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.