Friday, July 31, 2020

Little Women (1978)

The 1978 Little Women was a two-part mini-series aired over a couple on nights on NBC. Little Women isn't something I would have showed up for at the time, but I was super excited to watch it now. It has a Who's Who of '70s and '80s TV actors with Susan Dey (Laurie Partridge) as Jo, Meredith Baxter (Elyse Keaton) as Meg, and Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) as Beth. 

Ann Dusenberry, the actor playing Amy, isn't as recognizable, but she was in an especially memorable episode of magnum pi that we covered on the recent AfterLUNCH discussion (she plays an unhinged woman who falls for Magnum and tries to murder Mimi Rogers), so even she was fun. And then there's Robert Young (Marcus Welby) as Laurie's grandfather, William Shatner as Professor Bhaer, and John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Amy's suitor Frank Vaughn.

As entertaining as the cast is, they're also quite good. Meredith Baxter is classically beautiful and refined as Meg, but she's also kind. She's perfect playing the oldest daughter who remembers better times and is trying to stoically endure her family's reduction in finances. 

Susan Dey... I've recently run into a couple of roles of hers from the '70s that I'd never seen before and they never fail to remind me that my crush on Laurie Partridge was real and strong. She's lovely as Jo and the script really emphasizes her struggle to control her temper.

Eve Plumb doesn't get much to do as Beth, but she's fine. And I like that the mini-series has enough time to explore Beth's realization that she's dying and how she helps Jo to come to terms with it. Jo's reluctance for change is a big theme that this adaptation pays a lot of attention to.

Amy is always a challenging character to cast because she's so young at the beginning of the novel and so matured and improved by the end. There are actors who make both parts work - I think Elizabeth Taylor and Janina Faye are good examples - but Ann Dusenberry isn't one of them. She's fine as the older Amy, but never convincing as the younger version. 

I don't know Richard Gilliland, but he had a recurring character on Designing Women as well as a ton of guest roles on a gazillion other '70s and '80s TV shows, so his face was familiar to me. He's a good Laurie, even though the script goes pretty dark with him. It really plays up the conflict between him and his grandfather and goes to extremes with Laurie's fall into drinking and gaming. There's even a scene where Laurie and his grandfather strike each other, which I thought was excessive. 

But of course it works out okay in the end and Robert Young does well with both the stern and gentle aspects of Grandfather's personality. I do think those aspects could be better integrated, but that might be more of a script problem than the performance. It's easy to see what Laurie has done to make Grandfather angry, but Young's character seems to switch quickly between hot and cold.

One of the performances I most looked forward to didn't appear until the second of the two episodes and that's William Shatner as Professor Bhaer. The professor is a tough character to do well, because he usually comes across as too old for Jo and creepy in his interest in her. Shatner is 20 years older than Dey, but he's using all of his considerable Captain Kirk charm to make a super charismatic character that it's easy to believe Jo falls for. I could do without Shatner's version of a German accent, but he's the best Professor Bhaer so far. He has a horrible, out-of-character line of sexist dialogue at the very end - suddenly insisting on being the master in his and Jo's relationship - but that's on the script. 

I'm also not crazy about how the script has Jo narrate the whole story first person. Or then again, maybe I am. She's talking the whole way through about her family life and her journey to become a writer in this bygone era, so it reminded me a lot of John Boy's voice-overs on The Waltons

The Waltons was super popular at the time, so Jo's copying him sometimes feels like a ripoff. But other times, the cast and Jo's descriptions just made me super nostalgic for this age of television. And that was really pleasant. I think I enjoyed Little Women '78 more than it probably deserves, but I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Western History | The First 18 Minutes of The Mask of Zorro (1998)

The opening scenes of The Mask of Zorro take place in 1921. Zorro is middle-aged and though he's still active, he's considering hanging up his whip and rapier. It seems like a good time since Spain and its ruthless alcaldes and commandantes are being driven out by the Mexican War of Independence led by Antonio López de Santa Anna.

I like that the movie roots itself in history. Being set in California, it's fair that it'll skip the Texas Revolution that led to the Mexican-American War. But the mention of Santa Anna - like the Davy Crockett movie I watched before this - foreshadows the events around Sam Houston and the Alamo. 

Anthony Hopkins was a weird choice to play the original Zorro. I mean, it's understandable. Hopkins pretty much owned Hollywood in the late '90s and since he quickly gives over the mask to Antonio Banderas, his Welshness isn't as distracting as it might have been. Still, watching just the parts where he's playing younger and is the one and only Zorro... he doesn't exactly disappear into the role. 

It's all set-up though. We meet the young village boy Alejandro who idolizes Zorro and will take over the role in the future. We meet the evil Don Montero who has to leave thanks to Santa Anna's forces, but is desperate to do as much damage to Zorro before he goes as possible. We also learn that our hero Don Diego is now married and has a daughter, though that doesn't last long.

The opening glosses over how Montero has learned that Don Diego is Zorro. That's an important point and would be the whole plot if this was actually a movie about Don Diego. But Zorro is getting older and perhaps a little careless, so I'll let it go. On Montero's way out of town, he shows up at the De la Vega estate and confronts Zorro. It looks like Montero wants to kill Zorro, but he changes his mind when Diego's wife - whom Montero has always desired for himself - dies trying to protect her husband. That causes Montero to adapt his plans, so he simply arrests Diego, but kidnaps his daughter to raise as Montero's own child.

And that's where the story sits for the next 20 years, so I've decided to leave it alone for now and come back to it when the rest of this project's timeline has caught up to it.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

Pax and I visit the light-hearted, but also kind of weird Cheyenne Social Club starring Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones, and directed by Gene Kelly.

Also: Listener mail and quick reviews of The Far Horizons (1955), Six-Gun Gorilla: Long Days of Vengeance by Brian Christgau and Adrian Sibar, and Gunfighters: A Chronicle of Dangerous Men & Violent Death by Al Cimino.

Monday, July 20, 2020

AfterLUNCH 4: magnum pi, season 2

The magnum pi panel reconvenes to discuss Season 2. It's Evan Hanson, Jeeg, Rob Graham, William Bruce West, and I talking about our favorite episodes, who we ship, TC's photography skills, and of course Higgins' half-brother from Texas.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Western History | Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956)

The Far Horizons begins and ends in the Eastern US, so Davy Crockett and the River Pirates makes a nice follow-up for my Western History film project. It takes place mostly on the Mississippi River as legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett (Fess Parker) and his trapping partner Georgie Russel (Buddy Ebsen) work to get their furs from Kentucky to market in New Orleans.

Disney's Davy Crockett movies follow a weird timeline. They started as five episodes on the Disneyland anthology TV show on ABC. The first three episodes aired in December 1954 and January and February 1955, covering the major events of Crockett's life: his conflicts with American Indians, his election into Congress, and his death at the Alamo. 

That was supposed to be it, but Parker's portrayal of him was so popular that Disney produced two more episodes at the end of 1955. And since it was impossible to do a sequel set after the Alamo, they set the new episodes in 1810 during Crockett's adventures as a trapper. This is also just a couple of years after Lewis and Clark returned from their Western expedition. So even though Crockett never goes West in these prequel episodes, they fit nicely in the chronology and introduce a character who's going to play a big role in Western history.

The first three Disneyland episodes had been combined in May 1955 and released in movie theaters as Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Following that model, the last two episodes were also combined to form the theatrical release, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates in July 1956.

River Pirates is a simple, fun adventure. Parker is super charming as the impeccably honest, relentlessly brave Crockett. And Buddy Ebsen makes a delightful, loyal, and competent sidekick.

And even though the film was edited from two different TV episodes, they're narratively connected and feel like part of the same story. The first half is Crockett and Russel's trip downriver and the second half is their trip back up. There is a clear break between the two parts though and the trip down is the more compelling. 

The first half is a race between Crockett and the self-proclaimed river king (and cheater extraordinaire) Mike Fink (Jeff York). A lot of it feels like a Bugs Bunny / Yosemite Sam cartoon in the best possible way with Fink constantly rigging the contest or otherwise sabotaging Crockett's team, but Crockett good-naturedly plows on and finds ways to catch up. It's a lot of fun.

The trip back up deals with the titular river pirates who appeared in the first half, but now have to be stopped before they start an all-out war. They disguise themselves as Indians when they attack, which is creating tension between the local settlers and the actual Indians who live in the area. It's a fine setup for a story, but most of it is a long battle and I got a little impatient by the end.

Still, I was excited to revisit Parker's Davy Crockett and River Pirates didn't disappoint. I'm looking forward to watching King of the Wild Frontier again soon. And even though it doesn't fit in with this Western History project, I think I'll also revisit some of the 20th Century Fox TV show Daniel Boone

The historical Boone was active during the Revolutionary War period and didn't actually wear the fringed buckskins and coon-skin cap that Crockett did, but Fox had set their hearts on a new Davy Crockett series starring Parker. When Disney refused to sell the rights to Parker as Crockett, Fox simply renamed the character and some of the locations, but kept everything else. And gave him a much better theme song.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Pretty in Pink: The TV Series | Senior Year: Some Kind of Wonderful

Final season! Although someone could easily take this hypothetical TV show into college years, because I've already started doing that in this season.

I designed the series as an ensemble show, but just because of the Pretty in Pink title I've always thought of Andie Walsh as the lead character. She graduated at the end of last season, but I don't want to let her go that easily, so she's going to stay on. I also don't want her hanging around the high school, but she'll still be working at TRAX with Iona, saving money for college. Blane is away at school though, which puts tension on their relationship. 

When I first thought of this and talked about it on the Fourth Chair Army Invasion podcast, my idea was to complicate things even more by having Duckie's connection with Kristy Swanson at the prom be temporary and have him again try to win over Andie with Blane away. Thinking more about it, I don't like that. It's more interesting to me to have Duckie try to make things work with a new girlfriend, while also keeping his friendship with Andie. The more crisis Andie experiences over Blane, the more Duckie will want to love and support her, which will of course create tension with "Duckette."

Let's not call her "Duckette," though. Swanson also played a student named Simone in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It's pretty easy to make that the same character. Which I guess means that we need to cast her. I'm picking Julia Garcia, who's got a great, bubbly smile and has had recurring roles on Fresh Off the Boat and Disney's Sydney to the Max.

But while we keep Andie, Duckie, and Simone in focus, we also need to spend time with the characters whose movies came out during the 1986-87 school year. And that would be the folks of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful (which provides the sub-title for the season).

Simone is tied into Ferris' world, so let's discuss him first. He's burned out on academics and really life-goals in general, so he starts skipping school a lot this year. But between last year and this one, he's become a school legend. All the cliques think he's super cool, so he's completely outside the normal social/power structure.

Meanwhile, Cameron's relationship with his dad is getting worse and worse, which leads to a legendary day of hookie with Ferris and Sloane. Like the events of the Weird Science and The Breakfast Club movies, this will happen off-screen and between episodes. But we will follow up with Cameron as he confronts his father about the destruction of the Ferrari and their relationship in general.

While this is going on, we'll also be checking in with Keith, Watts, and Amanda. Keith has had a crush on Amanda for four years and realizes that his chance to go out with her will completely vanish at the end of the year. Much to Watts' dismay, he starts figuring out how to ask Amanda out for an epic date. This story line will follow our approach for Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, pretty much remaking the movies over the course of several episodes and really digging into the emotions and psychology of the various characters.

And that's it for Pretty in Pink: The Series. You could cast it a lot of different ways than how I chose, but I'm super happy with how well the John Hughes Teeniverse fits together. Makes me want to re-watch the movies now.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Western History | The West: Empire Upon the Trails

Since I've wrapped up the films about early European encroachment into the American West, it's time to look at the early nineteenth century and the United States' taking over the area. I watched the second episode of Stephen Ives' The West (co-produced by Ken Burns) and was shocked at how little time it took for the US to lay claim to the entire territory comprised by what's now the 48 continental states. About 20 years.

One big effort was the liberating of Texas from the Mexican Empire, followed by its admission into the United States. That finished off the area south of the Louisiana Purchase. 

The other was the spread of US settlers into Oregon along the Oregon Trail. Once those folks succeeded in bringing the Pacific Northwest under US control, they turned their attention south to California, which was itself separating from the Mexican Empire and trying to figure out what to do next. 

For this part of history, I'm going to start my movie marathon with Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, covering some of Crockett's early adventures before he heads to Texas and gets involved with the Alamo. I'll also sneak in The Mask of Zorro, about the heir to the Zorro legacy a couple of decades after the original was running around.

With those connections to earlier times done, I'll watch some movies about the mountain men who first traveled into Lewis and Clark territory to trap and trade in furs. I have my eye on a few of these that I'll reveal as we go along.

Then there are about a dozen movies that cover the history of Texas. A lot of those are specifically about the Alamo, but a couple go into more detail about Sam Houston and his role in bringing Texas into the US.

Sadly, I wasn't able to find any cinematic depictions of the Trail of Tears outside of documentaries. As Texas was becoming integrated with the US, the country was kicking out as many Indians as it could find, sending them west to be dealt with later in the undefined Indian Territory that would later become Oklahoma. It's a heartbreaking story and an important one, so I'll be watching a documentary about that.

After that, I've got several wagon train movies in the queue, including a couple about the Mormon move to Utah. And that'll wrap up this section. I won't circle back to California just yet. The West's second episode ends with the discovery of gold, but mostly just teases the ultimate fate of the region, which won't fully be decided until the 1850s.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Pretty in Pink: The TV Series | Junior Year: Isn't She...?

The third season of my hypothetical Pretty in Pink TV show would take place from Fall 1985 through Summer 1986. The only John Hughes teen movie to come out during that time period was Pretty in Pink itself, but that's plenty. Especially considering that we took the name of the series from it, but that does raise an issue with naming the season. Instead of naming it after one of the movies whose events it covers (like we've been doing), I'm calling it "Isn't She...?" after an iconic lyric in the Psychedelic Furs song that gave the film its name.

We don't have any new freshmen characters this season. From here out, we'll stick with the characters we have. Breakfast Clubbers John, Claire, and Andrew all graduated at the end of last season, so some of this season will focus on the remaining two: Brian and Allison. Allison's friendships with Andy and Claire last year had a big impact on her. She never became one of the snobby rich kids, but that group accepted her because Andy was dating her. They didn't fully understand it, but they didn't pick on her, either.

Things are hard with Andy as a freshman in college, but he was accepted to University of Illinois at Chicago, so at least he's still local and they're trying to make it work.

Brian's a different story though. He didn't get picked on as much with Claire, Andy, and Bender watching out for him, but he also never escaped being labeled as a nerd and was always sort of an outsider to the rest of the Club. He's still hanging out with younger students like Farmer Ted and Gary and Wyatt. 

Ferris and Cameron have more or less split from the rest of the nerd clique. They both come from wealthy families, so now that they're upperclassmen, the student population is starting to give them more respect. There's no dramatic split from the other nerds; in fact, Ferris is especially gracious and cool with them. It's just that he (and by extension, Cameron's) social circle is expanding. That puts Ferris in contact with Sloane and at some point in the season, they start dating. We'll also focus a lot on Cameron's home life: his increasingly shaky relationship with his emotionally distant father and his mother's inability to intervene.

Switching over to Andie Walsh, the first half of the season has her starting to get tired of Duckie, so she begins hanging out at an 18-and-older club where he can't get in. She also gets an after-school job at the record store TRAX. The big focus though - especially in the second half of the season - is on Blane's asking Andie to the prom. There's fall out with Blane's friends; there's fall out with Duckie. It's a whole big mess.

Monday, July 06, 2020

AfterLUNCH | Police Cop Super Squad

Adam Pope pitched the idea and I dug it, so we invited Chris Bailey, Rob Graham, Evan Hanson, and Christian Nielsen to help create teams of fictional police characters. Each team has a leader, a detective, a ballistics expert, a wild card, a scientist, an undercover expert, a dispatcher, and a beat officer. And as an added bonus, we had to record late at night for logistical reasons, so we're extra loopy.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Little Women (1970)

In 1970, the BBC adapted Little Women as a 9-part mini-series, which means a couple of things. First, it means more room for the story so we're finally getting away from the specific cuts made by the 1933 film and then copied by the 1949 remake. There's not only more of Jo and Amy's rivalvry, but also Meg's marriage and the adjustments that she and John Brooke have to learn.

The other thing about this being a BBC production is that almost everyone has English accents, so it feels like it could be happening in Dorset as easily as Massachusetts. The big exception is Pat Nye as Hannah, the Marches' housekeeper. Nye is working hard on a Southern accent that I'm not sure is that appropriate either. In the novel, Hannah has her own dialect, but if memory serves, she's supposed to be Irish. None of this is really a problem or made the show less enjoyable for me, but it's amusing.

What I didn't enjoy as much was that the adaptation uses so much of its extra time to highlight the conflicts between the characters in darker, unpleasant ways. Alcott doesn't write any of these people as flawless, but they're all aware of their faults and eager to improve. And more importantly, they all genuinely like each other. In this mini-series though, they're bickering and quarrelsome.

Laurie and his grandfather are a good example. In the novel, they fundamentally disagree about the direction of Laurie's life, with Laurie wanting to follow in his parents' musical footsteps, but Mr Laurence urging for what he believes would be a more useful occupation. Alcott has the two characters clash, but it's always clear that Mr Laurence loves Laurie and wants good things for him, while Laurie in turn respects his grandfather. In the mini-series, they get downright nasty with each other and there's a lot more sulking.

Hannah is another case. I don't know where this version's cantankerous, complaining, old grouch came from, but she's not from the book. She's meant to be lovably irritable, but I hated being around her.

Patrick Troughton's Mr March isn't grumpy or mean, but this version really emphasizes his absence and makes it not so much about duty to his country as just a general negligence of his family. 

You get the idea. If there are two possible motivations for a character to act badly in Little Women, this version chooses the more selfish. Everyone's just a little more despairing. There's less hope. Which is pretty understandable for a 1970s production. The world was a dark, uncertain place. It's just not going to be one of my favorite adaptations.

Outside of that, it's a good cast. It's certainly fun seeing Doctor Who as the father. Angela Down plays Jo with a perfect mix of well-meaning and shooting-her-mouth-off. Janina Faye is lovely as Amy even if this version never quite matures the way the literary one did. (When Faye was ten years old she had a part in Hammer's Horror of Dracula, which makes me want to go back and watch that again now.) Stephanie Bidmead is a great, matronly Marmie. And I really enjoyed Jean Anderson as the thin, prissy Aunt March, maybe because that character is already pretty disagreeable in the book and translates easily into this version.

Two out of five languishing Lauries.


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