Podcast: The Stormy Success of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"

In early 1967, folksinging comedians Tom and Dick Smothers kicked off their own variety show on CBS. Their competition was stiff -- NBC's "Bonanza," the one show that CBS could never seem to dislodge from its top-10 spot in the ratings. But the brothers beat "Bonanza" with a combination of topical comedy and musical guests like the Turtles, Buffalo Springfield and the Who. The only problem was that the show's anti-war humor and social satire often ran afoul of CBS censors -- and even prompted protests from the White House, leading to a series of conflicts between the Smothers Brothers and Big Brother.


Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," by David Bianculli

"Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' "

"The Smothers Brothers Redux: A Bittersweet Reunion at CBS," Andy Meisler, The New York Times, January 31, 1988


Podcast: The Miracle of "A Charlie Brown Chirstmas"

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" wasn't intentionally created to be timeless, but because of its simplicity and sincerity, timeless it is. Miraculously, it avoids every cliche associated with children's animation and is a perfect blending of music, words and images that clearly conveys one man's vision and philosophy -- Charles Schulz, who drew "Peanuts" from 1950 until his death in 2000.


Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis

A Charlie Brown Religion: Exploring the Spiritual Life and Work of Charles Schulz, by Stephen J. Lind

"How 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Almost Wasn't," Jennings Brown, ny.com, November 16, 2016

"The 'Charlie Brown Christmas' Special Was the Flop That Wasn't," Carrie Hagen, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2015 

Podcast: The Rise and Fall of "Moonlighting"

When the Directors Guild of America announced its award nominations in 1986, history was made. For the very first time, one TV show was nominated for best direction in a comedy and best direction in a drama -- "Moonlighting." The combination detective series-screwball comedy thrived on romantic tension for three seasons in the mid-1980s -- until the lead characters finally got together and the show's creators weren't quite sure what to do next.


"Cybill Shepherd's Comeback: Dueling for Dollars," Bill Davidson, TV Guide, December 7, 1985

"Behind the Turmoil on 'Moonlighting': Cybill Won't Be Tamed," Michael Leahy, TV Guide, May 30, 1987

"The Madcap Behind 'Moonlighting,' " Joy Horowitz, The New York Times Magazine, March 30, 1986

" 'Moonlighting' Makes Light of 15 Emmy Losses: Mom Goes to Her Reward But TV Show Didn't," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1986

"Writer of 'Moonlighting' Cast in a Different Glow," Steve Daley, The Chicago Tribune, March 11, 1986

"Glenn Gordon Caron Discusses Working with Cybill Shepherd on 'Moonlighting,' " emmytvlegends.org

"Glenn Gordon Caron Discusses the Tone of 'Moonlighting,' " emmytvlegends.org 

Screen Capture Theatre: "Torch Song," or the Lone Arranger

OK, I think we can all agree it's been a tough couple of months. But buck up and ditch those silly thoughts of impending fascism! If there's one thing we understand here at Screen Capture Theatre, it's that nothing puts a positive spin on the world like a ... Joan Crawford musical?

In this 1953 film, Joan Crawford plays Jenny Stewart ... 

... a Broadway star of such hit musicals as "Evening with
Jenny," "Another Evening with Jenny," "Yet Another Evening
with Jenny," "Oh My God It's Jenny Again" and
"Go Home, Jenny, You're Drunk." 

She is loved by all and is a big star -- so big that
her eyebrows have their own dressing room.

Jenny is a hard-driving pro onstage and off -- she even makes
sure her robe matches the pencils on her nightstand. 

But her hard exterior covers a yearning soul of
molten lava, cotton candy 
and unfinished Lisa Frank
coloring books.

The only person who can, you should excuse the expression,
penetrate Jenny is Ty, her blind arranger.  

They get along splendidly.

Jenny even starts trying to learn braille until she realizes
she's just turning the radio on and off.

But Ty turns his back on Jenny. He walks out during her
big blackface number, a toe-tapper called
"Staggering Multicultural Insensitivity." 

Still, Jenny can't stay away. She presents herself to Ty with
an outfit that's a stunning salute to autumn, which she
describes to him because he can't see. 

Even an eye massage doesn't help.

Neither does Jenny's attempt to clone herself as a
larger, easier-to-see person.

But in the end it doesn't matter, because as well all know,
love is differently abled. I mean blind.


Podcast: 1952 -- The 60-Second Election

In 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower squared off against Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the presidential election. Eisenhower, who had been commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II, was enormously popular but not much of a public speaker. So a combination of talents from America’s largest advertising agencies, including the man upon whom the “Mad Men” character Don Draper was roughly based, convinced Eisenhower and his advisers that the best way to reach American voters was the same way they received selling propositions about what soap to use, what car to drive, what cigarette to smoke — by a TV commercial. Eisenhower reluctantly agreed — and political campaigns were changed forever.
“Political Advertising,” adage.com, September 15, 2003
“Eisenhower, an Unlikely Pioneer of TV Ads,” Michael Beschloss, The New York Times, October 30, 2015

"Below the Sea," or Love and Depth

Ronald Reagan is credited with a great line about his days of making B-movies: "They didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday."

And that's the standard rap -- they were projector fodder destined to belong at the bottom of double features with forgettable actors, mediocre scripts, blah blah blah blah.

But the thing is, despite low budgets and tight shooting schedules, the Hollywood assembly system in the 1930s was still capable of cranking out movies that were better than they had any right to be. "Below the Sea" is a good example. This 1933 film boasts a script by Frank Capra collaborator Jo Swerling, creative direction by Al Rogell and vivid performances by Ralph Bellamy, Fay Wray and Frederick Vogeding.

Frederick Vogeding?

Vogeding appeared in several dozen movies between 1933-42, usually in small parts as doctors or military men. Beginning with 1939's "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" he made frequent appearances as Gestapo officers. "Below the Sea" features one of his rare leading roles.

We open during the final days of World War I, in a German sub commanded by Vogeding's character. The men converse in their native tongue, with no subtitles. And right around the time one of them says something that sounds like "I want a Zima," there's an explosion.

Then, in battle footage thrillingly borrowed from the RKO movie "Suicide Fleet" (and who knows where else), the sub, she is sunk. There are only two survivors -- the captain and some other guy. Both of them are aware that the sub was carrying a load of gold bricks, and while they dry off on a desert island the other guy draws up a map of the location, which gives the captain nasty ideas:

(By the way, in a post-code movie the guy just would have fallen off the cliff; only in a pre-code movie would you see the body go all the way down, bouncing off outcroppings along the way.)

Fast forward twelve years, and the captain has changed his name to Schlemmer. He's been waiting all this time to retrieve the precious stash, and he's talked a waterfront bar owner/floozy (Esther Howard) into financing the trip in exchange for a cut. He's also hired a deep sea diver, Mac, played by snarling Ralph Bellamy.

Their first trip out to get the treasure is doomed because there's a big storm, and because Schlemmer keeps the destination a secret, so the crew doesn't know where to go. This doesn't quite make sense to me, but it gives Bellamy a chance to wear a rain slicker and hat like the Gorton fisherman on those old TV commercials.

Another three years pass, and Schlemmer has signed on as the captain of a scientific expedition, and he's bringing Mac with him. They're aboard the good ship Adventure, funded by socialite Diana Templeton (Fay Wray in full-blown hottie mode). Templeton is sincere about science, but she also knows the power of public relations, so she does things like pose for photos in Mac's diving suit.

Mac in turn is so nasty to her that there's really no doubt how he really feels, especially since Diana gives as good as she gets:

The byplay between Wray and Bellamy is one of the highlights of "Under the Sea." He scowls and puffs his pipe as she runs around the boat wearing anchor-accented outfits. And she kisses other guys in front of him just to get him hot. But when she puts on Mac's diving outfit and goes down without his permission, that's a bridge too far. He purposely takes his time rescuing her and she passes out. He gets in trouble for it, but she shows her mettle by apologizing to him. And he finds himself torn between Diana and the loot in the sub:

Meanwhile, Schlemmer and his floozy are ready to bring the gold to the surface and cheat Mac out of his cut. They drug him and take off to collect the booty. Mac awakens just in time to discover that Diana is down in the diving bell again and it's being attacked by an amorous octopus, so instead of heading off Schlemmer he changes into his suit and dives in to rescue her:

This also seems like a good time to mention that the diving bell looks just like the isolation booth on the 1950s quiz show "The $64,000 Question," except that the diving bell doesn't have a giant lipstick on each side of the window (the show's sponsor was Revlon).

In the end, the captain's nefarious scheme comes to naught, and Diana and Mac end up together. As a couple they generate actual heat -- it's nice to see Bellamy playing something other than the milquetoast role he essayed in romantic comedies, and Wray's character is tough and likable. Their clinches seem unusually enthusiastic -- makes you wonder if something was going on in real life between them, as well.

Here are full credits for "Below the Sea."

Podcast: The Quiz Show Scandals -- "Twenty-One"

We end our two-part look at the quiz show scandals with the most infamous example of all -- the NBC program "Twenty-One." Contestants on the show were deliberately given answers to questions, directed to lose games and were even coached on how, for maximum dramatic effect, to hesitate when answering a question. The show's most popular contestant, Charles Van Doren, was celebrated for his intellect and humility and rewarded with a job on NBC-TV. But he ended up revealing his role in the hoax during a dramatic congressional hearing, and his reputation was forever tarnished.

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "The Crowd Roars" and "Indianapolis Speedway"

Pre-code versus post-code is the difference between a Duesenberg and a Hummer, between cafe au lait and chocolate milk, between a camisole and a union suit.

Take the differences, for instance, between the 1932 film "The Crowd Roars" and the 1939 film "Indianapolis Speedway." Same story (by Howard Hawks, who also directed the first film), same setting, same characters (with different names, in some cases), even much of the same racetrack footage. By the way, want to know how to switch up your stock footage of a crowd? Just flip the image, like this:

And, since these are Warner Bros. films made in the 1930s, naturally both of them feature Frank McHugh -- playing the same character, and even with the same name. Spud. (Frank McHugh was born to play guys named Spud.)

But there's a distinct difference in the way the film's romantic relationships are portrayed, and, by extension, in the relationship between the brothers at the center of the story.

The brothers are Joe and Eddie Greer, played by James Cagney and Eric Linden in "The Crowd Roars" and Pat O'Brien and John Payne in "Indianapolis Speedway." Joe is a world-famous racing driver who drinks and carouses a little too much, tilting slightly but not totally into arrogance. Eddie is his hero-worshiping brother, who also wants to race.

In the 1939 version, Joe's reluctance to work with Eddie has a noble basis -- he wants Eddie to finish college, at Joe's expense. But after Joe leaves his hometown and his visit with Eddie to return to Los Angeles, he finds an unexpected stowaway.

In the 1932 version, Joe's reluctant to work with Eddie for two reasons -- one is because of Eddie's inexperience, but the other is that Joe doesn't want Eddie to know that he's shacking up with longtime frail Lee (Ann Dvorak). Once Eddie enters Joe's life, Joe starts giving the cold shoulder to the bewildered Lee. In "Indianapolis Speedway," by contrast, Joe and Lee (Gale Page) are already engaged, which makes their coupling a little more legitimate. When Joe gives Lee the brushoff in "Indianapolis," he makes it clear it's because he wants to tutor Eddie. In "The Crowd Roars," Lee grins and bears it, but in "Indianapolis Speedway" she gets rightfully honked off. Here are the two scenes:

But the real woman trouble in both movies comes from Lee's friend. In "The Crowd Roars," her name is Ann (Joan Blondell) and in "Indianapolis Speedway" her name is Frankie (Ann Sheridan). In both movies, she's first portrayed as bad news, and Joe doesn't want her "corrupting" his pure younger brother. In "The Crowd Roars," when Ann meets Eddie and starts showing some leg, Joe sneers, "Why don't you stand on your head while you're at it?" -- a line that's as likely to show up in "Indianapolis Speedway" as I am to grow a tail. In "Indianapolis Speedway," Frankie -- who's the roommate of Ann -- is known for feminine wiles that have driven at least one racer track wacky. (Sheridan, at the peak of her reign as Warner's "Oomph Girl," is top billed here -- and like Blondell, she is shown in the skimpiest post-code outfits possible.)

Here's how Cagney and O'Brien handle the problem of the other woman:

Even by Cagney standards, the character of Joe is wound unusually tight. His obsession with keeping Eddie from sinful entanglements and what he perceives as loose women -- playing around for me, but not for thee -- goes beyond brotherly concern and makes him seem like a hypocrite.

O'Brien portrays Joe as a little wearier -- the movie is telling us that what he needs is to settle down with a good woman, but it'll take him about 65 minutes to figure that out.

All around, in fact, the Joe in "Indianapolis Speedway" seems more human and more vulnerable. The relationship between the brothers is much warmer -- in the 1932 film, Joe dominates Eddie the way that Cagney naturally dominates the more diffident Linden. Payne, by contrast, has a stronger screen presence and makes more of an impression opposite O'Brien.

In both versions, Joe's downfall comes when, out of anger at Eddie's romance, he causes a fiery crash that kills Spud (Twice!). Joe is spooked and can't bring himself to race again, but he gravitates toward Indianapolis on the day of the 500. Eddie is racing, and when he is injured, Joe jumps back behind the wheel with Eddie as his co-driver. Guess who wins?

In the 1932 film, the reunion between the brothers isn't even played out -- Joe just jumps in the car and takes off. But in the 1939 version, there's a spoken rapprochement between the brothers, capped off when Eddie gives Joe his trademark cigar to chomp on for good luck. Guess who wins?

Here are the full credits for "The Crowd Roars" (which also features several real-life drivers as themselves) and "Indianapolis Speedway."

Screen Capture Theatre: "The Chapman Report," or I Kinsey What You Did There

A funny thing happened to movies in the early 1960s -- they got more "daring" in the sense that they included sexual language and dealt with adult themes. The weird thing is, they did this in an awkward, shame-based way -- so much so that they seem downright childish compared to the sense of frankness and real adult behavior in your average pre-code movie.

But don't take my highly authoritative word for it -- join me as Screen Capture Theatre wanders into the 1962 film ...

Any resemblance between the characters in this movie
and actual women is purely coincidental.

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen of science! My name is Professor Doctor Mr.
Chapman, M.D., and I am a world-famous sexual researcher in the manner
of such luminaries as Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and Lindsay Lohan.

Heh heh, they said "probe."

"Dear Professor Doctor Mr. Chapman. My name is Jane, and I am a healthy,
perfectly normal young woman who is repelled by any physical contact
whatsoever, especially with men of the opposite sex, yuck."

"Some have called me frigid, and when I opened my mouth to
answer them a light came on. Can you help?"

Dear Jane: I have the perfect remedy. You need to indulge in some
promiscuous smoking with one of my researchers, stat!

"Dear Whatever Your Name Is: My name is Shelley and my husband
is more interested in watching TV than in watching me. I want to get racy, he
wants 'Ben Casey'! And the other night, when he was watching 'Leave It to Beaver' ..."

"... anyway, I am now having an affair. Any suggestions?"

Dear Shelley: Perhaps a long trip might bring you and your husband
closer together. I suggest a cruise on the ocean liner Poseidon. Bon voyage!

"Hello, handsome. You can call me Claire. Actually, you can call me anything --
just call me ;). I have no sexual hangups at all ..."

"... just ask any delivery guy who comes to my house."

"Or musician. Or anything with chest hair, for that matter."

"Never mind about her, dear sir! Pay attention to me! My name is
Glynis and I am terribly self-absorbed. My smarmy husband is just
as pretentious as I am, so we get along splendidly ..."

"... but the other day I met a younger man on the beach when I caught
his ball, and I'm, um ... curious."

Dear Glynis: It sounds as if you might need to become involved in a
cause bigger than yourself. May I suggest women's suffrage?

I'm afraid that's all the time we have today for oversimplifying
people's sexual behavior. Next week's topic will be "The Future" -- a time of
widely available birth control, medication for erectile dysfunction and
widespread gay marriage. Ha ha! Just kidding! Drive safely!

Podcast: The Quiz Show Scandals -- "The $64,000 Question"

During the summer of 1955, a new TV show kept people in front of their sets on hot Tuesday nights. “The $64,000 Question” was a big-money quiz show that made its contestants instant celebrities and the show even displaced “I Love Lucy” as the nation’s top TV program. What nobody realized at the time was that the show was planned, paced and cast like a drama, and a contestant’s success depended not on the questions he or she answered correctly, but on a sponsor who would drop you when you ceased to be useful.

TV Game Shows, by Maxine Fabe
“The Cop and the $64,000 Question,” TV Guide, July 9, 1955
“A Summer Show Hits the Jackpot: $64,000 Prize, Carefully Picked Contestants Keep Nation Glued to Its Television Sets,” TV Guide, August 20, 1955
“Come and Get It: TV Giveaway Shows Lure Viewers with Bigger and Bigger Jackpots,” TV Guide, December 31, 1955
“The Quiz Show Scandals: An Editorial,” TV Guide, October 24, 1959

“Letters,” TV Guide, November 21, 1959 

"The Big Sleep," or Doubting Shamus

How do I love thee, "The Big Sleep"? Let me count the ways:

1. I love thee because thou are, for lack of a better term, a screwball noir. That may oversimplify it a bit, but "The Big Sleep" is, without question, one of the breeziest movies you'll ever see about blackmail, drug abuse, murder and, worst of all, the smoking of unfiltered Chesterfields.

The tone of "The Big Sleep" is attributable to two things -- the relaxed banter between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the fact that director Howard Hawks thinks nothing about stopping the plot dead in its tracks in order to showcase the relaxed banter between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

2. I love thee also because thoust women are more interesting -- and arguably smarter -- than the men in this movie.

I mean, look at the male representation -- Marlowe's client, Colonel Sternwood, is downright incapacitated, impotent in more ways than one. He can't do anything that doesn't involve a sauna. "I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider," he tells Marlowe. Then there's Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), world's worst blackmailer, who gets a slug in the gut just for answering a lousy door buzzer. And then there's hapless Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), who gets talked into taking a tall drink of poison because he's protecting a tall drink of water named Agnes.

Meanwhile, look at the women! There are so many that Philip Marlowe practically trips over them, from Martha Vickers as the unbalanced Carmen Sternwood to Dorothy Malone as a bookstore clerk with come-hither eyes, a sexy pout and two paper cups for that bottle of pretty good rye Marlowe carries in his jacket pocket.

And don't even mention the female cabby who gives Marlowe her card.

Then there's the smartest one of all -- Bacall as Vivian Sternwood. She's not only as smart as Marlowe, she's as tough as he is. That doesn't mean she throws her weight around; neither does Marlowe. But she's there to help him outwit the movie's most dangerous bad guys, and Marlowe respects her for it. When he tells her afterward "You looked good, awful good," it's a declaration of love as heartfelt as a Donne sonnet.

3. I love thee for thou go-to-hell storyline that leaves plot strands hanging like unconditioned hair. We all know that "The Big Sleep" doesn't make total sense -- Hollywood historians have been telling us that for decades. For instance, nobody has been able to figure out who killed Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, whose body was found in the family Packard in the water off Lido Pier. And, of course, it doesn't really matter -- even the script's loose ends were tied up as neatly as ribbons on a Christmas package, "The Big Sleep" would still be known more for its atmosphere and its quirks than its plot.

4. And finally, "The Big Sleep," I love thee because, at heart, you are a deeply romantic story in that way only cynical movies can be. You are the story of a Sir Galahad in a 1938 Plymouth coupe who saves the honor of the Sternwood family while falling in love with one of the princesses. You are the story of a slightly rumpled knight in blue serge who works for $25 a day and expenses -- one who displays emotion with a pull on the ear and a wince of a smile. One who fearlessly confronts bad guys who are taller than he is, with no effort made to hide the height difference.

Raymond Chandler described Philip Marlowe thusly: "As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it's going out of style." As played by Bogart, more than ably supported by the woman who was his best co-star in the movies as well as in real life, he's a hero for the ages.

And yea, verily, that is the truth.