THE ADVENTURES OF BIFFLE & SHOOSTER (2015) – Classic comedy that you never knew existed

It’s time to answer one of cinema’s burning questions: Who the heck are Biffle & Shooster?

The raucous duo are apparently the brainchild of Hollywood producer Michael Schlesinger, who at some point must have decided he wanted to represent a comedy team from Hollywood’s Golden Age, even though Schlesinger himself wasn’t born until 1950. Thus were borne Benny Biffle (Nick Santa Maria) and Sam Shooster (Will Ryan), two crazies who owe more than a bit of their existence to Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and probably any other double-act you can name from the post-vaudeville era.

The Adventures of Biffle & Shooster is a collection of comedy short subjects that the team supposedly filmed in the 1930’s. Schlesinger and his troupe have gone miles beyond the call of duty to give these shorts the look and feel of 1930’s programmers, complete with black-and-white cinematography (except for one short filmed in Cinecolor, the poor man’s version of 1930’s Technicolor), and old-fashioned wipes and fade-outs, as well as authentic-looking “bumpers” including B&S making a plea for the Will Rogers Institute. Also, ’30s movie buffs will be delighted by the countless inside jokes provided in the shorts.

The plotlines certainly feel 1930’s-ish enough. They don’t miss a single comedy trope of the times: comic murder mystery (“The Biffle Murder Case”); haunted mansion with crazy scientist (“Bride of Finklestein); musical revue extravaganza (“Schmo Boat”); and finally, husband unexpectedly brings boss home for dinner, wife leaves husband in the lurch, and his partner dresses in drag to save the day (a triple-header in “Imitation of Wife”).

All of this is put over most effective by a very eager-to-please cast that is in on the jokes, not the least of which are the two leads. Will Ryan is a most effective straight man (and charming musician, in several gratuitous musical numbers). And Nick Santa Maria, as the situation calls for, mugs gleefully in a style not seen since the salad days of Jerry Lewis.

Anyone who has ever wished that comedy would return to the old days when comedians actually worked to get a laugh will bask in this nostalgic piece of hilarity. And I can’t help but think that kids will be laughing themselves silly at these shorts, which could provide their film-buff parents with a pipeline to introduce their kiddies to the style of old-fashioned comedy.

(Oh, and be sure to look for the surprise appearances from acclaimed actor Robert Forster, and a very funny two-line bit from “cult” character actor Dick Miller.)

The Adventures of Biff & Shooster is available for rental on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV. Spring for the rental, bub — you’ll thank me later.

Larry Lujack and The Tooth Fairy

Do you remember when radio had personality? And personalities?

One of my favorite bloggers, Ken Levine, does. Besides being an Emmy-winning writer (he used to write for the likes of “M*A*S*H” and “Cheers”), he was also a disk jockey in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s and early ’70s. He is forever waxing nostalgic about the old-fashioned DJs who used to provide comedy and contests between the songs.

I share Mr. Levine’s nostalgia. I grew up in a tiny Illinois town named Lexington, which is about two hours south of Chicago. Every morning I would hop on the school bus, whose radio would be tuned to WLS, the Chicago station that boasted of “50,000 watts of power” and whose signal still reaches 38 states at nighttime. In the mornings, WLS would treat us to the deep-voiced tones and risque humor of “Super Jock” Larry Lujack.

Mr. Lujack.

Mr. Lujack was such a radio legend that when he died in 2013, he rated an obituary in The New York Times. His show was replete with recurring segments that were eyebrow-raising at the time but would hardly evince a shrug today, such as “Animal Stories” and “The Cheap, Trashy Showbiz Report.”

But my all-time favorite segment of his was a daily serial titled “The Adventures of The Tooth Fairy.” The premise was that a dentist named Newton Snickers (voiced by Chicago voice-over artist Dick Orkin) became so obsessed with his job that he declared himself the genuine Tooth Fairy and decided to do the job for all of America’s good little boys and girls. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the adults who saw Newton in his fairy get-up and didn’t realize his earnest intentions.

I’ve embedded one of the “Tooth Fairy” audio segments below. I don’t know how it will play to the uninitiated, but humor-wise, it’s definitely in the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” mode. A couple more segments of the show are available on YouTube. For a brief history of the show, click here.

So did you have a favorite radio “jock” when you were growing up? If so, please share your story with us.

FAMILY BAND: THE COWSILLS STORY (2011) – The pain, The Cowsills, and other things

In the late 1960’s arose a musical genre known as “bubblegum pop” — rock music stripped of any thoughtful content, meant only as escapism. And it didn’t come any more bubblegummy than The Cowsills.

Originally consisting of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, Paul, and John — there was another brother, which we’ll get to shortly — the group’s self-proclaimed manager, the boys’ father Bud, insisted on adding mom Barbara and sister Susan, both of whom were reluctant to join the act. Nevertheless, the premise of a “together” family singing hip songs in the late ’60s was the perfect exclamation point for the hippie era, and The Cowsills sold millions of records and were a hit in concerts and
TV appearances.

Sadly, the seemingly cheery family had tension constantly brewing offstage. Bud was a Navy veteran, and much like the character portrayed in The Great Santini, the only method he saw fit for running the family was the military way. He ruled with an iron hand, which he frequently applied to family members who showed the slightest form of rebellion.

There were two glaring examples of Bud’s bullying. One was Richard, the one non-performing Cowsill, against whom Bud had an inexplicable grudge. When Bill — whom the rest of the family regarded as the group’s de facto leader — tried to convince Bud that Richard would make a great drummer for the group, Richard instead nonchalantly sent Richard off to fight in Vietnam. A while later, Bill and Bud got into a physical confrontation in which Bill surprised himself by emerging victorious. The next day, Bud sent Bill a letter stating that his services were no longer needed for the group or the family.

All of this family turmoil, plus the group’s loss of popularity due to changing musical styles, is well-documented here. The movie is narrated by Bob, and he makes it quite clear that he is trying to make some sense of the chaos that befell the family. If the film has any fault, it’s that — already a pretty brisk 90 minutes — it seems a little padded by Bob’s aw-shucks narration, as well as moments where untitled music is expected to carry the movie along for a few more minutes. (Also, strangely, there are clips of The Cowsills appearing on Mike Douglas’ and Johnny Carson’s talk shows without identifying the hosts.)

But overall, this is a very insightful, not to mention bittersweet portrait of a family who might have made more of their success if not for their dysfunctionality. I always thought their song “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” was a bit treacly, but this movie definitely makes you see their music in a different light.

Nowhere Man

As I’ve recently mentioned on this blog, I officially retired eight weeks ago. When I turned 60 three months ago, I became eligible for 71.5% (who determined that figure?) of my late wife’s Social Security benefits, and while that wasn’t a fortune, I found that it was a comfortable enough figure to live on. So I took the closest ramp off the rat race, and here I am.

Until she discovered that I’d make it okay on my own, my grown daughter was dead set against the idea. She was convinced that I should hold out until age 62 so that I could get more money for retirement. But for me, it wasn’t completely about the money.

After having been laid off from the best job I’d ever had, I’d been forced to take a job at a convenience store. After a year of working there, I thought it would get easier. But frankly, it only made me more disgusted with life. Everything I’d ever hated about jobs — condescending bosses, annoying co-workers, concern about things that didn’t matter — came to bear on this job. Even emptying the trash made me shudder, and not just for the obvious reasons. I would find things such as half-eaten pizzas or half-used cartons of beer (with six unopened bottles, just thrown away) and think, How can people waste this stuff so nonchalantly?

Sadly, I’ve never been much of a people person to start with, but this job only emphasized that fact, to my despair. As with many Americans, there were many days when it was all I could do to pull myself out of bed just to go to the job. So, as I say, when a window of opportunity presented itself, I jumped right through it.

The funny thing is, I used to think it was just me who felt this way. Plenty of people dislike their jobs, but not to the point of wanting to avoid mankind altogether. Or so I thought. But lately, I’ve found some evidence on the Internet that lots of folks are tired of having to deal with their fellow man (or woman).

Mark Evanier, a very entertaining blogger and one of my favorites, recently wrote this column about how he has enough means and material goods that he is quite happy not having to negotiate the outside world. And on Twitter, there’s an account named Fact (@Fact) that daily espouses either some fact or some random philosophy about life. On July 2, they posted this gem: “Most people aren’t actually anti-social. They choose to be alone because they hate spending time with stupid people.”

Sadly, it’s not an absurd philosophy these days. I get all of my news from my computer nowadays. When you go to the news and read about insurrections against our Capitol, or how politicians who were supposedly elected to serve their constituents do nothing but fill their own coffers, staying squirreled away in your little room suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Let me know what your feelings are on this subject. In the meantime, I’m off to my patio to smoke a cigar.

Review of the Jane Russell biography MEAN…MOODY…MAGNIFICENT!

Like millions of unenlightened American males, my first reaction to seeing movie actress Jane Russell was sheer lust. When I was 15 years old, there was a coffee-table movie book that showed a publicity photo of Russell from her musical The French Line. The photo showed Jane in a notoriously skimpy bathing suit, and that was it for me. It was long after that before I saw any of her movies, and I gradually realized that Russell’s fame was based on genuine talent as much as on her anatomy.

The first book to detail Russell’s life has now completed my view of Russell as far more complex than I’d ever imagined. Christina Rice’s book is named Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, and it’s worthy of its attention-getting title.

(For those not in the know, Rice took the 3M title from a famed publicity poster for Russell’s debut film, The Outlaw [1943].)

From what I’ve previously read of Russell, she was a mass of contradictions. In her own autobiography, Russell apologizes to any actresses who saw the exploitation of their bodies as Russell’s route to quick fame. Yet Russell’s book is filled with photos that show her as seemingly happy to show off her body in any instance. Russell later became a gay icon, yet at various times, she both approved of or brushed off any connection with what would later become known as the LGBT community.

One of the interesting points about MMM is that Rice embraces Russell’s dichotomies and shows that Russell herself was at a loss to explain her yin-yang philosophies of life. Rice has written a spirited book that takes as its template Russell’s public persona of “Take it or leave it.”

Rice details Russell’s good and bad sides in equal detail. Russell was a staunch, lifelong Christian who never forced her beliefs on anyone but made very public use of them whenever they were needed. Nevertheless, in addition to Russell’s many provocative movie roles, she did many things that conservatives would label as most un-Christian. In the ’40s, she submitted to a botched abortion that nearly killed her. Her long but troubled marriage to football star Robert Waterfield included physical fights and infidelities on both of their parts.

Russell’s many good works are discussed in the book as well. Foremost among them is Russell’s formation of WAIF, the association that paved the way for international adoptions of suffering or abandoned children. Rice lovingly describes how Russell bulldozed through government bureaucracy to start her groundbreaking project. Also described in the book are her generosity and friendship towards her many friends, co-stars, and fans.

Of course, the book would be incomplete without the story of millionaire Howard Hughes’ discovery and subsequent exploitation of Russell. Rice examines how the young, naive Russell eventually overcome her fear and distaste of Hollywood’s manipulation of her (forgive me) public figure and stood out as an early feminist (though Russell claimed she disliked the term and was certain she wasn’t a feminist at all).

Rice provides a meticulously researched, yet breezy read about an actress who embraced her contradictions and put them to good use, yet stood up for herself whenever necessary. Mean…Moody…Magnificent! provides the multi-faced study of Russell that her movies never did .

A public service announcement

Most of you can probably borrow movies on disc from your local library. But a chain of libraries across the country have enabled viewers to stream movies for free from an online system.

The system is named Kanopy.com, and it’s essentially a mini-Netflix for library users. If you have an up-to-date library card, go to Kanapy.com. The site can take you to the address for the library you regularly use, or if you don’t go to one particular library in your area, Kanopy can find one for you.

Kanopy will then ask for your library card’s ID and password, plus the usual name-and-address information. Once you’re approved as a member, Kanopy will take you to their selection of movies and TV series. After that, you are allowed to stream up to six movies per month for free to your computer or electronic device. Kanopy’s selection isn’t as huge as Netflix’s, but it has a quality line-up, including contemporary movies, family and adult TV shows, and film classics such as The Odd Couple and Chinatown.

So now you have yet another alternative for watching your favorite movies at home for free. Don’t you just love the Internet?

The Norman Lear Effect’s effect on Norman Lear’s ego

YouTube has created a channel with the misleading name of “The Norman Lear Effect.”

For those not in the know: After toiling in TV and movie writing for decades, in 1971 Lear created “All in the Family,” a CBS sitcom that was groundbreaking in its use of topicality (particularly about race) and frank dialogue. It was a major hit that spawned several spin-offs, leading to further TV hits created by Lear. In the 1970’s, Lear was the auteur equivalent of Lucille Ball — it seemed as though any TV channel you turned into, you coul find one of Lear’s shows being broadcast.

Lear was my hero when I was a kid. Even though I was only 10 years old when “All in the Family” premiered, I greatly appreciated its depiction of working-class life. I could never relate to “The Brady Bunch” with its cutesy kids and fluffy dog. I could easily relate to “AITF” with its sounds of toilets flushing and loudly arguing family members.

In 1978, Lear left his perch as producer of “AITF” and his other hits, and he went on to pursue other interests. The shows of his that were still running were folded into a production company named Embassy Communications, which went on to produce hits of their own.

The trouble was, the Embassy productions were bland shows that followed the same formula: One-note characters bleating out one-liners in “harmless” situations were the exact opposite of “AITF’s”
confrontational plots. If you’ve ever seen “Silver Spoons” or “Who’s the Boss?”, you’d never mistake them for Norman Lear productions.

(Johnny Carson perfectly summed up the situation in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview where he praised the writing on Lear’s “AITF” and “Maude” while comparing it to the cutesiness of other sitcoms:

“In some of the stuff I see, the kids are funny, the housekeeper is funny, the garbage man comes on and he’s funny. Everybody is throwing funny things around, but there are no convincing relationships between the characters. Well, in the first place, you don’t really give a s**t. You don’t know these people, so you don’t care. Writers have just written jokes for them.”

Unfortunately, that’s a perfect description of “Diff’rent Strokes,” an Embassy production that premiered shortly after Lear left TV.)

(Another test I would use against these shows is memorability. TV fans still talk about, “Remember the episode where Archie Bunker… [fill in the blank — met Sammy Davis Jr., got locked in the basement, etc.].” I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could fondly recall any plotline of “Silver Spoons.”)

The reason I’m ranting about this is because YouTube’s “The Norman Lear Effect” is mixing the good with the bad. They’re posting complete episodes of “AITF,” “One Day at a Time,” and other Lear hits, which is fine with me. (If only they’d post eps of Lear’s short-lived but bawdy and funny “Hot L Baltimore” (1975), featuring ensemble work from future stars Conchata Ferrell and James Cromwell.)

But YouTube is also posting episodes from Embassy productions that I don’t want to hear about again, much less watch. (I don’t ever want to be forced to watch another episode of “Archie Bunker’s Place,” the Lear-less “All in the Family” spin-off in which Carroll O’Connor took an iconic TV character and ran him into the ground.)

You would think that Lear, who is now 98 (!!) years old, would have a big enough body of work that he wouldn’t try to take credit for anyone else’s. But no, if it came from his production company, apparently he’s glad to say that he had his fingerprints in it somewhere. It’s rather like tracing the lineage of the guy who created the limerick to the guy who wrote, “There once was a man from Nantucket…”

If you need a guide to try and sort this out, go to Wikipedia’s entry on Norman Lear. It has a chart that lists only the shows with which Lear was directly involved. “Silver Spoons” and its ilk are not on that chart. If we’re going to remember Lear (as well we should), let’s remember the stuff that he did best.

Reading and retiring

For a blog that’s supposed to be movie-themed, I admit that most of my recent blog entries have had more to do with my personal life than with pop culture. (And part of today’s blog will, as well.) So I thought I’d give a plug to a movie biography that is due out in mid-June.

The lengthy title of this modest epic is Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend. The book’s author is Christina Rice, whose other bios I haven’t read, and the book will not be coming out until June 15. But the subject matter itself was enough to make me pre-order a copy.

From the book’s title, I’m guessing that its slant will be how Russell became famous more from publicizing her glorious physical assets than from her talent. And I probably can’t disagree with that. I first came across Ms. Russell when I was 15 years old. I was perusing a coffee-table book about the movies when I came across an eye-popping publicity photo of Jane from her movie The French Line, and that alone was enough to instill my lust for her ever since.

I’ve since watched several of her movies and have noted that she was indeed quite a talented singer and actress. But let’s face it — the first time you look at Russell, are you thinking about her thespian gifts or her physical ones?

I read Jane’s autobiography years ago, and she seemed to be two-faced about her appeal. Throughout the book, Jane seems ashamed when people gawk over her figure, and she apologizes to any woman who ever had to exploit her looks in order to gain fame. Yet the book has no shortage of photos that proudly display Jane’s fulsome physique (including a pic of her in a bikini, which was quite shocking in 1955). So she always seemed to want it both ways — acting shocked, shocked that anyone would only want to look at her body, while displaying said body in some quite compromising poses. My main interest in Rice’s book — other than the obvious — will be to see if she addresses Jane’s hypocrisy and her helping to usher in the “look but don’t touch” era of femininity.

(Click here to go to Amazon.com to learn more about the book or to pre-order it.)

*

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s my really important news…I’M RETIRED!

I never, ever thought retirement was even a consideration in my life plan. I used to joke that my idea of retirement would be a dignified cremation.

But shortly after my wife died last year, I was informed that when I turned 60 years old, I would be entitled to 71.5% of my late wife’s Social Security benefits. At the time, I shrugged this off as a pipe dream. But the closer my 60th birthday came, the more I thought of this as a tangible possibility. I figured up my ostensible Social Security payment and discovered that it would pay all my monthly bills and would still leave me a comfortable amount to live on. Naturally, this made me even more anxious that the plan wouldn’t go through properly.

I turned 60 on April 27, at which time I called the Social Security office. When I told them the purpose of my call, they asked me to gather some personal data about me and my wife (birth dates, her death date, etc.), and then they would call me back on May 18 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Now, we all know the frustration of having to deal with any federal bureaucracy, and the closer May 18 came, the more I feared that I would have to suffer the same fate. I hadn’t even gotten the name of the person I spoke with at the Social Security office. I forgot if I’d even given them my phone number. And what if they just jotted it down and then let it get lost in the paperwork?

Well, if there was ever one time when I hoped my experience with the Government would be positive, this is the time my hope became true. To remind me about the phone call, they sent me two voicemails and one text message prior to May 18. When the date came, they called right on time, discerned the information they needed, and told me that they’d process my request ASAP, although they said it might take up to 30 days to process.

Two days later, my first monthly Social Security payment had been Direct Deposited into my checking account. Two days after that, I quit one of the most thankless jobs I’ve ever had.

I’ve that, once you tell everyone that you’re going to retire, everyone has an opinion about it. My daughter still isn’t convinced that I can survive on my monthly payments, and she keeps hounding me to find some on-line or part-time job to supplement my income. One of my long-retired roommates, who now plays the stock market for a living, insisted that I’ll become bored stiff after 60 days.

All of this might be true, or none of it might be. Right now, I’m still in shock — a pleasant shock, to be sure — that I can eat, drink, drive around aimlessly, and walk around the house in my skivvies without having to answer to everyone. I went grocery shopping yesterday, and even that was a gratifying experience — being able to buy a steak or other “real” food, rather than getting by on junk from The Dollar Store.

I’m really not trying to rub my retirement in the faces of those who still have to toil for a living. And of course, I definitely don’t want to belittle my loving wife’s death, which made this whole thing possible. But after decades of working with condescending people (co-workers and customers) and grin and bear the whole thing, it is so relaxing to wake up in the morning, breathe, and know that breathing is the only thing I’m actually required to do at this point in my life.

I hope all of you will eventually reach this same happy fate. Now, excuse me while I go sip some wine out on the patio.