Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 2-Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979)

american-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Eric Till

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Ken Pogue, Gerard Parkes, Susan Hogan, Chris Cragg

Notes: This TV movie from 1979 cast the then-34 Henry Winker, riding high on the success of Happy Days, as Scrooge substitute “Benedict Slade.” The film transplants the events of Dickens’s novel from Victorian London to Depression-Era New England, but keeps the most important beats of the timeless tale of a miser faced by ghosts to drive him towards redemption.

As usual, I don’t want to waste time rehashing a well-trod plot, but it’s worth pointing out how the film branches out at the beginning. The first real act of Scroogery comes on Christmas Eve when Slade and his Cratchit stand-in, Thatcher (R.H. Thompson) repossess the property of an African-American farming couple, the Reeves (Dorian Harewood and Arlene Duncan). They then pull the same stunt on the headmaster (Fraggle Rock’s Gerard Parkes) of the very school he once attended, and a university shop that makes the terrible mistake of selling books instead of something profitable. By the time Slade and Thatcher arrive home with a truck full of goods taken back from people who couldn’t pay, you start to feel that Slade may actually have Scrooge beat when it comes to being a jackass. When Thatcher tries to convince him to put money into reopening the town quarry, since Roosevelt has all these plans that will require slate, he thanks him by firing him. Just as Slade destroys a first edition of A Christmas Carol he took from the university shop (this bit, incidentally, made me hate the man as much as any movie villain I’ve ever seen), the visitations from the spirits begin…

Thoughts: From the beginning, Benedict Slade is a different kind of take on Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the makeup job is awful. Winkler, who again was only 34 at the time, is layered under slabs of makeup that don’t serve to make him look old so much as they make him look like he’s late for a Halloween party. (There’s an unintentionally funny bit when he encounters the first ghost and accuses him of being under heavy makeup like “that man who played Frankenstein,” while Ken Pogue is playing a ghost and yet still looks more natural and lifelike than Winkler.) The film spends an inordinate amount of time with Christmas Past, I think, largely so that we can see Winkler’s face without the ridiculous makeup. He does make up for it, I should note, by sporting a bitching mustache.

Bad makeup aside, though, Winkler’s performance is actually pretty good. He’s got a nasty, bitter tone in his voice that fits in with all the Scrooges we’ve loved before, and you definitely get the impression right off that this is a man who keeps rage close to his heart. As we get his backstory, he comes across as a much more rounded Scrooge than many other incarnations – as a young man he seems earnest and sincere. His first steps down a bad path come not out of greed or spite, but because he is trying to look forward for the sake of his business while his mentor (Chris Wiggins) insists on miring himself in the past. Wiggins’s character owns a woodshop, making furniture by hand, and Slade leaves him for the sake of a company that is progressing in the direction of automation and mass production. By the time he does anything that could legitimately been seen as corrupt, he’s already gone quite far down the path of trying to do what he thinks is best for his business – and what’s more, history proved him right.

That goes a long way to selling his redemption – when he approaches Thatcher during the “Christmas Present” segment, asking forgiveness for not knowing that Thatcher’s son was sick when he fired him, you believe his contrite nature. The final scene with the Thatcher family, when Slade hands young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) one ticket after another to get him to the clinic in Australia that can cure whatever it is he’s suffering from, Winkler is nailing it. Even when Mrs. Thatcher hugs him, he pulls off a wonderful little beat where he gets anxious, not used to physical contact after all these years, that fits the character marvelously.

Writer Jerome Coopersmith picked a good time period to set the story – placing in during the Depression makes it easy to show the rich/poor gulf between his version of Scrooge and… well, everybody else. What’s more, it allows him to play a little on racial tensions in a way that Dickens never does. Although the film doesn’t make it explicit, it can’t be a coincidence that the first nasty thing Slade does is to a black family struggling to survive the Great Depression.

The film makes some interesting choices in regards to the ghosts. Rather than trying to make the ghosts creepy or ethereal, Slade is visited by spirits who take the form of the people he screwed earlier in the day. Christmas Past is the bookstore owner (David Wayne) whose copy of A Christmas Carol bit the dust, Christmas Present is Parkes, and Christmas Future is Harewood. I’m honestly not sure what the thought process is here – to give it a bit of Wizard of Oz flair? To make the interaction between Slade and the ghosts more personal, since he personally wounded each of them? Harewood in particular is odd, dressing him up in 70s-era clothes complete with a shirt open to his bellybutton and gold chains. While using “future” radio broadcasts to herald his arrival is an interesting touch, the clothes he wears would be enough to make any reasonable person fight against such a horrific future.

In the end, this is a pretty good iteration of the story. It recontextualizes Dickens in a different time and place in a way that fits the new setting, while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Although it keeps most of the skeleton of the story the same, there’s just enough of a change to the set dressing to make it feel like a different experience. It’s not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a bad one at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 1-Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

stingiest-man-in-townNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writers: Romeo Muller & Janice Torre, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morse, Dennis Day, Paul Frees, Sonny Melendrez, Debra Clinger, Bobby Rolofson, Steffi Calli, Eric Hines, Dee Stratton, Darlene Conley

Notes: Rankin and Bass, of course, were the kings of Christmas animation in the 60s and 70s. They’re the people who gave us the timeless versions of Rudolph and Frosty, several definitive Santa Claus specials, added the Heatmiser and Snowmiser to our holiday menagerie, and so on. It’s no surprise that they would eventually tackle the most famous Christmas story of them all. What is kind of interesting is that this animated special was not quite an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather a remake of a musical TV special of the same name from 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. The live action version apparently made it to DVD in 2011. Great, now I’ve got something else to look for.

Thoughts: From the beginning, this adaptation attempts to put a little coat of fresh paint on an old story, with the story narrated by Tom Bosley as “B.A.H. Humbug,” a character I’m sure children of 1978 took to like kids take to the Pokémons today. He’s largely a superfluous character, though, with some weird family history thing he has with the Scrooges that’s never really developed and you don’t really care. The film is almost operettic, with very little spoken dialogue. Nearly every line is sung, which isn’t a bad thing, except that the cast isn’t necessarily the most musical. Neither Bosley or Walter Matthau, as Scrooge, were Top 40 crooners in their day, and as a result, the songs don’t exactly land. Matthau’s singing in particular is stilted, over-enunciated, the sort of thing that sounds like somebody doing a parody of an over-the-top Broadway performer. That would be fine if this film was intended to be a parody. In a serious adaptation, though, it’s a problem when your Scrooge’s voice is the weakest part of your Christmas Carol. In truth, some of the best singing in the special comes from Robert Morse as young Scrooge in the scene where the miser is rejecting Belle (Shelby Flint).

It doesn’t help that none of them are particularly memorable in their own right. Even when it’s not Matthau singing, the songs just aren’t catchy. The best is probably “There is a Santa Claus,” sung at the Cratchit’s house, which is a nice enough piece if you can forget the fact that this is ostensibly Victorian England, where nobody called him “Santa Claus” and the practice was largely abandoned anyway. This odd version of the story not only throws in a superfluous Santa Claus song, but follows that up with the Humbug singing a song about the Nativity. I’m not about to complain about a Christmas special that actually has the guts to talk about Jesus, but it feels very out of the blue, out of place with the rest of the story. The song tries to make an equivocation between Jesus and Tiny Tim, which is the sort of allegory that probably sounded great on paper, but just doesn’t gel in practice.

When he’s not singing, Matthau is adequate as Scrooge. His voice has emotion laced through it, but it’s a little too obvious, a little too much like he’s “acting” instead of delivering the lines naturally. He’s better at the end of the cartoon, after Scrooge’s redemption, when he’s sounding joyful instead of terrified, although his “happy” singing voice is no less bombastic or forced than his stingy one. Matthau is a bit outshined, as well, by Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Past and Present. Frees was one of the usual players at Rankin and Bass, and responsible for a few of their legendary characters – Jack Frost, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a few turns as Santa Claus, as well as performing Ludwig Von Drake and other voices for Disney. His Christmas Present in particular is good, a nice, loud, round-sounding voice that’s perfect for the mountainous spirit.

I’ve got to give Rankin and Bass credit, though, for not toning down the story. The story shows Scrooge in his bed being menaced by an apparition before the opening credits even roll, then cuts back to show the traditional visit with Fred (Dennis Day) in the counting house When Scrooge goes home to see Marley’s face in the door knocker, it’s a rather gruesome sight – mouth wide open and dripping, about as grotesque as you can imagine a cartoon from the 70s ever being. I was hoping for something similarly chilling from Christmas Yet to Come, but instead the character essentially made a cameo, appearing in the traditional robe and vanishing in less time than it took to sing the Jesus song.

It’s worth noting that Rankin and Bass’s animation style had evolved considerably from their classic specials. Unlike the earlier traditionally animated films, like Frosty the Snowman or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which were more or less on-model with the stop motion characters, the character designs in this film are much closer to their 1977 production of The Hobbit – less perfectly round and more bulbous, globular, and wrinkled. Scrooge himself looks like he would be perfectly as home in their version of Bilbo’s shire.

This, frankly, is not one of their best specials. It’s not terrible, but when you inevitably compare it to Rudolph and Frosty, it’s going to fall in the pack of lesser works. The same goes for when you compare it to other renditions of A Christmas Carol. It may not be as painful as An All Dogs Christmas Carol, but it’s nothing to write home about either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Coming Monday: Scrooge Revisited

scroogeA few years ago, in a fit of what can only be deemed temporary insanity, I set out and reviewed 20 different interpretations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in one month. It was an astonishing feat of fortitude, the sort of thing normally reserved for Olympic-level competition, and when it was over, I was of course universally recognized as a world champion. However, only covering 20 iterations of Scrooge barely scratches the surface of all the near-countless versions that exist in the world of cinema. It would be child’s play to conjure up a list of 20 more takes on Dickens, right?

I am not that stupid.

I am, however, stupid enough to conjure up five more. So this year, on the week before Christmas, I’m going to give the Reel to Reel treatment to five additional Carols, five takes on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge that I didn’t tackle before. Come back Monday and you’ll see my look at the first of them. In the meantime, though, if you want to go back and look at the first 20 versions, I’ve provided handy links below:

  1. Sir Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)
  2. Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol (1951)
  3. Fredric March in A Christmas Carol (1954)
  4. Quincy Magoo in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
  5. Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970)
  6. Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
  7. George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (1984)
  8. Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988)
  9. Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1993)
  10. Fred Flintstone in A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)
  11. Carface Carruthers in An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)
  12. Sir Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol (1999)
  13. Simon Callow in Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
  14. Kelsey Grammer in A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)
  15. ??? in A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghostly Tale (2006)
  16. Oscar the Grouch in A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006)
  17. Daffy Duck in Bah Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas (2006)
  18. Robert Wagner in A Dennis the Menace Christmas (2007)
  19. Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol (2009)
  20. David Ruprecht in Mister Scrooge to See You (2013)

There, that should keep you occupied for a few days. See you Monday!

What I’ve Watched In… November 2016

doctor-strange-poster

Favorite of the Month: Doctor Strange (2016)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Hardcore Henry (2015), B-
  2. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016), A
  3. The Neon Demon (2015), C
  4. Doctor Strange (1978), C
  5. Time of the Apes (1987), D; MST3K Riff, B+
  6. Thinner (1996), C
  7. A Grand Night In: The Story of Aardman (2015), A
  8. Doctor Strange (2016), A
  9. Mascots (2016), B
  10. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), B+
  11. Star Trek Beyond (2016), A
  12. Spectre (2015), B-
  13. Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988), F
  14. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), B
  15. Teenage Caveman (1958), D; MST3K Riff, B
  16. My Fair Lady (1964), A
  17. Gunslinger (1956), D; MST3K Riff, B
  18. Fun in Balloon Land (1965), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  19. The Dwarvenaut (2016), C+
  20. The Addams Family (1991), B+
  21. Addams Family Values (1993), A-
  22. I Accuse My Parents (1944), D; MST3K Riff, A
  23. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), D-; MST3K Riff, B
  24. Young and Beautiful (2013), C
  25. Mouse on the Mayflower (1968), C+
  26. Garfield’s Thanksgiving (1989), B+
  27. BC: The First Thanksgiving (1979), C
  28. Intergalactic Thanksgiving (1979) B-
  29. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), A-
  30. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1974), B+
  31. Planes Trains, and Automobiles (1987), A
  32. Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed In at the House of Mouse (2001), B
  33. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999), B+
  34. Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004), B-
  35. Magic Christmas Tree (1964), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
  36. Gaslight (1944), B+
  37. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+

What I’ve Watched In… October 2016

wnuf-halloween-special-dvd-cover-movie-poster

Favorite of the Month: WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Deadgirl (2008), C
  2. Heathers (1988), B
  3. Westworld (1973), B
  4. Re-Kill (2015), C-
  5. Victor Frankenstein (2015), C
  6. The Bride and the Beast (1958), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  7. Return to Horror High (1987), D+
  8. House II: The Second Story (1987), B-
  9. Frankenhooker (1990), D
  10. Frankenstein: Day of the Beast (2011), C-
  11. Theatre of Blood (1973), D
  12. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988), D
  13. Dawn of the Mummy (1981), F
  14. Life After Beth (2014), B
  15. Dead 7 (2016), C
  16. Ouija (2014), C
  17. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), A
  18. Toy Story of Terror (2013), B
  19. The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (2016), C-
  20. Cottage Country (2013), C+
  21. Terror From the Year 5000 (1958), D; MST3K Riff, B
  22. Disney’s Halloween Treat (1982), A
  23. Garfield in Disguise (1985) A
  24. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), C
  25. Dreamscape (1984), C-; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  26. WNUF Halloween Special (2013), B
  27. Carnival of Souls (1962), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  28. Kiss of the Tarantula (1976), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  29. The Worst Witch (1986), C+
  30. Frankenstein (1931), A
  31. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) A+

What I Watched In… September 2016

rope

Favorite of the Month: Rope (1948)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Pit and the Pendulum (1961), C+
  2. Superman (1978), A+
  3. Superman II (1980), B+
  4. Superman III (1983), C
  5. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D
  6. Arachnia (2003), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), A
  8. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  9. Maggie (2015), B+
  10. Sex in the Comix (2012), B
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), A
  12. Contracted (2013), B-
  13. Contracted: Phase II (2015), C
  14. Coherence (2013), B+
  15. Sabotage (1936), B
  16. Trumbo (2015), B
  17. Deathgasm (2015), D
  18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), B+
  19. Black Swan (2010), A-
  20. Burying the Ex (2014), B
  21. Ex Machina (2015), A
  22. Lilo and Stitch (2002), B
  23. Psycho (1960), A+
  24. Psycho II (1983), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  25. DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year (2016), B
  26. Hitchcock (2012), B+
  27. Horror of Dracula (1958), B
  28. Riding the Bullet (2004), C
  29. Ruby (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  30. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), B+
  31. The Fly (1986), B+
  32. Ghostheads (2016), B
  33. Holidays (2016), B-
  34. Monster House (2006), B
  35. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), B+
  36. Wayne’s World (1992), A-
  37. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+
  38. The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), C
  39. Murder Party (2007), B
  40. Rope (1948), A
  41. Dreamcatcher (2003), C
  42. Trollhunter (2010), B

On Gene Wilder, Why We Go to the Movies, and Why We Don’t

Willy Wonka2016 will be known, among other things, as the year death became a serial killer targeting celebrities. The most recent, as least at the time that I’m writing this, was one of the ones that hit me hardest: Gene Wilder. Although his body of work was relatively small, the movies he made in his lifetime were some of my favorites: Young Frankenstein, The Producers, The Little Prince… and of course, the two films that AMC Theaters showcased this weekend, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. When my wife, Erin, told me that they were going to play these films, I knew I’d married the right woman. She was as anxious to go as I was, even though unlike me, she’s not a huge fan of Blazing Saddles, which just goes to prove that marriage is about loving your partner even when they’re wrong.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an area where there are a lot of small cinemas or retrospective houses, and the Fathom Events/TCM screenings of classic movies are usually on weeknights, when I need to get up early for work the next day. It’s not often that we get a chance to see an older movie on the big screen, and despite the increasing hassle that accompanies going to a movie theater, that’s still the best way to see a movie. I was immediately excited for this double feature.

Willy Wonka Movie PosterWe filed in to see Willy Wonka at the 5 p.m. show. The theater was surprisingly full, and I would guess about 75 percent of the audience were parents and their children. You expect this with the latest Disney release, or whatever Dreamworks movie is currently featuring a rubbery character using the same facial expression as every other one, but it was a little surprising to see so many kids for Willy Wonka. Obviously it’s a movie that’s tailor-made for children, but it’s also 45 years old. I know from experience how difficult it can be to get kids to watch an older movie.

The lights went down, the film began, and within five minutes I was reminded of why I go to the movies.

Most of those parents with their kids were, I would guess, about my age or younger – which is to say, they were all born in the 45 years since this movie was originally released. Although I would guess that virtually every adult (and many of the children) in the theater had seen this movie, I would also guess that almost nobody in the room had seen it on the big screen before. (I myself remember vividly the first time I saw this movie: on one of those rolling TV carts they used to wheel around elementary schools on those days they needed to keep the kids quiet for a while.) The kids were enraptured. They laughed when Grampa Joe went through his antics of pulling himself out of the over-occupied bed. They gasped at the intimidating presence of Mr. Slugworth. They cheered when Gene Wilder, in all his glory, limped weakly from the door to his factory before performing a front flip at the gate and teaching them a valuable lesson: you can’t always trust an adult.

It was glorious. At least three generations of fans laughing and clapping and even occasionally singing along to a movie that predates any of us… all of us together. This is what you can never replicate at home. It doesn’t matter how big your TV, how expensive your sound system, how advanced your home theater setup might be, it’s no substitute for the shared experience of seeing a beautiful film with dozens or even hundreds of other people, glorying together in the whimsical ministrations of a genius like Gene Wilder.  When the film ended, Erin even reported she overheard a little girl having an existential crisis over the fact that Charlie had blonde hair instead of brown. Her mother finally asked her, “are you thinking of the movie with Johnny Depp?” And the child, adorably, said, “Who?”

This doesn’t happen when you’re watching a Blu-Ray.

Blazing SaddlesThe movie ended and we filed out, allowed the theater staff to clean, and walked back in for Blazing Saddles. The families were gone now, replaced by adult fans. Blazing Saddles, if you somehow have never seen it, is a brilliant motion picture. Mel Brooks takes Wilder and Cleavon Little through an hour and a half of systematically dismantling racism and prejudice, while simultaneously cranking out one golden comedic moment after another. I’ve probably seen this movie ten times, but the jokes still land perfectly. And it is a testament to the brilliance of Brooks, Little, and Wilder that I still loved every frame of this movie despite the fact that the theater in which we saw it was littered with complete assholes.

You know who I’m talking about here. I’m talking about those people who pay money to sit in a movie theater and behave as if they’re on their couch at home. The ones who turn on their cell phones in the middle of the movie. The ones who keep kicking your seat. Worst of all, the comedians who think we want to hear them recite the jokes along with the movie. It’s one thing if you’re going to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or something else where audience participation is encouraged. But this was just a simple screening, not an event specifically structured for dedicated fans. You can’t take it for granted that everybody else in the theater has seen it before. For someone seeing a movie for the first time, someone reciting the jokes along with the movie is irritating. Someone saying the punchline a second before the movie is unforgivable. And reading the signs from the sight gags out loud should be punishable by being strapped into your seat and forced to sit through a two-day repeat marathon of The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.

It was still a magnificent movie, of course, and it’s a shame that chances to see things like this are so rare. These days, making any movie is hard. Making a great comedy is almost impossible. People whose movie-going time is limited choose to spend their theater money on the big action pieces and special effects spectacles, figuring they’ll catch the smaller movies and comedies on Netflix. As a result, the smaller movies and comedies don’t make as much money, and as a result, they don’t make as many of them. The comedies that are made are picked apart and dissected from the script stage to the final cut. Spineless executives and bean-counters demand changes in the name of political correctness and appealing to increasingly-important foreign markets, which makes for an even bigger mess since – while an explosion is an explosion anywhere in the world – a joke that kills in Patterson, New Jersey will die on the vine if you try to tell it in China or Japan. So when the studios start giving notes, that’s the stuff that gets chopped.

Blazing Saddles, the masterpiece of 1974, wouldn’t stand a chance of being made in 2016.

The worst part of this, of course, is that comedies benefit more than any type of film by being seen in a theater. You can get hyped up by a superhero movie by yourself. Horror movies may be at their best when sitting on the couch cuddling someone special. But that’s not how comedies work. Laughter is infectious, my friends. One person laughing gives someone else permission to do so. Hundreds laughing is an epidemic of joy. Jokes that I’ve heard a dozen times, jokes that elicit the barest chuckle when I watch them on TV, had me splitting my guts when we watched them in the theater with other fans. It’s why going to a RiffTrax Live event is more fun than watching the digital download at home. It’s why I paid for my wife and I to watch two movies I already own on DVD. And it’s why, if my local theater decides to show Duck Soup, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, or History of the World Part I, I’ll be first in line.

Inconsiderate moviegoers aren’t enough to kill it, but they do diminish the joy of the experience, and that’s a shame. It says a lot that the children who joined us for Willy Wonka were, by far, better behaved than the adults who watched Blazing Saddles.

But the double feature did kindle something in me. I’ll be on the lookout for those classic screenings more often now. And when a true masterpiece hits the screen, even if it’s something I’ve seen a hundred times, I’ll do my best to be there.

UNRELATED ADDENDUM

While I have your attention, friends, I’m gearing up for a new Reel to Reel project. This time, in a deliberate effort to distract myself from all the misery in the world, I’ve decided to write about the most important comedies of all time.

That begs the question, of course, what ARE those?

I’m not just talking about the FUNNIEST movies, although of course the films that make the cut should certainly be that. I mean the most IMPORTANT comedies — those that have left the deepest cultural impact, that influenced the future generations the most, that started trends, that launched the careers of the greats. So I ask you, using those criteria, what movies should make the cut? I’ve started a poll in the Facebook group for the All New Showcase podcast, and I’d like to invite you all to help me create my list. Please, vote for as many movies as you want, and feel free to add as many options as you like.

Reel to Reel Comedy Poll

What I watched in… August 2016

Room

Favorite of the Month: Room (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Kinsey (2004), B+
  2. Suicide Squad (2016), B+
  3. The Lobster (2015), A-
  4. Star Trek Beyond (2016), A
  5. Eegah (1962), F; MST3K Riff, B
  6. Mothra (1961), B; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Final Girl (2015), C+
  8. The Little Prince (2015), A-
  9. Fantastic Planet (1973), B
  10. Witching and Bitching (2013), B+
  11. The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), B
  12. Room (2015), A
  13. The Dark Power (1985), F; RiffTrax Riff, A-
  14. Welcome to Leith (2015), B+
  15. Freaks of Nature (2015), A-
  16. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), A
  17. Equinox (1970), C
  18. Big Eyes (2014), B+
  19. The Raven (1963), D

What I watched in… July 2016

star-trek-beyond-poster-international

Favorite of the Month: Star Trek Beyond (2016)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah (1995), B
  2. Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002), B+
  3. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), B
  4. Godzilla Vs. Megaguirus (2000), B
  5. Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla (1994), C+
  6. Godzilla (2014), A
  7. Red Dawn (1984), B; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  8. Bone Tomahawk (2015), A-
  9. The Neverending Story (1984), A-
  10. Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1985), F; MST3K Riff, A
  11. Ring of Terror (1962), F; MST3K Riff, B
  12. Monster A-Go Go (1965), F; MST3K Riff, B-
  13. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), A-
  14. Star Trek (2009), A
  15. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), B
  16. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), B
  17. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), A+
  18. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), B+
  19. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), B+
  20. Ghostbusters (2016), C-
  21. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), C-
  22. Star Trek Beyond (2016), A
  23. Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) B+
  24. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), A-
  25. Star Trek: Generations (1994), C+
  26. Star Trek: First Contact (1996), A-
  27. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), C+
  28. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), B-
  29. LEGO DC Comics Superheroes: Justice League-Gotham City Breakout (2016), B
  30. Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015), B
  31. Back to the Beach (1987), B
  32. Summer Rental (1985), B-
  33. Scooby-Doo (2002), C+