Check Out Norbert Smith: A Life

Norbert Smith: A LifeLast week on The Majority Report, Sam Seder mentioned on old mockumentary, Norbert Smith: A Life. It is a direct parody of the British series The South Bank Show. In fact, the host of the show, Melvyn Bragg, is the host of Norbert Smith. So a good deal of effort was put into making it all seem like the real thing.

It tells the story of now 80 year old acting giant, Norbert Smith. He is not quite as with it as he once was. Early on, Smith talks about working with a young John Gielgud as a horse in “The Scottish Pantomime.” This is a reference a theatrical superstition where one must refer to Macbeth as “The Scottish Play,” or disaster will plague the production. When Bragg asks Smith about the name, Smith replies, “That’s not its real name, of course. I never say it’s real name. Oh no! I never say its real name because, you see, I can’t remember it.”

The movie is filled with these kinds of things. And they are generally very funny. But the focus of it is on scenes from things Smith performed in when he was younger. His first film role in a kind of Abbott and Costello film, opposite “Will Silly.” But later ones get very embarrassing, like an Elvis knockoff where Smith plays the father.

Apparently, the film didn’t do well in the UK because it came out right after Laurence Olivier died. And there is more than enough in the film to argue that Smith is primarily modeled after Olivier. Part of that is just that the actor (also co-writer) who played Smith, Harry Enfield, seems like Olivier. But there are also a number of similarities to Olivier’s career. The biggest is his career as a director.

This sets up what is probably my favorite bit in the film: his production of Hamlet, which he co-wrote with Noël Coward. I’m sure you can imagine, but it makes me laugh just to think of it. Smith also produced a series of films on great composers, where he showed his usual level of creativity: Mozart: Man of Music, Beethoven: Man of Music, and finally, Andrew Lloyd Webber: Man of Music. We get to see the same scene from each of these great productions.

No biographical documentary would be complete without some obstacle that was overcome, and Norbert Smith is no exception. In his case, it is alcoholism. And this sets up one of the best parodies of the lot, The Dogs of Death. It’s one of those old World War II movies that give stars lots of latitude to mug for the camera. But his costars were: Richard Smashed, Dick Booze, Oliver Guiness, and Peter O’Pissed.

Now you might be thinking that this all sounds very silly. It is. That may explain why I like it so much. But it is also the reason it works so well as a parody of a whole genre of television documentary. They are silly themselves. You can’t really shoehorn a person’s life into a three act structure without falling into these kinds of cliches, and Norbert Smith: A Life skewers them.


I’ve put together a playlist so you can watch the whole thing. I highly recommend it. It is one of the funniest things I’ve seen recently.

Republican Debate: We’re Strong and Hard

Republican DebateI guess I should say something about the debate. Despite my best efforts, I did manage to listen to the whole thing. But as soon as I found out that it was focused on “national security,” I wanted to run away. This strikes me as journalistic malpractice on the part of CNN. Do we really need a forum to listen to all these candidates talk about how terrible non-Americans are and how we need to close down our borders? This is most of what we get from the candidates regardless. This is the easiest issue to demagogue and so they stick with it.

What’s more, when it comes to the situation in Syria and Iraq, they all push how “strong” and “hard” they will be. But when you get down to it, they aren’t proposing to do anything more than Obama. So they are going to continue to bomb but with more intent? Ben Carson implied that he wanted boots on the ground. Marco Rubio wants boots on the ground — Arab boots on the ground. John Kasich wants boots on the ground — some kind of Persian Gulf coalition. But I get it: the Republican Party is working itself up for war.

The reason I know this is because my father told me that he thought we needed to send ground troops into the conflict. Charles Krauthammer must think this. I know because my father also has no clue why we should send ground troops in. I questioned him about it. Does he think that ISIS is an existential threat? No. Does he think fighting ISIS over there is going to make terrorist attacks here less common? No. Does he realize that ISIS has been so successful because of our starting the Iraq War? Yes. So why do we need ground troops? At that point he folded, but this is fast becoming the new Republican orthodoxy.

But watching the debate, it was hard to escape the conclusion that Republicans think the greatest threat to the United States is Barack Obama. It’s also hard to understand why they all haven’t emigrated from the country. I mean, as Trump put it, “Our country doesn’t win anymore.” The United States does have a lot of problems, but listening to these bozos, you would think we were Zimbabwe. No one respects us; everyone gets over on us; we’re weak. And the only thing that will save us from this sorry state is a Republican president. That is, interestingly, also the one and only thing. Just elect one of them and America will be great again because it will be “strong” and “hard.”

The phrase “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton” was repeated so often that I began to think it was a single person. And almost all of the attacks were facile. Take Ted Cruz’s opening, “The men and women on this stage, every one of us, is better prepared to keep this nation safe than is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.” And why is this? Based upon the discussion, there seem to be two ways that every one of them is better:

  1. They won’t be politically correct.
  2. They will use the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism” more often.

That seems like snark, right? But it isn’t. It all comes down to their contention that there is something ineffable about fighting terrorism. It isn’t about intelligence and bombs and troops and so on. None of that matters if you don’t really want to fight the terrorists. And the one thing that Republican voters know, it is that Obama loves the terrorists just as much as he hates America. What they want is not any particular policy. They want more belligerent rhetoric. That will make them feel safer. And they are very much willing to give up essential liberty to purchase not temporary safety but the illusion of safety. It’s worse than Benjamin Franklin said.

Morning Music: The Simpsons Theme

Danny ElfmanCartoons often have great music to go along with them. Unfortunately for our purposes this week, most of them have vocals like the theme from The Jetsons. But one song I’ve always really liked is Danny Elfman’s theme for The Simpsons. It so reaches back to old cartoon themes. I don’t actually know if it is performed by a real band. It certainly sounds like it is, which is all that actually matters.

The song is written in the “acoustic scale.” Basically, it is just the major scale with an augmented fourth and a flatted seventh. It’s the augmented fourth on the third note of the melody that gives it that cool sound: C-E-F#. No one would expect that F# coming out of the gate. Of course, over time it is impossible to imagine any other note. Otherwise, it most reminds me of The Flintstones, even though melodically and harmonically they don’t share much. But they feel kind of the same.

Anniversary Post: Max Linder

Max Linder[I’m reusing some copy two years ago, The Invention of Modern Comedy. As I noted before, he is probably someone you’ve never heard of. Yet he is one of the titans of film comedy. So now you can bring him up at cocktail parties. -FM]

On this day in 1883, Max Linder who was born. If you like comedic movies, then you should really care about Max Linder. Before him, silent film comedy was of the style of Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops kind of humor — outrageous pratfalls and general silliness. What they didn’t have where actual characters who the audience cared about. That’s what Max Linder brought to the movies. He created the character of “Max,” rich man-about-town who got into adventures. The films stand today as satire of the well to do buffoon. His later films are better, but below is an early one (1907!), The Skater’s Debut where you can see what will become of screen comedy and not really change, right through the Marx Brothers and on to Jim Carrey. Note also, Charlie Chaplin was a huge fan and eventually a friend of Linder. On Linder’s death, Chaplin dedicated a film to him, “For the unique Max, the great master —his disciple Charles Chaplin.”

I suppose I should tell you something else about Linder: he suffered greatly from depression and anxiety. He and his young wife made a suicide pact, and the two killed themselves (their second attempt), leaving behind an infant daughter who went on to package Linder’s work for later generations. It’s very sad.