Monday, October 16, 2017

Adapting Thomas Hardy's Best Novel

"A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine."

Francis (Terence Stamp)

Nearly everyone I know would tell you that I always recommend reading a book before watching its movie version. It has always been an article of faith with me that a book is better than any movie that is based on it.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and "Far From the Madding Crowd," which premiered in Britain on this day in 1967 (and opened in theaters across the United States two days later), was an exception to that rule. At least, in my opinion.

It followed Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel pretty closely. Well, I thought so. In some ways, it may even have been better than the book (albeit somewhat condensed in places). I know others who feel that way.

But I also know others who think the movie is inferior to the book, which some people think was his best. There are plausible arguments to be made on both sides.

So I just want to make a couple of observations on this, the 50th anniversary of the movie's debut.

First, Julie Christie had been making movies for several years but was still in her 20s when she made "Far From the Madding Crowd." She played Bathsheba, a beautiful but vexing woman who inherited a prosperous farm and found herself the object of the affections of three very different men.

Christie's performance was splendid and deserving of an Oscar nomination, but it didn't receive one. Must have been hard to get one of the five Best Actress nominations that year with Katharine Hepburn ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"), Audrey Hepburn ("Wait Until Dark"), Anne Bancroft ("The Graduate") and Faye Dunaway ("Bonnie and Clyde") turning in award–worthy performances that year.

(Katharine Hepburn was the winner, by the way.)

In a talented cast, Christie stood out — and that's saying something when the three men who pursued her were played by Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.

The other thing that stood out was the sweeping cinematography that so beautifully captured the countryside where the story took place. It was gorgeous, and each time I have watched this movie I have seen something new to admire. The cinematography deserved an Oscar nomination, too.

But the only Oscar nomination that "Far From the Madding Crowd" received was for Best Original Music Score, honoring the work of British composer Richard Rodney Bennett, but Elmer Bernstein took home the trophy for his work on "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Oscar nominations are like inductions into halls of fame, though. Some are deserved; some are not. It's really a matter of personal preference and bias.

And cinematography is not something I usually get worked up about.

But the cinematography in "Far From the Madding Crowd" truly was exceptional.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

On Aging and Making Commitments

I'm not really sure why I like the episode of Frasier that first aired 15 years ago today.

Except that, as always, the writers for the show had a unique take on their theme — which, in this case, was the twin themes of aging and commitment.

Which, I suppose, are really just subsets of the more general topic of life, which is probably more accurately defined by the phrase "it's complicated."

Now, that's real reality programming — even if it is in a fictional context.

The episode — "Kissing Cousin" — centered on a visit from Roz's cousin Jen (played by Zooey Deschanel). Jen was a younger but just as free–spirited version of Roz (Peri Gilpin). In fact, Roz once babysat for Jen and took the opportunity to school her in Roz's rather bohemian ways. The two became close, and Jen, like many disciples of an avant–garde role model, took it to extremes.

Jen was negative about, well, just about everything, but all of it couldn't be explained simply by the mindset Roz had encouraged. Jen had that judgmental certainty of the rightness of every thought she had and every position she took that often seems to be the hallmark of youth.

And older viewers must have suspected that, had they been given the opportunity to watch Jen's character evolve as she got tossed around by life (as all lives inevitably must be), they would have seen her abandon most of her preconceived notions about how life is and should be.

But Jen never made another appearance on Frasier so viewers will never know what became of her. They can only speculate based on their own experiences and knowledge.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) put up with it longer than one might think his narcissistic personality could, but he finally had enough when Jen told him that Freud had been "proven wrong about everything." The strongly Freud–influenced Frasier could not resist the urge to set her straight.

Otherwise, Frasier was to be commended for an atypically restrained response that anyone who has had to contend with Millennials must admire.

But he could get some distance from Jen. He wasn't with her 24 hours a day the way Roz was, and Roz, who was 38 in the episode (Gilpin was actually 41 when it aired), couldn't keep up with her twentysomething cousin.

And the all–nighters with the globe–trotting Jen were wearing Roz down.

While Frasier seethed privately over Jen's attitudes, the perennially prissy Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was willing to chalk them off to youthful exuberance, ironically noting that "we were all that way" and "it passes."

To older observers, the young always seem to have everything, and that can be frustrating for those who have lost a step or two.

The truth is that no generation has it all, and Millennials, in spite of their reputation for being technology–savvy, have their own obstacles to overcome. Many are more resistant to rites of passage, like leaving their parents' homes, than their predecessors.

For many this is said to be an economic condition, heavily influenced by the Great Recession and related external factors, but that does little to explain the behavior of older Millennials like Jen, who had been living in places like London and Florence — and planning a trip to Vietnam because "Americans have never even heard of it" — years before the economy imploded.

I'll admit that most Millennials probably couldn't afford to live the way Jen did in 2002 — but her lifestyle seemed to have an appeal for the station manager, Kenny (Tom McGowan). Recently separated from his wife and still working in an office filled with boxes containing his possessions (because Kenny's experience had been that permanent jobs were temporary), Kenny had his issues with commitment. And Jen was free of such bonds.

Jen encouraged him to be more impulsive, but when he did so and then tried to arrange to travel with her to Vietnam, she revealed herself to have her own problems with commitment. She always traveled alone, she told Kenny, because of an experience she once had. The audience was left to guess about the nature of that experience, but one can reasonably imagine that it involved someone who had feelings for Jen that she did not return.

That seems to be at the heart of many such human conflicts.

That person was probably another Millennial, not as mature as Kenny, who handled Jen's rejection quite well, shrugging it off and expressing the hope that they would run into each other in Asia — and, after she left, he began to unpack the boxes in his office.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

An Ode to Journalism, Be It Fake or Yellow

We can do 'The Innuendo'
We can dance and sing
When it's said and done we haven't told you a thing
We all know that crap is king
Give us dirty laundry!

It is easy these days for people whose lives have not been involved in journalism the way mine has to believe that sensationalism and yellow journalism in the media are new.

But I could have told you back when I was an undergraduate studying journalism that neither is new.

On this day in 1982, Don Henley (initially of Eagles fame) released a solo single called "Dirty Laundry" that criticized the media of that time. If you listen to the lyrics, you must conclude that little has changed.

(Actually, the song was from an album titled "I Can't Stand Still," which had been released two months earlier.)

I studied print journalism in college, then practiced it in the real world. And it was an article of faith in every newsroom I was ever in that broadcasters weren't really serious journalists — that, in the words of the lyrics from the song, they only had to look good (while they read what someone else had written for them, either from the hard copy or from a teleprompter). Being "clear" was not required.

I don't know if the song fits in the modern–day debate over "fake news," but if fake news exists it is merely an outgrowth of the kind of journalism Henley criticized in the song.

I liked the song because, even though I hadn't been in the business long when "Dirty Laundry" was still being played on the radio, I knew enough about it to know that bad news will happen on its own. It doesn't need any help from journalists, whether they are legitimate journalists or not, and I have always despised those who try to stir things up needlessly.

And I also enjoyed a little tidbit that only journalists would know. There's a line in the song that goes "Is the head dead yet?" The song, as I understand it, was largely inspired by the media coverage of the deaths of John Belushi and Natalie Wood — but that particular line has a real role in newspaper history. It asks whether the major headline story (or head) is ready to go. If a head is dead, it means it is all set and is being printed — and it is too late to make a change.

I suppose that yellow journalism is the same thing as fake news. It depends on the label you want to slap on journalism that uses little, if any, research or facts and is presented in the most sensational, eye–grabbing way possible.

And that kind of thing has been going on in America since at least the 19th century and the days of Pulitzer and Hearst.

If it preceded that time — and I am sure it did — journalism historian Frank Luther Mott probably could have told us. He wrote the textbook on American newspapers from 1690 to 1940 that was used in most college journalism history courses for many years — and, for all I know, may still be in use in some classrooms today.

But Mott died in 1964. Not that he would be likely to still be around today. After all, he'd be over 130. Still, it would be good to hear his insights about modern journalism. No doubt he would be able to compare this time in journalism history to another period, whether it qualified as yellow journalism or required a different label.

And Mott, who led journalism departments at the University of Iowa and University of Missouri, was good at naming things. For example, he was responsible for the term "photojournalism."

He didn't coin the term "yellow journalism," but he did define it so I am sure he would have some thoughts to share on fake news — or whatever it is.

Absent Mott, though, you can listen to "Dirty Laundry" and get an idea what broadcast journalism was like 35 years ago.

And, as I said earlier, you will realize that things really haven't changed that much.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Moral Conscience of All in the Family

People often forget how groundbreaking All in the Family was. And much of it was because of Edith (Jean Stapleton). She was never the dingbat Archie said she was. She was, in fact, the conscience of the show.

A couple of days ago I wrote about how the sitcom addressed sexism — at a time when it wasn't really a topic of conversation. We live in a time when a woman has been nominated for president and three women sit on the Supreme Court; the subject matter of that episode probably seems quaint to many people who weren't around when All in the Family was on the air.

Ironically Edith wasn't the conscience of that program, but the theme of the series evolved so that, five years later, Edith was the moral influence on the family.

Forty years ago today, All in the Family took on homosexuality, another topic that wasn't popular in the 1970s — and, in its typical fashion, did so in an unexpected way.

As the episode "Cousin Liz" began, Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith had traveled to New Jersey for the funeral of one of Edith's cousins, Liz, who had died unexpectedly. As the Bunkers prepared in their motel room to go to the service, Edith lamented the fact that Liz had never married and Archie revealed that he had once had a crush on Liz.

"What did you do about it?" Edith asked.

"I kissed her," Archie replied.

"Was that all?" Edith asked.

"She wouldn't do nothin' else," Archie said.

No one — Archie, Edith, the audience — realized how much that said about who Liz really was.

Homosexuality simply wasn't brought up in those days. Roommates of the same sex were presumed to be in a platonic relationship, perhaps sharing a place to live to save on expenses; at least that is how it was always presented on TV. In Liz's case, she had been living with a woman (Veronica Cartwright) for a couple of decades, but everyone in the All in the Family universe assumed that, being low–paid teachers, they did so to save money.

Well, that may have been part of it, but in truth they were lesbians. The fact that they kept the true nature of their relationship secret is entirely consistent with the way things were in those days. Even Edith didn't know about her cousin's sexual orientation.

But she was about to find out.

As Liz's closest living relative, Edith stood to inherit a valuable tea service that had been in the family for years and had been in Liz's possession when she died. So she brought it up with Liz's roommate at a post–funeral reception.

But Liz's roommate asked Edith if she could keep it, explaining that she and Liz had shared tea in the afternoons after school. It was a time they eagerly anticipated each day, a time that was set aside just for them.

When Edith pressed her on the matter, Cartwright tried to explain that she and Liz had been lovers, telling Edith that their relationship was "like a marriage."

That was hard for Edith to understand. Her concept of marriage was a traditional one, but her faith in love transcended that.

Edith had many memorable moments during the series' run, but some of her finest were in the episode that aired on this night in 1977.

She told Cartwright that she was sorry she knew the truth — not because she didn't approve but because Cartwright had lost the love of her life, and that grieved a kind soul like Edith's. And she told Cartwright she could keep the tea service because she really was Liz's next of kin — a status that has only been legally recognized in the United States in recent years.

But Archie would be a problem. Once he knew the value of the tea service, he had to have it — or, at least, had to have the money it would bring.

When Edith told him the truth about Liz's relationship, he threatened legal action, which would have meant the end of Cartwright's teaching career. That didn't bother Archie.

"Who the hell wants people like that teachin' our kids?" he bellowed. "I'm sure God don't! God's sittin' in judgment ..."

"Well, sure he is," Edith replied, "but he's God. You ain't!"

(I've always thought that is pretty good advice for anyone who presumes to speak for God on anything. And, in my experience, far too many do presume to speak for God.)

Then she shamed Archie for considering what amounted to blackmail, saying "I can't believe you'd do anything that mean."

Edith's assumption of the role of the family's moral conscience had been in progress for quite awhile, but I think it reached a turning point with this episode. Within the next few episodes, Archie — who had been a bigot's bigot from the start — moved so far to the center that he was taking on the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. That was almost certainly the result of Edith's influence.

But the story of Archie's confrontation with the KKK is a story for another day.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Solving a Riddle

"A young boy and his father were in a car accident. Both were injured and rushed to the hospital. They were wheeled into separate operating rooms and two doctors prepared to work on them, one doctor for each patient.

"The doctor operating on the father got started right away, but the doctor assigned to the young boy stared at him in surprise. 'I can't operate on him,' the doctor told the staff. 'That child is my son.'

"How can that be?"

The riddle

Good television is many things.

Mostly, I suppose, it is a reflection of its time. Watching an episode of a classic TV series is often like looking into a window to the past. Sometimes it reflects the reality that the writers and producers may have wished was so — but wasn't really. Other times, though, it can be brutally, unflinchingly honest.

And an episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night in 1972 — "Gloria and the Riddle" — holds up a mirror in 2017 to show just how far America has come (and how far it has yet to go) in its attitudes about certain things. In this case sexism.

Forty–five years ago, Gloria (Sally Struthers) had her family stumped by a riddle she had picked up while working with a friend of hers for what was known at the time as women's lib. You can see the riddle at the top of this post.

The answer to the riddle — that the surgeon who couldn't operate on the injured boy was the child's mother — seems to leap out at you in 2017, doesn't it? But it wasn't so obvious in 1972. I recently saw a survey of schoolchildren who were told the riddle, and a majority identified the surgeon as being the boy's mother. I doubt that the results of such a survey would have been anywhere close to that in 1972.

And the answer that most of the remaining children gave definitely wouldn't have been given by many (if any) respondents in 1972 — that the boy had two fathers.

Certainly sexism still exists today, but it is also beyond dispute that doors that were closed to women in 1972 are no longer closed to them in 2017.

In 1972 there weren't many positive role models for young women outside of the traditional ones. Well, successful ones, that is. The women's liberation movement promoted the idea of women achieving in previously male–dominated fields, but that idea really hadn't taken root in American thinking yet.

Girls and young women, for example, could admire and be proud of the achievements of the space program, but it would be more than a decade before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

In the years that have passed since that time, many women have flown on space missions, and some have died there.

Any American could (and still can) take pride in Supreme Court decisions and opinions, but until Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to replace Potter Stewart in 1981, only males could realistically dream of occupying a seat on the highest court in the land and writing legal opinions that would influence millions of lives.

Today women occupy three of the nine seats on the Supreme Court.

And, in 1972, no woman had ever been on a major political party's national ticket. There have been three since — Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin were their parties' first female nominees for vice president, and Hillary Clinton was the Democrats' first female presidential nominee last year.

No woman has been elected president or vice president — but that will change eventually, just as it did for Catholics and blacks.

Change comes slowly sometimes, and it depends upon many variables — not the least of which is the messenger.

On this night in 1972 All in the Family was the messenger.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Salesmen Under Pressure -- Or Is That Redundant?

"I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion. If everyone thinks one thing, then I say, bet the other way."

Ricky (Al Pacino)

The Chicago-based real estate office in "Glengarry Glen Ross," which premiered on this day in 1992, probably could be any office in any business anywhere.

It certainly resembled offices in which I have worked (even though I have never worked in real estate) — a fairly small staff liberally laced with profanity (because the script did have so much profanity, I understand the cast jokingly referred to it as "Death of a Fuckin' Salesman").

The layout reminded me of the newsroom at a daily newspaper where I once worked. The editor had a little glassed–in office from which he could observe everything that went on in the newsroom — but nothing that went on in his office could be heard from outside when the door was closed (at least it couldn't be heard clearly). It was pretty much the same in this real estate office, where, in telephone conversations with prospective customers, the salesmen would pose as wealthy investors who were in town briefly but could juggle their commitments to allow for an in–house visit with a lead who had already proven to be hesitant or financially unable to invest in land.

It was a familiar ploy, but everything was familiar to the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross." The salesmen had seen all these leads before and knew they were dead ends. It was frustrating. You could hear the frustration in their voices. You could see it in their eyes. I guess they continued to play the game in the hope that the outcome would change.

What did Einstein say? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The only reason that wouldn't apply in this case is the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross" didn't think anything would change.

Why did they continue to play the game? Maybe they harbored an ill–defined hope that maybe a miracle would occur. Or maybe it was all they knew.

Profanity was about all the salesmen in "Glengarry Glen Ross" had left — the leads on which their livelihoods depended were worthless.

They were men under pressure, intense pressure, and it has been my experience that people who are under pressure are more apt to do things they might not do otherwise, like resort to profanity (if not worse). Such a situation is not improved when the people in charge look for ways to ratchet up the pressure.

And the boys downtown found a way to do precisely that — in the person of Alec Baldwin, who was sent to announce to the salesmen the latest sales contest. The salesman with the top sales for the week would win a car. Second place would be a set of steak knives. Third place was a pink slip. Thus, the top two would be retained. The other two would be terminated.

The announcement caused considerable angst among the salesmen in the office. Jack Lemmon played a salesman who had once been the best but had fallen on hard times. He may have been under more pressure than anyone else with an ailing, hospitalized daughter. His character certainly elicited the audience's sympathy, but there were others — Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino — who were fighting their own battles.

This was a period when Lemmon, who had already enjoyed a long and distinguished career, had some of his finest moments on the silver screen. His work in "Short Cuts," is often overlooked — and, to my great regret, I overlooked it when I wrote about that movie a few years ago (which was a mistake because his character's monologue on his infidelity must certainly rank among the best moments he ever had) — but "Glengarry Glen Ross" preceded it and contained some equally impressive performances.

In one scene Lemmon spent an evening at the home of a reluctant client who clearly did not want to invest. Lemmon knew it was a dead end, but he persisted until the man physically ejected Lemmon from his home. Desperation had driven both men to the inevitable.

In another scene, Lemmon tried to buy the new premium leads from office manager Kevin Spacey but ultimately could not because Spacey demanded payment up front.

The new leads were on everyone's minds. They were the leads that promised deals that could be closed — and Lemmon, under pressure, stole the leads and sold them to a rival. That led to another great scene between Lemmon and Spacey — in which Lemmon's role in the mysterious disappearance of the leads was revealed.

Lemmon deserved more recognition for his work. He did win Best Actor in the National Board of Review's D.W. Griffith Awards, but Pacino received the movie's only Oscar nomination, losing Best Supporting Actor to Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven" — but winning Best Actor for "Scent of a Woman."

Perhaps Lemmon got the last laugh. His character was the inspiration for Ol' Gil Gunderson, the real estate agent on The Simpsons.

And that may be the more lasting legacy.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Having Faith in Somebody

Opie (Ron Howard): I told Mr. McBeevee I'd be right back.

Andy (Andy Griffith): Who?

Opie: Mr. McBeevee. You don't know him. He's new around here. I just met him this mornin'.

Andy: Oh.

Barney (Don Knotts): Oh, a newcomer in town, eh? Where's he live at?

Opie: I met him in the woods.

Barney: What's he doin' in the woods?

Opie: Well, mostly he walks around up in the treetops.

Barney: He walks in the tree ... Mm hmm. I suppose he's invisible, too.

Opie: No. Mr. McBeevee's easy to see, especially his hat. He wears a great, big, shiny silver hat.

Not everyone likes the episode of the Andy Griffith Show that first aired on this night in 1962, but I have always liked it because it so beautifully summarizes the father–son relationship between Andy (Andy Griffith) and Opie (Ron Howard).

The episode was called "Mr. McBeevee," which was the name of a telephone lineman (Karl Swenson) Opie had befriended in the woods.

The story began with Opie and Andy playing a game that parents undoubtedly have played with their children since time began — the game of pretend, of make–believe.

Opie had an imaginary horse he had named Blackie, and Andy was playing along with the game one morning. When Barney (Don Knotts) showed up, Andy and Opie spoke so convincingly of Blackie that Barney never doubted that Blackie was real, running out in the yard to see Opie's new horse.

Then Andy advised Barney that Blackie was "on the invisible side."

Barney was a little put off, believing himself to have been the victim of a practical joke, but he got over it — until later when Opie came to the courthouse telling of a new friend he'd made, one who walked in the treetops and wore a "great, big, shiny silver hat."

Andy and Barney believed Mr. McBeevee was make–believe, too — until Opie came home with a hatchet that definitely was not imaginary. He claimed Mr. McBeevee had given it to him.

That was something Andy couldn't understand so he instructed Opie to take the hatchet back where he found it and leave it there.

Turned out Mr. McBeevee was real — and Opie described him in the only way an 8–year–old boy could, but Andy and Barney couldn't comprehend. It was a classic failure to communicate.

Anyway, Mr. McBeevee took the hatchet back, acknowledging that Opie's father probably had been right to insist that he return it, but he wanted to give Opie something for doing some odd jobs for him so he gave him a quarter. (That may not sound like much in 2017, but it was a small fortune in 1962, at least in a boy's eyes.)

In the meantime Barney told Andy that he did believe Mr. McBeevee was real. Opie had already provided information that would be difficult for a child to make up, and Barney was going to get a more complete description using a technique of the law enforcement officer's trade — an eyewitness description.

At first it went well, but then Opie spoke of how Mr. McBeevee "jingles ... like he has rings on his fingers and bells on his toes." Barney pressed him on that point, and Opie conceded that Mr. McBeevee didn't really have rings on his fingers and bells on his toes. The jingling came from the "12 extra hands" that hung from his belt.

That was how Mr. McBeevee had described the tools he used in his work, but Andy and Barney had no way of knowing that. Opie's description of Mr. McBeevee was a source of endless amusement for Andy.

Then Opie showed them the quarter Mr. McBeevee had given him, and things changed. Andy couldn't believe the person Opie had described had given him a quarter. Opie suggested that they go to the woods and talk to Mr. McBeevee, and Andy agreed to do that. So they went to the woods.

Unfortunately for Opie, Mr. McBeevee had gone to get a colleague to help him with a task so he wasn't where Opie expected him to be, and Andy believed Opie had gotten into the habit of "stretching the truth a little out of shape."

When they returned to their home, Andy sent Opie up to his room and followed him there later, intending to punish him for lying.

Their conversation, in my opinion, was one of the great scenes in sitcom history.

Andy told Opie that he could avoid punishment if he admitted that Mr. McBeevee was imaginary. But Opie couldn't say that. Mr. McBeevee was real. "Don't you believe me, Paw?" he implored his father.

Andy sighed. "I believe you," he said and went downstairs, where he told Barney and Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) that he hadn't punished Opie.

When Andy told them that he had told Opie that he believed him, Barney protested that what Opie had told him was impossible.

"Well," Andy replied, "a whole lot of times I've asked him to believe things that, to his mind, must have seemed just as impossible. ... I guess it's a time like this when you're asked to believe something that just don't seem possible, that's the moment that decides whether you got faith in somebody or not."

Barney wanted to know if Andy believed in Mr. McBeevee.

"No," he insisted, "but I do believe in Opie."

Later, of course, Andy's faith in his son was justified when he met Mr. McBeevee in the flesh.

I have said many times that I thought Andy Taylor was the best father on TV, better than any who came before or who have come along since. This episode proved it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Debut of Cheers!

Coach (Nicholas Colasanto): I'm working on a novel. Going on six years now. I think I might finish it tonight.

Diane (Shelley Long): You're writing a novel?

Coach: No, reading it.

The great thing about Cheers! was that, although it was ostensibly about a bar, it was really about the people in the bar. The place where everybody knows your name.

When it finished its 11–year run, viewers felt as if they knew the folks on the show — their strengths, their weaknesses, their personality quirks — so well that sometimes I think any one of them could have starred in a spinoff and been successful.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was the character who was spun off and had an 11–year run of his own, which is kind of ironic since he wasn't in the Cheers! cast when the show premiered on this day in 1982. In the first episode, "Give Me a Ring Sometime," the emphasis was on the barmaid who would be viewers' introduction to Frasier's woeful love life — Diane Chambers (Shelley Long).

She wasn't a barmaid at the time. She came in to the bar with her fiancé. They planned to go to Barbados, where they would be married, but Diane's fiancé wanted to get the ring from his ex–wife, so he left Diane at Cheers! with a promise to return.

By the end of the episode, though, it was clear that he was not going to return, that he had probably reconciled with his ex–wife. Forlorn Diane was offered the job of a barmaid.

Her conversation with her first customers kind of set the tone for the series:

"Welcome to Cheers," she told the middle–aged couple. "My name is Diane. I will be serving you. Why don't you sit down right over here? You know, I should tell you, parenthetically, that you are the first people that I have ever served. In fact, if anyone had told me a week ago that I would be doing this, I would have thought them insane. When Sam over there offered me the job, I laughed in his face. But then it occurred to me, here I am, I'm a student — not just in an academic sense but a student of life. And where better than here to study life in all its many facets? People meet in bars, they part, they rejoice, they suffer, they come here to be with their own kind. What can I get you?"

To which the man replied, reading from a phrase book in broken English, "Where is police? We have lost our luggage."

The episode was also a setup for the other people in the bar, especially the proprietor, Sam (Ted Danson), who had been a major–league baseball player until his struggle with alcohol ended that chapter in his life.

Many of the characters who went on to be regulars on the show were there — waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) and patrons Norm (George Wendt) and Cliff (John Ratzenberger).

"Coach" (Nicholas Colasanto), the bartender, was there, too, but he died of a heart attack a few years later, and the character was written out of the series. Woody (Woody Harrelson) was brought on as Coach's replacement.

And that is probably what prevented the episode from being regarded as one of the best of the series. The first episode essentially introduced the viewers to the characters in the series, and that took most of the time.

So the first episode couldn't be too in depth. There simply wasn't enough time, you see.

It served its purpose, though. It got the audience hooked and set the stage for the show's 11–year run. And that provided plenty of time to explore various personalities and themes.

Good thing for all of us, too.

A Horse Is a Horse

The sibling rivalry between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) made for some of the best episodes of the Frasier series, and the episode that first aired 20 years ago tonight was one of the very best.

Their father, Martin (John Mahoney), was observing his 65th birthday. Frasier and Niles were known to have battled to outdo each other in the birthday gift department for years, but this was a milestone birthday so the competition was particularly intense.

Initially they had agreed to limit their spending, but that agreement quickly fell through, and the brothers escalated the stakes rapidly.

Frasier thought he had finally won when he agreed to buy a big–screen TV for his father. He hated the idea, had been resisting it for years but finally agreed to do it just to see Niles "twisting and writhing in agony."

But then he observed that Niles wasn't twisting and writhing. Niles, it turned out, had topped him by acquiring the horse Martin had ridden when he was on mounted patrol.

Niles had tracked down Martin's old police horse and had found out that he was a week away from being put out to pasture. So he bought the horse and set him up in a stable where Martin could visit him whenever he wished.

Yes, it did appear that Niles had won the sibling competition — until his father, who was initially excited by the gift, turned morose. Niles began to doubt the wisdom of buying the horse, not realizing that his father was a bit stunned by the realization that both he and his horse had grown older.

And he was feeling a little sorry for himself, but he insisted that it was the best gift he had ever received.

For reasons that weren't entirely clear, Niles shared the credit with Frasier, who in turn insisted that it had been mostly his brother's idea.

It was a nice commentary on aging, but I have to admit that I was a little disappointed in the ending. It struck me as anticlimactic, and I expected better from the writers for Frasier.

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Important History Lesson

When I was in junior high, I was assigned to do a book report on Cornelius Ryan's "The Longest Day."

Looking back, I would have to say that the book was probably a bit beyond my years. I mean, I love history — I have always loved history — and I love a good story, but the book was a bit technical for me, at least at that time in my life.

I didn't know who most of the people in the book were. I guess I hadn't studied World War II or D–Day too much at that point, had no idea, really, of their significance in American history.

And in my mind, too, I suppose, that was my parents' war — but they had been children when it was fought. It was probably more my grandparents' war. Either way, I probably saw it as their history, not mine.

Perhaps that is how it is for everyone. Major events that have gone before belong to someone else. The current ones belong to whoever is coming of age, and generations to come will have their own. It depends on whose time it is, and even though it is technically true that a time belongs to all who live through it, it truly belongs to those who are coming of age, whose impressions are still being formed. For the most part the rest of us share ownership of that time.

But not always.

Remember Sally Field in "Forrest Gump" and what she told her son as she was dying?

"It's my time," she said. "It's just my time."

People tend to be more in tune to what happens in their times — and less so about what happens in other people's times.

But I guess I am slipping away from the point — which is that "The Longest Day" was a good history lesson, whether in print or on the big screen.

"The Longest Day" had an all–star cast — so many stars I can't name 'em all.

In that sense it reminded me of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" the definitive dramatization of Pearl Harbor.

There were actors everyone should be able to recognize — Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and John Wayne, for example — and others whose faces are familiar but you've really got to be past a certain age (or of a certain time, to return to my earlier theme) to know their names — I suppose Eddie Albert, Peter Lawford and Robert Mitchum fall in that category.

It also reminded me of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" in the sense that it was faithful to the facts of the story, which were dramatic enough.

It was filmed in black and white in a documentary style at a cost of $10 million. For nearly 30 years it was the most expensive black–and–white film ever made — until "Schindler's List."

The movie brought to life the story in a way the book couldn't do for me when I was 14.

I don't know how much of that story young people are taught in school today, but the parts I found the most compelling were the accounts of the tricks the Allies used in the battle with the Germans.

Like dropping mannequins with parachutes to deceive the Nazis into thinking an expected invasion was happening in an unanticipated area.

Or using an attractive young female bicyclist as a diversion to slip a wagonload of resistance operatives past Nazi soldiers.

The last time I watched it I couldn't help thinking that the invasion of Normandy as presented in "The Longest Day" was probably the most realistic depiction of modern warfare committed to film until "Saving Private Ryan."

"The Longest Day" received five Academy Award nominations and took home two Oscars — for Black–and–White Cinematography and Visual Effects.