Confessions of a TV Addict #10: Neil Simons’ Greatest Hit THE ODD COUPLE Will Endure


When Neil Simon passed away this weekend at age 91, the world lost one of the 20th Century’s greatest comedy minds. Simon got his start writing for radio along with brother Danny Simon, and the pair soon moved into the then-new medium of television, hired by producer Max Leibman for the staff of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. This seminal variety show ran from 1950-54 and featured the talented comedy minds of writers Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin, and Reiner on its staff. The Simons siblings moved to Caesar’s next venture CAESAR’S HOUR (1954-56) along with most of the writing staff, joined by newcomers Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben .

The Simons joined the staff of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-59) for its final season, chronicling the escapades of con artist Sgt. Bilko. During this time, Neil began working on a semi-autobiographical play that became COME BLOW YOUR HORN. First produced in 1961, the play was a Broadway smash, and Simon was soon The Great White Way’s most celebrated playwright. He won his first Tony Award in 1965 for THE ODD COUPLE, and it’s this work that’s become his most enduring, with numerous adaptations in all media, including television, where we’ll focus.

The original stage production starred Art Carney as fussy Felix Unger and Walter Matthau as sloppy Oscar Madison, who reprised the role in the 1968 film version opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix. But when Paramount introduced their sitcom adaptation in 1970, they struck comedy gold by casting Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Randall was well-known for his comic chops, but Klugman was a revelation. Mostly known for his dramatic roles in film (12 ANGRY MEN) and television (including four episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Klugman had taken over the part of Oscar on Broadway and made it his own. The chemistry between Randall and Klugman was comedic dynamite, and the two actors began a lifelong friendship.

There were some minor changes made (for instance, Felix is now a photographer), but the basic premise remains. Neat freak Felix is thrown out by his wife Gloria and moves in with his messy, recently divorced pal Oscar. The pair constantly drive each other nuts with their opposite personalities. Felix is a bundle of neurosis, a confirmed hypochondriac (Randall’s “honking” allergy fits are classic!), and pines to return to Gloria. Oscar fancies himself a ‘ladies’ man’ despite his slovenly appearance, loves his poker games (which Felix always manages to foul up), and has a love/hate relationship with ex-wife Blanche (who’s portrayed by Klugman’s real-life spouse Bret Somers). Felix is the yin to Oscar’s yang, which sets the stage for hilarity during the show’s five-year, 114 episode run.

The series really hit its stride in Season 3 with some truly classic episodes. “Big Mouth” pits sportswriter Oscar against MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL anchor (and notorious curmudgeon) Howard Cosell, “Password” features Felix and Oscar on the TV game show hosted by Allan Ludden (with Ludden’s wife Betty White on the opposing team), “I Gotta Be Me” finds the mismatched roommates entering group therapy. My favorite is “My Strife in Court”, with the duo mistakenly arrested for ticket scalping, and this classic bit played to perfection by Randall:

THE ODD COUPLE has gone through many permutations over the years: a Saturday morning cartoon, a short-lived African-American version starring Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) as Felix and Demond Wilson (SANFORD & SON) as Oscar, a Simon-written female take on the characters, and the recent CBS series that was half good (Thomas Lennon’s Felix) and half not-so-much (Matthew Perry’s Oscar). Many cite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the film version as the ultimate Felix and Oscar, but far as I’m concerned nobody played the characters better than Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in one of the funniest sitcoms television has ever produced.

RIP Neil Simon (1927-2018)

Comedy Tonight: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (United Artists 1966)

Director Richard Lester made the jump from The Beatles to Broadway in filming A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, but it wasn’t that far a leap. In adapting the Tony-winning musical comedy to the screen, Lester energizes the film with his unmistakably 60’s cinematic style, resulting in one of the decade’s best comedies, aided and abetted by a cast of pros including Zero Mostel , Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, and the great Buster Keaton in his final film performance.

The credits roll to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight”, which may be my favorite song from any musical, as Zero introduces us to the main players. He’s Psuedolus, a slave owned by young Hero (Michael Crawford), son of unhappily married Senex (Michael Hordern) and his shrewish (not Jewish) wife Domina (Patricia Jessel, who’s a riot!). Hero has fallen in love with Philia (Annette Andre), the girl next door… except next door happens to be a whorehouse run by oily Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers). Pseuodlus, who longs to be free, is charged with keeping tabs on Hero while Senex and Domina are away, and head house slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford) is charged with keeping tabs on Pseudolus! On the other side is the house of Erronius (Buster Keaton), an elderly man with poor eyesight still searching for his “lost children stolen by pirates” years before.

Got all that so far? Good, because things get complicated from here: Pseudolus takes Hero to Lycus’s emporium, only to discover Philia is pledged to Roman Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who’s on his way, while Pseudolus himself falls for the beautiful mute courtesan Gymnasia (Inga Neilsen). Houses gets switched, Senex returns home and thinks Philia is for him, Hero is sent to search for mare’s sweat (don’t ask!), Pseudolus and Lycus constantly try to screw each other over, Hysterium gets hysterical, Erronius thinks his house is haunted, The Captain demands his courtesan, and Domina is on her way home! All capped off by a mad chariot chase that, though I can’t find any evidence to back it up, looks like it contains some of Buster’s handiwork!

Zero, Silvers, and Gilford were all veterans of comedy, performing in venues from vaudeville to burlesque, and The Catskills to Broadway. This was Zero’s first film appearance after being blacklisted in Hollywood for fifteen years, during which time he became a huge Broadway star, originating the role of Pseudolus there (and winning a Tony), followed by his Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (garnering another Tony). Mostel mugs for the camera and hams it up mercilessly, and I mean that in a good way! His inspired clowning has influenced generations of comics, and here he goes full throttle in a part he was born to play.

Equally uproarious is Phil Silvers , without his trademark glasses but as Bilko-like as ever as procurer Marcus Lycus. Silvers and Mostel play off each other like two dueling swordsmen, engaging in a battle of “Can You Top This?” with each other and generally having a ball. The underrated Jack Gilford doesn’t get discussed much these days, mostly being remembered from the film COCOON, but was a great comic actor in his own right, and his song “Lovely” (performed while dressed in drag!) is just one of the movie’s many highlights. Michael Crawford went from playing the naïve Hero to Broadway’s original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a few decades later. Besides those previously mentioned, Familiar Faces include Alfie Bass, Roy Kinnear, DR. WHO #3 Jon Pertwee (whose brother Michael cowrote the screenplay with Melvin Frank), and an uncredited Ingrid Pitt as one of Lycus’s courtesans.


Then there’s Buster Keaton , still taking pratfalls at age 70 while suffering from the cancer that would kill him before the films’ release. Keaton’s role isn’t as big or as showy as the rest of the gang, but The Great Stoneface is always a sure-fire laugh getter, and his character plays an important part at the film’s conclusion. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is a fitting ending to Keaton’s feature film career, surrounded by a top-notch group of funnymen, and given a chance to make us laugh one more time. But let’s not end things on a melancholy note, but rather with how things begin, the opening credits from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Take it away, Zero:

A Quickie That Clicks: GENIUS AT WORK (RKO 1946)

Back in 2015, I reviewed a turkey called ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , which paired Bela Lugosi with the “comedy” team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s cut-rate answer to Abbott & Costello. Well, it seems the studio threw together this unlucky trio again, along with co-star Anne Jeffreys and adding horror icon Lionel Atwill in another attempt at a scare comedy titled GENIUS AT WORK. Glutton for punishment that I am, I recorded it, then watched, expecting another bomb… and instead found a fairly funny little ‘B’ movie that, while not on a par with ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN , is a whole lot better than the aforementioned ZOMBIES fiasco!

Brown and Carney are back in their screen personas as doofuses Jerry Miles and Mike Strager, which they played in all eight of their films together. This time around, they’re radio sleuths hosting a show called ‘Crime of the Week’, and the lovely Miss Jeffreys (who died last September at age 94) is head writer/producer Ellen. The team is aided by eminent criminologist Latimer Marsh (Atwill), who lives a double life as a diabolical, mysterious killer known as The Cobra, abetted by his equally diabolical manservant/accomplice Stone (Lugosi).   Police detectives Campbell (Marc Cramer) and Gilley (Ralph Dunn) aren’t too happy with Jerry and Mike taunting the force’s ineptitude in capturing The Cobra (Cramer also serves as Anne’s love interest). Marsh begins to think Ellen’s too smart for her own good, and getting too close to the truth, and sets out to rid himself of the nosy radio trio…

You can throw logic out the window in the script by Monte Brice and Robert E. Kent, but you’ll find some amusing situations and good wisecracks courtesy of Brown and Carney. This was their last film as a team, and it seems they finally hit their groove, with Brown doing his comic double-talk routine and Carney his trademark dumb act. Anne Jeffreys livens up any ‘B’ she appears in; this was her fourth film with B&C, and her enthusiasm in the mixed-up proceedings helps carry the movie. Marc Cramer’s dull leading man role is a drawback, but fortunately he’s not onscreen too often.

As for Atwill and Lugosi, the veteran spooks elevate GENIUS AT WORK by their mere presence. Atwill is his usual sinister self as Marsh/The Cobra, with a demented gleam in his eye and a ‘hobby room’ that’s a collection of torture devices (which serve to provide some sight gags for Brown and Carney). Bela is equally sinister as the henchman Stone, and even gets a few laughs at his own expense, like when Carney drops a heavy blunderbuss on his foot! Towards the end, the horror stars disguise themselves as an elderly couple, with Atwill dressed in old lady drag (shaving off his pencil-thin moustache to boot!). Unfortunately, this was his last completed film; the star of early horror classics DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM succumbed to cancer that year before finishing work on the serial LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE.

GENIUS AT WORK isn’t exactly high art, but it doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets among critics. It’s probably the best of the Wally Brown/Alan Carney series (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Anne Jeffreys is always a welcome presence, and Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi (in the last of seven films they made together) help kick things up a few notches with their malevolent machinations. You can’t ask for much more out of a ‘B’ movie!

The Prey’s The Thing: THE PROWLER (Sandhurst Films 1981)

While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noir directed by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.

The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy a Dear John letter, is with her new beau out in a secluded area, when suddenly a masked, pitchfork-wielding soldier sneaks up and brutally murders them both, leaving one red rose in Rosemary’s hand. (Side note: the MC at the dance is played by Carleton Carpenter, who had a brief career as an MGM star in the early fifties, and scored a #1 hit record dueting with Debbie Reynolds on “Aba Daba Honeymoon”). Flash forward to 1980, and the college coeds are about to stage their first graduation dance in thirty-five years. Senior Pam McDonald is dating Deputy Sheriff Mark London, who’s put in charge of things while his boss Sheriff Frazer (Granger) leaves for a fishing trip. Old Major Chapman (Tierney), who likes to watch the coeds undress from his home across from the dorm, disapproves of staging another dance at the scene of his daughter’s death. Oh, and there’s a robber/killer in the neighborhood, and enough suspicious characters in town to fill a police lineup, like simple-minded delivery man-boy Otto!

After some exposition introducing us to the future victims (intercut with our masked killer preparing for carnage), we get down to the gore! A young lad gets ready to join his ladylove in the shower, when suddenly The Prowler attacks, stabbing him through the head with his bayonet, then impaling said showering girl under the running water with his pitchfork, leading to a fairly neat transition scene of coeds cutting cake at the big dance (complete with a generically lame 80’s rock band). Pam and Mark have a tiff, and when he accidentally spills punch on her dress (spiked, of course!), she heads back to the dorm to change. Big mistake, Pam, for the killer is still in the house, and though she manages to escape, he stalks her, when suddenly she’s grabbed by the wheelchair-bound Major. Breaking free of the geezer’s clutches, she runs headlong into Mark, uttering the obvious words, “Someone was chasing me”. No shit, Pam!

Our heroes decide to investigate the Major’s house, and though he’s nowhere in sight, we get more exposition about the 1945 psycho-soldier who was never found, including a red rose pressed in a photo album. The next victim is attacked in a pool, her throat slashed by that bayonet, followed quickly by a slaughtered chaperone who gets it through the neck. While a couple of horny kids (one of whom is Thom Bray, soon to gain fame as nerdy Boz on TV’s RIPTIDE) sneak down to the basement for some private canoodling, Pam and Mark do some more investigating at the local cemetery, discovering Rosemary’s grave unearthed and the pool victim’s body in place of the deceased. Returning to the Major’s house, the lights are cut off and Mark is knocked unconscious. The lights go back on, and Pam finds Rosemary’s decaying body stuffed up the chimney, then she’s once again stalked by the masked psycho-soldier through the house. Hightailing it up to Rosemary’s old, sheet-covered room, our girl hides in the first place any self-respecting killer would look, under the bed! But apparently, the psycho-soldier (or the screenwriters) hadn’t seen enough of these films, because he trashes the room looking everywhere EXCEPT UNDER THE BED!

Pam bolts to another room, and somehow manages to trap the killer’s pitchfork in the door, snapping the tines off (what, now she’s Wonder Woman?). He bursts through the door and is about to claim another victim when suddenly (things happen suddenly in these films, have you noticed?) he’s blown away by… simple-minded Otto (and what’s he doing there, anyway?). But it’s not that easy to kill a psycho-killer in this kind of movie, and after wasting Otto, The Prowler tussles with Pam, unmasking as (SPOILER ALERT) Sheriff Frazer! Pam reaches for the gun and Blows His Head Clean Off in a gruesome special effect by Savini that scared the beejezus out of me (well after all, it was late at night!). There’s one final scene involving Pam that’s fairly startling and we’re done.

You can throw logic out the window while watching THE PROWLER, as it’s full of unanswered questions: Why is Sheriff Frazer on a killing spree? Was he the original soldier that killed Rosemary? What happened to Major Chapman? Did he just vanish into thin air? Why didn’t the killer waste Mark instead of knocking him out? Why didn’t he look under the damn bed? Where the hell did Otto come from? And what of those two horny teens in the basement? Did they get killed, or did the nerdy Thom Bray finally get lucky? Director Joseph Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera (son of TV cartoon king Joe Barbera) and Glenn Leopold (who wrote for Hanna-Barbera) leave a lot of strings hanging, and though it’s slow-moving in places, especially during those exposition scenes, the film still manages to generate some suspense and plenty of frights courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Zito would go on to direct some big hits for Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION USA), the Dolph Lundgren starrer RED SCORPION, and Jason Voorhees himself in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (which as we all know wasn’t the final chapter after all).

Farley Granger
Lawrence Tierney

Besides the all-too-brief appearances by Granger (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , Hitchcock’s ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), Tierney (who doesn’t even rate a speaking part; he just sits in his wheelchair looking menacing) and those previously mentioned, the cast is for the most part unknown. Vicky Dawson (Pam) came from the world of Soap Operas, and once costarred in the short-lived Saturday morning series HOT HERO SANDWICH, which was evidentially geared toward pre-teens discovering the wonderful world of puberty! Christopher Goutman (Mark) also came from the soaps, as both an actor and later a director. The rest of the players aren’t anybody I’ve (or probably you, unless you’re one of them or their relative) ever heard of, but that’s okay. Slasher films like THE PROWLER weren’t meant to be star vehicles, they’re instead all about the gore, and as I said earlier the real star of THE PROWLER is Tom Savini and his genius in making this outrageous stuff look believable enough to scare the pants off you. He certainly succeeded with this little gore-fest, especially if you’re watching late at night… alone in the dark!

 

One Hit Wonders #19: “Hot Smoke & Sasafrass” by The Bubble Puppy (International Artists Records 1969)

San Antonio, Texas rockers The Bubble Puppy rocketed to #14 on the charts with the psychedelic hard rocking “Hot Smoke & Sasafrass”:

The band pioneered the dual lead guitar sound, with Rod Prince and Todd Potter riffing their way to an appearance on Dick Clark’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND. Soon groups like The Allman Brothers and Thin Lizzy took the concept to new rocking heights, but The Bubble Puppy (also featuring Roy Cox on bass and “Fuzzy” Fore on drums) were there first. The song, which has been covered by MGMT and The Mooche, remains an early example of the heavy metal genre.

Though The Bubble Puppy released only one album (“A Gathering of Promises”) before disbanding in 1970, it’s members all continued working in the music industry. Prince and Fore are currently gigging in the Texas area in a reformed version of The Bubble Puppy with new members Mark Miller (guitar), Gregg Stegall (guitar), and Jimi Umstattd (bass), bringing a triple lead sonic assault to a festival near you… if you live in Texas, that is! All hail The Bubble Puppy!

Hollywood Souffle: WIFE VS SECRETARY (MGM 1936)

Gable’s back and Harlow’s got him , but so does Myrna Loy , with Jimmy Stewart along for the ride in WIFE VS SECRETARY. MGM boasted it had “more stars than there are in Heaven”, and this film is the very definition of “star vehicle”, a harmless soufflé of comedy, drama, and romance all wrapped up in a neat little package by veteran studio director Clarence Brown.

Publicity still for ‘Wife vs Secretary’

The plot’s as thin as Gable’s moustache: He’s a hard-driven publisher, and Loy’s his trusting, faithful wife. Harlow plays his loyal secretary and trusted aide-de-camp. She’s also quite beautiful (obviously, since she’s Jean Harlow!) and Gable’s mother tells Myrna she should get rid of her. Myrna laughs it off, but the seed of doubt has been planted. Jimmy plays Jean’s fiancé, who’s not too happy about being constantly cast aside by Jean’s work demands (and who can blame him; she’s Jean Harlow!). Gable’s secret business plans cause a series of misunderstandings that culminate in Jean dumping Jimmy and Myrna seeking a divorce before order is restored and everyone is back together.

“The King”

This is all just an excuse for MGM to show off its “star power”, and Clark Gable has it in spades. There’s a reason he was called “The King of Hollywood”; he was the biggest male box office attraction at the time of making WIFE VS SECRETARY, and could do no wrong far as the public was concerned. Mostly during this period he just played “Clark Gable”, the man’s man who all the ladies loved. Here, he’s no different, just a big, fun-loving lug, and that was more than enough for filmgoers, who made the film one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year.

Two Hollywood Queens: Harlow & Loy

Jean Harlow began toning down her ‘Platinum Blonde’ sexpot image in WIFE VS SECRETARY, all the way to toning down her hair color a notch. She’s still beautiful as ever (after all, she’s STILL Jean Harlow!), only now we find her as a “nice girl” rather than her former boisterous blonde self. Myrna Loy is radiant as Gable’s wife, and proves once again both her dramatic and comedic skills are sharp as a tack. Why this woman never won an Oscar is a mystery to me! Jimmy Stewart’s little more than a fourth wheel in this, his fourth feature film. Jimmy was just getting started (he’s billed sixth) and wouldn’t hit his stride for a few more years, but he holds his own with Gable, Harlow, and Loy. Others in the cast include May Robson (as Gable’s mom), George Barbier, Tom Dugan, Gloria Holden (the future DRACULA’S DAUGHTER), and John Qualen .

‘Hey, uh, don’t… d-don’t forget… I’m in this picture too, ya know!”

The screenplay by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, and Alice Duer Miller is a frothy confection that gets bogged down a bit later in the film by some soap opera melodramatics, but all in all it serves it’s purpose – to get our stars on the big screen and let them do their stuff. WIFE VS SECRETARY isn’t a great film, but it’s a good one, and the quartet of Gable, Harlow, Loy, and Stewart make it worth your time.

Smile When You Say That: Randolph Scott in BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (Columbia 1958)

The usually stoic Randolph Scott gets to show a sense of humor in BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, his fourth collaboration with director Budd Boetticher. The humor comes from Burt Kennedy’s script, who did an uncredited rewrite of Charles Lang’s original, foreshadowing his own, later comic Westerns. The result is a good (not great) little film that’s not up to other Scott/Boetticher teamings , but still a gun notch above average.

This one finds Scott as the title character, crossing the border from Mexico to the unfriendly Agry Town, where it seems everyone’s an Agry, and they don’t cotton to strangers. Buchanan just wants to make a pit stop on his way back to West Texas, get himself a nice steak, a bottle of whiskey, and a good night’s sleep. But he runs into trouble at the saloon with young Roy Agry, who is gunned down by Juan de la Vega. Apparently, Roy raped Juan’s sister over the border, and when Buchanan tries to defend Juan from a beating, both men are hauled off to Sheriff Lew Agry’s jail, then taken to be hung!

Judge Simon Agry (see, I told you they’re all Agrys!), father of Roy and brother of Lew and hotel proprietor Amos, comes along with his hired gun Abe Carbo (a non-Agry!) and stops the lynching, giving a speech about serving justice properly. The trial results in Buchanan getting off, but Juan guilty of murder. Simon’s got ulterior motives, though… Juan’s padre is rich Don Pedro de la Vega, and the judge thinks the Don will pay big bucks for his son’s release. Buchanan is ordered to get out of Dodge (er, Agry) by Lew, with two “escorts” to make sure he doesn’t come back – ever! One of these is young Pecos, a West Texan himself who saves Buchanan’s life. Now Buchanan heads back to the border town, wanting his gun belt (containing two thousand dollars in gold) back, while the feuding Agry brothers scheme against each other for Don Pedro’s fifty thousand dollar ransom…

BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE is based on the novel “The Name’s Buchanan” by William Robert Cox under the name Jonas Ward. Cox was a prolific writer of pulp magazine stories (ARGOSY, BLACK MASK, DIME WESTERN) and paperbacks, who also used the pseudonyms Willard d’Arcy, Mike Frederic, Joel Reeve, Roger G. Spellman, and probably a few others we don’t know about! The character of Buchanan was created by William Ard, and after Ard’s death Cox continued the paperback series under his Ward nom de plume. Cox also wrote for episodic TV (like WAGON TRAIN, G.E. THEATER, THE VIRGINIAN, THE OUTER LIMITS, BONANZA, and ADAM-12).

The cast consists of sagebrush vets like Tol Avery (Simon), Barry Kelley (Lew), and Peter Whitney (Amos) in another of his signature slow-witted roles. Craig Stevens , the future PETER GUNN, is all black-hatted, steely-eyed menace as Carbo. Others in the cast include Bob Anderson, Joe De Santis, Terry Frost, Roy Jensen, and a young L.Q. Jones as the West Texan Pecos. One thing missing from BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE is a love interest for Scott… maybe that’s why they changed the title from “The Name’s Buchanan”! It’s a minor but definitely watchable entry in the Scott/Boetticher series, and if you’re a fan like I am, you’ll enjoy seeing Randolph Scott able to crack a smile for a change!