Monday, June 04, 2018

The American Dream

I suppose it is a big part of the American dream to build one's dream house, and Cary Grant was no exception in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," which premiered on this day in 1948.

But the American dream can come at a pretty steep price, even in 1948.

Which raises an important point. It is critical to keep in mind the difference between financial amounts in 1948 and comparable amounts seven decades later. Those amounts in 1948 were roughly one–tenth what they are today. For example, in the movie Grant's job paid him $15,000 a year, which sounds like poverty wages, but it was enough to support a family of four. In 2018, the same job probably would pay $150,000.

But be it 1948 or 2018, it is easy to become overwhelmed by that money thing, and Mr. Blandings soon learned how expensive renovating a home can be. To renovate the home he and his wife (Myrna Loy) had chosen easily exceeded a year's income when all the family's needs were addressed.

And that didn't include issues with his best friend, played by Melvyn Douglas.

In all, it was an entertaining movie in that "Holiday Inn" mold.

Friday, June 01, 2018

One Man's Life

"We've become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there's nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn't always Shakespeare, but it's genuine. It's a life."

Christof (Ed Harris)

Imagine, if you will, that your life is actually a television show — a hit show, at that — and everyone knows it except you.

At least at first.

But slowly it dawned on Truman (Jim Carrey) that he was denied the free will that others enjoyed, that everything about his life was being manipulated beyond his control. He couldn't marry the girl he wanted to marry (Natascha McElhone). Instead he was paired with Laura Linney, a cast member on the show who, like everyone but Truman, was in on the story.

The show was created by a fellow named Christof (Ed Harris), who also had to create the circumstances that inevitably kept Truman, an insurance sales executive, in a place called Seaside. It had millions of viewers, some of whom kept their televisions on all night to watch Truman as he slept.

"It's clever the way he's kept on his island by implanted traumas about travel and water," film critic Roger Ebert observed. That is certainly true, especially in the fact that Truman's true love was spirited away to Fiji — and he had been conditioned to fear water because Christof had manipulated the early scripts so Truman's father would drown in a storm.

In many ways, I believe no one but Carrey could plausibly portray Truman, especially since so many of us have become voyeurs in our viewing habits.

But the more one watches "The Truman Show," which premiered 20 years ago today, the less one can avoid the obvious question — how much of it is real?

The answer, I think, is all of it — but not in a way that viewers expect.

"The Truman Show" was an unassuming flick, thought provoking on many levels, well done and creative. Two decades later it is still worth seeing.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Coming Home After WWII

A dear friend of mine (now deceased) was a big fan of Clark Gable, and I am sure she saw most of the movies he made — especially "Gone With the Wind," which was one of her favorite books as well. In fact, she spoke so highly of it that I purchased a paperback copy of the book when we were in high school. That book still has a spot on my bookshelf. I expect it to still be in my possession when I die.

I have no idea, though, whether my friend ever saw Mervyn LeRoy's "Homecoming," which premiered in May 1948.

If she didn't, she probably saw movies that were similar. There has never been a shortage of soap operaesque movies coming from Hollywood, and "Homecoming" really went the extra mile in that regard. Seldom did "Homecoming" fail to apply a cliché to its storyline.

The acting was good in spite of the material.

Gable played a surgeon returning to America from World War II. Ordinarily, he was a tough guy in his movies, but he was unusually sensitive in this one. Perhaps that was a result of Gable losing his own wife, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash six years earlier. Maybe that sensitized his performances in the years after Lombard's death, especially his performance in "Homecoming."

In "Homecoming," he played a surgeon who went to war not so much out of a sense of patriotism but a sense of duty. His real loyalty was to his wife (Anne Baxter) at home, but that loyalty was severely tested when he experienced a growing passion for his nurse (Lana Turner).

It was long rumored that Gable had been having an affair with Turner at the time of Lombard's death. I don't know if there was any truth to that rumor. I do know that, while Turner was regarded as a great beauty, she played a decidedly unglamorous role in "Homecoming."

Of course, that may just be my personal opinion in the context of the film. Turner was always beautiful, but she seemed ignorant of that fact in "Homecoming."

Turner's character was the tough one, the one who knew what was best for all concerned. Gable was obsessed with himself.

"Homecoming" was worth seeing because of Turner's performance. She didn't always play the tough one, but in this movie she did, and it benefited from that performance.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Turning to the Bard

I like comedy.

Given a choice, I would prefer to watch a sitcom on TV than any other kind of show. Being a writer myself, I appreciate the well–crafted dialogue that is the hallmark of truly great comedy. But if the show is not a sitcom and it tries to do a crossover, it usually falls flat.

That was the problem for Twilight Zone on a few occasions. It was designed to be a dramatic program, and its comedy episodes generally did not work. A case in point is "The Bard," which first aired 55 years ago tomorrow night.

It was written by series creator Rod Serling and served as the finale for the fourth season. It was also Twilight Zone's final one–hour episode; the fifth season marked a return to the half–hour format. As I have mentioned on this blog, there were some excellent episodes in the one–hour format. "The Bard" was not one of them.

Jack Weston, whose work I usually enjoy, was a streetcar conductor–turned–aspiring TV screenwriter whose efforts kept getting rejected by TV executives. He was a shameless — and talentless — self–promoter who jumped at a chance to write a screenplay about black magic — even though he had no knowledge of black magic.

To make up for this deficiency he went to a bookstore in search of a book about black magic — and one literally flew off the shelves. It was loaded with spells, and Weston took it home with him. With the help of the book, Weston conjured up William Shakespeare (John Williams), who offered his services, and Weston took him up on it, intending to pass off Shakespeare's work as his own.

Well, that was the plot in a nutshell.

Weston's play was accepted for production on a weekly TV playhouse program, and he was invited to appear on a program that featured all the hottest names in the industry.

But there were problems afoot, chiefly with Shakespeare, who resented not receiving credit for his considerable contributions. He agreed to stay until he had had a chance to assess the performances of the cast in a rehearsal the next day.

One of those cast members was Burt Reynolds.

Reynolds is known today as a movie actor, but in 1963 his experience was exclusively in television. His was not a new face — but it was a somewhat familiar face, having appeared in nearly two dozen TV series, almost always as a guest star.

He was a guest star in "The Bard," playing — fittingly — an actor named Rocky Rhodes, and he kept making noises about his "motivation."

It was all too much for Shakespeare, who decked Rhodes with a right cross and walked out on the rehearsal.

That was a bit awkward for Weston, who had already been given his next assignment — an extensive program on American history. To meet it he conjured up several figures from American history — folks like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas and others.

Revelations of a First Love

"First loves are always the same and always different," Roger Ebert wrote after French film "Blue Is the Warmest Color" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival five years ago on May 23. That may be the most truthful statement Ebert ever wrote.

I experienced my first real love when I was 17, which is roughly the age of Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), but it was not as confusing as Adèle's experience. I knew I was attracted to the opposite sex. Adèle did not, and she experimented with a young man from her school but found that unsatisfying.

Then, after sharing a kiss with a female student and fantasizing about an older girl with blue hair whose name, the audience would learn, was Emma (Léa Seydoux), she began to question her sexuality. The movie was about the relationship between Adèle and Emma — told, as Ebert wrote, in "epic detail."

It had to be told that way, I suppose, because, by their very nature, same–sex relationships are learn–as–you–go types of things. There is no shortage of advice books about heterosexual relationships because the vast majority of relationships are heterosexual. When I was a teenager — and I presume it is still that way — there were few if any books on same–sex relationships that could answer the myriad of questions that accompany them.

Emma was more experienced than Adèle and had already found answers to her questions. In fact, when Adèle first encountered Emma, Emma was with another female and, the audience would learn, had had previous same–sex relationships.

As Ebert said, first loves are always the same and always different. In the unlikely event that the viewer had not experienced a first love, there is much truth in that. To tell the story of a first love, it is necessary, as Ebert observed, to do so in "epic detail."

That includes all the awkward moments and the sexual exploration, which are the same for all and yet different. Awkward moments will always be awkward, and — considering how much of the population is estimated to be heterosexual — it must be a real challenge for homosexuals when it comes to those initial sexual experiences.

I remember when I was a teenager, and all the males in my junior high were herded into the auditorium for a lecture on sex. The emphasis was entirely on heterosexual sex. I presume it was the same for the girls. Those students who were homosexuals — or, at least, had concluded that they had homosexual tendencies — probably found those assemblies boring — as, I am sure, any heterosexually active students, did.

The assemblies really only addressed the physical aspects of sexual relationships, not the emotional ones.

I was one of the rare ones, I guess. When I was in junior high, my sexual activity was, at best, flirtation with girls I found attractive. Even through my high school years, it never went any further than that.

Which proves Ebert's point. Many of my classmates — I didn't know which ones then, and I don't know today, either — had already engaged in some sexual experimentation, even if they hadn't yet experienced their first loves.

I was very naive as a boy. I tended to believe just about anything my classmates told me, assuming they had more experience than I did, and teenage boys are always eager to take credit for sexual exploits whether they happened or not. Looking back, I would have to say that my faith was misplaced. Most probably had the same experience level I did — although everyone's experiences are different.

Anyway, to a certain extent, I suppose some critics' complaints that "Blue Is the Warmest Color" was a pornographic film were justified. There was considerable nudity in the movie. And some critics complained that it was pedophilic, given the fact that Adèle was under 18.

But it had to be that way because most people, it seems to me, have their first sexual experiences in their teen years. Sometimes they are 18 or older, but often they are not. I wasn't.

I knew a girl in college who suspected, back in high school, that she was homosexual, but she didn't have her first physical homosexual experience until she was over 18.

Like Ebert said: "First loves are always the same and always different."

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.