Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sir Anthony

It's been kind of a dreary, rainy New Year's Eve here in Dallas, and I have been looking out my window, thinking about the past.

My only sibling — my younger brother — will celebrate his birthday on Saturday. And I have been thinking about when we were children, and I took a certain amount of pleasure from making sure the adults knew I was the older of the two.

At some point, I guess, older siblings discover that being older is not an advantage after all. And, I wonder, when exactly does that happen?

Well, I don't know if Sir Anthony Hopkins has any siblings. But, if he does — and if any of those siblings are younger than he is — I doubt if Sir Anthony ever reached the point where he felt he didn't enjoy the advantage. And he's 72 today.

I guess, if you took a poll asking people to name Hopkins' most memorable role, it would be Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." You might get some support for James Stevens in "The Remains of the Day" or Adolf Hitler in "The Bunker" or John Quincy Adams in "Amistad."

But, personally, I have always been fond of his performance as Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon."

I grew up during the Nixon years. I remember him very well. And I can tell you — beyond even the hint of a doubt — that Anthony Hopkins did not look like Nixon. And he didn't sound like him, either.

But he captured the essence of Nixon's introverted, paranoid personality. He was Richard Nixon, even though he neither looked nor sounded like him. For that, he was nominated for an Oscar. He lost, but that is beside the point.

That is the true test of Hopkins' skill. And it is the best reason I can think of why many people think he is the greatest living actor.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Taking a Day Off

Many people were shocked — and rightfully so — when John Hughes died last summer.

Although this has been a year that has been filled with the deaths of prominent persons, any recap of the deceased of 2009 would be incomplete without a mention of his name. Hughes wrote, directed and/or produced some of the most popular movies of the 1980s and 1990s.

Every December, as the new year approaches, Turner Classic Movies always runs a three– or four–minute tribute to those in the film industry who have died in the year coming to a close. While I haven't seen it yet, I'm sure Hughes' name will be included in TCM's roll of honor. But TCM has more than that in mind.

Tomorrow night, TCM will show four movies that feature the work of someone who has died in 2009. They're all worth watching if you can spare the time — "On the Waterfront" at 7 p.m. (Central), "Battleground" at 11 p.m. (Central) and "Ice Station Zebra" at 1:15 a.m. (Central).

But if you can only watch one, I suggest that you tune in at 9 p.m. (Central) for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

You could get into a lot of arguments over which movie was Hughes' best, and you could make a good case for your choice, whether it was "National Lampoon's Animal House," "The Breakfast Club," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink" or "Home Alone."

And I'm not saying that "Ferris Bueller" is Hughes' best. To cover that objective, you'd need to devote an entire broadcasting day, not just a couple of hours, to his work.

But "Ferris Bueller" is what is being shown — and it isn't a bad way to remember Hughes' contribution to film before the year is over.

It's the kind of adventure just about every teen–ager dreams of at one time or another. Ferris calls in sick, then borrows a Ferrari and hits the streets. Technically, it is a comedy, but Hughes managed to pull off a rare trifecta in filmmaking — a movie that had a generous helping of slapstick but was disarmingly lovable and sagacious at the same time.

I guess every generation has its storyteller, and Hughes told the stories of the generation that came of age in the late 20th century.

But, though the stories were crafted to fit a certain time, they were universal in their appeal — as any truly good film about teen angst is apt to be.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Babies

I was born on Thanksgiving Day. That's a holiday that is celebrated on different dates, but it is always on the fourth Thursday in November so, even in years when my birthday isn't actually on Thanksgiving, it falls in the general vicinity.

As I wrote last month on my birthday, which fell on Thanksgiving this year, that was a problem for my mother when she tried to plan birthday parties for me. My friends were often out of town for the holiday. Consequently, I cannot recall a time when my birthday party was held on my actual birthday.

I can only imagine the difficulties the parents of Christmas babies encounter.

But I thought it would be fitting today to give some recognition to entertainers who were born on Christmas. Like me, they probably never had a birthday party on their actual birthday when they were children.
  • You may never have heard of Evelyn Nesbit. She was a model and a chorus girl who is mostly remembered for her role in the murder of her former lover, architect Stanford White, by her husband, Harry K. Thaw, in 1906. She was born on Dec. 25, 1884.

    Thaw was tried twice for the crime. The jury deadlocked the first time. The second time, Thaw pleaded temporary insanity, and Thaw's mother promised Nesbit a quick divorce and a lucrative divorce settlement if she would testify that White had raped her, thus prompting Thaw to seek to avenge her honor. Nesbit complied, and she did receive her divorce but not the money.

    The episode was re–created in the 1981 film "Ragtime," which was based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name. In the movie, Nesbit was played by actress Elizabeth McGovern.

  • Likewise, you may not be familiar with the name of Robert Ripley, who was born on Dec. 25, 1890.

    In 1918, he was the creator of "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" that shared unusual facts from around the world with millions via newspapers, radio and TV.

    Originally, it focused on sports facts, but, in 1922, when Ripley took his first trip around the world, he incorporated the format for which the feature is famous. In 1929, he used the feature to bring attention to the fact that the United States, at that time, had no official national anthem. Thanks in large part to his efforts, a law was passed and signed in 1931 designating "The Star–Spangled Banner" as the national anthem.

    "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" is still going strong, still entertaining readers 60 years after Ripley's death.

  • Humphrey Bogart is such a famous actor that the mention of his name probably requires little elaboration.

    But it is worth remembering that he appeared in many great motion pictures — "The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Caine Mutiny" and the film for which he received his only Oscar, "The African Queen."

    In 1999, the centennial of Bogart's birth, he was named the greatest male star of all time by the American Film Institute.

    Bogart, who was born on Dec. 25, 1899, is the featured star on Turner Classic Movies this month.

  • Similarly, Rod Serling's name is probably familiar to most people — certainly to anyone who know of the Twilight Zone and Night Gallery TV series on which he worked.

    Serling, who was born on Dec. 25, 1924, also wrote movie screenplays, including one he wrote that eventually, after numerous rewrites, served as the foundation for 1968's "Planet of the Apes."

    A heavy smoker like Bogart, Serling died of a heart attack at the age of 50.

  • Want something a little more recent? How about singer Jimmy Buffett, who was born on Christmas Day in 1946?

    Or singer/actress Barbara Mandrell, who was born on Christmas Day in 1948?

    Or Oscar–winning actress Sissy Spacek, who was born on Christmas Day in 1949?

    I admit, it is hard to believe that Spacek is 60 years old today. The first thing I remember seeing her in was 1976's "Carrie," although I saw several of her earlier efforts in later years.

    She isn't the young beauty she was when she made "Carrie," but, like the Energizer Bunny, she just keeps going.

    And so do we all.

    Happy birthday, Sissy.
And a Merry Christmas to all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Star of 'Mister Ed' Dies at 78

In 2009, when it seems more celebrities than usual have died — and, for all we know, there may be more to come in the last eight days of the year — the death of a 78–year–old actress, whose most famous role was in support of a horse, probably would merit little attention.

We've seen many higher profile people die this year. Not all were from the world of entertainment, but many of them were. And in that more narrowly defined universe, there have been bigger names than Connie Hines' — Jennifer Jones and Brittany Murphy, in recent days alone — on the obituary pages in 2009.

That's understandable. In the 1960s TV series Mister Ed, all of the humans, even Ed's sidekick and straight man Wilbur Post, took second billing. But Hines didn't seem to mind.

Alan Young, who played Wilbur, said it was a "tough chore" to play Carol Post. "She was a girl married to a fellow listening to a horse. Her biggest line was 'Lunch is ready.' The rest of it was reacting to it. Connie never complained. How many actors would react that way?"

Playing Carol Post may not have been very challenging, but Hines did it for all six seasons, nearly 150 episodes. And when reruns of the show enjoyed a renewed popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hines relished the adoration of a whole new audience.

"I still get letters and now they're from 4–year–olds and 5–year–olds, and it's just wonderful," she said. "People stop me on the street and they say, you know, 'Thank you for being my babysitter.' "

Even in death, Hines may have been treated as an afterthought. She actually died in Beverly Hills, Calif., last Friday, but it wasn't reported publicly until it was confirmed this week by Young. That could have been deliberate.

But then, when it was confirmed that she had died, the Los Angeles Times incorrectly reported her birth date as June 5, 1930, when it was actually March 24, 1931 — and, consequently, initially reported that her age at her death was 79 when, in fact, she was 78.

We don't know the whole story behind that one, either. It was not uncommon for performers of Hines' generation — men as well as women — to give out false birth dates (for publicity purposes) that made them seem younger than they really were.

But that isn't the case here. The date originally given as Hines' birth date made her appear older. I must conclude, therefore, that the mistake originated elsewhere. Perhaps it was the newspaper's fault, perhaps it was someone else's.

I suspect Hines would have shrugged that off, though.

"She was always joyous," Young said. I have no reason to doubt that.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Young Frankenstein

Perhaps it is the fault of the Christmas season. Or perhaps it is due to other distractions.

But, somehow, it completely slipped below my personal radar that last Tuesday was the 35th anniversary of the theatrical release of one of my favorite movie comedies, "Young Frankenstein."

Well, better late than never, I suppose.

Actually, if you're tired of the Christmas movies and specials, an evening of "Young Frankenstein" ...

... with Eye–gor and Frohderick Fronkensteen might be just the antidote.

Truthfully, the movie was a loving parody of the movie version of Mary Shelley's horror classic, filmed in black and white like the famous 1931 film starring Boris Karloff and featuring spoofs of famous scenes with Mel Brooks' distinctive sense of humor. The original "Frankenstein" wasn't the only source of material. Brooks and co–writer Gene Wilder also borrowed from sequels "Bride of Frankenstein," "Son of Frankenstein" and "Ghost of Frankenstein," as well as "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man."

It's one of the few comedies I have ever seen that is still as funny today as it was the first time I saw it.

Some of the extraordinarily talented cast members — Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn— are deceased now. Others — Wilder, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Gene Hackman — are in their 60s, 70s or 80s.

But there may be no other film that gives you this kind of opportunity to enjoy them in their prime.

I must confess, one of my favorite pieces of dialogue is ...

Inga: Werewolf!
Dr. Frankenstein: Where wolf?
Igor: There.
Dr. Frankenstein: What?
Igor: There, wolf. There, castle.
Dr. Frankenstein: Why are you talking that way?
Igor: I thought you wanted to.
Dr. Frankenstein: No, I don't want to.
Igor: [shrugs] Suit yourself. I'm easy.

Or perhaps the running gag about Frau Blücher ...

Yep, I really like this movie.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's a Wonderful Life

Earlier this month, I observed — in passing — that the Christmas season isn't complete for some people until they have seen "It's a Wonderful Life."

I've been writing a lot about Christmas lately — and, as a warning to my regular readers, I plan to post a Christmas message at my Freedom Writing blog on Friday.

But today, I feel moved to write about "It's a Wonderful Life" — because tomorrow is the 63rd anniversary of its theatrical release.

I don't know if it is Frank Capra's best–known, best–loved or just plain best movie. In Capra's life — which even a casual observer would have to concede was pretty wonderful — he directed many movies that are considered classics today. Several were recognized at the time, and three, including "It's a Wonderful Life," are on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movies of all time.

I think it is safe to say, though, that it would be hard for anyone to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and not feel moved or inspired.

The story is about something that many people have contemplated at some point. George Bailey (memorably played by James Stewart), who has repeatedly sacrificed his dreams and goals for the benefit of others, is at his lowest point on Christmas Eve and is thinking about ending his life. He believes everyone would have been better off if he had never been born.

Unknown to him, though, all those people whose lives have been affected by his presence are begging God to intervene on his behalf, and an angel named Clarence is sent to earth to convince George that he has made a real difference in the lives of his friends and family and his hometown.

In the end, George is persuaded that it is true, which has always kind of reminded me of a line from another classic motion picture, "The Wizard of Oz." Near the end of that movie, the wizard is talking to the Tin Woodman, who has been looking for a heart. The wizard tells his lovelorn friend that one's heart "is not judged by how much you love — but by how much you are loved by others."

And George realizes that, with the exception of his nemesis, Henry Potter, he is, indeed, loved by many — and that he is, in the words of his brother, "the richest man in town."

Christmas never comes at a time when life is great for everyone on the planet. Even in the best, most prosperous times, there are always people who have no job, no home, only the clothes they are wearing to protect them from the elements, only the food scraps they find in garbage bins to satisfy their gnawing hunger.

And these aren't the best of times.

In what remains of this Christmas season, if you've been blessed enough to have things that others can only dream of, I urge you to share some of your bounty with the less fortunate.

And, if you haven't seen "It's a Wonderful Life" this holiday season, you can see it this Thursday at 7 p.m. (Central) on your NBC station.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Have a Ball

Eleven years ago — on Dec. 12, 1998 — Saturday Night Live aired its ninth (and funniest) presentation of "Delicious Dish," a parody of public radio programs.

On that night, the "hosts" — Margaret–Jo McCullen (played by Ana Gasteyer) and Teri Rialto (played by Molly Shannon) — interviewed a baker named Pete Schweddy (played by guest host Alec Baldwin), who extolled the virtues of his holiday balls.

And that opened the door for all sorts of sexual double entendres, which prompted some people to denounce SNL for not showing the proper reverence for the Christmas season.

Well, it was hardly the first — or last — time that SNL has had risqué or objectionable content. Most of the time, it's been shrugged off by longtime viewers as a "guilty pleasure."

Be that as it may, if one believes in God (and that Jesus was his son), it follows — logically — that God gave people a sense of humor — and that laughter was God's gift to humanity as well.

So watch the skit again. Enjoy it. Don't feel guilty about laughing.

Good times.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Time for the Twilight Zone Marathon

In two weeks, the new year will be upon us. The arrival of a new year is an occasion to indulge in some established, well–known traditions, like drinking champagne, getting a kiss for luck and singing "Auld Lang Syne."

Some traditions are not as obvious but are, nevertheless, significant.

For example, if you're like me, you love the original Twilight Zone TV series — the one that had Rod Serling and some great writers and some great performers.

And, if you love the Twilight Zone, perhaps you've gotten in the habit of watching the annual New Year's and Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathons on SciFi — excuse me, that is Syfy now.

Well, I have some news. If you watched the marathon last summer, you know that the first half of the marathon was devoted to episodes from the series' second incarnation — in the mid–1980s. Some Twilight Zone purists never really took to the revival. I don't know why. Maybe it was because it was in color or because Serling wasn't part of the project. Neither of those things could be changed. Television had long since converted to color programming by the time the revival came on the air, and Serling had been deceased for a decade.

Personally, I enjoyed the revival series, and I enjoyed seeing some of those episodes again last summer. I have seldom had the opportunity to see them since the first time they were shown.

Well, I've been looking at the schedule for the New Year's marathon at the Syfy website, and, unfortunately, it does not appear that the episodes from the second series will be part of it.

As I say, some Twilight Zone fans will see that as a good thing, and I guess it is hard to argue the point. It means there will be two consecutive days and nights, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, of Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone, which is probably appropriate, since 2009 marked half a century since the debut of the Twilight Zone.

Anyway, I want to alert you to some of the best episodes and when you can see them.

I like to refer to on these things. Visitors can rate every episode of every TV series on that site, and last year I did a rundown of the series' top 10 — and when viewers could see them. Let's see if the top 10 episodes have changed and when each will be shown this year. (By the way, all times are Central because that is the time zone where I live.)

OK. I'll spare you some suspense. The order changed (based on visitors' ratings during the year), but nine of the Top 10 are the same as they were a year ago.

  1. The most popular episode is unchanged. "The Eye of the Beholder" from 1960 will be shown at 8:30 p.m. on New Year's Day. It stars Donna Douglas, who later played Elly Mae Clampett.

  2. Number 2, also from 1960, "A Stop at Willoughby," moves up from #3. It can be seen at 5:30 p.m. on New Year's Day.

  3. The third–rated episode, "The Midnight Sun," aired in 1961 and was rated second last year. It will be shown at 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve.

  4. "The After Hours" from 1960 made a rather dramatic jump, from sixth to fourth. I've never been terribly wild about it so it's hard for me to understand, but I guess it's a matter of taste. Judge for yourself at 9:30 p.m. on New Year's Day.

  5. The fifth–rated episode, 1962's "To Serve Man," is unchanged from last year. It will be shown at 10 p.m. on New Year's Eve.

  6. "It's a Good Life," from 1961, moves up from #8. It is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on New Year's Day.

  7. "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You," from 1964, tumbled from #4, which was fine with me. It airs at midnight on New Year's Eve.

  8. "The Masks," also from 1964, moved up from #9. Check it out at 8 p.m. on New Year's Day.

  9. "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" from 1961 moves up from 10th last year. It will be shown at 10 p.m. on New Year's Day.

  10. The newcomer to the top 10, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" from 1963, replaces 1961's "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," which was rated seventh last year but fell all the way out of the top 10. It's on at 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
Actually, these episodes are always on the Syfy marathon. What I look for are the episodes one seldom sees. And there are always a few.
  • One of the things you seldom see are the one–hour episodes, which were originally aired exclusively in the fourth season (1962–63). There were only 18 of them, and they have a somewhat different tone from the others.

    As I understand it, the Twilight Zone had been replaced in the fall 1962 lineup by an hour–long sitcom, which didn't last. Twilight Zone was brought back as a mid–season replacement in the sitcom's time slot, but that meant producing hour–long episodes instead of half–hour episodes. Apparently, few of those who worked on the series were wild about the change.

    You can catch one of my favorites, "Valley of the Shadow," at 7 a.m. on New Year's Eve. In this episode, a reporter is trapped in a small town where people can do all kinds of fantastic things.

    Then, if you happen to be up at 6 a.m. on New Year's Day, you can catch another one that I always recommend, "He's Alive," which stars a young Dennis Hopper as a neo–Nazi leader being advised by a shadowy figure — who turns out to be Hitler himself. Planning to sleep in on New Year's Day? Use your TiVo or a DVR and record it. Even after nearly 50 years, it is a timely story.

    Then, at 7 a.m. on New Year's Day, you can watch "Death Ship," which is probably more dated. Three men on board a spacecraft land on a planet where they find the wreckage of a ship that looks a lot like theirs. Two of the men believe it is their ship and they are now dead.

  • I also look for half–hour episodes that I rarely see.

    One that doesn't seem to be shown often is "Deaths–Head Revisited" from 1961. A former Nazi captain returns to the concentration camp he ran during the war — only he encounters the ghosts of the prisoners he victimized.

    You can see it at noon on New Year's Day.

  • Another seldom seen episode, 1960's "The Last Flight," will be shown at 10 a.m. on New Year's Eve. It's about a World War I pilot who flies through a cloud and finds himself at a modern air base.

    You might not recognize the English actor who plays the pilot. His name is Kenneth Haigh, and I think most of his work has been done on English productions. However, he did have a relatively small role in the Beatles' first motion picture, "A Hard Day's Night."

  • I guess I'm sort of partial to episodes about flight, and one of my favorites, which also seems to be shown fairly infrequently, is "The Odyssey of Flight 33" from 1961.

    In the episode, an airliner is making what seems to be a routine trip from London to New York, but along the way it takes a trip back in time ... way back in time. In the attached clip, you will see a couple of brief segments using a dinosaur model from Jack Harris' 1961 film "Dinosaurus." Using that footage cost the producers of the show $2,500, making it the most expensive sequence aired in the original series.

  • If you happen to be up at 1 a.m. (again, that's Central time) on New Year's morning, you can catch 1961's "The Grave," an old West tale about a hired gun (played by Lee Marvin) who comes to a town looking for an outlaw who has already been killed in an ambush. As he was dying, the outlaw vowed to reach up from his grave and grab Marvin if he ever came near his resting place.

    Of course, he does.

  • Immediately after that episode, you can see another episode from 1961, "Two," about two people — a man and a woman — from opposing armies, the only survivors of an apocalyptic war. Played by Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, the two adhere, at first, to the mutual suspicions of their former governments, but they realize, as the show goes on, that they have no reason to fight anymore.

    I always assumed that, because Bronson spoke in English and Montgomery spoke in what sounded (to my ear, at least) like Russian, it was an allegory for the U.S.–Soviet Union Cold War clash that raged at the time. Thus, it may seem quite dated now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and nearly 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    But it's still worth watching, especially since it is rarely seen on TV anymore.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Classic ... 70 Years Later

This is the trailer from the 1961 re–issue of "Gone With the Wind."

Some folks will tell you that "Gone With the Wind" is the greatest American film ever made.

Whether it is or not, it is certainly highly regarded.

It didn't finish in the top slot in the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies of all time list — but it did end up in the Top 10.

And most movie buffs agree that "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca" and "The Godfather" were better.

But "GWTW" — as some movie fans like to call it — has been a classic virtually since it premièred at Loew's Grand Theatre in Atlanta 70 years ago today.

It set a record for Academy Awards — winning 10 — that stood for two decades until "Ben–Hur" came along. That was quite an achievement, considering that 1939 is still regarded as Hollywood's greatest year by many movie aficionados. It told a story about a critical period in American history that may well have been romanticized, but even today, the movie is recalled by students of film as one of the most enduring symbols of the golden age of Hollywood.

The film caused quite a commotion on Dec. 15, 1939, when it premiered in Atlanta. The actual premiere came at the end of three days of festivities that former President Jimmy Carter, who was a Georgia teenager at the time, called "the biggest event to happen in the South in my lifetime."

Ironically, the Jim Crow laws on the books at the time kept the black members of the cast from attending the premiere. Clark Gable was going to boycott the premiere in protest, but Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mammy, persuaded him to attend.

To my knowledge, no festivities were planned in Atlanta today. Apparently, a 70th anniversary celebration was held last month in nearby Marietta.

Well, "Gone With the Wind" always did seem to write its own rules.

Can anyone deny its lasting influence on American culture, especially when one thinks of such lines as:
  • "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

  • "After all, tomorrow is another day!" and

  • "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."
So much of "Gone With the Wind" has become familiar over the years that it naturally lent itself to parody — the best of which, undeniably, was the one Carol Burnett and her colleagues did in the 1970s.

Imitation, they say, is the most sincere form of flattery. And I'm sure the cast would have been flattered, but most were dead by the time that parody aired. The film's last survivng principal cast member was Olivia de Havilland — and I don't know if she ever saw it.

Well, the now 93–year–old de Havilland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar four times in her movie career, and she won the statuette twice.

But mark my words.

When she dies, the first line of her obituary will not say that she was a two–time Best Actress winner.

It will say she was "Melanie Hamilton" in "Gone With the Wind."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Excelsis Deo

Ten years ago, I became a fan of The West Wing. I still admire the show, even though it has been off the air for more than three years.

From the series' debut in September 1999, it was clear to me that the writing and acting were head and shoulders above just about anything else on network TV. That impression was permanently reinforced 10 years ago Tuesday, when "In Excelsis Deo" aired.

It was the first program with a Christmas theme on The West Wing, and the story was deceptively simple, but it delivered a potent punch at the end. Toby, the communications director, was summoned to a park where a homeless man had died on an unusually cold night. The man was wearing a coat Toby had given to charity, and one of his business cards was found in the pocket.

Toby saw a Marine Corps tattoo on the man's arm and realized he served in the Korean War. He set out to find the man's next of kin (the only relative he could locate was a brother, also homeless) and arranged for a funeral and an honor guard, using the influence of the president's office.

When he found out, the president could only manage mild exasperation, confirming that "We're still in NATO, right?" and Toby went ahead with the funeral, accompanied by the man's brother and the president's secretary, Mrs. Landingham.

Earlier in the episode, Mrs. Landingham revealed that the holidays always brought her down because her twin sons had been killed in Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1970. And she lamented the fact that she hadn't been there for her sons when they were dying.

Anyway, try as she might to feign her disapproval, it was clear that she was glad Toby had done what he did. That's why she insisted on joining him. And so the two went to the funeral for a man they never met.

You can see the conclusion of the episode in the attached clip, and I sincerely hope you will take the time to watch it. It was a powerful episode, involving many stories at once, all of which had their unique connections to the Christmas season, but the story of the homeless man was clearly the centerpiece.

It seems that every series in the history of television has had at least one Christmas episode, and there were others in The West Wing's seven–year run, but "In Excelsis Deo" was a standout.

I guess if I was going to quibble over technicalities, I would point out that it appears that a 21–gun salute is fired in the homeless veteran's honor, but 21–gun salutes traditionally are reserved for presidents, former presidents and other heads of state.

That's a minor point, though, one that can be dismissed as poetic license. If you don't have the DVD of that first season, rent it and watch the episode. It is a reminder of what is truly important at this time of year.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Holiday Season Begins

Thanksgiving dinner is behind us now, and the countdown to Christmas is under way.

Which brings me to today's topic. It was 20 years ago today that "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" was released.

There are many movies and TV specials that are holiday favorites. For some people, it wouldn't be Christmas if they didn't watch "Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas" or "It's a Wonderful Life."

Traditionalists will tell you their favorite holiday movies are "Holiday Inn" or "Miracle on 34th Street" or "White Christmas." In recent years, it seems the trendy holiday movie has been "A Christmas Story," but you will find devotees to "Elf" and "The Santa Clause."

For my mother, "We're No Angels," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov in the mid–1950s, was what put her in a holiday frame of mind. I guess that is a little ironic because another movie by that name (but with a completely different story line and starring Sean Penn and Robert De Niro) came out two weeks after "Christmas Vacation."

(Actually, as anyone who knew her would tell you, it took very little to put Mom in the holiday spirit.)

But, for me, my favorite holiday film has been "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" for the last two decades.

Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo returned as Clark and Ellen Griswold for the third installment in the "Vacation" series of films, but they were paired with their third different son and daughter (the children also were recast in the 1985 sequel, "European Vacation"). Randy Quaid reprised his role as Cousin Eddie from the original 1983 film, and so did Miriam Flynn as his wife Catherine.

No matter how many times I see it, the segment in which Clark tries to illuminate his house with Christmas lights always makes me laugh. It's an exaggeration, of course, but, like any good exaggeration, it is based in truth.

Well, exaggeration has always been the specialty of National Lampoon movies. And Chevy Chase's rant about his boss probably hasn't been much of an exaggeration for some folks.

But mixed in with the exaggeration is some real truth.

I can think of few scenes in any holiday movies that capture the feeling of safety and security that comes with Christmas — along with that wistful feeling of missing those who were integral parts of Christmases past and are no longer with us — quite as well as the attic scene from "Christmas Vacation."

When I see Chevy Chase prowling around in the attic, looking for a place to stash Christmas presents, it reminds me of my mother. And when he watches the holiday films he discovers, I am transported back to the Christmases of my childhood, when my mother and my grandparents and our family's closest friends were still with us.

It may be hard to remember at times, but Christmas is about more than commercialism. It's about being with those we love — and remembering those who are gone.

Mixed with the laughter, "Christmas Vacation" does a splendid job of reminding us what's really important at this time of year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Don't Miss One of Bogart's Best

I've been a Humphrey Bogart fan for a long time, and Turner Classic Movies will be showing one of his best tonight.

I guess, if you asked other Bogart fans of long–standing to name his best movie, they might say "Casablanca" or "The Maltese Falcon." Maybe they would mention the movie he won his Oscar for, "African Queen," or maybe they would select "The Caine Mutiny" or even "Sabrina." Maybe something else.

Those are all good films, but the very best Bogart movie, in my opinion, is "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and TCM will show it at 8:45 p.m. (Central).

Bogart, by the way, is TCM's star of the month (Christmas will be his 110th birthday), and you can see his movies on Wednesdays in December. In fact, if you miss "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" tonight, you can catch it again in a couple of weeks. TCM plans to show it again on Dec. 16 at 11 p.m. (Central).

His career was built on a tough guy persona, and he didn't disappoint his audiences in his later films. His character certainly was central to this morality play about greed among gold prospectors. And, given today's economic meltdown that appears to have been brought on by excessive greed among lenders, it's a theme that is well worth visiting again.

Need some other reasons to watch? Well, you can see a young Robert Blake. It wasn't his first movie, but you can see what he looked like when he was about 14 or 15.

Here's another reason. Ever heard the line "We don't need no stinkin' badges?" Well, that line originated in this movie. Except it is frequently misquoted. The actual line was "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"

Still need more? Well, it's a chance to see a movie that occupies a unique slot in filmmaking history. Only one family in motion picture history has had Oscar winners in three different generations. That family is the Huston family, and two of those three family members, Walter and his son John, won Oscars for this movie. Walter was recognized for best supporting actor, John was recognized for directing and writing an adapted screenplay.

(Incidentally, although the three never worked in a film together, they were connected professionally — the third member of the family to win an Oscar, John's daughter Anjelica, received Best Supporting Actress for her work in a film that was also directed by her father, "Prizzi's Honor.")

Whatever your reason for watching may be, just watch it. You will find the experience rewarding.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Faustian Vision of Dorian Gray

"In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust."

Oscar Wilde

Recently, an old school chum and I were chatting on Facebook. And we agreed that no graduating class at our high school ever had as many beautiful women as ours did.

He still lives in my hometown (which is much larger today than it was when I lived there) and he attended our most recent class reunion. Apparently, so did many of our still–beautiful classmates, prompting him to speculate that many of them had grotesque paintings of themselves in their attics — an allusion, in case you don't know it, to "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Before long, you'll be up to your eyeballs in happy, cheery holiday movies. Everywhere you turn, you will be assaulted by the music of the season. There will be endless stories about angels and Christmas miracles. It will be — as it always is — enough to bring out one's inner Scrooge.

But before you're buried under Christmas cheer, I just want to alert you to tonight's showing of the 1945 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic horror tale, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It's going to be shown on Turner Classic Movies at 11 p.m. (Central), and I highly recommend it.

At this time of the year, I think of it as the anti–"It's a Wonderful Life." Not that there is anything wrong with "It's a Wonderful Life," but rest assured there is absolutely no resemblance between George Bailey and Dorian Gray.

(Although, it should be noted, Donna Reed is in both movies.)

The main character of the story is a young man (clearly, Dorian Gray) who believes physical perfection is the only objective in life. He commissions an artist to paint his portrait, and then he proceeds to commit virtually every sin known to man. With each decadent act, the man in the portrait shows a new physical flaw or evidence of aging, but Dorian retains his youthful looks, even as years pass and his friends and acquaintances all age around him.

To modern viewers, I'm sure that doesn't sound like much of a horror movie — more of a fantasy, probably. Maybe, although it does combine black–and–white photography with color photography, which was kind of unusual in those days. The color is used to draw one's attention to the changes in the face in the portrait, but the other camera tricks accomplish much the same thing.

I don't want to say too much more about the plot, but I think the cast deserves to be singled out. Not everyone. Hurd Hatfield, for example, leaves a lot to be desired in the role of Dorian Gray, in my opinion, but his mentor, played by George Sanders, is splendidly cast. So, too, is a young Angela Lansbury, who plays Dorian's love interest and received the second of her three Best Supporting Actress nominations for her work.

And Peter Lawford is young in this film, but that is deceiving. While in his early 20s when he appeared in this movie, Lawford already was a veteran of more than a dozen motion pictures.

As with any really good horror movie, though, the thing that really stands out in this movie is the camera work. And cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. won an Oscar (deservedly) for "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

For a student of motion pictures, though, I think "The Picture of Dorian Gray" should be intriguing because it shows how the definition of horror changes over the years. Camera work, as I say, is always an important element, but there have been distinct differences over the years. In the 1930s, horror movies featured the golden–age monsters, like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." Then the emphasis shifted to eerie themes.

Sometimes, as I implied, there has been a supernatural twist, and "Dorian Gray" certainly suggests a Faustian bargain has been struck.

It has only been in recent decades that horror has come to be regarded as synonymous with blood and gore, which is certainly evil and horrifying (although I guess whether it is supernaturally inspired is a subject for a different kind of discussion).

So anyone who tunes in tonight expecting to see a slasher flick is in for a major disappointment.

But if you aren't expecting that, there are many rewards to derive from "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

And, as a seasonal benefit, while I probably would have urged that it be shown around Halloween, it may fortify you for all the sugary sweet movies that are in your path in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Holiday Treat With Grace Kelly

On Thanksgiving night, Turner Classic Movies will conclude its "Star of the Month" tribute to Grace Kelly with the last three movies she made and a 32–minute short film of her 1956 marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco.

It's always a treat to see Grace Kelly in a movie, but one of the movies scheduled to be shown on Thursday night clearly stands out above the other two. It is the last film she made for Alfred Hitchcock, "To Catch a Thief," and there are so many things to recommend about it that I hardly know where to begin.

I guess we could start with the sterling cast that Hitchcock assembled — Cary Grant, John Williams, Jessie Royce Landis (her name may not be familiar to many viewers, but her face probably is — she and Grant were reunited in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" a few years later and she co–starred with Kelly again in TCM's third Grace Kelly film of the evening, "The Swan").

Another reason to watch the film is the gorgeous scenery. It was filmed on the French Riviera. In fact, there was a persistent rumor, after Kelly suffered a stroke in 1982 and died the next day from injuries she sustained when the car she was driving went out of control and crashed, that she had been driving on the same mountainside highway that she had driven so recklessly with Grant sitting next to her in "To Catch a Thief." Her son repeatedly denied that there was any truth to the rumor.

Unlike most Hitchcock movies, it isn't about a murder. It's about a jewel thief who is at large. Grant plays a retired jewel thief who is assumed to be guilty by just about everyone, although he insists he is innocent.

It was a groundbreaking film for Hitchcock, too. It was his first film in the widescreen process VistaVision.

Some people dismiss it as one of Hitchcock's lesser films. I have two things to say in response:
  1. Most movie directors can only hope to match the quality of Hitchcock's "lesser" films.

  2. The movie was made years before I was born so I have no idea what audience reactions were like in 1955. But with its cast, the cinematography and the snappy dialogue, "To Catch a Thief" must have been a real pleasure to watch, thoroughly entertaining and engrossing.

    It still is.
TCM will show it at 7 p.m. (Central) on Thursday.

My birthday happens to fall on Thanksgiving this year. And I can think of few gifts that I will enjoy more than an evening of Grace Kelly movies.

The short film of the wedding comes on at 1 a.m. (Central). I've never seen it, but, if you're expecting something lengthy and grand, like the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana, prepare yourself. Grace and Rainier were married in a 40–minute civil ceremony in the Palace Throne Room. There was a church ceremony the next day.

Apparently, everything was televised in Europe. But it doesn't seem to have been as ornate as Charles and Diana's wedding. Anyway, as I say, I've never seen it. Judge for yourself.

The Origin

Bert Cates: "For our science lesson for today, we will continue our discussion of Darwin's theory of the descent of man. Now, as I told you yesterday, Darwin's theory tells us that man evolved from a lower order of animals. From the first wiggly protozoa here in the sea to the ape and finally to man. Now, some of you fellahs out there are probably going to say that's why some of us act like monkeys."

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Back in February, on the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, I observed that it was also the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth. In the history of mankind, rarely have two such influential individuals been brought into the world on the same day.

I am reminded of that because today is the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," which is regarded as the foremost scientific work on evolutionary biology.

I am not a scientist, but one does not have to be a scientist to understand the profound influence Darwin's work has had. Certain evolutionary theories already existed before Darwin's book was published, and Darwin's writing served to put many of those theories into context for people like me.

Unfortunately, it also drove a wedge between those who accepted the Bible's account of the beginning of human life on earth and those who found answers in Darwin that supported recent biological discoveries.

That conflict between biblical literalists and those who believed Darwin had solved some of the riddles of existence has continued for 150 years.

It could be seen in the famed "Scopes monkey trial" of the 1920s, in which John T. Scopes was convicted of "teaching evolution" in public school — in violation of Tennessee state law. That trial was the inspiration for one of my favorite movies, "Inherit the Wind."

It could be seen in the conflict produced by laws that were passed (and then struck down in court) in recent decades that required balanced teaching of "creation science" and evolution in public schools.

And it has been seen recently in the "intelligent design movement."

Well, it's all theoretical, I suppose. What bothers me is how people so often feel they must support one side or the other. Those who take Genesis' account of creation literally probably cannot be persuaded to accept Darwin's theories, and vice versa.

As for myself, I have never believed that Darwin's writings were, in any way, irreconcilable with religious faith. In fact, it seems to me that the theory of evolution supports the belief that life is a long, ongoing miracle.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Literary Inspiration

Playwright Neil Simon has written many funny plays in his life with many memorable characters and many memorable lines.

It would be hard to pinpoint which play — or which character or which line — would be his best (it's a matter of taste, I suppose), but there is one line from one of his plays that always makes me smile. It's from "The Odd Couple," Simon's play about a pair of divorced, mismatched roommates. At one point, they are entertaining a couple of British siblings, Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon.

One of the sisters (I forget which one) asks Felix, who is a newswriter in the play (and the movie version as well), "Where do you get your ideas from?"

With a bewildered look on his face, Felix replies, "From ... the news."

In Felix's defense, it does seem like a rather obvious thing. Especially to me, because I worked for newspapers for many years.

But I've been writing since I was a child, and inspiration is an important topic for me. Like Ms. Pigeon, I am curious about what inspires other writers.

And today provides an answer — in one case, anyway. It was an event that inspired Herman Melville to write his classic "Moby–Dick."

On this day in 1820, a whaling ship, the Essex, was attacked and sunk by an 80–ton sperm whale in the south Pacific Ocean. The sailors on board the ship got into lifeboats and managed to get to an uninhabited island in the modern British territory of the Pitcairn Islands, where they found food and water, but, after a week, they had just about consumed the island's resources and decided it could no longer support their needs.

Once again, most of the sailors boarded the lifeboats and left the island, although three of the crew members chose to remain.

From that point, the story of the sailors who left the island resembles the Donner Party of the American West a quarter of a century later. Some of the sailors did survive until they were rescued by another whaling ship about three months after the Essex was sunk — but only after they resorted to cannibalism.

Eventually, the sailors who had stayed on the island were rescued as well, but they were almost dead when they were picked up.

The first mate of the Essex wrote an account of the sinking, which, in turn, inspired Melville.

It's worth noting that Melville was born a little more than a year before the Essex was sunk, and he didn't publish "Moby–Dick" until 1851.

Happy 70th Birthday, Dick Smothers

If you're old enough to remember the late 1960s, you probably remember "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

It was a variety show that was decidedly left–leaning in its politics. It was on the air in the era of the "Generation Gap," and the gap was never as easy to see as it was in generational viewing choices. On Sunday nights, older viewers gravitated to more traditional programming, like "Bonanza" on NBC, or more neutral fare, like the ABC "Sunday Night Movie," while younger viewers were drawn to the Smothers Brothers with their hipper, edgier comedy and popular musical guests.

The comedy seems pretty tame when you look at it today, but I guess anything does after 40 years. And when you realize exactly how tame the comedy on the show really was, it makes it all the more difficult to understand the constant struggle between the show's writers and the network's censors. The Smothers Brothers couldn't resist satire, and they were always running into trouble over something that they said or planned to say about race, the president or the war in Vietnam.

The comedy seemed outrageous to me when I was 7 years old, but when I look at it today, I think to myself that I've seen things that were more risqué on "Saturday Night Live."

Tommy was a few years older, and one of the running gags on the show was his protest that "Mom always liked you best!" Tommy was the slow one, and some of the viewers related to that. Dick, meanwhile, came across as more intelligent, more knowledgeable — which also made him seem less approachable somehow.

Well, Mom may have liked Dick best, but Tommy got most of the punch lines.

Anyway, today, Dick is celebrating his 70th birthday. Tommy reached that milestone nearly three years ago. They still perform together after more than 50 years — the longest–lived comedy team in history.

Happy birthday, Dick. Glad you're still here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Premiere of Ben-Hur

On this day 50 years ago, the movie "Ben–Hur" premiered at Loew's State Theatre in New York.

A few months later, it won 11 Oscars, more than any film had ever won before. It is an achievement that has never been surpassed, and it has been matched only twice — by "Titanic" in 1998 and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in 2004.

Considering what the film accomplished, I figured that today would have been a good day for someone to show it. But I have checked my usual sources for classic movies, and no one seems to be showing it today. Perhaps they are waiting for a more significant anniversary — the 50th anniversary of the movie's release in England is next month, although why that would be considered more important than the New York premiere is beyond me.

Well, anyway, 2009 is clearly an appropriate time to watch the film. And it's important, I think, to view it in context. Bruce Eder observes, for, that it was "the culmination of a cycle of religious epics that dated back slightly more than a decade and closed out the genre as a viable Hollywood phenomenon."

I find his reasoning for the popularity of religious films in the 1950s — "the advent of the Cold War and the threat of thermonuclear annihilation likely made filmgoers start thinking about God, heaven, and the hereafter more than usual" — difficult to dispute.

Whether one is motivated by religious beliefs or a genuine affection for movies, "Ben–Hur" is worth seeing at least once. Be forewarned, though — it is lengthy (more than 3½ hours), and, if one is a devotee to the writings of Lew Wallace (a former Civil War general), there are some differences between his novel and the film adaptation.

But, even after 50 years, the chariot race is enough reason to see it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Farewell to a Great Writer

Tuesday, the world lost one of the best writers you probably never heard of.

His name was David Lloyd, and I didn't know much about him. But he wrote the episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust" for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1975 — and won an Emmy Award for it.

The episode was a true classic. If you've never seen it, you should watch the whole thing sometime, although it would be a good idea to be familiar with all the characters in the show before you do.

Chuckles the Clown was rarely seen on the show. He was more often mentioned as one of the personalities on WJM–TV, and he wasn't seen at all in this episode. But that was understandable because he had died.

To briefly summarize the story, pompous anchorman Ted Baxter was upset because news director Lou Grant forbade him from being the grand marshal at the circus parade. Instead, the circus hired Chuckles to be the grand marshal, and Chuckles went to the parade dressed as one of his trademark characters, "Peter Peanut." During the parade, a "rogue" elephant tried to shell him, causing Chuckles' death.

The bizarre circumstances surrounding Chuckles' death led to many jokes in the newsroom, many coming from news writer Murray Slaughter, who observed, at one point, "It could have been worse. He could have gone as Billy Banana — and had a gorilla peel him to death!"

Everyone seemed to see the humor in the situation except for Mary, who was shocked by her co–workers' insensitivity.

But, by the time of the funeral, everyone was appropriately composed and somber — except for Mary, who was unable to restrain herself during the eulogy, especially when the minister quoted the "Credo of a Clown:"
"A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants."

Finally, the minister told Mary that nothing would have pleased Chuckles more than for people to laugh at their memories of him, and he encouraged her to "laugh for Chuckles." At that point, Mary dissolved into tears.

I know very little about Lloyd, actually. I know he was 75, and I know, from the limited research I have done, that he wrote for several great sitcoms from the 1970s and 1980s, including The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers and Frasier.

Apparently, he worked with his son, Christopher, on the Frasier series. In addition to being a screenwriter for the show, Christopher Lloyd was a co–executive producer in the first couple of seasons and then was an executive producer for most of the rest of the series' run.

And a beautiful tribute to him can be found at a blog written by one of Lloyd's former colleagues, Ken Levine.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lloyd. Thanks for the memories.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Grace Kelly's Birthday Is Coming Up

Grace Kelly always reminded me of a line that was spoken by Andy Griffith on the old Andy Griffith Show.

In an early episode, Barbara Eden played a manicurist who came to Mayberry and began working at Floyd's barber shop. Her presence in town was welcomed by the men and resented by the women, but she seemed to be oblivious to all the attention that was paid to her physical charms.

So, finally, Andy took her aside and said to her, "I don't know whether you know this or not, but, uh ... well, uh ... nature's been good to you. I mean real, real, REAL good. I can't remember when I've seen nature spend so much time on any one person."

I don't think Grace Kelly was unaware that she was beautiful. And I don't think she was unaware of her talents as an actress. But sometimes I did think she was unaware of just how stunning she was.

And she was stunning all her life. When she suffered a stroke while driving down a mountainside road in 1982 and died from the injuries she sustained when the vehicle went out of control and crashed, she was still beautiful at the age of 52. If you are skeptical, just take a look at the picture at right that was taken of her a little over a year before her death.

Her career was brief. She made 11 films in five years, often co–starring with some of the top leading men of her era (Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Cary Grant, William Holden, Alec Guinness and Bing Crosby) and performing for some of the great directors of all time (including Alfred Hitchcock three times).

She really did seem to have every gift. But, as things turned out, Ted Kennedy could have been talking about her when he eulogized John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was killed in a plane crash 10 years ago — she had every gift but the gift of years.

And this month, Turner Classic Movies is showing Kelly's movies on Thursday nights, giving viewers a weekly opportunity to appreciate those gifts.

This Thursday is particularly special because it would have been her 80th birthday (and, one suspects, she still would have been beautiful upon entering her ninth decade). For the occasion, TCM is showing three of her best movies, all of which were made when she was 24 years old.

Two of her Hitchcock movies will get things started — first up is "Dial M For Murder" at 7 p.m. (Central), which tends to emphasize dialogue a little more than most Hitchcock films. And it may be one of the most predictable films she made, although that may have been inevitable, given that it started as a stage play.

That one will be followed by "Rear Window" at 9 p.m. (Central).

With the exception of "High Noon," which was shown on TCM last week, it may be the best movie she ever made.

I will always remember the first time I saw it. It was a couple of years after Kelly's death, and "Rear Window" was re–released at theaters to mark the 30th anniversary of its theatrical debut. It is the only Hitchcock movie I have ever seen on the big screen, and, for my money, that is the best way to experience a Hitchcock movie.

But even if you only see it on TV, it is well worth watching, particularly if you have never seen it before.

The final Grace Kelly film of the evening certainly deserves to be shown on her birthday. Her role in "The Country Girl," which will be shown at 11 p.m. (Central), was something of a stretch for her, but she handled it well and was rewarded with the Oscar for Best Actress.

I don't remember how old I was when I first saw a Grace Kelly film. But, from that moment on, she was my definition of true beauty. I vividly remember grieving when I heard she had died.

But I'm grateful that, thanks to films, she lives on for future movie fans to appreciate.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

It's High Time You Saw 'High Noon'

It's been 57 years since "High Noon" was released. The Western existed as a film genre long before director Fred Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer joined forces to make it, but, in many ways, "High Noon" redefined the phrase "Western classic."

If you consider yourself a fan of classic movies and you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it when Turner Classic Movies shows it tonight at 9 p.m. (Central).

It's part of a three–film salute to Grace Kelly. Actually, they're the first three films that featured Kelly (in chronological order), but, for my money, "High Noon" is the best of the three. The first film in the salute on TCM tonight was Kelly's debut, "Fourteen Hours," so she wasn't the star. Since it was her debut, Kelly's role was modest. But, for film historians, it is a rare opportunity to see how Kelly's brief film career began.

Then, after TCM shows "High Noon," you can watch a movie — "Mogambo" — that is probably a little better known than "Fourteen Hours," perhaps because Kelly's co–stars are more familiar to contemporary viewers.

But "High Noon," Kelly's second film, was stunning. The film's writer, Carl Foreman, said the story was meant as an allegory of the unimpeded rise of McCarthyism at the time. And, unlike nearly all the Westerns that came before, there was virtually no gunplay until the last 10 minutes or so.

In "High Noon," Kelly plays the Quaker bride of a Western marshal (played by Gary Cooper) whose wedding day is ruined by the anticipated arrival of a gang of killers. The ever–present clocks tick off the minutes of the story in real time, building the tension as Cooper resolves not to leave town as planned but remains to face the outlaws alone. It wasn't what he had in mind, but the citizens of the town refuse to stand with him and his pacifist bride leaves without him when she realizes he feels obligated to defend the town.

"High Noon" remains a controversial film. It lost Best Picture in a still disputed decision that awarded the Oscar to "The Greatest Show on Earth," and the image of a Western marshal begging for help so offended legendary Western star John Wayne that it led to the blacklisting of Foreman (who later wrote the screenplays for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Guns of Navarone").

But it was a groundbreaking film, and it remains a thought–provoking one. A true film fan cannot say that his or her movie viewing is complete until it has been seen at least once.

The film is ranked 27th on the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies of all time.

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Lynching Revisited

About 10 years ago, I was thumbing through the TV listings and I came across a film that was going to be shown called "The Murder of Mary Phagan."

I had never heard of the movie before — turned out it was made for TV and had been broadcast on NBC more than 10 years earlier — but it had quite a cast (Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Richard Jordan, Cynthia Nixon) and it was based on a true story. I never can resist a movie about an historical event, whether it is an event I have heard of or not, so I decided to watch it.

I was rewarded with one of the most incredible movie experiences — as well as one of the most disturbing stories — of my life.

Mary Phagan was a 13–year–old girl who was raped and murdered in Atlanta in 1913. Her body was found in the pencil factory where she worked, and the authorities charged the manager of the factory, Leo Frank, with the crime.

It was a sensational case, the O.J. Simpson case of its day. Like the Simpson case, it was used by many people for their own purposes. The media magnates of the time used it to sell newspapers. A Georgia politician/publisher built his political power base on it, along with popular support for the Ku Klux Klan. The prosecutor parlayed his fame into two terms as governor of Georgia.

Frank was a Jew, and Jews were particularly resented in the South of that time. So, even though the available evidence pointed to a black man, janitor Jim Conley, as the guilty party, Frank was the one who stood trial. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death, but he sought clemency from the outgoing governor, John Slaton, who reviewed the case, concluded that Frank was innocent and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, hoping that, at some point, he would be set free.

"Two thousand years ago another governor washed his hands and turned over a Jew to a mob," Slaton wrote. "For two thousand years that governor's name has been accursed. If today another Jew were lying in his grave because I had failed to do my duty, I would all through life find his blood on my hands and would consider myself an assassin through cowardice."

In spite of Slaton's efforts, a mob made up of more than two dozen "respectable" citizens — the son of a U.S. senator, a former governor, a sheriff (who provided the rope and table), lawyers, a doctor, politicians — kidnapped Frank from the state prison farm where he was incarcerated and lynched him in August of 1915.

Frank's execution was very organized. The conspirators planned to carry out the lynching in Marietta, more than 200 miles away. The lynching site was ready for them when they arrived. Frank asked to be allowed to write a letter to his wife. He also asked that his wedding ring be returned to her and that the lower half of his body be covered since he was wearing only a nightshirt when he was abducted.

There's a lot more to the story, and I presume it will be told when PBS airs a program about the case, "The People v. Leo Frank," which makes its debut in some markets tonight. Keep an eye on your local PBS listings to see when it will be shown in your area.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thoughts About 'Psycho'

Last night, I watched Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" on Turner Classic Movies.

I didn't intend to. I've seen it many times over the years. But it's one of those movies that, if I sit and watch it for even a minute or two, I'm hooked. Might as well resign myself to the idea that I'm going to sit in front of my television until the bitter end. And I did.

The problem is, though, that there is no time like the first time with a movie like "Psycho."

I can watch some comedies and enjoy the jokes over and over again. It doesn't matter how many times I've seen them.

And I can watch some dramas and marvel at the performances or the cinematography or the writing.

But suspense movies lose a lot when you know what's going to happen. The acting may be great, the cinematography may be remarkable, the writing may be brilliant. But without that deliciously uneasy sense of anticipation, a suspense movie almost loses its reason for being. There may be many things about the movie to appreciate, but I already know the story. So, while I watched "Psycho," I found myself paying little attention to the plot as my thoughts drifted to related subjects, such as ...
  • The first time I saw that movie. I was finishing my junior year in high school. In fact, school had just let out for the summer. One of the area's TV stations was going to show "Psycho" as the midnight movie on a Friday night, and my best friend's mother said we could watch the movie in her living room as long as we kept the sound low enough that she could sleep. So that Friday night, my friend and I, along with two other friends from our high school, turned off the living room lights and watched "Psycho" for the first time.

    When that knife started slashing at Janet Leigh in the shower, I jumped just as I have the first times I've seen the best suspense movies. But, no matter how good it was, it's never completely the same experience to watch a suspense movie once I've seen it.

  • Then I began to think about the fad several years ago in which classic black–and–white movies were "colorized," presumably to appeal to those modern viewers who won't watch a movie that isn't in color. That was something I never really liked. Black and white was a part of some movies. Like any new innovation, color was expensive at first. Some studios chose to use color, others didn't. In those early days, it was as much a financial decision as it was an artistic one.

    Sometimes, of course, the story demanded color. Can you imagine watching the Munchkins sing about the Yellow Brick Road or Judy Garland and the other stars sing about the Emerald City in black and white? "The Wizard of Oz" wouldn't have been the same experience if the Oz segments hadn't been in color.

    And the burning of Atlanta wouldn't have had the same impact if "Gone With the Wind" had been in black and white.

    But "Citizen Kane" is a black–and–white classic. So are "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon."

    As the years went by, the cost of color film production became less of a consideration. It struck me last night that "Psycho" could have been filmed in color. The cost wasn't as prohibitive in 1960 as it had been 20 years earlier, and Hitchcock certainly had made other films in color. But I'm not sure "Psycho" would have been as powerful in color. Black and white was as much a part of the story as the acting or the writing.

    I don't think color would have added anything to it.
Incidentally, if you want to see some of Hitchcock's best color films, I recommend that you switch on Turner Classic Movies on Monday night. "Vertigo" is on at 7 p.m. (Central), followed by "North by Northwest" at 9:15 p.m. (Central). James Stewart followed by Cary Grant. It doesn't get much better than that.