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Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

The Archive of American Television

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Here’s a fantastic site on the history of American television, with interviews, video clips, bloopers, inside stories and statistics, all of it thoroughly indexed.

While the main site for the Archive of American Television is here, I have linked to the interview site as the first stop for viewers, since it offers something like 700 interviews with actors, writers, directors, producers and others who created television programming — the good, the bad, and the indifferent — from the first 75 years or so of television history. It’s an invaluable resource for those who are interested in researching the medium, and highly recommended.

Another example of the value of digital archives. It’s all at your fingertips.

Embracing The Apocalypse: A World Without People

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay in the latest issue of Film International, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People,” examining visions of the future as imagined by various Dystopian films and television programs.

As she writes, “Human-centered popular folktales of Apocalypse and Doomsday narratives of every imaginable scenario are undeniably as powerful and plentiful as they have been from the beginnings of human narrative tradition. Indeed, apocalyptic events permeate a plethora of grand narratives from myriad cultures and textual sources that prominently, almost ecstatically, feature and carefully describe the gory details of our violent end times. They are set in the future, and almost all revolve around human-centered stories complete with often similarly violent narratives, inevitable tropes of conflict, judgment, drama, and resolution, the stops we require of any genre or tradition in human narrative form.

At the center of apocalyptic vision we find, perhaps predictably, a human-dominant form of speciesism, revealing a widespread, almost universally held belief in the dominance of human beings as a species. Human beings are placed at the center of events and narratives, even narratives that don’t involve human beings. This is something that often goes unnoticed, but it is especially notable in apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and depeopled futuristic visions.

The plethora of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic narratives are far too numerous to list, from religious scripture and Revelations, to secular visions of end times, to the myriad, often bizarre and insane sounding predictions of the end by various individuals and groups. All are narratives of human-centered destruction; some invoke the end of the earth, and some portray the end of people and human civilization; but all embrace, and seem to enjoy visions of the end. We cannot agree on much, but people agree that the end is near, the end is coming, and the end is usually defined as the end of people and human civilization.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating work in an area that is largely unexplored.

Topper

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to watch a complete episode of Topper.

Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, standing; Leo G. Carroll and Lee Patrick, seated, in this 1953 cast photo from the television series Topper.

The character of Cosmo Topper, a button down banker haunted by the ghosts of George and Marian Kerby, was originally created by novelist Thorne Smith in the late 1920s, and served as the springboard for several indifferent films, but found its most lasting fame as a television series that lasted from 1953 to 1955, racking up a total of 78 episodes, which were played and replayed in syndication forever after.

In the television series, Topper was played by veteran actor Leo G. Carroll, whose eternally befuddled character was the perfect foil for the ghostly Kerbys, played by real life husband and wife team Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling. Lee Patrick, who had been knocking around in movies in bit parts — she was Sam Spade’s secretary in The Maltese Falcon, for example — was superb in role of Henrietta, Topper’s somewhat scatterbrained spouse.

The plots usually revolved around the fact that only Topper, and the audience, could see the Kerbys, who had perished in an avalanche while on a skiing vacation. For everyone else, things seemed to float around the house of their own accord, unexplained noises would erupt, and the Kerbys in general delighted in putting Topper in uncomfortable situations, all in an effort to loosen him up.

Further, the Kerbys had an alcoholic pet St. Bernard, Neil, who spent most of his time lapping up one martini after another, while Cosmo’s Boss, the exquisitely corrupt Mr. Schuyler (magnificently played by veteran heavy Thurston Hall), president of the bank where Topper works, keeps testing Topper’s patience with a variety of schemes and threats designed to make his life at the office miserable.

With the aid of the Kerbys, however, Cosmo Topper triumphs over the mendacity and mediocrity of 1950s American suburban life, and the series, which long ago passed into the Public Domain, and is available on DVD from Alpha Video, is well worth seeking out – it’s a real gem. Leo G. Carroll’s droll timing is a wonder to behold, and Sterling and Jeffries, very much in love, have a ball with their roles. Everyone on the series had to work very quickly, but they make it seem so effortless that it’s a real delight to watch.

Scripts were handled by a variety of writers, including a young Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer; directors included Leslie Goodwins, Leslie H. Martinson — who later worked on the Batman TV series — and Lew Landers, and all the episodes were shot in two days or less, including time for Bewitched-style special effects, at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, Calif.

Topper — one of the most sophisticated, literate, and adult 1950s TV shows.

The Anger Management Assembly Line

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Charlie Sheen’s new sitcom Anger Management seems poised for a 90-episode pickup deal with FX.

You may or may not recall that Charlie Sheen has landed on his feet with a new series, Anger Management, which was launched on FX with a 10 episode commitment, and then, providing that the ratings were good enough, the series would get the green light for 90 additional episodes — an unheard of deal — to be shot over the course of two years, in order to reach the magic number of 100 episodes for syndication as rapidly as possible. That’s shooting an average of an episode a week with no breaks for two years, though of course there will be downtime, so it’s actually being shot faster than that.

Well, apparently, he’s pulled it off. As The Associated Press reported, “with the expected pickup, FX plans to bring aboard Sheen’s dad, Martin Sheen, as a recurring cast member. He will play the father of Charlie Goodson, the anger-management therapist played by Charlie Sheen [. . .] Adding Sheen’s father to the series ‘will give an extra dimension and make it a multi-generational family show,’ FX boss John Landgraf said in making the announcement.

The production schedule would call for filming a total of 100 episodes in just two years. This kind of cost-saving routine means no time for rehearsals, said executive producer Bruce Helford.’The actors get the lines, we see the scene, the writers make changes, the actors go to makeup, cameras are blocked, we come back together and shoot the scene,’ he explained. At first, the cast members ‘felt like basically they were on the ledge. But by the third episode, everyone found the characters to the point that the writers were following their lead,’ Helford said.”

As Sheen himself notes in the sneak peek below, “we’re [shooting] 49 pages [of script] every two days.” This is the fastest sitcom production schedule in history. But then again, with the speed everything else is moving at, it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s a peek behind the scenes.

Who on Earth Would Want To Work for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce?

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a video clip from Mad Men.

No one is denying that Mad Men is an excellent television show — I watch it faithfully, though not without apprehension given its increasingly downbeat plotlines — but who on earth would want to return to those times, or work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? It’s not really an authentic vision of the ’60s anyway; take it from me — I was alive then, working at Life Magazine as a writer, and immersed in the whole ad/print culture of the era — but rather stresses the down side of everything, as though no one is having any fun at all.

Which they’re really not; Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems tortured on all sides by regrets, conflicting loyalties, and his enigmatic past, while Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) has recently departed the agency for greener fields (and who can blame her?), and poor Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) has just committed suicide over a forged check, for which Don fired him. Great! Just the sort of television one wants to relax with on a Sunday night, right before the start of the work week. As Don Draper explodes in a meeting with a prospective client, “you’re not happy! You’re not happy with anything!” And with the absolutely unprincipled Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) as a rising star in the agency, well, look out. Things are going to get even uglier, I have no doubt.

Still, I DVR it, watch it while zipping through the commercials, and think it’s far and away the best thing on television right now — there’s just one more episode this “season” as I write this, and then — apparently — only two seasons more after that. But with a definite end date in mind for the series, I can’t help but think that Elisabeth Moss is happy to escape her role as the much-put-upon Peggy for the lead in a Jane Campion miniseries, Top of the Lake. And we’ll be seeing Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant in Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln; that footage is already in the can, as his death in Mad Men was shot last summer, but amazingly, everyone managed to keep quiet about it.

But the question remains; given the utterly hostile and desperate workplace of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce so effectively depicted in each episode of the show, who on earth would want to work there?

1950s Children’s Television

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

I have an essay forthcoming in this volume, edited by Cynthia Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper from Palgrave/Macmillan.

The fourteen essays featured here focus on series such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, and Captain Z-Ro, exploring their roles in the day-to-day lives of their fans through topics such as mentoring, promotion of the real-world space program, merchandising, gender issues, and ranger clubs – all the while promoting the fledgling medium of television. The distinguished group of authors involved includes Henry Jenkins, J.P. Telotte, Roy Kinnard, Patrick Lucanio and many others. Should be out in late August, early September 2012.

You can read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Media History Digital Library

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to access the Media History Digital Library.

I have blogged on this site before, but it just keeps growing and getting better. The archive features extensive runs of several important trade papers and fan magazines, including Business Screen (1938-1973); The Film Daily (1918-1936); International Photographer (1929-1941); Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (1930-1949); Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1950-1954); The Educational Screen (1922-1962); Moving Picture World (1912-1918); Photoplay (1917-1940); Radio Age: Research, Manufacturing, Communications, Broadcasting, Television (1942-1957); Radio Broadcast (1922-1930) and other publications.

As the site notes, “the periodicals in this collection chart the studio system during its rise, the transition to sound, and Great Depression years. The periodicals present a variety of points of view within the industry, from the production-oriented Hollywood Reporter to the exhibitor-oriented publication Harrison’s Reports, a ‘reviewing service free from the influence of film advertising.’ The cornerstone of this collection is a two decade run of The Film Daily, a leading motion picture trade paper published out of New York that reached participants involved in all aspects of the movie business. The Film Daily includes innumerable reviews of features and shorts, news reports from throughout the industry, occasional features stories, and hundreds of full-page ads.”

Worth checking out as an extremely valuable research source.

Joan Crawford on Stardom, George Cukor and More

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here’s an interesting clip of an interview from British television with Joan Crawford, mid 1960s . . .

in which she discusses working with director George Cukor, her sometimes antagonistic relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, and argues that films have now — even in the mid 1960s — become committee projects, which either “make a lot of money or lose a lot of money,” in the words of the interviewer. One of the last of the MGM stars, Crawford here seems somewhat old-fashioned, and deeply judgmental, clearly longing for the past, but at the same time realizing that the studio system she grew up in — “I was born at Metro” — is now a thing of the past.

Jean-Luc Godard on Film Criticism, 1963

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here’s a remarkable interview with director Jean-Luc Godard shot for French television in 1963, just after the release of his masterpiece Le Mépris (Contempt).

It’s both fascinating and a bit sad that Godard describes film criticism of his era as essentially an “honest” field, noting that critics are always “sincere,” whether he agrees with them or not, compared to today, when film criticism has become primarily a fan-based enterprise, and the daily critics are more under pressure than ever before to conform to commercial demands. Godard, of course, started out as a critic before he became a filmmaker, and as he admits in this clip, some of his early reviews were often “cruel” towards certain filmmakers and their works.

But at the same time, he doesn’t seem to mind the same slings and arrows when they’re directed at him, just so long as the critics really mean what they say. Godard also speaks frankly of the commercial pressures brought to bear on him by producer Joseph E. Levine during the making of the film, and demonstrates enormous grace under pressure in the process. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most innovative and often controversial directors; absolutely essential viewing.

Robert Bresson on Pickpocket (1959)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This 1959 French television interview with Robert Bresson on his then-just-released masterpiece  Pickpocket is interesting for a number of reasons.

Compare this to his interview on L’Argent, made in 1983, roughly a quarter of a century later. Here, Bresson is relaxed, basking in the glow of admiration his film has justifiably received, but also in the fact that the new critics of the period at the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma have singled out Bresson as one of the few “old school” directors worthy of continued critical attention, along with Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville and a few others.

Bresson here is at the top of his game, and he knows it; the questions are cold, hard, almost prosecutorial, but Bresson is more than up to the task of responding. He is beyond attacks now, consecrated by the New Wave as one of the few filmmakers that matter. The interviewers take his work seriously, and their roles as critics seriously, in sharp contrast to the “happy talk” interviews that predominate today, when someone comes on television to “plug” their latest film.

Bresson here has nothing to prove, and he knows that no one will contradict him; his reputation and his work speak for themselves, but more — the surrounding culture also respects his work, and he is entirely in tune with the cinema of his era. By 1983, cinema has changed so much that it’s mostly escapist genre fare, something that Bresson deplores; in 1984, François Truffaut, the leader of the Cahiers critics, and later a brilliant filmmaker in his own right, will die, and the world of cinema he championed will begin to expire with him.

But for now, all is in order, and the right priorities are being addressed; listen to what Bresson has to say about film, his work, and his guiding precepts.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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