Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Spend the New Year in the Twilight Zone

Are you looking for something to do on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day?

For several years now, I've spent much of the holiday watching the Sci-Fi Channel's "Twilight Zone" marathon — which Sci-Fi does twice a year, actually, around the New Year's holiday and the July 4 holiday.

Typically, it's two days and two nights of Rod Serling and the original "Twilight Zone" episodes. Occasionally, it's been for three days — depending on when the holiday falls in the calendar, I suppose — but this time it's two days.

It's a significant time to hold a "Twilight Zone" marathon. The year 2009 is the 50th anniversary of the debut of that series — although the Fourth of July marathon will fall closer to the actual anniversary of its debut, which is in September.

But that's a technicality. The fact is it's been half a century since the "Twilight Zone" first appeared on America's TV screens — and what the episodes lack in color and special effects, they more than make up for in the quality of writing, acting and directing.

And, as my brother and I have observed so often, it's a great way to see many stars who were still learning their craft. Robert Redford, for example, was an early guest star on the show. So was Dick York — who later was the first Darrin on "Bewitched." So were Cloris Leachman, William Shatner, Cliff Robertson, Buddy Ebsen and lots of character actors you might recognize from movies and other TV series.

Burgess Meredith wasn't exactly starting his career when he was on the "Twilight Zone" — but he appeared in four of the episodes that are regarded as classics today.

Since this marathon comes at the start of the 50th year since the show first went on the air, I thought I'd do a little research.

A television website, TV.com, allows visitors to register and then rate episodes for every TV show that's ever been on the air. The ratings are updated daily to account for the previous day's visitors and their ratings, but it's a pretty good way to see how fans of a particular show feel about a specific episode.

Anyway, after locating the schedule for this week's marathon, I looked at TV.com to see how many of the Top 50 episodes were scheduled to be shown. I found that 14 of the Top 50 episodes (according to the ratings on that day — they may change before the marathon begins at 7 a.m. Central on Wednesday) were not scheduled to be shown. Of those 14, four were an hour long — as opposed to the 30-minute episodes that were produced in most of the five years the show was on the air.

However, the top 10 episodes will be shown.
  1. The show currently rated as the best by visitors to TV.com is "The Eye of the Beholder," from November 1960. You might recognize one of the stars of the show — Donna Douglas, who later became Elly Mae on "The Beverly Hillbillies." You can see it on Sci-Fi at 7 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday.

  2. The episode that is currently judged the second best is "The Midnight Sun," which tells the tale of a change in earth's orbit that draws the planet closer and closer to the sun. It stars Lois Nettleton, who died earlier this year, and you can see it at 10:30 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday. It was originally aired in November 1961.

  3. The third-best episode was "A Stop at Willoughby," first shown in May 1960. James Daly starred in it, and Serling said it was his favorite episode from the first season. You can watch it on Sci-Fi at 10 p.m. (Central) on Thursday.

  4. The fourth-best episode was "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You," from January 1964. Personally, I never had that much regard for it, but I can appreciate the moral of the story — "being like everybody is the same as being nobody." It will be shown at 3:30 p.m. (Central) on Thursday.

  5. "To Serve Man" is the fifth-best episode, according to TV.com, and it's always been one of my favorites. It's the one about aliens coming to earth and appearing benevolent at first — but what they're really looking for is a new food source. You can see it at 9 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday.

  6. The sixth-best episode is "The After Hours," another episode from the first season. First aired in June 1960, it wasn't one of my favorites. It's about store mannequins who come to life and take turns leaving the store each month to live among the living. You can see it at 11:30 p.m. (Central) on Thursday.

  7. Next in the Top 10 is "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" — in which a hobo, clown, bagpipe player, ballerina and military officer find themselves trapped together. It will be shown at 11 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday.

  8. The eighth-best episode is "It's a Good Life," which will be shown at 10:30 p.m. (Central) on Thursday. It's about a little boy who can read the minds of the people in his small town and make them do what he wants them to do. I'm sure you'll recognize many of the people in this episode. Billy Mumy, who plays the little boy, went on to enjoy a successful TV career. So did Cloris Leachman.

  9. The ninth-best episode is "The Masks," the story of a dying, wealthy man whose family, eager to grab his possessions when he dies, visits him on his deathbed. The story takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and the man instructs his family to wear specially prepared masks which, unknown to them, have very unusual powers. It will be shown at 9:30 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday.

  10. The tenth-best episode, "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" is from the second season. A group of bus travelers are standed in a roadside diner by a snowstorm. While stranded, they determine that one of them must be an alien — but no one knows who it is. It will be shown at 8 p.m. (Central) on Wednesday.
Many great episodes are being shown over the two days.

Enjoy the shows and have a happy new year.

Mentor to Eric Clapton Dies

If you're an admirer of the music of Eric Clapton, you may be aware of Delaney Bramlett, a singer and songwriter who influenced people like George Harrison, Leon Russell, Duane Allman and J.J. Cale during his career.

Then again, you might not. His was not a household name. But he was well known in musical circles.

Bramlett died of complications from gall bladder surgery on Saturday. He was 69.

Clapton always credited Bramlett with pushing him toward a musical career. Bramlett taught Harrison how to play the slide guitar, a skill that was partially responsible for the composition of "My Sweet Lord," one of Harrison's best-selling songs as either a solo artist or a member of the Beatles.

And Bramlett collaborated with many of the most talented performers of his time — writing songs with, recording with and/or performing on stage with the likes of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Everly Brothers and Joe Cocker, among others.

More than 40 years ago, Bramlett met Bonnie Lynn O'Farrell, a member of the backup singing group for Ike and Tina Turner. Less than a week later, they married and formed a musical act called "Delaney & Bonnie & Friends," where many of rock's icons, including Clapton, began their careers.

The act didn't last, but the influence did.

Jason Ankeny of Allmusic.com aptly described their music as "equal parts blue-eyed soul, blues, country, and gospel." That sound can be heard in the music of nearly all his contemporaries.

Thanks, Delaney. Rest in peace.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Beethoven Bicentennial

Today is the 200th anniversary of the premiere of one of the most popular and most recognizable compositions in classical music — Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

The symphony made its debut at a marathon, four-hour concert of Beethoven's compositions at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Although his hearing was getting worse, Beethoven directed the concert, which included his Fifth and Sixth symphonies (performed in reverse order) and a couple of piano performances by Beethoven himself.

The Fifth Symphony has already earned an important spot in world history. It has a distinctive four-note opening motif that was used during World War II as the intro for the BBC's radio newscasts because it suggests Morse code for the letter "V" — for victory.

Robert Mulligan Dies

I am profoundly sorry this morning to report the passing of Robert Mulligan, a film director and producer. Mulligan, 83, died of heart disease.

Many people, including my brother and my late mother, probably were more familiar with the work of his brother Richard, who was Burt on the TV series "Soap," but Mulligan directed some of my favorite films.

With his production partner, Alan Pakula, Mulligan was responsible for "Fear Strikes Out," the true story of baseball's Jimmy Piersall, and the classic film "To Kill a Mockingbird."

After splitting with Pakula, Mulligan directed the coming-of-age story "Summer of '42"; the Alan Alda-Ellen Burstyn comedy "Same Time, Next Year"; and his final effort, 1991's "The Man in the Moon," which was the debut of actress Reese Witherspoon.

He hadn't directed anything in nearly 20 years, but Mulligan will be missed by those who love good movies.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Saturday Night Was 'Must-See TV' in the 1970s

In recent years, television's no-man's land has been Saturday night. None of the Top 20 programs occupy a Saturday evening time slot.

But 35 years ago, Saturday night was "must-see TV" before such a thing existed.

Perhaps more people were staying home in those days.

The country was in the midst of a recession that was brought on in large part by the OPEC oil crisis of 1973. As a result, oil prices quadrupled.

And there was a lot of drama playing out on America's TVs in early 1974.

President Nixon and Congress were engaged in a tug-of-war over the White House tapes. Nixon even referred to it in his State of the Union address in late January, declaring, "One year of Watergate is enough."

Anyway, let's take a look at a Saturday night nearly 35 years ago — Feb. 9, 1974.

On Monday, Feb. 4, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, launching a real-life drama that went on for more than a year.

The Saturday after Hearst was abducted, Americans settled in for an evening of classic entertainment on CBS.

The evening began with what is now regarded as a classic episode from the No. 1-rated program in television, "All in the Family," called "Archie Eats and Runs."

Archie came home to an evening meal of beef and mushroom stew. By the time he finished dinner, his son-in-law Mike came in with the news that a brand of canned mushrooms had been recalled.

Edith wasn't sure if it was the brand she bought. She used all the cans in the stew and threw away the empties. But, to be on the safe side, Mike and Edith took Archie to the hospital. But Gloria, who had the flu, didn't go. "You can't go to the hospital," Mike told her in a memorable line as he and Edith led Archie out the front door. "You're sick!"

Immediately following "All in the Family" was "M*A*S*H," which left the Saturday night lineup for its third season but continued to thrive on weeknights for nearly a decade.

On Feb. 9, "M*A*S*H" aired one of its best episodes of the season, "Crisis," in which supply lines were cut during a brutally cold stretch of weather.

In this episode, Frank Burns coined the phrase, "lounge lizard at war," and Henry Blake advised everyone, with the wind howling noisily outside the tent, to "keep the brass monkeys in tonight."

Next on the schedule was the No. 9-rated program in television that year, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The show had reached its ratings peak — even though it remained on the air for another three seasons — but it still had some of its most classic moments left to come, including the Feb. 9 episode, in which the vain and intellectually challenged Ted Knight won a long-coveted Teddy Award after an intense campaign and was introduced to broadcast news legend Walter Cronkite.

"Well, Walter," Ted said, putting his arm around Cronkite's shoulder, "let's talk shop. What words do you have trouble pronouncing?"

The next show on the schedule was only in its second season but it was rated solidly in the Top 20, "The Bob Newhart Show."

On Feb. 9, Newhart's neighbor, Howard, was introduced to Bob's sister. Howard fell hopelessly in love with her, but there was a complication. She was getting married to someone else.

CBS closed out the evening's schedule with the one-hour "Carol Burnett Show," the best of the music and comedy variety shows — a TV genre that doesn't seem to exist in prime time anymore.

On that February night, the guests were Vincent Price and Joel Grey, and the program featured some clever skits, including one in which Burnett played a hotel's switchboard operator who listened in on guests' calls.

Without a doubt, some Saturday night programs were better than others in 1974. But, 35 years ago, Saturday night had a reputation for quality programming that people would have stayed home to see, even in a robust economy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Summer of '39 Was a Season of Speculation

In the summer of 1939, Carly Simon hadn't been born yet, but if her hit single "Anticipation" had existed at that time, it would have made a good theme song.

It was not quite summer when the grand opening was held for the New York World's Fair, but the fair became one of the largest of all time, attracting more than 44 million people in 1939 and 1940, many of whom came to the fair in the summer months.

The timing of the opening was deliberate — April 30, 1939, was the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration as president in New York City. But apparently it was also a little too early — many pavilions and facilities were not finished by April 30 — but that didn't keep President Roosevelt and almost a quarter of a million people from taking part in the grand opening ceremonies.

Television, still in its infancy, broadcast Roosevelt's speech, which was watched by roughly 1,000 people on TV sets throughout the New York area.

The world's fair promised visitors a glimpse at "the world of tomorrow," but none of the exhibits went so far as to explore the possibilities of nuclear fission. The leading scientists of the day, however, including Albert Einstein who fled Europe in the 1930s, did not ignore it.

In early August, Einstein signed his name to a letter to President Roosevelt, urging him to press for the development of the atomic bomb. Like many scientists, Einstein believed Germany also was pursuing a nuclear weapon, and he believed it was essential for America to build it first. The seeds of the Manhattan Project were in that letter.

In entertainment, 1939 has often been mentioned as a milestone year in motion pictures, with many classic films being released theatrically for the first time, but much of the story of that year can be told in the tales of two movies — "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With The Wind."

"The Wizard of Oz" was the recipient of plenty of media hype when it was released in August; although the film made a profit, received mostly positive reviews and was nominated for several Oscars, it was not generally regarded as a success when compared to its budget of nearly $2.8 million.

In fact, the film only began to earn its place among the classic movies after some re-releases and its first television broadcast in the mid-1950s.

"Gone With The Wind," meanwhile, opened in Atlanta in December, accompanied by a three-day festival.

It turned out to be a rare example of a film exceeding its hype. For two years, the public heard tales about the casting and filming of the sprawling adaptation of the 1936 novel. It premiered amid much hoopla and went on to live up to it, winning 10 Academy Awards.

As the summer of 1939 neared its end, World War II was beginning — the Nazis invaded Poland about five months after Britain's Neville Chamberlain made his famous "guarantee" of Poland's independence in a speech to the House of Commons.

Before September was over, many countries were forced to take sides, but the United States confirmed it wished to remain neutral.

As the winds of war continued to blow across the European continent, Americans promoted peace — in no small way through the rising popularity of "God Bless America," a song written by Irving Berlin near the end of World War I and then revised 20 years later. Kate Smith introduced the song on Armistice Day in November 1938, and the song was a popular hit in the summer of 1939.

Ultimately, the song did not keep the United States out of war, but it became Smith's signature song and it continues to inspire patriotism today.

It was, perhaps, fitting that, even with all the other things that were going on in the world in the summer of 1939, baseball and the "boys of summer" were in the news.

In June, baseball dedicated its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The inaugural class of inductees came in 1936 and featured five of the legends of the game — but eight people, including the legendary Cy Young, were inducted when the Hall of Fame opened its doors in Cooperstown.

The day the 1939 inductees were announced, Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive major league games came to an end. The record stood for more than half a century.

On July 4, the recently retired and terminally ill Gehrig said goodbye to the fans in Yankee Stadium. "[T]oday I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," he said.

Fittingly, baseball was one of the first sports to be shown on television when TV began putting sports events on the schedule in 1939. A college baseball game was televised in May and a major league game between Brooklyn and Cincinnati was broadcast in late August. In between, Max Baer beat Lou Nova in the first televised heavyweight fight. Later that autumn, college and pro football made their debuts.

And Little League Baseball was founded in Pennsylvania, making organized summer baseball a reality for generations of young boys to come.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Premiere of 'Gone With the Wind'

From what I've been told, the premiere of "Gone With the Wind" 69 years ago today in Atlanta was the event of the decade — if not the century.

It was certainly one of the most anticipated films of all time. The book was published in 1936, and speculation started almost immediately over who would be cast to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.

Nearly everyone who was anyone was mentioned, at one time or another, and almost any combination you can imagine, even if it seems bizarre in hindsight, was considered possible. At one point, Gary Cooper was a top contender to be cast as Rhett Butler — primarily because his contract involved a distribution company that had an eight-picture deal with producer David O. Selznick.

From the start, though, Clark Gable seems to have been the consensus choice of fans and critics alike. But I can't help wondering — if Cooper had been cast as Rhett Butler, would he ever have played Sgt. York? Or Lou Gehrig? Or Will Kane?

It was different with the role of Scarlett O'Hara. Nearly every actress in Hollywood — including Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn — was mentioned for the role, but it came down to four in December of 1938 — Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh. Leigh and Goddard were the only two whose tests were done in Technicolor — and Leigh got the part.

The premiere came on the third day of a three-day festival in Atlanta. Georgia's governor declared a state holiday on the day of the premiere. Jimmy Carter, who was 15 at the time, said it was "the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime."

It was undeniably the biggest event in a year that is remembered by film lovers and movie historians as "the greatest year in film history," but for most moviegoers, it wasn't part of their experience in the 1930s. From the day of its 1939 premiere until June 1940, the film played to only advance-ticket road show audiences at a limited number of theaters. It went into general release in January 1941.

And there were parts of Margaret Mitchell's novel that weren't included (or were watered down) in the movie. You can argue that the movie was long enough already, and that's a valid point — it was nearly four hours long. But I think politics played a role as well.

For example, the book's description of the burning of Atlanta was even more vivid than the celebrated sequence in the film — and so was its depiction of the ravages of war. This part of the story was more subdued in the film.

And there was an episode involving the Ku Klux Klan that didn't end up in the movie. I won't discuss it any further, in case you haven't read the book.

Even so, "Gone With the Wind" clearly influenced — and continues to influence — the art of filmmaking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Director's Cut Adds to 'Amadeus' Tale

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I went to a theater near where I lived and saw the screen version of Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus."

It changed the way I looked at music and human relationships.

The film brought to the screen a tale that has been an urban legend for a couple of centuries — that composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Viennese colleague and rival, Antonio Salieri, was responsible for Mozart's death in 1791.

It was an intriguing story that I heard at various times when I was growing up. But, like so many other things in life, the story didn't always hold up under scrutiny.

It's been a source of contradictions.

Shaffer's play and the film version that followed told a wonderful story of jealousy and rivalry between two contemporaries, but it may well have been as fictitious as "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," which is a great film about greed among gold prospectors but it's totally fictional.

There is evidence that Mozart and Salieri had a cordial, even friendly, relationship — and there are even hints of it in "Amadeus." Salieri was acquainted with many of the great musicians of his day and was regarded as a great musician himself. In fact, he taught music to Mozart's young son — but he did so years after Mozart's death.

In their correspondence, Mozart and his father wrote of "cabals" of Italians in Vienna who actively sought to derail Mozart's career. But such conspiracies may have been more imaginary than real.

It has been speculated that Mozart himself may have been the initial source of rumors of Salieri's jealousy and conspiratorial inclinations — when Mozart sought a post but was passed over for Salieri.

The episode was re-created in the film, but there was nothing in the movie that suggested Mozart's suspicions of Salieri's actions or motives were aroused by it.

In fact, tales of Salieri's alleged "confession" of his complicity in Mozart's death did not begin to spread until after Salieri's own death.

In the film, it is suggested that Salieri tried to cut his own throat while despondent over Mozart's death more than 30 years earlier — and begged the forgiveness of the long-dead Mozart. He was taken to an asylum, where he "confessed" his role in Mozart’s death to a priest — although the three people who were with Salieri in his last days denied that it ever happened that way.

Another factor that may have contributed to the public's acceptance of the tale was the fact that Germany had undergone a revival of nationalism in the decades since Mozart’s death, which may have led to the de-emphasis of the Italian Salieri and the simultaneous elevation of the Austrian-born Mozart in the public's eye.

That may or may not have been the case. Salieri lived and worked in Vienna for most of his life; in spite of his Italian roots, he was regarded as a German composer by many Germans at the time of his death.

Whatever the reason, so complete was the conversion of the two men's public images that, for the most part, Salieri's work has been forgotten while Mozart's has grown increasingly popular.

True or not, the rumors persisted — and, in 1984, they made for a great cautionary tale, even though I felt, when I saw the film in the theater, that there were gaps in the story.

I found, when I saw the "Director's Cut DVD" many years later, that the restored scenes filled in the gaps nicely. They illustrated, for example, the problems Mozart had earning a living in the conventional way — through teaching music — when what he yearned to do was compose.

The extended version, which was released in 2002, also included scenes that would have caused ratings problems when the film was released theatrically — even though the story made more sense with the deleted material included.

For example, there was a scene in which Mozart's wife visited Salieri to make an appeal on her husband's behalf. Salieri was a member of a panel charged with the task of selecting someone to teach music to the emperor's niece, and Mozart's wife, without her husband's knowledge, came to Salieri with samples of Mozart's sheet music to submit his application for him.

When she refused to leave the music with Salieri, she was forced to admit that Mozart didn't know she was there and that he would be "frantic" if he discovered any of the sheet music was missing. "They're all originals," she confided. "He doesn’t make copies."

Salieri was astonished that all the sheet music in the binder were "first and only drafts of music" which showed no signs of corrections. He was overcome with awe — and envy — that Mozart had been chosen to be the "voice of God."

Deleted from the original theatrical release — at that point — was a segment in which Elizabeth Berridge, the actress who played Constanze Mozart, was enticed to return to Salieri's home that night — alone.

Salieri said he was dining with the emperor the next evening. This was a job that all the composers in Vienna coveted, but "[o]ne word from me, and the post is [Mozart's]," he told Mozart's wife. However, he said, "Some service deserves service in return."

That, he told her, was "the price."

In the expanded version, Constanze returned to Salieri's home, and her breasts were exposed for a few seconds before she was sent to her own home.

At the theaters, the film was rated PG. The inclusion of the deleted nudity almost certainly would have resulted in an R rating — which might have limited the film’s performance at the box office.

But the deleted scene helped to put a fine point on Salieri’s growing alienation from God that was missing from the theatrical release.

And, while they contained no additional nudity or objectionable language, the additional and extended scenes did help to clarify other things that weren't totally clear or given a strong enough emphasis in the originally released theatrical version.

Earlier in the film, when Salieri concluded that Mozart had been intimate with a singer, who happened to be the object of Salieri's unrequited affection, the original version was ambiguous. It showed the singer becoming angry upon being introduced to Mozart’s fiancée — but the extended version went into greater detail, making Salieri's conclusion easier to understand than it was at the theater.

It remained unclear, though, how Salieri intended to kill Mozart. Overworking him — as the film implied — by insisting (as an anonymous benefactor) that he complete the requiem mass (which Salieri intended to pass off as his own at Mozart’s funeral) while he also strove to complete the opera that promised more lucrative, long-term income was an uncertain proposition.

But the film never revealed the method Salieri chose, even though he himself pondered, in his conversation with the priest, the difference between fantasizing about murder and performing it "with your own hands."

History suggests Mozart died of acute rheumatic fever.

If some of the deletions were intended to produce a more favorable rating to help the movie at the box office, they didn't propel "Amadeus" into the top 10 moneymakers of the year. But the movie went on to win eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

And, in one of the most intriguing of contradictions, F. Murray Abraham, the actor who portrayed Salieri in the film, was named Best Actor — instead of the castmate who played Mozart, Tom Hulce.

"Amadeus" didn't ignite a public revival of classical music, but it did have a modest influence on popular music. Austrian pop star Falco had a #1 hit with a song called "Rock Me Amadeus" in the spring of 1986.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Birthday of an American Portrait Artist

You probably haven't heard his name mentioned today — it would be odd if you had — but today was Gilbert Stuart's birthday.

Perhaps you're familiar with the name, but you're not aware of his role in American history.

Stuart, who was born 253 years ago today, is regarded as America's preeminent portrait artist.

And, while you may not be aware of it, you probably have his most famous portrait in your wallet or purse right now.

I refer to the portrait of George Washington that adorns the $1 bill.

Stuart began work on it in 1796. Washington died in 1799. Stuart's portrait was unfinished, and it remained unfinished when he died in 1828.

That portrait can be seen at the right.

And it's been used as the illustration on the $1 bill for more than a century.

Stuart actually painted several portraits of Washington. One hangs in the East Room of the White House (seen at right).

It happens to be the portrait that first lady Dolley Madison took with her when she fled from the oncoming British troops who were burning Washington during the War of 1812.

Stuart also holds the distinction of having painted the portraits of the first six presidents in American history. He died before the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was elected.

He painted more than 1,000 portraits in his lifetime — kings, generals, socialites and other painters as well as presidents and their wives. Stuart also painted a portrait of the first chief justice of the United States And his work can be seen in the finest art museums in America — New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington's National Gallery of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts — as well as overseas.

Monday, November 24, 2008

'Triumph of the Will' Served Propaganda Purposes

During World War II and in the years after the war ended, the Nazis' reputation for comprehending the value of effective propaganda became almost legendary.

But their appreciation for the power of propaganda preceded the war by several years.

On Sept. 5, 2009, it will be 75 years since the Nazis gathered for the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. It was an important event for rallying the faithful in person — but it also served as the basis for filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's influential propaganda documentary, "Triumph of the Will."

Because of the role it played in the development of filmmaking techniques — such as the advanced use of telephoto lenses, aerial photography and moving cameras — "Triumph of the Will" earned a spot in film history.

It also played an important role in the rise of the Nazi Party. Hitler and the Nazis had come to power the year before and were still largely unknown to many Germans — and much of the world.

The film opened with a brief commentary written in German. Translated, it said: "20 years after the outbreak of the world war, 16 years after the beginning of our suffering, 19 months after the beginning of the German renaissance, Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers."

From that point, the only written commentaries were merely the surnames of the speakers. That may have been helpful to many viewers, since most of Hitler's subordinates were hardly household names at the time.

Anyway, following the opening commentary, Riefenstahl's camera took the viewer into the clouds, aboard a 1934-era airplane, preparing to descend into Nuremberg.

In the film, Hitler emerged from the clouds, like Thor in his chariot. Once Hitler's airplane was on the ground, Riefenstahl's film crew captured his enthusiastic reception and his ride into the city from every possible angle.

Nuremberg in 1934 had all the zeal and piety of a religious revival.

Indeed, at the closing ceremony, Hitler compared the Nazi Party to a "religious order" while Riefenstahl's camera filmed from below, making Hitler look larger than life, almost godlike.

In the years that followed, Riefenstahl's film attracted full houses to movie theaters across Germany. The mood was altogether different a little more than 10 years later — when Germany had lost the war and the surviving leaders of the Third Reich were brought to Nuremberg to stand trial for "crimes against humanity."

But, in 1934, those days were still in the future.

That four-day gathering in September 1934 was filled with speeches from Hitler, Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, Julius Streicher and others, special rallies for the Labor Service and for the Hitler Youth, torchlight marches and music. It was all filmed in black and white, but it must have been quite a spectacle in color.

Riefenstahl was provided with everything she asked for and given access to anything and anyone she desired — pretty heady stuff for a 31-year-old actress directing her first documentary.

However, the film was lacking in some ways — by modern standards.

As advanced as it was in some of its techniques, the film used no transitional devices to indicate a shift from one day to the next.

For a film that sought to document a four-day event, that's a significant shortcoming. Unless the viewer was familiar with the itinerary, there was no way to tell if you were watching the Hitler Youth rally on the third day or the rally for the Labor Service on the second day — except through excerpts from speeches.

The only way to tell much chronologically was through natural light — or the absence of it. Day faded into night. And then a new day dawned in the film with little, if any, fanfare.

But the pomp and circumstance of the final day was hard to mistake.

The imagery was the most memorable, the music consisted of themes from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung," and Hitler, who shortly before laid a wreath at a World War I memorial, delivered a stirring concluding speech, in which he told the crowd, "All loyal Germans will become National Socialists. Only the best National Socialists are party comrades."

One of the primary propaganda purposes of the film, from Hitler's point of view, was to absolve himself and his associates from any guilt for the "Night of the Long Knives," a series of political executions carried out by the Nazis a couple of months earlier. Ernst Röhm, co-founder of the Nazi stormtroopers, was among those executed because he was perceived to be a rival to Hitler — something the Nazis wanted to obscure from public view.

"Only a lunatic or deliberate liar could think that I, or anybody, would ever intend to dissolve what we ourselves have built up over many long years," Hitler told his listeners.

Hitler must have sensed that the rally had achieved the party's objectives. In his closing speech, he told the crowd that the party "will be unchangeable in its doctrine, hard as steel in its organization, supple and adaptable in its tactics" — stating his intentions as clearly as he did in his book, "Mein Kampf."

After nearly three-quarters of a century, "Triumph of the Will" continues to cast a long shadow, influencing movies, commercials and modern documentaries.

But the questions it raised about the blurring of the line between artistic interpretation and integrity remain unanswered.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Remembering the Kennedy Assassination

White House photographer Cecil Stoughton took this
picture of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office
aboard Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963. Stoughton
died earlier this month.

In days gone by, it seems, there was more of a fuss made on November 22 — the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination here in Dallas.

In the past, a dedicated group of researchers has gathered at the site of the assassination on this date every year, and I assume they assembled downtown again this year, although I've heard nothing about it. Perhaps there will be something about it on the evening news — although the attention in Texas recently seems to be riveted to the north and tonight's Texas Tech-Oklahoma football game.

There may be some media outlets in some places where they are reflecting on the assassination today. But the only acknowledgement of the 45th anniversary that I’ve found locally is an article in the Dallas Morning News that talks about how the passage of time has claimed many of the witnesses.

Archivist Richard Trask told the Morning News, "It was an event that became a whodunit, and now it’s in the realm of history."

Occasionally, the emergence of new technology (for example, DNA technology or computer graphics) permits us to ask and sometimes answer questions about the mysteries of history.

Very rarely, however, do those questions yield answers that allow us to authoritatively rewrite the story.

Today it seems there are no new questions to ask — and no new answers to consider — in the Kennedy assassination.

If there were, I suppose they would be airing on The History Channel tonight.

But the only assassination-oriented programming on The History Channel this weekend will be aired on Sunday night at 8 p.m. (Central) — and that program, "The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy," is five years old and the moderator, Peter Jennings, died in 2005.

Clearly, there will be nothing new in that program.

I remember watching it when it was aired for the first time — around the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

I recall that the big promotional point about the program was a computer animation based on the Zapruder film.

But, while the animation was interesting, I had to wonder what value it provided. To me, it seemed open to many interpretations, and Jennings and ABC seemed overly eager to use the one that supported the conclusions of researcher Gerald Posner.

Posner, whose 1993 book "Case Closed" took the position that both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acted alone and that the Kennedy assassination was not the result of a conspiracy, was given extensive airtime as an expert in the case.

It also seems to me that the program devoted much of its time to discussions of Oswald’s life and the opinions of his brother — who, like other members of his family, seemed to enjoy the attention even if the price of admission was his brother’s life.

From a documentary standpoint, I would recommend "Four Days in November" as the best way to remember Kennedy today — but you may have to rent it someplace.

That film was shown on Turner Classic Movies a couple of months ago, but I’m not aware of any TV station that is planning to show it today — or in the near future.

However, if you’d like to ponder all the questions about the assassination that still haven’t been answered after all these years, I recommend the Director’s Cut of Oliver Stone’s "JFK," a film that was originally released 17 years ago but has yet to produce definitive answers to nearly all of the questions it raised.

American Movie Classics will be presenting "JFK" tonight — at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Central. I don’t know if it is the Director’s Cut, but I do know that AMC edits its presentations and interrupts them with commercials — so my guess is that it’s the original theatrical version with some audio and possibly some video edited.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Few Films Re-create Nuremberg Trial

Some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trial.

On this day in November 1945, testimony began in the first Nuremberg Trial.

The first trial was noteworthy for being the prosecution of the leadership of Nazi Germany. As subsequent trials were held, more and more people expressed doubts about the wisdom or necessity of prosecuting soldiers whose crime appeared to be carrying out orders during wartime.

Few doubted the necessity for the first trial, in which the likes of Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Alfred Jodl — the upper echelon of the Nazi regime — were held responsible for their acts.

The trials gave the world the definition of "war crimes." It can be found in the "Nuremberg Principles."

And the trials have influenced the evolution of international crime law for nearly 65 years.

Yet, considering how important the role of Nuremberg was in the postwar history of the world, there have been surprisingly few dramatizations of it.

The best, by far, was "Judgment at Nuremberg," a 1961 film that was not a re-creation at all but rather the story of a fictional trial that explored issues that were raised by the real-life later trials.

It's a great film with great performances, but it is fiction. It does not tell the real story of the landmark tribunal.

A couple of TV movies attempted to tell the story of what happened at the first tribunal in 1945-46.

In 2000, TNT aired a film called "Nuremberg," which was actually a pretty good and — based on my own knowledge of what happened in Nuremberg — mostly accurate re-creation, although factual dedication sometimes was sacrificed in favor of more appealing story angles.

The courtroom and other trial-related scenes, however, appeared to be accurate. As Albert Speer observed in the film, when the splendor of Nuremberg during the Nazi rallies was recalled nostalgically (especially in comparison to the dreary, bombed-out city in which the trial was held), "The look in Hitler's eyes wasn't radiance. It was madness."

And, oh, how easily it could all happen again. Later in the film, Speer tried to explain Göring's grip on his co-defendants, even with no authority or real power of any kind, using merely the power of his "ideas and thoughts."

"What ideas? What thoughts?" Speer asked. "They were only platitudes. Nazi Germany was built on empty platitudes."

Anyone can fall under the spell of a psychopath like Hitler. It is not, as was implied in the film, exclusively a German character flaw. It is a trait that is not unique to any group.

The main problem that most film buffs seem to have had with "Nuremberg" was its casting — Alec Baldwin as Justice Robert Jackson, for example.

Baldwin made for a relatively youthful Jackson to play opposite Christopher Plummer as British prosecutor David Maxwell-Fyfe.

Although Maxwell-Fyfe was, in fact, younger than Jackson by several years, Plummer is more than 30 years older than Baldwin and played the role as more of a fatherly figure.

And, while it may be common knowledge among historians with access to better research sources, I am not aware of the intimate relationship between Jackson and his dedicated secretary (played by Jill Hennessy) that was suggested in the film. I suspect that was a liberty that was taken with the facts to capitalize on Hennessy's beauty and give the story a romantic angle.

But, in spite of these relatively trivial matters, the film was largely accurate, and the portrayal of Göring by Brian Cox was particularly noteworthy. Cox displayed an uncanny ability to mimic Göring’s affable yet cunning Jekyll-and-Hyde personality — particularly in his depiction of Göring’s friendship with the American soldier "Tex" and how he may have manipulated it to get access to the cyanide he took to commit suicide rather than face execution by hanging.

Göring was often parodied in cartoons and films of the era, but, other than "Nuremberg," the only supposedly fact-based portrayal of the Reichsmarschall and the trial that I’m aware of came in a British TV production, " Nuremberg: Goering's Last Stand," in 2006.

I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been told it’s been broadcast on The History Channel from time to time. From what I’ve read, it’s a pretty poor historical re-creation.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chasing the 'Demon in the Sky'

The Mercury Seven
From left: Gordon Cooper, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard,
Virgil Grissom, John Glenn, Deke Slayton, Scott Carpenter

In 1983, there was no shortage of space, flight and technology-oriented options for moviegoers — "Return of the Jedi," "WarGames," "Octopussy," "Blue Thunder," even "Superman III."

Twenty-five years ago, such movies featured plenty of high-tech special effects, but the stories often didn't live up to the technology. "Return of the Jedi," for example, was said to boast state-of-the-art special effects, even if its story wasn't as great as the first two films in the "Star Wars" series.

And then there was "The Right Stuff" — the tale of the awkward early steps of the space program in the United States — when America resolved to chase down the "demon that lived in the sky."

The film is sometimes overlooked when the best films of 1983 are discussed, but it had lots of special effects, and it had the advantage of also having a great story to tell.

"The Right Stuff" is the true story of how the space program began in the United States — and how the test pilots, like Chuck Yeager, laid the foundation for it.

Some of the story is probably still told in the history books, but much of it will be news to modern viewers — who are accustomed to a world of space shuttles and space stations.

Many modern movie viewers have no memory of what it was like when a young president issued a challenge to America to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely before the decade was over.

And modern movie viewers have no memory of the many setbacks the space program endured before making amazing strides in pursuit of that goal.

America rose to meet the challenge of landing on the moon, but it did so largely because of the triumphs — and the tragedies — of the Mercury astronauts — and the sacrifices that were made by the test pilots who came before them.

When I was a child in the 1960s, the names of each of those astronauts were practically household names. They were certainly used for marketing purposes.

Like most boys of my generation, I had a "G.I. Joe" toy. One year, for my birthday, I asked for the latest accessories for the "action figure" — an astronaut's spacesuit and helmet — and a miniature space capsule.

I received those items as gifts that year, and I was delighted to find that the capsule was packaged with a small 45-rpm recording of John Glenn's radio transmissions during his historic flight into space.

I could dress up my G.I. Joe to look like an astronaut, put him in the capsule and pretend to send him on a journey into space while my record player provided the soundtrack for the mission.

I remember that one of my childhood buddies was fascinated by the space program. He had a poster on his wall showing a map of the surface of the moon with photos of each individual astronaut lining the margins on the top and bottom.

Such public adulation was a mixed blessing for the original Mercury astronauts. As Scott Carpenter (played by Charles Frank) says during an argument among the astronauts about intrusions into their private lives, "Now, whether we like it or not, we're public figures. Whether we deserve it or not, people are going to look up to us. We have got a tremendous responsibility here."

Even after a brief flight, an astronaut could expect to be treated like a conquering hero, complete with a visit to the White House to meet the president and a tickertape parade.

The belief that such a prize was waiting for them at the end of the rainbow kept more than one astronaut's wife on the reservation — and makes the story as much about the unknown — and mostly supportive — spouses as it is about the astronauts.

Betty Grissom (played by Veronica Cartwright) often states in the movie that she expects the military to repay her for the sacrifices she's made, only to be bitterly disappointed when her husband's flight is deemed a failure.

Other wives found it impossible to stick it out. Gordon Cooper's wife Trudy (played by Pamela Reed) talks, at one point in the movie, about conversations she had with old friends who complained about the "cutthroat" lives their husbands endured in the business world.

"I wondered how they would have felt," she says, "if each time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one in four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting."

The possibility of a sudden and violent death hangs over the test pilots and astronauts throughout the film, from the ominous presence of the cryptic minister to the smoke rising from crash sites (visible from great distances in the California desert) and the easily recognizable "crash truck" that is always summoned to the scene.

A patron in Pancho Barnes' bar observes a wall filled with photographs of test pilots and points out that the picture of "fancy pilot" Chuck Yeager isn't on the wall.

"What do you have to do to get your picture up there, anyway?" she asks.

"You have to die, sweetie," Pancho replies.

A sobering reminder of the risks the test pilots took every time they flew.

There is a wealth of talent on display in "The Right Stuff," including some actors and actresses who had already achieved some noteworthy things by the time the film was made — and others who were on the brink of success.

The cast includes Sam Shepard as Yeager, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager and Jeff Goldblum as a recruiter.

Not all of the talent is in front of the camera, either. Philip Kaufman did a remarkable job of adapting and directing the film version of Tom Wolfe's book. Irwin Winkler was nominated for an Oscar for his work as producer.

And there were a few people you might not recognize but who nevertheless had an influence on the film — if not the industry, in some ways.

Like Mary Jo Deschanel, for example. She plays Glenn's stuttering wife, Annie, whose refusal to be interviewed on television infuriates Lyndon Johnson.

Deschanel, who studied acting but apparently gave up her career to focus on raising her children, is the mother of Zooey Deschanel, who has enjoyed a modestly successful acting career on TV and on the big screen.

Zooey was about 3 when her mother acted in "The Right Stuff" — and her father was the film's cinematographer.

And Yeager himself puts in a brief appearance as Fred, who works at Pancho's bar.

Only two of the original Mercury Seven astronauts — Carpenter and Glenn — are still living. The silver anniversary of "The Right Stuff" is a reminder — particularly relevant on Veterans' Day — of a debt that America can never repay — and should always remember.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Bush Gets Comic Treatment in 'W.'

It's hard to say when I became a fan of the films of Oliver Stone.

But it's safe to say that my admiration for his work goes back 30 years, to 1978, when I was in college and Stone was a screenwriter for "Midnight Express."

And I continued to admire his work as director of "Platoon," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK" and "The Doors."

When I went to the theater to see his latest film, the George W. Bush "biopic" called, simply, "W.," perhaps I expected more than the film could deliver — and not just because I have been one of Stone's admirers for many years.

Each of the films I mentioned previously incorporated generous helpings of drama, irony and, all right, symbolism. And, in that Oliver Stone way, they drew conclusions without necessarily connecting all the dots for the viewers.

Sometimes Stone has accomplished that with style and precision. Other times, it's been done in a ham-handed kind of way. "W.," I felt, was an example of the latter.

The fault doesn't lie with the star of the show. Josh Brolin delivers a believable portrayal as George W. Bush, who struggles through his early life, trying to win his father's approval.

Every Oliver Stone movie seems to have an awkward moment that seems to cut a little too close to the bone. The best example I know of is the scene in "The Doors" in which Meg Ryan goes berserk at Thanksgiving.

I never saw an awkward scene in "W." Maybe that's because the really awkward part of the story is the fact that it isn't over yet. "Biopics," as they're called, typically aren't made until the subject is dead — or at least well into retirement. George W. Bush is neither.

That, it seems to me, is the problem with this movie. It attempts to tell a story that is still unfolding.

When Stone made his films about Vietnam, America's involvement in Southeast Asia had been over for a decade or more.

Jim Morrison had been dead for 20 years when Stone made his film about the Doors.

And nearly three decades had passed since Kennedy was assassinated before Stone made his film "JFK."

I often felt, as I watched "W.," that Stone wanted to confirm a conclusion he believes the audience has already reached.

He does not feel compelled to persuade the audience that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. In his mind, we're already there. Perhaps we are, or perhaps he puts too much faith in public opinion polls.

I don't mean to suggest I wasn't entertained by the film. I'm always entertained by Stone's movies, and "W." was no exception.

But it wasn't the same experience as it's been when Stone made a film that he felt represented a minority viewpoint. In those films, Stone's arguments have had more force, whether because his presentation was so eloquent or the evidence that supported his claims was unimpeachable.

Even in the film "Nixon," I felt Stone sought to provide a dramatic counterpoint to the positive view of Nixon that prevailed at the time, a little over a year after his death — even though the judgment of history on his role in the Watergate scandal had been reached long before and was practically (pardon the pun) chiseled in stone.

There's no statute of limitations on speculation, but there usually has to be an acknowledged public end of the story.

And the end of this story has yet to be written.

If anything, I suppose, I expected Stone to skewer the Bush presidency à la his treatment of "Nixon." What I didn't anticipate was the Comedy Central version of Bush's life.

Contributing to that sensation, I believe, was the music that played in the background — familiar tunes by Willie Nelson and Freddy Fender help to illustrate the mood of Bush's youth, "Spirit in the Sky" serves as the backdrop to his religious conversion, "What a Wonderful World" accompanies his efforts at democracy building.

But, in hindsight, it makes sense to treat the story in almost comic fashion compared to the tragedy of Watergate. Nixon's story was Shakespearean. Bush's story is clumsy, almost a modern-day Keystone Kops.

And, I think, that's especially true in Stone's hands, which produce some comic-book caricature portrayals of various people.

That's one of the problems with making a movie about a story that hasn't ended yet — especially in this age of cable and satellite TV, in which the public gains an almost intimate knowledge of how its leaders speak and act.

We expect to see mirror reflections — almost as if we're watching a documentary. Undeniably, there were points when it felt like a documentary, not a dramatization. At times, I almost had to remind myself that I was watching a film directed by Oliver Stone, not Michael Moore.

In some ways, I've come to expect the unexpected from Stone. In "Nixon," for example, Anthony Hopkins really didn't look much like Nixon — nor did he particularly sound like him. But Hopkins truly took on Nixon's persona in the role.

Visually, the depictions of many of the main characters in "W." were so accurate that it was like watching a "Saturday Night Live" parody.

Brolin was almost spooky in his resemblance to George W. Bush as the stories of the young boozing frat boy who has issues with his father and the "born again" reformed alcoholic of his later years — who still has issues with his father — unfolded on the screen, treated as almost parallel lines that intersect. That may, of course, be the story of many young men and the uneasy resolution of their adult lives with the mischief of their college days. But "W." is the one who became president.

Brolin had the voice and the mannerisms of "43" down to almost an art form.

Elizabeth Banks, as Laura Bush, looked the part but didn't sound enough like her real-life counterpart to pull it off, as far as I was concerned.

The same can be said, I think, for James Cromwell, who plays the elder Bush and is credible in appearance but not completely convincing when he speaks in the role of "41." That is also true of Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush. I admire the abilities of both Cromwell and Burstyn, but my memories of the Bushes are yet too vivid for me to accept their renditions of the First Couple.

Scott Glenn, on the other hand, gave a solid performance as Donald Rumsfeld. And, while his speaking time seemed a bit limited, Richard Dreyfuss was surprisingly believable as Dick Cheney.

There is no shortage of talent, but some of it is not used to its most effective extent.

Thandie Newton, for example, plays a surprisingly minor role as Condoleezza Rice, speaking in a Valley Girl style that seems totally inappropriate for someone so accomplished.

Toby Jones' slight build and offbeat face made him a natural choice to play Karl Rove, but I was never convinced that he had the intellect to be the architect of a successful presidential campaign — or advocate of a plan to invade Iraq.

I'll be honest, I'm just not too familiar with the previous work of Jeffrey Wright, but I felt he was short of the mark as Colin Powell.

Bruce McGill, as "Brother George" Tenet, and Michael Gaston, as Tommy Franks, are almost cartoonish — possibly suggesting that Stone believes the nation was goaded into invading Iraq and that the invasion itself was handled in an almost haphazard way.

Perhaps that's the moral Stone wants us to take from this film — that a president should be someone you can trust to make the right decisions, not the person you'd rather have a beer with.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

'All I Know Is What I Read in the Papers ...'

Will Rogers knew considerably more than he read in the papers. His gift was his ability to paraphrase it.

It takes a brilliant mind to make some of the observations he made during his lifetime — a lifetime that began on this date in 1879.

By the time of his death in 1935, Rogers was the highest-paid performer in Hollywood, having made 71 movies. He also wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.

"You know everybody is ignorant," he wrote in the New York Times in 1924, "only on different subjects."

In 1931, after it had been suggested that he should run for president, Rogers wrote, "A comedian can only last till he either takes himself serious or his audience takes him serious."

And, in a thinly veiled reference to President Calvin Coolidge's declaration a few years earlier that he did "not choose to run," Rogers wrote, "I not only 'don't choose to run' but I don't even want to leave a loophole in case I am drafted, so I won't 'choose.' I will say 'won't run' no matter how bad the country will need a comedian by that time."

Even today, more than 70 years after the plane crash in Alaska that took his life, Rogers has words of wisdom to share with the men who are vying today for the presidency.

If Barack Obama loses today's election, it would be appropriate for Democrats to reflect on this 1931 observation by Rogers: "Politics has got so expensive that it takes lots of money to even get beat with."

And if John McCain loses today's election, he and the Republicans should remember the advice Rogers offered to Al Smith after he and the Democrats lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928: "We can make this thing into a Party, instead of a Memory."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Scary Movies (Part III)

Today, I'm concluding my three-part post on scary movies that are scheduled to be shown on Halloween or the day before Halloween.

In this post, I'm looking at the broadcast schedule for American Movie Classics.

Keep in mind that, unlike Turner Classic Movies or the Independent Film Channel, AMC interrupts its programming with commercial breaks — and it edits its films for both objectionable material and to make sure it fits into an allotted time slot.

On Halloween, things get started early:
  • "The Fly," (1958) starring Vincent Price, at 1:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "House of Dracula" (1945) at 3:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "House of Frankenstein" (1945) at 5 a.m. (Central).

  • "House of Dracula" (1958) at 6:30 a.m. (Central).

  • The original "Halloween" (1978) will be shown at 8:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers" (1988) will be shown at 10:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers" (1989) will be shown at 12:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "Jeepers Creepers" (2001) will be shown at 2:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "Constantine" (2005) will be shown at 4:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "Resident Evil" (2002) will be shown at 7 p.m. (Central).

  • "House on Haunted Hill" (1999) will be shown at 9 p.m. (Central).

  • "Return to House on Haunted Hill" (2007) will be shown at 11 p.m. (Central).
The day before Halloween brings a full day's worth of horror films, including a couple that were based on Stephen King books, on AMC.
  • "Pet Sematary Two" (1992) will be shown at 1:15 a.m. (Central).

  • "Puppet Master" (1989) will be shown at 3:15 a.m. (Central).

  • "The Mummy," (1932) starring Boris Karloff, will be shown at 5 a.m. (Central).

  • "Magic," (1978) starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret and Burgess Meredith, will be shown at 6:45 a.m. (Central).

  • "Piñata: Survival Island" (1999) will be shown at 9 a.m. (Central).

  • "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) will be shown at 10:45 a.m. (Central).

  • "Christine" (1983) will be shown at 12:45 p.m. (Central).

  • "Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday" (1993) will be shown at 3 p.m. (Central).

  • "Willard" (2003) will be shown at 5 p.m. (Central).

  • "Constantine" (2005) will be shown at 7 p.m. (Central).

  • "Jeepers Creepers" (2001) will be shown at 9:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) will be shown at 11:30 p.m. (Central).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

As an adolescent boy in the 1970s, I felt a strong attraction to the "Brady Bunch" character of Marcia Brady, played by Maureen McCormick.

In my young eyes, Marcia was beautiful, sexy, smart — even if her character possessed a fragile ego.

I must admit that I also felt something of an attraction for other women on TV in the early 1970s as well — like Laurie Partridge (Susan Dey) of the "Partridge Family," Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) of "M*A*S*H" and Gloria Stivic (Sally Struthers) of "All in the Family" — but they were all much older than I was — or at least they seemed to be.

Marcia Brady seemed attainable because she reminded me in many ways of the young girls I knew in my world — the ones who plastered pictures of the male pop idols of the day (like Donny Osmond and Bobby Sherman) onto their school notebooks and drew small circles as the dots on their "I's."

Then as now, girls in that age group were also the first ones to embrace a new fashion.

My father was a college professor, and I often spent time on the campus where he worked, but my first exposure to emerging female fashion trends tended to be not on that college campus but in my middle school and my junior high school.

It was there that I saw the young girls of my generation wearing mini-skirts and hip-hugging jeans, forever defining "sexy" in my mind. Those were the kinds of clothes Marcia and her girlfriends wore.

That was about as far as things went for me in those days.

But, in real life, Marcia apparently did a lot more than play "Spin the Bottle."

Recently, McCormick published her tell-all behind-the-scenes account of things with the "Brady Bunch."

In the book, "Here's the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice," McCormick confesses an addiction to cocaine that led her to trade sex for drugs. She also admits to having had two abortions and battling depression through most of her adult life.

Now 52, McCormick is no longer the enticing adolescent girl I remember — although one can certainly see remnants of her in current pictures of McCormick — the eyes are the same, the smile is the same.

Even so, I find it astonishing that, more than 30 years after the "Brady Bunch" went off the air, revelations about the cast members are still capable of drawing the kind of attention that McCormick's book did.

Really, how many other middle-aged former American TV stars would merit foreign media attention for books about their exploits in their younger days?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

'Citizen Kane' Revisited

"Any man who has the brains to think and the nerve to act for the benefit of the people of the country is considered a radical by those who are content with stagnation and willing to endure disaster."

William Randolph Hearst

I worked with a fellow nearly 10 years ago who had been employed as a cashier at a video store for awhile.

He told me that a customer came up to him once and asked what was the best movie in the store. Without hesitating, my friend replied, "Citizen Kane."

Of course, the customer was asking about current movies, not a film that was made before America entered World War II.

But most film experts acknowledge that my friend was correct: Even though it is nearly 70 years old now, "Citizen Kane" is the greatest American film ever made.

Turner Classic Movies will show "Citizen Kane" unedited and uninterrupted Wednesday night at 9 p.m. (Central).

It doesn't have most of the elements that modern films require to be successful. It doesn't have splashy special effects or scantily clad (if clad at all) actresses. There's no objectionable language, no drug use, and the limited alcohol use is implied. It wasn't even filmed in color.

What you get when you see "Citizen Kane" is a great story (with a lot of filmmaking techniques that were innovative at the time). It is Orson Welles' directorial and acting masterpiece.

That's the common link between great films, no matter when they were made. They tell great stories.

The film tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy newspaper owner. It begins with the newsreel that tells his public story on the occasion of his death — which viewers already know came while he was clutching a small snow globe in his hand. He uttered the word "Rosebud," the globe slipped from his lifeless hand and a mystery was born.

For the rest of the movie, a reporter seeks out Kane's associates to see if he can discover the meaning of the word "Rosebud."

He is inspired in his quest by an editor with whom he and some other reporters watched a preview of Kane's memorial newsreel.

"Maybe he told us all about himself on his deathbed," the editor says. "[W]ho is she? ... What was it? ... [W]hen he comes to die, he's got something on his mind called 'Rosebud.' Now what does that mean?"

One of his colleagues has a suggestion: "A racehorse he bet on once ... that didn't come in."

"But what was the race?" asks the editor.

Those who have seen the film know what the word "Rosebud" meant. I don't want to spoil it for anyone. That's part of the pleasure of the discovery of "Citizen Kane."

Whether you've seen it before or not, I urge you to watch it. Discover it — or re-discover it.

Everyone from the film's cast and crew has passed away now. The last one standing was Moyer "Sonny" Bupp, who played Welles' son in what amounted to a bit part. He died Nov. 1, 2007, at the age of 79.

Welles himself passed away 23 years ago this month.

But thanks to the magic of the movies, they live on to tell the story of Charles Foster Kane — whose story was loosely patterned after the life of influential American journalist William Randolph Hearst.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Edie Adams Dies at 81

"One thing about my mom; she was keenly aware of her sex appeal. She knew men would be happy to spend time with her. But she was smarter than the average bear."

Josh Mills

If you were a male who grew up in America in the 1960s, Edie Adams may have been your introduction to the appeal of the opposite sex.

If she wasn't your introduction, she was darn close to it.

There were lots of beautiful women on TV and in the movies in the 1960s, and a young man's fancy could easily be swayed from one beautiful face and sexy body to the next.

Edie Adams wasn't Marilyn Monroe, although she did resemble her and she used that to further her career.

Adams appeared in both TV and the movies. But she may have been most memorable as the "Muriel cigar girl" — the long-time pitch lady on Muriel cigars' TV commercials, dancing in slinky dresses and urging viewers to "pick one up and smoke it sometime" in her best Mae West impersonation.

When I heard on Wednesday that Adams had died at the age of 81, I thought about her commercials — but I also thought of her performance in the 1964 political drama, "The Best Man," in which she played the wife of presidential candidate Cliff Robertson, whose character was locked in a battle for his party's nomination with Henry Fonda.

(I remember being about 9 or 10 when I saw that movie for the first time — and I couldn't understand how Robertson's character could be accused of being a "degenerate" as a young man in the service — and yet be married to someone as alluring as Adams.)

Other than the facts that Adams died recently and this is a presidential election year, I guess there's nothing else that makes the film relevant.

Except for the fact that I've always liked the movie. And I always liked Adams.

Adams died of pneumonia and cancer, according to her son, Josh Mills, her only survivor.

By the way, you can see a couple of Adams' movies (both from 1963) on Turner Classic Movies this Friday:
  • "Love With the Proper Stranger" at 7 a.m. (Central).

  • "Under the Yum-Yum Tree" at 1 p.m. (Central).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scary Movies (Part II)

Today, I'm examining the scary films that are scheduled to be shown on the Independent Film Channel for Halloween.

But IFC (unlike Turner Classic Movies) doesn't seem to be devoting a specific day (or, in TCM's case, two specific days) to showing nothing but horror movies.

And IFC appears to allow a little more leeway in designating a film as a scary movie than TCM — at least judging from the films that are scheduled to be shown in two weeks.

Like Bill Clinton's famous declaration that "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is," with IFC, it depends on what your definition of "horror" is.
  • For example, on Halloween, IFC will show a movie called "The Honeymoon Killers," a black-and-white 1969 film that was apparently based on a true story.

    More correctly, I suppose, the film is categorized as a thriller — and, on an unrelated note, Martin Scorsese originally was to be the director of the film, but he was fired after a few days because he was taking too long with his set-ups.

    Still, true crime stories are part of the Halloween experience for some people. If you're one of those people, make a note that IFC will show "The Honeymoon Killers" at 7 a.m. (Central).

  • IFC will show another thriller (this one of the gangster variety) on Halloween — "Miller's Crossing" — at 10:20 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. (Central). It's a Coen brothers film from 1990 that stars Albert Finney and John Turturro.

  • Looking for more traditional Halloween fare? "Eaten Alive" from 1977 may be more your style. It's about a psychotic redneck who feeds people who upset him to his pet crocodile. IFC will show it at 6:15 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Burning" from 1981 may fit the bill even better. In addition to being (apparently) one of the best slasher films of the '80s, the film also features early appearances by Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter, as well as a memorable score by Rick Wakeman (who played key roles in creating, among others, Yes' classic albums "Fragile" and "Close to the Edge" in the early 1970s). It will be shown at 7:55 p.m. (Central).

  • "Hanzo the Razor: Who's Got the Gold?" from 1974 is part of a trilogy about a Japanese lawman. I haven't seen it (or any of the other films in the trilogy), but I've read that it's the strangest one of the films about Hanzo the Razor — who apparently tracks embezzlers to a haunted castle.
Actually, Thursday night, Oct. 30 — the night before Halloween — may be your best bet on IFC.
  • Although not a typical horror film, "Fargo" (another Coen brothers entry) gets things started with its satirical thriller tale set in snowy Minnesota.

    The film comes on at 5:45 p.m. (Central).

  • At 8 p.m. (Central) — and again at 1 a.m. (Central) — "A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child" from 1989 will be shown.

    I have a friend who (for lack of a better term) is something of an aficionado of the "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" flicks. He tells me the special effects in this one were good, but the "Nightmare" series was getting old by the time its fifth installment came out.

  • It is followed, at 9:30 p.m. and again at 2:30 a.m. (Central), by the next chapter in the "Nightmare" series — "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare" — which came out in 1991.

    Don't be fooled by the title. There were more sequels to come. But apparently they were better. My friend told me this was the worst film in the series. I guess there was nowhere to go but up.

    If it weren't bizarre enough, it features Tom and Roseanne Arnold as a childless couple. Go figure.

  • Things get better on IFC for horror fans at 11:15 p.m., when 2001's "Ed Gein" comes on.

    Steve Railsback stars as the title character, a real serial killer whose life story served as the inspiration for Hitchcock's "Psycho" and the character Buffalo Bill in "The Silence of the Lambs."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Scary Movies (Part I)

When I was in second grade — or maybe it was third grade — I remember spending a Friday night at the home of one of my friends, Gene.

Gene’s mother had died, as I recall, and he lived with his paternal grandmother. His father was never around, and I don’t remember knowing too much about him, except I know he played a role in the household, sending money to help with expenses. I guess I always assumed he was a traveling salesman because he showed up at the house periodically for visits.

Anyway, in those days, the only late-night talk show on TV was Johnny Carson’s show. The other stations seemed to do as they pleased in the hours after the 10 o’clock news until whatever time they signed off.

Late on Friday nights (in this case, "late" means after the 10 o’clock news, which was late by my 8- or 9-year-old standards), one of the Little Rock stations would show old horror movies in a regularly scheduled weekly program with a Count Dracula-like host named Mr. Crypt, who would appear on the screen before and after each commercial break in a catacombs-like set complete with an open casket.

My parents never permitted me to stay up and watch Mr. Crypt on Friday nights. Maybe they thought that whatever I would see would frighten me and give me nightmares. But, like most children who discover there is something they want to do but have been forbidden to do, I persisted — until finally my parents agreed to let me stay up one Friday night and see Mr. Crypt.

The plan was for me to go to Gene’s house that Friday to spend the night. He and I would be allowed to watch Mr. Crypt together — with his grandmother monitoring.

To this day, there are many things about that night that I don’t know, that I never knew.

I don’t know, for example, if my parents and Gene’s grandmother conspired together and watched the TV listings for a movie that was going to be shown on Mr. Crypt that they thought wouldn’t traumatize our young minds. Then, when such a movie listing was found, they decided to allow us to stay up with Mr. Crypt.

Maybe they hoped the movie would be so boring that we would have no more interest in Mr. Crypt.

That’s possible.

But Gene and I were two very excited youngsters that night — and we burned out early, long before the movie came on, and fell asleep. Gene’s grandmother tried to rouse us when the movie came on, but there was never a time when both of us were fully conscious.

My only memories, after being awakened, were of fleeting black-and-white images, some organ music and the obligatory scream — and the occasional commercial break with Mr. Crypt. It seems to me that both Gene and I fell asleep for good after a few minutes and never saw very much of the movie — whatever it was.

I don't think this occurred during the Halloween season. When Gene and I tried to stay up to watch Mr. Crypt, I was still at the age where I dressed up for Halloween and went on trick-or-treat rounds. But I don't associate the Mr. Crypt experience with Halloween at all.

Except for the mutual link to scary movies.

On Thursday, Oct. 30, and Friday, Oct. 31, Turner Classic Movies will be showing the kinds of movies that used to be shown on Mr. Crypt's Friday night program when I was a little boy.

Few, if any, will be listed among the classic films of all time, but they're worth watching if you want to experience the feelings that movies about the wolfman or the mummy or Frankenstein or Dracula used to evoke in the days before Stephen King novels and "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" movies monopolized the genre.

On Thursday, Oct. 30, you can see:
  • "The Thing From Another World" at 3:45 a.m. (Central).

  • "Mad Love" with Peter Lorre at 5:15 a.m. (Central).

  • "The Beast With Five Fingers" with Peter Lorre at 6:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "I Walked With a Zombie" at 8 a.m. (Central).

  • "Curse of the Demon" at 9:15 a.m. (Central).

  • "The Gorgon" at 11 a.m. (Central).

  • "Mr. Sardonicus" at 12:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "The Tomb of Ligeia" with Vincent Price at 2:15 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Tingler" with Vincent Price at 4 p.m. (Central).

  • "House of Usher" with Vincent Price at 5:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "Dead of Night" at 7 p.m. (Central).

  • "Torture Garden" with Jack Palance and Burgess Meredith at 9 p.m. (Central).

  • "Twice-Told Tales" with Vincent Price and Sebastian Cabot at 10:45 p.m. (Central).

  • "Kwaidan" at 1 a.m. (Central).
You might be surprised to know that, in spite of some of the titles, these films get pretty good reviews from online reviewers. I haven't seen most of them, but it looks like they have the potential to deliver those Halloween chills.

If those movies don't come through, then, on Halloween, Friday, Oct. 31, you can see:
  • "Spirits of the Dead" with Jane Fonda at 3:45 a.m. (Central).

  • "Cat People" from 1942 at 6:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "Freaks" at 8 a.m. (Central).

  • "The Devil Doll" at 9:15 a.m. (Central).

  • "Mark of the Vampire" with Bela Lugosi at 10:45 a.m. (Central).

  • "The Devil Bat" with Bela Lugosi at noon (Central).

  • "White Zombie" with Bela Lugosi at 1:15 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Body Snatcher" with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff at 2:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "Bedlam" with Boris Karloff at 4 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Ghoul" with Boris Karloff at 5:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Haunted Palace" with Vincent Price at 7 p.m. (Central).

  • "Die, Monster, Die!" with Boris Karloff at 8:30 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Shuttered Room" at 10 p.m. (Central).

  • "The Dunwich Horror" at 11:45 p.m. (Central).

  • "Blood Feast" at 1:30 a.m. (Central).

  • "Two Thousand Maniacs!" at 2:45 a.m. (Central).
Halloween just isn't Halloween if you don't watch a scary movie. I'll be writing more about the scary movies that are being televised in the next few weeks.