Sunday, December 30, 2012

Inspiration for THE GODFATHER?

First, watch the film:


Both films have:

A strong Italian immigrant father with four sons (I'm counting Tom Hagen)

An older son bitter over being ignored for the younger favorite (GFII).

A weak-willed son

A slow-thinking son

A son who is a shady, streetsmart lawyer.

In the original script of Godfather II, Tom has an affair with Sonny's
widow, and here Tony marries Max's former fiancee Maria

Both films even have a scene where the father holds up a family
get-together while they wait for the arrival of the favorite son.

I am willing to bet Puzo read Weidman's novel or saw the film -- probably both.

On Woody Allen

Whether Woody Allen is considered an auteur of genius and the American Ingmar Bergman, or an overage sophomore aping a director who is pretty overrated himself, doesn't really matter. However Allen is thought of, it is inevitably in this context.

So it's surprising for many people to learn Allen was once a very different sort of icon.

It's interesting to realize the "Woody Allen" persona barely goes back 50 years. Of course there had been aspects of it before, even in standup comedy: the nebbish (Shelley Berman), the Jewish intellectual (Mort Sahl), the failure with women (just about anybody). But no one had ever really combined these characteristics into one character.

Allen started out fairly typically, hustling gags to newspaper columnists as a teenager and eventually writing for performers with whom he seemingly had little in common (Pat Boone?). His early work was notable for two things: the sheer brilliance of some his material, earning him the nickname "The Young Larry Gelbart" (a legendary comedy writer who was only in his early 30s himself -- when Allen was introduced to him with that epithet, Gelbart replied testily, "What are you talking about? The young Larry Gelbart is HERE") and his fondness for inserting upscale cultural references into his work: in an "American Bandstand" spoof written for an Art Carney special, a record is played by a new rock band, "The Sisters Karamazov".

Urged to become a performer by his managers, Allen resisted, not only because of stage fright but also due to a not so vague contempt for the entire world of glitzy show biz. But Allen gave in and took to the nightclub stage, stumbling along, isolated gags in search of a character -- getting by on the quality of his jokes, but despising what he was doing, and himself for doing it.

Then came the brainstorm. Allen would merge two apparently unmergable comic icons -- his literary
model (S.J. Perelman) with his standup hero (Bob Hope). This gave Allen the best of all possible worlds.  He could be his Jewish intellectual self, sprinkling his routines with the references to Freud and philosophy that were so dear to him, while Hope's cowardly schlemiel would humanize the character enough for audience empathy.


This is the first version of The Postman Always Rings Twice -- no, not
Ossessione; this version was made in France in 1939. No subtitles, but
it was interesting comparing this scene (the three together for the
first time) with the other versions.

Another scene:

Note the attempt to recreate the look of California's coast.

The male lead -- who doesn't come across quite right in the part to me
-- had earlier made a Hollywood comedy written by Norman Krasna... and
Groucho Marx!

Friday, July 13, 2012


A" take" is essentially a facial reaction done generally (but by no means always) for comic effect.

Takes of course existed for centuries onstage, where they were highly exaggerated so as to be discernible to the back of the balcony. But it took the new medium of the cinema and its revolutionary technique the closeup to fully exploit the possibilities of the take.

There were far too may types of takes in silent film comedy (most of which are long archaic) to list here. You could writes paragraphs just on reactions to being hit on the head (as James Agee in fact did, in his classic 1949 essay "The Golden Age Of Comedy"). Often highly exaggerated in the stage style, these techniques would pretty much disappear from mainstream comedy with the advent of sound film and its ever-increasing emphasis on "reality" -- although some takes like "Dreamy Smile After Being Hit On Head" would survive through Our Gang and The Three Stooges into the 1960s with Gilligan's Island (a veritable collection depot for old slapstick devices),.

The most famous take of course is the DOUBLE TAKE. Turn to look at something, bring your head back then turn your head in acknowledgement. The double take has many variations. The head can be returned whip-fast, or the return can be slow with the eyes gradually popping out.

Scottish comedian James Finlayson, a longtime foil for Laurel and Hardy (and whose "D-oh!" exclamation would be co-opted by Homer Simpson in the 1990s) perfected what he called the DOUBLE TAKE AND FADE AWAY: Turn, go back, whip second turn, then go back slow to expression of exasperatrion.

Bob Hope, with his matchless dialogue timing, used a double take made possible by sound: DOUBLE TAKE WITH WISECRACK, as in this classic exchange from The Ghost Breakers:
(Radio host Hope has now finished his show and is talking with a secretary)
HOPE: Wasn't that a great show I just did?
SECRETARY: It was if you're any judge.
(Hope smiles, then does double take. A pregnant pause as the two star at each other).
HOPE: I'll think of sumthin'

There are many other types of takes -- here are just a few:

SLOW BLINK -- Buster Keaton's stoneface persona did not really lend itself to takes, but he used this one effectively. A variation is the SLOW BLINK WITH GULP, for registering fear.

EYE BULGE --Jackie Gleason was heavily influenced by the great silent comedians. He even had a silent character, The Poor Soul, on his 1950s TV variety show. Gleason often used the eye bulge in his Honeymooners sketches. Sometimes it was the eye bulge alone, other times it was followed by a gulp, still others by slamming the table. Like many take forms the eye bulge faded with the decline of slapstick, but it did not disappear completely. Geoffrey Rush used one a few years ago in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

SPIT TAKE -- Calmly drink your cup of coffee (or tea). You are surprised. Before you can swallow, you spit out your mouthful of liquid. Noteworthy as a take which involves a prop, this messy bit of business had existed for years but was made virtually iconic by Danny Thomas, who used it frequently on his '50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy. The device became SO identified with Thomas that its very fame nearly killed it off, aside from occasional ironic references. This latter usage would survive into the 1980s on that Mt. Everest of reference humor SCTV, which sometimes used the spit take (as well as other slapstick devices) in their parodies of old TV and movie forms.


There is a special kind of take which flirts with the concept of "breaking the fourth wall" (i.e. acknowledging the audience). This was hardly unknown in silent comedy: A girl starts to get out of the bathtub and Buster Keaton blocks the lens with his hand; Fatty Arbuckle is changing his pants in a dressing room and motions for the camera to rise so as to preserve modesty. More commonly, hack comics, desperate for laughs, would point at some action onscreen then turn to the audience laughing, praying they could convince at least a few to join in.
Oliver Hardy refined this acknowledgement into a take. Stan commits some blunder. Instead of immediately chastising Stan, Ollie turns to the camera and sighs in annoyed resignation, his face in sort of a half-smirk, half-grimace. That turn to the camera is the significant motion. He's communicating with US, directly, before returning to berate Stan for his faux-pas.
Jack Benny took this idea further. A guy walks up to Benny and ask for a quarter Jack slowly turns to the audience and smiles, as if to ask, "Is he kidding?". Not only does Benny's take acknowledge the audience, but the joke depends on pre-knowledge of Benny's carefully crafted cheap persona.
Johnny Carson, Benny's most devoted disciple (Carson even wrote his undergraduate thesis on Benny, while he was a student at the University of Nebraska in the 1940s), was perhaps also the most devoted practitioner of takes. I suppose if you have all that airtime to fill, you need every comic tool you can lay your hands on. While Carson might occasionally use exaggerated slapstick takes (especially in sketches), he was much fonder of Bennyesque 4th wallbreakers: half-smile of bemusement, leering smirk, resigned acceptance, et al... These takes were made even more effective by employment of what is known in the TV business as a "slave camera" (one that is always focused on the star), ever ready to capture Carson' every gesture.
Note how takes were scaled down as the technology became more intimate: stage, silent film, talkies, TV. Sometimes Johnny Carson would look in his slave camera with no visible change of expression. With a nod to today's dominant form of TV programming we might call this the "Reality Take."
For more information on comedy, check out my eBook:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Advice from Writers: George Orwell

George Orwell (From Why I Write)
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Advice From Writers: Henry Miller

Henry Miller (from Henry Miller on Writing)
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to the program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people; go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it–but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Been away from blogging for quite some time working on a new eBook:

THE JOKE'S ON YOU: HOW TO WRITE COMEDY is a comprehensive guide.   Nearly 300 pages of information, purchasers will receive updates to the book as well.

Appreciate feedback posted here.   Been quite a project but a ton of fun!