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LIT-TLE TINY POINTS ABOUT "THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW"
Blog, TV
Posted on Jul 07 2010 by Greg

One of our favorite TV sitcoms when I was a kid was The Mothers in Law starring the wondrous Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks, The Strongest Man in the World, Grease) and the wondrous Kaye Ballard (Freaky Friday, The Muppet Show, Alice in Wonderland). The entire two-year run in finally on DVD and it's  now on amazon, probably for a limited time.


Desi Arnaz produced the series, which was very much an I Love Lucy with kids and grandkids just as Laverne & Shirley was an I Love Lucy with single ladies. It's broad and brassy comedy in front of a live audience, served up to perfection by the skilled cast, whicj includes Herbert Rudley, Roger C. "Harry Mudd" Carmel (replaced by Richard "Mel Cooley" Deacon and Deborah Walley (Summer Magic, Beach Blanket Bingo).

I have a particular soft spot for the legendary Ms. Ballard, having grown up and fully memorized Columbia Records' "Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Peanuts album she recorded with longtime creative partner Arthur Siegel. (If you've heard this album, you might chuckle at the reference above to "LIT-tle tiny points.") It was the very first time the Peanuts characters were performed (directly from comic strips) and it inspired the musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, five years later.



The music on this 1962 album, which has not yet been released on CD, was created by Fred Karlin (sadly, Mr. Siegel's songs were not used by renowned jazz producer John Hammond). Karlin, an Oscar winner, put together a very odd orchestra of real toys, a concept much imitated afterward. The tune on the first cut was used for a cat food commercial in 1972.

Kaye Ballard talks at length about this album, The Mothers in Law and her amazing career in one of the most entertaining audio versions of an autobiography I have ever heard, My Life in My Own Words, with My Own Mouth.



It can only be purchased here on her website and is well worth having. This is one very resilient and highly talented lady.







A BRIGHT COMEDIC DAY FOR KNIGHT IN "STARSTRUCK"
Blog, TV
Posted on Jun 09 2010 by Greg
We recently watched a classic episode of the iconic TV series That Girl in which Ann and Donald go on a car trip to meet her parents and encounter comical mishaps along the way. It was carried off brilliantly, in the tradition of film and TV buddy/road comedies that feature a bickering couple. It worked on That Girl and it worked to legendary proportions in It Happened One Night.



It also works, Disney Channel style, in StarStruck, a romantic comedy with pop music starring Sterling Knight of the Channel's series Sonny With a Chance and Danielle Campbell of Disney XD's Zeke and Luther.

The basic story is another wish fulfillment tale for youngsters: a young girl accidentally meets a rock star. There's a fair amount of misunderstanding and teen angst, but the heart of the film is the "two for the road" sequence in which the two stars share mishaps and begin to care for each other. It's surefire when you have a duo with chemistry. Fortunately these two have it.

Campbell is a capable young actress with a lot of potential as a lead who can clearly carry a film, but Knight steals every scene in a role that he apparently won by default (he replaced the errant Cody Lynley). Knight -- who revealed in a Bonnie Hunt Show interview that he got his name from Disney and Hollywood legend Sterling Holloway -- has a true flair for playing the spoiled jerk who you can't dislike, a knowing self-parody of the pretty boy showbiz idol. As he does on Sonny With a Chance, Knight makes the comedy count in a way reminiscent of Michael J. Fox when he became the center of Family Ties. It will be interesting to see where his talent takes him,

The songs are, of course, loaded with appealing hooks that cement them into your head as they were skillfully designed to do. And it's also worth mentioning that the score was by David Lawrence, who also did the High School Musical films and is the son of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé.

The DVD is available with or without a CD soundtrack (a nice option) but is not overloaded with extras other than a few music videos. An audio commentary with these talented young stars would be most welcome.







SUPER POWERS, SUPER PROBLEMS
Blog, TV
Posted on May 13 2010 by Greg
Among the reasons that so many Marvel comic book characters make a successful transition to film and TV is that the viewer can live vicariously through their super feats yet feel reassured that having super powers isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

Television's longest running Marvel series is X-Men, and with the new Volume 5 of X-Men the Animated Series, fans can now own all 76 episodes by completing their library with this 14-episode, 2-disc set.  And they can hear a slightly different version of the oh-so-cool theme song.



Four episodes are two-parters ("The Phalanx Covenant" and "Storm Front"). The others are self-contained and their are quite a few gems. The challenge with a long running series is keeping the stories fresh and avoiding repetition and this collection is some of both. "No Mutant is an Island" focuses on the tormenting social and family issues of Nightcrawler. Being an outcast is at the core of being an X-Man or X-Woman.

For changes of pace, look for Wolverine fighting in WWII with Captain America in "Old Soldiers," or Jubilee telling a once-upon-a-time super story to children.

The oddest episode is perhaps "Descent," a Victorian era combination of Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde and...evolutionary theorism? Yes, an animated Charles Darwin has a guest role in this story about an experiment gone mad and resulting in lots of misunderstood mutants. it does not come as a total surprise to see him, since  the premise of X-Men is about mutation, genetics and socio-political dynamics, but imagine if he was on The Flintstones! How would he explain Fred and Wilma, much less The Way-Outs?







"IRON MAN" GETS ANIMATED -- AND SO DOES BILL CLINTON?
Blog, TV
Posted on May 10 2010 by Greg
The second time Marvel's Iron Man was adapted for a TV cartoon (the first being the kind of cheesy 1966 version), was in this two-season syndicated series that premiered in 1994 as part of The Marvel Action Hour. Stan Lee appeared onscreen as host, and though these intros are not included on the new DVD, Iron Man: The Complete Animated Series, the end credits mention it.



This is actually, in effect, two series with the same actor, Robert Hays, as the voice of Iron Man. The first season was produced by Rainbow Animation with scripts largely by Ron Friedman. The animation is a sort of lower budget ThunderCats, with recycled action and somewhat limited scope. The stories are a bit overloaded with characters so numerous they weigh down the chance to develop them.

There are also plenty of pop culture references (David Letterman?) and Bill Clinton himself is depicted rather than a generic President (voiced by none other than Jim Cummings, the voice of Tigger, Pooh, Darkwing Duck and many more including Ray, the beloved firefly in The Princess and the Frog). This set of episodes also allows you to see the origins of Iron Man and his arch nemesis, Mandarin and his henchman, MODOK (also Cummings).

Once you hit episode 14, there is a distinct difference in style and a totally different theme song. This season was produced by Koko Animation and written by such comic book veterans as Len Wein. The animation is more elaborate but what is particularly noticeable is the dialogue. While there is a lot of action, an effort seems to have been made to flesh out the personalities, conflicts and, most of all the inner turmoils that are the Marvel trademark.

The cast, by and large, provides outstanding performances of what could potentially be campy. Robert Hays is given the opportunity as the voice of Iron Man to deliver more depth and complexity than many of his best-known characters in TV shows like Angie and the movie Airplane!

Most of the voices were recast in the two series. James Rhodes (aka War Machine) is played by James Avery in season 1 and by Dorian Harewood in season 2. Ed Gilbert (Baloo in Disney's TaleSpin) as Mandarin is recast with Robert Ito (Quincy).

In season 2, when the Incredible Hulk appears in an episode, Ron Perlman (of the Bill Bixby live action series), voices the Hulk and Dr. Banner. Also this season, Wanda/Spider Woman is voiced by Jennifer Hale, who is the current voice of Disney's Cinderella.

The episodes look and sound great on the three discs. It would be nice if there was a printed episode guide in the package. I know budgets are an issue, but surely one panel of the enclosed Blu-Ray flyer could be used. That way, it's less likely to be tossed away!







WHY "ZORRO" IS ONE OF THE COOLEST TV SHOWS EVER
Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 20 2009 by Greg

I grew up knowing Walt Disney's Zorro TV show more from the famous theme song than the show itself. There were reruns in syndication and a revival on The Disney Channel (with special emphasis on the Zorro episodes featuring Annette) but I don't think I saw more than a handful, I must admit. I missed the show at the peak of its initial success in the late '50s.



That's why I wanted to experience every episode from both seasons on the new Walt Disney Treasures releases. I must say, after 78 shows and four extra Walt Disney Presents hours, it is an extremely rich and entertaining television, far and above most similar programs of its era. And while there are the issues of political incorrectness (ethnicity, roles of women, drink and smoking), there's an amazing relevance to the overall series and perhaps a social influence beyond that.

Zorro rarely opposes standard robbers and bandits. His main adversaries are authority figures who have exploited their positions for wealth and power. They use people like playthings and often have mental problems (after all, The Caine Mutiny was popular around this time).

Because the episodes, while somewhat self contained, are almost always multi-part "arcs," much like today's episodic TV shows, these villains are permitted to oppress and pillage until they sink under their own weight. Zorro sees to it that their plans fail and eventually that they are put either in jail or outside any real influence.

Among the most interesting of these antagonists are, of course, Monastario (Britt Lomond), who sets the standard for the "executive" villain, but perhaps it is Jose Sebastian Varga, who has a secret identity as Zorro does -- 'The Eagle" -- that is among the most memorable. Played by Charles Korvin (whom fans of The Honeymooners will recognize as Carlos Sanchez, who taught Ralph, Alice and Mrs. Manicotti how to mambo), Varga is a complicated man, with sharp mood swings (punctuated by a voice that becomes shrill) and a paranoid fear of being alone. Don Diego (Guy Williams in his Clark Kent identity when he's not Zorro) and his servant, Bernardo (Gene Sheldon) actually subject Varga to a "Gaslight" type scare fest.

Speaking of Bernardo, his role as "servant" is so much more, of course. As played brilliantly by Gene Sheldon, he is a mute who also feigns hearing impairment in order to listen in to conversations. By today's standards, Bernardo would perform the same role but perhaps be called a "personal assistant."

Sgt. Garcia, a role defined by the versatile Henry Calvin (who co-starred in Broadway's Kismet and did a brilliant Oliver Hardy to Rob Petrie's Stan Laurel on a great Dick Van Dyke Show episode) is classic middle management. He's always eager to please his boss du jour, hoping that each successive replacement might not be as corrupt as the last, and also yearning for a promotion that never comes. Don Diamond joins the cast a few episodes into the show as Garcia's sidekick, a role he repeated in a manner of speaking on The Flying Nun, when he partnered with Vito Scotti as the Clouseau-like Captain Fomento.

Scotti is among the legion of guest stars that appear on the series and the four hour shows. In The Complete Season One set, look for Vinton Hayworth (General Shaefer on I Dream of Jeannie); Joan Shawlee (Buddy's wife Pickles on The Dick Van Dyke Show); Anthony George (Burke Devlin on Dark Shadows), and the beloved Mary Wickes (of countless shows from I Love Lucy and Dennis the Menace to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and the Mickey Mouse Club's Annette serial).



Annette plays two roles in The Complete Season Two package: a young daughter in search of her father (the role Walt famously gave to her as a sweet 16 gift since Guy Williams was her teen idol), singing Jimmie Dodd's "Lonely Guitar,"  and as a feisty young woman with bad taste in boyfriends, singing Richard & Robert Sherman's "Amo Que Paso" and "Como Esta Usted."

Music features prominently in many Zorro episodes, from original songs created primarily for the operatic Calvin or Bill Lee (who sings offscreen for Williams and also guest star Cesar Romero) to William Lava's score, which weaves themes for Zorro, Bernardo and Garcia (the last of which reminds me a bit of the Nutcracker March).

Season two features more guests stars then season one, since the series was a huge hit by then. They include spaghetti western stalwart Lee Van Cleef, as well as Michael Forest and Barbara Luna (both seen on the classic Star Trek series); Richard Anderson (Six Million Dollar Man & Bionic Woman); Whit Bissell (The Time Tunnel); Tige Andrews (The Mod Squad), Neil Hamilton (Batman), Robert Vaughn (The Man from UNCLE); George Neise (Leo Fassbinder on The Dick Van Dyke Show) and none other than Lost in Space's Dr. Smith himself, Jonathan Harris!

The hour long shows all feature celebrity guests. In addition to Annette, there's Rita Moreno (the same year as West Side Story), Ross Martin (The Wild, Wild West) and Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island). Walt Disney introduces each of the hours.

It's interesting to speculate that Zorro, which was a huge hit in 1957, depicting a renegade romantic hero who flew in the face of errant authority, might have inspired the youth of the day to revolt ten years later when it seemed to happen in real life with Vietnam and Watergate. And today, those baddies can be compared with maniacal corporate cads like Bernie Madoff and Leona Helmsley.

It's a mistake to consider Walt Disney's Zorro as a footnote in television history or in Disney history. As the bonus features prove, the series was produced at a budget unheard of at the time and has a movie quality. The character never seems to go out of style -- just ask Antonio Banderas, who portrayed the hero in two recent films. But surely even he would acknowledge that Guy Williams in many ways made Zorro his own and may always be fondly remembered for the role.









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