Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cranky Doodle Dandy

One of the things that’s happened since I started working at night is that after I take the wife to work, I come home and see what’s going on over at the Turner Classic Movies channel.

If the boy was happy in the company of old black and white movies, then the man finds TCM pretty much irresistible.

In the morning especially, they’re prone to dragging out these obscure oldies that I’ve never seen before in my life. Shortish screwball comedies and frothy musical revues that seem to end before anything happens, perfect entertainment. The other morning I turned it on and saw Ginger Rogers playing backgammon. Backgammon!

But one of the things that TCM preserves that was much more common back in the day is the tradition of the Movie Host, which it has in the person of the affable Robert Osborne.

During my adolescence, we had afternoon movie programs on UHF that featured a local host who’d welcome us to the film and then pop up during breaks to make a comment or read a commercial. Mostly his job was to say, “Now, let’s get back to…”

UHF was also the home of the local horror movie host, who did bad magic tricks while shilling for a local soda company, and the Saturday morning wrestling programs. My friend George found these to be particularly hilarious, with their outrageously choreographed routines and histrionic interview segments. The fact that this same shtick started to bring in huge amounts of money years later, while creating its own kind of star-making machinery, is a little frightening. But then you used to be able to buy a Spider-Man comic for 12 cents. Now he’s down at the local IMAX for $14.

But, first and foremost for me, UHF meant musicals.

It was where I first fell in love with the Astaire-Rogers pictures and the Gold Diggers movies.

Swing Time. Top Hat. Follow The Fleet. Flying Down To Rio. The Gay Divorcee. Dames. Gold Diggers of 1935. Footlight Parade. 42nd Street.

I saw them so many times I could recite them from memory.

It was often much more entertaining to spend time in their company than to watch what the major networks were offering. And it wasn’t just the wonderful music and dancing, but the discovery of the comic relief that floated through them. In the case of Astaire and Rogers, there was the riotous Eric Blore, whose eyes went from smiling to shooting daggers at a moment’s notice, and the befuddled Edward Everett Horton, whose voice I recognized from the Fractured Fairy Tales segments on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

In the case of the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, there was the simply bizarre Hugh Herbert, eternally lost as he tapped his fingertips together, trying in vain to make some sort of sense before he’d get to the end of a sentence. He was rarely successful and would inevitably fall back on his trademark “Woo woo!”, earning him the nickname of Hugh “Woo woo!” Herbert.

Astaire was an excellent light comedian as well as an exquisite dancer and I found myself able to watch and rewatch the numbers from his films endlessly, the way you’d play a favorite 45. I recently saw a pristine print of Swing Time on TCM and marveled at its perfection anew, trying to keep the lump in my throat down during the climactic Never Gonna Dance number, though whether it was because of the number or just nostalgia for my lost youth is debatable.

And what was more American in all of its ambition, exaggeration, and pure showmanship than a Busby Berkeley musical?

Worlds hurtling out of nowhere onto stages much too small for them, microcosm becoming macrocosm, life on a superhuman scale overseen by an endless parade of glamorous, though not aloof, women, kicking their legs to the skies as if to make a hole in Heaven.

I identified with all of these pictures and the art and milieu they represented much more than I can possibly say, lest you think me madder than you already do.

So I was moved by a certain sense of artistic necessity when I decided to follow in these footsteps by creating my own musical. As I opened those fateful cans of paint that day and prepared to deface public property, I can remember thinking:

I’m going out there a youngster, but I’ve got to come back a star.

Next: Let's Face The Music And Wince


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