Thursday, August 25, 2016

Goin' to Graceland

I know several people who think Paul Simon's "Graceland" album, which hit the music stores on this day in 1986, was his greatest musical achievement.

It's hard to argue with that. It had probably been more than a decade since Simon enjoyed real commercial and critical success (with 1975's "Still Crazy After All These Years"), and he had kind of disappeared from public view — "Graceland" was something of a comeback for him. And what a comeback it was. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year and sold more than 16 million copies.

And it had five singles that vied for public attention on the charts.

Probably "You Can Call Me Al" was the biggest hit on the album. With Chevy Chase lip syncing the lyrics, the song shot up the charts and earned significant airplay.

It was the first of five singles to be released, hitting the stores nearly two weeks after the album did. Sales were sluggish initially, but the song enjoyed a revival after the album's Grammy success and rose to #23 on the charts.

The second single was the title song, "Graceland," and in my opinion it is one of Simon's most eloquent songs — at least in his solo career. It was an expression of his thoughts following the breakup of his marriage to Carrie Fisher.

"Graceland" wasn't the hit that "You Can Call Me Al" was — but it didn't have the same joyful feel to it, either. It did, however, have a whisper of redemption in it and cracked Billboard's Hot 100 but only reached #81.

The third single from the album, "The Boy in the Bubble," was released as a single about seven months after the album was released. Unless you had the album, you might have assumed the song was part of a new one.

I was surprised to discover, years later, how well it did. I don't really remember hearing it on the radio, but it reached #15 on Billboard's Rock Tracks chart. Still, it only reached #86 on Billboard's Hot 100.

I always thought it was kind of a contradictory tune, with lyrics about such topics as terrorism (which was still, at that time, a subject that had not touched Americans directly) and hunger, infused with shots of humor and even cheer.

Still, compared to the rather dour "Hearts and Bones," which had been Simon's previous album, "Graceland" was positively giddy.

The fourth single, "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," charted well in Canada, and I remember hearing it on the radio more than I heard "The Boy in the Bubble""Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" was released as a single about a month later — but it doesn't seem to have made a ripple on Billboard's Hot 100.

The song featured South African backup singers, giving most Americans their first real exposure to South African music.

A few weeks after the song was released as a single, Simon and the South African singers performed the song on Saturday Night Live, giving it national exposure.

Simon expanded on the African theme in the fifth and final single from the "Graceland" album, "Under African Skies."

"Under African Skies" was released as a single about a year after the album came out.

And it featured Linda Ronstadt with additional vocals. She got top billing with Simon on that single, too.

Of course, she was Linda Rondstadt, perhaps the most successful female recording artist ever.

But he was Paul Simon, and he had been in the public eye longer than she had. They made a heavyweight combination.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Last Great Rolling Stones Album

I have friends who would say that 1978's "Some Girls" was the Rolling Stones' last great album.

And it was a good one for sure.

But I would disagree that it was the band's last great album. "Tattoo You," which was released on this day in 1981, was the Stones' last great album. It just didn't have as much of a radio presence as "Some Girls" did.

Oh, sure, it had a huge hit in "Start Me Up" — which, in hindsight, seems to have been written to be played on sports arena loud speakers. It's a song that pumps up its listeners, which is what you want to do with a home crowd at a sports event. I saw the Stones in concert a couple of months after they released "Tattoo You," and probably no other song on their play list got such a raucous response.

Not even the classics.

It was still new, then, of course, and it had that fresh appeal that goes along with being something new. But it also had something that "Some Girls" and all the albums that came before it did not have — MTV.

MTV was new then and still finding itself. Playing a role in the promotion of new music was essential to its success, and "Start Me Up" was an enormous hit, rising to #2 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Like "Emotional Rescue" the year before, "Tattoo You" was mostly outtakes from the sessions that spawned "Some Girls" — filler, for lack of a better term. But there is filler and there is filler.

"Start Me Up" was the first single released from the album. In fact, it was in the stores 10 days before the album.

The second single, "Waiting on a Friend," was released as a single about three months after the album hit the stores and rose to #13 on the U.S. singles chart. The song had existed for nearly a decade, going back to the "Goats Head Soup" sessions in the early '70s. Well, it was a tune with no lyrics, but it became the Stones' first song to be packaged specifically with an MTV video in mind.

And the video became enormously popular, no doubt contributing to the song's success.

I liked the melody better than the lyrics.

By the way, if the setting of the video seems familiar, it should. It was featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti" album.

The album's third single, "Hang Fire," was released in the spring of 1982. I didn't think much of it, frankly. To my great surprise, it managed to get to #20 on the charts.

Most Americans probably didn't realize that the lyrics represented one of the few times when the Stones have been political in their music. Their largely satirical lyrics skewered the British economic decline of the '70s.

Most listeners on this side of the Atlantic probably thought the music was kind of light and airy and the lyrics had no relevance to life in North America, which they didn't. As I say, the lyrics referred to the British economy and marrying one's way up the British economic and social ladders.

One song I always liked — but was never released as a single — was "Slave," the longest song on the album at 6:33.

Rolling Stone called it "a standard Stones blues jam," which is probably what attracted me to it.

It came into existence during the sessions for "Black and Blue" when Ronnie Wood was filling the vacancy left by the departure of Mick Taylor.

Presumably "Slave" was more filler — but no one could pull off filler like the Stones. I kept hoping to hear it when I saw the Stones in concert.

But I don't think the Stones have ever performed "Slave" in a concert.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Pursuing a Place in the Sun

"I love you. I've loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I've even loved you before I saw you."

George (Montgomery Clift)

If you ever read Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy," you know the plot — for the most part — of George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun," which premiered on this day in 1951.

The movie wasn't exactly a re–telling of the novel — in fact, there were several changes in the story in its translation from printed page to silver screen — but it was heavily influenced by it, and anyone who read the book and saw the movie knew that the protagonist in the movie (Montgomery Clift) was virtually a carbon copy of the protagonist in the book.

In both the book and the movie, he was poor but ambitious, the son of religious activists, street missionaries in the Midwest. He wasn't well educated, he lacked maturity, and he was naive. He took menial jobs to help support his family; while working at such a job he met his wealthy uncle who owned a successful factory on the coast and invited his nephew to visit him, suggesting that he could have a job in the business.

So he made his way to his uncle's factory — in the book, it was on the East Coast, but it was on the West Coast in the movie.

Other details and circumstances were different, too, but the story was essentially the same. The protagonist took his uncle up on the offer and was, indeed, given a job. It was an entry–level job at first, but the protagonist got rapid promotions. Things were looking up.

There was one problem, though. When he was first hired, the protagonist was told that most of the employees were females, and he should not have relationships with any of them outside the workplace.

So, of course, that is precisely what he did. Almost immediately he struck up a friendship with a young worker (Shelley Winters, who broke into movies in the early '40s as a blonde bombshell but found that label too limiting and claimed to have washed off her makeup to audition for the role in "A Place in the Sun"). In the story, it was probably a good match. Winters' character was almost as naive as Clift's, believing nearly to the end that his family ties brought him no privileges at all — all evidence to the contrary.

Anyway, they started seeing each other on the sly, and it wasn't long before they had sex. That, of course, was the kind of thing that simply was not seen in movies in the 1950s. It could only be suggested, hinted at, the kind of thing in which a couple kisses passionately, and the music swells, and the figures become silhouettes that fade into a morning scene in which both are seen at the breakfast table.

Everyone who saw the movie knew that something had happened, but no one saw it happen — rather like when one goes to bed and there is no snow on the ground, but there is snow on the ground when that person wakes up the next morning. You know something happened even if you didn't see it happen.

Nevertheless, the secret — if it ever was one to anyone watching the movie 65 years ago — was a secret no more when Winters' character sought advice from a minister, who believed she was overwhelmed by the stress of being pregnant until Winters confessed that she was not married and the father had "abandoned" her.

As self–absorbed as he was, Clift's character claimed he was going to do the honorable thing (by '50s standards) and marry the girl — but he was falling in love with an affluent and socially connected girl (Elizabeth Taylor), the kind who could do many wonderful things for his career.

And his allegiance was shifting rapidly from the working girl to the society girl.

At times, Clift's character reminded me of Hamlet, Shakespeare's famed Danish prince who couldn't make up his mind. But, once he met Liz, his devotion clearly belonged to her, even though he agreed to marry Winters after she phoned him at a weekend party with Taylor and the ritzy crowd and threatened to expose him. They went to get a marriage license — only to find the office was closed for the Labor Day weekend.

They decided to come back the next day and, in the meantime, enjoy some R&R. They were on a secluded lake and decided to rent a boat. Winters' character didn't know that Clift had been plotting to kill her and make it look like an accident, leaving him free to marry Taylor — but once they were on the lake, he had a change of heart and decided not to kill her after all.

But fate intervened, and Winters really did slip and fall — and drown.

The audience, of course, knew that it really had been an accident. But Clift's suspicious behavior before and after the accident led to his conviction — with none other than Raymond Burr, TV's future Perry Mason, leading the prosecution.

Waiting to walk that last mile to his execution, Clift told a priest that he didn't kill Winters, but he did nothing to help her when she fell in the water. The priest concluded that it was murder and Clift's execution would be justified.

In 2016, it seems a little melodramatic, but it must have seemed to be pushing boundaries in 1951. It remains only the second movie adaptation of Dreiser's novel. He didn't live to see it, but he saw the first one, which was made 20 years earlier. I've heard that he hated it.

Maybe he considered it too literal a translation. He might have preferred "A Place in the Sun," considering that it did differ in some ways from the original source (and in more than just the name). Perhaps, now that filmmakers have more freedom than they did 65 years ago, it is time for a fresh take on the story.

"A Place in the Sun" ranked #92 on the American Film Institute's original list of the Top 100 movies of the last 100 years, but it was left off the revised list that was released 10 years later.

It won six Oscars — Best Director (Stevens), Best Screenplay, Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, Best Black–and–White Cinematography, Best Black–and–White Costume Design and Best Film Editing. It received three other nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor (Clift) and Best Actress (Winters), losing to "An American in Paris," Humphrey Bogart and Vivien Leigh.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Edgar Allan Poe's Work as the Basis for a Movie

"Do you know where you are, Bartolome? I'll tell you where you are. You are about to enter hell, Bartolome, hell! The netherworld. The infernal region. The abode of the damned. The place of torment. Pandemonium. Abaddon. Tophet. Gehenna. Naraka. The pit! And the pendulum."

Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price)

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. No one can write a thriller the way he can. But he sure can be wordy sometimes. Maybe that is unavoidable when it is necessary to explain every character's mental perception of the events that are at the core of King's book — and that frequently is necessary in a Stephen King book.

Edgar Allan Poe was different. Many of his works were short stories, and they were really short, sometimes just a few pages; his poems were even shorter.

Take "The Pit and the Pendulum," for example. It was a short story that was quite short.

I saw director Roger Corman — who directed and produced a full–length motion picture that was based on that short story and made its debut on this day in 1961 — being interviewed about it on Turner Classic Movies a few months ago. He conceded that, in order to make a full–length movie, it was necessary for writers to speculate — a lot — about the characters and events that led up to the climactic event of which Poe wrote.

That was something with which Corman was quite familiar. A year earlier, he directed and co–produced an adaptation of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." And his writers' efforts to be as true as possible to the spirit of Poe's writing were good enough that Corman went on to direct six more adaptations of Poe's works. All but one starred Vincent Price.

Price actually started out as a character actor and transitioned into horror movies in the '50s so he was already a veteran of several horror movies by the time he started appearing in Corman's films.

But he was seldom the star — nor did he have a reputation for appearing in horror movies — until he teamed up with Corman.

I've heard that Corman believed that, after "House of Usher," Poe's strongest works were "Masque of the Red Death" and "Pit and the Pendulum." As I recall, his preference for his second film based on Poe's work was "Red Death," but he ultimately concluded the name (not the subject matter) would be seen as too similar to a Swedish movie that was in the theaters a few years earlier so "Pit and the Pendulum" became his followup.

Corman did make a movie based on "Red Death" a few years later.

I don't know if Price's work with Corman was entirely responsible for his reputation as a horror movie villain, but it is sure to have played a role.

By the way, in case you didn't know it, Corman made some appearances in front of the camera, too. I always think of his role as one of the lawyers in the law firm that Tom Hanks sued in "Philadelphia," but he was also in "The Godfather Part II" and "The Silence of the Lambs."

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Re-creating the 9-11 Attacks

"We prepared for everything. Not for this. Not for something this size. There's no plan."

John (Nicolas Cage)

No one who lived through Sept. 11, 2001, will ever forget it. Most of us didn't experience the life–or–death struggle that some did, but that doesn't mean that most of us weren't affected by what happened that day.

That, I suppose, was what I liked about Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which premiered on this day in 2006. In the first few years after those infamous attacks, there was a real effort to make sure people didn't forget what had happened. Only a few years after those terrorist attacks, we were already seeing movies about them. There was a made–for–TV movie that essentially dramatized all the now–familiar recordings from that day.

Then there was "United 93," which premiered nearly 3½ months before "World Trade Center," and it basically told the tale of the passengers whose revolt led to the crashing of their plane in a Pennsylvania field instead of the White House or Capitol building.

I can't help wondering if those movies took the edge off that experience. Did the movies contribute to a perception that the attacks of 9/11 didn't really happen, that they were dramatizations for our collective entertainment?

How incredible it is to think that many of the most painful lessons we thought we learned on Sept. 11, 2001 have been all but forgotten by our country's leadership less than 15 years later.

"World Trade Center" told the mostly unknown story of how the families of the victims reacted to what was happening.

For those on the ground, that may have been the most traumatic image that played in their minds that day — how the families of the victims had to watch helplessly while the drama played out. In the office where I was working on that day, I heard many people speaking of the horror they imagined the passengers on the plane experiencing. In the absence of the actual horrific images of that morning — there was no TV in the office at that time — nothing else so moved them to emotional displays as that mental image.

At the time I found it easier to function if I did not think about things like that. But you couldn't ignore it forever, and movies have always been powerful providers of provocative images. Combine that with Stone's directorial skills, and you have an impressive force.

It was also an heroic tale.

The movie, critic Roger Ebert wrote, "is about two men who, against all odds, survived the collapse of the Twin Towers."

Clearly, that is a compelling story line, and ostensibly it was a true story; many parts of it undoubtedly were true, but some parts apparently were exaggerated.

And some parts were not given adequate treatment — in the eyes of some. There were some widows of victims of the attacks who were critical of the involvement of family members of other victims, producing what they thought was a slanted treatment of the subject.

The treatment was a little heavy handed at times, too.

For example, at one point, a closeup of an open Bible could be seen. It was open to a passage in Revelation and was followed by a shot of a cross, which was "piling it on a bit thick," Ebert observed.

Ebert also pointed out that Stone "Christianize[d]" the story "in ways that go beyond the beliefs of his characters."

"The problem with movies about individuals in such extreme situations," Ebert wrote, "(perhaps especially those that try to hew closely to the accounts of the survivors who lived the events depicted) is that they are stripped of some of their individuality. They are, by necessity, reduced to human essentials, and that doesn't always make for good movie drama. Yes, anyone in this situation would think, and probably say, something like, 'Tell my wife and children that I love them.' But since we don't know much about who these guys were before 9/11 (presented here as a hazy day rather than the crystal clear fall morning we remember — where's CGI when you need it?), some moments in 'WTC' feel more generic than personal or universal."

I think a big problem with dramatizing events that most if not all of your viewers are likely to remember is that people remember things through the prisms of their own experiences. What they saw meshes with what they were thinking and what they were doing.

And the families are bound to have the most vivid memories of all. Pleasing them must be a nearly impossible objective to achieve.

So I don't fault Stone for failing to live up to their expectations. They want others to feel what they felt, and that is not possible. Only approximations are possible. But isn't that, ultimately, a filmmaker's mission — to make the audiences experience what the characters in the movie experienced?

I'm glad that filmmakers took on the topic of 9/11 quickly. But as I suggested earlier, perhaps they acted too quickly.

Of course, even when Stone has taken on events that were decades removed — "JFK" comes to mind — he has encountered resistance. Even so, there is something to be said for not dramatizing something until a couple of generations have passed.

But I guess that depends on the director, the subject matter and how it is handled. While there were many complaints about Stone's "Nixon," I heard from many people who shared my assessment of Anthony Hopkins' performance in the title role — and we were all old enough to remember Nixon. Hopkins didn't look like Nixon, and he didn't sound like Nixon, but he captured Nixon's persona perfectly.

The characters in "World Trade Center" were not familiar to audiences, only to those who knew the originals, so perhaps the two movies aren't really comparable.

Then again, perhaps Ebert was on to something when he observed that, since the audience was not familiar with the characters, some of the movie's moments felt "more generic than personal or universal."

Is that the fault of the cast or the director? The cast can only work with what it is given in terms of a script and directorial guidance.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

A Dubious Distinction

Ever since Playboy magazine stopped publishing nude centerfolds earlier this year — and even before that — I have seen milestones marked for the publication's centerfold models.

For example, whenever Marilyn Monroe is mentioned, it is almost sure to be observed that she was Playboy's "first playmate of the month" — which, technically, she wasn't. She was the first centerfold, which at that time, I believe, was called "Sweetheart of the Month." Someone else had the distinction of being the first playmate.

Being the first playmate to be or do anything is usually a good thing — but not always.

Marilyn was the first centerfold model to die — but not the first playmate to die. That was Tonya Crews, Miss March of 1961, who died in an automobile accident 50 years ago today.

Crews tends to get overshadowed when the topic of conversation is playmates who died young, especially if 1992 playmate Anna Nicole Smith is part of the discussion.

Part native American, Crews was born in Oklahoma in February 1938. She had just turned 23 when the issue of Playboy containing her centerfold hit the newsstands.

In 2007, following Smith's death, Jessica Gresko of the Associated Press lamented Smith's "exclusive" membership in the club of playmates who didn't live to see their 50th birthdays. Crews, of course, is a charter member of that club.

There have been so many other tragic deaths among the playmates that Crews' death rarely gets mentioned.

But it was 50 years ago today that Crews became the first playmate to die. It's a dubious distinction, but it's one to which she is entitled.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Having Fun With Olivia

Olivia de Havilland, who marked her 100th birthday about three weeks ago, was an astonishingly fortunate woman in her youth.

She was one of those women who always look younger than they are. Now, that is one of those things that most people attempt but few achieve. The ones who manage it seem to do so effortlessly. Perhaps some do. Perhaps others achieve it only after spending several hours working on it every day.

From what I have heard, de Havilland was one of those people who achieved it with no special effort. As a youth, I guess she was a natural beauty. It isn't necessary to guess, though. You can see it for yourself. She was in her early 20s when she made "Gone With the Wind."

She put that trait to good use in "The Ambassador's Daughter," which premiered on this day in 1956. In reality, de Havilland was 39 when the movie was being made — and turned 40 just before its theatrical premiere — but her character was probably in her 20s and, as the title suggested, the daughter of an ambassador (played by Edward Arnold), the ambassador to France to be specific.

A senator from America (Adolphe Menjou) declared Paris off limits to servicemen due to their misbehavior, and de Havilland's character took it upon herself to prove that U.S. servicemen could be gentlemen. She decided to do this by dating a serviceman who would not know her true identity. The serviceman (John Forsythe) was under the impression that she was a model, and he took her to nightclubs and on a humorous excursion to the Eiffel Tower.

There were some moments of deception on both sides.

Forsythe's character offered to buy de Havilland's character an airplane ticket to America when news of an emergency back in the States reached her, and she was suitably impressed — until she learned that counterfeit airplane tickets were a commonplace scam used by U.S. servicemen to score points with girls.

Forsythe, on the other hand, had been told that de Havilland was a Christian Dior fashion model, but when he went looking for her at a Dior fashion show, he discovered that Dior's staff had never heard of her. Then he saw de Havilland watching the show with the senator — and assumed they had some kind of relationship.

Everything got cleared up at the end when the two attended a performance of "Swan Lake."

Myrna Loy as the senator's wife, in a rather understated role for her, joined forces with de Havilland to persuade the senator to lift his ban. Thus, all was well that ended well.

Director Norman Krasna built his reputation in screwball comedies — which would, understandably, make potential viewers think they would be in for an off–the–wall experience with "The Ambassador's Daughter." But they would be wrong. It was a romantic comedy, but that really isn't the same thing. The dynamics of a romantic comedy and a screwball comedy are different — in often subtle ways but still different.

The cast seemed to have a good time, but as for the audience ... I can only guess.

Well, it would be hard not to have a good time watching de Havilland have a good time.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A New Direction for ZZ Top

ZZ Top's "El Loco," which hit music stores this month in 1981, marked a departure from the ZZ Top the band's fans knew and the emergence of a different ZZ Top, a new wave ZZ Top that, starting with this album, used synthesizers on many of its tracks.

That was a rather startling development for fans who had been listening to that little ol' band from Texas for a decade or so.

The most noteworthy difference in the album's production from the ones that preceded it, according to guitarist Billy Gibbons, the band's lead vocalist, was that, for the first time, the three members of the band recorded their parts separately instead of recording together.

By itself, I didn't detect a huge difference in the music because of that tactic. More likely, the synthesizers were responsible for that.

"Tube Snake Boogie" was the biggest hit on the album, climbing to #4 on Billboard's "Mainstream Rock" chart. It was a satirical sort of song, almost like the band was making fun of itself. Still it had more of a traditional ZZ Top sound to it than the first single to be released from the album, "Leila."
"Leila" was a good example of the direction a lot of music would take in the 1980s. It was just never a very good example of ZZ Top music, either before or after.

When I first heard it, I had to look at the album a couple of times to be sure I was listening to ZZ Top. In fact, the first time I heard it I thought it was Christopher Cross. I kid you not.

I didn't have that problem with "Pearl Necklace," which had a decidedly more ZZ Top feel to it.

The double entendres in "Tube Snake Boogie" and "Pearl Necklace" were impossible to miss, even if you didn't know for sure what the lyrics were saying.

And "Pearl Necklace" clearly showed listeners where ZZ Top would be heading with its next album.

Perhaps no other song on the album better exemplified the direction ZZ Top would be taking in future albums than the synthesizer–heavy track "Groovy Little Hippie Pad."

This wasn't your big brother's ZZ Top.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Movie That Was So Bad It Was Good

Do you remember your first brush with blatant propaganda?

That is probably a relevant question to ask in an election year, especially this one, which is sure to see propaganda spewing from both sides at record–shattering rates until November (with the crescendo coming in October).

And, if I could afford to see a psychologist, perhaps he or she could determine precisely when I was first exposed to blatant propaganda. It may well have been a political commercial I saw when I was small.

The when isn't terribly important, I guess. What is important is to be able to recognize it when you come in contact with it, when it first made an impression on you. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to actually come in contact with it. And there are far too many opportunities in life to come in contact with someone with an ax to grind.

That's one of those things, I suppose, that parents would like to spare their children if they could. But they can't. Life is a series of experiences. One cannot live without experiencing the bad along with the good. At least most of us can't.

One cannot really appreciate the good without being able to compare it to the bad, I guess.

"Reefer Madness," which was showing in the theaters in 1936, may have been as bad as it gets — truly worthy of Ed Wood. And yet, in its way, it was good.

Let me explain.

It did not work as an anti–marijuana film; in fact, it made consuming marijuana look like fun. It had laughable dialogue — and a truly absurd premise that marijuana was a narcotic when anyone with eyes to see could tell it was a plant, a weed, so to speak. And the movie totally ignored the fact that products made from cannabis were better in almost every way than their legal counterparts on the marketplace.

"Reefer Madness" focused solely on what it contended were the dire consequences of consuming marijuana. It asserted that marijuana addiction (of which there is no such thing, based on what I have read on the subject) would lead to all sorts of things — death, sexual assault, hallucinations, descent into madness.

Pretty scary stuff.

Or, at least, it would have been scary for audiences in the 1930s, most of whom probably had never heard of marijuana before.

But audiences who saw it 40 or 50 years later, when it made the theatrical rounds as something of a camp classic, were thoroughly amused by it. They couldn't take it seriously.

It must have seemed to audiences in 1936 that every effort was made to present the appearance of a legitimate public service announcement. The opening and closing narrations were given by someone who was — supposedly — a high school principal. It was in the form of a cautionary tale for attendees at a PTA meeting. Thank you, Mr. Principal, for bringing this to our attention.

The story just reeked of insincerity. The initial villains in the story were a young unmarried couple — "living in sin" in the vernacular of the times — who sold marijuana. The young woman preferred to sell to people her own age. Her significant other favored selling to younger folks and made a pitch for a young, innocent high school couple.

After that the story escalated into a tale of hit–and–run driving, manslaughter, suicide, sexual assault — all brought about by marijuana.

It was pretty clear that the makers of the film (it was financed by a church groups) believed marijuana to be a threat. Even though several states have legalized the use of marijuana to an extent, there are still activists who wish to roll back the clock.

They appear to be losing the fight.

Steven Salzberg, writing in Forbes about a recent study in Health Affairs, observed that "[i]n 2013 alone, when 17 states had legalized medical marijuana, Medicare saved over $165 million. A simple extrapolation suggests that if all states legalize marijuana, annual savings could be triple that amount, $500 million."

"Reefer Madness" was intended to preach about the evils of marijuana use, but it made smoking marijuana look fun instead, especially when young people began to realize that all the horror stories they had been told were a lot of hooey.

It even looked a little daring, perhaps defiant, which is always a good selling point for teenagers.

The movie's original title was "Tell Your Children," and it went under more ominous titles in re–releases on the exploitation film circuit in the late 1930s.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Affluenza of Arthur

Arthur (Dudley Moore): Have you ever been on a yacht?

Linda (Liza Minnelli): No. Is it wonderful?

Arthur: It doesn't suck.

I enjoyed "Arthur," the Dudley Moore–Liza Minnelli–Sir John Gielgud comedy that premiered on this day in 1981 — even though my favorite journalism professor, in his own words, "didn't like it worth a damn." That was a bit of a disappointment to me — but not enough to make me change my mind. I still liked the movie.

I've seen it several times since that first time, and I still like it.

It was an unusual tale — yet familiar in its way. Moore played Arthur, a not–so–young heir to his family's fortune, a playboy who got drunk every day, enabled (in a fashion) by Gielgud, who played Arthur's valet Hobson. Minnelli played Arthur's working–class love interest.

Arthur's family wanted him to marry the daughter of one of his father's business associates. When the family learned that Arthur had been seeing this working–class girl and might want to marry her, a campaign against their marriage began. Arthur was told he would lose his inheritance if he married her. His family wanted him to grow up and assume his rightful place in the world. But the childlike Arthur resisted.

Now, at some point in most of our lives, we have been around people who had had too much to drink. Some of us, at some times in our lives, have been that person who had had too much to drink. Whether you are that person or you are in the company of that person, it seems that person truly believes he/she is the wittiest and sexiest person in the room. Anyone who is reasonably sober will be able to tell you that the person is far from being the wittiest or sexiest person in the room.

But somehow, even though he had probably been drinking for decades, Arthur was. I guess it helps when you have a lot of money — and a professional writer creating your dialogue. And, as I say, he was enabled by Hobson, who served him martinis in the bathtub.

I guess that was part of Hobson's job description, but it almost certainly wasn't part of his job description to be sarcastic about nearly every aspect of Arthur's life. Still one suspected that Hobson was fond of Arthur and vice versa. Arthur's family was more interested in wealth and status than Arthur — and Hobson was clearly something of a surrogate father to Arthur.

"Only someone with a heart of stone could fail to love a drunk like Arthur," critic Roger Ebert wrote, and he was right. You had to appreciate Arthur's directness — and he had a profound sense of things.

"Everyone who drinks is not a poet," he said at one point. "Maybe some of us drink because we're not poets."

Arthur's family, as I say, wanted him to marry the daughter of his father's business associate, but Arthur didn't love her. His grandmother advised him to go ahead with the marriage and see his working–class girlfriend on the side. But most evidence to the contrary, Arthur had his principles, one of which was to wed only for love.

And he didn't love Susan (Jill Eikenberry). He loved Linda (Minnelli).

Hobson apparently knew that Arthur would need someone who truly cared for him to look after him. Hobson was dying. I don't think the audience ever knew what was killing him. I don't think the audience ever knew — definitely — that he was dying until he was hospitalized late in the movie. But he had a conversation with Linda in which the fact was more or less confirmed.

Hobson coughed, and Linda said to him, "That sounds bad. Have you seen a doctor?"

"Yes," Hobson replied in his understated that hinted that he knew so much more and added, "and he has seen me."

Later, as I say, Hobson went to the hospital, and Arthur came to visit him. He wanted to cheer Hobson up, but he wanted to do more than that.

He wanted to care for Hobson, the man who had cared for him all his life. It was a craving the audience learned about from what he told Linda at one point.

"I've never taken care of anybody," Arthur told Linda. "Everybody's always taken care of me. But if you got sick, or anything, I'd take care of you."

That was one of Arthur's genuinely introspective moments, and Linda seemed to realize it.

"Then I'll get sick," she told him.

Lately I have been wondering if Arthur was an early victim of affluenza. Perhaps his character drank not because he wasn't a poet but because he didn't know how to care for people as he had been cared for — and it was something he desperately desired.

In hindsight it seems odd to me how relatively unknown Moore was at the time. He had been making movies for 15 years when he made "Arthur," but it had only been his fairly recent parts in "Foul Play" and "10" that made him into something of a household name. In "Foul Play," he played second fiddle to Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. In "10," the star was the voluptuous Bo Derek.

Moore was the star of "Arthur" and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Henry Fonda in "On Golden Pond"). Steve Gordon was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to "Chariots of Fire." There were a lot of good movies in 1981.

Gielgud was nominated for — and won — Best Supporting Actor. And "Arthur's Theme" won Best Original Song.

Two out of four isn't bad.

Sadly, Gordon, who directed the movie, died of a heart attack the following year. My guess is that the sequel to "Arthur," which was made in 1988, would have benefited from having Gordon around to direct and write. As it was the sequel was such a washout that Moore disowned the franchise, and no other sequels were made — thankfully.