A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN (1969) – Breezy “Peanuts” movie debut

I have enjoyed the “Peanuts” comic strip ever since I was a kid. But when it comes to the TV-special and movie adaptations, I feel they got talkier and less charming as they went along. (I remember taking my nephew to see Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!) when it first came out in 1980 and being thoroughly unimpressed with it even back then.)

Happily, there is one movie that is just as good as my 8-year-old self remembered it to be — the first “Peanuts” theatrical film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Its soufflé-light plot is nevertheless substantial enough to make a “Peanuts” fan smile all throughout the movie, not to mention servicing a few fancy-shmancy animation sequences of the kind you rarely found in kids’ films after 1969.

(From here on in, this review is one big ol’ SPOILER ALERT. If you’re that concerned about it, watch the movie first before reading on. [As of this writing, the movie is available for viewing at Hulu.])

For those unfamiliar with the “Peanuts” milieu, the movie’s first half-hour is almost an origin story, showing us self-denigrating Charlie Brown from every possible angle — can’t fly a kite, can’t win a ball game, just plain can’t catch a break. Then Charlie hears about a spelling bee that is to take place at school that day, and despite several rounds of discouragement from his (mostly female) classmates, Charlie goes on to win the spelling bee at the classroom- and school-wide levels.

(As a former spelling bee champion myself, I regret to inform that for the sake of streamlining the plot, the movie’s makers left out the all-important state level of the bee, going straight to the national level instead.)

It is at this point, sadly, that the movie dumps its weakest plot point on us. As everyone sees Charlie off at the bus depot, Linus gives Charlie his security blanket as a gesture of friendship. Any “Peanuts” fan who knows anything about Linus knows that he goes through withdrawal after more than a day without the blanket.

Soon enough, blanket junkie Linus commandeers Snoopy’s help to go find Charlie Brown in New York City and demand his blanket back. The most unintentionally funny part of the movie is how little attention anyone other than Linus pays to finding the blanket. Charlie Brown forgot where he left it and is too preoccupied with the spelling bee to care. Snoopy happens across an empty Rockefeller Center at night and is far more interested in indulging his skating fantasy than in helping Linus detox.

Other than this minor aberration, though, the movie stays quite true to the charms of the original comic strip. This includes the songs by Rod McKuen, who at the time of the movie’s release was the troubadour of the 1970’s. Unfortunately, McKuen’s score, like his many books of poems, drew much criticism at the time for being overbaked. I think they perfectly fit the “Peanuts” style, and in any case, he wrote only three songs for the movie, so he’s pretty much off the soundtrack before he has much of a chance to offend. (For my money, I found the Sherman Bros.’ songs for this movie’s follow-up film, Snoopy, Come Home, to be far more repetitive and banal.)

It’s always nice to find that a story you remember from childhood still holds up. A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a charming example.

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THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) – They *can* make them like they used to

The following is my entry in The Costume Drama Blogathon, being hosted by Debbie at the blog Moon in Gemini from Sept. 6-8, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to a wide range of cinematic dresser-uppers!

1990’s.

zorro

These days, when filmmakers do ironic takes on old movies, you get the feeling they’re serving up spoofs because they don’t have the energy or nerve to do the real thing. But The Mask of Zorro is sincere about updating the old Saturday-matinee hero and, happily, does a darned good job of it.

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At first, the storyline makes you fear the worst. The original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), having been stripped of his wife and daughter by his evil adversary (Stuart Wilson, looking and acting like Mel Brooks on a tear), pulls a “Lethal Weapon” and decides he’s too old for this stuff. Twenty years later, Zorro Sr. recruits a down-on-his-luck bandito (Antonio Banderas) to revive the black-mask-superhero franchise.

But as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly here. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.

I wouldn’t have guessed that Hopkins (as Zorro?!) or Banderas had this in them, but they play the most outrageous situations with perfectly straight faces, and it seems to invigorate them. (My only complaint with this gloriously fun movie is the unconvincing youthful look given to Hopkins at the movie’s start. I guess the filmmakers’ love of old-movie conventions extends to bad hair-dye jobs.)

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And Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the love interest, might just have you swooning with delight (especially with a beaut of a sight gag in which Zeta-Jones is undressed by Banderas in a most unique way).

It’s hard to say how modern-day movie viewers jaded by toy soldiers and destructo-epics will respond to swashbucklers who are presented without a trace of irony. But The Mask of Zorro proves that heroes can still be served up straight, if it’s done with some wit and panache.

Popeye in YOU GOTTA BE A FOOTBALL HERO (1935) – Spinach-boom-ba!

The following is my entry in The 1st and 10 Blogathon, being co-hosted by Jonathan and Quiggy at, respectively, the blogs Dubism and The Midnite Drive-In. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ tributes to some of their favorite TV episodes and movies about football!

Popeye and Olive Oyl attend a football game where Bluto is the game’s star attraction. Bluto instantly wins Olive over (surprise!), to the point that she becomes an instant cheerleader and does an enthusiastic rendition of the title song. (Even if you don’t know the song by name, you’ll recognize it during the opening credits. It was written in 1933 and is one of the most performed football anthems ever.)

Popeye is so chagrined, he goes right out and signs up to play on the rival team (no time to bother performing for scouts!) — but Wimpy’s the coach and is busy nursing some hamburgers, so Popeye has his work cut out for him. (Great running gag: Wimpy keeps running out to an injured Popeye with a bucket of water, but Wimpy’s so distraught at the sight, he drinks the water himself.)

Mostly it’s football spot-gags, rather along the lines of the climactic football game in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932). As soon as Popeye manages a post-spinach rally, Olive does her quickest Bluto-to-Popeye transformation ever: “Er, I’m changing my mind…Go, Popeye!” Sheesh, college women!

My rating (out of 1 to 4 spinach cans):

Announcing THE HONEYMOONERS BLOGATHON!

If you’re a fan of Ralph Kramden & Co., it’s time to take a trip to the moon (or at least to 328 Chauncey Street) as we present

We want this blogathon to be as inventive and fun as the TV series that inspired it. Therefore, like Ralph in the episode “Young Man with a Horn,”

we have taken stock of this blogathon’s potential and would like to present you with its weaknesses and strong points. (In other words, here’s what you can and cannot write about for this blogathon.)

Strong Points (Do’s)

  1. You may write about any incarnation of “The Honeymooners”: The “Classic 39” episodes; the 1950’s “Lost Episodes” that were revived in 1985; the “Honeymooners” musical-based segments of Gleason’s 1966-1970 CBS variety show; and the hour-long “Honeymooners” specials that Gleason did for ABC in the late 1970’s. You can write about a single episode that you like, or you can write about the entire series.
  2. Studies and critiques of the individual characters.
  3. Facts and anecdotes related to the making of the series. (Just two examples: Leonard Stern was an early writer for the show and went on to produce “Get Smart” and “He & She” among other hit sitcoms. Louis Sorin, who played opposite Groucho Marx in the early Marx Bros. talkie Animal Crackers, appears as one of Ralph’s irritated neighbors 26 years later in “Mama Loves Mambo.” Tell everyone something we don’t already know about this TV show. Research can be fun!)
  4. Parodies of the show? Why not? Write about the “Honeymooners” take-offs performed on “In Living Color” and early “Saturday Night Live,” or the three “Honey-mousers” Looney Tunes cartoons produced by Warner Bros. from 1956 to 1960.
  5. Yes, if you dare, you can even write about the 2005 movie version of The Honeymooners, starring Cedric the Entertainer.

Weaknesses (Don’t’s)

  1. No mini-biographies of the series’ stars or backstage personnel, except as such information relates to the TV show (see my Leonard Stern example, above).
  2. No personal anecdotes such as “I was 10 years old when I first came across ‘The Honeymooners’ on TV.” We already know we all like “The Honeymooners,” or we wouldn’t be participating in a blog about them.
  3. No duplicate entries. We will continually update the list of blogathon entries that is shown below. Please check back on it to ensure that your idea is not already taken.

If you have your own idea for a blogathon entry, let us know. If it fits in the “Strengths” category, we’ll allow it.

Instructions

  1. In the “Comments” section at the bottom of this blog, please leave your name, the URL of your blog, and the movie you are choosing to blog about. Below are banners you can use to promote your blog entry. Please choose a banner, display it on your blog, and link it back to this blog.
  2. The blogathon will take place from Fri., Oct. 25, through Sun., Oct. 27, 2019. When the opening date of the blogathon arrives, leave a comment here with a link to your post, and I will display it in the list of entries (which I will continually update to the beginning of the ‘thon, so keep checking back!).
  3. I will not be assigning particular dates to any blog posts. As long as you get your entry in by the end of the day on Oct. 27, I will be satisfied. (That said, the sooner the better!)

Again, be sure to leave a comment below and grab one of our banners, and have fun with your blog entry! Here’s the line-up so far (and away we go…):

Movie Movie Blog Blog II: “Suspense” (1953), “Head of the House” (1956), and the “Second Honeymoon” special (1976)

Movierob – The Honeymooners (2005)

Caftan Woman – Musical moments from “The Classic 39”

The Midnite Drive-In – “The Man from Space” (1955)

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) – Steven Spielberg’s sobering look at the Holocaust

The following is my entry in The World War II Blogathon, being co-hosted by Jay and Maddy, respectively, at their blogs Cinema Essentials and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of WWII-themed movies!

Schindler

Schindler’s List — a clear-eyed, flawless look at the Holocaust — is a movie filled with infinite paradoxes.

The most obvious paradox is its true story. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who ran factories that made unusable products in order to save the lives of the factory workers — 1,100 Jews who otherwise would have been sent to Nazi death camps.

The movie shows the man but never quite explains him. Schindler is a rich womanizer — what has he to gain from this astounding gesture? Spielberg answers that question, not by delving into Schindler’s character, but by showing the atrocity going on around Schindler.

That atrocity is best personified by Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Nazi who runs the Krakow ghetto as well as a Jewish death camp. Goeth is the absolute evil among evils, a man playing God in the most lethal sense.

Goeth’s atrocities range from petty to tragic. In one scene, he considers raping one of his Jewish servants, but then he verbally ponders how tainted she would seem to him after the rape, and so he merely slaps her. In another instance, a Jewish woman tries to warn him of a mistake in one of the death camp’s physical details. Goeth shoots the woman, then tells an underling to correct the mistake.

Schindler’s List soberly examines the ethics between these two extremes. The Nazis want to have somebody, anybody, come begging to them. They play into the hands of Schindler, who acts as though he’s using the war to his own ends when what he’s really doing is saving Jewish lives.

Then there are the movie’s commercial paradoxes. In 1993, nobody would have expected Steven Spielberg, known mostly for escapist fare, to have made such a haunting movie. It looks as though a camera was just set down in the middle of the Holocaust to soberly record its brutality. The movie runs over three hours and is not a minute too long.

R.I.P., Valerie Harper

So sorry to hear about Valerie Harper, who finally succumbed after years of fighting brain cancer. She had just turned 80 the week before her death.

I was only nine years old when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” debuted on CBS, but even then I could see the difference between that show and more standard sitcoms. The characters were unique and fascinating and spoke like real adults. One of those adults was a self-deprecating Bronx-to-Minneapolis transplant named Rhoda Morgenstern — Harper, of course — who spent most of that debut episode haggling with sweet Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) over a vacant apartment that both of them wanted to rent from landlady Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman).

The brusqueness that solidified Rhoda’s character almost did that character in. Legend has it that the filming of that show seemed a disaster. At the show’s post-mortem meeting, the creators decided that the problem was Rhoda came across as too unlikable.

That could have spelled doom for Rhoda, except that there was another, more unsung character in that episode — Phyllis’ young daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen). The writers decided to add a couple of lines of dialogue wherein Bess declares how much she likes “Aunt Rhoda.” It made the audience realize that if a nice, bright girl could find some good in wisecracking Rhoda, so could we.

And we did, for nine years. Harper won three Emmys and countless raves in her four years on Mary’s show. Then CBS programming exec Fred Silverman, who never met a show he couldn’t spin off, gave Harper a starring showcase (and another Emmy) in “Rhoda.” The show is best remembered for its first-season marriage of Rhoda to Joe (David Groh), after which the show began floundering because Rhoda was no longer a lovable loser (just lovable) and because the writers quickly ran out of plausible marriage plots. But the show was popular enough to last for five years.

Harper’s life post-“Rhoda” wasn’t all chocolates and hearts. One item that Harper’s obit writers are scrupulously avoiding is “Valerie,” an initially successful sitcom on NBC starring Harper as basically a single mother trying to raise her kids without her husband, a mostly errant airline pilot.

After two years of behind-the-scenes drama, Harper demanded a pay raise, which she was refused. She had tried this in 1975 and won with “Rhoda,” but NBC and the show’s producers had other ideas. They cast Sandy Duncan as Valerie’s sister, killed off Valerie’s character, and renamed the show “The Hogan Family.”

Happily, Harper’s career continued to flourish, even after she was diagnosed with cancer. Her own diagnosis summed it all up: “Don’t go to your funeral before the day of the funeral.”

I can think of no better tribute to provide Harper than to post her finest hour on “MTM,” “Rhoda the Beautiful.” Enjoy it, and keep a hanky handy.

Scream for Tom & Jerry

If you’re a fan of “classic” Tom & Jerry — the M-G-M cartoons directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, before they went to “limited animation” for TV — you’ll note that one of their recurring gags was Tom’s crazy scream whenever Jerry did some bodily harm to him.

Ever wonder how they got such a quirky and funny yelp from Tom? The answer is that Bill Hanna provided his finest scream for the movie’s soundtrack, and then the sound editors chopped off the beginning and end of the scream, so that its coming out of and going to nowhere would be funny instead of frightening.

Here is one of the introductions to CBS’ 1965 series of Tom & Jerry broadcasts. There are enough examples of The Hanna Scream here for you to appreciate them.