Friday, January 30, 2009

The Best of the Beatles

For nearly 30 years, I have regarded the murder of John Lennon as the most traumatic event of my college years.

I've loved the Beatles since I was a child. I can remember — vaguely, because I wasn't in school yet — when they came to America and the radio stations of the time were constantly playing "She Loves You" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

A lot of people probably wouldn't look at it that way. When many people think of 1980, they remember the economic woes the country experienced at that time. I was in college, not looking for a job — although I would be looking for one less than two years later — and my attention wasn't on gas lines or unemployment lines.

After Lennon was killed, one of the radio stations in Fayetteville, Ark., the city where I went to college, played nothing but Beatles music in a tribute to the murdered minstrel. The same station, as I recall, was the first to pass along the information to its local listeners that Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, had asked everyone to observe 10 minutes of silence the following Sunday in a tribute to her slain husband.

And, the following summer, I think it was the same radio station that did a special weekend-long tribute to the Beatles that was called "The Beatles From A to Z." During that tribute — which may have originated elsewhere and been distributed to stations across the country — Beatles songs were played in alphabetical order.

I remember listening to it and taping as much as I could, although there were obvious problems with creating the alphabetized broadcast. For example, the Beatles recorded some songs that were really medleys that combined several songs. How and where would one split them up so they could be represented as individual songs?

Such a medley appeared on the "Abbey Road" album, but it would require a meticulous job of editing to make sure that notes from the previous or subsequent songs did not bleed into the one in the spotlight. As I recall, the editors were not that meticulous.

Also, how would one alphabetize the titles in the way things are normally alphabetized? For example, the Beatles recorded a song on their "Abbey Road" album that was called "The End." Typically, a title that begins with an article, like the or a (another Beatles song was titled "A Day in the Life"), is alphabetized according to the next word in the title so the usual procedure would require that "The End" would be grouped in the "E's," not the "T's."

But the word "the" seems to be such an important part of that title that grouping the song with the "E's" seems to be an almost slavish devotion to academic procedure. And that seems contradictory to the spirit of the Beatles.

Nevertheless, as I say, I recorded as much of that program as I could, and I listened to those tapes for years — until they finally went the way of all things.

The concept of "The Beatles From A to Z" appealed to me. It implied a complete knowledge of the Beatles' repertoire. But, if I could go back and listen to those tapes again, I might be inclined to think they were incomplete — because they did not include two songs that were released in the 1990s as Beatles songs, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love."

Technically, I suppose, they wouldn't count as Beatles songs. They began as recordings that Lennon made by himself. Then, more than a decade after Lennon's death, the surviving Beatles, with Ono's blessing, added their vocal and instrumental contributions to the songs and released them on the first two volumes of the Beatles' "Anthology" CDs.

Both songs were big hits, but, although they featured all four Beatles, they probably wouldn't qualify as original Beatles music.

Anyway, this has served as a rather lengthy introduction to JamsBio Magazine's "Playing the Beatles Backwards" list of Beatles songs.

In what was probably inspired by the persistent stories of what could be heard when one played Beatles records backwards, the magazine put together a comprehensive list of Beatles songs, listing them in reverse order — from worst to best.

Such a list is bound to provoke debates among avid Beatles fans, although I'm inclined to agree with a comment left by one reader: "[I]f you're a true Beatles fan, none of their songs could be placed in any best/worst order, as they all have merit to a degree."

I guess the only things I would say about the list are as follows:
  • I agree that "Revolution 9" should be regarded as the worst recording by the Beatles. I'm not sure if it qualifies as music, since it is really a collage of unrelated sounds, compiled primarily by Lennon. At 8:22 in length, it is, I believe, the longest Beatles recording — more than a minute longer than "Hey Jude," which was one of the Beatles' biggest hits.

    It also was one of the songs from the Beatles' "White Album" that Charles Manson saw as a reference to the apocalypse. He interpreted "Revolution 9" as encouraging a racial war between white and black that would lead to the end of days that was foretold in the Book of Revelation.

    But all Manson's interpretation encouraged was a killing spree.

  • Likewise, I agree that the song that is listed as the best Beatles song — "A Day in the Life" — deserves to be near the top of the list. But was it the best song the Beatles ever recorded? That, I suppose, depends on one's individual taste.

    Personally, I have always liked "Across the Universe" and would consider it a strong contender for #1 (it comes in 37th on this list). Also, I've always loved the song "Norwegian Wood," which I remember hearing when it was first released (that song is listed at #56). I don't know if it's the best they ever did, but it deserves to be ranked higher.

  • I'll give JamsBio credit for getting "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" about right. Out of 185 songs, the magazine ranks that song just about in the middle, at #90. I really loathe that particular piece of fluff, though, and might have put it closer to "Revolution 9" if given the chance. I certainly would have put "Yer Blues," which occupies the 182nd slot, ahead of it.

    "Yer Blues," incidentally, is ranked right behind "Good Day Sunshine," a Paul McCartney tune that JamsBio rightfully dismisses as "happiness overload."

    "Many Beatles songs evoke joy; this one shoves joy down your gullet until you beg for mercy," the author, "JBev," points out, although JBev concedes that "I suppose there might come a day when I win the lottery, or the Vikings win the Super Bowl, or that annoying co-worker falls down the steps, when I'll step out into the radiant afternoon and belt out 'Good Day Sunshine' at the top of my lungs.

    "Nah, it'll still be annoying."
Similar comments are provided for each song, making JamsBio's list an entertaining read, whether you're a Beatles fan or not.

And, by the way, "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" didn't make the list. If it wasn't a product of the actual "Beatlemania" period, I guess it wasn't considered genuine.

That's another matter that is open to debate.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lynyrd Skynyrd Keyboardist Dies

Unless you were a teenager in the 1970s, you may not recognize the name of Billy Powell.

But Powell was the keyboardist for Lynyrd Skynyrd, perhaps the most successful Southern rock band of all time.

The news from Jacksonville, Fla., today is that Powell has died at the age of 56. He apparently had a heart attack.

I was a senior in high school when the plane carrying Powell and the rest of the band developed engine trouble and crashed in Mississippi in October 1977. Not all the band members were killed, but Powell was the only one whose injuries did not prevent him from attending the funerals of the ones who were killed.

The day after the crash, I remember that someone wrote on the chalkboard in one of my classes, "Lynyrd Skynyrd Tickets for Sale — Cheap." A bit of gallows humor — Lynyrd Skynyrd had been scheduled to play a concert in Little Rock a couple of days later. I went to high school in a town about 30 miles northwest of Little Rock.

I don't know why that particular memory popped into my mind upon hearing of Powell's death. I guess the news has dredged up some long-forgotten memories from that time in my life.

According to reports, Powell had an appointment with his cardiologist earlier this week, but he didn't make it. Rescue crews apparently responded to an emergency call from Powell early this morning but were unable to save him.

Powell started as a roadie with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those who are familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd's song "Free Bird" surely are familiar with the keyboard intro for that song. Powell was the one who composed it, and upon hearing Powell play it, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant invited him to join the band.

Van Zant was among those who were killed in the plane crash. The band's current singer, Van Zant's brother Johnny, said, "You know, they say they've got one hell of a band up in heaven. My brother Ronnie up in heaven is probably saying, 'Billy, what took you so long?' I'm sure they're catching up on things in heaven."

And another piece of my youth is gone.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New (Old) Challenges

Recently, I saw one of my favorite episodes of the "Frasier" TV series. It was first aired nearly six years ago, and it is called "Fraternal Schwinns."

In the episode, Frasier got roped into participating in a bike-a-thon that his radio station employer was sponsoring to raise funds for AIDS research. As observers soon learned, neither Frasier nor his brother Niles learned how to ride bikes when they were children. Niles teased Frasier about having to participate initially, but then Daphne, who was unaware that they didn't know how to ride bikes, suggested that she and Niles should enter the bike-a-thon as well.

At first the brothers tried to bluff their way through, going to a bicycle shop to equip themselves and making what they believed to be knowledgeable comments whenever someone was in earshot. They decided to go to a parking lot that evening to teach themselves how to ride — which was truly a case of the blind leading the blind.

Viewers didn't get to see their attempt, only the aftermath when the two returned to Frasier's apartment, but it was clearly a disaster. Niles was beside himself, babbling about "blood," and Frasier tried to console him by saying, "That wasn't your fault. That jogger should have been wearing a reflective vest!"

Their failure to "slay the dragon," as Niles called it, forced them to admit to Daphne that they never learned how to ride bikes. "All these years, it's been our secret shame," Niles confessed. Frasier said it hadn't been easy to conceal it from others. "People are always saying in conversation, 'It's just like riding a bike.' I can smile and nod, but I only understand it in theory."

Daphne promised to teach them both how to ride bikes, and that clip can be seen above. Frasier didn't acquire the skill as quickly as his brother; he continually rode into a sycamore tree, but he finally overcame that obstacle and, while laboriously yet triumphantly riding his bike, he was passed by a small child on a bike equipped with training wheels, then by a pregnant woman jogging and then, finally, by an elderly man on a scooter.

I suppose there are always, as Niles observed, "mountains to conquer," whether they are developmental challenges that children face on their road to maturity (like mastering the multiplication tables, for example) or mountains we failed to conquer as children that must be climbed later in life. Perhaps they are obstacles we face as adults, such as seeking work in recessionary times. Or more serious obstacles, like cancer, that threaten our very lives.

Whatever the obstacle we face, the lesson from "Frasier" is that we must persevere. That means, simply, remain focused on the task and don't lose sight of your goal in spite of any setbacks.

The soldiers in the civil rights battle called it "keeping your eyes on the prize."

Perhaps Jim Valvano, the basketball coach of North Carolina State University who died of cancer in 1993, said it best: "Don't give up. Don't ever give up."

Valvano said that just two months before his death. Cancer had taken a fatal hold on his body by that time. He is remembered for that line, which continues to inspire others, as it should. It was certainly an inspiration to another N.C. State coach, Kay Yow, who died last weekend of cancer.

But an equally moving portion of the statement provided more specific guidance:
"To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."

Valvano was right. It's all too easy to forget it at times. But it's worth remembering.

In the meantime, watch the clip from "Frasier." It might give you the opportunity to do two of the three things Valvano recommended — laugh and think. Then watch the Valvano clip. It might help you with the third recommendation.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Heads Up to My Readers

One of my former students, George Lang, who is the assistant entertainment editor of The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, will be live blogging during the Screen Actors Guild Awards tonight at 7 p.m. (Central).

George is a very talented fellow. He was always a pleasure to have in my classroom. And he remains a good friend.

I plan to observe his blogging this evening. Whether I will make any comments remains to be seen. This is his stage. But I urge all my readers to check out what he has to say. I'm sure he will have some insightful points to make.

Music to Get Married To

I've never been married. It's not that I wouldn't have liked to get married. And I'd still like to have a partner in life. But at my age, the prospects seem rather remote. However, I have a little story to tell you that may be of interest to any of my readers who have been married — in a traditional church service, that is.

It is worth noting that the traditional wedding recessional, "The Wedding March" by Felix Mendelssohn, became popular starting on this day when it was played at the marriage of Queen Victoria's daughter (who was also named Victoria) and Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia in 1858.

The composition is part of Mendelssohn's Overture that was inspired by William Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a romantic tale that was, in turn, inspired by "The Knight's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which dates to the 14th century.

It is a popular piece that is still used in weddings today, 151 years later. The composition that is played as the traditional processional, "Bridal Chorus," was part of Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin."

I already knew that, but I learned something else today. As Wikipedia observes, "While their musical works are often paired today, Mendelssohn, a Lutheran of Jewish descent, was the target of Wagner's anti-Semitic essay Das Judenthum in der Musik."

I guess it isn't only politics that makes strange bedfellows.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Thing of Beauty

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."

John Keats

This morning, I've been thinking about one of the great poets of the early 19th century, John Keats.

His life was brief, only 25 years, and it was taken by tuberculosis, the same disease that took his mother when he was a teenager, then claimed the lives of his grandmother (who took custody of him and his siblings after his mother's death) and his brother.

Nevertheless, he was a prolific writer whose works influenced many of the great poets who followed in his footsteps, among them Alfred Lord Tennyson.

He was responsible for coining the phrase "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" in his poem "Endymion," a phrase that is often used by people who don't seem to know its origin or the story behind the man who wrote it.

Like many great writers, Keats' work was not appreciated during his life — the periodicals of his day frequently doled out harsh criticism for the words he chose or the often erotic imagery he employed.

One of Keats' contemporaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also died before reaching the age of 30, believed Keats' death was brought about by blistering criticism of "Endymion" in an article that appeared in a journal of the day. Shelley's theory was mentioned indirectly in a poem by another contemporary, Lord Byron, who suggested that Keats had been "snuffed out by an article."

For his part, Keats' final request was to be buried beneath a grave marker that said only, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water."

He did not want his name to appear on his gravestone, but that wish was not entirely granted. In addition to what he requested, the marker also included the following as an explanation: "This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone."

His continuing influence on writers, from Tennyson to Kipling to Salinger to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Robert Frost, is a testament to what he wrote nearly two centuries ago. A thing of beauty truly is a joy forever.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Oscar Nominees

There was a time in my life when I could watch the Academy Awards with the knowledge that I had seen every nominee for Best Picture, and I had very definite ideas about which one should win.

That was long ago, when I was a teenager. For a variety of reasons — I had more disposable income, I had more free time, the quality of the movies seemed better — I was able to do that.

Yesterday, the nominees for the 2008 Oscars were announced. Certainly, I've heard of the titles of films like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Doubt," "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk." And I remember seeing David Frost's interview with Richard Nixon when it was televised in the late 1970s.

But the only movie I've seen at the theater in recent months is "Gran Torino" — which I highly recommend to everyone, by the way.

So I don't really feel qualified to make any personal judgments about which film should win. This year, like most recent years, I probably won't watch the Oscars on TV — or much of it, anyway.

But it gives me the opportunity to remind my readers of an annual event that will be coming up on Turner Classic Movies in February and continuing through the first three days of March. It's called "31 Days of Oscar." During these 31 days, TCM shows only films that have been nominated for Oscars, usually subdividing them into appropriate groups, like "Best Actor" nominees or "Best Supporting Actress" nominees — or "Best Picture" nominees. Actual winners have been separated from the others and shown during prime time.

When TCM began this month-long filmfest, the Oscars were still being presented in March, so TCM held it exclusively in March. Then the Oscars moved to February, and TCM had to adapt. February usually only has 28 days (although it has 29 in Leap Years) so TCM couldn't use the same name unless it ran over into the next month.

By starting the festival in February, TCM finds itself competing with the Super Bowl, which has been held the first Sunday in February in recent years. As a result, the film festival this year will begin on Super Bowl Sunday.

But there are some excellent films scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday. One of my personal favorites, "The Sunshine Boys" starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, will be airing at 8 a.m. (Eastern) that day. And another personal favorite, "Network" — which is famous for Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell ..." rant — will be shown at 12:15 a.m. (Eastern) that evening.

TCM also seems to have changed the daily themes this year to ones that have a more scholastic sound to them.

For example, the theme on Super Bowl Sunday is "Contemporary Issues in Mass Media." The next day's theme is "Personal Financial Management." The next day, it will be "Urban Housing." The day after that, the theme will be "Early 20th Century American Songwriters," which, naturally, focuses on biographies of songwriters like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

The day after that, the theme is "Reproductive Biology," and it features some films that were considered a bit risqué at the time they were released — like "Carnal Knowledge" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

Other themes during the festival will be "Nuclear Physics," "Reach and Influence of Nazi Germany" (which, in my opinion, ought to include "Judgment at Nuremberg"), "Urban Ethnic Cultures," "Principles of Animal Behavior," "Fashion Photography," and "Intro to Choreography."

I think some of the more intriguing themes are "Race, Gender and Ethnicity," which is the theme for Valentine's Day, "The Pacific Campaign in WW2" (which, inexplicably, includes the showing of "Gone With the Wind") and "Neuro Disorders & Diseases of the Brain," which will include the airings of "Awakenings" and "My Left Foot."

But, really, if you enjoy good movies, you'll find something good to watch every day during the "31 Days of Oscar." I recommend it to family and friends every year.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lessons Learned

Today is an historic day, a day that those who are living will remember years from now.

It inspires many thoughts, many resolutions for the future. On few occasions in my life has this country truly seemed to live up to its lofty promise.

The gift I want to give to my readers is one that a friend passed along to me years ago by e-mail. Which friend it was has been lost over the years. I guess that doesn't matter. It contains lessons for all of us. And, while I am sorry to say that I have not always followed those lessons, I'm trying.

And I suppose that's part of the point.

It is titled simply "I Have Learned."

I've learned — that you cannot make someone love you. All you can do is be someone who can be loved. The rest is up to them.

I've learned — that no matter how much I care, some people just don't care back.

I've learned — that it takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it.

I've learned — that it's not what you have in your life but who you have in your life that counts.

I've learned — that you can get by on charm for about 15 minutes. After that, you'd better know something.

I've learned — that you shouldn't compare yourself to the best others can do but to the best you can do.

I've learned — that it's not what happens to people that's important. It's what they do about it.

I've learned — that no matter how thin you slice it, there are always two sides.

I've learned — that it's taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.

I've learned — that it's a lot easier to react than it is to think.

I've learned — that you should always leave loved ones with loving words. It may be the last time you see them.

I've learned — that you can keep going long after you think you can't.

I've learned — that we are responsible for what we do, no matter how we feel.

I've learned — that either you control your attitude or it controls you.

I've learned — that heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences.

I've learned — that learning to forgive takes practice.

I've learned — that there are people who love you dearly but just don't know how to show it.

I've learned — that money is a lousy way of keeping score.

I've learned — that my best friend and I can do anything or nothing and have the best time.

I've learned — that sometimes the people you expect to kick you when you're down will be the ones to help you get back up.

I've learned — that true friendship continues to grow, even over the longest distance. Same goes for true love.

I've learned — that just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them to doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have.

I've learned — that maturity has more to do with what types of experiences you've had and what you've learned from them and less to do with how many birthdays you've celebrated.

I've learned — that you should never tell children their dreams are unlikely or outlandish. Few things are more humiliating, and what a tragedy it would be if they believed it.

I've learned — that your family won't always be there for you. It may seem funny, but people you aren't related to can take care of you and love you and teach you to trust people again. Families aren't biological.

I've learned — that no matter how good a friend is, they're going to hurt you every once in a while and you must forgive them for that.

I've learned — that it isn't always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you have to learn to forgive yourself.

I've learned — that no matter how bad your heart is broken the world doesn't stop for your grief.

I've learned — that our background and circumstances may have influenced who we are, but we are responsible for who we become.

I've learned — that just because two people argue, it doesn't mean they don't love each other. And just because they don't argue, it doesn't mean they do.

I've learned — that sometimes you have to put the individual ahead of their actions.

I've learned — that we don't have to change friends if we understand that friends change.

I've learned — that two people can look at the exact same thing and see something totally different.

I've learned — that there are many ways of falling and staying in love.

I've learned — that no matter the consequences, those who are honest with themselves get farther in life.

I've learned — that your life can be changed in a matter of hours by people who don't even know you.

I've learned — that even when you think you have no more to give, when a friend cries out to you, you will find the strength to help.

I've learned — that writing, as well as talking, can ease emotional pains.

I've learned — that the paradigm we live in is not all that is offered to us.

I've learned — that credentials on the wall do not make you a decent human being.

I've learned — that the people you care most about in life are taken from you too soon.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe's 200th Birthday

A few months ago, I wrote about Edgar Allan Poe's odd death at the age of 40. Today is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

He was the first well-known American writer who sought to make his living through writing alone — and probably was responsible for the creation of the phrase"starving writer," because his life was, indeed, a struggle.

Even today, no one knows exactly what caused his death. Various causes have been suggested — heart disease, rabies, alcohol, tuberculosis. It's even been suggested that he committed suicide.

If he did take his own life, there were many things that may have contributed to that act. The love of his life, his cousin Virginia Clemm, married him when she was 13 and he was 27. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, which exacerbated Poe's struggle with alcohol.

Poe is remembered for his mysterious tales, but he was a great practitioner of the short story and he made tremendous contributions to the science fiction genre.

2009 will bring the 200th anniversaries of the births of many important people. One of whom, Abraham Lincoln, we will remember in a few weeks. (Lincoln, by the way, was born the same day as Charles Darwin, the naturalist who was responsible for the theory of evolution.) Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, also was born in 1809.

Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was born in 1809. So was composer Felix Mendelssohn, as were Louis Braille (who developed the system for reading and writing that is still used by the blind and visually impaired), inventor Cyrus McCormick, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (a doctor and writer whose greatest contribution may have been his son and namesake, who became a Supreme Court justice) and frontiersman Kit Carson.

It is altogether proper that we should pause to remember Poe today. Anyone who appreciates good writing, who enjoys a murder mystery or a science fiction tale, owes him a debt of gratitude.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Top 25 'Biopics'

Entertainment Weekly is promoting its top 25 "biopics," which follows a previous post of the second half of its top 50 choices in that category.

As with any such list, there is plenty of room for debate.

I agree that most of the films in the top 25 list are deserving of mention. So are the subjects — Johnny Cash, Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles, Malcolm X, Queen Elizabeth I, Oskar Schindler, T.E. Lawrence, Mozart and others.

But, although I agree that "Raging Bull" was a great film, should it rank as the best biopic of all time?

Likewise, I would question whether some of the entries in the 50-26 list belong there. Many, like "Gandhi" (ranked 43rd), "Patton" (ranked 39th) and "Chaplin" (ranked 33rd), deserve to be in the top 25. In fact, "Gandhi" would be my choice for top biopic — but that, admittedly, is a personal preference.

And I will concede that it's hard for me to judge the quality of some of the films on the list because I haven't seen them.

Biographies have always been among my favorite books in my personal library so, naturally, films dealing with biographies are among my favorites as well. There are so many inspiring lessons to be learned from individual lives. We will pay tribute to one such person next week (Martin Luther King) on the day that is set aside to honor his birth. And we will recognize the 200th birthday of another such person (Lincoln) in a few weeks.

Biopics are rarely among the top-grossing films in a given year. I think the last film on EW's list to finish in the top 10 was "Schindler's List." Some films with historical themes, notably "Titanic" and "Apollo 13," make a lot of money, but few are biographical in nature.

And, while I may disagree with EW on its rankings, I applaud it for recognizing an often-overlooked film genre.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Maybe it's a coincidence. These things are scheduled ahead of time and perhaps the election hadn't been held when Turner Classic Movies made its schedule for January.

But it's hard for me to imagine, given the large advantage that Barack Obama enjoyed in the polls for several weeks before the election, that TCM was unaware of the possibility.

Anyway, on Inauguration night, TCM will show "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which, when it was made in 1967, was somewhat shocking for its portrayal of an interracial couple informing their families of their intention to get married.

Today — especially with the son of an interracial couple about to take the oath of office as president — it seems terribly dated, but 41 years ago, it was truly groundbreaking. Interracial marriage was still illegal in more than a dozen states until the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case in June of that year.

It was also noteworthy for being the last film in the distinguished career of Spencer Tracy, who died of a heart attack 17 days after it was completed. Apparently, it was not much of a secret at the time that Tracy's health was failing, and in Tracy's final speech in the film, it is said, Katharine Hepburn's tears were genuine because she knew it represented his final on-screen appearance.

Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton played the interracial couple.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalbán Dies at 88

Mention the name Ricardo Montalbán to anyone who is old enough to remember the 1970s, and that person may recall his role as Mr. Roarke, who made his guests' fantasies come true in the TV series "Fantasy Island" — or his role as Khan Noonien Singh in both the original "Star Trek" TV series and the 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

But when I think of Montalbán, I always think of the TV commercials he did for the luxury car Chrysler Cordoba, in which he spoke admiringly, in his Spanish accent, of the "soft Corinthian leather" that was used for its interior.

Chrysler stopped producing the Cordoba in 1983.

And Montalbán passed away today at the age of 88.

He made nearly three dozen films and appeared on more than 30 TV shows. His character on "Fantasy Island" became a cultural icon, but many people forget that he appeared in more episodes of the TV series "The Colbys" in the mid-1980s. And he made guest appearances on such programs as "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train," "Ben Casey," "Dr. Kildare," "Ironside," "Here's Lucy," "Police Story" and "Murder, She Wrote."

Maybe It Runs In the Family

People is promoting its "Photo Exclusive" of Lisa Marie Presley and her three-month-old twin daughters, Finley and Harper.

Presley, the daughter of American icon Elvis Presley, tells People she wanted to have these babies but had several miscarriages because her blood was too thick. Once she started taking blood thinners, she claims, she conceived — and the result was the twins.

Elvis' fans know that Elvis himself was a twin, but his twin brother was stillborn.

Maybe having twins is a family trait. There's no way to be sure that I know of. Lisa Marie was Elvis' only child.

Elvis died in August 1977.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The More Loving One

My mother, a first-grade teacher, was killed in a flash flood nearly 14 years ago.

In the weeks and months following her death, it fell to me to sort through many of her belongings, deciding what needed to be thrown away, what needed to be kept, what needed to be given to friends and family members.

As I sorted through the things she left behind, I set aside some to keep, many of which found their way into boxes and haven't seen the light of day in years — literally.

Today, as I was sorting through some of my boxes, I came across a poem that my mother kept on her desk in her office at home. I must confess that I don't know much about it. My mother and I never discussed it — or the author, W.H. Auden.

I don't know why it spoke to her — nor do I know why it spoke to me to the extent that I decided to keep it.

What little I do know about Auden is that he is considered one of the great poets of the 20th century. He was born in 1907 and died in 1973. He grew up in England. I recall reading some of his poems in college, notably "Funeral Blues" (if you saw the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral," you might recall hearing it recited — it opens with a memorable line, "Stop all the clocks") and "September 1, 1939," which was written about the outbreak of World War II.

Auden also was a homosexual — something which neither I nor my mother had in common with him.

But it makes my re-discovery of this poem seem particularly relevant right now. An old friend of mine, who is gay, sent me an e-mail this week telling me that she and her partner had split up after 21 years together. Understandably, she's been having a hard time with this development.

The poem is titled "The More Loving One." I hope my friend reads it and it gives her some comfort.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky,
And feel its total darkness sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Saluting the King

It isn't exactly a milestone, but today would have been the 74th birthday of Elvis Presley — if he hadn't died more than 31 years ago.

"The King" still has millions of admirers, many of whom will mark the anniversary of his birth in their own ways.

For some, according to CMT News, Presley's birthday is an occasion to visit his birthplace in Tupelo, Miss.

The "shack" where Presley was born was constructed by his father, with help from Presley's grandfather and uncle, in 1934, says CMT News. The house was purchased by the city and restored — in fact, just about everything about the house is better than it was in 1935, when Elvis and his stillborn twin brother were delivered. It even has a bathroom and electricity now.

Everyone seems to be getting into the act for Presley's birthday.Priscilla Presley, Elvis' ex-wife, will be at Elvis' Graceland home in Memphis tonight and will share her thoughts on CNN at 8 p.m. (Central).

What about Elvis' only child, Lisa Marie? Well, lately, she's been busy defending her friends, John Travolta and Kelly Preston (following the death last week of their 16-year-old son) and her faith, Scientology, in her blog. I haven't heard whether Lisa Marie (who turns 41 next month) will be at Graceland tonight.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Top 10 American Movies

Law professor Stanley Fish has compiled what he contends is a list of the top 10 American movies of all time, and he shares it with readers of the New York Times.

One of the reasons for compiling such a list is to provoke a discussion, and I have a few things to say about Fish's list.

In his introduction to the list, Fish writes, "Only the first two films are in order. The others are all tied for third."

I have no problem with that. But there were a few movies that were left off the list, in my opinion.

Let me start by saying that I have no real problem with his choice for #1 — "The Best Years of Our Lives" — which remains, in my view, perhaps the best examination of the readjustment issues faced by veterans returning from war.

It boasts a great cast — Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright — as well as a very special performance by Harold Russell, a real-life veteran who lost both his hands in a grenade explosion during World War II.

Russell didn't appear in very many movies — in fact, he only appeared in a couple of films more than three decades after his performance in "The Best Years of Our Lives," and his roles in them were limited. He also made a couple of appearances on TV series in the 1980s.

Acting wasn't Russell's calling. He became a business executive after publishing his autobiography in 1949, and President Johnson made him chairman of the President's Committee on Hiring the Handicapped in 1964.

But he certainly made his mark with that 1946 film classic. At the Academy Awards ceremony, he became the only person to receive two Oscars for the same role. He was the recipient of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and he was given a special Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."

Nor, I should say, do I have a problem with Fish's second choice, "Sunset Blvd." from 1950 — director Billy Wilder's brilliant satire of the movie industry starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim.

The film has been parodied many times — perhaps the best parody was done by Carol Burnett and her ensemble cast from her TV variety show in the 1970s. And, as Charles Caleb Colton observed, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

The third movie on the list, "Double Indemnity," is a noteworthy movie, if for no other reason than the fact that it truly signaled the start of the "film noir" era in filmmaking. Fred MacMurray, as Fish aptly points out, plays the anti-hero, obsessed wtih Barbara Stanwyck and easily persuaded to kill her husband. Wilder directed that film as well.

The other movies on Fish's list — "Shane," "Red River," "Raging Bull," "Vertigo," "Groundhog Day," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" — are all well-made films and deserving of recognition.

But, as long as Billy Wilder is being recognized, where is "Some Like It Hot?"

For that matter, why aren't films like "Citizen Kane," "The Godfather," "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," or "Casablanca" mentioned?

What about "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "North by Northwest" or "High Noon?"

American movies are too rich, too varied to be restricted to a top 10 list.