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The Amos 'n Andy Show (1951)
Racist? No. Hilarious? Yes
There are basically two types of situation comedies. One is the innocuous, quaint type of sitcom such as "Family Affair", "Father Knows Best", or "Julia". These types of shows may summon a chuckle now and then, but their basic purpose is to entertain with a sweet or thought-provoking story.
The second type of sitcom is played purely for laughs. The majority fit under this category and include such classics as "I Love Lucy", "Green Acres", and "Seinfeld". In order for this type of sitcom to work, outlandish characters make up the majority of the roles. Such characters can include the schemer (Sgt. Bilko, Ralph Kramden, George Costanza, Lucy Ricardo); the dim bulb (Gilligan, Ensign Parker, Herman Munster, Ted Baxter); and the enabler (Ethel Mertz, Ed Norton). Ofttimes, there was also a voice of reason to keep them all under control (Alice Kramden, Andy Taylor, Blanche Morton). Even in sitcoms where the characters are respected in their fields, they often carry a trait or two which makes them laughable (Sheldon Cooper, Frasier Crane).
This brings us to "Amos 'n Andy" and the ridiculous notion that, because the characters were not all upstanding, reputable, fault-free citizens, this somehow made the show "racist". Without the duplicitous Kingfish, the air-headed and easily conned Andy, and the willing pawn in many of Kingfish's schemes (Calhoun), there would have been no "com" in the "sitcom". These characters no more represented the black community than the self-absorbed gang from "Seinfeld" represent the white community.
The attack on "Amos 'n Andy" was an insult to the hardworking actors who brought these old radio characters to life. They made this one of the funniest shows in the history of television. (That says a lot in that television was in its infancy when the show debuted, and few shows in the almost 70 years since have come close to equaling it.) The actors themselves stated that they saw nothing racist about it. But much like those that would rename the Washington Redskins in spite of the majority of Native-Americans having no issue with it, a vocal but small minority maintained its stance and CBS caved in to them.
By the forced cancellation of "Amos 'n Andy" (as well as "Beulah" on another network) and eventual mothballing of the show, the critics brought the careers of these artists to an end. They also assured that another black-oriented program (the variety program "The Nat King Cole Show" notwithstanding) would not appear until 1968, when the aforementioned "Julia" hit the small screen. Even then, the majority of the supporting cast of that show was white.
Shows with African-American casts that have appeared since 1968 have, for the most part been strained and poorly written ("Sanford & Son" being the possible exception) or of the "innocuous/quaint" category ("The Bill Cosby Show", "The Cosby Show"), as writers have been so careful not to offend that they have also made sure not to be funny. ("The Cosby Show" even failed in its later years to be innocuous and quaint, as it decided to use the platform to preach.) It is truly a tragedy that the executives at CBS still can't get past a protest by a handful of people 50-60 years ago, and won't release this classic series for all of a new generation to enjoy. And it's also a tragedy that 50-60 year old political correctness is still impacting the medium today. A sitcom is just a sitcom, and it doesn't have to be a comment on society. Sometimes it can just be entertainment.
Law & Order (1990)
An outstanding series that deteriorated over the course of 20 years
I wish I could rate each season individually, as "Law & Order" began as a 10 star television series in 1990, but gradually deteriorated into virtually unwatchable by the time it left the air.
This series, created and produced by Dick Wolf, took the formula first appearing in the 1963 series "Arrest & Trial" and honed it to perfection.
The original cast was wonderful. George Dzundza provided comic relief, Chris Noth was his young sidekick, Dan Florek was the tough captain, Michael Moriarty was the no-nonsense executive DA, Richard Brooks played the always-serious assistant DA, and Steven Hill was their irascible boss.
In the second year, Paul Sorvino replaced Dzundza. Not quite as good, but no slouch. The third year, however, the series struck gold, as Sorvino left and was replaced by Jerry Orbach. Orbach's character would result in this series becoming an institution. Only with Sam Waterston's emergence in season five would Dick Wolf again find a character that would benefit the series for the better.
Sadly, it was in season four that NBC, in their infinite wisdom, decided to stick their fingers into the formula and start "Law & Order" on its slow but steady decline. The brilliant minds at NBC came to the conclusion that more people would watch the show if you had more females in lead roles. And, with the exception of S. Epatha Merkerson, "females" in NBC's mind meant "pretty faces". This parade of pretty faces started with Jill Hennessey and then Carey Lowell, both of whom performed adequately, but were far from the believable assistant DA character that Richard Brooks had created. It is with the third and fourth pretty faces, however, that things really started a decline. Angie Harmon chewed up the scenery, and her replacement, Elisabeth Rohm appeared at most times to be reading off cue cards. Rohm was proof that all NBC wanted was a pretty face. Acting ability was not required.
With the exception of the weak performers in the role of assistant DA, however, the series kept rolling every week with brilliant scripts, and top notch production.
At the end of season ten, Dianne Wiest replaced Steven Hill. Certainly no "Adam Schiff", the DA's character became a bit of a non-entity while she was in the role. But it got worse. She was replaced after two seasons by Fred Thompson, whose character was an obnoxious blow-hard, just as the actor playing him.
Lennie Briscoe's (Jerry Orbach's) sidekick changed a couple of times over the years as well. Benjamin Britt replaced Chris Noth almost seamlessly. But Jesse L. Martin, while playing his role well, presented us with another rather obnoxious character.
In spite of all this, the series continued to be entertaining, if not top shelf, week after week. That is, until Jerry Orbach had to leave the series due to illness. (Sadly, he passed away shortly thereafter.) At this point, the casting director appears to have just given up. Dennis Farina, who replaced Orbach, was extremely bland, and the casting continued to get worse. The performances of Michael Imperioli, Annie Parisse, Milena Govich, Anthony Anderson, Alana de la Garza, Jeremy Sisto, and Linus Roache were enough to make any junior high school acting teacher cringe. The series was finally killed after 20 years, but should have been put out of its misery about 5 years earlier.
"Law and Order" will still go down in television history as one of the greatest dramas of all time. But sadly, like series such as "The Andy Griffith Show" (which went three seasons too long), it too will be remembered as a series that would have been more of a classic if it had quit while it was ahead.
I thoroughly recommend catching "Law & Order" in reruns if you did not see it during its original run. But pay attention to the version you are watching. If the lead detective isn't George Dzundza, Paul Sorvino, or Jerry Orbach, its a good time to go do the laundry.
Wonderful old school game show
Balderdash had two contestants trying to discern which of three celebrities was telling the truth concerning numerous topics. Like many games shows from the golden age of television, the rules as well as the set were relatively simplistic. It was a fresh change from the obnoxious over-the-top lighting and graphics of the likes of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?", "Weakest Link" and "Million Dollar Password".
Elayne Boosler did an honorable, if not outstanding job as emcee, and the "B" celebrities were generally quite entertaining. (And George Wendt showed on several occasions what a knowledgeable person he is in real life.) It's really too bad that this game show was short-lived. However, as it only appeared on the ever floundering PAX network, it probably never gathered an audience to justify even its limited production cost.
I only wish that more "old school" game shows would make their way back to the airwaves. They're so much fun to play along, and they don't give you a seizure with the bells, whistles, flashing lights and graphics which seem to be in vogue with the more recent attempts at resuscitating the genre.
The Dark Corner (1946)
Average film noir, ruined by Lucille Ball
This film would be, at best, an average film noir, given the hackneyed script, and the ending which is broadcast from a mile away. However, in spite of the excellent efforts of Clifton Webb, Mark Stevens, and William Bendix to uphold the weak script, their efforts are quite in vain, sabotaged by the superfluous character played by Lucille Ball, and more so, by Ms. Ball's atrocious acting.
As the curtain fell on this movie, I couldn't help but wonder just what the purpose was of Ball's character. She was introduced as detective Brad Galt's secretary of just a few weeks, yet, we are to believe the suddenly fabricated romance between the two. Every action that detective Galt takes in the movie could easily have occurred without Ball's character's presence. Add to that the fact that Ball's acting was totally unconvincing, and one can only be left wondering, "Why did Lucille Ball get top billing?" The result is a movie about which I found myself shaking my head, only 15 minutes in. It's an okay time-passer, but not good for much else.
As for Fox's DVD of the movie, it proved to be relatively clean for a movie of this age and stature. No complaints there. However, there are so many much better film noirs out there to add to your library. I would pass on this one.
The Gang's All Here (1943)
Berkeley in brilliant Technicolor
If you loved the great black & white Berkeley films of the thirties, you are in for a real treat with this movie. Busby Berkeley's musical numbers shot in beautiful Technicolor are a real treat.
As you probably know, Berkeley was on loan to Fox for this film, and it seemed to bring out the best in him. The plot was typical Berkeley, including the love triangle, the "putting on a show" subplot, and the nobody becoming a star. The only real difference is, being filmed in 1943, there was also a military subplot.
But the plot in a Berkeley film is mostly irrelevant. How can you beat a movie with dancing bananas, neon polka dots, disembodied heads, Benny Goodman's music (and singing), Carmen Miranda's hats, and the delightful Eugene Palette?
Twentieth Century Fox has really done up the DVD right. The picture is beautiful, with consistent colors, and nary a scratch or a dust mark to be seen. If you like Berkeley or musicals in general, you really need to see this movie.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
Cinematic history or entertainment?
This is a very hard movie to rate, as one has to take into account not only the entertainment value, but it's historic value as well. As an entertainment entity, I believe it fails. Scenes between three different tales keep alternating, and it isn't until the end of the movie that one finally realizes how they all tie together. (Jules Verne's books "20,000 Leagues..." and "Mysterious Island", are both intertwined into the plot of the movie, along with a storyline created just for the film.) Add to that an inordinate amount of time showing underwater shots which, while I'm sure were wonderful in their day, were eclipsed long ago by the likes of Jacques Cousteau, and you have both a confusing, and rather boring film.
That said, if one views this movie from an historic perspective, it can be quite enjoyable. After all, this was made in 1916, and was one of the first films to have such underwater photography. The octopus, as an extremely early special effect, would be quite convincing, if it weren't for the readily apparent fake eyes.
As for the Image Entertainment 1999 DVD, the source used was quite good, considering the age of the film. I can't say how it would look on a large monitor, and I'm guessing that it is probably interlaced. However, on my smaller widescreen TV, it looked quite nice. The musical accompaniment was wonderful. It fit both the era of the film, and was scene appropriate.
The transfer may have benefited from windowboxing (to make up for overscan), as some of the intertitles are pretty tight. However, given this is a 1999 release, I think it looks quite good.
If you are interested in cinema history, I would recommend this disc. However, if you are looking for pure entertainment, go with the 1954 version of the film (which is quite a different story, too).
A Hard To Love Temple Movie
While most of Shirley Temple's movies are quite cute and quaint, there were too many cringe-inducing factors in this one to recommend it. From the outset, it is hard to feel anything but disdain for Frank Morgan's character. The Professor, as he's known in the film, is the grandfather of "Dimples", and her sole guardian. He's a thief and a swindler, and, even though he knows his actions hurt his little granddaughter, he refuses to mend his ways. One hopes for the entire movie that she will eventually leave him behind. Sadly, it never happens, and one can only imagine what type of life she will lead as she grows older.
Another cringe-inducting factor about the film is large number of scenes which involve black-face. Now let me first state that I am NOT one who promotes political correctness when it comes to old movies, or one who gets upset at the slightest thing which could be taken as "racist". I enjoy the actors Stepin Fetchit (who also happens to be in this movie) and Willie Best, have seen most of the Charlie Chan movies, and get royally ticked off when one of the DVD studios (usually Warner Brothers) warns me that what I'm about to watch is "wrong now, and was wrong then". I recognize old movies are a sign of their time. I don't need to be lectured like an elementary school student.
However, I have to believe that even in 1936, I would have felt a little uneasy with all of the black-face scenes in this film. The one with "Topsy" made me especially uncomfortable.
That said, there were still some good moments in the film. Shirley's dancing numbers were, as usual, quite enjoyable, and Stepin Fetchit was as funny as always. However, if I were rating Shirley Temple films, this would be at the bottom of the long list of her movies I have seen to date.
As for the DVD, I viewed the Fox release from 2006. I understand from other reviews on-line that the picture is superior to the previous Fox release in 2002. However, that must mean that the 2002 release was mighty poor, as the newer one still has moments when the picture is extremely soft, or extremely dark. Still, overall, it is a has a very watchable picture.
The extras include only two trailers for other Temple movies, a very short Movietone news clip, and a colorized abomination of the film in question. And, of course, Fox must insult the person who buys this film with a loud accusational anti-theft PSA before they even get to the menu.
The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
A Sorry Tribute to the Babe
Hollywood created "The Pride of the Yankees" as a tribute to Lou Gehrig. It has since been considered the greatest baseball movie ever. The Babe on the other hand received this treatment from Tinseltown. How sad that this is all the more respect they had for the greatest ball player of all time.
Starting with the casting, one has to wonder why they would choose William Bendix, a man far better qualified for playing buffoons like Chester A. Riley, than the hero to thousands. His attempt to recreate a pitcher's wind-up and throw is absolutely pathetic. And while you can make a younger actor look older, trying to pass Bendix off as a kid coming out of school is quite the stretch. Why Mark Koenig or Mel Allen let themselves be a part of this film is beyond me.
The movie did have some respect for statistical facts, but as for the other events of Babe's life, it took quite the poetic license. In this movie, Babe isn't the womanizer and drinker he was in real life. No, he's some sort of healer, bringing back kids and dogs from the dead, and making crippled boys walk just by his presence.
Babe Ruth himself attended the premiere of this film, and it wouldn't be surprising if it didn't hasten his demise.
With the tripe Hollywood is putting out of late, I'd be hard pressed to call this one of the worst movies of all time. But it was definitely a clunker for the era in which it appeared. And, along with "The Kid From Cleveland", it definitely is one of the worst baseball movies of all time.