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.