Saturday, July 31, 2010

Did You Ever Wonder ...

... about the phrase "salty dog?"

I've enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show for years. I guess I've seen every episode, and there was at least one occasion when the Darlings, a family from back in the hills, came into some money and decided to go to Mayberry to find brides for the four young unmarried men in the family.

They wound up at Andy's house, where the whole family (including Andy on guitar) played "Salty Dog Blues," a folk song that apparently had been recorded by many people long before.

I happened to see that episode this afternoon and found the story to be rather lame. Just about every time the Darling family appeared on the show, Andy outwitted them using their own mountain superstitions — and it was funnier the first few times when Barney was part of the show.

And the music wasn't a new angle. Every time the Darlings were on the show, they had their instruments with them. Their sister did the singing, and their father kept time with his jug.

I don't remember the titles of the songs they sang on the other episodes, but I've always remembered the phrase "salty dog." I just didn't know what it meant.

Oh, I had my ideas about what it meant, but, today, I finally decided to consult Wikipedia, which is not always a reliable authority so I try to double– or triple–check Wikipedia's information whenever possible if I feel it necessary to use it as a source.

In this case, though, I think the information I got was accurate. If I can verify it, I will, but it appeared to confirm my suspicions, which leads me to believe it is something that someone I trusted must have told me at one time. I just can't remember who it was or when he/she told me.

Anyway, a salty dog apparently is something of a combination of nautical slang terms. Someone who is salty is someone who has quite a bit of experience at sea.

A salty individual, Wikipedia also observes, could also be ornery. I won't argue that point. I've heard many people described as "salty."

(And Wikipedia mentions something that I hadn't heard before. If anyone knows how to verify this, please let me know:

("A U.S. Marine or sailor who had been aboard a Navy vessel for an extended period in earlier times would clean his battle dress uniform by throwing it overboard in a mesh bag to be dragged along the ship's hull." Yep, that would tend to make one salty.)

The meaning of the term dog is less clear, but I always gathered, in this context, that a dog was someone who was faithful, reliable, dependable. Perhaps I had this impression because, when I was about to turn 17, my best friend and I drove to St. Louis to spend Thanksgiving with his brother and sister–in–law. While we were there, his brother introduced us to a slang term with which neither of us was familiar.

We were, he told us, each other's "road dogs." Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or Abbott and Costello if you prefer. Partners. Equals who would defend each other — at times comically but always sincerely.

I guess that also made us salty dogs because, if Wikipedia is right, salty dog need not have any sexual meaning.

Even so, the words of the song certainly implied that something sexual was going on — although they were sufficiently neutral that either a male or a female could sing the song with a few adjustments in the wording.
"Honey let me be your salty dog

"Let me be your salty dog
Or I won't be your man at all
Honey let me be your salty dog

"Look it here Sal, I know you
Run down stocking and a wore out shoe
Honey let me be your salty dog

"Let me be your salty dog
Or I won't be your man at all
Honey let me be your salty dog

"Down in the wildwood sitting on a log
Finger on the trigger and an eye on the hog
Honey let me be your salty dog

"Let me be your salty dog
Or I won't be your man at all
Honey let me be your salty dog

"Well I pulled the trigger and the gun set go
The shot gun over in Mexico
Honey let me be your salty dog

"Let me be your salty dog
Or I won't be your man at all
Honey let me be your salty dog"

Wikipedia asserts that the implication is that the singer wants to be the listener's sexual partner. But the phrase, Wikipedia says, "comes from the term sea dog, or a horny sailor."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Death of a Character Actor

You might not recognize the name of Maury Chaykin.

Well, you might — if you happen to be a fan of A&E's production of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Chaykin was a supporting actor through most of his career, but Nero Wolfe was one of his few leading roles and, arguably, gave him his greatest professional exposure.

However, I think Chaykin, who died yesterday on his 61st birthday, may be remembered by more people for his performances in the smaller roles he played throughout his life.

He had a recognizable face, the kind of face that makes one instantly think it has been seen before even if you can't quite place it. Chaykin's face had an almost cartoonish quality, deceptive in the sense that it makes one associate him with comedy.

And Chaykin did appear in his share of comedies — including what I have always regarded as one of his most memorable roles, the witness in "My Cousin Vinny" who asserts that "No self–respectin' Southerner uses instant grits."

But to dismiss Chaykin as strictly a comedic actor would do his memory a disservice, for Chaykin — in addition to 20 episodes as the detective — often appeared in dramatic films and TV series.

For that matter, Chaykin's performance in "Vinny" gave folks an in–depth glimpse into his skills as an actor, even if they didn't realize it at the time. He was born in Brooklyn to an American father and a Canadian mother. He was raised in New York, then moved to Toronto where he lived until his death.

Needless to say, a Southern accent did not come naturally to him.

But, speaking as someone who grew up in the South and considers himself pretty adept at spotting a faux Southern accent (Hillary Clinton, who was raised in Chicago, was, after all, the first lady of my native state), I must say that I found Chaykin's accent to be convincing.

He was a capable actor, believable in everything I ever saw him in.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beating the Heat

When I remember the summer of 1980, I think of the unbearable heat.

And, because it was so hot that summer, I spent a lot of time at movie theaters — perhaps more than any other summer of my life. By most standards, I suppose, it was a better than average year for movies, and I might have spent that much time at theaters, anyway. But the heat made the cool of the movie theater that much more enticing.

Of course, that delicious chill that you only find at a movie theater was made even better if the movie could send some chills down your spine as well, and no one was ever better at that than Alfred Hitchcock. But, by July 1980, Hitchcock had been dead for three months.

Many in the motion picture business who admired Hitchcock during his lifetime still lived, though, and one of them happened to be one of the hottest young film directors of the day, Brian de Palma, whose reputation in Greenwich Village had been solid for more than a decade but really took off with mainstream moviegoers with the release of his film version of Stephen King's "Carrie" in 1976.

On this day in 1980, de Palma sought to fill the void left by Hitchcock with the release of "Dressed to Kill" — and it did pretty well. It didn't finish in the Top 10 at the box office (which may have disappointed de Palma, given that "Dressed to Kill" explored so many themes that had been raised initially by "Psycho" 20 years earlier), but, really, how could you compete with the likes of "The Empire Strikes Back," "Airplane!" "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Blues Brothers," "9 to 5" and so many others?

I guess it wasn't hard, in my case. First and foremost, I had grown up with parents who were longtime fans of Hitchcock so when I heard that a movie was coming out that was clearly inspired by Hitchcock's work, I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued when the critics debated whether the film was a combination of inspiration from Hitchcock and a natural evolution in de Palma's filmmaking style or an outright lifting of Hitchcockian themes and ideas.

I must acknowledge, though, that I had only recently been licensed to drive so I was still young enough to be under the hormonally driven spell that has always separated the adolescent from older, more mature — and more rational — humans.

So when I heard that Angie Dickinson, who was in her late 40s at the time but still retained some of her box–office appeal as a sex symbol, would be in it (and, rumor had it, could be seen taking a shower — clearly a Hitchcockian theme), nothing could have kept me from seeing it.

Then word started to spread that the gorgeous blonde who could be seen showering in the opening minutes of the film was not Dickinson but rather her character's mental image of herself, as played by a body double (reportedly a woman who had modeled for Penthouse). That part really wasn't made clear in the movie — and the only actual semi–nude scene involving Dickinson showed her nude from the waist up and from behind as she got out of a man's bed shortly before her murder scene midway through the movie.

Thus, she remained a sex symbol who flirted with and teased her audience — who promised much but ultimately delivered nothing — which could have been disappointing for a young viewer if not for two things — the Penthouse model looked great, even if she wasn't Angie Dickinson, and one of Dickinson's co–stars was de Palma's wife, Nancy Allen, who was about 20 years younger.

In the story, Dickinson plays a sexually frustrated housewife who picks up a man at a museum, has sex with him and then is murdered by a razor–wielding attacker in an elevator. Her son, a teenaged science whiz, and Allen, a prostitute and innocent bystander who is drawn into the case (mistaken identity was one of the themes Hitchcock explored in his films), try to find out who killed her.

Anyway, I've watched "Dressed to Kill" several times since its release, and I have yet to resolve whether it is truly an example of the evolution of de Palma's artistic style or a blatant case of filmmaking plagiarism.

There clearly are elements of the film that were picked up from old Hitchcock films. I've seen most of them, and there is always something that sparks a new memory and convinces me that part had to be taken from a specific Hitchcock movie. The one that most frequently comes to mind is, of course, "Psycho" ... but there have been others, too.

I even noticed some similarities between "Dressed to Kill" and the first de Palma film I ever saw, "Carrie." For example, both movies opened with shower scenes that could be called graphic, I suppose. In "Carrie," a young woman experiences her first period while showering following a P.E. class; in "Dressed to Kill," it was the shower scene involving the Penthouse model, who was taken from behind by an unidentified man.

Another similarity was a kind of a "gotcha" moment at the end of each movie. The woman who had become the focus of the story (Amy Irving in "Carrie" Allen in "Dressed to Kill") awoke in hysterics after dreaming of being attacked by the killer.

But then there are other parts that are just as clearly inspired by a world that Hitchcock never really knew — and, therefore, could not incorporate into one of his story lines.

Which makes me think ...

In 1980, things like personal computers and cell phones didn't exist. Perhaps it is time for a young director to pick up de Palma's baton and re–imagine the story from the perspective of 2010.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Catch a Thief Tomorrow

Alfred Hitchcock nearly always made movies about murders.

But tomorrow at 1 p.m. (Central), you can see a rare exception to that rule on Turner Classic Movies.

As a matter of fact, although people frequently were killed in Hitchcock movies, the violence itself was seldom ever seen. You can come up with exceptions to that rule, too, I suppose, but even though Hitchcock, as I implied last month, could be said to be the originator of the so–called "slasher" flick — "Psycho" — his true genre was suspense, not horror.

Violence was not his stock in trade, but stories about murder and murderous intent were.

"To Catch a Thief" was about neither, really. Oh, sure, a character gets killed in the movie, but it's a case of self–defense. It was incidental, not terribly pertinent to the overall story, which was about burglary and mistaken identity.

For the most part, "To Catch a Thief" is a romance and a thriller. And how could it not be, with those two leads (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly)?

The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, which is not hard to understand, given that much of it was filmed on the French Riviera. That must have been a fun assignment. One should never underestimate the influence and cinematic power of imagery from that part of the world.

In fact, many years later, after Kelly — who was, by that time, known simply as Princess Grace of Monaco — suffered a stroke and crashed her car while driving on a winding road in Monaco, dying of her injuries the following day, she was said to have been traveling on the very same road on which she took Grant for a harrowing ride in "To Catch a Thief."

That has since been disproven, but it persists as an urban legend, nearly 30 years after Grace's death — a testament, I suppose, to the power of the image.

Anyway, if you're in the mood for some escapism on a hot summer afternoon, look no further than your TV. "To Catch a Thief" has all the wit and sophistication — and breathtaking scenery — you could ask for.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It Ghost To Show You

It hasn't been a full year since Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer. That anniversary is still two months away.

While it was truly tragic that he died at the age of 57, it would have been nice if he could have survived for another 10 months.

Because today is the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of what is arguably his most memorable performance. Sure, some people will tell you that they think of Johnny Castle in "Dirty Dancing" or Orry Main in the TV miniseries North and South when they think of Swayze, and those were both solid performances.

But I tend to think of "Ghost" — which was released on this date 20 years ago.

And I do so for reasons that really have nothing to do with Swayze or anyone else connected with the movie.

Actually, I thought the story was good but not great — certainly not, at least in my opinion, worthy of the Oscar it won for Best Original Screenplay. The acting, I thought, was rather pedestrian. In fact, I thought there were minor supporting actors and actresses in the cast who did more with less.

And then, lo and behold, Whoopi Goldberg up and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.

But that isn't what I remember about "Ghost."

What I remember is that I never saw it at the theater. I saw it about 15 months later. I was wrapping up my work on my master's degree in journalism, and I had taken a few days off from work to study for and take my comprehensive exams.

From time to time, I would take a break from my studying, which usually included switching on the TV. And "Ghost" was playing a lot on cable at that time — seemed like it was on every time I switched on my set.

Anyway, I watched it in pieces and out of sequence that week. I don't think I ever saw it from start to finish — and that, I suppose, is why, to this day, I still think of various parts of "Ghost" when I think of topics from my comprehensive exam — and vice versa.

Even when I was taking a break, I suppose, my mind was still going over the material I had been studying.

Of course, there is more to remember.

Like, for example, the fact that it was directed by Jerry Zucker, who participated in the production of "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun." With that kind of background, you might expect more of a slapstick kind of a movie. But, while it had its humorous moments, "Ghost" was astonishingly restrained. Therefore, I guess you would have to say that the virtual absence of that sort of thing was a welcome surprise.

And I would say that Swayze was something of a surprise, too. I wouldn't exactly call "Ghost" the swan song of his career — he was involved in film and television projects for the next couple of decades — and I'm not sure you could call it his masterpiece, but it was certainly an improvement over the two films he made the year before — "Next of Kin" and "Road House," both of which earned Swayze "Worst Actor" nominations from the Razzy Awards.

I guess it goes without saying that, before "Ghost," the expectations for Swayze were not terribly high.

But he was back on the map after "Ghost." A few months after it was released at the theaters — and was well on its way to earning more than half a billion dollars — Swayze hosted Saturday Night Live and joined Chris Farley in a memorable sketch in which the two auditioned for the Chippendales.

Saving Lives

Live Aid was Teddy Pendergrass' first public appearance since a
near–fatal car accident in 1982; he died of colon cancer in January.

If you're old enough to remember it, Live Aid was 25 years ago today.

And if you are old enough to remember that day, you probably only need to be reminded of the actual date that it occurred. The event itself likely is vivid in your memory.

To briefly remind you, the event was put together by Bob Geldof to raise money for famine relief in Africa. I don't recall hearing what inspired Live Aid. I guess I always assumed that it was sort of a natural evolution that started with the Woodstock festival in 1969 and absorbed the charity aspect of the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.

They called it a "global jukebox" because concerts were held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia, with a lengthy list of performers at each location. And concerts in other places, like Australia and Germany, linked up as well, permitting people like B.B. King to participate.

And nearly half a billion people watched it worldwide.

Just about every popular performer of the day — and even some whose best days were probably behind them by then — participated.

More than 70,000 came to Wembley Stadium in London, where acts like Elvis Costello, Sting, Bryan Ferry, U2, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, the Who, Queen and Elton John performed. Phil Collins also performed in London, then took the Concorde to Philadelphia's JFK Stadium and performed there as well. He also played drums for Eric Clapton and a reunion of Led Zeppelin.

There were nearly 100,000 people at JFK Stadium, and they were treated to Joan Baez, REO Speedwagon, the Beach Boys, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Cars, Power Station, Hall and Oates, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, among others.

Reunions were the order of the day in Philadelphia. In addition to Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills Nash & Young reunited, as did Black Sabbath.

And there were moments that were timely in 1985 but might need a little elaboration today.

For example, when Madonna was about to sing "Love Makes the World Go Round," she noted the heat (mid–90s) but insisted that she wasn't going to take off her coat. "I ain't taking shit off today," she said, which was a reference to nude photos of her that had been taken several years earlier and had recently been published in Playboy and Penthouse.

Madonna was criticized by many for posing for the photos — even though she had posed at a time when she was unknown and needed the money such photo shoots could provide (meager though it was).

Anyway, as the temperature in Philadelphia soared to 95°, she pledged not to remove her coat and explained that "you might hold it against me 10 years from now" if she did.

With all the talent on those stages, it's hard to imagine that anyone wasn't there, but there were some who didn't participate, each for reasons of their own. Bruce Springsteen, who was one of the most popular performers of that time, didn't participate. Neither did Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Huey Lewis and the News, Prince and Michael Jackson.

Jackson, it should be pointed out, did make his own contribution, composing "We Are the World" with Lionel Ritchie, which did its part to raise money for famine relief by selling more than 3 million copies.

There seems to be no doubt that Live Aid was a turning point for some performers who were ready for the attention of more mainstream listeners.

U2, for example, had been around for a few years and had enjoyed some success by July 1985, but Live Aid really gave the band the exposure it needed. It virtually confirmed what Rolling Stone said in March — that U2 was the "band of the '80s ... the band that matters most, maybe even the only band that matters."

That was a pretty daring proclamation at a time when bands like R.E.M., Dire Straits and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were attracting a lot of attention.

But U2 surely was the only band that mattered to the woman who danced with Bono during U2's 12–minute version of "Bad" on that day.

Viewers around the world saw only that he was dancing with a young woman, but she revealed 20 years later that he actually saved her life. She was being crushed, and Bono saw it. He waved frantically for the ushers to do something, but they couldn't understand him so he leaped off the stage to take care of it himself.

Saving lives was, after all, what Live Aid was all about.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Birth of Atticus Finch

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."

Atticus Finch
"To Kill a Mockingbird" (published July 11, 1960)

Great books and plays eventually wind up on the big screen.

From ancient scribes to modern writers have come great literary works that have produced brilliant tales, admirable heroes and detestable villains.

Half a century ago today, such a book — Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" — was published. And, although it told a story to which most people could relate, I have always felt that it had a special significance for people who were raised in the South.

For it told a tale of the prejudice that the American South still struggles to overcome, of a white lawyer who was called upon to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It was a story of honesty and integrity, of coming of age amid terrific economic anguish and severe cultural growing pains.

Still a timely message, wouldn't you say?

Lee herself (still alive, by the way, at the age of 84) has said that the movie that was based on her book is "one of the best translations of a book to film ever made."

And I'm inclined to agree with her. So, too, is the American Film Institute.

AFI ranked the movie 25th on its Top 100 list and first among courtroom dramas.

AFI also felt that "To Kill a Mockingbird" was the second–most inspiring film of all time.

And when it comes to heroes, no film hero — not Indiana Jones or James Bond or anyone else — nor any of the actors or actresses who portrayed the great heroes of film history ranked higher than Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Not even Gary Cooper, who played heroic characters frequently.

So if Lee was satisfied with the film version of her book, that's good enough for me. Not that I needed her endorsement. I've read the book and I've seen the movie.

I still believe that books are almost always better than movies. That one certainly was. But both the film and the book were remarkable — and certainly worth revisiting a number of times.

The story was semi–autobiographical, but Lee changed the names of the people in her story. It's important to keep in mind that she wasn't telling a fictionalized account of an actual event. Rather, she was taking inspiration from real people and events. Some of the characters were composites of people she knew. Others were inspired by people and events far from her home.

I don't think she created the character of Atticus with Peck in mind. In fact, I think Atticus was inspired by Lee's father, an attorney who unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murder years before Lee was born.

But today, nearly 50 years since the making of the film, Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch in our collective minds. He was a great actor, and he played many great roles, but it is almost as if he was born to play Atticus Finch.

If Lee's father was anything like Atticus Finch, he must have defended his clients with an eloquence that one normally doesn't expect from Southerners — and that apparently failed to sway the jurors. But I suppose, being a Southerner herself, Lee knew only too well how wrong that stereotype was.

Indeed, the character of Atticus may well have been the first time that people outside the South had entertained the notion that there were any whites in the South who were not racists — at least minimally.

The racism that was presented in the book (and later the movie) was somewhat stereotypical by modern standards. It certainly isn't representative of the South today. But it isn't meant to be. It is a portrait of the South that existed nearly eight decades ago.

But there has been a price to be paid — albeit a ridiculous one — for its realistic depiction. Mark Twain encountered the same thing with his book about Huckleberry Finn in the 19th century.

In their blind pursuit of political correctness, some school districts in the United States and Canada have banned Lee's book for its use of the so–called "N word." Many of those same school districts, I have no doubt, were behind similar moves against the story of Huck Finn, completely ignoring the fact that the "N word" was part of the accepted language of the time.

(That isn't meant as a defense of that word. It is only meant as an explanation for why the word is used as much as it is in both books. It was the word my grandparents used because that was the word people of their generation used to describe the members of a particular racial group. Around the time of my parents' generation, the word of choice seems to have become "Negro."

(By the time I came along, the socially acceptable word was "black" — which is the word I still use today whenever it is necessary. Some of my friends have taken to using the phrase "African–American," which seems a little imprecise to me. We have other hyphenated ethnic groups, of course, but the hyphens in those instances link nationalities, not continents. It would be more precise, in my opinion, to hyphenate American with the nation of origin — but that kind of documentation is hard to come by.

(For that matter, I must confess, "black" never seemed adequate to me, either, because I knew very few people when I was growing up whose skin could truly be said to be black. Most were brown.)
"Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that 'To Kill a Mockingbird' spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is 'immoral' has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink."

Harper Lee
Letter to the editor in Richmond, Va., 1966

Students in school districts where both "Mockingbird" and Twain's tale of Finn's adventures are available should be grateful they have access to these literary gems that paint such a vivid picture to remind us of how far we have come — and how far we still must go.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Boy Wonder Turns 65

If you were a child in the 1960s — and your family either owned or had access to a television set (and not all families did in those days) — Batman must bring back memories from your formative years.

I was a small child when Batman was on the air. My brother was even smaller. But, as I recall, we both were ardent Batman fans.

One year, if memory serves, I had a Batman lunch box. I took it with me to school every day, and I looked forward to lunch time because that meant I could bring out my lunch box and show everyone that I was such a Batman devotee that I had the official lunch box (with the matching thermos, which was great for keeping milk cold or soup hot).

We were such Batman fans, my brother and I, that one year my mother made Batman and Robin costumes for us to wear on Halloween.

Mom had many talents, and she often made our Halloween costumes. I always assumed that she created those costumes from scratch as well because I had seen her sewing them on her old sewing machine. But not so long ago, I learned the truth. Apparently, a fabric company capitalized on the popularity of the show by producing patterns for children's costumes (see the picture at the left). Mom did make the costumes, but she followed someone else's instructions.

Yep, my brother and I were huge Batman fans. Thus, it is an odd feeling to realize that "The Boy Wonder" is 65 today.

I guess TV's Robin always did look young, even boyish — not so much to me, I guess, although I have concluded that's because the words "boyish" and "girlish" only apply to others when they have stopped applying to you, and I was quite a bit younger than Burt Ward was when he played that part.

At the time, "boyish" is not the word I would have chosen to describe Burt Ward. In hindsight, though, it is obvious to me how boyish he must have appeared to most 1960s viewers.

That clearly was by design. In the story line, Robin/Dick Grayson came from a family of acrobats, and Batman/Bruce Wayne became his guardian when his family was killed.

But "Batman" apparently was the apex of Ward's acting career. It happens that way with some actors. They become so closely identified with a role that they find it difficult to find work, and Ward was one of those actors, although he did manage to land some jobs in some projects years later and he participated in various reunions with his Batman co–star Adam West (who is now 81).

Ward appears to have moved on to other pursuits. But did you know this? At one time, he was considered for the lead role in "The Graduate" — but he didn't get the part because the production company that was responsible for the TV show wanted him to be identified strictly with the role of Robin.

So Dustin Hoffman got the role and got to utter the immortal line, "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

Who knows how different things would have been if Burt Ward had gotten that part?

Happy birthday, Robin.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Great Scott!

In hindsight, it seems like it was just downright impossible not to like "Back to the Future," which made its debut on America's movie screens 25 years ago today.

It was certainly timely, with the murderous Libyan terrorists intent upon reclaiming the stolen plutonium from Marty's sidekick, Doc Brown (who was memorably played by Christopher Lloyd) — and who played a pivotal role in telling the story.

And it was timeless, too, with its particular slant on the inevitable angst of the teen years. Each generation thinks it is unique in that department — but each generation is wrong. Nevertheless, each generation need its troubadours and story tellers, and director Robert Zemeckis was one of the best for those who came of age in the 1980s. (Personally, I think John Hughes was the best of that time, but Zemeckis, in spite of his apparent fondness for splashy film techniques and effects, deserves his share of recognition.)

In that sense, I guess it brought together two diverse movie audiences that almost never were attracted to the same movie — the angst–ridden teens and the geeky sci–fi fans, who might also be angst–ridden teens but were mostly written off by most in their teen world (not unlike the protagonists from "Revenge of the Nerds").

It was nostalgic for many viewers who actually remembered 1955 — and the groundbreaking rock 'n' roll that was being recorded around that time, yet it was up–to–date enough to incorporate a symbol of the more modern times — a DeLorean — to serve as the time machine.

And the cast was kind of a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. TV viewers (like me) who were fans of the TV series Taxi had seen Lloyd frequently as the perpetually stoned Rev. Jim who had a kind personality and a heart of gold. Thus, it probably wasn't much of a leap to accept him as the eccentric (yet personable) inventor, Doc Brown.
Doc Brown: "Tell me, Future Boy, who's president of the United States in 1985?"

Marty: "Ronald Reagan."

Doc Brown: "Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady? And Jack Benny is secretary of the Treasury!"

Likewise, many in the audience had seen Michael J. Fox in his TV series, Family Ties, for the previous three years. I'm not sure if Marty McFly had a lot in common with Alex P. Keaton, but Fox was a sure draw. Family Ties had been intended to focus on the liberal parents, not the conservative children, but the viewing audience's positive response to Fox was so strong that he became the focus instead. His popularity never seemed to be about his character.

Their castmates, though not exactly newcomers, were hardly household names. Lea Thompson (who played Fox's mother) and Crispin Glover (who played his father) had been in a few movies prior to "Back to the Future." Thomas F. Wilson (who played Biff) was appearing in only his second film.

The initial draft of the film was done in 1981, and Zemeckis and co–writer Bob Gale began trying to find a studio for their project. But they soon encountered an odd dilemma — studios rejected it for not being sexual enough, then Disney rejected it because it wasn't in keeping with Disney's image to make a film about a mother who falls in love with her son.

Eventually, after Zemeckis enjoyed considerable success with "Romancing the Stone," Universal Pictures was persuaded to take on the project. And "Back to the Future" turned out to be a worthwhile investment. It was the highest–grossing film of 1985.

But on this day a quarter of a century ago, Zemeckis was worried that it would not succeed because Fox was unable to attend the premiere. He was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Family Ties and was busy with filming that was being done in London.

Looking back on it, of course, Zemeckis need not have worried. With a gross revenue of nearly $400 million, "Back to the Future" more than covered its $19 million budget.

Still, one must wonder what Lloyd and the rest of the cast must think of DirecTV's attempt to capitalize on the film's popularity a few years ago?

I'll grant you, the product was certainly futuristic. It clearly wasn't available in 1955.

But, for that matter, it wasn't available in 1985, either. And that's where that bolt of lightning was going to send Marty McFly.

So didn't that compromise the logic of the commercial?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

A Unique Talent

I will always remember when Walter Matthau died. It was 10 years ago today.

But, in an unorganized kind of way that might have appealed to his signature character, Oscar Madison, I couldn't say for sure whether I heard about it on the day he actually died or the day after.

You see, I had just moved into the apartment in which I still live, and there were boxes of possessions piled around the place. I'm not sure if the cable had been hooked up yet. I know I didn't have phone service.

July 1, 2000, was a Saturday. My brother and I had moved most of my belongings the day before, so I spent most of that Saturday unpacking and arranging things. It's possible that I had my radio plugged in. If I did — and if I happened to switch the radio on — it's possible that I heard about Matthau's death on the radio. I simply have no memory of that.

What I do remember is going to the nearby grocery store the next day to get some supplies and seeing Matthau's obituary on the front page of the Sunday paper.

And a flood of memories washed over me.

He was a unique talent.
  • I remembered the first time I ever saw Matthau on the big screen. It was in "The Odd Couple," and seeing that movie today brings back fond memories of two ladies who were very important to me — my mother and her mother.

    They both loved that movie, especially my grandmother, as I recalled here a few months ago. But, to tell you the truth, I think she was always a big fan of Walter Matthau.

    And, frankly, who didn't like Matthau? Even when he was a young man, he seemed to be the personification of a grumpy old man — crabby, hunched over, kinda seedy — with big ears and a Nixonesque jaw that seemed designed to make audiences laugh. He was made for comedy.

  • In fact, though, he was equally agile at both drama and comedy — as I was to learn when I went to college and began watching movies from early in his career, like "Fail–Safe."
But he really had a flair for comedy, especially when he was paired with someone who had a flair for it, too, like George Burns in "The Sunshine Boys." You can watch it today, 35 years after it was made, and it's still as fresh and funny as it was in the mid–1970s.

That's probably the highest compliment anyone can pay to Matthau. Today, 10 years after his death, his performances are still as entertaining as ever.

Part of that, to be sure, is due to the wonderful writing that seemed to be ever present on his projects. And part of it certainly was thanks to the work of some talented directors.

But much of it was his own talent, skill — unique and brilliant and, oh, so missed.