Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Collaborations

By now everyone has gotten a look at the "sneaked" photo of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice in Wonderland," their seventh collaboration, and it looks like it's going to be a wild ride.

The Disney animated feature and the various musical productions made for television throughout the years were all rather light and bright. It wasn't until the 1988 live action-stop motion production by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer that the darkness in the story began to show through. Now, with this release, Burton is poised to do it one better.

Of course, Burton has never been afraid of challenging audiences with his unique vision. "Vincent," a bleak, black and white stop-motion short about a boy who thinks he's Vincent Price, got him noticed by Disney, for whom he made another short film, "Frankenweenie," about a young boy's efforts to restore life to his beloved dog after the pooch is hit by a car. It was deemed so dark by the studio that it wasn't released until years later, after Burton became a top-echelon director. "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," his feature debut, is a rainbow-colored, crowd-pleasing delight which only provides glimpses (Large Marge, anyone?) of the strangeness yet to come. I saw it theatrically twice: once at a drive-in and once at a midnight show at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Both were memorable experiences.

After "Beetlejuice" and "Batman," Burton met Depp, starting a nearly 20-year collaboration that seems to be the perfect arrangement for both of them. Burton loves to conceive the bizarre characters, and Depp loves to play them. Their first effort, "Edward Scissorhands," goes back to "Pee Wee's" brightly colored neighborhoods but stops to lift up a rock so we can see the creatures slithering underneath in the darkness. It also provides the wonderful Vincent Price with his final role as Edward's creator. I'm crazy about this film. It's a perfect blend of fantasy, social commentary and sci-fi that never makes a false move. And you get so caught up in the story that you never question how or why Edward was made—or what he's made of! Depp's admirable pantomime skills and expressive eyes really put this character across.

Then came the major studio production that was made for a comparative handful of people—"Ed Wood." Beautifully shot in black and white, with Depp in fine form as the infamous cross-dressing director, this is a truly personal work as obsessive as anything John Waters has ever done...made with Disney money! Martin Landau's superb, heartbreaking (and Academy Award-winning) performance as Bela Lugosi in his final days is a joy to watch, and I love the way the filmmakers took true episodes in Wood's life and "happied" them up, conveying the joy Wood himself felt while making his films, never realizing that their quality was somewhat lacking. And the upbeat ending, at the preview screening of "Plan 9," is the perfect conclusion to the story. Ed would've wanted it that way.

It took five years for them to work together again, and that was for 1998's "Sleepy Hollow." I have problems with this one. While the production values are gorgeous, evoking the technicolor fantasy world of classic Hammer horror films (intensified by a cameo from Dracula himself, Christopher Lee), they are put into the service of a rather limp and unsatisfying story. Depp's Ichabod Crane is an unfortunately dull nebbish, and I frequently found myself bored. Verdict: despite the surprisingly high gore quotient, the screenplay was simply too normal for a Burton film!

Seven years passed, and Depp saw his star ascend with his depiction of Captain Jack Sparrow in the first of the surprise hit "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. Then, in 2005, he and Burton collaborated on two projects as if to make up for lost time. I must admit I never saw "The Corpse Bride," so I can't comment on it, but Depp only provided his voice, anyhow. The other release of that year, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder favorite, is a film I can sum up in three words:

I hated it.

Everything about "Charlie" seems so overproduced: the art direction, the costuming, the acting, the music... At first, Depp's creepy child molester caricature is amusing, but the movie is so busy screaming, "Look how weird I am!" in every stinking frame, it just becomes tiring. Danny Elfman's songs are awful, and the bizarrely-monikered actor Deep Roy ("Neverending Story") is obnoxiousness multiplied as the Oompa-Loompas. While "Sleepy Hollow" is beautiful but boring, "Charlie" is just fingernails-on-chalkboard bad.

When I heard that Burton and Depp were taking on Stephen Sondheim's musical version of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," I was afraid. Their last two collaborations were not successes in my opinion, and I was fearful of what might happen to this wonderful work. I never got the chance to see Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (or George Hearn) perform it on stage, but I loved the PBS "Great Performances" teleproduction of it. And about a year before the film's release, I saw the revival of the musical on Broadway with Patti Lupone. In this radical restaging, the actors also play instruments, doing double duty as the orchestra! It worked amazingly well.

So, I thought: What are you going to do, Mr. Burton? Are you going to provide this classic with the production it deserves or are you going to take it to oompa-loompaville? Despite my trepidation, I eagerly rushed to the theater upon its release. As the blood trickled through the sewer system and the main theme played during the opening credits, I could feel a tingle starting at the back of my neck. It was a tingle that never stopped during the entire film.

Burton made wonderful choices. Knowing that he couldn't "camp up" the grand guignol story, he instead played up the themes of disease, revenge and blood—lots of blood. No one gets out uncorrupted—and in many instances, alive. Depp's grim-visaged Todd manages to be both humorous and tragic at the same time, a tribute to his skill. Bonham-Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a revelation, too, as a world-weary piemaker who doesn't care what ingredients go into her goods and who sees Todd as her last hope for happiness in a dark and disillusioned London. And given the fact that Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are not professional singers, their songs integrate beautifully in this context. I understand Sondheim himself approved of the film, and well he should.

So now here comes "Alice," scheduled for release next year. My faith renewed by the success of "Sweeney Todd," I'm looking forward to it. The cast is chock-full of great English stalwarts (and Americans Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover) and, if Depp's makeup and costuming are any indication, it will be a feast for the eyes as well. I hope it's dark, and I hope it has humor, too.

But please, Mr. oompa-loompas.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Adventures in Television Syndication

This may seem off-topic, but there is a linking factor between syndicated television and weird movies—Linda Blair! Read on...

When I was in my early 20s, one of the first important jobs I lucked into in Los Angeles—courtesy of friends and connections—was a gig as the Director of Promotions for a television syndication company, Four Star International. I had no experience, just a rudimentary graphic design skill, the ability to compose a sentence, an interest in the entertainment industry and the abiding eagerness to learn that comes with being youthful and enthusiastic.

Four Star had been one of the power players of television production back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If you look at program charts from the period, Four Star had at least one show on one of the networks every night of the week. They were big ones, too: "Wanted: Dead or Alive" with Steve McQueen; " "The Big Valley" with Barbara Stanwyck and Lee Majors, the first incarnation of "The Smothers Brothers Show" (not the variety program but a sitcom in which Tommy played Dick's dead brother, returned to earth as a bumbling angel); and "Burke's Law" with Gene Barry.

"Burke's Law" spun off a short-lived female detective series, "Honey West." It starred Anne Francis as Honey and John Ericson as her sidekick, Sam. It was cooler than cool, and it should have lasted longer, but it was killed by "Gomer Pyle." Ye Gods. Check out the promo here...

Four Star had been formed by stars Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino in 1952, but by the time I arrived in 1984, the glimmer was all but gone. The company had just made a merger agreement with Gold Key Television, a super-cheesy syndicator of low-budget films like "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (and this was before it escalated into bad movie immortality).

When I started there, the old timers were just being phased out and packing up as the new breed was coming in. I remember having several conversations with a nice old gentleman named Joe Doyle who spoke with melancholy about the days gone by. He gave me a 16mm reel of naughty bloopers from one of their shows, "Thrillseekers," which I wish I'd had the foresight to hang onto. The Four Star offices were on Cole Avenue in Hollywood. It was a strange building that looked like a motel. Everything inside was from another era: the furniture, the paintings, the people. It was a real time warp. It's like the company had been frozen in a particular year (probably when it was most successful in—oh, say 1962) and never evolved.

In 1984, there were still truly independent stations across the country, and syndicators had to send their salespeople out to visit them individually to pitch shows. We would arm them with a presentation reel, sell sheets and media kits. What we had for sale was pretty grim, though. No one would touch black and white, so all those wonderful Four Star shows (except for "The Big Valley," which was in color) were untouchable. Plus, since they were all packed with big stars, the residuals we'd have to pay in order to air them made them cost-prohibitive.

And the Gold Key film library consisted of some of the cheesiest, most low-budget, drive-in theater crap you've never heard of: ultra-obscure foreign sci-fi, drive-in epics from Crown International and a few art films thrown in for good measure. There were some gems in there. We had the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol," considered the very best adaptation of them all, but that was only one film and it was only marketable once a year. How could we salvage the company? Simple. Repackage the crappy movies as "cult classics," develop new shows and colorize the old black and white ones.

We chose "Wanted: Dead or Alive" as our first colorization experiment because Steve McQueen was—and is—a legend. Now, in my opinion, colorization was always a terrible idea, but very early experiments in the process were truly abysmal. The palette consisted of muddy browns and revolting greens—and backgrounds were still black and white, providing a surrealistic effect. Worst of all, the technicians made McQueen's famous blue eyes...brown!

Next, please...

So we turned our attention to the Crown International library and put together a package of movies called "No Restrictions." The gimmick was that stations could choose to order the films pre-edited, with the naughty bits removed, or they could get the complete R-rated versions and either air them uncut or do their own censoring. It was an interesting concept, but a crappy movie is a crappy movie whether there are bare breasts in it or not. And the promo reel we sent out included a scene from a 1975 movie called "Restless," in which Raquel Welch is having a very loud, very long, simulated orgasm. The salespeople said that when they ran the reel for prospective buyers, this scene was excruciatingly embarrassing for all involved and probably resulted in a lot of refusals. Next...

A comedy troupe in Los Angeles known as the L.A. Connection had begun to make a name for itself performing live comedy soundtracks to bad films at local theaters long before "Mystery Science Theatre" came along, and we made a deal with them to produce a weekly syndicated series. These young and eager kids (and they were kids) had carte blanche to conceptualize their own show, and the first pilot they produced was a testosterone-driven confection called "Dungeon Women with the L.A. Connection." An attempt to incorporate the then-current mud wrestling craze, it featured Audrey Landers as one of two scantily-dressed, breasty bimbos wrestling around on a dirt floor and introducing redubbed clips from terrible movies (there's another tape I wish I'd made a copy of).

It was a bit too far out, even by the excessive standards of the 1980s, so the show was retooled into "Mad Movies with the L.A. Connection," hosted by L.A. Connection founder Kent Skov. You can watch a clip of it here.

It was funny, and we did sell it into the marketplace, but it only lasted one season. I don't know why; I think its time just hadn't yet arrived. Ironic television didn't start being popular until the 90s.

What next? How about hiring Bill Armstrong, one of the original producers of "Hollywood Squares" and have him develop a new game show? He was a wonderful guy, but the result was "Star Cluster," a variation of—you guessed it—"Hollywood Squares." The concept was almost the same, except six—rather than nine—celebrities provided answers to personal questions and it was up to the contestants to choose one of three possible answers. And instead of linking them in Tic Tac Toe fashion, the players would attempt to form a "star cluster."

Check out this clip. We shot a week's worth of pilots at KCOP-TV in Hollywood. What a cast of characters (including Linda Blair)! What a cheap set! It was a lot of fun, but stations saw it for what it was, an ever so thinly-disguised ripoff of "Hollywood Squares." And since "Squares" was also available in first-run syndication (with Jon Davidson, not the later Whoopi version), buyers preferred to get the real thing.

In 1987, Four Star was purchased by Technicolor. We moved from our wonderful, funky old building in Hollywood into a cookie-cutter suite of offices in Burbank, and a new regime came in. My job wasn't in danger, but the fun was gone. I decided it was time to move on, so I took a job as Director of Creative Services at J2 Communications, a company that'd made a name for itself as a producer and distributor of original home video entertainment, like "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" and "Dorf on Golf" with Tim Conway. But that's a story for another time.

Four Star managed to hang on until 1989, even producing a new version of another of Armstrong's hits, "Liar's Club," before it was absorbed by New World Television and finally Twentieth Television. I wonder where that wonderful library of programming is now. And I wonder if there's still a bunch of my old brochures and media kits stashed away in storage somewhere. The legend lives!


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