Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rocky Jumps the Shark

Are you familiar with the phrase "jump the shark?"

It's become a TV cliche, but it was based, as most good cliches are, in a certain amount of truth. In this case, it was based on an episode from the Happy Days TV series — which began its existence as a nice, nostalgic look at growing up in the 1950s, but it ran out of material so, when the fifth season began in 1977, the familiar characters left their homes in Milwaukee and went to the West Coast, where Fonzie literally jumped over a shark while water skiing.

Many years later, the phrase "jump the shark" was first used to describe the point when a once–popular TV series is losing viewers and resorts to ludicrous story lines in a desperate attempt to revive interest.

In the case of Happy Days, it actually may have helped the show remain on the air for several more years, but, as I say, this phrase is almost always used to describe the rapid descent of a TV show. I think it could be used to describe some movies (and their numerous sequels) as well.

I'm thinking of one in particular — the "Rocky" film series, the fourth of which made its debut today.

Like everyone else, I cheered when Rocky Balboa, a "ham 'n' egger from South Philly," got his chance to fight for the title in the original movie back in the mid–1970s. It was make or break for Sylvester Stallone, much like Rocky's title shot, and it really paid off handsomely for him. I've heard that the film cost less than $1 million to make, and it earned back more than 100 times that at the box office. Rocky didn't win that fight so there was an obvious opportunity to cash in on the movie's popularity — with a rematch.

And, so, "Rocky II" came along a few years later to satisfy the audience's craving for more. All the stars were back, and Rocky got his rematch with Apollo. Obviously, moviegoers wouldn't sit still for seeing essentially the same story — in which Rocky comes close but doesn't win — in the sequel. This time, Rocky had to win.

And he did.

And, in the eyes of most viewers, that should have been the end of that particular film franchise. But it wasn't. Not by a long shot.

Part III came along a few years later. Rocky and Apollo had joined forces after Rocky's trainer died while Rocky was preparing for his bid to reclaim the title from the thug who took it from him, Clubber Lang (played by then–popular TV star Mr. T).

The film was astonishingly successful — and impressive (by second sequel standards) — but everyone I knew said this certainly must be the last installment in the series, the third and final chapter of the Rocky "trilogy."

But Rocky wasn't finished. Thus, it was on this day 25 years ago that the "Rocky" franchise officially jumped the shark, in my view.

It was in the midst of the Reagan administration, the Cold War, the anti–Soviet hysteria, and "Rocky" promoted the kind of feel–good political propaganda that was so prevalent in those days — that America and democracy were better than Russia and communism because one American could beat one Russian in an American movie about boxing.

I refused to contribute to the "Rocky IV" propaganda fest — out of principle. I did see the movie — eventually when it came to TV. I've never seen it on the big screen. At the time, it was virtually a point of pride.

In hindsight, though, that may have been hypocritical of me. Perhaps the "Rocky" franchise always specialized in exploiting the audience's emotions. It just wasn't always blatant about it.

If "Rocky IV" came off as calculating in its exploitation of U.S.–Soviet tensions, wasn't the first film in the series equally guilty of pushing all the right (and timely) emotional buttons with its theme of a perennial underdog getting a shot at the grand prize on the nation's Bicentennial?

And didn't the second film do much the same thing by rewarding viewers with a tangible victory instead of merely a moral one in the sequel? Surely it wasn't coincidental that Rocky, in the words of Perry Seibert of, "stopped being one of the common men and became an icon" in that second film — released, as it was, in a year marked by a nuclear meltdown, gas lines and, eventually, the hostage crisis in Iran.

In 1979, Americans felt battered. "Rocky II" lifted their spirits and made them feel things were possible.

Certainly the third one did — with the one–time rivals, Rocky and Apollo, working together to put down the young and roguish (and aptly named) Clubber Lang.

From there, of course, we came to this day 25 years ago, when politics was introduced into the mix.

I wish I could say the "Rocky" series ended in 1985, but it didn't. There was a "Rocky V" in 1990. I never saw it, not even on TV, but I saw ads for it.

Rocky had been staggered in his fight with the Russian (a political metaphor, perhaps?) and was realizing, like many athletes, that his talents were leaving him as he aged so Rocky, reluctant to leave the sport entirely, ran a gym and promoted a young protege. He and the protege had a falling out, and Rocky disappeared from movie screens.

The series seemed to be over.

But then, in 2006 — 30 years after the original film was released — Rocky returned in "Rocky Balboa," I never saw it, but I have been told it was a pretty good movie. Maybe, but it sounded a little implausible to me.

Nevertheless, that was the fifth and supposedly final sequel.

I still think Rocky jumped the shark 25 years ago today.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Remembering a Storyteller

"Death walks faster than the wind and never returns what he has taken."

Hans Christian Andersen
The Story of a Mother (1847)

Today is Thanksgiving. It is also the day before my birthday.

And as I've gotten older, I guess one of the things that has had the most meaning for me is my contribution — as small as it may sometimes seem to be — to the next generation.

Quite often, the younger generation has rejected the things I have tried to pass along, and that's OK. Each generation marches to its own drumbeat, as Henry David Thoreau might say.

I do hope, though, that, one day, some of those younger folks will develop a liking for Mark Twain or Mozart — and if some of them do, they may recall that I recommended "Huckleberry Finn" or "Don Giovanni" when they were young and thought they already knew it all.

They probably won't — and that's OK, too. I don't crave credit or recognition for introducing someone to a great writer or a great composer.

But today I've been thinking of something I shared with a little girl many years ago, and I hope she always remembers it — and someday shares it with her own children.

That little girl is a young woman today — in fact, she just got engaged recently — but when she was little, I made a tape for her of a movie that was one of my favorites when I was her age — "Hans Christian Andersen" starring Danny Kaye.

It was 58 years ago today that that movie made its debut. It was not a literal biography. In fact, in the film's introduction, it calls itself "a fairy tale about the storyteller," and it wove a narrative around songs and dances inspired by Andersen's stories.

Anyway, I gave that tape to this little girl and followed that with a copy of Andersen's stories. Inside the cover of the book, I wrote, "Elise; Always remember. The book is almost always better than the movie."

I really believe that. I've read many books that were made into movies, and I can't think of a single case in which the movie was better than the book that inspired it.

Some did come close, but none has ever been as good as the book.

But, gosh, it would be hard to beat seeing and hearing Danny Kaye. That's still a treat, and it's one that every generation should enjoy.

The movie was in the theaters many years before I was born, but, as I understand it, it was quite a hit in its day. I suppose all of the songs in it enjoyed a certain amount of popularity, although I doubt that "Inchworm" was the movie's #1 song when it was released.

In fact, if moviegoers at the time were asked to name a song from the movie, many probably would name "Thumbelina." It was, after all, nominated for an Academy Award — which it lost to "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin' " from the legendary "High Noon."

But the song I always think of whenever my thoughts turn to "Hans Christian Andersen" is the song in the video at the top of this post — "Inchworm." I have a very hazy memory, from when I was little, of my grandmother singing me to sleep with that song.

It isn't a complete memory, just snippets, really — images, sensations. I can remember being in a bedroom in my grandmother's house. I remember my grandmother sitting next to the bed, singing softly.

I don't know what time of year it was, but my memory is that it was warm in the bedroom. Maybe that is because the heat was on, or maybe it was just a warm time of the year.

I also recall my mother coming in and out of the room. I don't know why. It's a fleeting image with no real context.

I also have no memory of whether my brother was there. I was 3 when he was born so he may have been there and he may not.

Clearly, there are gaps in this particular memory — but that is understandable, I guess, if I was only 2 or 3 years old at the time.

In spite of its gaps, though, it's a pleasant, comforting, safe memory for me. And I still think "Inchworm" makes a darn good lullabye.

Congratulations, Elise. I hope you have a long and happy marriage.

And I really do hope you share "Hans Christian Andersen" with your own children.

Maybe you'll even sing them to sleep with "Inchworm."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

After Turkey ... Four Treats

Some folks are reluctant to go anywhere near the stores on the day after Thanksgiving.

It's not because they're stuffed from Thanksgiving dinner the day before, and they don't want to go anywhere ... although that might be part of it.

They're understandably wary of the crowds who have been lured to the stores, many of them in the dead of night, by the special prices being offered for the traditional kickoff to the Christmas shopping season.

Well, if you're planning to spend Friday at home, I've got something you can do if you have little interest in the football games being played that afternoon.

As I have often said, I owe my appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock's movies to my parents.

I enjoy them all, even the ones that are often dismissed as being among Hitchcock's lesser efforts. There are many directors who would give anything if their best films could rise to the level of mediocrity attained by Hitchcock's "lesser efforts."

Anyway, Friday is my birthday — so it's kinda nice that Turner Classic Movies will be showing four Hitchcock movies in a row that day.

I can't say that these films were among Hitchcock's "lesser efforts." Two of them — "Strangers on a Train" and "Dial M for Murder" — were included in the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 thrillers of all time. And one — "Foreign Correspondent" — was among the 400 nominees for that list.

To be honest, I can't really understand why the fourth Hitchcock film being shown by TCM"To Catch a Thief" — wasn't even nominated for that list. But it was on AFI's list of the Top 100 passion films of all time — presumably because of the sizzling on–screen relationship between Grace Kelly and Cary Grant — although I always thought that movie was more suspenseful than romantic.

Be that as it may ...

  • "Foreign Correspondent" can be seen at 10 a.m. (Central).

    It's the one movie of the four that I haven't seen, and I'm looking forward to it. It is the story of an American reporter who is trying to expose spies based in England. My understanding is that, as events unfold, the story leads into a fictional World War II (the movie was released more than a year before Pearl Harbor drew America into the war in Europe).

    It was the second movie that Hitchcock made after coming to the United States from Great Britain, and it wound up in competition for the Best Picture Oscar with the first movie he made, "Rebecca."

    "Rebecca" won, but, in hindsight, that may have been one of those decisions the Academy regretted, considering that the movie appeared almost prophetic when the United States, in spite of its efforts, found itself involved in World War II.

    It often seems to be overlooked these days — and perhaps that is understandable, given that Hitchcock's body of work includes films like "Psycho," "The Birds," "North by Northwest," "Vertigo" and "Rear Window."

    Perhaps that is also why I haven't seen it before. I will be glad to add it to the list of Hitchcock movies that I have seen — and to be able to do so on my birthday is a special treat.

  • At noon, you can see "Strangers on a Train." I haven't seen it in years, but I'm eager to see it again.

    Modern movie viewers might not think much of it. It's in black and white, it doesn't have splashy special effects (just some pretty innovative camerawork), but it's a classic. It explores one of Hitchcock's favorite themes — how good and evil can exist within the same person.

    A tennis star, played by Farley Granger, is trapped in a loveless marriage with Laura Elliot (later known as Kasey Rogers, the actress who played Louise Tate in Bewitched). He is approached by a stranger, played by Robert Walker, who offers to kill Granger's wife in exchange for the murder of his father.

    In case you didn't know, it served as the inspiration for Billy Crystal's "Throw Momma from the Train," a delightful homage to Hitchcock — and one of the best movie comedies of the last 25 years.

    But to appreciate that, you really must see "Strangers on a Train."

  • At 1:45 p.m., you can see "Dial M for Murder," one of the films Grace Kelly made with the great director.

    For a Philly girl, she managed an acceptable British accent — at least, to American ears.

    That's an important element of this movie's success because, other than "Rope," "Dial M for Murder" may have had more dialogue and less action than any other film Hitchcock ever made.

    If Kelly had not been believable as the affluent Englishwoman whose former tennis star husband wants to have murdered so he can have her money, the movie would have failed.

    I definitely do not think it was one of Hitchcock's best. I don't remember what I thought of it the first time I saw it, but in the viewings I have had since that time, my overriding impression has been that the story is perhaps more predictable than the others Hitchcock told.

    But I've always liked it, anyway, in spite of its shortcomings. And it was innovative in its way. It was filmed using a rather primitive 3–D technique. Watch closely and you can see it in the depth between people and objects.

  • Some folks will tell you that "To Catch a Thief" has no shortcomings.

    It had a great cast — Kelly, Grant, John Williams, Jessie Royce Landis. It had perhaps the most picturesque of backdrops, the Riviera. It won an Oscar for its cinematography. It told a very cerebral tale of a jewel thief who is at large and a retired cat burglar played by Grant who is the chief suspect.

    I can only conclude that it wasn't bloody enough for hard–core Hitchcock fans. No one important was killed. In fact, I recall no blood being shed — at least on camera.

    But I liked it. It had style. Judge for yourself. It's on at 3:45 p.m.
Anyway, that's how I'll be spending my day on Friday.

Not a bad way to spend one's birthday — especially if you're trying to avoid the crowds.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Attaboy, Luther!

I'm not sure how old I was when I first saw "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken."

I'm quite sure I didn't see it at the movie theater in my hometown. My parents liked Don Knotts, always enjoyed watching him on The Andy Griffith Show, but, for some reason, they didn't want me to spend money to see his movies at the movie theater — even if all my friends were going to see them.

As a result, I don't think I saw him in a movie at a movie theater until I was old enough to drive to the theater myself.

When I look back on my youth, I get the distinct impression that my social development may not have been everything it should have been. You see, my hometown (I've written about it here before) was rather small. It wasn't necessarily small by Arkansas standards — but, by the standards of other states, yes, Conway was small.

I didn't even grow up within the city limits. I grew up on a manmade lake, Lake Beaverfork, that was a few miles outside the city limits. In those days, there weren't many houses out there — I've been told there is a lot of development there now — and even fewer families with children my age.

Consequently, my circle of close friends, the ones I played with after school and during the summers, consisted of the kids who lived on that lake. Some were my age; most were not. My interactions with the kids in town were confined to the hours we were in school together. We seldom saw each other away from school.

And there weren't many places for young people to socialize in those days outside of school. As I have mentioned here before, my hometown has grown quite a bit since I was a child there, and I'm sure there are many more options for kids in Conway today.

There was no shopping mall in my hometown when I was young — just a strip mall that had an arcade, where a kid could go and spend several dollars in an evening playing the pinball machines and listening to popular tunes on the jukebox. Life's lessons in that environment consisted mainly of periodically going out into the tall grass next to the arcade and, under cover of darkness, sharing alcohol or the occasional joint with one's buddies.

There was the bowling alley/skating rink on the other side of town, which was where kids went to socialize on Friday and Saturday nights when they were in those awkward early adolescent years — and, occasionally, when I was still under the legal driving age, I managed to persuade my parents to take me there for an evening of trying to impress the opposite sex with my (mostly imagined) prowess at bowling and my ability to inhale cigarette smoke.

In those days, weekend evenings spent at the bowling alley/skating rink still qualified as rites of passage for just about everyone who grew up in my hometown. That is the kind of thing that is probably regarded as quaint by young people who live there today since, as I have said, I am sure they have many more options today.

Be that as it may, the bowling alley/skating rink played a major role in my formative years. And, so, too, did Don Knotts — in spite of my parents' efforts.

Why does "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" stand out in my memory? I'm not really sure. It came out in 1966 — and, in those days, my hometown was served by a single movie theater (not counting the drive–in on the outskirts of town that had a reputation, when I was in my teens, for showing R–rated B movies that tended to serve as the backdrop for young couples who were a lot more interested in each other than what was on the screen).

I was in first grade in 1966. It would be many years before I saw a movie at the drive–in.

Anyway, I know I didn't see that movie at the town theater, which had a reputation of its own. It wasn't at all unusual in those days for popular movies — and even the not–so–popular ones — to take a year or more to find their way to Conway.

There were other, more lucrative markets in Arkansas in those days — the state capitol, Little Rock, wasn't far away and first–run movies usually came there long before they came to Conway.

When I was growing up, if one wanted to see a movie while it was still the subject of dinner conversation everywhere else, you had to see it in Little Rock. By the time it got to Conway, it was certain to be yesterday's news — or, more accurately, last year's news.

I remember seeing "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" when I was spending the night at the home of one of my buddies. This friend, Larry, always appeared to be somewhat worldly to me, and it seemed I was always seeing comedies that made impressions on me when I was at his house.

It was at Larry's house, for example, that I first saw "The Fortune Cookie" — and, while everyone seems to think of other films when they think of Walter Matthau, I think of "The Fortune Cookie."

It brings back pleasant memories of childhood.

And so it was that one night when I was about 7 or 8, I was spending the night at Larry's and "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" came on. Larry's parents had adopted him when he was little, and they had lavished affection on him. He was the only kid I knew who had a TV in his bedroom, and he had a 10–speed bike long before anyone else.

Anyway, on this occasion, I remember sitting in Larry's room watching his TV, munching on chips and laughing at Knotts' bug–eyed physical comedy in an hilarious house of horrors — and his exaggerated nervousness when delivering his speech (punctuated by the off–screen shouts of "Attaboy, Luther!").

All things considered, there probably were worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

I didn't know it at the time, but Knotts' co–star, Joan Staley, had been a Playboy centerfold about eight years before she made "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken." She had to make it wearing a dark wig because the film's producers thought she was too sexy as a blonde.

Well, I guess you can judge that for yourself. You can see "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 7 p.m. (Central).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Of Rubber Ducks and Englishmen

Today is the 82nd birthday of a fellow named Bill Fries.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, he was elected mayor of a tiny town in southwest Colorado, and he served in that capacity for some six years. But that isn't his real claim to fame.

A little more than a decade before he became mayor of Ouray, Colo., in November 1975, Fries — who is more widely known as C.W. McCall — released a novelty recording, "Convoy," a half–spoken, half–sung homage to the citizens band (CB) radio fad, which reached its peak in popularity in the mid–1970s.

CBs had a reputation in those days as being the principal form of communication for truckers, but many were owned by private citizens. There was a definite subculture at the time of people who communicated from their homes with any truckers who happened to be passing through — and sometimes they developed relationships with people they "met" this way.

From time to time in the 1970s, I heard stories of truckers who frequently drove the same routes and became friendly with CB operators along those routes, communicating with them each time they went through.

CBs had kind of a mixed appeal, I guess. The language was kind of earthy and almost criminal, I guess, but it also had a lot of references to bears, which gave it kind of a Winnie the Pooh aura.

I don't know the actual release date of the song. Maybe it was released on Fries' 47th birthday. I guess it doesn't matter. Eventually, the song spent a week at the top of the pop charts and a month and a half at the top of the country charts.

I was just a young boy at the time, living in a state that was (and, I presume, still is) somewhat technologically challenged, but I had a friend who always seemed to be (and, apparently, still is) on the cutting edge of of technological advances.

And he had a CB radio.

I remember nights spent in his home or in mine, listening to his CB radio and, occasionally, listening to him to speak to other CB'ers. In hindsight, those CB'ers couldn't have been too far away because restrictions on wattage and antennas made it a short–distance form of communication at best, and any folks we spoke to on those nights must have been only a few miles from us.

But I always imagined them being far away — on an endless stretch of highway, perhaps, beneath a velvet night sky dotted with shimmering stars. I guess that image made it seem more magical to me.

Not that it wasn't already magical. The language of CB radio cast a spell all its own, and McCall capitalized on it in his song. Phrases like "That's a big 10–4, good buddy" were unbelievably popular in the 1970s — but, as a young boy in rural Arkansas, "good buddy" seemed, to me, to be not too far removed from the "good ole boy" label that was tossed around almost casually by many of the adults in my world.

I guess that made CBs more plausible for me in those days before cell phones.

And I suppose CB radios are still in use today, although they may not be quite as prevalent as they once were.

There are many more technological options available for both truckers and armchair communicators than there were in the 1970s, and my guess is that the groups who once communicated primarily by CB radio use a combination of them today.

I'm not really sure if that makes me feel more or less secure on the road.

I mean, in the days when drivers were talking about speed traps on CBs, they might have appeared to be speaking into dead air and listening to static–filled radio — but at least their eyes were on the road.

They weren't banging out text messages.

Of course, there might have been occasions when one of those truckers was so obsessed with finding the right CB channel that he failed to pay the proper attention to the road and wound up paying a price for it.

So I guess there are dangers in every era with every form of technology.

What is called for — both then and now — is at least a modicum of common sense.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Jill Clayburgh Dies

Actress Jill Clayburgh died yesterday.

And, while the last thing I want to do at a time like this is appear flippant, I guess my very first response to the news was that I didn't even know she was sick.

But sick she was.

Clayburgh, who was 66, apparently suffered from leukemia for more than two decades. But she did so privately. Outside of her family and, presumably, some close friends, Clayburgh's illness seems to have been unknown. Certainly it was unknown to the general public.

I know little about leukemia, actually. I mean, I know it is a blood disease, and I know it is classified as a cancer, but, while I have known quite a few people who have been diagnosed with cancer, I can only recall one person who was diagnosed with leukemia.

That was a classmate of mine in third grade.

Of course, that was many years ago, but my memory is that his illness was very aggressive, and he died within a year. Perhaps he had been treated for it longer than that, and I just didn't know. But he obviously didn't live with it for 21 years.

I realize that a lot of things have changed for the better since I was a child, and one of those things is cancer treatment.

Science hasn't reached the point where it has conquered every cancer in every conceivable form, even the most aggressive ones. It may never reach that point. But the improvements in my lifetime have been amazing.

And, possibly, Clayburgh's experience of having her life extended by the drugs that were prescribed to her is proof of that.

Then again, perhaps there is a difference between the kind of leukemia that Billy had all those years ago and the kind that Clayburgh had, and comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

As I say, I don't know much about leukemia, but I know a few things. For example, most of the people who are diagnosed with it are adults. Maybe it is more lethal, more aggressive in children. Maybe it is harder to treat in children.

I also see, in Clayburgh's obituaries, that she is said to have had chronic leukemia. That, too, may be a noteworthy — perhaps related — distinction. My understanding is that it is something that is almost always diagnosed in adults, rarely in children.

It's possible, I guess, that Billy was one of those exceptions, a child diagnosed with chronic leukemia, and that complicated his treatment. I was about 9 or 10 when he died, and all I knew was that he died of leukemia. No one got any more specific than that.

When I was a child, a diagnosis of cancer of any kind was a death sentence. Or at least it seemed to be. I guess there have always been those who survived a diagnosis of cancer, but there were none in my personal experience until I was older, much older.

And some of those I've known who were diagnosed with cancer have survived. I'm happy for them, but I'm not naive. We're a long way from eliminating cancer. We're closer than we were when I was a child, and we're making progress, but we're not on the brink of the single discovery that will make it possible to prevent all types of cancer from striking anyone anywhere.

Lives will continue to be lost, but those lives need not be lost in vain. Perhaps there are things medical science can learn from Clayburgh's 21–year fight with leukemia. Perhaps her death will contribute to a greater understanding. Perhaps it may one day make it possible for others to live and be cured.

Today, though, I want to remember Clayburgh's performances. "I do best with characters who are coming apart at the seams," she told the New York Times, and indeed she did. I remember two films she did in the late 1970s — "An Unmarried Woman" and "Starting Over" — that told the stories of women facing the challenges of being single in that turbulent decade when societal roles for women were constantly being redefined.

Those performances earned her back–to–back Oscar nominations.

She had many great performances in her career, and that is the legacy she leaves behind.

Rest in peace, Jill Clayburgh.