Monday, April 23, 2018

A Not-So-Quiet Evening at the White House



"There may not be anything anymore that outpaces the hatred the right feels for the left or the tonnage of disrespect the left feels for the right."

Josh (Bradley Whitford)

I've only been to the White House once in my whole life. I was a child, and my family took a tour of the White House.

Consequently, I can't vouch personally for the accuracy of the following statement, but I presume, at least from having watched TV's West Wing, that there is really no such thing as a quiet evening at the White House. Something is always happening, whether it makes the newscasts or not.

Nevertheless, in the episode of the series that first aired on this night in 2003, "Evidence of Things Not Seen," an uneventful evening is precisely what the staffers were trying to have. They had organized a game of poker, during which C.J. (Allison Janney) kept trying to convince her colleagues that it was possible to stand an egg vertically at the exact moment of the vernal equinox.

That assertion was repeatedly met with scorn. It was disputed by everyone (and every internet site that could be found) and was prompted by the fact that the story was taking place on the vernal equinox.

(Now, I realize that many people do not know what the vernal equinox is, but I will not devote any more space to it because that would prevent those of you who really want to know from looking it up yourselves — and it would likely bore the rest.)

The primary events in the episode were (1) a shooting incident in which a gunman opened fire on the White House, apparently hoping to be killed by responding officers (in what is known as "suicide by cop"), and (2) Josh's (Bradley Whitford) interview with a candidate for a position in the counsel's office (Matthew Perry).

Oh, and there was also the matter of an unmanned spy plane that had crashed in a remote part of Russia. The president (Martin Sheen) tried to convince the Russians that they had not been spying on Russia but had been spying for them.

Sounds complicated, doesn't it? Well, international matters frequently are. And the Russians didn't buy it.

The shooting occurred when some staffers were in the press room trying to hit a specific row of seats with playing cards. It wasn't clear if the gunman knew where he was shooting, but it turned out that the gun was aimed at the windows of the press room. One struck a window very close to where C.J. was standing.

The president was in the Oval Office at the time, where the windows are equipped with bulletproof glass. Anyone who wants to attack the president when he is in the Oval Office, as the president observed, will have to do so from within, not from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Evidently, the windows in the press room were not bulletproof.

That put the West Wing in lockdown — which prolonged both the poker game and the job interview.

Josh decided to recommend Perry for the job, even though he admitted to being a registered Republican who had lied on a questionnaire he had been given and consequently couldn't sign it. What was the lie? Well, the question was, "Have you ever done anything that would reflect poorly on the president?"

What had he done? He hadn't voted for the president.

Just your typical — or should that be atypical? — evening at the White House.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

An Electoral Experiment



A city councilman seeking a fourth term in office paid a visit to Cheers on this night in 1993 in an attempt to win some votes. It infuriated Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) because, where the other patrons heard inspiring statements, Frasier heard meaningless politician's rhetoric.

And an idea was born in this episode of Cheers!"Woody Gets an Election." "We could put a chimpanzee on the ballot and garner 10% of the vote," Frasier insisted.

Apparently, no chimpanzee was available so Frasier did the next best thing. He recruited Woody (Woody Harrelson) to run for city council and made a bet with Sam (Ted Danson) that all he had to do was put Woody's face on a poster above a phrase that sounded good (the phrase that appeared on the posters was "He's one of us") but essentially meant nothing and, by Election Day, he would get 10% of the vote.

Frasier also decided to use the campaign as a case study for a paper.

Part of the experiment, of course, involved interviews with the local media. Only a few months before she became a regular on the Frasier spinoff, Peri Gilpin made a guest appearance as a political reporter who came by the bar to interview Woody.

The interview was like something out of "Being There." Farm boy Woody kept answering the questions from a farmer's perspective, and the reporter put her own preconceived interpretations on his answers.

It didn't take long for Frasier to win the bet. Polls showed Woody receiving 8% in advance of the election, and Sam conceded. Frasier figured he could take down the posters and end the charade.

But then the news broke that Woody's opponent, the incumbent who was seeking a fourth term, had been charged with public drunkenness. Suddenly, the folks at Cheers believed Woody could win.

In fact, Frasier believed it so deeply that he was plagued by nightmares in which Woody had a meteoric political career that landed him in the White House, where he fired nuclear bombs.

And he implored Woody to drop out of the race before he made a mockery of the democratic process. Woody pledged to do so at the Election Eve debate — but his intentions were sidetracked when his wife Kelly (Jackie Swanson) informed him on camera that he was going to be a father.

And the victory was sealed.

On election night, Woody kept thanking Frasier for getting him started, but Frasier, still thinking of his harrowing mushroom cloud dreams, insisted that "no one can prove that."

The opening segment of the episode featured a guest — Spanky McFarland of "Our Gang" fame. Know–it–all Cliff (John Ratzenberger) spotted him sitting at the far end of the bar and told Norm (George Wendt) that he believed the man was Spanky. Cliff sauntered over to him and began talking, in his blowhard fashion, about his love for "Our Gang."

Apparently, that was all Spanky needed. When Cliff asked him if he was Spanky, he denied it, and Cliff left the bar.

"You are Spanky, aren't you?" Norm asked him.

"Oh, yeah," Spanky replied.

That was Spanky's final public appearance. He died a couple of months later.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

That Uncontrollable Urge



"I'm not condemning you for your little 'fling,' but don't try to pass it off as something deeper than it is; the only thing you two have in common is the faint impression of the word Sealy on your backsides."

Niles (David Hyde Pierce)

In the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 1998, "Frasier Gotta Have It," Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was excited about a new relationship he had with Caitlin (Lisa Edelstein), a young artist.

They didn't seem to have much in common beyond the physical, and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) enjoyed teasing his brother about that.

Frasier, however, did not like being teased, and he kept insisting there was much more to it than the physical — even though he confessed that, when they met, he and Caitlin had not discussed whether she was a native of Seattle, the school she had attended or her preferences in the arts.

In an attempt to learn more about her, Frasier invited her to dinner. When she arrived, there still was no indication that the relationship was anything more than physical as the two fell into each other's arms and shared a long, passionate kiss.

Did they share more than that? Well, Niles speculated that, at that moment, they were sharing a Tic Tac.

Frasier did learn a few things about Caitlin that evening that he hadn't known.

For example, he learned that Caitlin's father owned a vineyard when she was growing up so she had more than a casual knowledge of wine.

She wasn't a wine drinker, though. She told Frasier and Niles that she had always hated the taste of wine. In fact, she said, she had cut alcohol out of her life altogether — along with sugar, dairy products and meat.

That put a considerable dent in Frasier's planned menu for the evening.

Frasier also learned — to his chagrin — that Caitlin thought Martin's chair was cool. Frasier, of course, thought it was hideous.

But he didn't let that get in the way. If anything, the physical relationship grew hotter. When Frasier went over to Caitlin's place to break things off, he got swept away with lust, and the two fell into bed with each other.

In fact, the finicky, fastidious Frasier overlooked many things in Caitlin that would have been (and often were) dealbreakers in his other relationships. Why? Because, in his own words, he was a sexaholic.

And strictly physical infatuations blind people to things that normally would matter to them.

Frasier certainly wasn't immune to that.

One of the things that I thought made the episode intriguing was the fact that Dan Butler, who ordinarily played Bulldog Briscoe, a notorious womanizer from KACL, directed it. It wasn't unusual for cast members, particularly Grammer, to direct episodes, and I don't know if this was Butler's only directorial effort on Frasier — but considering the character he usually played, it was an interesting topic.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How to Get Over Heartbreak



Most of us have had the painful experience being dumped, and that is what "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which premiered on this day in 2008, was about.

Jason Segel, who will probably always be remembered for the role he played in How I Met Your Mother, played a composer who worked on the same TV detective show in which Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) was a co–star. They had been lovers for quite some time, too — until Sarah rather unceremoniously dumped him early in the movie for a British rock star (Russell Brand).

Granted, that's a higher altitude than most of us reach in our relationships, but it is still possible to empathize with Segel's devastation — especially considering that he was naked when she told him it was over. Film critic Roger Ebert referred to it as "a humiliating, emotionally naked break–up and breakdown."

And it was. I felt it was one of those movie moments that you only want to see once — if at all. It almost felt like intruding on what was a very personal and very private experience.

Segel did everything he could to get over Sarah, but nothing worked. So he decided a change of scenery might help, and he went to Hawaii. Turned out Sarah and her rock star boyfriend were staying at the same resort.

It was at that resort that Segel's character encountered a hospitality clerk (Mila Kunis), and she became his new love interest. In the process, he learned more than he probably wanted to know about Sarah Marshall — like the fact that Sarah and the rock star boyfriend had been having sex for a year before she dropped Segel.

Eventually, Sarah came to realize she had made a mistake, but it was too late.

Ebert thought the story was told well, but I disagreed. Far too many of the lines were about sex, either directly or indirectly. And while that is an important element of relationships, it is hardly the only one. Trust plays a big role, too, and the messages about trust were mostly implied — whereas the jokes about sex were, if anything, a bit too much in your face.

"We all do stupid, destructive and self–destructive things for which we're probably not going to forgive ourselves," Ebert wrote, "so the best thing in the world is when somebody else forgives us. In the movie's moral universe, there are no irredeemably bad people — just those afflicted to various degrees with shallowness, immaturity, selfishness, obliviousness, ambition."

I can't argue with that — but I also can't deny that the humor was often sophomorish. I didn't agree with Ebert's glowing assessment of it.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Story of Shattering Baseball's Color Barrier



"I don't think it matters what I believe, only what I do."

Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman)

This Sunday will be the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson's historic major–league debut.

Three days before the 66th anniversary, on this day in 2013, the movie "42" premiered in American theaters. It told the story of that event with Chadwick Boseman starring as Robinson and Andre Holland playing black sportswriter Wendell Smith, who played a significant role in encouraging Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to choose Robinson to be the first black ballplayer in the majors.

Blacks had already served with distinction in World War II yet the armed forces were still segregated. Robinson broke baseball's color barrier more than a year before Harry Truman desegregated the troops.

Last week, we marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is widely regarded as the father of the civil rights movement. But King was a teenager when Jackie Robinson first played in the major leagues.

When Rickey presented the idea to Robinson, the future barrier buster asked if Rickey wanted someone who didn't have the guts to fight back.

Rickey replied that he wanted someone who had the guts not to fight back.

It was a different country in the 1940s, and Rickey knew that there would be obstacles every day in every city. He knew that whoever that first black ballplayer in the majors turned out to be, he would be subjected to all kinds of abuse — almost all of it sanctioned by the laws and attitudes of the time.

That is probably difficult for many people to comprehend in the 21st century.

But, as I say, it was a different country. And Jackie Robinson was one of those who helped change it.

The movie repeatedly made that point — as it should. To the black community, Robinson was a hero. It is fair to say he was considerably less than that in the eyes of the white community.

But he persevered.

And he inspired the many black ballplayers who followed — one of whom, Ed Charles, was depicted as a child in the movie. Charles, who died last month at the age of 84, was a member of the 1969 Amazin' New York Mets.

As miraculous as the Mets were, they weren't as miraculous as Jackie Robinson's barrier–breaking season.

While Charles was presented as a child of perhaps 9 or 10 in the movie, he was actually a teenager in 1947.

One more thing. Ford, who was 70 when "42" premiered, was better suited for the role of Branch Rickey than he was to play Indiana Jones again (as he had five years earlier) or Han Solo again (as he did two years later). In fact, Ford was five years older than Rickey was in Robinson's historic season.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Adding to Merle's Hot Streak



Arthur Penn's movie about Bonnie and Clyde had been showing on America's movie screens since August of the previous year when Merle Haggard's album "The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde" arrived in music stores 50 years ago today.

Haggard was on a real hot streak in the 1960s, and "The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde" just added to it.

Other than being inspired by the movie, though, there was no real link between the two. Haggard collaborated with Bonnie Owens on the title track, but they are better known for another composition of theirs from the same album — "I Started Loving You Again."

The title track went on to become a No. 1 hit, but the flip side, "I Started Loving You Again" (with "Today" added to the title later) went on to become a standard — and may well be Haggard's most covered song.

Reportedly, the song's title originated at a time when Haggard, who had married Owens a few years earlier, believed he had fallen out of love with her. Then, when they were walking through an airport, Haggard looked at Owens and told her, "You know what? I think I started lovin' you again today."

At Owens' suggestion, today was moved from the end of the original sentence to the beginning of the song title.

The A side of the single, as I mentioned, was the LP's title track. Ironically, while "I Started Loving You Again" never charted as a single ("The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde" was Haggard's fourth No. 1 single), it was one of Haggard's most popular songs.

The album was not, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic.com observed, a concept album, no matter what its title might imply. It was mostly an album in which Haggard covered songs written by others. In addition to the two compositions he penned with Owens, Haggard was credited with writing two other songs on the album, leaving seven that were written by other songwriters.

It was noteworthy that Glen Campbell, who had already enjoyed chart–topping success with "Gentle on My Mind" and was about to do so again with "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," played guitar and banjo on the album.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

When King Kong Ran Wild



Horror/monster movies have certainly changed since this day in 1933 when the original "King Kong" made its U.S. debut.

If 21st–century moviegoers could be magically transported back to that time, they would probably find the horror/monster movies of that time to be laughable.

But I suppose things haven't changed that much. I mean, the concept of a large beast on the loose in a populated area still sends chills down spines — witness "Jurassic Park," which continues to spawn sequels a quarter of a century after its release. Of course, it helps to have splashy special effects, but "King Kong" didn't need them. That man–vs.–nature theme is pretty effective by itself.

By comparison, it took more than 40 years for Hollywood to get around to remaking "King Kong."

That was partially due, I suppose, to the fact that moviemaking technology needed to advance beyond the rather primitive state that existed in 1933.

There were sequels to the original. Even in 1933, Hollywood knew a good thing when it saw one, and "King Kong" was a good thing, making nearly $3 million (more than four times its production budget) in Depression–era America.

Big uncontrolled beasts on the loose is always a scary concept, I guess — and audiences in 1933 apparently relished the chill that "King Kong" produced.

But I wouldn't underestimate the influence of the 1933 version of "King Kong." It broke the ground for its genre, established the rules by which such monster movies were made for decades to come.

Consequently, "King Kong" belongs to that rare class of film — a movie that defined its genre. There had already been horror movies, of course — most notably "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" — but "King Kong" provided a first–of–its–kind plot.

To make it work, of course, a vulnerable victim was necessary, someone with whom audiences could identify. The choice was Fay Wray, a heroine of silent westerns who made the transition to talkies, one of 13 starlets promoted in 1926 by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers as the most likely to be a success in movies (along with the likes of Mary Astor and Janet Gaynor).

Wray appeared in more than 100 big–screen and TV productions in her career — but she will always be remembered for "King Kong."

Really, I suppose, the plot isn't important — although it was important enough to Wray, who turned down an opportunity to make a cameo appearance in the 1976 remake because she didn't care for the script.

You know what happens, don't you? This giant ape carries Fay Wray away and is pursued through the jungle. He was captured and taken to New York, where he was to be presented to Broadway audiences as the Eighth Wonder of the World. He escaped, though, and scaled the Empire State Building with Wray in his massive hand. Kong is brought down by a fleet of World War I fighter planes.

To seal the deal with Wray, she was told she would "have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." Initially, she believed her leading man would be Cary Grant. Instead, it was an 18–foot ape.

In reality, Kong wasn't so tall. He was an 18–inch model (built to scale with an inch equal to a foot) that was used for filming purposes.

Oh, and who could forget that Max Steiner score? It was the composer's breakthrough and paved the way for Steiner's most memorable work, the score for "Gone With the Wind." Steiner also composed scores for "Casablanca," "Sergeant York" and "The Searchers."

Interestingly, when Wray died in August 2004, "King Kong" reportedly was playing on the TV in the emergency room.

"I have come to believe over the years," Wray once said, "that Kong is my friend."

Apparently, he was a friend to the end.

Punishing a Bad Dog



Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) was a vain, elitist, pompous snob, but he also had morals and standards, and they were on full display in the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 1998, "Bad Dog."

As the episode opened, Frasier and Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe (Dan Butler), the radio station's sports personality, were standing in line to get coffee at Cafe Nervosa. Roz (Peri Gilpin) came in and got in line behind them.

Shortly thereafter, a man with a gun tried to rob the cafe. Frasier saw the gun and warned the others. Bulldog saw someone reaching into his coat, assumed he was going for a gun and grabbed Roz, pulling her in front of him as a human shield. The movement knocked over Bulldog's coffee, which spilled on the real gunman's hand. He dropped the gun and ran out the door.

In the flurry of activity, nearly everyone thought Bulldog had committed an act of heroism — when, as Frasier knew, he had actually tried to use a pregnant woman as a shield. The more credit that Bulldog got for what everyone thought he had done, the more it got under Frasier's skin.

For example, the owner of the cafe promised Bulldog a lifetime supply of muffins, which got Daphne (Jane Leeves) to musing about how many muffins that might be. She said she could eat a muffin a day, even two some days, and figured that, at 10 muffins a week over 40 years, it came to about 20,000 muffins.

"My life suddenly seems long, measured in muffins," she said.

"Oh, Daphne," Frasier said. "There are a lot of things that can make life suddenly seem long."

Back to Bulldog.

Frasier confronted Bulldog at the radio station with the truth, and Bulldog asked him not to tell anyone. Frasier promised that he wouldn't because he believed that Bulldog's conscience wouldn't let him keep that secret.

The problem was that Bulldog apparently had no conscience, and that was what really bothered Frasier.

"I believe that conscience, more than customs and laws, is what prevents people from doing wrong," Frasier told his father Martin (John Mahoney) and brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce). "To contemplate the idea of an otherwise sane man with no conscience, well, it just shakes my entire world view."

Frasier's world view took quite a beating when he went to Bulldog's apartment — and was disappointed to see that Bulldog wasn't struggling with his conscience. In fact, Bulldog said he believed he had been born without a conscience.

Frasier refused to accept that — and insisted that Bulldog's conscience would not permit him to accept the Man of the Year Award that he was to be given for his heroism.

And Frasier, who was the emcee of that year's broadcasting awards, did everything he could to make it difficult for Bulldog. He arranged for several guests from Bulldog's past to be in attendance — his boyhood priest, his second–grade teacher, his peewee football coach and the young president of Bulldog's fan club. The most important guest, though, was Bulldog's mother.

Frasier had assembled them to subtly remind Bulldog that they had all encouraged him to be honest. He hoped that Bulldog would break down during his acceptance speech.

But Bulldog double–crossed him, and it looked like he would get away with it.

Well, it looked that way, and Frasier was beside himself. But as Bulldog and his mother walked across the floor to his table, Martin called out to Bulldog, "There's a guy there with a gun!"

And Bulldog grabbed his mother and used her as a shield, just as he had done with Roz at the cafe — exposing himself as a fraud.

"Thanks, Dad," Frasier said with a big smile on his face.

"Hey, I'm no hero," Martin said. "I just wanted you to shut up!"

Friday, April 06, 2018

A Supernatural Story



"Fate is not a straight road. There are many forks in it. You have the free will to choose which one you take, but sometimes it will bend around and bring you straight back to that same stubborn fate."

Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin)

The first time I ever saw Anton Yelchin in a movie was when he appeared in "Hearts in Atlantis," which was based on a Stephen King story.

He was still rather new to the acting profession, but I was impressed with his talent. Sadly, though, I have only seen him in one other movie — "Odd Thomas," which made its debut at the River Bend Film Festival on this day in 2013 — and I will get no opportunities to see him in a new release. He died in a freak accident nearly two years ago.

"Hearts in Atlantis" was one of his first movies. He made many movies in his all–too–short career, but, considering how he died, "Odd Thomas," in which he played a clairvoyant short–order cook, would have been a good finale for his career — which, by the way, was far from what we have come to expect from child stars. Other child stars seem to hit the wall when they try to transition from children's roles to adult roles, but Yelchin was an exception to that rule.

"Odd Thomas" was based on a novel by Dean Koontz.

Like the youngster in "The Sixth Sense," Odd Thomas could see dead people, and they never spoke to him, either, but, in his own words, "I do something about it." His tipoff that something big was going to happen was when he saw the shadowy bodachs who thrived on pain and carnage — and, as the movie began, he started seeing the bodachs more and more.

They seemed drawn by a stranger in town, and Odd (that was really his given name — an explanation was given early in the movie) said there were more bodachs around him than he had ever seen before. But they seemed to lose interest, which was puzzling — until Odd Thomas did some further investigating.

Odd Thomas, I should mention, had a working relationship with the chief of police (Willem Dafoe), who knew of his talent — but Odd Thomas was at the center of things.

At this point, I ought to remind you that this is a movie about supernatural talent — and it is probably best to avoid giving away any other details.

But "Odd Thomas" had a few other things in common with "The Sixth Sense" — including an unexpected ending for which viewers should have been prepared by all that had come before.

Of course, that's the way it was in "The Sixth Sense," and the finale of "Odd Thomas" probably lost much of its impact because of its similarity to that earlier movie.

But that didn't mean "Odd Thomas" wasn't worth seeing.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Emergence of a Different Duke



Steve (John Wayne): How'd you do last season?

Father Malone (Tom Tully): We showed up for every game.

Steve: I'd say that was raw courage.

Most people probably think of westerns when they think of John Wayne. Or maybe war movies.

But "Trouble Along the Way," which premiered on this day in 1953, was neither.

I suppose you have to give credit for that to John Ford's "The Quiet Man," which premiered in 1952. That, I believe, was the first John Wayne movie that did not cast the Duke as a cowboy or a serviceman, and it opened up a whole new world for him, one on which movie production companies were only too happy to capitalize.

Ford didn't direct "Trouble Along the Way." Michael Curtiz (who directed "Casablanca") did. I don't often use the word heartwarming to describe a movie, but I could apply it to this one. I could also apply other words that are not as complimentary, but I think the writers may have realized that. To compensate, they loaded the script with dialogue that, in my opinion, was far wittier than most movies that were made in the late '40s and early '50s.

For example, when Wayne and Father Burke (Charles Coburn) were talking about the football program at St. Anthony's College, Wayne asked, "What system do you use?"

"'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,'" Burke replied. "But, usually, the others do it to us first."

In "Trouble Along the Way," Wayne played a recently divorced football coach (actually a college athletics instructor who was chronically unemployed because he was apparently incapable of getting along with the folks in charge). He needed to find a job to retain custody of his daughter.

Meanwhile the folks at St. Anthony's faced the prospect of having to shut down due to heavy debt, but Father Burke theorized that the school could get out of debt if it fielded a winning football team because that would attract the financial support of well–to‐do alumni.

To accomplish this, Wayne was hired to coach St. Anthony's football team.

(By the way, if you're a football fan, you probably believe the myth that Vince Lombardi was the first to say, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." Lombardi did say it, but he wasn't the first; in fact, it was John Wayne in "Trouble Along the Way.")

I suppose it goes without saying that Wayne's character had some rough edges. Thus, to smooth out those edges, Donna Reed entered the picture as a social worker.

By the way, film buffs should look for James Dean in an uncredited appearance as a football spectator.