Sunday, October 23, 2016

From Beyond Maps

"Trees lie where they fall, and men were buried where they died."

Narrator (Howard Keel)

If you like horses, you'll probably like "Across the Wide Missouri," which premiered on this day in 1951. It had a lot of horses.

Does that sound flippant? It isn't intentional. Fact is, I do like horses — and I liked "Across the Wide Missouri," too, but not simply because it had horses.

To be honest, though, there really wasn't much of a plot — at least by the standards of the times. When you sit down to watch a western from the '40s or '50s, you expect a movie that has obviously good guys (usually the cowboys or the soldiers) and definitely bad guys (typically the Indians although sometimes they were outlaws). The idea that the cowboys/soldiers might be the bad guys and the Indians/outlaws might be the good guys was seldom if ever explored in the movies — at least until comparatively recently.

And "Across the Wide Missouri" wasn't necessarily a radical departure from that norm. It simply seemed to take a more neutral position than most of the movies I have seen from that time. It made few judgments about who was right and who was wrong although it often spoke of issues that would provoke intense debates today. It simply told a story — in much the same way that a textbook would. You know ... This happened and then this happened and then this happened.

No in–depth exploration of cause and effect. All very matter of fact.

I'm not suggesting it lacked a story, but "matter of fact" is an apt description. The movie was based on an historian's book about actual fur traders and their experiences with the Indians. Clark Gable played the central character, a fur trapper, and he was surrounded by some well–known people — James Whitmore, Howard Keel (who did the off–screen narration), Ricardo Montalban — and some who were not so well known.

Like 24–year–old Mexican actress–singer María Elena Marqués, who portrayed the adopted daughter of an Indian chief. She had been in Mexican movies for nearly 10 years, but "Across the Wide Missouri" was one of her few Hollywood movies so she couldn't have been too familiar to American audiences. She was Gable's love interest.

Gable actually came to love her in time, but the marriage began as one of convenience. It basically allowed Gable's character to trap at will in Indian territory. It also saved him from being scalped.

His wife gave birth to a son then was killed by a warring Indian tribe. And for awhile, after Marqués' character was killed, it was uncertain whether Gable would care for his son or not. That wouldn't be a politically correct angle in the 21st century, but nearly 200 years ago it was apparently acceptable for a man to abandon his children if he lost his wife.

Well, perhaps not acceptable, but in those days it may have been considered a legitimate option for a man whose work kept him away from his home for much of the year.

It is important to keep such things in context. The movie was set about 30 years before the start of the Civil War. Many of the modern states west of the Missouri River were nothing more than unsettled territories, if that.

It's safe to say the rules were different in those days — starting with the fact that there were no rules in many places. In fact, there were few boundaries. A man lived by his wits and seizing the day.

In my favorite line from the movie, at a gathering of trappers, one was asked where they all came from. He replied, "They come from beyond maps."

I thought "Across the Wide Missouri" was probably a more realistic depiction of the times and the people than most movies of its genre — precisely because it kept that in mind.

And then there were the horses.

A Taste of Money

Karma, they say, is a bitch.

On this day in 1961, the city council of the fictional TV village of Mayberry held a meeting in the episode "Mayberry Goes Bankrupt" of the Andy Griffith Show.

Mayberry, as everyone should know, was a very small town, so small that its entire city council could meet in the mayor's office.

And it did. I suppose that is where the council always met. Viewers wouldn't know that because the city council meetings were seldom seen on the Andy Griffith Show. Having been a reporter and having covered my share of city council meetings, I can understand why. No one in his/her right mind would deliberately watch a city council meeting on TV. With rare exceptions, small–town city councils tend to discuss things like stoplights and sidewalks and zoning ordinances. The agenda is distributed a day or two before the meeting, and usually the only people who attend are those who are directly affected by something. Once their matter has been addressed, they leave.

You would think that such a modest group wouldn't get too carried away with itself. But in the episode that aired 55 years ago tonight, Mayberry's city council did.

When the show began, Andy was protesting a decision the council had just made to evict an elderly citizen (Frank, played by Andy Clyde) because he was behind on his property taxes. I always suspected that the real reason why the council was in such a hurry to evict him was because the councilmen had concluded informally that the house was an eyesore. When the old man was evicted, they could tear the house down and start over again.

As sheriff, it was Andy's job to serve the eviction notice.

"This is one part of sheriffin' I can do without," Andy said as he left the meeting.

The councilmen were right, though. The house was a mess with all kinds of clutter in the yard and chickens running loose, and the house itself was old and run down. The screens on the windows were torn, and the house needed a paint job. The old one was peeling in many places. Some of the boards needed to be replaced, too.

Andy felt bad about having to serve the notice. But Frank told him that he was glad Andy had been the one to do it. "It made it easier," he told Andy.

That evening, as Andy and Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and Opie (Ron Howard) sat on the porch and Andy played his guitar, they spoke about Frank and what a shame it was that he was being evicted.

Opie wanted to know what the word evicted meant. Andy tried to explain that Frank was losing his home because he was behind on his taxes.

Opie said that because Andy was serving the eviction notice, it seemed only fair that Andy should provide Frank with a place to stay. Andy and Aunt Bee tried to object, but they could never get around Opie's logic. It was decided that Frank would be invited to stay with them.

And he must have accepted because the next thing the viewers saw was Frank arriving at the house with Andy with his belongings in tow.

One of his belongings was his strongbox, in which he kept his "valuables" — like a medallion from the 1906 World's Fair and a slotted spoon with the Milwaukee skyline carved in it.

And a $100 bond issued by the town of Mayberry in 1861.

The bond had no expiration date. It only said it was redeemable at 8½% interest compounded annually.

After a conversation with the folks at the bank, Andy called a special meeting of the city council. At first the mayor and the councilmen insisted they were too busy to deal with Frank again, but they soon learned that they would have no choice. Frank's bond was worth nearly $350,000.

As the councilmen oohed and ahhed over a document that was a century old and worth more than a quarter of a million dollars, Frank remarked, "I'll take it in cash."

The fly in the ointment, though, was that Mayberry didn't have the money to pay Frank. Andy was recruited to offer Frank a settlement. He agreed to try, then, as he was leaving, he observed, "Just a few days ago we was ready to give Frank the boot. Now, for all we know, he may be giving the town 24 hours to get out."

Andy came up with a compromise that seemed to please everyone. The members of the council fixed up Frank's house — gave it a fresh paint job, did some repairs to the exterior, made it a showplace (Andy's word) that was sure to attract out–of–towners. And the banker worked out financial arrangements with Frank to get his taxes up to date. All this would be a settlement in lieu of paying off the bond.

Yep, everything seemed to be going just fine — until the councilmen realized the bond was bought when Mayberry was part of the Confederacy — which meant it had been bought with Confederate money — which meant it could only be paid back in Confederate money — and, since the Confederacy no longer existed, that meant the bond was worthless.

Once again, the councilmen were ready to evict Frank from his home — until Andy urged them to consider it a good deed for a citizen in need and let it go at that.

That was pretty good reasoning — and by agreeing to it, the council members might have spared themselves another visit from karma instead of a couple in a convertible who mistakenly thought they were in some place called Elm City.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Deconstructive Criticism

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Oh my God. It is T.H. Houghton. We're a stone's throw away from one of the giants of American literature.

Roz (Peri Gilpin): Not the way you throw.

I guess the character of reclusive writer T.H. Houghton (played by Robert Prosky) in the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996 was kind of a cross between J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee. Like Lee (at the time), Houghton had published only one book — albeit an influential one that was a pillar of English lit classes everywhere — but Lee wasn't the recluse that Salinger was. Houghton combined the quirkiest of both.

Anyway, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) had stopped at the cafe for some coffee before taking their father (John Mahoney) to buy new clothes. While sipping coffee outdoors, they spotted T.H. Houghton nearby.

And they began trying to meet him.

Their father, however, was the one who succeeded in getting to know the reclusive writer — without really trying. Frasier and Niles left him at a sports bar to watch the Mariners ("He's just dead weight," Niles told Frasier before they ran off on their quest), and it turned out Houghton was there, too. The boys didn't see him — he was probably in the bathroom because he walked into the room a minute or two after they left, sat down next to Martin and began watching the game with him.

They hit it off, talking about old TV shows and swapping war stories after the baseball game ended.

Meanwhile, after their fruitless search came to an end, Frasier and Niles returned to the sports bar — only to find their father sitting at a table with T.H. Houghton. But the writer didn't stay long; in fact, he left the bar as they were coming in, and the boys were left to wonder anew how they could finagle a meeting with him.

Later, after Niles and Frasier had been to an art exhibit, they returned to Frasier's apartment and crossed paths with their father and Houghton on their way out for dinner. Houghton had been there all afternoon. Another near miss.

Perhaps they could all spend some time together after the two returned from dinner, Niles suggested hopefully.

"I doubt it," Frasier replied. "They'll probably run into J.D. Salinger and Salman Rushdie and go out for margaritas."

The next day, Houghton was set to pick up Martin so they could go to a Mariners doubleheader. As Martin explained to the boys, Houghton was only in town for a few days to drop off his new book with his publisher.

Niles and Frasier nearly had strokes. A new Houghton book! In hindsight, their reaction reminds me a great deal of the reaction to Harper Lee's new book a year ago.

They didn't get to spend time with Houghton, but he went off without his satchel, which contained his manuscript, and Niles and Frasier took it out and read it while Houghton and their father were at the doubleheader.

But they didn't manage to return the manuscript to the satchel before being caught red–handed.

At first, Houghton was indignant about the invasion of his privacy. But soon curiosity got the best of him and he asked Niles and Frasier for their opinions. "Somebody had to read it first," he observed.

What happened next surprised everyone.

Niles and Frasier mentioned the similarities between Houghton's book and Dante's "Divine Comedy."

Houghton concluded that he had lifted the entire structure from Dante, and he interpreted that to mean that he nothing original left to say. "I was a fool to think I had a second book in me," he said before throwing the manuscript off Frasier's balcony.

Then he thanked Niles and Frasier and told them that if the book had been published, his reputation would have been destroyed. This way, he was left with a shred of dignity, and he marched with head held high — and a sheet from the manuscript stuck to the bottom of one of his shoes — out of the apartment.

I always liked this episode because, as a writer, I know that writing is not the kind of occupation for someone who is thin–skinned. Writers will always encounter criticism, no matter how good they are. They have to accept it as a fact of the life they have chosen. In a way, I guess, it is like being a politician. Even our greatest presidents had their critics.

In this episode, the shoe was kind of on the other foot. Frasier was a thin–skinned sort, too. In an episode in the previous season, he got all bent out of shape because one member of a 12–person focus group didn't like him. This time someone else was dealing with negative thoughts.

Well, that's life. No matter how funny or smart or good–looking you are, there will always be those who don't like you or what you do — or something. Always.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

You Say You Want a Revolution?

"This is the story of all tyrants, General. They have but one real enemy, and this is the one they never recognize until too late."

Priest (Vladimir Sokoloff)

There is one great truth in the world — and that is that human behavior is almost always predictable.

Because we are all imperfect — and we are imperfect in decidedly imperfect ways. We are all susceptible to language and actions that are crude and selfish and incendiary, the worst reflections of our true selves, just as we are all capable of noble self–sacrifice.

And we can all be carried away by forces we don't really understand — or sufficiently respect.

It's easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. When revolution is in the air, it can be intoxicating, especially for young people who frequently lack the perspective of history that tells us that revolution can be a good thing — or a bad thing. And for many people the relatively rapid acquisition of success is more than they can handle.

In the case of revolution — and the episode of the Twilight Zone that aired on this night in 1961, "The Mirror" — it is advisable to remember the old adage: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The episode chronicled the immediate aftermath of a Central American revolution that was successful in toppling the old regime. Its leader was played by Peter Falk, whose character would have been instantly recognizable to audiences 55 years ago as being modeled after Cuba's Fidel Castro. He's been out of the public eye so much and for so long now that I suspect many modern observers would not make that connection.

But that was clearly the inspiration for Falk's character.

At first, upon being swept into power by the revolution, he was all fired up to execute the tyrant he had replaced, advocating a slow death in retribution for all the times he had hurt the people in any way.

The tyrant was gracious, though. He told Falk that he was giving him a mirror that adorned the wall. The person who had given it to him, the tyrant said, told him he could see his assassins in the reflection.

And from that point on, Falk began to see reflections of his friends trying to stab or shoot or poison him. He killed them all — or had others do it for him.

A wise old priest visited him to complain about the round–the–clock executions. Falk protested that he had enemies, and he would continue with the executions as long as he had enemies.

The priest observed that Falk's triumph was not so sweet after all. It had the taste of ashes, not the taste of wine.

Then he observed that it was the story of all tyrants. "They have but one real enemy, and this is the one they never recognize until too late."

The priest left the room; a couple of minutes later he heard the smashing of glass as Falk threw an object at the mirror, then there was the sound of a gunshot as Falk ended his own life.

The priest rushed in, saw Falk's body on the floor and muttered, "The last assassin. They never seem to learn."

A cautionary tale for would–be tyrants.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Beginning of a Beautiful Partnership

Professor Winterhalter (Sig Ruman): All these newfangled machines. Fake! It proves nothing. In the old days, we used to do these things better. The man says he's paralyzed, we simply throw him in the snake pit. If he climbs out, then we know he's lying.

Specialist (Bartlett Robinson): And if he doesn't climb out?

Professor Winterhalter: Then we have lost a patient, but we have found an honest man.

I'm really fond of the Walter Matthau–Jack Lemmon movie partnership, and today is a milestone anniversary for that partnership. It began — officially — 50 years ago today when Billy Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie" premiered in New York City.

It actually began, of course, whenever the movie was being shot, but as far as the movie–going public was concerned, it began 50 years ago today.

Lemmon played a TV cameraman in Cleveland who was doing sideline work at a Cleveland Browns game on a frigid Sunday afternoon. One of the Browns (played by Ron Rich) ran out of bounds and collided with Lemmon, knocking him backwards over a rolled–up tarpaulin in full view of the folks at the game and watching on TV.

He was taken to the hospital, where his injuries were minor, but his conniving brother–in–law, an ambulance–chasing lawyer known as "Whiplash Willie" played by Matthau, cooked up a scheme to sue for big money.

Apparently Lemmon's character had suffered a compressed vertebra when he was a child, and Matthau observed that a new back injury was indistinguishable from an old one in X–rays. Matthau's plan was for Lemmon to fake paralysis to win the suit, then make a gradual recovery. Lemmon was resistant — until Matthau implied that it would be a good way to win back Lemmon's ex–wife, Sandy (Judi West) who had run out on him.

Matthau knew Lemmon was still carrying that torch. "You could carry it to Mexico City (site of the next Summer Olympics)," Matthau told him. And he was right. Lemmon's ex–wife was his Achilles' heel, and Matthau used it repeatedly to keep his brother–in–law in line and his plan from imploding.

Now, it imploded, anyway, and the discovery of how it imploded is the kind of movie experience that every viewer should have first hand. I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

But I will tell you that some of the funniest moments in the history of Matthau–Lemmon movies — and they weren't all comedies, but most of them were — occurred in "The Fortune Cookie."

Whiplash Willie must be one of the funniest characters ever to appear in one of Billy Wilder's movies — and that is certainly saying something. As one of the lawyers in the defendants' cadre of counselors described him, Willie was "so full of twists he starts to describe a doughnut, and it comes out a pretzel."

The defendants' lawyers wanted Lemmon to be examined by a team of specialists; all but one concluded the paralysis was genuine. With no medical evidence to contradict the claim, the lawyers hired a private detective (Cliff Osmond) to put Lemmon's apartment under surveillance in hopes of catching him doing something he couldn't possibly do if the paralysis story was true.

Matthau knew about this and warned Lemmon to be careful. That wasn't so hard until the ex–wife returned to look after him. Matthau told Lemmon to avoid any kind of hanky panky, which was a lot easier said than done.

Lemmon's conscience was bothering him. The player who had collided with him on the sideline was so ridden with guilt that it was ruining other aspects of his life. He performed poorly in a game and got into a fight in a bar. Lemmon battled with his inclination to give up the lawsuit and let the guy off the hook. At the very least, he wanted his brother–in–law to represent the player in court, but Matthau was too busy negotiating a settlement with the defendants in Lemmon's lawsuit.

Then Lemmon learned that the only reason his ex–wife was there was because she wanted a share of the money from the suit to put on a show at a prestigious club and give her singing career a boost.

And the jig was up.

Perhaps I have said too much already. But the ending alone was worth the price of admission.

Matthau won Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Wilder wasn't nominated for Best Director, but he shared a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond, a frequent collaborator.

There are all sorts of lists of movies that people should see before they die. I would put "The Fortune Cookie" on mine.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Friends and Enemies

Gilligan (Bob Denver): "He treated me like a father."

Mary Ann (Dawn Wells): "He was like a father to me."

Ginger (Tina Louise): "He was like a father to me."

Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer): "He was like a husband to me!"

There is an old Chinese proverb that goes like this: "He who is suspicious of his friends has a tiger by the tail."

Perhaps a more modern interpretation would be Michael Corleone's observation (which may originally have been a quote from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu although there is considerable difference of opinion on that) in "The Godfather Part II:" "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Anyway ...

There may be some pretty good reasons not to tell someone if he or she will inherit anything from you after you die.

The positive side, of course, is that you receive accolades for your generosity. On the flip side, though, one or more of your beneficiaries may decide it is preferable not to have to wait for tangible proof of it.

At least that seems to have been the point of the episode of Gilligan's Island that aired on this night in 1966 — "Where There's a Will."

Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) — who was, of course, the millionaire mentioned in the show's theme song — came down with a minor malady, and all the castaways came by his hut to give him their best wishes. Touched by their concern, he resolved to remember them in his will.

It was early in this episode, in fact, that viewers saw how truly versatile the Professor (Russell Johnson) could be. He examined and diagnosed Mr. Howell with a stethoscope he made from vines and other material found on the island, and he used a thermometer that he made from the Minnow's barometer. Very clever — but he could never figure out how to patch the hole in the side of the Minnow so they could sail home.

Then, in truly Howellian fashion, Mr. Howell made a big production of announcing his decision, gathering the castaways together to tell them of the revisions to his will and giving a personal copy of the will to each. He could have gone to each one separately and confided his decision. But his ego would have none of it. Like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Wag the Dog," he craved credit for what he had done.

Not long after that, the Howells were walking in the jungle when things began happening — like an arrow barely missing him.

Then he overheard them talking about killing "the old boar."

He assumed they were talking about him; in fact, they were talking about killing a wild boar on the island to make a spare ribs dinner for a party in Mr. Howell's honor.

(An observation here: The island was too small to be on any maps or charts, which was the reason why the castaways were never rescued — at least not during the original three–year run of the series. But it was apparently big enough that the castaways and a wild boar could coexist on the island — and the wild boar was never seen, never even a topic of conversation, until this night in 1966.)

But Mr. Howell had left, presumably to live out the rest of his life in seclusion. He staged his death in quicksand, then hid and watched what happened from a distance.

It wasn't at all what he expected.

The castaways weren't glad he was gone. They held a funeral for him with the only thing of Mr. Howell's they had — the pith helmet he had been wearing when he left his hut and had been found on the quicksand. Before they started the service, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) asked Gilligan if the grave was the right size. "It should be," Gilligan replied. "It's 6⅞."

(That was a joke I didn't get as a child. I think it's funny now.)

The castaways were genuinely grief–stricken, and each vowed not to accept his/her inheritance.

Touched once again by their love for him, Mr. Howell, who had been watching from a nearby tree, tumbled from the branches, revealing his whereabouts.

It's still probably a good idea not to tell most people that you are remembering them in your will.

Just to be on the safe side.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Remembering When Mike Met Archie

"Edith, I'm always nice. Go let the jerk in."

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Like most sitcoms — well, most TV programs, regardless of genre — All in the Family seemed to run out of gas near the end of its run.

But on this day in 1971, it was still a new program, a social phenomenon. Developer Norman Lear had tapped into something new. Sitcoms weren't going to be just silly anymore — at least not for awhile. There would be a purpose behind the humor.

In the case of All in the Family, it was an opportunity to examine the warts of American society through a humorous lens. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and his son–in–law Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) represented the extremes of the political and social spectrums of the day, and their arguments followed the logic of both sides, thereby shining a spotlight on the weaknesses — as well as the strengths — of both.

It really was fair and balanced. Lear is politically progressive, but his stories often lent credence to positions he did not hold.

All in the Family aired some of its best episodes in the 1971–72 season. In the episode that aired 45 years ago tonight, "Flashback: Mike Meets Archie," the audience got the chance to see how Mike and Archie met through a TV flashback. The Bunkers and Stivics were observing Mike and Gloria's first anniversary as a married couple — "It's like celebrating the 365th day of a toothache," Archie said. He compared it to other events like Pearl Harbor and the crash of the Hindenburg.

Mike was bringing home Chinese takeout food for dinner.

But Archie refused to eat with chopsticks as Mike and Gloria had requested so Edith (Jean Stapleton) went to the kitchen to get a fork for Archie. While she was gone, Mike and Archie got into one of their typical arguments over Archie's language. Archie, you see, used the slang word Chink instead of Chinese. Mike said Archie was "putting away" people with roots in Asia, a region that was not confined to China. Archue was pigeonholing people with roots in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Mike said.

Archie protested that he never called those people Chinks. Edith, who had returned to the room, observed in her truthful way, "No. He calls them Gooks."

Such a program almost certainly wouldn't last today. Few people at the time thought it would last. But it did, and it made a huge difference in the way Americans spoke about each other and looked at each other.

I've always felt that it survived largely because it pointed out failings without making it personal, without putting people on the defensive. If they recognized themselves or others in the stories, that was OK, but the point of the humor was not to make anyone feel foolish. It was to make people see the foolishness in some attitudes, not in some people.

Anyway, the episode that aired 45 years ago tonight answered a lot of unasked questions about Archie's relationship with Mike.

It was the first time Archie called Mike a meathead — and a Polack. Viewers were used to both, but they didn't know how or why Archie started calling Mike those words — until this night in 1971.

And Mike left the house while Archie was reciting, then singing "God Bless America."

But I guess the moral of the story was that love will find a way. Mike went to a pay phone and kept calling the house. Archie answered each time and said it was a wrong number. Gloria tried to intercept one of the calls, but when she finally did so, it turned out the call was for Archie.

A discouraged Gloria sought comfort from her mother. "How could everything go so wrong?" Gloria asked through her tears.

"Easy," Edith replied, adding, "but life goes in circles, and when things get wrong enough, then they start getting right again."

Gloria said she didn't believe that. Edith said she was still basting the duck because if she was right, Mike would be back. And about that time the doorbell rang.

It was Mike, of course.

And he had dinner with the Bunkers — and, of course, Mike and Gloria eventually got married.

And viewers gained some insight into Mike's relationship with Archie.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

To Dream the Impossible Dream

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): I hardly need to tell you how the story ends.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Just tell me when the story ends.

As I wrote a few weeks ago about the episode that kicked off the ninth season of Frasier, I have felt for a long time that the show really didn't utilize the opportunities that having a psychiatrist as the central character presented.

I'm not saying Frasier never used psychiatry as an element of its stories — it was usually present but in more of a supporting role. The series seldom tried to get inside Frasier's head.

It did 20 years ago tonight in "The Impossible Dream," when Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had a recurring dream in which he and a co–worker, KACL food critic Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert), were sharing a seedy motel room bed. In the dream, Frasier awoke in a room with a crescent moon lamp on the bedside table, a tequila bottle and a tattoo on his arm with the single word "Chesty." He heard a shower running, then the water stopped. The first time this happened, Gil emerged from the bathroom. The second time it was a well–endowed young woman who came into the room, smiled and apologized, saying, "Wrong room" — after which Gil appeared on screen and told Frasier they were going to a different motel.

Frasier, of course, was a devout heterosexual, but these dreams had him wondering if perhaps his subconscious was trying to tell him something about his sexuality. Well, it built up to that.

Most psychiatrists believe that, once a recurring dream has been correctly interpreted and its meaning has been brought to the surface, the dream will no longer occur. It will have served its purpose. So Frasier and his brother (David Hyde Pierce) went on a tortured journey to interpret its meaning.

First, Frasier concluded, through a kind of free association, that his subconscious was telling him that he had been too rigid about his diet. But that turned out to be wrong. Then he and his brother concluded that it must have something to do with their late mother, but that wasn't right, either.

All the while this was going on, Frasier was trying to deal with an extended dry spell in which he had been getting no callers who truly challenged him.
"In this dream of yours, were there any cigars, bananas or short blunt swords?"


It was a late–night conversation with his father (John Mahoney) that persuaded Frasier that his dreams were a subconscious effort to flex his analytical muscles while waiting for the challenging calls to return.

Frasier thought he had resolved the problem — until he went to bed that night and a form of the dream returned — only this time there was no tattoo on his arm and no tequila bottle in the room.

In the dream there was a knock on the door. A bewildered Frasier said, "Come in," and in walked Dr. Sigmund Freud, who complimented Frasier.

"I gave you a complex psychological problem," he said, "and you solved it."

A flattered Frasier said there were so many questions he wanted to ask. Freud said there would be time for that later, that there were more important things to be done first. And with that he squirted his mouth with breath freshener and hopped into the bed with Frasier.

The impossible dream still had not been solved.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

'Big City' Wasn't Your Garden-Variety Country Album

I'm not a country music fan, but there are some country singers I like, and Merle Haggard is at the top of my list.

I have assembled a pretty good (but hardly comprehensive) collection of Haggard's albums and, in the digital age, I have been able to combine most of my favorite Haggard tracks on a single CD so when I am about to drive somewhere and I have a hankering for Haggard's music, I can just take that CD with me.

I can be sure that I like every song on it.

But if I do have to listen to an actual album, "Big City," which arrived in music stores 35 years ago this month, is OK by me. I like every song on that one, too.

Two of the songs on "Big City" went to No. 1 — the title track, "Big City," and "My Favorite Memory."

"Big City" was Haggard's 27th No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart. It was released as a single in January 1982 and was inspired by Dean Holloway, a longtime friend and driver of Haggard's tour bus. The story goes that, after a marathon recording session in Los Angeles, Haggard went to the bus and asked Holloway how he was doing. Holloway replied, "I'm tired of this dirty old city."

And a song was born.

Actually, I guess, the concept of an album was born.

Lifelong country music fans probably have a different take on this than I have, but traditional country music — it always seemed to me, anyway, when I was growing up and heard it playing on radios in the hardware store, the doughnut shop and the barber shop around my hometown in Arkansas — really was about country. Country life. Country people. Country values.

"Big City" was the first country album in my memory that was more about the state of mind than the physical location — in fact, when I was growing up, the where in a country song was nearly always a small rural town or a lonely stretch of highway, seldom a big city — and the title track of "Big City" captured the yearning of an urban blue–collar worker for the freedom of wide open spaces.

Returning to the story of how the title track was inspired, Haggard clearly was refining the inspiration in his mind during his conversation with Holloway (something with which I am familiar from my days as a reporter — I often found myself composing the article in my head while I was finishing an interview for it) when, apparently sensing that the urban–dwelling narrator of the lyrics needed to identify where he would rather be, Haggard asked Holloway that question, and Holloway replied, "Somewhere in the middle of damn Montana."

And a chorus was born.

Haggard wrote the song, but he gave Holloway partial credit; the royalties wound up being worth about half a million dollars to Holloway.

"My Favorite Memory" is the kind of country song that I remember hearing when I was a child. I couldn't have heard that song when I was a child, but I heard songs like it.

I can't say it evokes specific memories, mostly general ones of lying on a rug in the dining room or the kitchen, reveling in the warmth of the room on a chilly winter's day and hearing songs like it playing on the radio. It was a country love song, not the kind of song that speaks of drinkin' and cheatin' and carousin' but of caring and commitment.

"I guess everything does change except what you choose to recall," Haggard sang in one of my favorite lyrics on the album. "There's a million good daydreams to dream on, but, baby, you're my favorite memory of all."

Thom Jurek of wrote that "My Favorite Memory" was "one of the most beautifully sung and arranged moments of [Haggard's] long career." Although I haven't heard all of Haggard's songs, I would have to say that is true of the songs I have heard.

It is one of the best, inspired by the best elements of country music.

My very favorite song on the album, though, is "Are the Good Times Really Over?"

It didn't make it to No. 1, although I always thought it should have. It came close, just missing at No. 2. I liked a lot of things about it, but I guess one of the things I liked the most was that, although the title asked a negative question, the song itself provided a positive answer.

Haggard offered hope.

When I think of that, I think of another song on the album, "I Think I'm Gonna Live Forever." Sadly, Haggard didn't live forever, even though he claimed in the song that "Dyin' ain't on my list of things to do."

"Big City" was full of genuine Haggard classics — and others that should have been.

In its way, I guess, "Big City" was a harbinger of things to come. When I was growing up, most country music was kind of weepy sounding and mostly negative in its messages. "Big City" had a jazzier sound than most country albums — even today, when much of country music doesn't sound too different from rock 'n' roll.

"Big City" had horns and drums and piano that sounded like the barroom music of late 19th–century saloons.

Even the one song that, from its name, one might expect to be in that weepy tradition — "Texas Fiddle Song" — was more upbeat than most country songs.

A Libeled Lady Is Like a Woman Scorned

"You can't build a life on hate or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but I know."

Connie (Myrna Loy)

Since I worked for newspapers for many years, I have a residual fondness for movies about newspapers and newspaper people — as long as the stories are reasonably plausible.

And the story in "Libeled Lady," which premiered on this day in 1936, was plausible. Reasonably so, anyway.

It is important to remember that it was a screwball comedy, a genre that was at its peak in the '30s and '40s. That raised the bar for the quality of the movie. And it didn't tell a true story, which freed it to tell wildly exaggerated jokes without having to be accountable to the harsh truths of the business. Screwball comedies existed to entertain, not enlighten.

It is also important to remember how serious the issue of libel is. At the larger newspapers, entire legal departments are maintained on the premises almost entirely to deal with the subject of libel, how to avoid it, what to do when faced with legal action and so on. When I was in college, nearly all of my journalism classes had sections devoted to the subject of libel. I can't claim to know what it is like in journalism classes at four–year schools these days, but I don't think it was possible to graduate with a degree in journalism when I was in school if one did not have at least some comprehension of the subject of libel.

Screwball comedies were like the forerunners to Saturday Night Live, I suppose. They could take something serious like libel and turn it into a joke that kept feeding on itself. The story of "Libeled Lady" really was ridiculous, silly, but it was built on a deadly serious theme.

The movie was good enough that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It lost to "The Great Ziegfeld."

I believe it deserved the nomination, but what was it about the movie that merited a Best Picture nomination? Most of the time you can get an idea from the other nominations the movie received. Was it the acting? The directing? The film editing? The music? The story? What was it?

Well, you can't tell from the Oscar nominations because "Libeled Lady" received no other nominations. By modern standards, though, a Best Picture nomination for a comedy — especially a screwball comedy — is a considerable achievement by itself.

The Oscars tend to look down on comedies today even though the number of permissible Best Picture nominations has been 10 — the same as in the '30s — for several years. In the years when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, comedies were rarely among the nominees. These days stars tend to get pigeonholed as comedic or dramatic actors, and there is little crossover.

But in the '30s, everyone did screwball comedies — even (or perhaps that should be especially) if they also did dramatic movies. Screwball comedies were popular escapism in the Depression. They were money in the bank.

And "Libeled Lady" heavily promoted the fact that it had four bankable stars — William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.

Harlow and Powell were a couple off the screen, and Harlow wanted a particular role so that she and Powell would end up together. But the studio wanted to pair Powell with Loy to capitalize on the popularity of their Thin Man movies, the second of which premiered on Christmas Day 1936, and several other movies they made together, including "The Great Ziegfeld." (It was probably a prudent decision. Powell and Loy made more than a dozen movies together.)

Even so, in the role she played, Harlow did get to play a wedding scene with Powell. Considering that Harlow died before she and Powell could marry in real life, that was probably a fitting consolation prize.

Screwball comedies often have elements of film noir, but they are frequently comparable to some of the great stage comedies of all time as well. Some people may see elements of "Lysistrata" or "The Importance of Being Earnest" when they watch a screwball comedy. I usually see elements of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Much Ado About Nothing."

And, for me, "Libeled Lady" has always had a distinctly Shakespearean feeling to it.

Tracy played a newspaper editor whose newspaper had published a libelous story about an heiress (Loy), claiming that she broke up a marriage. The editor wanted to set her up so she would have to drop the lawsuit she had filed against him. He recruited a former reporter (Powell) to try to maneuver Loy into a situation where they were alone together and could be confronted by Powell's wife — and the press conveniently on hand to document it all. That would establish her track record as a home wrecker.

The problem was that Powell's character wasn't married.

No problem. Tracy volunteered his girlfriend (Harlow) to marry Powell — over her very vocal objections — and then play the aggrieved spouse.

Trouble was, Powell and Loy's characters really did fall in love. And Harlow came to conclude that she preferred being married to Powell to waiting for a newspaperman who had been stringing her along for years. When she confronted Powell and Loy, she really was aggrieved.

Powell and Loy persuaded Harlow that she was really in love with Tracy, so all was well that ended well.

To borrow a phrase.