On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson whose credits include writing for Fosse/Verdon and the series The Americans. She talks about that and bringing the life and career of Aretha Franklin to the screen for the movie Respect.
Today we enter "Bob Goes Into Minutiae Land," a strange and unwieldy place, over something that I know is minor -- but as much as it's mostly something that only rubbed me badly personally, I think has at least a somewhat wider perspective.
I watched Being the Riccardos last night, and largely enjoyed it. There were some things I thought were wonderful, and others not so much. I’ll leave the details at that, because the matter at hand was this one thing that bothered me as admittedly minor as it is. Though not as minor as it seems, which I’ll get to.
The biggest head-scratcher about it, though, is that I found it totally unnecessary. For the life of me, I don’t know why in the world one of the first things Aaron Sorkin writes in the movie is to have a character say that I Love Lucy was watched by 60 million people every week, and then Sorkin even repeats that a few minutes later. And it’s not remotely close to true.
Just to make sure, I looked up its audience. The most famous episode in the legendary series, where she has the baby, was one of the most-watched shows in the history of history, a phenomenon – and had 44 million viewers. Which was an amazing 75% of the potential viewing audience. For Which means for I Love Lucy to have had a weekly viewership of 60 million people, it would have had to have 100% of America watching every single week. Everyone in America with a TV watching, each week.
And this isn’t hard to find out. Anyone can do it, easily. Just to a search for the words -- I Love Lucy baby episode audience million.
This is what you’ll get. The very first thing at the top. In big, bold letters. You can't miss it --
And that’s for the most popular episode the show ever had. One of the most most-watched episodes of any TV show, ever, even up to today. One episode.
In fact, the best I can find is that it maybe got about 30-35 million people each week – which is massive. (That said, an article here in Esquire says the series got 15 million viewers a week – which is still huge, considering that the U.S. population in 1953 when the episode aired was 158 million, less than half the population today…AND few households actually had television sets compared to today. How few? There were 17 million TVs in use in 1952...and 285 million today!!)
So, why in the world would Aaron Sorkin almost double (or quadruple) its actual audience as almost the first thing to write and repeat it moments later – which is so easy to check – and risk your credibility right off the bat??
Yes, as I said, I know this fairly minor, but – again, because it was the first thing and they emphasize it so much and repeat it – it bugged me.
For starters, because it’s so easy to check and so wrong, it’s risks at least some of the audience not believing anything you write after that. (I’m not saying that Mr. Sorkin got anything else wrong -- in fact, I suspect it's a richly-researched screenplay and that most of it is spot-on) -- just that it lets some of the audience consider that possibility, no matter how accurate it may otherwise be.)
It also puts very wrong information out into the world and have it now be taken as fact. And that is the case of what’s happened – just do another search for “I Love Lucy” and “60 million” and see how many newspapers and publicans now refer to that as fact in their reviews of the movie.
On a totally personal level, it took me out of the movie immediate and probably is part of the reason it took me almost an hour before I put it out of my head (as much as I could) and got more involved in the film. I did ultimately enjoy it, but that’s a long time to get there.
And finally, it’s so unnecessary. If you say, as the movie does, that today a TV show that gets 15 million viewers is a top hit, and then say that I Love Lucy got an audience of (let’s say…) 35 million people in the U.S. --that would still leap out as a gigantic number. Even more so if you noted that in 1953 there were only half as many people in the country and only about 17 million TVs in use, compared to 285 million today.
It’s a very well-done movie, not one I personally loved, but definitely enjoyed. And as a screenwriter I understand stretching reality to make a larger truthful point. (After all, as a starting point, probably all of the dialogue is made up, to make a larger truthful point.) But stretching reality, and getting a basic fact wrong, repeatedly and unnecessarily, are two very different things. And for all the films strengths and flaws, this is one blatantly inaccurate fact I don’t understand why he did it.
Well, okay, I can probably understand. Aaron Sorkin probably wanted the number to be even larger than it was to give it an even more emotional, dramatic impact. But as I noted, the reality is filled with plenty of emotional, dramatic impact all on its own. Arguably even more if you give the facts in full perspective.
Is it possible that Sorkin got the research wrong? Possible, yes, since most things are “possible.” But it’s not likely. He’s too great a writer with too good a team supporting him to have gotten something that basic and easy to know is wrong. I found that the number was very wrong in about eight seconds. Is it possible that he found one (or more) sources that incorrectly said the series got 60 million viewers each week and felt that gave him the creative license to use it? Yes, that’s possible – though if so, it would be deeply irresponsible given the full research he most-certainly did and would know the number was wildly wrong. (Again, it’s most-watched episode got 44 million viewers.)
Is it possible that he mixed up “60 million viewers” with a “67 rating” (which is the percentage of people watching who have TVs)? No, Aaron Sorkin has created and run three TV series – he knows the difference between viewers and ratings.
So, he most-likely did it intentionally to make a greater point that didn’t need to be made. It’s not the biggest problem in the world. But it knowingly put grossly exaggerated information out into the world on a large, national scale, and I’m past the point where, even on something small, I think that’s a good thing.
But, yes, it’s a minor fact (just one that obviously bugs me…), and still a pretty enjoyable, well-made movie. Here’s the trailer.
Around the World in 80 Days may be my favorite movie. And I loved the novel. So, it’s all near and dear to my heart. The casting of David Niven as Phileas Fogg is near the top of the most perfect casting in Hollywood history.
Everything I’ve read about the new limited series from the BBC on PBS that begins tonight makes me cringe. But I like David Tennant (even if his style has nothing to do with how Phileas Fogg is written) and the production looks rich (even if it has little to do with Jules Verne’s story), so I've thought I'd likely watch – and hope that it keeps enough of the Verne tale and its sensibility to make me want to watch all the way through.
Then the reviews started coming out. I usually don’t read reviews, but I saw the title of the one by Yahoo’s critic, and it was “More cringeworthy than fun,” so I figured I’d skim it.
It sounds horrible. Not for the reviewer’s opinion – which I might agree with or not, but is just personal opinion – but for the details on how they changed the story. And…it does sound cringeworthy.
Just one example. There is a female character in the new "version" nicknamed “Fix,” which is clearly taken from the name of Inspector Fix, the Scotland Yard detective who tracks Phileas Fogg around the world, mistakenly believing he robbed the Bank of England. But this new "Fix" character is not a detective but the daughter of a newspaper magnate who joins the journey to document it -- which is almost exactly the Natalie Wood role in The Great Race. So, perhaps there is no Inspector Fix in this, and (it seems -- since for this "version" the female reporter would appear to be the potential romantic interest -- that likely means perhaps no Princess Aouda joining them halfway around the world in India.
Now, that might seem no big deal, except that the Princess is basically the reason for the novel! The very end of Jules Verne's novel notes that Phileas Fogg spent as much money as he won, so he got absolutely nothing out of that. He writes that the only thing Fogg got from his journey was finding the love of his life -- which leads to the last line of the book, “And after all, dear readers, isn’t that worth traveling around the world for?” So, they’re cutting out that??! To be clear, if they make this reporter his love interest, that’s not one and the same. It's totally different because he doesn’t travel the world to find her, since she starts the trip with him in London and therefore is with him from Day One.
And there's a lot more from the few other comments I skimmed. Further, there are main character names in the new "version" I've never heard of.
To be clear, I don't hold it against them remaking an Oscar Best Picture. They've actually been many remakes of the story -- some straightforward (like a TV mini-series in 1989 with Pierce Brosnan, that was fairly well-done, but quite bit flat), and most clearly going in their own direction. And that's fine when you're not making an pretense of really telling Verne's story. But this seems to be suggesting it is actually doing Around the World in 80 Days, when it's not.
And I don't expect others to love the movie and novel as much as I do. Indeed, for people who never saw the original in the theater during its initial release or a 15th anniversary re-release (that I rushed to see), it's very hard to capture the utter joy of the movie, wonderful as it is whatever the screen. But there are two “problems” with Around the World in 80 Days being a person's favorite movie –
The first is that, as much as I enjoy seeing it in any venue, including a revival art house theater or letter-boxed on Turner Classic Movies, it was specifically made for a massive 70mm widescreen -- indeed, producer Michael Todd developed a widescreen technology called Todd-AO, which was sort of a massive widescreen competitor of Cinemascope, and that’s when Around the World in 80 Days is at its best. (One of my father’s favorite scenes in all of movies -- and it's high among mine -- is the famous sequence with Fogg's balloon bouncing across the huge screen from left to right as it travels over the Paris sky and then the French Alps, as that glorious theme music plays. It’s wonderful whenever I see it, but it doesn’t have the glorious majesty and impact of being on a screen so big that it overwhelms you.) Now, imagine a little kid staring up in total awe at this stunning vision overwhelming him.
And the other “problem” is trying to introduce an audience to the movie who doesn’t know all those spectacular cameo appearances laced throughout the movie. (In fact, Michael Todd coined the term "cameo" that we now all know.) To most audiences today, these more than 50 remarkable cameos of some of movies' all-time greats are just unrecognizable “day players” taking a small character role -- and not “Oh, my God!! That’s Noel Coward, Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, Sir John Mills, Buster Keaton, Beatrice Lilly, Robert Morley, Sir John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, Peter Lorre, Red Skelton, Gilbert Roland, Trevor Howard...and..." on and on. Virtually every few minutes, someone new, someone amazing shows up." That's one of the stunning accomplishments of the original, but with the realities of life, it's pretty much lost to most modern audiences. Such is life.
So, alas, it's very difficult for audiences today to get the same appreciation for the movie as it offered for technical and societal reasons. Even if it again gets released in a theater than can show the Todd-AO widescreen (as it did for its 15th anniversary), those amazing cameos will mean little to most people. But all that takes nothing from what the movie was. And also explains why I understand adaptations that put their own twists on it.
But I have no plans to watch – I have far too much great affection for the movie and novel to care much for something that's not putting its own twists on, but rather appears to be totally rewriting the story in ways that seem problematic while purporting to be Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. That said, I do want to see how it starts and sets Phileas Fogg and Passepartout off on their journey. I suspect it may be a fun production for many who don't know the novel or original Oscar-winning Best Picture -- and may be cringeworthy for some of them, as well. I may also possibly tune in to a later episode just to see what they’re doing, but that’s it. Bizarrely, the article says it’s already been renewed for a second season. Second season?? That means they either don’t resolve it in season 1, or they’ve come up with another story line.
I'll leave things with these three videos. The first is the trailer of the original movie --
And here it is, winning the 1957 Best Picture Oscar. (Though the video runs four minutes, Michael Todd's acceptance ends around two minutes in) --
And we'll go out with the joyous main theme, performed as the "Sky Symphony" (during the balloon sequence) from Victor Young's Oscar-winning score --
Here's another song from a TV musical I referenced a couple times the past few weeks, The Stingiest Man in Town. It was a 1956 special on the Alcoa Hour based on Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Many of the names involved might no longer be household ones, but for the day it was a respectable cast, with a couple of full-fledged opera stars in it (Patrice Munsel and Robert Weede, who also starred in the Frank Loesser musical, The Most Happy Fella), as well as pop stars, like Vic Damone, Johnny Desmond, and The Four Lads. Also in the cast was one of my favorite character actors, John McGiver, along with Martyn Green, a leading Gilbert & Sullivan interpreter of the time. And above all, one Hollywood legend as Scrooge. That would be none other than Basil Rathbone, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes in the movies from 1936-1946,
The score by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre isn't especially memorable, although there are some nice things in it. And I like this one, not just for the song itself, which has a sweet charm to it, but perhaps even more for it being sung by Basil Rathbone. He's no singer at all, but handles the number effectively.
I should also note that I like it when songs are written from famous lines in literature, as this is. This number comes from late in the show, after Scrooge has learned his lesson. It takes its title from a line from Dickens when Scrooge has told the Ghost of Jacob Marley that his former partner was always a good man of business, and the specter admonishes him with this line. And so, here, Scrooge has learned that lesson. "Mankind Should Be My Business."
I'll toss in a couple of other numbers. We already played the song, "A Christmas Carol" and heard snippets from the title number "The Stingiest Man in Town" done on the Julie Andrews special This first additional tune here is a low-key, sweet piece sung by Martha Cratchit -- who, no, is not Bob's wife but oldest daughter -- performed by Betty Madigan, "Yes, There Is a Santa Claus." Why this minor character got a solo number and not the Mrs., I have no idea.
And we'll end things here with a reasonably melodic ballad, "Birthday Party for the King," sung by Johnny Desmond, as Scrooge's nephew Fred. In the Dickens story, Fred is someone who does love Christmas, though tends to be much more fun-loving than the pious character here. But happily, one with a good set of pipes, which ultimately is proper for Christmas.
Yesterday, when writing about the CBS series, Ghosts, I mentioned that they were airing the two-part pilot tonight. I just checked the CBS schedule for tonight, and they changed things. They are NOT airing the two-part pilot. Instead, they are airing five different episodes starting at 8:30 PM. Oddly, they’re random, not in order. They’re all good episodes – but then the whole series has been – but still odd. And surprising that they’re not showing the two-part pilot in this “marathon.” BUT – they’re showing the first-part of the two-part pilot next week. Perhaps they’ll show the second part the week after. Still, that strikes me as a weird scheduling change.
But ultimately, the two-part pilot -- and all the episodes -- are available On Demand.
We have another long version of the Fest today. Bear with me a bit and let me explain. I've posted this all before and I find it a fun story of sorts to repeat.
When the movie musical Scrooge was released in 1970, I remember reading an article about the film's composer-lyricist-screenwriter (and executive producer) Leslie Briscusse saying that they'd done research and discovered that among all the Christmas carols written, there had never been one actually titled, "A Christmas Carol." So, he wrote one, which begins the film over the wonderful opening credits by the great artist, Ronald Searle (who also did the credits for, among other films, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.)
Here's that song, and those wonderful opening credits.
I mention all this, though, for another reason.
It's that as good a film as Scrooge is, Bricusse's research staff was lousy. Because 14 years before, in 1956, there was a live TV musical version of A Christmas Carol that was called The Stingiest Man in Town and starred the legendary film actor, best known as playing Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone as Scrooge. And the very first song in the show was called -- yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
The music for the show was written by Fred Spielman, with lyrics by Janice Torre. It's not remotely distinguished or memorable, but has quite a few very nice things in it. And there, right at the top, first thing, is a song, "A Christmas Carol." A live musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol on American television doesn't seem like a terribly challenging thing to track down for a research staff working on a movie musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So, continuing our holiday theme of unknown Christmas songs from musicals, here is the earlier song, "A Christmas Carol," sung by The Four Lads -- leading into "An Old-Fashioned Christmas" (sung by Vic Damone), from The Stingiest Man in Town. That the researchers couldn't find. But we think you fine folks deserve better... Which is why this isn't the end of the post here. But here's that other song first --
And yes, there's more...
In 1959, which is only 11 years before the movie musical Scrooge was made (and three years after the TV musical above), the wonderful Tom Lehrer released his classic comedy album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer -- which included a song titled...yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
And again, Tom Lehrer was not remotely an unknown entertainer and songwriter. It fact, as popular as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was when it was released, he was probably around the height of his popularity in 1970 when the film Scrooge reached the theaters. His huge hit album, That Was the Year That Was had been released in 1965, only five years before Scrooge. So, how on earth those researchers missed these two songs -- and for all I know there are more, and even high-profile ones -- I have no idea.
Happily, we have this song to enjoy, as well...
I have become a big fan of the show Ghosts – twice. And yes, that requires an explanation.
Ghosts is a fairly new CBS sitcom based on a current British series. And I’m actually watching both at the same time – the British version is on HBO Max. They’ve done 19 episodes in England so far over three seasons, and 10 episodes here. I’m caught up with the U.S. version, and have finished the first year of six for the British.
I find the series a smart, low-key pleasure, and what impresses me about the CBS version is how profoundly respectful they are to the British one, while giving it their own...er, life. They’ve even used the same storylines for several episodes, tweaking them a bit for U.S. audiences. Occasionally, a few scenes and specific jokes are used in both. It’s fascinating to watch the two at the same time and see how well the U.S. team is handling it.
I like both very much, they each do some things better than the other. Overall, I think I like the British version just a bit more more.
The premise is that a young couple inherits a very old estate, and decide to renovate it to turn it into a B&B. Something happens, and the wife ends up being able to see and hear the ghosts there, but the husband can’t. It is not “Topper,” though of course it’s that genre and a cousin to it. The fun of the premise is that the ghosts aren’t totally supportive of the renovation but LOVE having a live human they can actually finally communicate with in the "real world." And as a result of that, they discover new things, like watching DVDs and searching the Internet (often about themselves). And the husband is annoyed because it’s like his wife has a team of spies who can tell on him (and often do). Her issue is that she too often has no privacy -- his is that he never knows when he does have privacy.
The main difference is that the U.S. version – while still very low-key – plays it a touch more as A Comedy. (And does that well.) The British version does things a little more straight forward (though is still totally a comedy, just that the comedy comes slightly more naturally). I think I like the more subtle sensibility a bit more.
The female leads in both are really wonderful and carry the shows. The U.S. actress, Rose McIver is talented and extremely pretty. She’s actually from New Zealand, but has had a good career over here, probably most notable in the series Once Upon a Time as ‘Tinker Bell” – and also four Netflix movies that began with A Christmas Prince (hey, this is a Christmas TV movie, what do you expect...?) and its three sequels. The British actress is Charlotte Ritchie, who might be best-known to U.S. audiences as a regular in the British series, Call the Midwife, as ‘Nurse Gilbert’. As I said, both are terrific – McIver brings a bit more pert personality, Ritchie plays it slightly more dry and droll.
The husbands are both good, but I think the U.S. actor, Utkarsh Ambudkar, is a bit better. (It turns out he was in “Free Guy,” which I just saw – and enjoyed.) The British husband is Kiell Smith-Bynoe, and he’s good. I just thin Ambudkar throws himself into the roll more.
The two casts of the ghosts themselves are a wash – excellent in both and almost identical in who the characters are. I like them equally. A few of the U.S. ghosts are a little “bigger” in the comedy, but not much. (And in fairness, a couple of the British ghosts play it “big.”)
Another reason I think the British version works a bit better is that there is a much stronger history of ghosts in England than in the U.S., so it feels more culturally natural having a house full of ghosts who’ve been there for hundreds of years. (To be clear, some of the ghosts are more-recent arrivals.) And that’s the other reason – having ghosts who’ve been there for hundreds of years (in one case, for both shows, at least a thousand years) fits British history better than American history, which is such a younger country.
But – for my taste, both are very enjoyable, very similar, respectful to the audience – and impressive how close they are to one another in style and writing. I happen to find it fun to watch both series at the same time, since they’re different enough that it’s enjoyable to see what they changed and why. And enjoyable to see more of a show that I like.
It's not big and flashy, so it might take two or three episodes to fall into the world. If you do decide to watch and choose the British series only – know that I think they take the set-up ever-so-slightly slower, so it really does take a couple episodes to best-get in full what the U.S. version get to a bit more quickly (though still take two episodes).
By the way, the British series is from the people who made a show there called, “Horrible Histories,” in case you know that show. I don’t know that series, but you might. (It is not what the U.S. show, “Drunken History” is based on.)
If you're interested, I do suggest the British version first -- it's available on HBO Max, and I believe also if you have a subscription to Britbox. (It might be on other services, as well, for all I know.) As for the U.S. adaptation, if you don't subscribe to either of those or think you'd just rather try it fist or don't care either way, you can probably catch up on all that have run so far by your cable services On Demand feature. If not, though --
I mention this now because, with TV shows generally doing reruns during the holidays, CBS is airing both parts of its pilot this Thursday, at 9 PM, Los Angeles and East Coast time.
(UPDATE: CBS changed their schedule. They are NOT airing the two-part pilot on Thursday. Instead, they are airing five different episodes starting at 8:30 PM. They’re showing the first-part of the two-part pilot next Thursday, January 30. Perhaps they’ll show the second part the week after. Still, that strikes me as a weird scheduling change. But ultimately, the two-part pilot -- and all the episodes -- are available On Demand.)
Here are the trailers for each –
This is the British version (for Season 2).
And this is the U.S. version. You'll see how impressively they've adapted it.
Okay, it's time. The other night I popped in my DVD of the holiday gem Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol for my annual viewing, so it's only fitting that today we offer its wonderful songs. (And a joyous addendum soon to follow -- Watch This Space.) The classic show was the first-ever animated holiday special, made in 1962 and for eight years it got repeated annually through 1969. But its simplistic animation finally caught up and alas it went out of the rotation. A shame since it's such a terrific production.
For all its being Mr. Magoo and only 52 minutes long, it's a very nice adaptation of the story. And the score...well, it's Broadway quality and probably the best musical score for an animated TV special, and one of the best for TV, period. The music is by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Bells are Ringing) and the lyrics by Bob Merrill (Carnival, Take Me Along) who -- while writing this -- were, in fact, in the middle of working on Funny Girl.
Though no longer on network TV, for a long time the show could be found every year on syndication. But unfortunately even that has largely faded away, though occasionally it pops up. But on its 50th anniversary in 2012, NBC brought it back to prime time, and happily its DVD release gave the show new life.
Here are the wonderful songs.
The first, "Ringle Ringle" introduces us to Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.
When Scrooge visits the Crachit house in Christmas Present, the family sings the rousing showstopper, "The Lord's Bright Blessing."
In Christmas Past, Scrooge returns to an almost-empty schoolhouse of his youth and sings a duet of himself as a young boy, "I'm All Alone in the World."
Still in Christmas Past, Scrooge's fiance Belle breaks up with him for find a new idol to love -- gold, and she sings wistfully about their love lost, the lovely "Winter was Warm.
In Christmas Future, Scrooge visits a junk shop run by thieves who have ransacked the now-empty house of a man who was died -- which he doesn't realize yet is him -- and they explain with very amusing glee that "We're Despicable."
Last week, I embedded a Christmas special from Julie Andrews' weekly TV series, The Julie Andrews Hour. Here's another one, from 1973. And like the other, they again went all out to make it a rich special, not just another episode. The guests aren't as extensive -- but they're prime. My fave Peter Ustinov (who's wonderful as her guide through the episode and history as Santa Claus, played unlike you've seen him), and also Peggy Lee, playing an ethereal Sugar Plum Fairy.
It's a low-key, stylish sort-of journey through some years past of Christmas. One of the highlights is a wonderful, 8-minute medley that Julie Andrews and Peggy Lee sing together. (Note that when Peggy Lee sings "He's a Tramp" from Lady and the Tramp, she co-wrote the all the songs to that film.) And even Peter Ustinov gets a very little singing, notably when he explains the symphony he suggested to Mozart as a gift.
Since we had Marlene Dietrich singing "Der Trommelmann" in German yesterday, I figured this would be as good a time as any to post an especially moving sequence from a Christmas episode of The West Wing.
This comes from Season One of The West Wing, an episode titled, "In Excelsis Deo." It's the last four-minutes, and one of the best final four minutes, not just of The West Wing, but a TV episode I've seen. Wonderful not only for what it's about, but that combined with the use of music, performance and editing. And it is an absolutely beautiful, moving setting for the song in English, "The Little Drummer Boy."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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