Forgotten Gems: Turnabout

I run hot and cold on comedy legend Hal Roach. Well, not on him, per se. He seems like he was a helluva guy, working hard for the better part of four decades in showbiz, making the transition from silent to talkies, and from two-reel wonders to, well, almost to feature-length pix. (If TV had come along sooner, he’d probably have been the first Aaron Spelling or Sheldon Schwartz.)

Yes, if it weren’t for his persistent Mussolini-love, why, he’d be near perfect.

But Harold Lloyd wasn’t my favorite silent guy and Our Gang grated on me when I was a kid. (I can hardly imagine now.) I do, however, love me some Thorne Smith. Smith was very much about a rejection of Victorian morals on the one hand, and an embracing of those morals on the other. Which is to say, he had no use for the scold, the pious or the pompous. It’s easy to see him joining a group like Joe Bob Briggs’ Drunks Against Mad Mothers. At the same time, his characters found unhappiness discarding traditional morals and happiness coming back to them (or something like them) on their own terms.

Which is further to say, his stories involve sex. A lot of it. Not graphic, obviously, but copious.

His stories were really unfilmable at the time for that. And today they’re unfilmable because they reflect a gentility that no longer exists, at least anywhere in the product that Hollywood churns out.

Hal Roach, though, tried and scored big hits by taking the late Smith’s stories and substituting a healthy dose of “screwball”. The result is much less sophisticated, but it keeps a guy out of trouble with the Hayes office.

The most famous of these movies are the Topper series. (Not the least of which for featuring a rising Cary Grant in the role of George Kirby.) But the lesser known Turnabout is also worth a watch or two.

In this story, bickering husband and wife John Hubbard and Carole Landis are switched by a mystical statue (played by perpetual extra Georges Renavent) , who then proceed to wreck each others’ lives (which are, of course, more complex than each gives the other credit for).

Sure you’ve seen it before. As Freaky Friday three times, or one of those ‘80s movies with one of those ’80s Coreys. I think it was a play in Ancient Greece, and they probably stole the idea from the Upanishads.

But surprising, to me, is how a lot of yuks hold up after 68 years. John Hubbard swishes around the Ad Agency he works for while the elegant Carole Landis (just 21 at the time!) squats and sits open legged like a mook. Adolphe Menjou was the headliner, and he’s fine, but not really the star. The ending is an absurd twist on Thorne Smith’s ending, which results in the husband remaining in his wife’s body until their baby is delivered (as punishment for his infidelities).

All very broad, yes. And at times overplayed. Yet it still works. I’ve seen it twice in the past couple of years (on TCM On Demand) and I laugh every time.

The Boy laughed, which says something.

And the beauty of watching a Hal Roach movie is that, even if you don’t like it, it’s not going to last long.

A Little More On Fred

Another grating thing about that Fred book was that it was all about how Fred could be Reagan.

That, in my opinion, is a loser. Fred should win not by trying to be Reagan but by being Fred.

Lincoln was not Washington. Adams, Jefferson and Madison were also not Washington. Neither Roosevelt was Lincoln. Truman wasn’t FDR.

You gotta be like The Dude.

I only mention it ‘cause some-times there’s a man–I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero?–but sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here–
sometimes there’s a man who, why, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there!

The Fred Factor

I just got through reading The Fred Factor: How Fred Thompson May Change The Face Of The ‘08 Campaign by Steve Gill.

I’m a Fred guy. If he runs for Pres, I’ll vote for him. None of the other candidates (either party) turn me on, and I usually vote Libertarian. (Not because I necessarily want Libertarians to win, I just think the first question we need to task when faced with a problem is not “How should the government handle this?” but “Should the government handle this?” And I think the answer should usually be no. The Libs, such as they are, are as close I can get to that.)

Anyway, I got this book months ago, when it was more relevant, and put off reading it till now. I can’t say I was hugely impressed. It’s a thin book that is about 1/3rd stuff that only a wonk could love (if this state goes that way and this candidate veers to the center, then Fred! could save the day). It’s funny to read now because not a lot of what the author describes has come to pass, reminding you that fortune tellers are all pretty much scams no matter what their job titles are.

Another 1/3rd is light background stuff. Interesting for what it is, but not presented in any extraordinary way.

The remaining parts are bits of actual Fred. Platform positions, etc.

All in all, it’s about on a par what you could get on the web, only the web would be free, more interesting and more relevant.

I hate to give it a bad review because maybe the target audience really is hardcore political wonks and since I’m not one, I can’t really judge its merits on that basis. But it was less than thrilling.

The Problem With Potter

I’m not into the Harry Potter thing. I imagine I’ll read all the books one week in the future, now that they’re all out. I tried to read Azkaban but got bored real fast. I had been reading a lot of pulp at the time (Tarzan, Conan, etc.) and almost anything is slow by comparison.

I have seen the movies, and even enjoyed the most recent three (Azkaban, Goblet and Phoenix).

We’re all aware that these movies make no sense, right? (I understand that’s not limited to the movies, but since I haven’t read the books, I shan’t comment on them.) Putting together a believable fantasy world is probably harder than putting together a believable post-apocalyptic world. It just doesn’t happen, not in the movies. (The “Lord of the Rings” movies made mincemeat out of Tolkien’s universe. Very pretty mincemeat, but nonetheless.)

Goblet opens with the wizard equivalent of the World Cup. Fans from all over the world, and athletes for that matter, gather to watch The Big Game. The entire crowd–of hundreds of thousands, judging from the stadium–is busted up by a handful of Voldie’s minions.

Everybody in the crowd–presumably everyone 11 or older–has a wand, the witchly equivalent of a taser. Yet they’re rousted by a few goons.

I would bet you couldn’t roll a tank into a World Cup audience–unarmed though they be–safely. Yeah, you’d kill some, but they’d be on top of that sucker in no time, pulling you out and beating you to death.

Dopey.

Think I’m nitpicking? In Phoenix, a handful of kids–self-taught kids who haven’t EVER had a decent “defense against the dark arts” teacher for a full year–hold off Voldie’s entire re-constituted crew, and Voldie is fully restored (unlike at the beginning of Goblet).

Dopey.

You forget these things at the time. Or you overlook them. But if you’re subjected to the whims of a Harry Potter fan, they can grate on you.

Like in Goblet, we’re introduced to the three unforgivable curses, the first one being “imperio”, which blithely ignores the distinction between controlling something physically versus controlling it mentally. And we’re introduced to it by the professor performing those curses, so I guess there’s an educational exemption of some sort. Or maybe the poor insect-like creature he does them on doesn’t count. Whatever.

But right after being introduced–almost immediately!–the professor performs the very same curse on a student (who has it coming, granted) in front of a bunch of other people with no repercussions. First of all, if it’s a “one-way ticket to Azkaban”, why would you risk it? Second of all, I guess there’s no risk, since he’s caught doing it by a professor and she merely scolds him.

I dunno, maybe she didn’t see it. But everyone else did. Unforgivable?

I’m not trying to do a James Fenimore Cooper/Mark Twain thing here. And good on Rowling for tapping into something (whatever it is) that excites people.

But it is awful dopey.

By The Pricking Of My Thumb Drive….

From my days as a full-time tech writer, I’m on Andy Marken’s list for press releases and other fun stuff.

No, seriously, it can be a lot of fun. I’m not sure how I got on his list but he’s smarter than the average flak. Amidst the breathless hyperbole–which is also entertaining if well written–he’ll look at the real problem the product he’s shilling for addresses.

One of those problems is that industry has never really progressed past the 3.5" floppy stage. Back in the early days of the home computer, when the Apple ][ was king and there were a zillion different varieties of home computer, we had 5.25" floppies. (Go back further and you’ll find 8" floppies which, had they persisted, would’ve probably nipped a bunch of dumb jokes in the bud.) Capacity of those first drives was about 140K or, in modern terms, .00014 gigabytes. (You could cut holes in the side and then flip them over to double the capacity, though.) They were your only storage so there was no danger of outstripping them.

When the IBM PC came out the 5.25" went to 360KB (or 720 with a hole puncher!) and then pretty quickly to 1.2MB, no punch required. They had finally made hard drives that would read both side of the disk. Then came the 3.5" floppies, which went up to 1.44MB–still chump change by modern standards but with hard drives at 10-20MB, it meant you could back up your entire drive on less than 20 disks.

And usually much less. Back when your disk drive was largely filled with your own content, 20MB was a lot to fill. A megabyte will hold about a 800 pages of plain text–which it all was back then–and I used to write about 4-6 pages a day, plus whatever code I was programming.

But the 3.5" floppy was set up in ‘87 or so. And it was creaking by the time CDs rolled around in the ’90s. Installing an operating system from 15-20 disks was cumbersome, and with hard drives in the hundreds of megabytes, backups were a laborious, error-prone process. Along comes the CD with its whopping 600MB of storage.

But CDs were a terrible medium for the sort of dynamic storage floppies excelled at. First off, you couldn’t initially burn them. They were Read Only. Then you could burn them, but you couldn’t necessarily read them anywhere except the machine you burned them on. The rewritable ones were especially fussy, to say the least.

And it probably should be noted that this wasn’t entirely coincidental and due to technical matters. Content providers want a read-only medium, and they want to be the sole source of that medium. To this day, some of us pay taxes on blank media as a result. (The mindset of this is worth exploring but this screed is already going long so I’ll save it.)

The technology is mostly ironed out at this point with CDs and DVDs, but one again, at 4GB, a backup can go into the dozens and, they’re still not very good at rewritable. They’re also slow and fragile. (Back in the 3.5 days, you could slam a floppy into a drive and almost immediately start to read/write from it. Plus you could run over it with your car, burn it, put it through the washing machine and other horrors, with a reasonable expectation it would still work.)

So, I do think this solution is kind of cool:

It’s not a cheap, disposable medium that runs about 10% of common disk size, true. We may never have anything like that again. And it’s not a Flash Drive, which are stuck at 8GB.

What it is is a physically tiny hard-drive that ranges from 120GB-320GB and that runs at a slightly slower speed than most drives today. With a price that’s around 80 cents a gig for the smallest configuration (and probably lower for the larger ones.)

I guess the two reasons I find this interesting is: 1) I’ve been involved in tech long enough to remember the big clunky hard-drives of the past; 2) We’re getting to the point where the mechanics of the drive itself are an increasingly small part of the cost. (A floppy disk, of course, is just dumb media that needs to be inserted into the drive, where this carries its own mechanics with it.)

It’s not inconceivable that the “floppy of the future” will be a self-contained device like this, not only containing its own drive system but its own operating system. Stuff like this already exists, actually, but will it (or anything) ever hold the position the 3.5" floppy did?

And will it survive if you put it through the washing machine?

Cinematic Titanic Going Down Shortly!

I should, in the next week, have my copy of the first Cinematic Titanic movie: The Oozing Skull.

If you don’t know about CT, it’s the combined efforts of Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein, along with Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff. These guys were the heart and soul of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Well, maybe the soul, brain, bladder, bowels and heart, respectively.)

MST3K was a show that ran for about 10 years on the Comedy Channel, Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel, which featured a campy stranded-in-space-by-evil-scientists framework which provided an excuse to watch bad movies while making funny comments. The original episodes are nearly 20 years old and have that “not-so-fresh” feeling these days.

Though there are classics. The Boy–who was not born when the show first went on the air–enjoys the DVDs, even though they are rife with baby boomer era references, as well as a broad range of humor from the juvenille to the sophisticated, sometimes combining both.

“Meanwhile, deep in the impenetrable void, John Paul Sartre was a-movin’ and a-grovin’.”
–Crow T. Robot, “Catalina Caper”

The whole series had a “let’s put on a show” vibe of amateur-ness which was at odds with the incredible talents on display. Trace and Joel (and Joel’s brother, not credited but I think behind the scenes on a lot of the trickier props) put the “prop” in “propularity”. Or maybe the “larity”. Joel’s stand-up persona carried to this format was gentle, but with an edge, and an edge that you could let your kids watch.

“Memo to myself: pack more lifesaving serum in the future.”
–Crow T. Robot, “Stranded In Space”

I saw my first episode when my dad was in the hospital, and I wouldn’t have thought anything could make me laugh, yet there I was. Having the show return in the form of Cinematic Titanic is like having an old friend get out of jail. Or an asylum. You know what I mean.

“It’s not so much the heat as it is the apocalypse.”
–Warrior of the Lost World

The “Bvo” gets closer to completion…

…but it’s still farther off than I’d like.

The “Bvo” is what we call the PVR we’re building around here. I’d love to assemble the whole thing into a mini-ITX form factor (4"x4" base) but I don’t think it’s going to be possible. After the base system is completed, though, I’m going to definitely consider throwing together a 4×4 front-end.

I’m hoping to have the box assembled early next week, and the set-up nailed down shortly after.

Sidney Lumet

Just wanted to point out here that, while I didn’t care for the nihilism of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, and the title seems to have no relevance to the actual movie, Sidney Lumet is Eighty-freaking-three years old!

He might never top his first feature (12 Angry Men) but he’s done some kickass work along the way and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

We should all be so lucky.