Wednesday, February 25, 2009

'African Queen' Airs Thursday

If you are a fan of Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and classic movies, Turner Classic Movies has a treat for you this Thursday at 8 p.m. (Eastern).

"The African Queen," director John Huston's classic from 1951, will be shown uninterrupted. Bogart won the Oscar for Best Actor. Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress. Huston was nominated for Best Director and shared a nomination for Best Screenplay with James Agee.

I don't know if it was Bogart's greatest performance, but it was the only Oscar he ever won. He was nominated for Best Actor two other times in his career (for "Casablanca" and "The Caine Mutiny") but lost both times.

And I can't say whether it was Hepburn's greatest performance. She was nominated for Best Actress a dozen times in her illustrious career and won it on four occasions.

As for Huston, he received 15 Oscar nominations in his career for his work both behind and in front of the camera, and he was the oldest person ever nominated for Best Director (when he was 79, he was nominated for directing "Prizzi's Honor"). So it's hard to say if his work on "The African Queen" was the best thing he ever did.

But there is no doubt that the three of them made movie magic with "The African Queen."

If you've never seen it, you need to see it at least once.

And, if you have seen it before, there is no reason not to see it again!

Monday, February 23, 2009

An Appeal for Help

The daughter of an old friend of mine has embarked on a class project as she nears the completion of her undergraduate requirements to graduate from college this year — and she needs your help.

Her name is Lyndsay, and her assignment involves a new blog she has launched for the purpose of the class. In her project, she's trying to come up with alternative casts for existing movies. These movies can be great movies or movies that weren't very good. They can be movies from decades ago or last year. Apparently, she needs suggestions, and that's where you, my readers, come in.

Visit her blog, Rewind and Recast, and make your suggestions. I've already made a couple of suggestions, and Lyndsay has already made her recommendations on one. I plan to make additional suggestions in the weeks to come, but her professor apparently will be monitoring her blog, and the more variety she has the better.

Anyway, leave your suggestions in the comments portion of her blog, then check back later to see what she comes up with. I'm sure she will have something interesting to say, and she'll probably recommend at least one performer you hadn't thought of.

Good luck, Lyndsay!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Classic Spoof of a Classic

Turner Classic Movies aired "Gone With the Wind" this afternoon as part of its annual "31 Days of Oscar."

This year is the 70th anniversary of the debut of that classic film, but I haven't been able to watch it in the last 30 years without thinking of the classic parody from the "Carol Burnett Show" from the 1970s. Dinah Shore was a guest on the show, but most of the credit for the spoof really goes to the talents of Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, who died last year.

I've included a portion of the skit with this post. If you're even remotely familiar with the movie, you'll recognize what's being spoofed.

Watch it and enjoy it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mysteries of Life and Death

Recently, a blogger acquaintance of mine reported on her blog that a young man she knew, a seventh grader, had died of the flu. Such an event is rare these days — but it does happen.

When such a young person dies, it always raises questions. The older one gets, the more one is confronted by these situations, but they seldom seem to bring the wisdom for which one might hope. When I was in third grade, one of my classmates was very ill with leukemia and died the following summer. Several years later, a young man in my town — who was not yet 30 — died of a brain tumor. A few years after that, a close friend of mine — who also was not yet 30 — died of lymphoma; I was a pallbearer at his funeral.

In my Freedom Writing blog yesterday, I wrote about an article from the New York Times about a young woman in England who has been a regular on British reality TV programs since 2002. She learned last summer that she has cervical cancer, then she learned a week ago that the cancer has spread and there is nothing more the doctors can do for her. She is expected to live two more months, at the most, and she has said that she might die in front of the TV cameras. Her case, as I mentioned in my other blog, has raised many ethical and moral issues.

All these instances I've mentioned involve disease, but whether the cause of death is a disease or a natural disaster like a flood or a tornado or an accident or the result of foul play, it's always hard to accept the loss of someone so young. It contradicts what most of us have believed all our lives and emphasizes, perhaps in a way that nothing else can, how unfair life truly can be.

I've been thinking about this young man's death all week and wondering if there was anything wise to say to my blogger friend. And then, today, I saw a rerun of a "Frasier" episode from the series' first season.

In the program, a doctor whose office was in Niles' building and who happens to be Frasier's age (and was, apparently, in great health) drops dead with no warning. Frasier obsesses over the event, trying to understand what happened — presumably so he can avoid making the same mistake. Although he didn't really know the doctor, he attends the man's wake, meets his relatives and the young widow and finally understands something everyone must accept at one time or another.

At the top of this post is the final scene from that show. I'll say nothing more except that I urge you to watch the clip. It is extremely well written and well performed. And it will have great meaning for anyone who has experienced a death that seems beyond comprehension.

I hope my friend watches it — and that it brings her peace.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Judging a Different Book By Its Cover

Recently, I wrote on my Freedom Writing blog about the perils of judging a book by its cover — particularly as it relates to the economic stimulus package.

Ever since then, I've been thinking about how prone people can be to pre-judging — or, perhaps, jumping to conclusions — before all the facts are in. And, as so often happens, I am reminded of an episode of "Frasier."

In the episode of which I am thinking, David Ogden Stiers (who played Charles Emerson Winchester on "M*A*S*H" for many years) played Leland, a former research assistant with Frasier's mother, who moved to Paris many years before, gave up psychiatry and became a board member at the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Leland returns to Seattle and pays a visit to the Crane family, during which Roz notices many things that Leland has in common with both Frasier and Niles. Roz starts wondering if Leland is the boys' biological father, since he has so much more in common with them than their father does. Upon learning of her suspicions, Martin begins to wonder the same thing. He confesses to Roz that his wife was unfaithful to him once — but, supposedly, never with Leland.

Martin's concerns only grow stronger as he observes Leland, Frasier and Niles sharing the same interests. And long-time viewers of the series probably had the same thoughts. Leland clearly had more in common with Niles and Frasier than Martin (who, viewers knew, wished that his sons shared his passion for sports and showed more masculine traits and weren't, as he put it, so "artsy-fartsy").

Finally, Martin confronts Leland just before Leland's departure — and learns a fact that, at last, puts his mind at ease.

In the same episode, a companion story line had Niles and Daphne trying to decide on a name to use as a "placeholder" that would allow them to be placed in line for admission to a preschool for a child who hadn't been conceived yet. They could never agree on a name. Eventually, Roz volunteered to pick a name that neither Niles nor Daphne would know about, and, therefore, they wouldn't feel stuck with it.

But there was a problem with the name Roz chose. The resolutions of both story lines can be seen in the clip above.

The episode illustrates an important point, I think. Often, our preconceived notions get in the way of accepting ideas that are new or different. They can prevent us from occasionally stepping outside our "comfort zones" and seeing a world that may be passing us by.

In my own case, for example, I've never cared for tattoos. I don't know why. Maybe, when I was a child, I saw a TV show or a movie that had a negative depiction of someone with a tattoo.

I seem to be more tolerant of tattoos on men than on women. When I've been asked about that, my response has been that I think tattoos make women look like sailors. And, in fact, some women are sailors, although not all of them have tattoos.

And I seem to be more tolerant of tattoos that can be easily concealed, such as tattoos that are on a person's arms or legs — as opposed to the tattoos that were put on Mike Tyson's face.

As I say, I don't know why I have a negative reaction to tattoos — which are certainly popular these days. So are body piercings, and that's something else I'm not fond of.

But I should be more open-minded about those things, I suppose. The world is changing all the time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Valentine's Day Tale

I've never been married. I have no "significant other." Valentine's Day is always just another day around my apartment — although I will admit that it always seems to be appropriate when it comes after a Friday the 13th, as it did this year.

Anyway, I started thinking about the history of St. Valentine's Day as this year's holiday approached. I don't know how long St. Valentine's Day has been observed — for centuries, I suppose. There were lots of early Christian martyrs who were named Valentine, but a saint named Valentine became connected — somehow — with romance in the 14th century.

And one doesn't have to spend much time in any store to get an idea how much revenue potential there is in a holiday dedicated to love — even in recessionary times.

I made a short stop at my grocery store the other day, and two people in front of me and one behind me were there to buy heart-shaped candy and heart-shaped boxes filled with candy, a stuffed bear with a big red heart on its chest, Valentine's cards and various other items with a Valentine's theme.

If Valentine's Day didn't already exist, some bright marketer with one of the greeting cards makers would have had to invent it — if a jewelry seller or candy maker or florist didn't beat him to it.

Actually, yesterday I was thinking not of the first St. Valentine's Day but of the one exactly 80 years ago today — when Al Capone and an Italian gang from the south side of Chicago gunned down members of an Irish gang from the north side, led by Bugs Moran. The infamous "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" occurred in a garage.

And I didn't really think much about that day, either, except that I was watching an episode of "M*A*S*H," in which B.J. was trying to arrange for a "reunion" with the families of the staff of the 4077th back in the United States. The idea was for them to gather "at a hotel in New York" on a weekend and share stories about their loved ones in the service — and receive some fellowship and moral support in return.

(At this point, I should mention that maintains capsule reviews on every episode from just about every TV series ever aired — at least, I haven't thought of a series that isn't represented at the site.

(Visitors can assign scores to each episode — once they have registered for a free account — and those scores are re-tabulated each day and the top episodes of each show are ranked.

(The episode of "M*A*S*H" to which I refer, "The Party," currently is rated 12th of all the show's episodes by the site's visitors — one of only four episodes in the Top 12 that was made in the second half of the show's astonishing 11-year run. The other eight in the Top 12 all were made in the first three seasons, when McLean Stevenson was in the cast.)

Anyway, "The Party" doesn't necessarily have any deep messages about love to share with its viewers — only hints or suggestions of the love of parents for their children or the love between spouses, a love that is made stronger by distance and the constant threat of bodily harm.

The staff members write home to ask their families if they will participate in this "reunion" — and, much to the surprise of many, their families agree.

"Parents!" Hawkeye says upon learning that his father will attend and Hot Lips' estranged parents will put aside their differences and reunite for the occasion. "Just when you think you have them figured out, they go and show you how much they love you!"

But B.J. discovers that the actual logistics are more problematic. His original suggestion was a gathering on Valentine's Day, to which Major Winchester, who has made no secret of his disdain for the whole idea, replies, "Perfect! They can meet in a garage in Chicago!"

Valentine's Day didn't work out. Ultimately, they agreed on the date of March 28.

I started wondering if those two dates actually fell on a weekend during the years the Korean War was fought.

The war began in June 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, so those dates had already passed by the time America's involvement in Korea began. An armistice was signed in July 1953. So the Valentine's Days that were observed during the Korean War occurred in 1951, 1952 and 1953.

Now, typically, February has precisely four weeks — except in Leap Years, when it gains a day. So the first 28 days of March fall on the same days of the week as the dates in February that have the corresponding numbers.

In other words, Valentine's Day (Feb. 14) will be on the same day of the week as March 14 in most years. In a Leap Year, March 14 will be the next day of the week because four weeks plus one day will separate Feb. 14 and March 14.

And March 28 is precisely two weeks after March 14.

1952 was a Leap Year. And, as it turns out, Valentine's Day was on a Thursday in 1952. Since it was a Leap Year, March 14 (and, therefore, March 28) fell on a Friday.

But it's probably stretching a point to make 1952 the year in question. Most likely it was 1953, when both Valentine's Day and March 28 fell on a Saturday. That allowed enough time for everyone, from Hawkeye's father in Maine to B.J.'s wife in San Francisco — and all the others in between — to congregate in New York and then travel home again before the start of the new week.

Although, logistically, Charles' idea might not have been too bad. New York City was clearly the largest city in America in 1953, but Chicago might have been a more logical destination for most of the attendees — like Klinger's family in Ohio and Radar's mother and uncle from Iowa, even Mrs. Potter in Missouri.

I've been a fan of the series since it was part of the primetime lineup in the 1970s. I don't know where Hot Lips' parents were living at the time of this episode — only that they were estranged. The one thing the show's fans knew about Hot Lips' upbringing was that she was an Army brat who grew up on a series of Army bases and never had a hometown.

Likewise, fans of the series never learned much about Father Mulcahy's family, but they got the impression that, although he came from a large family, they weren't especially close. In the series, Mulcahy was said to have grown up in Philadelphia — although the book upon which the original movie was based had his hometown as San Diego.

The one family member with whom Mulcahy appeared to have an enduring relationship is the one who agreed to attend the party — his sister, who had become a nun. The only clue to her whereabouts with which I am familiar is in an episode about a letter Mulcahy wrote to her, in which he mentioned her transfer to St. Cecilia's church. In reality, there is a church by that name near Philadelphia.

Still, the eagerness with which each family member accepted the invitation indicates that they were all willing to travel great distances to attend, even though some — notably Hawkeye's father and Charles' parents, who were from Boston but implied in their reply that they had been spending the winter in warmer climes, and possibly Mulcahy's sister, if she was still assigned to a church near Philadelphia — didn't have far to travel.

Thus, a more centralized location was not necessary.

The only thing that was necessary was an abundance of love.

And that, I guess, is what Valentine's Day is supposed to be about.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Where Were You 45 Years Ago Today?

I was just 4 years old on this date in 1964. I don't remember much about those days, but I do know that our family didn't have a TV set until a couple of years later, after I had started school.

A few months earlier, our family spent several days at our neighbors' house to watch the news reports from Dallas and Washington following the assassination of President Kennedy.

And I vaguely remember, in February 1964, being back in that neighbors' house, for the first live TV appearance of the Beatles.

But I could be wrong. During the days following the Kennedy assassination, my parents were riveted to the neighbors' TV set, but the only thing I remember for certain is that most, if not all, of my attention was on the cool toys the neighbors' son had to play with.

In the years that have passed, I have come to the conclusion that most of my "memories" of the Kennedy assassination are actually film clips that I've seen repeatedly and I've convinced myself that I remember seeing them as they happened.

It may be that way with the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The Beatles certainly went on to become one of the greatest cultural influences in modern times. Their songs have become so familiar to most people that even those who weren't born while the Beatles were still together know their names and the songs they wrote.

Few people in any human endeavor can hope to wield the kind of influence that the Beatles did. A good example was the release of the CD "1" — a collection of the Beatles' number 1 hits — in 2000.

The CD was released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Beatles' breakup in 1970. Each song in the collection was at least 30 years old, and most were older than that. Yet it became the biggest-selling recording of the year, a blockbuster phenomenon.

It sold more than 3 million copies in its first week and more than 12 million copies in three weeks worldwide, and it became the #1 recording in nearly three dozen countries, including the United States and the Beatles' native United Kingdom.

Half of the Fab Four — some might consider it the best half — are gone now, and the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, are in their 60s now.

But even after all four Beatles are gone, their influence will continue.

Friday, February 06, 2009

James Whitmore Dies at 87

James Whitmore passed away today. He died of lung cancer at the age of 87.

My first thought, upon hearing of Whitmore's death, was of a day in 1975 when I was about 15, and the mother of a friend of mine took my friend and me to a theater to see the film version of Whitmore's one-man play about Harry Truman, "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!"

Truman had died a couple of years earlier, but his reputation was enjoying a revival in popularity, thanks to Whitmore's portrayal and a hit song by the pop group Chicago. My friend's father was active in state Democratic Party politics in those days, so all three of us enjoyed the depiction of the feisty president. A clip from the film can be seen above.

It wasn't the only time that an actor appeared in a one-man play, but it was the only time (so far) that a film version of such a play earned an Academy Award nomination for the star. He lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Jack Nicholson.

He also appeared in one-man shows in which he portrayed Theodore Roosevelt and Will Rogers, who never ran for office but nevertheless had a lot to say about the politicians of his day.

Whitmore's acting career wasn't always associated with political personalities, but near the end of his life, he made news for his early endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy for president.

Modern movie audiences may remember his final major film role as the librarian in "The Shawshank Redemption" in 1994.

Whitmore was diagnosed with lung cancer less than three months ago. But he lived a long life and he contributed much to American culture.

And President Obama could do worse than to watch his performance as Harry Truman. He might get some valuable tips for handling the "hottest kitchen" around.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Mother of a President

One week from today, America will pay homage to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his 200th birthday.

But few people realize that today is the 225th birthday of Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. A week after her 25th birthday, she gave birth to the future president. And, nine years later, she died of what was called "milk sickness," a disease that was contracted from drinking the milk from a cow that had eaten poisonous white snakeroot. Apparently, several people from the small town in Indiana where the Lincolns were living died of that illness in the same year.

History books tell us that Lincoln's father remarried shortly after the death of Lincoln's mother — and, unlike some relationships between children and their stepparents, Lincoln and his stepmother seem to have had a close bond. In fact, Lincoln called his stepmother "Mother" the rest of his life. Lincoln appears to have had a somewhat strained relationship with his father, however.

An interesting note about Lincoln's biological mother — she is distantly related to actor Tom Hanks.

I don't believe Hanks has appeared in any films in which President Lincoln was portrayed, but he has certainly been in films with American history themes — "Forrest Gump," "Apollo 13," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Charlie Wilson's War."

I suppose you could stretch the point to include "A League of Their Own," which dealt with the true-life women's professional baseball league from the 1940s, although it is a fictionalized account. Hanks' character was fictional, but it was loosely based on a real Hall of Famer, Jimmie Foxx.

Tom Hanks' contribution to historical films hasn't been confined to his on-screen appearances. He was the executive producer of "From the Earth to the Moon," a miniseries about America's space program, even serving as screenwriter for several episodes and directing one.

Space is a theme Hanks can't seem to resist. In 2005, he co-wrote and co-produced "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D" for IMAX.

He served as a writer, director and producer in the production of "Band of Brothers," a 2001 TV miniseries about World War II.

He was also executive producer of a miniseries about America's second president, "John Adams," from 2008.

And, reportedly, Hanks joined forces with Steven Spielberg to produce another World War II miniseries for sometime this year, "The Pacific."

Hanks has said that, since appearing in "A League of Their Own," a film project "has to get me going somehow" before he will commit to it. Perhaps, before his career is over, Hanks will take on a project about Lincoln.