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The Incredible Hulk (1977, Kenneth Johnson)

The Incredible Hulk opens with a montage of lead Bill Bixby’s martial bliss. It goes on for quite a while, just Bixby and (an uncredited) Lara Parker being a happy married couple. Then tragedy strikes. Like most tragedies in The Incredible Hulk, it involves a car tire blowing out. There are three such instances in the movie. The first two are fine. The third one’s contrived, but effective. Director and writer and producer Johnson doesn’t let anyone acknowledge how unlikely the third instance seems; Hulk takes itself way too seriously for that sort of thing.

And Hulk taking itself seriously works. Sure, Hulk Lou Ferrigno has a terrible wig but who knows what would happen to hair after a person metamorphoses into a… well, an incredible hulk. But the rest of the seriousness? It works.

Even the manipulative opening montage.

It’s almost a year after the tragedy. Bixby has thrown himself into his work; he and research partner Susan Sullivan are trying to figure what gives people superhuman strength in cases of crisis. It’s not clear whether they’ve been working on the project since before the tragedy, as it ties directly into Bixby and Parker’s experiences.

The first act of Hulk is this phenomenally plotted science and research story. Sullivan does great selling all the scientific stuff (for a while at least, Hulk sounds pretty scientificy–the science variation of truthy). Sullivan does a great job with everything. Bixby might get top-billing, but Sullivan makes the movie. She and Bixby have this gentle relationship; when Johnson adds their backstory in exposition towards the end of the second act, it all works because Sullivan has been so good.

As the movie begins, Bixby’s not doing well at work. He walks out on an interview with mom Susan Batson who found super-strength to save son Eric Deon. Sullivan, playing the responsible one, has to get Bixby focused. Turns out she gets him too focused and he starts experimenting on himself. Resulting in the third blowout and the first appearance of Ferrigno.

Ferrigno’s “first day” out as the Hulk is Johnson doing something of a Frankenstein homage. The electronically amplified Hulk growls don’t work–and the wig is terrible–but Ferringo works hard in his scenes. He gets to over-emote since he’s a seven foot tall musclebound green grotesque, but the over-emoting is what the part needs. Johnson knows it too. He gives Ferringo more emotional scenes than Bixby by the end of it. Bixby’s sad, but Ferrigno’s tragic. Sullivan’s great with both of them.

Did I already mention she makes the Hulk? Not literally, of course, because she’s a responsible scientist, unlike Bixby.

Unfortunately, once Ferrigno shows up, the movie takes a turn. It’s been expansive until that point–introducing new characters, having Bixby and Sullivan’s research go somewhere–but once it’s about figuring out the Hulk, the movie starts folding in on itself. It’s just Bixby and Sullivan trying to figure things out. And dodge tabloid reporter Jack Colvin, who is very dedicated to his job, but very bad at it. Colvin’s performance also isn’t up to Sullivan or Bixby’s level, which certainly doesn’t help the already narratively troubled third act.

The movie’s technically accomplished, with Johnson getting a lot of good work out of his TV movie crew. Howard Schwartz’s photography is excellent for the daytime stuff and interior night stuff, okay for the exterior night stuff. Johnson’s direction is rather good. Surprisingly good in spots. The editing is fantastic–Alan C. Marks and Jack W. Schoengarth cut the heck out of the first act setup. Okay, they can’t make the remembered dialogue playing as voiceover work but who can? And the script needs the voiceovers for introspective purposes. Johnson likes introspective; he gets the tragedy out of it.

He’s good at the introspective stuff too. Bixby’s great at being sad. Sullivan’s great at everything, which I think I mentioned. She really holds the movie together. Anyway, Johnson’s not great at some of the action stuff. He’s fine with scaling up to big set pieces, but he’s not so great at little stuff. Like his Frankenstein homage. It’s well-directed, but the actors? Johnson doesn’t pay any attention to their performances, just how they’re moving through the action sequence. Their performances need a lot of attention, especially given the action sequence. Johnson doesn’t direct much from character point of view (if ever). Sometimes that point of view would help things.

I can’t forget–Batson’s great. She’s only in it for a bit but it suggests Johnson’s going to keep bringing in excellent performances in small parts. Doesn’t work out that way, though. Instead we get Colvin’s performance rolling gradually downhill from mediocre.

Joseph Harnell’s music has one good theme and then the rest of it is hot and cold. He runs out of ideas for the action scenes pretty quick. And the dramatic stuff only really works when he’s playing with that one good theme.

The Incredible Hulk could be better–another half hour to play with might have given Johnson some ideas for subplots–but it’s still pretty good.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson; teleplay by Johnson, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Howard Schwatz; edited by Alan C. Marks and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Bill Bixby (Dr. David Banner), Susan Sullivan (Dr. Elaina Marks), Jack Colvin (Jack McGee), Lara Parker (Laura Banner), Susan Batson (Mrs. Maier), Eric Deon (B.J.), Charles Siebert (Ben), and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk).


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How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966, Ben Washam and Chuck Jones)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has three rather distinct things going on throughout the twenty-six minute television special. It also some some indistinct things going on–the Whoville songs, while charming, are nowhere near as impressive as the big things.

First, but not foremost, is Washam and Jones’s direction. Although Grinch is a Dr. Seuss adaptation, as a cartoon, its possibilites are different. Jones and Washam make the Grinch (and Max, his dog) into familiar cartoon roles. The Grinch is the bad guy, Max is the reluctant accomplice. It’s familiar because the dog can’t talk, while the Grinch does. Though not to poor Max so much as at him.

And when the Grinch does talk, it’s Boris Karloff’s voice, which is the second distinct thing going on. Boris Karloff narrates The Grinch–reading the source book. When the Grinch speaks, it’s Karloff’s voice… just filtered a little. The effectiveness of the filtering is a tad questionable, but more because of the additional noise the filter adds. Karloff’s familiar but not exactly the same voice for the Grinch’s dialogue? It works. It just sounds too distant.

Karloff’s narration is always good, frequently awesome. For example, the times he has to list various silly-named Christmas items are delightful, as Karloff approaches each new and absurd word with the jovial–but still reserved–calm; it’s awesome. It’s great narration. It defines Grinch.

At least for the first half or so.

Because then in comes the third distinct thing. Thurl Ravenscroft, uncredited singer of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch. When the Grinch is stealing Christmas, sure, there’s some narration from Karloff, but it’s all about Ravenscroft’s voice. There are some great lyrics too–the song is set aside from the narration and is more a musing on the poor character of the Grinch. It’s awesome.

The Karloff narration and, eventually, Ravenscroft’s singing never bump into each other. Throughout, the animation works with the narration–expression is important in Grinch, as the amount the Grinch can contort depends on how long it takes Karloff to get through a particular line. And it can seem like Karloff is dragging it out to encourage contortion. And a contorted Grinch is not a pretty sight.

Similarly, when Ravenscroft gets back to the chorus in each of the Mean One segments–there are at least three–it defines the moment, not the animation. Lovell Norman and John O. Young cut most every sequence just right. There are a couple long moments during the Whoville songs, but Jones and Washam have the charm baseline high enough to allow indulgences. And even enjoy them. The finale’s tensions work because Jones and Washam don’t rush things, because they do slow down the pace. They let the finale rhyme with the opening, back to relying on Karloff.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is fantastic. Jones and Washam pace it out just right for the narration and song. Except without Karloff or Ravenscroft, there’d be nothing to pace. Good thing everything works so well together. Or, so well, alongside each other.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Washam and Chuck Jones; teleplay by Irv Spector, Bob Ogle, and Dr. Seuss, based on the book by Seuss; animated by Ken Harris, Tom Ray, Phil Roman, Richard Thompson, and Don Towsley; edited by Lovell Norman and John O. Young; music by Eugene Poddany; production designer, Maurice Noble; produced by Jones and Seuss; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Narrated by Boris Karloff.


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The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978, Steve Binder)

The Star Wars Holiday Special elicits a lot of sympathy. Not for the goings on, but for the cast. The easiest cast members to pity are Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford. Not only are they stuck in this contractually obligated ninety-some minute nightmare of terrible television, director Binder doesn’t even know how to shoot their cameos. For some reason, particularly with Fisher and Hamill, Binder shoots them from a low angle. Hamill and Fisher are lucky enough to just have regular cameos (Ford’s stuck with an extended one); only neither of them should be shot from low angle. High or eye-level, sure, but never low. Maybe it was a way to keep the actors (reasonably) happy and not to really involve them in the Special. More on Binder’s incompetencies in a bit (or not, there’s a lot to get through when it comes to incompetency and the Holiday Special).

But the most disrespected cast member is Peter Mayhew. The whole thing is about getting Chewbacca (Mayhew) back to his family for Life Day, the Wookie holiday where they either sit around the home with these luminescent balls or take the luminescent balls to the Tree of Life while enrobed. Again, Binder’s not a good director and Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey are worse editors, so it’s unclear if the eventual Life Day celebration at the Tree of Life is an actual event or just the Chewbacca family’s shared vision. The planet is under Imperial control, after all, and it seems unlikely the Empire would let the Wookies congregate.

Anyway, Mayhew doesn’t get anything to do. Ford’s trying to get him home for Life Day, so he’s second-fiddle to Ford for those scenes–which are an atrocious mix of Star Wars stock footage and close-up inserts–Holiday Special filmed before Empire so it’s not like the actors were already in character. And when Mayhew does get home, the Special (thankfully) is almost over. The disaster is almost complete. But it does mean Mayhew doesn’t get any time with his family and their Life Day celebration ends up hijacked by more cameos, terrible video editing effects, and, well, Fisher singing a bad song.

Because most of Holiday Special is about Mayhew’s family waiting for his arrival as they prepare for Life Day. Mickey Morton plays his wife, Paul Gale’s his dad, Patty Maloney’s his son. In some ways, it’s better they didn’t have Morton and Mayhew make out Wookie style, but not narratively. The Special already has Harvey Korman doing alien drag, fully committed, so why not just go for it. Mayhew and Morton’s eventual hug has nowhere near the emotional weight Holiday Special–not to mention a Life Day celebration–needs.

Until Mayhew (and Ford) show up at home for the celebration, it’s a rough day for the family. The Imperials are bothering them. Although Mayhew is galavanting around the galaxy, he’s still on the Empire’s census and they want to know why he’s not at home. That–way too long–scene has Jack Rader as the mean Imperial officer overseeing the search. Rader’s awful. And not in a way you can feel any sympathy for him. His subordinate Michael Potter is also awful, but at least Potter gets to Jefferson Starship and chill thanks to trader Art Carney.

About the only person in Holiday Special, at least of the featured cast, who doesn’t seem to recognize it’s an unmitigated disaster, is Carney. He’s got his shirt open to his navel, he’s maybe got the hots for Morton, and Carney’s all in. He’s never good or anywhere near it, but he doesn’t get any sympathy for the bad. Bea Arthur, who shows up as a Tatooine bar proprietress (Holiday Special shows the Star Wars cantina alien costumes need good cinematography not to look idiotic–John B. Field’s lighting is abysmal), she’s never any good, but she gets a lot of sympathy. Not so for Carney. He’s never unlikable, but he’s not pitiable.

I guess it makes him the most sincere performance in the whole thing.

Except Korman, who plays three different characters, all outside the regular action. His four-armed alien cooking show host is the best–and the only time Special is any good. The second, where Korman’s doing an instructional video on a gadget–whenever Special needs to kill time, someone watches something, usually supplied by Carney; anything not for young Maloney is inconveniently erotic. For his Life Day present, old man Wookie Gale gets a personalized holo-video of Diahann Carroll being way too suggestive for a televised kids’ holiday special before going into terrible song, which Gale enjoys in the basest sense.

In the living room, with his daughter-in-law and grandson over in the adjoining kitchen. Though Maloney might be upstairs. Carney spends a lot of time trying to keep Morton warmed up.

Then, later, Carney sits Imperial doofus Potter down in front of a Jefferson Starship hologram and Potter’s just as turned on by their performance of “Light the Sky on Fire” (a terrible song the band actually released). That holographic device Potter’s watching was meant for Morton too. There’s a lot to unpack with how the Special treats Morton. Hamill tells Morton to give him a smile, Carney’s always going in for a kiss. Why doesn’t Mayhew appreciate Morton more; must be too busy thinking of galactic galavanting.

Before the dreadful Special is over, there’s a cartoon introducing Boba Fett (voice actor Don Francks didn’t return to the part in Empire), with some odd animation choices. Though the abnormally long-faced and squinty-eyed Han Solo (voiced, of course, by Ford), is something of an amusing standout. It’s not good or interesting, but it’s bad in an amusing way, which is often the most The Star Wars Holiday Special can achieve.

I suppose the whole thing could be worse–and I realize I didn’t get back to Binder’s inept direction but, really, I can’t. I don’t want to think about what could make the Holiday Special worse. It’s terrible enough as produced.

Props to Korman, though, for managing to do a solid sketch and a half in this catastrophe of brand exploitation.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Binder; teleplay by Pat Proft, Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, John B. Field; edited by Jerry Bixman and Vince Humphrey; music by Ian Fraser; produced by Joe Layton, Jeff Starsh, Ken Welch, and Mitzie Welch; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Mickey Morton (Malla), Patty Maloney (Lumpy), Art Carney (Saun Dann), Paul Gale (Itchy), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Bea Arthur (Ackmena), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), Don Francks (Boba Fett), Diahann Carroll (Mermeia Holographic Wow), Jack Rader (Imperial Officer), and Harvey Korman (Krelman / Chef Gormaanda / Amorphian Instructor).


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The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


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