mostly called "children" by their wrangler, played by Ronnie Schell. And the very weak storyline probably would have been better served if we got to see the stars of the show simply being themselves rather than reciting sitcom style dialog.
Jo Anne Worley turns up as a magazine reporter following the group, so that gave it a bit of energy and fun. And we do get to see some of the mid-70s wonders of the Magic Kingdom, like River Country, Space Mountain and Fort Wilderness.
It's a shame there wasn't more of the stage performances of the Mouseketeers, to capture what they were trying to achieve. But even during their performances, there were long cutaways to audience members, meaning even less camera time for those little disco mice!
The program didn't give a sense of what was good about "The New Mickey Mouse Club," and it only barely touched on what was cool about Walt Disney World, and that's why I couldn't rank it higher. I wished I could have!
The Oscar (1966)
The Film Where The Opening Credits Are Spoilers!!!!
Perhaps the most notable thing about "The Oscar," aside from the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences probably wishes it didn't allow the filmmakers to use its award as a part of their turkey, is that the opening credits of the film give away two key elements that really shouldn't be revealed, one of which laughably gives away the ending!
This really goes to the point that nobody in this film seemed to know or care about the process of making it and were more enamored with the concept of setting their film on Oscar Night than in having the story make any sense, and were more about getting names to list, hoping to increase the Box Office receipts. Bad move.
I was hoping for an over the top, completely ridiculous, scenery chewing melodrama, and I was rather disappointed. Granted, Stephen Boyd definitely does have some ludicrous dialog and plays bigger than he should for what he's doing, but it really isn't "fun" to watch. Even more to the point, there's no one in the film who can challenge him.
Milton Berle comes the closest as his agent. But Berle doesn't get to crack wise, as we would expect him to do with a knucklehead client like this one. He plays it straight up. What was the point of that? And Elke Sommer is such a conflicted character, it's difficult to understand what she brought to the film, aside from the obvious eye candy intended.
The other oddity is in seeing Tony Bennett play his one and only acting role. Clearly, he wasn't ready for this sort of challenge and I can't blame him for begging off film for the safety of his music career after this disaster.
Wasted were Oscar Winner Ernest Borgnine who plays some two bit private eye and Edie Adams who actually seems the most realistic character in the entire film. Also, Edith Head, the multiple Oscar winning Costume Designer, who was seen on screen in three different scenes, and uttered half a word.
But I'm seriously still reeling over the credit spoilers. If you do watch this film (and I don't recommend you do because it definitely isn't good and it unfortunately isn't bad enough to be amusing) don't read the opening credits!
The Partridge Family (1970)
Truth and Fiction Blended With Music
The Partridge Family was, according to legend, supposed to be the story of the Cowsills, an actual family of singers/musicians that became famous for a few hits: "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" and "Indian Lake" being their first Top Ten hits, followed by their cover of the title song from the Tribal Love/Rock Musical "Hair," which reached #2 on the charts.
The problem was that ABC had planned to use the sitcom as a vehicle for Shirley Jones, rather than casting the actual mom from the family. When the kids of the group said no, it was their mom or nothing, the producers went ahead and cast actors to play the parts.
Shirley's actual stepson David Cassidy was cast as the eldest sibling of the family and teen heartthrob Keith Partridge, followed by Susan Dey as Laurie, Danny Bonaduce as middle brother Danny, Jeremy Gelbwaks as Chris (replaced by Brian Forster in season 2) and Suzanne Crough as littlest Tracy. Plus, as the family's haggard and harried manager, Dave Madden as Reuben Kincaid.
A deceased parent (standard sitcom trope for this era of television), in this case, Mr. Partridge (which makes it more unusual as there were many more motherless kids on TV at this time), left Shirley Partridge (Oscar Winner, Jones) widowed and with her five way too adorable kids struggling to make ends meet on Mom's bank teller budget. But they formed a musical group in their garage, got their mom to sing along and became national hits, much to the delight of everyone!
Stories tended to follow one of three separate scenarios: the family on their tours to various (and quite honestly, questionable) gigs, often at places like amusement parks, ski lodges, street festivals or other "non- headline" venues; some venture, ploy or plot schemed up by Danny that entangled the rest of the Partridges in some way, designed to make money but typically did not; or an episode with personal issues that one particular sibling was having in their lives.
Luckily none of this was overtly "precious" and the songs the family performed were mostly pretty good for MOR type pop/rock tunes, and several of the songs charted with the big hit "I Think I Love You" reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
And it's the combination of some thoughtful scripts and some decent tunes that made this into the TV classic that it is. Yes, towards the end they brought in Ricky Segall to try to charm their audience back to the program, but even that can be forgiven in the overall scheme of the story of a family act in a psychedelic painted school bus and the misadventures they experienced all along the way.
A Guide for the Married Man (1967)
How Not to Succeed at Cheating While Being Very Trying
To be completely fair, we can't really judge this film by our 21st Century standards. This is a story of how a Married Man can cheat on his wife and get away with it. So, right there, the very premise of this movie is out of date.
Gene Kelly, who was dancing less and less on screen by the mid 1960s, had the opportunity to step behind the camera a handful of times and helm some films. This is arguably his worst effort.
And yet, the picture isn't without its charms. Walter Matthau is endlessly watchable even when he has very little to work with, and he's doing the most he can to make this worthwhile. It's a difficult circumstance because we're meant to believe that his character is married to Inger Stevens, and yet wants to stray just to get some strange. I guess if you'll buy that, you'll swallow the premise whole.
Also you have Robert Morse, straight from his effort in the Broadway smash turned Hollywood musical, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," who continues to instruct in the ways of attaining his goal. This time, it's extra marital hanky-panky he's after and he knows, like a book, exactly how to avoid the pitfalls and pratfalls of a bad situation, so he can enjoy some of the other women in his life without letting wifey know about it.
The best part of the project are the "instructionals" offered to illustrate every situation Morse tells Matthau about, featuring cameos by the likes of Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Terry-Thomas, Jayne Mansfield, Phil Silvers, Louis Nye, and the one most people who view the film favor, Joey Bishop. Really, if this movie were just a series of these vignettes, it probably would have been that much better!
But we're stuck with these two unhappy hubbys who are determined to gain a conquest, much like the mountain climber "...Because it's there!" That part of the story is tedious, repetitive and, much like their attempts to score their mistresses, ultimately unsatisfying.
A Guide for the Married Man is most effective as a time capsule, a Hollywood spin on the mindset of the people in the suburbs in the mid 1960s, and what they did to break the boredom of that surreality, or at least what they imagined might break it. I don't know how many men actually were wannabe lotharios, and if you believe this film it's basically all of them! But it is supposed to be a comedy (albeit with only a few mild chuckles, unfortunately), so keep a grain of salt handy, along with the fast forward button on your remote.
The Monkees (1966)
Easily Seen Style; Difficult to Find Substance
The Monkees, the television series, is a landmark one, despite it lasting only two seasons on the NBC Television network. That's because it directly lead to the what we all know as the MTV concept some thirteen years or so later: stylish videos with quick cuts, special effects, constant motion and having those sequences set to songs.
Sometimes suggested as an attempt to "cash in" on the insane popularity of The Beatles, The Monkees: Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, were collectively referred to by some of the harsher critics of the day as "the Pre-Fab Four," a play on the "Fab Four" reference to the Beatles. The Monkees were a musical group created specifically for the show, which some felt made them inauthentic.
The problem of the program is that it wasn't a video; it was a situation comedy, and a lot of the time the episodes were, if we're kind about it, a little light on scripting. In fact there was at least one episode without any script at all, and a few times where they didn't completely fill out their half-hour and had to pad the episode with other elements.
What that meant was that the series was often an unsatisfying experience as a standard sitcom, because the plots frequently were weak or non-existent! Additionally, when there were solid scripts, they were pretty much lifted from old movies, Vaudeville acts, or parodied other programs being aired at the time - most of which wasn't terribly inspired and often wasn't that funny.
To the good, they did utilize the "psychedelic" elements of the day, with brilliant colors, sets and costumes, which is why their title sequence is still a timeless classic. The visuals were spectacular.
Also, The Monkees, the musical group, had some pretty decent songs (after all, the writers of their tunes were people like Neil Diamond and Carole King!), and those performances were usually the highlight of every episode. If the scripts could have equaled the songs, this show would have been a smash.
But to be fair, the era of the 1960s was a very odd combination of a lot of factors, not the least of which was drugs (hinted at but never directly suggested here), politics (which was emboldened by the programs like "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour) and youth and the pop culture movement. And certainly all of this had an impact on the the process of creating the program and the areas covered by the episodes.
In its way, The Monkees captured a lot more of the flavor of that time than nearly every other entertainment program in that tumultuous age and it certainly deserves credit for that.
Kim Possible (2002)
Why Kim Possible is Genius
"Kim Possible" is arguably the best series Disney has produced to date... (animated or otherwise) as many other viewers have commented. But the question is why? What makes this program so much better than every other in the long and storied history of the Mouse?
Premise. The old joke about a Rocket Scientist and a Brain Surgeon is a great place to start, as that's Kim's Dad and Mom! And with such intelligent lineage, Kim is a brilliant mind too, only she's not weird about it. She's a basic, average girl, but she's here to save the world! Cheerleader and honor student by day; superhero the rest of the time. Really, she's the most well-rounded and talented Disney female since 1964's Mary Poppins (and she didn't have to keep house; just answer her KIM- municator).
Characters. Kim's partner in crimefighting, Ron Stoppable and his naked mole rat pet Rufus always provided comic relief, humorous complications and legitimate help to Ms. Possible, as well as the inevitable after- school snacks at Bueno Nacho, their Mexican restaurant hangout. Wade, the point man that clued Kim in to the sitch, offered just the right tone of stability to the stories. Kim's occasionally seen twin brothers Tim and Jim gave her some sibling rivalry angst. And the best and most wacky rogue's gallery of villains since Adam West's "Batman" series, and with nearly the same level of star power, provided the knockout punch! Led by John DiMaggio's Dr. Drakken and Nicole Sullivan's Shego, other guest voices throughout the series included such iconic names as Debbie Reynolds, Andrea Martin, Elliot Gould, George Takei, Nestor Carbonell and Ricardo Montalban.
Stories. Despite covering the same ground as so many other series had done within the high school framework setting, every episode always seemed fresh and innovative. Full credit to the writers for carefully mixing in the adventure elements with Kim's day-to-day school life, for exposing some of Kim's foibles and failings (she really had trouble with that road test for Driver's Ed!) and for not letting Kim and Ron get too romantic until just the right moment. Also, the fact that the plots always had that sense of danger but were never too frightening for all age groups was a truly brilliant and notable element of the series.
Performances. Christy Carlson Romano, Will Friedle, Nancy Cartwright and Tahj Mowry were fantastic as the core four heroes, and their vocal skills were crucial in making everything work. And the theme song, sung by Christina Milian, lived up to the level of the program itself. Always smart, always funny and always had something to say about family, friendship and life (both scholastic AND extra-curricular), "Kim Possible" really was worth watching, and Kim proved it was Possible to be a great Disney role-model without being a princess!
It Happened in Hollywood (1973)
Possibly the Only Adult Film Made Famous by a Radio Boner... er...
Really, you can forget the film; the purest entertainment related to "It Happened in Hollywood" was a cold read commercial performed by legendary radio personality Long John Nebel when the movie was playing in theaters in the early 1970s.
After a recorded spot about the film played on his broadcast, Nebel was to read some copy describing the film. What happened was complete mayhem, as Nebel struggled and failed to keep his composure and broke into laughter several times, and got the other people in studio involved as well.
But don't take my word for it! Listen to Alan Colmes and Candy Jones playing the recording of that fateful commercial here: http://users.pupress.princeton.edu/~neil/nebel.mp3
The Kilborn File (2010)
A Half-Hearted, Half As Good As His Late Late Show Half Hour
Craig Kilborn seemed to have disappeared from broadcasting but then surprised people by returning with "The Kilborn File." Fox decided to try this program for a six week summer 2010 run in the 7-8pm time slot (for a handful of the big market affiliates that ran it), as a kind of extended pilot to see if it might play on the full network, but it was really just Kilborn's version of the CBS Late Late Show he hosted years prior, cut down to a half hour.
All of the elements were there: the wry, know-it-all manner in his monologue, the news stories from his desk (with the addition of Christine Lakin, his "Huckleberry Friend" and apparent sidekick). There was time for one guest to interview (including his famed "Five Questions"), and the games he played, which had to be renamed and ever so slightly altered to avoid some intellectual property lawsuits, I presume.
The reason "The Kilborn File" didn't work is very simple: it was a cheap copy of the original in a world where people like Craig Ferguson, Conan O'Brien, George Lopez, Jimmy Kimmel... and even Jimmy Fallon had moved the talk show genre to new, different and interesting places. This just felt like they were trying to figure out how to do Kilborn's Late Late Show all over again but in a thirty minute format. I suppose the producers of this program didn't know you really can't recreate the same show, years later, unless it's a lot better than the original. This was, at best, half as good.
There is also a question about whether viewers wanted to see a talk show at the hour it aired, between the daytime talk of The View, Oprah, Ellen and the rest that aired in 2010 and those late night programs that this aspired to be, Kilborn may have been a partial victim of "Jay Leno Misplaced Talker Syndrome." But I suspect that if the show had been more innovative, more entertaining and more amusing, people might have sought it out.
WKRP in Cincinnati (1978)
Radio Never Looked So Good!
Hugh Wilson is something of a television genius. I doubt that anyone thought that doing a television show about a little radio station in a small market city would work, but he got MTM to produce it and CBS to air it and "WKRP in Cincinnati" hit the airwaves (and I'm sure that "NewsRadio" owes a debt of thanks to this series for paving the way)!
Populated with some of the most hilarious and memorable characters in television and with some brilliant, meaningful and sometimes outrageous story lines, WKRP always provided its audience with a worthwhile viewing experience that often extended beyond the events that occurred on the air.
The reason the show worked is because of the characters, and perhaps more importantly, the actors that played them. Jennifer Marlowe could have been just a bubble head or a snappy comeback responder in the hands of a lesser actress, but Loni Anderson was brilliant. Dr. Johnny Fever could have been just a waste product, but Howard Hesseman gave him attitude and subtle subtext. Venus Flytrap might have just been the token minority, but Tim Reid turned him into a deep, meaningful spirit. Bailey Quarters could have been totally wooden and forgotten, but Jan Smithers made her quietly determined and caring. Les Nessman might have just been the virginal boy scout, but Richard Saunders gave him humor and texture. Herb Tarlek might have just been the bad dressing (even for the late 70s - early 80s!) fast talking salesman, but Frank Bonner made him amusing and even at times sympathetic. Arthur Carlson could have just been the no-nothing owner, but Gordon Jump's long time experience in sitcoms certainly prevented that! And Andy Travis might have been a total control freak in the midst of everyone else, but Gary Sandy was the perfect stability for everyone: the eye of this hilarious storm!
I mourn the fact that this series will never truly be seen again, because of the royalty issues over the use of music in the episodes. It just isn't WKRP if you don't have the songs! It's like seeing a loved one you cared about, now horribly disfigured. Yes, you still care about them, but nothing will ever again be the same.
Unfortunately, unless you visit the Paley Center for Media, either in New York or Los Angeles, where the original episodes are preserved in their broadcast state, you'll just have to remember the eps the way they were.