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Monthly Archives: May 2008

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Asian Images on TCM

Anna May WongWe’re gonna be keeping the TiVo busy during the month of June for Turner Classic Movies’ Asian Images In Film. This 35-film festival encompasses both Asian films and Hollywoodized treatments of Asian life (such as Kate Hepburn’s slanty-eyed attempt at playing a Chinese peasant in 1944’s Dragon Seed). The highlight for me is a full night of Anna May Wong films on the 5th, including a new documentary on her life and career. I’m also looking forward to Sunday night’s showing of The Peach Girl (not part of the fest proper), a 1931 silent starring the tragic Chinese actress Lingyu Ruan. I wish TCM could have also included Maggie Cheung playing Ruan in 1992’s Centre Stage, but one can’t be too picky with the generous offerings in store.

Cheap Thrill: Color Classics Cartoons

Max Fleischer Color Classics: Somewhere In DreamlandWe’ve been spending the last few nights having a re-viewing of the nicely packaged Max Fleischer Color Classics: Somewhere In Dreamland DVD, which originally came out in 2002. The shorts in the set are pallid imitations of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies cartoons of the ’30s, for sure, but they are fun despite the sometimes shoddy prints used on the DVD. I like to think of the Fleischers as the Warner Bros. to Disney’s MGM — their humor was much more lowbrow and urban, fresh and free of pretentions. Even if many of these shorts focus on cutesy birds, fish and bunnies, you see a lot of ethnic humor and weird animation that makes even the lesser ‘toons (and believe me, there were a lot of ’em) worthwhile viewing.

Another cool thing about these cartoons is that they have scenes where it appears as if the characters are traipsing around huge and intricate 3D landscapes. This was achieved via a patented “stereo-optical” process of filming animation cels propped vertically against a huge turntable made up to look like a miniature railroad train diorama. It’s a weird effect, but I could see where it would have wowed audiences back then. The process was put to especially good use in the 1934 outing Little Dutch Mill. Check out that amazing windmill:

The image below gives an idea of how the working process went while filming these sequences. Intrepid Christopher tracked down this terrific illustration accompanying the original patent application. Often the cartoons would have moving parts in the backgrounds, or a change in camera angle — it must have been a logistical nightmare, but the results speak for themselves.

Patent Illustration

Notice that the patent was filed on November 2, 1933 and it was finally granted on September 15, 1936. Ironically, at that point the Fleischer studio was beginning to phase out the use of the process and you see less and less cartoons using it as the thirties went on. All’s Fair at the Fair from 1938 doesn’t use the process at all, and yet it remains one of the best Color Classics due to the surplus of good gags and some wonderful Streamline Moderne designs:

The Color Classics limped onward, eventually becoming the vehicle for a charmless donkey duo called Hunky ‘N Spunky before coming to a close in 1941. Later on, Paramount sold off the series to a TV distributor who eventually let the cartoons lapse into the public domain. That explains why cruddy looking prints are the only surviving way to see them (does Paramount still own the negatives?), but I guess a cruddy print is better than nothing. Even through all the dust and scratches one can see a surplus of creativity going on there. Viva Color Classics!

Weekly Mishmash: May 18-24

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005). A French Canadian film about a dysfunctional family of five brothers growing up in the ’60s and ’70s — centering on Zac, the twee, self-possessed brother with a supernatural “gift” for healing and a serious Bowie fixation. The first 45 minutes are brilliant and darkly funny, calling to mind Amelie, but in the end it dragged on too long and seemed a bit “meh” to me. I was expecting a penetrating gay-themed coming of age tale, but in fact the central character is bisexual and the film dwells more on how the other characters perceive him. The soundtrack and period settings are great and it’s worth a look if you like screwy family films, but don’t expect to be blown away.
Critter Roundup. A title from Nintendo’s new WiiWare line in which you’re a farmer who has to fence in various animals (shades of the classic arcade game Qix). Not worth $10, but fun in its own modest way. Might be the only videogame in which one can get killed by bumping into a chicken.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). “You’ve never seen Temple of Doom?,” Christopher said to me recently. Yep, I’ve seen films #1 and 3 in the original trilogy, but this one passed me by until recently. Why it took 24 years is beyond me, but now I can see why it was never very attractive to me — Kate Capshaw and that Asian kid. Really, could they have found two more shrill, annoying actors to play those parts? I believe Raiders was about as perfect as an action-adventure can possibly be, but with this one Spielberg clearly dumbed things down into a loud, gross kiddie flick. The movie is okay if you watch it with lowered expectations (it’s beautifully mounted with some ace set pieces), but really the only reason this one still gets love today because many saw it at an impressionable age. Nostalgia rears its ugly head again!
Johnny Belinda (1948). Never saw this one before, either, and it was much better than I believed it would be. For a ’40s studio film, it’s refreshing both in the abundance of outdoor photography and its honest, unflinching treatment of rape. Jane Wyman is excellent as the deaf, childlike Belinda, but I think the part could have been done just as well by a dozen other actresses working at that time. The supporting cast, all of ’em, are also excellent.

Muchos Gracias, Señor

Olé! Kevin Kidney writes on the Frito Kid, the saucer-eyed snack food mascot who long ago took residence at Disneyland’s Casa De Fritos restaurant. He shares a lot of fantastic old images in the post, but do they include the rare and valuable (in my mind) Frito Kid matchbook?

Frito Kid Matchbook Cover

By the way, if anyone has the “Frito Kid and Klondike” track to share, I would sooo love it. This was once available on via the Disneyland Forever make-your-own-CD kiosks — but I missed out on it, dang it!

Lala Land

Just noticed that the La La A Go-Go website has undergone a spiffy new redesign. I first caught wind of the divine Ms. Lala via her flickr stream. If it’s kitschy and from the ’60s or ’70s, she’s got it!

September Songs

TV Show Opening Screen Montage

We still love TV in all its brilliant, 100-channels-and-nothing-on glory, but isn’t it pathetic how the dominance of the big four networks has eroded over time? The news stories are coming in about underwhelming upfronts and how the writers strike forced the networks the have a curtailed lineup of new shows for the fall season — and all I can think of is how different things were 20, 30 years ago. The fall season used to be a huge deal, heralded with glitzy promos and a full slate of new shows and returning favorites. TV Guide‘s thick Fall Preview issue played a big part in all that hype — a subject that the terrific pop culture blog Branded in the ’80s has been exploring lately in a series of posts. Check out the mélange of breathless writeups and appliance ads from the 1978 issue. One thing I like about these Fall Previews is how they give everything equal time, so a classic like WKRP gets the same treatment as the stewardess jiggle drama Flying High (a show that I remember only for the one episode in which the characters have a stopover in Phoenix — hurrah for local color on national TV!).

Which dovetails into another neato vintage TV thing — I know I’ve already written about the montages of TV show opening credits lovingly compiled by YouTube user bobcnn. As of a few months back he had the late ’80s covered, but now it looks like the collection has been expanded to include the years 1979-1992. These are all insanely cool — encompassing both established hits and weird obscurities — so I’m compiling links to every single one here:

1979: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10
1980: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
1981: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
1982: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
1983: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
1984: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
1985: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
1986: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
1987: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8
1988: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
1989: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10
1990: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9
1991: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10
1992: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7