Monday, May 21, 2018

Positive Propaganda

"Let me tell you something about my iron nerve, son. It's made of rubber, just like everybody else's, so it'll stretch when you need it. You know, people got a funny idea that being brave is not being scared. But I don't know. I always figured that if you weren't scared, there was nothing to be brave about. The trick is how much scaring you can take."

Humphrey Bogart

When one hears the word propaganda, the initial response tends to be negative, I suppose. But that really depends on which side of the fence you occupy.

In the case of "Action in the North Atlantic," which premiered on this day in 1943, it is a positive thing, telling the story of the Merchant Marines and their contribution to the Allied war effort during World War II.

In 1943, of course, the war was raging, and the outcome was far from inevitable.

First–time viewers may be startled by the realism of the movie, given the fact that it was made long before computer–generated graphics came along. The black–and–white photography is a giveaway, though.

The title was certainly no exaggeration with Humphrey Bogart's tanker being hit by a torpedo from an enemy sub in the first 15 minutes — and the action kept on coming.

Well, actually, it wasn't just Bogart's tanker. Bogie was the ship's first mate. Raymond Massey played its captain. Bogart, Massey and the other survivors bobbed around in the sea for 11 days before being rescued.

But the lure of the sea was too strong. The only home the seamen knew was their ship; when their ship was sunk, they felt compelled to find a new one, and before long they were on their way back to the North Atlantic.

Their ship was part of a convoy taking supplies to Russian allies. After it was attacked and essentially crushed by German submarines, Bogart played an important leadership role.

There were many movies made about World War II — and many were made while the war was still being fought.

As far as I am concerned, the best part of "Action in the North Atlantic" was that it premiered less than 1½ years after the U.S. entered the war — so its makers felt obliged to remind viewers why America was involved. It's a good history lesson — and a reminder of what America has fought for over the years.

At the Academy Awards, Guy Gilpatric, on whose novel the movie was based, was nominated for Best Original Motion Picture Story — but William Saroyan won the Oscar for "The Human Comedy."

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Final Episode of Cheers!

Twenty–five years ago tonight, Cheers! concluded its lengthy run on TV with "One For the Road."

The episode managed to tie up some loose ends rather nicely — and earned a viewership for a series finale that is still second only to the legendary final episode of MASH.

Even Diane (Shelley Long) came back — and it was truly clever the way the show's writers achieved it. Diane, a longtime barmaid and long–winded intellectual, was being honored for her writing by the Cable Ace Awards, and the males at Cheers were tuned in to watch for glimpses of the cleavage of attractive presenters. They were all stunned to see Diane win — especially her on–again off–again beau Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and Carla (Rhea Perlman), her nemesis at Cheers who could only live with what she was seeing by persuading herself that she must be hallucinating.

Subplots included the installation of Woody (Woody Harrelson) as a Boston councilman and Cliff's (John Ratzenberger) desire for a promotion.

Sam decided it would be a civilized gesture to send Diane a telegram congratulating her on her triumph, never dreaming that she would call to thank him for it. In the course of their conversation, Diane revealed that she was married with three children. Sam tried to top her by inventing a wife and four children.

Then he made his mistake. When Diane told him that he would like her husband, Sam told her to bring him by the bar if she was ever in Boston. He didn't think she would ever show up in Boston, but she did, and Sam had to persuade Diane's replacement, Rebecca (Kirstie Alley), to pose as his wife. It was the only time that Diane and Rebecca appeared together in a Cheers! episode.

It also turned out that Sam and Diane had been lying. Rebecca's former lover interrupted their lunch with a proposal, which she accepted; then they left the restaurant. Not long after that the lunch was interrupted again by the male lover of Diane's husband, who confronted him in the dining room and then stormed out. Diane's husband followed. After the alleged spouses had left the restaurant, Sam and Diane were free to explore the truth with each other — and they decided to get back together.

Their announcement of their reunion was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Cheers regulars, who remembered all too well how things had been when Sam and Diane were together before.

Sam and Diane had second thoughts aboard the plane when Sam thought the pilot was speaking directly to him over the P.A. system, and Diane likewise thought a stewardess was speaking to her. They had a change of heart as the plane returned to the terminal.

So Sam returned to the bar, and Diane returned to Los Angeles — alone.

At the bar, Sam had a memorable conversation with the Cheers gang about love and the meaning of life over some Cuban cigars. When I think of that conversation, even now, I remember Cliff and his assessment of what is really important in life — comfortable shoes.

But I also think of Norm (George Wendt), who told Sam after all the others had left that it didn't what or who one loved as long as it was an unconditional love.

That's an important point — that one must love whatever is most important unconditionally — that was made so effortlessly it took one's breath away.

Or maybe that was the result of uncontrollable laughter.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A 50-Foot Woman Scorned

Around the time of the Three–Mile Island nuclear accident, Saturday Night Live did a skit called "The Pepsi Syndrome."

It was a takeoff on the movie "The China Syndrome," which had been in theaters for about two weeks when the accident occurred and was said to have foretold the events at Three–Mile Island, but when I saw the original "Attack of the 50–Foot Woman," which debuted on this day in 1958, I concluded that the skit must have been partially inspired by that movie.

(I suppose you could also make a case for "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" as an inspiration for the skit — except it wouldn't be in theaters for nearly 10 years. A remake of "Attack of the 50–Foot Woman," starring Daryl Hannah, arrived in theaters in December 1993.)

Anyway, in the skit, Dan Aykroyd played President Carter, who was visiting the site, and Garrett Morris played a female maintenance worker at the facility. Both were exposed to radioactivity and grew to about 100 feet tall.

The independently made "Attack of the 50–Foot Woman" was similar in the sense that it was about a normal–sized woman who grew to 50 feet — after an encounter with an alien, not a nuclear accident. That wasn't an entirely new concept — except that all the previous films about gargantuan people that I can recall starred men. As far as I know, this was the first time a woman starred in such a story.

Nuclear power was still rather new in 1958, and it was probably still considered too futuristic to plausibly use even as the cause of such a bizarre growth spurt. Nevertheless radiation was introduced as a possible culprit in the story.

Alien encounters were pretty futuristic in those days, too, I suppose, but they were probably easier for audiences to understand.

Anyway, Allison Hayes played the title role in the 1958 version, but she didn't begin the movie as a 50–foot woman. She was an affluent alcoholic trapped in a bad marriage with a philandering husband who was only with her for her money. Nothing new about that plot angle.

She was out driving in the desert one night — which would also be implausible if the story were not set in the California desert (presumably not far from the infamous Area 51, which has figured prominently for years in tales of UFO activity) — when she encountered a glowing sphere and drove her car off the road.

Well, thanks to her alien encounter, Hayes' character grew to an enormous height, and she set out on a mission to avenge herself.

Ed Wood had a well–deserved reputation for making bad sci–fi movies, but "Attack of the 50–Foot Woman" may have been the worst of the non–Ed Wood projects. The title was cheesy enough to be from Wood's portfolio, and the special effects weren't even up to his standards.

But it was one of those movies that was so bad it was good, you know? Sometimes kitschy is all right.

Nevertheless, I preferred the remake — which is something I almost never say. The '93 version had a script that had more of a feminist slant (I suppose feminism wasn't a factor in the '50s), and it was more clever besides.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

An Unexpected Party Guest

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Murderers on death row can find women to marry them! I can't find one to sit through coffee with me!

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): It's easy for those men to attract women. They have all that time to work out in the yard.

Perhaps the worst–kept secret on the Frasier show was the fact that the Crane brothers, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce), led star–crossed love lives — except that, unlike Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it didn't apply merely to one lover but to all.

Not so with Roz (Peri Gilpin). She had a very active love life — and, in the episode that first aired on this night in 1998, "Life of the Party," Roz's sex life had caught up to her.

It had been established earlier in the Frasier timeline that Roz was pregnant. It was on this night 20 years ago that Roz's baby made her first appearance.

The occasion was a singles–only party that Niles and Frasier were throwing at Niles' place. It had been suggested by their father Martin (John Mahoney). When he was young, he told his sons, he and his buddies threw such parties — frequently — when they were hard up for dates.

At first Niles and Frasier weren't too keen on the idea — but then Martin announced that he had a new 10,000–piece jigsaw puzzle called "The Wheatfield." The brothers suddenly became more open to the idea.

Martin was one of the attendees, but, acting on Daphne's advice (Jane Leeves), he had dyed his hair to appear younger — and was under the impression that his efforts were succeeding.

But then at the party, the dye job began to drip, and Martin left a large stain on one of Niles' chairs.

Turned out Martin had used shoe polish instead of hair dye.

As far as Niles and Frasier were concerned, the party had had its desired effect, and both had met someone they wanted to date. Trouble was that it was the same person.

So they spent much of the episode vying for this woman's attention.

But then things were interrupted because Roz went into labor — right there in the middle of the party — and the Cranes took her to the hospital. As they sat in the waiting room, they bickered — stopping only to wish Roz the best as the hospital staff wheeled her to the delivery room. As soon as she disappeared, the bickering resumed.

Then when the delivery was over, they went into Roz's room to see the baby.

The baby, Roz told them, would be named Alice — and Alice would be a fixture on Frasier in the years to come.

Monday, May 07, 2018

When the President's Daughter Went Missing

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen): Would you consider, instead of living in France with your boyfriend for three months, staying here, living in your room and being a candy striper or surfing?

Zoey (Elisabeth Moss): A candy striper?

President Bartlet: Or surfing. You could spend the summer working in a pet shop. We could play Yahtzee and watch movies at night.

Zoey: Dad, what fantasy is it that's going through your head right now?

President Bartlet: What daughters would do their whole lives if I had my way.

For most families, college commencement is a great occasion — a time of pride in the accomplishment of one of their own.

It is sure to be the same for a president's family — but with the added anxiety that comes whenever someone from the first family is involved. There is always a chance, however slim it may be, that something will happen to the graduate.

I don't know how many children of sitting presidents have graduated from college in our history, but I do know that nothing has happened to mar those occasions. They have all gone off as smooth as clockwork.

Such was not the case in the episode of West Wing that first aired on this night in 2003, "Commencement." The president's youngest daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), was graduating from Georgetown University, and her father (Martin Sheen) was to deliver an address at commencement. He was still wrestling with what to say when the big day arrived.

And there were a lot of other things going on. Toby (Richard Schiff) and his ex–wife were expecting a baby at any time, and Toby wanted them to remarry. He wanted it so much he had taken the step of investing in a house that his ex had told him was her dream home.

Primarily, though, Washington Post reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) had gotten wind of something the president really wanted to keep under wraps — the fact that, one year prior, he had ordered the assassination of the defense minister of a fictional Middle Eastern country who had been planning terrorist acts against the United States — among them destroying the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the time, the White House had manipulated news flow to bolster the impression that the United States had not been involved. That had eroded considerably, though.

Of course, there was also the matter of finding a replacement for the vice president, who had just resigned.

If that seems implausible, remember that within a decade of the passage of the 25th Amendment, which provided a procedure for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency, that procedure would be used not once but twice. It hasn't been used since, but odds are that it will one day. Nevertheless, no one thought back in 1967 that it would be used in 1973, when Gerald Ford was selected to replace Spiro Agnew, and 1974, when Nelson Rockefeller was chosen to replace Ford after Ford became president.

History is like that. When one event occurs, people know it probably will play a role in another event, but they never know how soon that will be. The Kennedy assassination in 1963 was the catalyst for the 25th Amendment. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, served with no vice president for more than a year — until he had won the 1964 election with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate.

Humphrey, therefore, was the occupant of the vice presidency when the 25th Amendment was approved, and few people probably thought there was a need for it. After all, the nation had been through such periods before, but the 25th Amendment spelled out that procedure — along with providing a line of succession.

Back to the West Wing timeline, which dealt with the 25th Amendment in the last episode of the 2002–2003 season.

Fast forward a year. Five suspected terrorists who had been under surveillance had disappeared, and the feds were under heightened alert.

Thrown into the mix was the fact that Zoey was planning to leave for France after commencement to spend three months in the French countryside.

But she never got there. At a party on graduation night, she was abducted and one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect her was shot and killed.

West Wing had a reputation for being "The Left Wing" for its political slant, but the truth was that it was extraordinarily realistic. Even conservatives had to concede that.

And while it may seem unlikely that a president's child could become ensnared in a global political situation such as the one depicted 15 years ago tonight, it is really no less likely than many of the things we have witnessed in our nation's history.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Bruce Hornsby's Encore

An old friend gave me a cassette tape of the first CD from Bruce Hornsby and the Range, and I thoroughly enjoyed it — so much that, in fact, after "Scenes From the Southside" hit the music stores on this day in 1988, I bought it without hearing a single track from it.

I was rewarded handsomely. I believed then — and I still believe — that it was better than that first album.

Actually, I guess that is a little misleading. I didn't purchase the album the day it came out. That came a couple of months later.

But it is true that I hadn't heard any tracks from the album before I bought it, not even on the radio. I saw it on display racks whenever I went to stores where records were sold — and the desire for it grew.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be "Look Out Any Window," but that was probably more because of the circumstances.

As I have written here before, "Scenes From the Southside" was the album I listened to the most after I moved from Arkansas, where I had spent most of my life, to Texas, where I enrolled in graduate school. I was eagerly anticipating that experience, but my thoughts were preoccupied with the friends I had left behind.

I was also preoccupied with thoughts of a girl with whom I was infatuated. She was a waitress in a Little Rock restaurant, and "Till the Dreaming's Done" always made me think of her.

I saw relevance in each song to my life in those days. I had many dreams, and there were many lessons to be learned, both in and out of the classroom. I believed my future held great things for me.

I'm still waiting for the great things I thought would come — and may never come — but, in the words of another song from "Scenes From the Southside," the show goes on.

There may yet be great things in store for me.

But as I look back, I know that there have already been some great things in my life. They may not have been what I expected or hoped for, but hasn't it been your experience that they seldom are?

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Story of The Iceman

"I don't kill women and children."

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon)

Based on what I knew about hitman Richard Kuklinski before I saw the movie based on his life story, "The Iceman," which premiered in Lebanon on this day in 2013, I assumed his nickname was due to his demeanor.

That was a reasonable assumption, given that Kuklinski seemed to have ice water running through his veins. He was said to have killed more than 100 people — and showed no emotion when doing so — before he was taken into custody.

In truth, though, Kuklinski earned that nickname because of his proclivity for freezing victims to obscure the times of their deaths. But he did have his standards. He wouldn't kill women and children.

Michael Shannon, who played Kuklinski, is a large man, but he isn't as imposing as the character he portrayed. Kuklinski stood 6'5" and weighed in at 270 pounds — and, while technically regarded as a contract killer, he was also considered a serial killer because many of his murders were carried out on his own initiative with little or no input from anyone else.

Kuklinski was also a secretive sort whose double life was never suspected by his family. His wife (Winona Ryder) never seemed to suspect a thing, even when his behavior at home became erratic. In fact, his job was dubbing movies, and his wife and family believed he dubbed Disney movies when, in fact, he dubbed porn movies.

He claimed that his first murder occurred when he was little more than a boy himself, about 12 or 13. His first victim was alleged to have been a neighborhood boy who had taunted him.

The movie never mentioned that — or any of the killings Kuklinski was said to have carried out on his own. It suggested that his first murder was of a random homeless man at the insistence of a crime boss played by Ray Liotta.

Whether that was true or not, I don't know.

There were certainly times when the violence in "The Iceman" seemed gratuitous, over the top. But that was how he lived his life, how he conducted his business.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Was There Life on Mars?

Matthew Perry only made three appearances on West Wing as Joe Quincy, the new deputy counsel. His second appearance was on this night in 2003 — ostensibly his first day on the job. He interviewed for the job in the previous week's episode; while he wasn't actually hired in that episode, it was strongly implied that he would be. In November 2003 he made his final appearance on the show, approaching the chief justice, who was in poor health, about stepping down.

On this night in 2003, Perry's character did a little detective work that ended up bringing down the vice president (Tim Matheson). The whole thing got started because the veep had been having an affair with a prominent reporter who had been an anonymous source for the Washington Post's science editor that the White House was concealing a report that supposedly indicated that there may have been, at some time, life on Mars.

This report would have been under the supervision of the vice president, but classifying the report would have been the responsibility of the Department of Defense.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Well, that was C.J.'s (Allison Janney) initial response, too.

But, as the audience learned later in the episode, the vice president was one of those guys who like to brag to come across as more important. Seems sort of unnecessary for a man who has risen to the position of vice president. It's also a bit naive for a man who participated in two national political campaigns as well as however many races for office in his home state to be telling something like that to a reporter, even — or perhaps especially — one with whom he was intimate.

This reporter, by the way, had just been the recipient of a seven–figure book deal.

Perry started putting tidbits of information together, then discovered in the White House telephone logs records of numerous conversations between the vice president and this reporter. He brought this to C.J.'s attention, and she recognized the severity of the situation.

That led to a visit to the vice president's office from C.J., Joe Quincy, Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Toby (Richard Schiff). In this meeting, the vice president learned what those four already knew and was advised to talk things over with his family.

Whether he actually did meet with his family was only implied in his answer to a question from the president, who asked if he had spoken with his wife. He did, however, meet with the president (Martin Sheen) and the chief of staff (John Spencer), both of whom urged him to weather the storm.

But he would have none of it. He had decided to resign because he didn't want his family to be exposed to the mudfight that would follow.

West Wing fans may have thought they had heard the last from the vice president. Not so. He would return as a candidate for the presidential nomination in a few years.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Niles and Daphne's First Date

Everyone knew that Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was infatuated with Daphne (Jane Leeves).

Well, everyone, that is, except Daphne.

In the early seasons of Frasier, Niles' efforts to be close to Daphne were largely treated as unfulfilled fantasies since he was married to the never–seen Maris. But by this point in the series, his marriage was effectively (but not legally) over.

And in the episode that first aired on this night in 1998 — "First Date" — Niles had decided to ask Daphne out for the first time. They had already had some dates, you might say, but they weren't treated as such — just as occasions when they found themselves alone together.

In this episode, though, Niles was determined to ask Daphne on a formal date — but when the moment of truth arrived, he simply couldn't do it.

But he spoke about it endlessly with Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), and Daphne walked in on them a few times, which made Niles antsy about what she had heard and hadn't heard. Turned out that she had heard that Niles wanted to ask someone out, but she didn't hear who.

Whether he was bashful or simply conditioned by years of unrequited love, Niles probably would have been happy to let the matter slide — but Daphne kept pressing him to confide his secret crush — and he seemed about to oblige on several occasions.

That was something he could not bring himself to do, though, no matter how much he wanted to date Daphne.

In the end, though, he pretended to be attracted to a woman in his building, and Daphne urged him to ask her for a date. When she wouldn't give up, Niles decided to fake it to satisfy her. He told Daphne he knew this woman's work number and pretended to call her — but he really called his home number and spoke into the answering machine.

The dinner date he made was for that evening — but, of course, there was no dinner date, and the next thing the audience saw was Niles lounging in his home wearing his bathrobe. Daphne came by, explaining that she had been running some errands and picked up something for dessert. She took it to the kitchen, intending to put it in the refrigerator, but she was stopped in her tracks when she saw that no dinner preparations were underway.

So she took charge, fashioning a dinner from items she found in Niles' refrigerator, believing that he was going to be hosting an evening meal for a woman with whom he was in love — when, in fact, Daphne was the woman of Niles' dreams.

One of the best scenes in this — or any — Frasier episode came when Niles and Daphne were chopping vegetables for the salad. After observing that they were chopping in rhythm, Niles began singing "Heart and Soul" in time with their chopping.

That, of course, had multiple meanings. For Niles, it was a description of his reality. For Daphne, it was a pleasant song — but probably nothing more.

In the end, Niles invited Daphne to stay and have dinner with him — and their first date really was a date after all.

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.