Friday, February 25, 2011

Gomer the Good

When I was a child, Gomer Pyle was one of my favorite programs.

Maybe that was because Gomer and I tended to see things at the same level. He always did have a kind of childlike mentality.

Anyway, as a child, I didn't really understand some things, like war and military service and things like that so the stories that dealt with Gomer and his activities as a Marine made little sense to me until I was older.

But the stories that focused on Gomer's often peculiar sense of ethics I could understand.

A good example of that is the episode that first aired 45 years ago tonight. Seen from the perspective of 2011, it's almost a cautionary tale about automation.

Gomer and his buddies were in "town" (whichever town was near their base) for an evening out. Upon their arrival, they did something that logically should have been done before they ever got on the bus that would take them into town — find out how much money they had between them.

(But, for the purposes of the plot, I suppose, it had to be done the way it was.)

Anyway, they concluded that they had a little over $3 between them. It is an indication, I suppose, of just how much things have changed that they actually had options for what the three of them could do with that amount of money — one observed that they could each get a hamburger and a piece of pie, another that they could all go to see a movie but couldn't afford any snacks and a third suggestion was that they could go swimming at the YMCA and have enough money left over for a burger but no pie.

They decided to call the theater and find out what was showing. They were using Gomer's "lucky dime" to make the call so he did the honors. He got a recording and recited it to his buddies. Then he hung up.

When he did, the phone began shooting out dimes like it was a slot machine — more than $40. In 1966, I'm sure that three Marines could have had a real night on the town with 40 bucks.

And Gomer's buddies were making plans before they had even finished counting the cash — but Gomer wouldn't hear of it. "Honesty is the best policy," he said, declaring his intention to return the money to the phone company.

His friends thought he was crazy, and they seemed to be right when Gomer tried to return the money but kept getting the runaround from phone company employees.

When he told his story to his buddies back on the base, Gomer was told there was no reason not to keep the money. But he insisted that there was just as much reason as there had been before, and he went to his sergeant for help.

Sgt. Carter recommended going back to the pay phone and putting all the money back in it, and Gomer tried to do that, but his effort went wrong and he wound up in police custody.

The police were just as skeptical of the situation as Gomer's buddies and sergeant and the phone company had been, but, eventually, the matter was resolved.

In gratitude for Gomer's honesty, the phone company decided to reward him with free long–distance phone calls for everyone in the platoon.

Then lightning struck again — and, of course, Gomer was ground zero.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A House Divided

Some of my fondest memories from my youth involve The Waltons, a series that was enjoyed by both my mother and my grandmother.

I guess it had something for all of us.

For my grandmother, there was Grandma Walton, played by Ellen Corby. I don't remember talking about her with my own grandmother, but I suspect she identified with the character.

For my mother, there was Olivia Walton, played by Michael Learned. Many of the stories involved lessons about parenting, and I often felt that I saw those lessons embodied in the disciplinary decisions she made.

(My family was a lot like most in those days, I guess. It often fell to my mother to make those decisions because she was the only parent in the house when the issues came up.)

And I, well, I was the writer in the family. It wasn't hard for me to see myself as John–Boy, played by Richard Thomas — although I never thought I would ever match him when it came to writing.

I'll admit, there are times now when I watch a rerun from that series, and I have the same reaction I have when I see pictures of the clothes people wore in those days or I hear some of the songs that were popular at that time.

I want to ask ... "What were we thinking?"

Today, whenever I hear John–Boy reading something he has written in his newspaper, it seems that, almost without exception, John–Boy's listeners are enthralled, even if, on closer examination, whatever he has written seems hopelessly sophomoric.

He could be reading the phone book or a recipe for shortbread, and still they would gush and fawn as if he had just shared a passage from one of the Gospels.

As someone who has spent many years working for newspapers and teaching journalism, I know that journalists seldom, if ever, get that kind of adulatory response.

At the time the show was on the air, I was a teenager, dreaming a naive dream of writing something that would be as widely accepted as John–Boy's writing and hailed as some kind of revealed truth.

Well, I did say it was naive, didn't I?

Still, I wanted to be like John–Boy — and, to a certain extent, I suppose I was. I was often told by the adults in my life that I had a knack for writing, and there were times when people would gush and fawn over things that I had written.

I didn't think at the time — and I don't think now — that they were merely being polite and encouraging. I never felt that they were insincere.

But, if I am to be honest, I look at many of the things I wrote then, and I want to ask myself the same question: "What was I thinking?"

In hindsight, I know that John–Boy's writings — well, many of them, anyway — were schmaltzy, cliched and hopelessly out of touch with reality. They weren't exactly what I would advise my students to emulate.

But there were exceptions — and one of them aired 35 years ago tonight, in an episode called "The House."

The story was about a controversy on Walton's Mountain concerning the fate of an old, abandoned building that once had been prominent in the community. Grandma, feeling sentimental about a house that played such a major role in her youth, wanted it preserved. That put her at odds with Grandpa (Will Geer), who sensed an opportunity to make some money from the valuable wood in the structure.

It was the classic tug–o–war between the past and the future, between sentiment and cash.

As an aspiring journalist, John–Boy accepted the challenge of writing an editorial on the growing drive to save the old building and found himself in a familiar predicament for journalists — he tried to please everyone and wound up pleasing no one.

His editorial was pretty well written, I thought at the time. And I still think it was pretty well written. It was logical. It was reasonable. But it was right smack dab in the middle of the road.

Perhaps it appealed to me then and still appeals to me now because I am a middle–of–the–road kind of person. Some people dismiss folks like me because, they say, we have no convictions, but I don't think that is true. I wouldn't be honest if I did not advocate the things in which I believe.

And it wouldn't have been honest for Grandma and Grandpa to react in any way other than the way they did. No matter how well written John–Boy's editorial may have been, it didn't go far enough to please either side.

Eventually, I suppose, Grandma and Grandpa reached the only compromise they could. Grandpa salvaged a stained glass window from the old house and put it in their bedroom, giving Grandma something she had longed for since she was a girl — the opportunity to look at Walton's Mountain through one of the stained glass windows she had long admired.

Perhaps some dreams can come true even if it takes awhile.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Candy Man Cometh

Tomorrow is an anniversary of sorts.

I say "of sorts" because, unlike most of the anniversaries of which I write, this is not a milestone anniversary. But it is an anniversary — a 39th anniversary. On Feb. 19, 1972, Sammy Davis Jr. made his memorable appearance on All in the Family.

February always seemed to be a high point for All in the Family. Maybe the writers saved some of their best stories for February, which was (and continues to be) "sweeps month" for the all–important Nielsen ratings. Perhaps they were making their case for high ratings every February and brought out their best stuff.

If that was the strategy, it must have worked. All in the Family dominated the ratings for five consecutive years — a record unmatched by any other scripted series. Nearly three decades after the show went off the air, most of the episodes that are rated the series' best by visitors to were aired in February.

And #1 on the list, from the series' second season (and its first full season, having been a midseason replacement in 1971), was Sammy Davis' visit to the Bunker household.

Davis apparently lobbied for several months to be included in an episode of the series. He'd been making guest appearances on TV shows for nearly 20 years, going back to the 1960s so TV was nothing new to him. Usually, he played himself crossing paths with the regulars in a series, but occasionally he played fictional characters and gave audiences a chance to see skills he unveiled all too infrequently.

The story was simplicity itself. Davis had been a passenger in the cab Archie was driving to make some extra money and had left a briefcase in the vehicle. Archie arranged with the cab company for Davis to come to his home to pick it up.

There were a lot of inside jokes in that episode that, frankly, were over my head. I was still rather young at the time.

Davis, who had been the subject of controversial public white–black celebrity kissing in recent years, took a little ribbing for that while he had to wait in the Bunker household for his briefcase, then, before he left, posed for a picture with Archie, kissing him on the cheek a split second before the picture was taken.

The laugh that followed was so long that it had to be edited so that Carroll O'Connor could deliver his final line. In syndication, that line is usually dropped.

But you can see it in the attached clip.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On the Trail of a Serial Killer

It was 20 years ago today that "The Silence of the Lambs" made its debut on the big screen.

In the long history of the Oscars, slightly more than three dozen films have been nominated for all of the so–called "Big Five" awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and either Best Adapted Screenplay or Best Original Screenplay.

"The Silence of the Lambs" was the first in a decade to be nominated in all five categories. Only four films have been so honored since.

Even fewer — only three, in fact — have swept all five awards.

The last to do so was "The Silence of the Lambs."

It takes a remarkable film to achieve that, and I had every intention of going to the theatre to see it. Of course, I had no idea on this day 20 years ago that it would be nominated for the "Big Five" because that didn't happen until a year later.

But I had heard a lot about it, and I had read a lot about it — and I was eager to see it.

Unfortunately, I got sidetracked.

About a month after it hit the big screen, I learned that an old friend of mine in Arkansas was in the hospital. He had been diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of cancer that wound up taking his life within a few months.

I was preoccupied with that, as well as my studies in graduate school in Texas, and I never got around to seeing the film while it was in the theaters.

More than a year later, after it had been nominated for the "Big Five" and had become the first film to sweep all five awards since "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," it was featured in one of those free previews that the premium channels did in those days to try to attract subscribers.

(I guess they still do that, although not as frequently.)

I recorded the film, watched it and brought the tape with me on a trip to Arkansas to visit my friends. As luck would have it, my friends hadn't seen the movie, either, so I popped the tape in the VCR.

At left, you can see a picture of two of my friends, totally absorbed in the story.

And that was understandable. The film was a nearly perfect blend of crime and horror. It had a clear aura of realism, with the serial killer nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" because he took sections of skin from his victims and the FBI's at times frantic efforts to pry useful information from another serial killer they had in custody.

It isn't really necessary to go over the plot, is it? Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster were ideal choices for their roles, and they certainly deserved their Oscars.

But, remarkably, Hopkins wasn't the first choice to play Hannibal Lecter. Gene Hackman was supposed to play the part, but he backed out. Other Hollywood heavyweights like Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were offered the role before it went to Hopkins.

Foster, too, was a substitute choice. One of the most popular actresses of that time, Michelle Pfeiffer, was the first choice, but she turned it down. She told Barbara Walters she was nervous about the subject matter. Reportedly, there were about 300 other actresses who had applied for the part, including Melanie Griffith, Geena Davis and Meg Ryan, but it went to Foster.

In hindsight, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing either role. The American Film Institute named Hopkins the #1 film villain of all time and Foster the #6 film hero.

I can't picture Hackman or Pfeiffer doing any better.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Good Night, Irene

I had mixed emotions this morning when I heard that actress Betty Garrett died of an aortic aneurysm yesterday.

She was 91, after all, but she was active. She was still making occasional appearances on TV — although not as frequently as she once did — and I understand that she was teaching a musical comedy class at the time of her death.

Nevertheless, when someone is in his/her 90s, death cannot be entirely unexpected, no matter how active that person may be.

Garrett had a long career in movies, Broadway, radio and TV during which she crossed paths with many of the stars of her day.

People who are older than I must think of her films or her guest spots on TV series when they think of Betty Garrett, and some who are younger may think of the days when Garrett played the landlady on Laverne & Shirley — or perhaps when she did something else.

But I think of the early 1970s, when Garrett was cast as Irene Lorenzo, the Bunkers' new neighbor on All in the Family. Irene's husband (played by the late Vincent Gardenia) was written out of the series after one season (I don't recall if his absence was ever explained), but Irene was a fixture on the show for two or three years.

On some TV series, a neighbor doesn't figure too prominently in story lines, but that wasn't the case with Irene. She didn't live under the same roof with the Bunkers, but she was always there — so much so that Archie connived to get her a job where he worked just so she wouldn't be at his house so much.

I never really understood the purpose of Irene's character. She was a liberal — but so was just about everyone in Archie's world. She was a feminist — but so was Archie's daughter and (one suspected) his wife as well.

Irene was Catholic, and that may have been part of the purpose — to serve as ground zero for religious conflict. To that point in the series, religion rarely surfaced as an issue (typically, an incidental one) on All in the Family. And, in fact, it did serve as the basis for at least one episode — when Archie was afraid that Irene and her sister (a nun) were trying to convert Edith to Catholicism.

Other than that, though, I can't really remember episodes in which Irene's faith was a source of conflict.

Maybe I'm overplaying the significance of the character. Maybe Irene was there to be Edith's friend, to give her character a chance to blossom. If so, mission accomplished. Edith was a much richer character because of her interaction with Irene.

And even if that wasn't the writers' intention, it was clearly an outcome of Irene's presence. Through her conversations with Irene, Edith gave the audiences a deeper understanding of who she was and what she thought. She was hardly the "dingbat" that Archie called her.

If the disappearance of Irene's husband had been adequately explained, it might have permitted her to be a role model of some kind — for widowed spouses or, perhaps, for Catholic women facing the stigma of divorce.

There were other people who had recurring roles on All in the Family and could have served as enablers or role models who helped break down stereotypes. One who died just a week ago, Peggy Rea, could have been a role model for the overweight, but she only made three appearances on the show.

Well, whatever Garrett's character's purpose may have been, I liked her. I enjoyed her verbal jousts with Archie. Ironically, TVLand is scheduled to show Garrett's first two episodes as Irene Lorenzo this Thursday at 5 p.m. (Central). Watch and see how her relationship with the Bunkers began.

Return With Us Now ...

When I was a child, I remember seeing an episode from the original Twilight Zone series — in which a man whose company has been building a dam on a tribe's ancestral land in Africa has returned to America.

Apparently, the tribe's witch doctor put a curse on everyone associated with the project. Once back in the United States, the man started hearing the noises of the jungle — but no one ever saw any living, breathing creatures from the jungle until the very last minute — when the man encountered a lion in his apartment.

In the second incarnation of the Twilight Zone, an episode was shown that may have been inspired by that one. I don't know if it was, but many of the episodes from the original series inspired episodes on the new one, and it would make sense if that happened to be the case with this episode.

Anyway, the episode that may have been inspired by the earlier one aired 25 years ago tomorrow night.

Called "Cold Reading," it was set in the golden age of radio, the 1930s. A radio actor has been asked to fill in on a weekly show about an African explorer that was created by a writer who frequently makes impromptu changes while on the set with the cast.

On this particular occasion, he wishes the special effects were more realistic — and gets his wish when everything the actors say comes true in the studio — then he has to do some rapid rewriting to prevent some really terrible things from happening — but he forgets to write out the promo at the end for his latest series.

You might recognize the actor who played the writer. His name was Dick Shawn, and he was a pretty well known actor and comedian.

When I think of him, I always think of his performance in the original "The Producers," Mel Brooks' first film (which, by the way, you can see on Turner Classic Movies this Friday at 4 p.m. Central).

In that movie, Shawn played a hippie named Lorenzo St. Dubois ("L.S.D.") who was chosen to portray Hitler in a musical that was (supposedly) guaranteed to flop. It was really an over–the–top performance.

Shawn was in many other things, too — mostly movies, but there were some TV appearances as well — in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. He was so hard–working, in fact, that he died of a heart attack on stage on April 17, 1987. He was performing a sketch about surviving a nuclear attack and, at one point, stated, "I will not lay down on the job."

Shortly after that, he suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed face down. Because of what he had said earlier, many members of the audience thought it was part of the act. The audience continued to be unsure of what it had seen, making catcalls when nothing happened for several minutes.

The audience remained confused even when someone rushed to the stage, tried to revive Shawn and asked if there was a doctor in the audience. Even when people were asked to leave, they stayed, many still under the impression that what they had witnessed was part of the show.

It was apparently quite similar to the on–stage death of British comedian Tommy Cooper. He collapsed in a televised performance on the London stage.

Cooper had a history of infidelity and drinking, and his acts had a reputation for things going wrong so, when he collapsed after an encounter with a beautiful assistant, it was assumed to be part of the act.

Ironically, their deaths nearly occurred on the same day — separated by three years. Cooper died on April 15, 1984.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Getting Revenge

In 2002, TV Guide named Taxi one of the top 50 shows of all time.

(For the moment, I will set aside the fact that TV Guide picked Seinfeld as the #1 show. That's another debate — and one that, frankly, I'd rather not get into right now.)

Taxi was ranked 48th on TV Guide's list — which sounds impressive until you realize that nearly all of the programs that most people would consider classics were in the Top 30. Taxi was ahead of Oprah Winfrey and Bewitched — but behind (and, in some cases, far behind) shows like Rocky and His Friends, The Larry Sanders Show, Twin Peaks and The X Files.

Not to take anything away from those programs (or any others), but I always felt Taxi was better than that.

It was a creation of James L. Brooks, who cut his teeth in television as a member of MTM Productions, Mary Tyler Moore's company that was responsible for many of the most successful TV series in the 1970s and early 1980s. After leaving MTM, Brooks gravitated to movies — but, in the process, he created Taxi and contributed to other TV series.

The show was set in the garage of a fictional New York taxi company. The characters were primarily cab drivers, all of whom dreamed of succeeding in a different field and considered cab driving to be temporary work. One of the drivers was an actor. Another was a boxer. Yet another was a receptionist at an art gallery.

One driver, Alex (played by Judd Hirsch), openly admitted once that he was an actual cabbie. "I'm the only cab driver in this place," he told a visitor.

The cabbies were all generally supportive of each other, but Danny DeVito, as Louie the dispatcher, was the guy everyone loved to hate. He exchanged insults with the cabbies, belittled all of their efforts to rise above their circumstances, appeared to have no ethics at all and actually enjoyed committing acts of which ordinary people would be ashamed.

Like Hirsch, he had been on the scene for several years, but he really became well known as Louie. His work in that role earned him a Golden Globe in 1980 and an Emmy in 1981 (as well as three additional nominations for each). After Taxi ended in 1983, he went on to a successful film career.

On this day 30 years ago, Taxi was a series that had begun its decline. It had thrived in its first two seasons, when it occupied part of ABC's Tuesday night lineup with ratings leaders like Happy Days, Three's Company and Laverne and Shirley to give it a boost, but, by the 1980–81 season, it had plummeted after being moved to a less secure night and time.

As far as I was concerned, the quality of the writing had not declined in any way. The humor was still as zany as ever, and it continued to take on controversial topics — one of which was failed marriage.

That was a topic that was explored by the series on other occasions, but, 30 years ago tonight, the subject was the boss' marriage.

The boss' wife was played by Eileen Brennan, who was nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance on the show. In the episode, she and the boss had had a fight, and she was looking for a way to hurt him.

It was something, as Louie well knew, that had happened before.

Louie was at his smarmy and sleazy best (or worst, depending on your point of view), shamelessly ingratiating himself to the boss in the opening moments of the episode, then gleefully telling the cabbies what had happened the last time the boss and his wife had a fight.

To get even with her husband, Louie told the cabbies, the boss' wife picked a cabbie with whom to have an affair. The cabbie not only lost his job. He was never heard from again.

The cabbies were skeptical — until they asked the normally reliable Alex if there was any truth to the story. Upon hearing that the boss and his wife had been fighting — and learning that the boss' wife was on the premises and in the process of a confrontation with her husband — Alex wordlessly dove into a locker, confirming the story's veracity.

The other cabbies were horrified, especially the attractive ones because Louie had told them that the boss' wife always went after the young, good–looking cabbies when she wanted to hurt her husband.

And Louie was jubilant, eager to introduce the boss' wife to the cabbies so she could make her choice.

But Brennan quickly wiped the smirk off DeVito's face by informing him that he was her choice ...

... and Louie's attempts to deal with the situation somewhat honorably inspired most of the laughs in the remainder of the episode.

It was a wild and creative program, not the sort of thing one tends to expect from a series that has run its course and is spinning its wheels.

A Year in a Day

If you've wondered why 1939 has the reputation for being the greatest year for movies ever, today would be a good day for you to settle in and watch Turner Classic Movies all day long.

It's a special day in TCM's annual "31 Days of Oscar." I can recall many themes that TCM has used over the years — times when programming was arranged according to films featuring a certain actor or actress or director or films that had certain plot similarities.

But I cannot recall a day when TCM did something like this.

From 7:15 (Central) this morning until the wee hours of Sunday morning, TCM will be showing all 10 of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture in 1939 starting with "Dark Victory" with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.

That's followed at 9 a.m. by "Of Mice and Men" with Burgess Meredith. After that, it's "Ninotchka" with Greta Garbo at 11.

In the afternoon, "Wuthering Heights," with Laurence Olivier, will be shown at 1 p.m., followed by John Wayne in "Stagecoach" at 3 p.m. Jimmy Stewart stars in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" at 4:45.

That brings us to prime time.

The evening hours feature probably the two most remembered films of 1939 — "The Wizard of Oz," with Judy Garland, at 7 p.m., and the eventual Oscar winner, "Gone With the Wind," with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, at 9.

Robert Donat and Greer Garson star in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" at 1 a.m., and the last of the 10 nominees, "Love Affair" with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, comes on at 3.

Talk about a heavyweight lineup. It's hard to think of a major star from 1939 who wasn't in one of the Best Picture nominees or a genre that wasn't represented.

Every February, I enjoy watching portions of TCM's salute. Part of my pleasure comes from seeing films I've seen before, but part of it comes from the experience of seeing films for the first time.

Typically, I look for a few movies to watch that I have never seen before, no matter how old they might be, and I am almost giddy at the thought of having all the top movies from the greatest year in film history available on one channel in a single day. It's kind of like one–stop shopping for classic movie fans.

Now, my mission is clear — but it is hardly easy.

I have seen some of the movies that are scheduled to be shown today, and I might watch one or two of them. But I haven't seen at least half of the Best Picture nominees of 1939, and I want to watch one or two of them as well.

Today I have a choice (or choices) to make.

And, if you are a fan of classic films, so have you.

Which film (or films) will you watch today?

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Box of Chocolates

I don't watch the Academy Awards much anymore.

I did when I was a teenager. In those days, I tended to see every movie that was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and I always had my personal choices for each one.

For many reasons, I haven't continued to do that as an adult.

But, in 1995, when "Forrest Gump" was nominated for 13 Oscars, I remember watching the broadcast.

At the time, I hadn't seen the film. In fact, I often felt like I was the only person in America who hadn't seen it by the time Oscar Night rolled around. But I liked Tom Hanks, who was cast in the title role, and I was familiar with the slogans that had rapidly become cliches — "life is like a box of chocolates," "stupid is as stupid does," etc.

Such phrases came to be known as "Gumpisms" — and, ever since that film was released in July 1994, I've heard them spoken or seen them written in all sorts of settings.

What is your favorite Gumpism? If you're not sure, may I recommend that you watch the film when Turner Classic Movies shows it tonight as part of its annual "31 Days of Oscar" celebration? You can see it at 9 p.m. (Central).

Anyway, on Oscar Night, I remember seeing one of the people who won an Academy Award for his contribution to the picture (at present, I forget who it was) and observed that everyone had his or her particular favorite line from the film — and he said his favorite line was "Sometimes, there aren't enough rocks."

As I said, I still hadn't seen the movie at the time, and I didn't know which scene he was talking about. Now, of course, I know that it was Forrest's observation about watching Jenny fling rock after rock at the long–abandoned home of her abusive father and then fall to the ground sobbing.

Once I had seen the movie, I had to agree that it was a great line. But, unlike "life is like a box of chocolates" or "stupid is as stupid does," it had to be understood in the context of the rest of the film, in the context of the characters' life experiences.

You had to see the movie to get it.

As a writer, I appreciated the great lines, especially the ones that made sense only within the context of the story. But, as a student of history, I think I was attracted from the start by the way the film wove important events into the narrative and inserted Gump, Zelig style, into archival film footage of famous people — presidents, other politicians, social and cultural icons — and events.

As a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon, for example, I liked the way Gump and Lennon were featured in a scene from the Dick Cavett Show.

Similarly, I liked the scene in which Elvis Presley, in his days before he hit it big as a performer, was presented as a boarder in Forrest's mother's home in Alabama. I don't know if Elvis, in his short career as a truck driver, ever hauled anything through Alabama and had to spend the night there, but I guess it's possible.

Elvis, after all, was born in Mississippi. He grew up there. And it is possible that, in the course of his work, he drove trucks through neighboring Southern states, like Alabama. If that happened, he may have needed to spend the night in Alabama on occasion.

So Forrest's suggestion that he taught Elvis to dance was plausible.

Those are the kinds of moments that I enjoy. They're sort of like "So that is how that came to be!" revelations — like when you first learned the natural laws that made the formations of clouds possible or when you discovered that a rainbow is an optical phenomenon.

Even though you knew, on a deeper level, that what was being presented in "Forrest Gump" wasn't the real story. It was fiction.

But that is what I always enjoyed about "Forrest Gump." I liked the one–liners, but I really liked the way legitimate history was told through Forrest's experiences.

In the alternate universe of that movie, Forrest was always connected, in one way or another, with the people and the events that shaped America and the world in the second half of the 20th century.

OK, it would have been over the top to have him land on the moon, whether on Apollo 11 or one of the missions that followed.

But it was logical to think that he might have been in the Watergate Hotel the night the burglars were arrested in the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

And that, I would say, is my favorite moment in "Forrest Gump."

But I also liked the way he, with Beverly Hillbillies logic, dealt with things. I loved the moment when Lt. Dan asked him if he had found Jesus.

Gump replied, "I didn't know I was supposed to be looking for him."

According to Gump, he was where history was made.

He played football for Bear Bryant, influenced musical icons Elvis Presley and John Lennon, met JFK and LBJ at the White House and played a role in the toppling of the Nixon presidency, among other things.

I've never read the book upon which it was based, but the movie was a great ride and I urge you to watch it again.

Or for the first time, if you've never seen it before.

Even if you've seen it before, there are things you probably missed.

Have a box of chocolates. It's nearly Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Room For One More ...

I have often heard people refer to the episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired 50 years ago tonight as one of the most frightening they ever saw.

The episode was called "Twenty–Two," and I guess its ability to send that shiver down your spine depended on the age of the viewer.

Older viewers, for example, could remember the days when air travel was much more relaxed than it is today. A shift away from that was unavoidable. For a number of reasons, it became clear that air travel differed from — and couldn't be treated the same as — conventional forms of travel.

Someone living in the 21st century who has traveled (either frequently or infrequently) by air and happens to watch "Twenty–Two" today probably would laugh at the nonexistent security measures, the way passengers could stroll out casually onto the tarmac.

I'm sure it would be seen as impossibly naive to viewers today, but that is how things were done until hijackings began to happen with a certain amount of frequency.

I'm sure it looks odd to many people. It looks odd to me, too, and I should be old enough to remember — to a certain extent — the time when it was like that. In fact, the picture at left is of me with my mother as we were either boarding a plane or exiting one in the 1960s.

Folks who are older than I am — if they did much traveling by air in those days — may get scared in a hindsight kind of way by the episode. It's a glimpse of just how vulnerable people were in the mid–20th century. Technology was advancing more rapidly than ever before, and common sense hadn't had time to catch up with it.

There really isn't any special significance to the number 22, either. I mean, the story isn't intended to convince people that 22 should be given the same kind of treatment as, say, 13.

It just happens to be the number that is assigned to the morgue in the hospital where a young woman is being treated.

The young woman has a recurring nightmare that involves the morgue, which baffles her doctor because he knows she has never been to the hospital's morgue before — yet she is astonishingly accurate in her description of it.

In the dream, a nurse at the morgue's door always says to the patient, "Room for one more, honey." But the doctor insists that no such nurse is assigned to the morgue.

Anyway, after the patient is discharged, she goes to an airport and prepares to leave for home when things begin to mimic her dream. As she is about to board her flight ("Flight 22") she encounters a stewardess who looks exactly like the nurse at the morgue. The stewardess says, "Room for one more, honey," and the patient/passenger runs screaming from the plane.

A few moments later, as the plane takes off without her, it erupts in a fiery explosion. A dream about death has saved a life.

It's a good story. It just never scared me. I don't even recall being scared when I saw it for the first time, whenever that was.

I don't know why some people think this was one of the most frightening of the original Twilight Zone episodes. Maybe it really is a generational thing.

It might seem shallow, but I think I may have been influenced, to an extent, by the quality of the production. The episode, as I understand it, was one of a handful of episodes that was shot on videotape and then transferred to film for syndication purposes. Apparently, this was done to reduce expenses, but it resulted in poorer quality and it didn't save enough money to be continued.

In my mind, that is a plus.

Maybe the story needs to be modernized and remade. If I saw a plane blow up after both passengers and luggage had to go through layers of rigorous screening procedures, I would be scared because that would mean that security had been breached and more research (probably a lot more research) would be necessary to restore that sense of security.

And that is what such a story, presented in 2011, surely would say because security measures have long been part of air travel — more extensively, I will admit, in the nearly 10 years since the September 11 attacks but they were in place prior to that.

No such procedures, not even the most primitive ones, were in place in 1961, however. Bags weren't checked. Passengers weren't screened. No one seemed to give any real thought to the possibility that someone might bring a weapon or a bomb on board.

If someone had thought of it at that time, maybe some of the notorious hijackings of the then–near future — like D.B. Cooper's still–unsolved 1971 hijacking in the Pacific Northwest — could have been prevented.

Maybe that is what prevents the episode from being the classic in my mind that it seems to be in so many others'. The explosion in the episode doesn't happen in spite of all attempts to prevent it because nothing has been done to prevent it.

That's what would make it timeless for me.

I would name many other Twilight Zone episodes as being more frightening and more thought provoking than "Twenty–Two."

But that's just me.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Getting a Foot in the Closet Door

All in the Family was a product of its times.

It couldn't have been the popular hit that it became in the 1970s without the painful soul searching that American culture was forced to do in the 1960s when it saw its political and social leaders gunned down repeatedly and its young torn away in disillusionment over not just a war but also a society that would allow it to be fought under the flimsiest of pretenses.

All in the Family was recognized during its long, successful run for exposing prejudice and hypocrisy in ways that no other television series had ever done. If today its humor seems almost simplistic, one must remember that it was not written and produced for audiences in the 21st century but for those either directly engaged in conflict or affected by it nonetheless.

The writers, who were as talented as any who ever wrote for television, often had a fine line to walk. They often had to use language that implied things that might be expressed in more blunt terms today. If, at times, the language seems timid, even reserved, one must remember it was a different audience in a different time.

And, while people often seem to think of racial conflict when they think of All in the Family's role in cultural history, Archie Bunker wasn't merely a racial bigot. He was an all–purpose bigot, perfect for a time when all prejudices were facing reassessments from a public that was discovering it had been misled by many of the things it had been taught to believe.

Some of the movements that gained virtually instant momentum from All in the Family, particularly the ones regarding civil rights and women's rights, owe a debt of gratitude to the program. They gained a level of acceptance that, in some cases, kind of overshot the movements' goals.

Other movements received similar introductions to the public but, for many reasons, did not acquire the same kind of momentum, and only recently, it seems, have they begun to make up for it.

One such movement is the one for gay rights.

On this day 40 years ago, most white middle–class Americans, even in the South, agreed that black Americans should have the same rights and privileges as anyone else. And many middle–class male Americans believed the same thing about female Americans.

Their support was necessary if those groups were to make the kinds of gains they wanted to make. And, in recent years, we have witnessed the blossoming of those goals with the election of the first black president and record numbers of women serving in the House and Senate.

But not so with homosexuals. Their acceptance by mainstream America has been slower, even though All In the Family tried, from time to time, to address the issue.

It first did so on this night, when it tried to cast its bright spotlight on what it justifiably called "Judging Books By Covers."

The episode was a contrast in stereotypes — an actor named Anthony Geary (who went on to become the Luke of the Luke and Laura couple whose 1981 wedding was a watershed moment in daytime TV history) played an effeminate friend of Mike and Gloria, and an actor named Phil Carey played a friend of Archie's.

Despite appearances, Geary's character was straight, and Carey's (who was big, muscular, a former pro football player, a stereotypical man's man) was gay — all contrary to Archie's convictions about the sexes and sexual roles.

It was a landmark moment in the evolution of television. Prior to that time, homosexuals were treated as jokes.

Things were slow to change — slowed even more, perhaps, by the stigma of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic — and they continued to be treated that way in many television depictions in the years to come, but All in the Family did manage to get its foot into the closet door.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Pride of the Yankees

Today, of course, is Super Bowl Sunday.

It is always a special day for football fans, bittersweet in its way because it marks the absolute end of the football season.

After today, football fans will have to be content with offseason news for the next six or seven months — a prospect that is grimmer than usual, given the uncertain status of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.

As a result, today's game could take on even more significance than usual if it turns out to be the NFL's last one for quite awhile.

I grew up in the South so it is hard for me to comprehend why anyone wouldn't like football. But I know that such people do exist. For some people, the only real pastime in America is baseball; for many of them, Super Bowl Sunday is merely another milestone along the road to the next baseball season.

If you are such a person, if you are counting the days until pitchers and catchers report, Turner Classic Movies has the alternative for you at 4:45 p.m. (Central) — 1942's "Pride of the Yankees" starring Gary Cooper in the title role.

No better choice could have been made to play the part. I don't really know if anyone else was even considered, but I can't think of anyone else who was active in the movies at that time who could have done a better job of re–creating Gehrig's now–legendary farewell speech.

In my opinion, it is easily the finest moment in baseball history, even though the movie played around with the actual sequence of the words (and, in some cases, the words themselves).

Here is what Gehrig actually said:
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

"Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.

"When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that's something. When you have a wonderful mother–in–law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that's the finest I know.

"So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."

And here is what Cooper said in the movie:
"I have been walking onto ball fields for 16 years, and I've never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. I have had the great honor to have played with these great veteran ballplayers on my left — Murderers' Row, our championship team of 1927. I have had the further honor of living with and playing with these men on my right — the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees of today.

"I have been given fame and undeserved praise by the boys up there behind the wire in the press box, my friends, the sports writers. I have worked under the two greatest managers of all time, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy.

"I have a mother and father who fought to give me health and a solid background in my youth. I have a wife, a companion for life, who has shown me more courage than I ever knew.

"People all say that I've had a bad break. But today ... today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

It is, admittedly, something of a tearjerker, but it is also one of the most inspiring films ever made. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and won one of them. The American Film Institute ranked it 22nd on its "100 Years ,,, 100 Cheers" list of the most inspirational films of all time.

It was recognized as an inspirational film by TIME, which observed that the movie was somewhat light on its sports footage but long on a "grade–A love story."

TIME was so carried away with the love story, in fact, that most of its review centered on Cooper's young co–star, Teresa Wright, who was appearing in only her third movie.

"If moviegoers like her in it," wrote TIME, "she may become cinemadom's foremost dramatic actress. If they don't, she can 1) try again; 2) remain what she is: one of the best young dramatic actresses Hollywood has turned up in many a talent hunt."

Wright's filmography, which includes credits for such films as "Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Shadow of a Doubt," indicates the quality of the productions in which she participated — and that says a lot about the quality of her performances.

But, looking at it from the perspective of some 69 years, "Pride of the Yankees" was the story of Lou Gehrig, a real man who died prematurely of a disease that still ends too many lives too soon. He played baseball better than most and was admired for it by millions.

As I said, I can't think of anyone who would have been a better choice to portray Gehrig than Gary Cooper. Neither, apparently, can radio personality Kevin Nelson, who said, in "The Greatest Stories Ever Told About Baseball," that "Gehrig was to baseball what Gary Cooper was to the movies: a figure of unimpeachable integrity, massive and incorruptible, a hero."

I recommend for your consideration the heroic tale of Lou Gehrig.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Thoughts of a Snowy Day Long Ago

The weather can be volatile at this time of the year.

I guess it's that way everywhere, even in the places where it starts snowing in October and doesn't stop until about April.

But it can be pretty extreme even in places like Dallas, Texas — where, I will concede, it tends to be a lot milder than most places.

That — along with the fact that a new, state–of–the–art stadium has been open for business here for nearly a year and a half — is what enticed the NFL to bring its Super Bowl here this year.

But the weather can be hit or miss around here in the winter. If the Super Bowl had been played here last weekend, the players and fans could have enjoyed sunny skies and balmy (for February) temperatures.

As I write this, the temperature is about 20° (wind chill is about 2°) with a light snow and a stout wind. We've been getting rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow for several hours. Businesses and school districts throughout the area are closed down.

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, on which the city was counting to handle the transportation needs of the influx of guests for the Super Bowl, is reporting that rail service is currently suspended and "[b]uses are operating but slowly."

Forecasters think the temperature will inch above freezing by the end of the week, possibly rising to the 50s by kickoff on Sunday, but there doesn't seem to be any question that last Sunday would have been the best time to play the game.

Timing is everything.

The two classes I'm teaching at one of the campuses of the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) won't meet today because all DCCCD locations are closed due to the weather.

And I've been sitting here this morning, occasionally gazing out my window at the ice–coated street below and thinking of my college days.

I got my B.A. at the University of Arkansas. While I was there, I lived with my parents. My father had gone back to school to pursue a degree in architecture, and my mother was teaching first grade in the nearby Springdale district.

Unlike the central Arkansas town in which I grew up, we had four distinct seasons in northwest Arkansas. In the winter, we got snow, and sometimes the accumulations were sufficient to cancel Mom's school for the day.

My classes, on the other hand, were seldom canceled — unless my professor simply could not get to the campus. Then he/she would notify someone, who would normally post a notice on the door, but the students had to trudge their way in to see it for themselves.

That wasn't a huge problem for me. Our house was near the campus. I had to walk up hill a little to get to the campus, which did pose problems if it was icy, like it is today — but, generally speaking, what little ice we got usually got covered over rather rapidly with snow, and that is usually more conducive to doing, well, just about anything.

Anyway, I've been thinking about one day when I was in college, and a lot of snow fell overnight.

The next morning, my mother heard on the radio that her school district was closed for the day. I, on the other hand, had to get ready for class and make my way to the campus, where I discovered that my classes were not canceled.

I remember coming home around 1 in the afternoon and discovering my mother in the living room, ironing board out with a basket of clothes sitting next to it. She was pressing shirts and watching a movie on whatever was our equivalent of HBO in those days.

The movie was "The Boys From Brazil," a thriller about a plot to clone Hitler and revive Nazism. It had been fairly popular at the theaters a few years earlier, but I don't know if Mom ever saw it on the big screen.

What I do know is that it was on TV on this particular day, and it had only been on for a few minutes when I got home. I opened a can of ravioli and warmed it up, then came in to the living room and watched the movie.

I only intended to watch it for a few minutes, but I got caught up in the plot. It really is an intriguing one.

Gregory Peck played Josef Mengele, the famous butcher from Auschwitz and the perpetrator of a plot to clone Hitler. James Mason was a co–conspirator and Laurence Olivier was a Nazi hunter (inspired by Simon Wiesenthal) who was alerted to some suspicious activity in South America.

The genetic material that was used in this experiment had been acquired from Hitler himself, according to Mengele. Dozens of baby Hitlers had been created using that material, and they had been dispersed around the globe to carefully selected couples who duplicated, as closely as possible, the parents who raised the original Hitler.

Hitler's father had been a civil servant, more than 20 years older than Hitler's mother and had died while Hitler was in his early teens. For all these young Hitlers to be shaped by the same experiences as the first one, they had to lose their adoptive fathers at about the same point in their lives.

And all those young Hitlers were approaching the time when they had to lose their fathers.

That was the plot. It was engrossing. But, to be honest, it really didn't have much to do with snow, other than the fact that I had been walking through a lot of snow before I came in the house and found my mother watching that movie on that afternoon so many years ago.

Well, actually, there were some wintry scenes in that movie, some segments where the actors were forced to wear winter clothes, even one memorable "execution" scene that involved some snow.

And there was one scene that I find particularly chilling in hindsight.

Remember, this movie was made in the late 1970s. Cable TV was still new, and specialty channels, like The History Channel and The Military Channel were still many years away.

Yet some of what it presented seems almost prophetic to me now, the way much of "Network" seems to be.

Peck, in his role as Mengele, tells Olivier near the end of the movie what he had seen on the TV in his motel room — "Films of Hitler! The movement! People are fascinated! The time is ripe!"

He spoke of a "Hitler tailor–made for the 1980s, '90s, 2000!"

And I think that, if such genetic material had been taken from Hitler while he was alive and had been preserved, it might still exist somewhere today.

For that matter, there may be real boys from Brazil living among us today. Mengele, we are told, died while swimming in Brazil in 1979. He may have drowned accidentally or perhaps he suffered a stroke.

Whatever the reason for his death, he avoided capture for more than three decades, and he appears to have continued his human experimentation in his postwar life. He may well have conducted experiments like the one that was suggested in "The Boys From Brazil."

If he did, those experiments may have been disappointments to him. He may have judged them failures.

Or they may have been in their nascent stage at the time of his death.

If so — and if, as might be implied by the movie, he had a timeline to follow — he could have been "born" several years before Mengele died and still not be the age that Hitler had reached by the time he seized power in Germany.

He could have been an infant when Mengele died — and, consequently, would not yet be as old as Hitler was when he was imprisoned for treason and wrote "Mein Kampf."

In short, if Mengele did conduct such experiments in the last years of his life, we may be on the brink of seeing their outcomes.

Just something to think about on a wintry day.