Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?

On November 25, 1962, a new comedy by Sumner Arthur Long opened at the Playhouse Theatre. The cast of Never Too Late was headed by Orson Bean, Maureen O'Sullivan, and the great deadpan comic, Paul Ford. Directed by George Abbott, the play featured incidental music by John Kander and choreography by Jerry Bock (whose lyrics accompanied Sheldon Harnick's music for the "Never Too Late Cha-Cha").

The plot revolved around Harry and Edith Lambert, a middle-aged couple who were quite content with their lives until Edith returned home from the doctor's office with the news that she was pregnant again. Although Harry often came across as a bitter man, he owned a successful business and the Lamberts had been living quite comfortably.

Harry had grown accustomed to his daily routine wherein every weekday his employees would stand up and greet him with a crisp "Good morning, sir!" That was Harry Lambert's idea of fun. An infant would ruin everything. Horrified at the thought of what an infant would do to his orderly lifestyle, Harry mourned the loss of what he called "serious fun."

At 61, Paul Ford had developed a knack for portraying characters known for their bluster and incompetence. In Never Too Late, he looked like a wounded bull elephant who had had the wind knocked out of him. You can see still Ford's wonderful performances as Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker (1958), as Mayor Shinn in The Music Man (1962), and as Fendall Hawkins in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). You can see Ford as Colonel Wilberforce at approximately 5:45 minutes into this clip from 1963's It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Never Too Late became a sleeper hit that ran for 1007 performances on Broadway. Although the Playhouse Theatre was subsequently razed, its interior and exterior can still be seen in the 1968 film version of Mel Brooks' The Producers. Although a film version of Never Too Late was released in 1965 (with Paul Ford and Maureen O'Sullivan recreating their roles), it quickly faded into oblivion. It's interesting to note why:
  • In 1960, birth control pills were approved for use in America.
  • By 1965, the sexual revolution was starting to be felt throughout the United States.
  • Progress in the scientific use of in vitro fertilization led to the first birth of a "test tube" baby in 1978.
  • Since then, many older women have delivered children (some even acting as surrogates for infertile couples). As a result, the idea of a 50-year-old woman becoming pregnant was no longer shocking.
While some might consider "serious fun" to be an oxymoron like "military intelligence," the truth is that comedy is hard. Good comedy requires serious planning.

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Toyland (a new documentary by Ken Sons that is being screened at DocFest 2010) shows audiences how some of the most popular games in history were developed, the problems they faced making it to market, and the struggles of contemporary toy designers to come up with a product that could be the next big thing. If you wanted a guided tour of the history of the toy industry and what it's like to pitch your idea to the wheelers and dealers at the industry's annual trade show, Toyland offers the V.I.P. tour.

Among the many personalities interviewed are Betty James (whose husband, Richard, invented the Slinky), John Spinello (the developer of Operation), Robert Pasin, the President of Radio Flyer, and Milt Levine (the inventor of Uncle Milton's Ant Farm). What quickly becomes obvious is that, back in the days before heavy-duty corporatism and intellectual property laws, people like Kay Zufall were only too happy to come up with a winning name for a toy (Play-Doh), even if they never received a cent for the naming rights.

Play-Doh has been on the market for 50 years, Radio Flyer wagons have been sold for 90 years. Uncle Milton's Ant Farm sold more than 20 million units since 1956. Needless to say, there is big money to be made if a game or toy designer can join forces with industry giants like Hasbro or the Milton Bradley Company.

Much of the film tracks the efforts of Tim Walsh (the inventor of Crazy Chins) to bring his product to market. Although most of the manufacturing representatives who see his new toy love it -- and they all understand the value of social networking websites in popularizing the chins created by users -- no one returns with a contract for him to sign. 

Mrs. Yellalotski, one of the Crazy Chins

As Walsh tries to create all kinds of characters using the basic elements of his game, it's obvious that he has a solid gimmick, a great sense of humor, and the tenacity to keep following his dream. Go to YouTube and do a search for "Crazy Chins" and you'll come up with lots of strange user-uploaded videos like the following:

While Toyland offers a crash course in the business of designing toys and games, the film will probably have greater appeal for parents, inventors, and business majors pursuing an MBA degree. Viewers who are not actively involved in the manufacturing and marketing of toys and games (or who lack a cult-like fascination with the industry) may find themselves feeling strangely distanced from the products onscreen. Here's the trailer:

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If you've ever been caught in the middle of a food fight, you know that nothing is sacred. That's pretty much the bottom line in Kung Fu Chefs, which was recently screened at the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival. If you've ever wanted to have a martial arts meltdown in a supermarket's produce section, the following film clip should make you extremely happy:

Although hardly as funny as some of Stephen Chow's films (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), Kung Fu Chefs has some grand CGI effects and some great moments of silliness.  This is not, however, a movie that should be seen by vegetarians, vegans, or anyone who gets queasy when dead animals enter a kitchen.

Sammo Hung stars as Wong Ping Yee, a disgraced chef who is despised by his gangster nephew, Wong Pai Joe (Louis Fan). The bitter Wong Pai Joe hopes to regain the rights to the totemic Dragon Head Cleaver. Wong Ping Yee tries to help two sisters who own the Four Seas restaurant (Cherrie Ying and Ai Kago) while training a young and romantically foolish wannabe chef named Ken'ichi Lung Kin Yat (Vanness Wu) to win the competition which will make him the Top Chef of China.

That's really all you need to know about the plot. Fists fly, fish fry, and there is a happy ending. Here's the trailer:

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