Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gone With the Wind Turns 75

"When a Southerner took the trouble to pack a trunk and travel twenty miles for a visit, the visit was seldom of shorter duration than a month, usually much longer. Southerners were as enthusiastic visitors as they were hosts, and there was nothing unusual in relatives coming to spend the Christmas holidays and remaining until July."

Margaret Mitchell
"Gone With the Wind"

Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel "Gone With the Wind" was first published 75 years ago in May.

I was a teenager when the movie that was based on the novel was first shown on network television. It was the highest–rated program in TV history (it has been surpassed a few times since then), and I remember watching it in a special two–night presentation.

Shortly thereafter, I read the book.

My friend Phyllis, who died last summer (and of whom I have written in this blog and in my current events blog), introduced me to the book — and, because of her, I bought a paperback copy.

It really was a wonderful story. When you got right down to it, it was about a spoiled Southern girl who was hopelessly in love with a married man. I grew up in the South, and I knew many girls like her. In my experience, it was a timeless tale that could be told against the backdrop of the Civil War or the civil rights movement.

I had known for a long time that Phyllis loved the movie — but I always thought that was because she loved Clark Gable. I don't know why it never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Phyllis loved the book first — and her affection for the movie and Clark Gable came next.

I never asked her about that so I'll probably never know which came first, and it really doesn't matter. It's a great book, rich with details about life in the South and a period in American history that no one now living (and, for the most part, no one living when the book was published in 1936, either) can recall.

I still have that paperback copy. In fact, I'm looking at it right now. I've been thumbing through it, and it's in remarkably good shape, considering all the moves it has survived — and that is certainly appropriate.

Wherever I have lived in my adult life, that book has been with me. I will always be grateful to Phyllis for introducing me to it.

(I remember showing her my copy the day after I bought it. We were sitting in some class together, and I handed it to her. She thumbed through it, smiled, said something to me that I have forgotten and handed the book back to me.

(Whatever DNA she might have left on that book is probably long gone, but I'd be willing to bet that her fingerprints can still be found on it.)

If you've seen the movie, you know the story. There are just so many details in the book that couldn't be worked into the movie — even though the movie was nearly four hours long.

Conversations are more extensive in the book than they are in the movie, and the reader gets the opportunity to dive more deeply into the characters' thoughts and motivations.

And the burning of Atlanta, as vivid as it is in the movie, seems to go on endlessly in the book, recapturing what must have been the absolute terror of the people of that time and place.

Slavery is part of the story's backdrop, but it isn't really what the book is about — just as it wasn't what the war was about at first. However, the book did have a tendency to present the slaves as being considerably more content with their lot in life than I would have expected.

That led to an interesting point about the social hierarchy that existed in the slave population. There was, as a British writer who visited the South a few years before the outbreak of the war noted, a difference between slaves who were house servants and slaves who were field hands. The "most important distinction," he wrote, was that the house servants were "comparatively well off."

Consequently, it was realistic when Mitchell's book suggested that the house servants at Tara were loyal and remained with Scarlett even after they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — whereas the field hands did not hesitate to leave when they could.

Mitchell was criticized for some things. She was accused of sugar–coating the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and of penning a racist portrayal of black Americans of that time.

But people who focus on those things miss the point of the story. It isn't about the Klan. It isn't about slavery. It isn't even about a spoiled Southern girl who is fixated on a married man.

It's about survival, as Mitchell herself said.

"What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under?" she asked. "It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn't."

That quality was summed up in Scarlett's final line in both the book and the movie: "After all, tomorrow is another day."

Friday, April 29, 2011

Giving Up Smoking

It seems appropriate, somehow, on this royal wedding day, to tell this story.

Nearly seven weeks ago, I observed my fourth anniversary without cigarettes.

And I can tell you, from personal experience, how brutal that experience can be.

Now, let me say that I believe that giving up smoking is a worthwhile goal and should be encouraged whenever someone tries to achieve it — because for anyone who is trying to free himself of the addiction to nicotine, there can be no experience that comes closer to resembling hell on earth.

Yet few TV programs have attempted to realistically present it — and even fewer have succeeded.

But tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of what I think is one of the better TV episodes to realistically (albeit it in the exaggerated manner of a sitcom) address the ordeal of giving up cigarettes — and, appropriately, it came from Frasier.

Frasier was always extremely good about exploring the human condition — all of the protagonist's training and experience in therapy, I guess — and giving up smoking is an experience that more and more Americans have in common.

But smokers have had to wade through a swamp of nonsense to get to the point where quitting could be appreciated for the truly difficult thing that it is.

When I was a child, it was a common misconception to believe that smoking was merely a habit that could be "kicked" if the smoker only displayed enough will power.

But that was wrong. It made smokers feel guilty for not being able to give up smoking when, in fact, it was (and still is) an addiction that, in most cases, requires a doctor's assistance to defeat.

For more than two decades now, smokers have been aware of a more realistic appraisal, that the addiction to nicotine is tougher to shake than heroin — and I haven't heard anyone suggest that beating heroin addiction is simply a matter of will power.

Nevertheless, Frasier (the program, that is, although the character occasionally contributed to the perpetuation of those myths) trotted out all the cliches about "habit" that non–smokers have used for years and years to needlessly shame smokers for their powerlessness over nicotine.

The premise of the episode was that the new owner of the radio station — an elderly self–made man with health issues — was engaged to Frasier's agent, Bebe, and wanted her to give up smoking during a three–day period when he would be out of town.

(Now, as any smoker who has tried to give up tobacco will tell you, that is not something that can be done in three days. For most smokers, it is an ongoing process. I haven't had a cigarette in four years, but there are still times when I wish I could smoke one, and there have been times when I have come perilously close to backsliding.)

Bebe wound up in Frasier's custody for three days, and his mission was clear: Cure Bebe of her smoking or else.

It was decided that the only way to make Bebe give up smoking cold turkey was to keep her in Frasier's apartment where everyone could keep an eye on her.

But Bebe's struggle with cigarettes had unhappy consequences on the rest of the household. Reformed smokers Martin and Daphne fell off the wagon, and Bebe tried to resist Frasier's reverse psychology.

A harrowing time was had by all.

But everyone got through it — and Bebe almost got her geriatric groom, but there was a bit of a mishap on the wedding day. The groom had a fatal heart attack as the couple walked down the aisle, and Bebe, despite her best efforts to bluff her way through the vows, didn't get to inherit his fortune.

But she did get to continue smoking.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Captain January

If it isn't by design, it is ironic that Shirley Temple's rendition of "Early Bird" from the movie "Captain January" is being used in the current advertising for Target.

You see, today is the 75th anniversary of the debut of "Captain January." It premiered the day after Temple's eighth birthday.

In April 1936, I gather that Temple was something of a national sensation. She was already a veteran of the movie business, having appeared in films since 1932. Two of her films in 1935 — "The Littlest Rebel" and "Curly Top" — were among the top 10 box–office draws for the year, and two of her 1936 films were among the top 14 moneymakers for that year.

But "Captain January" wasn't one of them. It was, apparently, a hit — just not enough of one to be among the industry's leaders.

It was based on a children's book that was written before the turn of the century. I don't know how popular the book was, but apparently it was good enough to be made into two movies, and it was good enough to be reprinted nearly 60 years after it was first published.

It also led to a memorable moment in movie history — Buddy Ebsen (about a quarter of a century before he achieved fame as Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies) danced with Temple. Considering how tall and lanky Ebsen was — and how diminutive Temple was, at least when she was a tyke — that was nothing to sneeze at.

Ebsen, it is also worth noting, was 20 years older than Temple, but he wasn't the movie veteran that Temple was. "Captain January" was only his fourth film.

I've never seen "Captain January" myself, just clips, but when you see one, it isn't hard to see why Temple was so popular, why so many mothers wanted their little girls to look and sound just like her.

She was very cute, adorable, appealing in every way. But that appeal definitely had a shelf life — and, when Temple outgrew her childhood, she outgrew her movie career.

So she did other things. She married and had children. She entered politics as a conservative Republican, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly four decades ago. After undergoing treatment, she became one of the first celebrated women to speak openly about her experience — and may have helped save the life of someone you know.

She's still alive, too. She celebrated her 83rd birthday yesterday.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sticky Fingers

If you feel like the Rolling Stones have been around forever, you aren't alone. A lot of us feel that way.

I saw the Stones perform in concert when I was in college — and they had been around so long by that time that much of their show consisted of songs that were already designated as "golden oldies."

Don't get me wrong. It was a good show, one of the best I have ever seen in person. But the Stones clearly were a nostalgia trip by that time.

You had to go back about a generation to find someone who could remember — vividly — when the Stones were new, a testosterone–enhanced version of the Beatles.

They built that image with a list of songs that seems, in hindsight, to have been destined for greatness, for inclusion among the all–time greats — "Satisfaction," "Sympathy For The Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Honky Tonk Women" and others, of course.

When I saw them, they were still cranking out hits (that hasn't changed although the Stones' pace definitely has slowed in recent years), but there was no doubt that the Stones were a relic from another era. There were people in the crowd that day who were my age, but there were also people who were 20 or even 30 years older. Even then, the Stones had a remarkable reach that spanned generations.

I can only imagine what kind of age range is drawn to a Stones show these days — everything from 6 to 60 and beyond, I suppose.

Well, whatever the size of the crowd that may come to see a Stones show these days, the Stones have earned the attention — in no small part because of an album they released 40 years ago today, "Sticky Fingers."

It was the Stones' first studio album since "Let It Bleed," the album they had been promoting on their late 1969 tour, just before the deadly free concert at Altamont. That event seemed to disrupt, at least momentarily, the Stones' momentum. The only album they released between Altamont in 1969 and this day in 1971 was a recording of live tracks.

(That live album, by the way, was a great album. For many years, it was widely considered to be the best concert album ever made — and you can still find people who will tell you that.)

There were lots of great Stones albums and singles coming out in those days. In fact, if I had to name the most productive five–year period that the Stones have ever had, I would have to pick 1968 to 1972, which included the releases of four of their best studio albums — "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main Street."

(Those four were, in my opinion, flawless, although some might argue that nearly every album the Stones released until about the mid–1970s was flawless or nearly so, and the same probably could be said of the albums that followed "Exile""Goats Head Soup" and "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll.")

But "Sticky Fingers" was the first to be released on the Stones' very own, newly created recording label, and it featured a rather risque (for the time) album cover showing a jeans–clad, presumably male figure from the waist down with an actual zipper.

In spite of the controversy that I do remember erupting around me when that record was released, I don't remember being overly influenced by album cover art at that time. I was just starting to appreciate the popular music of the day, and I tended to think of an album in terms of which songs it contained, not its theme or message.

There were two great singles on "Sticky Fingers." A lot of people would tell you that "Brown Sugar" was the best, and there's good reason for saying that. It was certainly more commercially successful. It reached #1 on the charts, and it was more of an up–tempo song, the kind of a song that the Stones have always done so well.

But I always felt drawn more to "Wild Horses."

I don't know why that is. Could be several reasons for it, I guess. I was raised in the South, and "Wild Horses" had more of a country sound to it than anything else the Stones had done up to that time. I wasn't exactly a fan of country music when I was growing up, but it was familiar to me.

But the thing about "Wild Horses," you see, is that it is really more of a ballad, in my view — and that means that people can adapt it to fit their personal styles.

So many people have done so already — including Susan Boyle, who soared to worldwide fame after her appearance on "Britain's Got Talent" a couple of years ago.

Both songs have been standards on Stones tours for years now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ryan O'Neal's Milestone

Today is Ryan O'Neal's 70th birthday.

That isn't an uncommon milestone. All four of my grandparents lived past that age — in fact, three of them lived well past the age of 70. So has my father, for that matter.

But the fact remains that it is a milestone — and, for someone who, at the age of 68, told People magazine that he "won't know this world" without his partner, the late Farrah Fawcett, O'Neal has now gone on for nearly two years without her.

I don't mean to belittle his loss. Quite the opposite. Congratulations are in order. He found a way to persevere. More power to him.

People often wonder about someone else's secret for longevity. Sometimes I think it's just a matter of continuing to breathe. O'Neal may have had the wind knocked out of him from time to time, but he is still breathing.

His career began on TV, with a guest spot on Perry Mason and a recurring role on Peyton Place, and his acting work in recent years has been on TV as well, in patriarchal roles on shows like Bones and 90210 and a guest spot on Desperate Housewives.

But most of the high points in his movie career probably came early — "Love Story" when he was not quite 30, "Paper Moon" and "What's Up, Doc?" a few years later, Stanley Kubrick's period piece "Barry Lyndon" when he was in his mid–30s.

He got an Oscar nomination for his performance in "Love Story" and he was nominated for Golden Globes for his work in that film and "Paper Moon," but, with a few possible exceptions, O'Neal's movie career probably reached its zenith more than 30 years ago.

Still he lives. He's starting his ninth decade today.

Keep on breathing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


It's probably safe to say that, when Cher and Ryan O'Neal die, their appearances in the 1996 movie "Faithful" probably won't be mentioned in the lead paragraphs of their obituaries.

Neither, I'm sure, would object to that.

If Cher, for instance, is going to be remembered for her work in films, it almost certainly goes without saying that she would prefer that people remember her Oscar–winning performance in "Moonstruck" — or her parts in "Mask" or "Mermaids" or "The Witches of Eastwick" — and not her role as Maggie in "Faithful."

For that matter, O'Neal would surely prefer to be remembered for "Love Story" or "Paper Moon" — or even "What's Up, Doc?" — and not for playing Jack, Maggie's philandering husband who hires a hit man to kill her.

It was billed as a comedy, but, frankly, I found little amusing about it. Neither did audiences or critics, apparently.

The premise was that Maggie, on the occasion of her 20th anniversary, was depressed and seriously contemplating suicide. Meanwhile, Jack had hired this hit man to kill her, and the hit man kept his appointment.

But a funny thing (not "funny ... ha ha" but more like "funny ... strange") happened. The two started to bond while they waited for the all–clear signal from Jack.

(That's actually some sort of syndrome, I believe — in which a person who has been abducted forms an attachment to the abductor. If I remember correctly, it is what happened to newspaper heiress Patty Hearst when she was being held by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.)

There was something else that was funny (again, not "funny ... ha ha" but more like "funny ... strange") about what unfolded.

Nobody cared.

Well, I didn't. I can't really speak for the others who saw it, but I can reach some conclusions — and one is that nobody cared. Literally. The film's opening weekend produced nearly half of its total gross revenue.

I didn't see it at the theater. I saw it years later on TV.

And I decided, as I watched it, that too many things just didn't add up. For instance, Cher and O'Neal were supposed to be playing a childless couple marking their 20th wedding anniversary. The childless thing was clearly a sore point between them, and most people would figure that, logically, they must be in their early to mid–40s in order for the failure to conceive to still be such an issue.

But they were about 10 years older than they needed to be. O'Neal turned 55 the weekend the film was released, and Cher was about to turn 50. Cher was well past her childbearing years, and O'Neal should have been over the disappointment of having no children.

If closeups hadn't betrayed those facts from time to time, the audience must have been influenced by its knowledge of just how long both had been in the public eye.

I know I was.

In 1996, Cher had been familiar to audiences for more than 30 years, going back to her 1965 hit with Sonny, "I Got You Babe." O'Neal's TV credits went back farther than that, but movie audiences had been aware of him for more than a quarter of a century — since 1970's "Love Story."

If the faces hadn't been so familiar, the story might have been more effective. But, as it was, I simply couldn't buy it.

For that matter, I couldn't work up much empathy for any of the characters, either. And, as I say, it appears I wasn't alone. Judging from the box office receipts, not many people paid to see it.

They didn't miss much.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tax Day

"For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."

Luke 12:48

George Harrison was always a spiritual kind of guy, easily the most spiritual of the Beatles.

So it's probably appropriate, when all is said and done, to mention his song "Taxman" — since today is this year's deadline for submitting income taxes — and that passage from Luke today.

I guess anyone who plays that song on the deadline for mailing in tax returns does so in a tongue–in–cheek fashion — like the post offices that frequently have been known to play the song on their sound systems for last–minute filers who line up to mail their returns.

Several years ago, it was used as part of the commercial campaign for a prominent tax preparation service. I guess that meant the song had come full circle.

Over the years, it has become my default song on Tax Day — even on those rare occasions in my life when I have received a refund.

Harrison wrote the song out of frustration and anger over being heavily taxed by the British government — and who could blame him? The British progressive tax placed him in its highest bracket, resulting in a 95% supertax.

He began recording the song almost exactly 45 years ago, on April 20, 1966, and it was released on the Beatles' "Revolver" album in August of that year.

"Revolver" deserves to be written about at length, and I plan to do so later this summer. The 45th anniversary of its release, in fact, will be the first anniversary of the death of a dear friend of mine named Phyllis, and I expect to write about her on that day, too.

Phyllis, as I have written before, was an accomplished musician. She and I never discussed "Taxman" or "Revolver," but I know she liked the Beatles — and, I suspect, she liked the song and the album.

That's just speculation, of course. I'll never know if she liked either one. I can only guess.

To misquote the old advertising jingle — everybody doesn't like something ...

But nobody likes paying taxes.

You didn't have to be George Harrison to understand that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Return to Mayberry

Some reunions should never happen.

I came to that conclusion when my high school class held its first reunion — five years after graduation.

I thought it was too soon for a reunion. Those of us who had gone to college were just barely out of school at that point.

On this day 25 years ago, most of the surviving members of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show appeared in a much–anticipated reunion movie on a Sunday night in mid–April of 1986 — and proved, beyond any doubt, that some reunions should never take place — no matter how much time has gone by.

In reality, the show had been off the air for about 18 years. In the late 1960s, when Griffith decided he had had enough, the show continued for a few years as Mayberry R.F.D., but it wasn't really the same.

And the passage of time, of course, changes everything. By 1986, some of the cast members were deceased, which is an inevitable development that comes to some casts sooner than others. Thus, regulars like Floyd and Clara and Emmett the Fix–It Guy weren't around. I'm not sure if they were even mentioned in the reunion movie.

Some of the cast members were still living — but chose, for one reason or another, not to participate. Frances Bavier, the actress who played Aunt Bee, was ailing (and, in fact, passed away a few years later). Reportedly, she did consider doing a kind of voiceover in a scene in which Andy visited Aunt Bee's grave, but my understanding is that another actress delivered the lines.

The actress who played Ellie Walker and the actor who played Warren, the deputy who replaced Barney Fife, chose not to participate in the film. In hindsight, it might have been hard to work them in to the story gracefully.

But, as it was, it was hard to work in some of the other characters gracefully — or, at least, consistently with the viewers' memories.

Gomer Pyle, for example, had starred in his own TV series in the late 1960s — and his character had a steady girlfriend, LuAnn, most of the time that program was on the air. But in the Mayberry reunion, Gomer was back in Mayberry — and still a bachelor. No mention was made of LuAnn that I can recall.

Speaking of relationships, Barney and his long–term girlfriend, Thelma Lou, got back together in the reunion movie, even though devotees of the series had known for 20 years that Thelma Lou had married someone else and left Mayberry after Barney left the series. Consequently, when Barney and Thelma Lou tied the knot in the reunion movie, Andy had to mention that Thelma Lou's first marriage failed — supposedly for continuity's sake but it was really for propriety's.

Perhaps the most egregious change from the TV series to the reunion movie occurred with Otis the town drunk. In the final years of The Andy Griffith Show, the sponsors apparently grew more and more nervous about what appeared to be jokes about alcoholism, and Otis was not a character in any of the plots in the last 1½ years the program was on the air.

But Otis was back for the reunion — and drinking was no longer an issue. Otis, now a reformed drinker, may have been a pioneer in shifting public attention to childhood obesity in that movie. He was gainfully employed — as Mayberry's ice cream man.

It may have been a good excuse to get the gang together one more time — and many of the cast members have passed away in the quarter century since the film aired — but that's about all it was. There wasn't anything particularly memorable about the plot.

In fact, for a TV movie that reunited the cast of a show with a whole bunch of memorable catchphrases, the dialogue was rather bland.

Without a drunk Otis to silence, for example, Barney couldn't admonish him: "Pipe down, Otis. Will you just pipe down?"

I guess they did the best they could with the convoluted plot.

And, as implausible as the story was, I must admit that it was nice to see the gang together one more time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Take Me Home, Country Roads

It never fails. I always think of my mother when I hear a song by John Denver.

And it was 40 years ago today that he released a recording that has come to be viewed as his "signature" song — "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

I suppose there are others that might qualify for that designation — songs that were written solely by Denver — but this one is often thought of, by people all over the world, as his signature song.

But the truth is that it began as the composition of Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, a husband–wife songwriting team that is perhaps better known for founding Starland Vocal Band, which scored a big hit five years later with the Danoff–Nivert song, "Afternoon Delight."

According to the story, Denver was injured in a car accident in late 1970. While he was recuperating, Danoff and Nivert shared with him a song they had been working on since attending a family reunion. The three of them worked on the song all night and more or less had the finished version ready by the following morning.

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Denver insisted that he had to include the song on his next album — which he did. But he released it as a single first — on this day 40 years ago. It had a bumpy start but it was eventually certified as a million–selling recording by mid–August.

In the last four decades, it has accomplished something that few contemporary songs have achieved. It has been considered by West Virginia lawmakers for designation as the state song. To date, no such resolution has been passed.

But few living songwriters can claim that any of their compositions was considered for anything like that. Matter of fact, not too many descendants of deceased songwriters can claim that their ancestors were so honored, either.

Originally, the song was written about country roads in Maryland. It was adapted for West Virginia although many of the references still are more appropriate for Maryland — and, for that matter, it is my understanding that another version of the song is sung by fans of the Colorado Rapids soccer team.

But that is the great thing about "Take Me Home, Country Roads," even if you didn't grow up in a rural setting. It describes the emotions of a homecoming, of a person's return to a familiar place from which he/she has been absent for a long time.

"Country roads" can just as easily be "city streets" or "multi–lane highways" — whatever takes you home, wherever home might be. Denver wasn't a snob. He was a defender of nature and wildlife, but he recognized the legitimacy of one's feelings for home, whether one's home was in the country or the city.

And, for me, the memories that this song brings back inevitably include thoughts of my mother because she was a fan of Denver's music when I was in my early teens.

I can still remember being in the family car with Mom and hearing a John Denver song come on the radio — and Mom would hum along with the tune, sometimes singing the words.

And I remember other times when we were at home, and Mom would put on one of the many John Denver records we had in the house — and she would hum or sing along with it.

There were times when I was growing up when my home was filled with the sounds of John Denver's music. He was such a constant presence in my life that I almost felt as if I knew him — or, at least, he knew me.

We lived in the country, too, and many of the things Denver described in his songs reflected things from my existence when I was a child. But, at the same time, there were thoughts and feelings that Denver's songs expressed that, I have no doubt, reminded Mom of her childhood in Dallas.

Denver was always good at that sort of thing, and I guess it accounts for the enduring popularity of his music more than 10 years after his death.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Day in Beaumont

Since I have written here, from time to time, of my admiration for the quality of the reincarnation of the Twilight Zone series in the mid–1980s, it seems only right and fair that I should mention the 1985–1986 season finale, which aired on this night 25 years ago.

Call it equal time.

Two episodes aired during that hour that night. Neither was particularly good — and, frankly, I was disappointed. The quality of the episodes, as I have mentioned frequently in the past year (which is the 25th anniversary of the first season of the series remake), was often equal to the original — in my opinion, anyway — and I was really expecting something special from the season finale.

But the episodes that were shown 25 years ago tonight definitely were not worthy of the original.

Picking apart either one would be sufficient to prove the point, I think, so let's focus on the first episode that was aired on April 11, 1986.

To be candid, it started in a very Twilight Zone–esque fashion. A young couple had stopped along a lonely desert road outside a fictional town called Beaumont on "Wednesday 1955" (honest, that's all the audience was told) to fix a flat when they saw a flying saucer making its way across the sky. It disappeared behind a small hill.

The couple investigated and found a spaceship on the other side of the hill — with alien beings coming and going. Frightened by what they had witnessed, the couple made a mad dash for their car and barely escaped the aliens.

The two decided to find the local sheriff and tell him what they had seen, but the sheriff was skeptical. He told them there had been reports of a legitimate crash in that area, and he offered to go back with them to see it. When they arrived, Air Force personnel were on the scene, and wreckage could be seen strewn along the hillside.

A major who appeared to be well acquainted with the sheriff greeted them and explained what had happened. After he walked off with the sheriff, an officer offered to show the couple something, but they begged off and made their way back to the car. Behind them, the officer asked the major if he should radio ahead, but the major replied that the couple weren't going anywhere.

Sounds ominous, doesn't it?

Well, if the story sounds good up to this point — and, I'll confess, I was still intrigued when the show took its first commercial break of the evening — but it rapidly went downhill from there, and I'm sure it would be even worse for today's audiences.

For openers, after coming back from the commercial, the episode picked up with the couple stopping along that lonely road in the desert to use a pay phone that just happened to be out there in the middle of nowhere. Very convenient.

(Remember, cell phones were still part of the distant future in 1986 — let alone 1955.)

After that, the story began to resemble something like "The Stepford Wives" (name your preferred version) or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (again, pick your version). The couple split, with the man seeking help from the newspaper's editor and the woman trying to radio for outside help at her uncle's place.

But neither got what they were looking for. The man saw abnormalities in people's hands (to be honest, I never saw what he supposedly saw), and the woman insisted that her uncle wasn't her uncle, anymore. "He's one of them!"

(Maybe I am, too ...)

They jumped in their car and tried to make their getaway, but a spaceship began following them and fired lethal rays at them — strangely enough, though, while the spaceship could travel however many millions or billions of miles through space it had come, it could not hit a 1955 station wagon with a death ray from what would have to be considered close range.

Then, just as implausibly, the ship sucked the car up through the air, and the couple found themselves inside the ship — which they disovered was being piloted by three of the skeptics they had encountered in Beaumont. Turned out everyone in town was an alien — even the young woman.

If you've seen any one of several visitors–from–outer–space flicks that were made in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, you're sure to experience a sense of deja vu if you watch this episode today.

And that, I thought, made it kind of anticlimactic.

You might recognize the actor who played the young man. He is Victor Garber, who has had roles in a few popular movies (i.e., "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Titanic"), but, mostly, he's been a guest star on several TV shows.

He received a couple of awards for his work in the series Alias.

And a few of the other cast members might look familiar, but none would be terribly noteworthy.

The original Twilight Zone dabbled in some science fiction stories as well. The town in the story that aired 25 years ago tonight took its name from a fellow named Charles Beaumont, who wrote several episodes for the original series, including some that, in hindsight, might have inspired this episode — at least, in some ways.

Tragically, Beaumont died long before the second Twilight Zone series came along.

His stories were often quite good, I thought. A few are even regarded as classics today. And, to be candid, some were not so good.

But even the worst was better than "A Day in Beaumont."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Tribute to Taylor

Today is Elizabeth Taylor Day at Turner Classic Movies.

This is the kind of thing that TCM does when a really prominent actor or actress dies — and, of course, Taylor died last month. When that happened, TCM rearranged its schedule and announced a 24–hour tribute to Taylor would be aired today.

Earlier this morning, the salute began with "Lassie, Come Home" and "National Velvet." In a few minutes, "Conspirator," from 1948, will begin, then TCM will show 1950's "Father of the Bride" with Spencer Tracy (and — no offense intended to Steve Martin or Diane Keaton or anyone else who was part of the 1991 remake — the one with Tracy and Taylor was way better) at 10:30 (Central).

As befits a tribute like this, all of those movies are good — and so, too, are the others that are scheduled to air between now and daybreak tomorrow. But everyone is so busy these days. Practically no one could watch them all, not even with a fleet of VCRs and DVRs.

If you have enough time to watch just one, I could recommend several, any one of which would be a satisfying experience. (Actually, the only ones I can't recommend are the ones I haven't seen. "Father's Little Dividend," the sequel to "Father of the Bride," is in that category. But, according to what I've heard, that really is no great loss.)

Personally, my favorite Taylor film is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" but that might be a little heavy–handed for some folks.

And Taylor was just plain heavy in it. She was in her 30s and was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, but she gained some 30 pounds (deliberately) to play the part of the middle–aged Martha. Her performance brought her an Oscar — and deservedly so.

You can see that one at 9 p.m. if you wish.

I could also recommend Taylor's first Oscar–winning performance — in 1960's "Butterfield 8." It will be shown at 7 (Central).

But I will recommend, instead, that — if you can only watch one Taylor film today — you watch "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" from 1958. It is based on Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize–winning play, and it shows Taylor, who was in her mid–20s at the time, at her best.

It's the way I suspect she would like to be remembered. She isn't the pretty girl from "National Velvet" or the teenager from "Father of the Bride." She is a mature, alluring woman — and her performance as the sultry, sexy Maggie the Cat was pretty damn good, too. She was nominated for an Oscar for it, but she lost to Susan Hayward.

It wasn't a kewpie doll role, either. Maggie was a character in a Tennessee Williams play — as such, she was a complex component of a very cerebral story.

It will be shown at 5 p.m.

Truth is, you just can't go wrong with any of the films TCM will be showing today. Watch as many as you can.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sidney Lumet Dies

I was sorry to hear that Sidney Lumet, the man who directed one of my all–time favorite movies, 1957's "12 Angry Men," died of lymphoma today.

I was sorry to hear that for a couple of reasons.

First of all, as I say, Lumet directed one of my all–time favorite movies. Well, actually, he directed several of my favorites. In addition to "12 Angry Men," he directed "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in 1962, "Fail–Safe" in 1964, "Serpico" in 1973, "Murder on the Orient Express" in 1974, "Dog Day Afternoon" in 1975, "Network" in 1976, "Equus" in 1977 — and many, many others.

But, of all the films he made, I think I like "12 Angry Men" the best. It's a close call between that one, "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Network," I think, but I'd give it to "12 Angry Men" by a nose.

Of course, I really liked "Fail–Safe," too. It really is a tough choice, you know?

But, yes, I guess I would have to say that "12 Angry Men" was my favorite.

I appreciated the writing in it so much. Of course, I would have to say the same thing about all the others. And that would prompt me to make another observation about Lumet. He really knew how to select top–notch writing to make into a movie.

He didn't rely too much on splashy special effects, even when they had matured into the effects one sees in more recent films. Nearly all of the "action" in "12 Angry Men" takes place in the jury room.

Yet even under such limited circumstances — and in black and white, no less — each juror's true colors were revealed.

Ironically, Lumet died only a few days before the 54th anniversary of the film's premiere.

Lumet's death also make me think of my friend Mike, who died 20 years ago this August. He, too, was a victim of lymphoma, a particularly aggressive form, apparently, because Mike died only a few months after being diagnosed with the disease.

Mike was still in his 20s when he died. He still had so much of his life left to live — but he never got a chance to live it.

We can be thankful, though, that Lumet did — and that he leaves behind so many fine films as his legacy.

The Canister Conflict

I didn't watch Everybody Loves Raymond much when it was part of the prime time lineup, but I've been making up for lost time since it has been in syndication.

There are several episodes that always make me laugh, and the one that first aired 10 years ago today is one of them.

It is called "The Canister," and it is the tale of a can that had great sentimental value for Marie and her two sons. It once belonged to Marie's mother and had been passed along to Marie in due course. Ray and Robert had fond memories of the cookies their grandmother always kept in that canister.

Speaking of cookies, Marie (who reminds me more and more of my stepmother with every episode I watch) had made some cookies for her grandchildren and wanted Debra to give back the canister, insisting she had loaned it to her, but Debra claimed she had returned it. Marie didn't (or wouldn't) believe that, but she finally accepted Debra's version of events and apologized for impugning her honesty.

It was the day before Easter, she observed, and she wanted it to be a good holiday for the whole family.

Everyone in Ray and Debra's kitchen at that moment — Ray, Debra and Robert — was stunned. "Wow! A Marie Barone apology," Robert said in astonishment. "Until today, I had only heard about it."

"And to you," an equally stunned Raymond said to Debra. "There's your Easter miracle."

Debra was generous in her victory. That apology had been a difficult thing for Marie, she said, but it had been sincere.

Then Ray and Debra's daughter came in and spoiled the whole thing.

She was carrying the canister. "Is this what Grandma was looking for?" she asked. When Debra asked where she had gotten it, she replied, "You gave it to me" — ostensibly for storing her crayons.

So, as it turned out, Marie had been right — and Debra was afraid of how miserable Marie would make her life because of that. She decided to throw the canister away, and she swore Raymond and Robert to secrecy.

But, like the proverbial bad penny, the canister kept coming back. When the family was preparing to go across the street for Easter lunch, it came tumbling down the stairs. The twins, who had retrieved it from the garbage, were playing a version of kick the can, and Ray decided that the canister had to be returned to his mother's house.

The fact that the canister had come back twice was a sign, he told Debra. "It's like when you think the movie is over, and then a hand comes up!"

They conspired to smuggle it into the house and leave it somewhere where Marie would find it — and deduce that it had been there all the time.

In spite of various obstacles, they managed to get the canister into the house, but then things began to unravel when Frank caught Debra holding it. Debra asked Frank what she should do. "Give your heart to God," he advised, "because your ass is Marie's."

But, at the moment of truth, Frank couldn't permit that to happen, and he took the fall — and the scorn and abuse Marie heaped on him. Frank took it all silently.

Debra was overwhelmed. "I don't know what to say," she told him. "Why did you do that?"

"I didn't want that to happen to you," he confessed. "You're like my daughter."

Then, before things could get too sentimental, he added, "And she was going to yell at me like that, anyway. I ate the backside of that ham."

Sure enough, a couple of seconds later, the audience could hear Marie bellowing from the kitchen, "Frank!"

And Frank smiled and looked at his wristwatch. His prophecy had been fulfilled.

Patricia Heaton (Debra) won an Emmy for her performance in that episode.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Coming of Age

"In everyone's life," the tag line went, "there's a 'summer of '42.' "

It was a "coming of age" story, audiences were told — and (to the adolescent mind, anyway) that was code language for sex. The movie premiered on April 9, 1971.

That code, by the way, didn't always hold up — neither, for that matter, did the prevailing belief that, if a move was rated R, that had to mean that some bare part of the female anatomy was exposed for at least a few seconds. (More often than not, that probably was true, but an R rating could also mean excessive violence or objectionable language — and I knew very few adolescent boys of my generation would prefer to see violence or hear bad words instead of seeing naked women if they could somehow be allowed into an R–rated movie.)

Whether that nudity was seen as the result of an obvious fantasy or a believable story really made no difference to the adolescent mind. As it turned out, though, the nudity in "Summer of '42" wasn't blatant — mostly suggested and implied.

In fact, "Summer of '42" was based on screenwriter Herman Raucher's memoir of a summer vacation on Nantucket Island when he was 14 — and most of his memories were decidedly PG. He became friends with a young woman (played by Jennifer O'Neill in the movie) whose husband was serving in the military during World War II. They slept together after she received word that he had been killed.

Supposedly, it was a true story. I've heard that, after the movie came out, the woman about whom Raucher had written contacted him and told him that she hoped he hadn't been traumatized by their one–night stand nearly 30 years earlier.

Years after that, Raucher lamented that he hadn't heard from her again and didn't know what had become of her.

I was much too young to be permitted into an R–rated movie in 1971, but I saw it years later and had mixed feelings about it when I did.

"Summer of '42," which was directed by Robert Mulligan, was a surprise hit 40 years ago. At times, it was a little heavy on the nostalgia for my taste — particularly since it wasn't my nostalgia (any more than the nostalgia in "American Graffiti," which was set 20 years later, was my nostalgia) — but the emotions of the story were timeless, really, which kept it plausible. I suppose it could have been about any young widow on any side in any conflict.

I mean, it could have been about a young widow (British or American) in the Revolutionary War, I guess. Or a young widow (North or South) in the Civil War.

But it was about a young American widow in World War II, the war that was fought when Raucher was a teenager. Since Raucher is an American, it would follow naturally that the widow was an American as well, although the story could have been about a young boy and a young widow in any of the countries that participated in that war — and they wouldn't necessarily have to be from the same country.

The knowledge that they were from the same country made the story easier to accept, I guess. I mean, if it had been a German widow and a young Jewish boy in a concentration camp or something, it would have introduced all sorts of other issues.

I have often wondered, in fact, if the story might have been more effective in the hands of a German writer set against the backdrop of Nazism, perhaps even at the end of the war, when German soldiers and civilians alike were dying in massive bombing raids.

It was pretty effective as it was, though. And one of the great ironies of the story is a line delivered by Raucher's friend, Oscar — the original inspiration for the story (and who was killed during the Korean conflict) — who observes that "sometimes life is just one big pain in the ass."

Yes, it is — but in everyone's life, I guess, there must be a pain in the ass.

At least one.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Playing Ball

A new baseball season has begun.

It is a time of new life — and of remembering when life was new. For many of us, those memories involve baseball, the smell of dirt and grass on a warm spring day, a light breeze in your face, a glove or a bat in your hand.

Some movies bring back memories like that. Such a movie made its debut on this day in 1976 — "The Bad News Bears" — and, while it didn't exactly mirror my childhood memories, it does bring back a specific memory to me.

I don't recall hearing much about the movie before I saw it at the theater. What I do remember about the day I saw it was that it was perhaps the last time my brother and I went to a movie with my grandmother — just three of us. If there was a later occasion when just the three of us went to a movie, I don't remember what it was.

My brother and I were both teenagers by that time, and we were getting a bit old to be going to movies with our grandmother, but she insisted that she wanted to take us to see this movie.

I must confess that I felt somewhat obligated. I remembered years earlier, when she and my grandfather had visited my family in our home in Arkansas, and my grandfather wanted to drive me to school one morning. But I was short–sighted. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to ride in the bus with my friends, as I did every day.

In the end, Grandpa relented, but I can still hear him complaining to my mother, "All my friends get to take their grandchildren to school."

In hindsight, I can see I denied him that pleasure. And it is a regret that has remained with me all these years.

I never had the chance to make it up to him. He died a month later.

In 1976, I decided that, if it would make my grandmother happy to take me to see a movie, it was worth a couple of hours of my time. But, after I saw it, I couldn't help wondering why she wanted to see it.

Maybe she was drawn in by the casting. My grandmother was a fan of Walter Matthau, who was the star of the film. As I have written here, her fondness for Matthau went back at least to his work in "The Odd Couple" — and might have gone back farther than that.

It is possible, I guess, that the only thing she knew about the movie before she saw it was that Matthau was in it. At least, that is what I assumed at the time.

She was an avid reader of movie reviews in the Dallas newspaper, but I don't remember her saying anything about what the critics said about that movie. If she had read a review of it, she might have been a bit put off by it. There was a lot of language in it that she almost certainly didn't like — and it's hard for me to imagine that, in the straight–laced city that Dallas was at that time, the reviewers didn't at least mention that children were using objectionable and offensive language throughout the film.

In fact, I remember stealing glances at her while we watched the movie on a warm early summer afternoon in Dallas. I wanted to see how she reacted to the vulgarity and the ethnic slurs that came from the mouths of several children, one in particular.

It was hard to tell much in that darkened theater, but she seemed to enjoy the movie and never mentioned the language to me — or anyone else (at least not within my hearing range). My memory is that, when the three of us returned from the movie, she was full of praise for the story and the acting and laughed as she recalled several scenes.

I don't know what she thought of Matthau's co–star, Tatum O'Neal — who had won an Oscar for her performance in "Paper Moon" a few years earlier. We never discussed O'Neal.

For his part, Matthau also was coming off an Oscar–winning performance. But the performance wasn't his, it was George Burns' in the film in which they co–starred, 1975's "The Sunshine Boys."

In a way, I guess Matthau's character was a precursor to Tom Hanks' in "A League of Their Own." Matthau was a drunken manager of a Little League team that was getting pulverized in every game — until he brought in a couple of "ringers." Then the team started winning and wound up facing its rival in the championship.

A couple of the other adults in the cast would have been familiar to audiences in 1976 — Vic Morrow was in it, and so was Joyce Van Patten — but none of the other children has gone on to do much in movies. Brandon Cruz appeared as Bill Bixby's son in the TV series The Courtship of Eddie's Father in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but, other than that ...

Not even O'Neal, whose career has been a bit sporadic in the last 35 years, did much after "The Bad News Bears." Yes, she's been in some movies. Yes, she's been on some TV shows. But her career seems to have fizzled as she got older.

The makers of the film knew how to set audiences up for sequels and remakes, though. "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training" came along the following year, and that was followed the next year by "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan," neither of which came close to matching the original.

Then, about a quarter of a century later, Hollywood issued a remake of the original starring Billy Bob Thornton. I've heard it wasn't bad, but I've only seen clips.

I guess I inherited my grandmother's appreciation for Matthau.

And I guess I figured that you can't improve on perfection.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Say Good Night, Bonzo

I've heard that Ronald Reagan regarded it as his least favorite of the films he made during his movie career.

And how anyone else feels about it may depend upon whether that person tended to agree or disagree with Reagan politically.

For his part, Reagan said he never watched it — and who could blame him?

Personally, I would have to say that "Bedtime for Bonzo," which made its debut on this day in 1951, wasn't all that good. I found it predictable ... and, for the most part, boring. It was white bread. Stale white bread, for that matter.

Not everyone felt that way, though. "Forget what you've been led to believe," writes Hal Erickson for "Bedtime for Bonzo is a most enjoyable film."

I wouldn't call it "enjoyable." I have other words for it.

It's the old "nature vs. nurture" argument, which could have been presented more effectively. Reagan played a college professor who was trying to teach morals to a chimpanzee. Reagan's character was a bachelor, and he decided that he would need a mother to complete the study.

What followed was, as I say, predictable.

I will admit, though, that there were times when I found the dialogue unexpectedly amusing.

Like the time when Reagan says to co–star Diana Lynn, "You're no dope. You couldn't be. You haven't a university degree and you don't teach logic."

In the context of the rest of Reagan's career and life, that really sounds like something he might have said.

I heard that, 30 years ago, during Reagan's first successful campaign for the presidency, some people wanted to air this movie as a kind of reverse political statement — implying something along the lines of "Do you want someone who once read a bedtime story to a chimp to be president of the United States?"

But then I heard more plausible stories that, because of laws requiring "equal time" for candidates for political office, no TV station would show the film before the election. If they did, they would have to provide the same amount of time and charge the same fee to the opposition — and no one was willing to provide 83 minutes of air time to Reagan's rivals.

That made sense to me. Not once during the 1980 campaign did I see "Bedtime for Bonzo" on the TV schedule.

I eventually saw the movie a few years after Reagan was elected. But I only saw it once. That was enough.

I rarely agreed with Reagan on anything, but I will admit that I agreed with him on that point. "Bedtime for Bonzo" was a waste of time.

Monday, April 04, 2011

All The President's Men

I guess the really implausible part of the whole Watergate story was the idea that the president of the United States — a man who had been nominated for national office five times and had been elected president twice — could be such a charlatan.

That was the great leap that I believed most people had to take. They had to accept that they had been so utterly fooled by Richard Nixon — when they should have known better.

I reflected on that in March 2010 when Turner Classic Movies was set to televise the film.

At the time, I was baffled by TCM's decision to show the movie when it did — TCM's annual "31 Days of Oscar" had just concluded, I observed, and then I pointed out that the scheduling decision may have had something to do with the fact that March 4 had been the traditional inauguration day for presidents until the 1930s.

By the time of the Nixon presidency, I observed, inaugurations were held on January 20, as they are now. The only link between the date the film was scheduled to be shown and the film itself was the presidency.

"But the thing is that a movie about Watergate," I wrote, "has a great deal of relevance to the presidency — well, presidential power, at least. And Watergate was the story of how one president abused his power beyond the point that most Americans would have thought possible."

The thing that made the story implausible in real life also made it implausible in the often fantasy world of the movies.

And the reason why few newspapers picked up the articles that were printed by the Washington Post in the early days of the investigation — and, consequently, relatively few Americans had heard of Watergate when they went to the polls in November 1972 — was neatly summed up by one of the Post's editors following a staff meeting during the movie.

The Democratic challengers to insurgent candidate George McGovern were self–destructing in the spring of 1972, which made the activities at the Watergate (about a month before the Democrats were scheduled to nominate McGovern) even more suspicious. Nixon appeared to be on his way to an easy victory that fall. Why would the Republicans feel the need to do something like that?

But even in the fantasy world of motion pictures, the idea that someone like Nixon (who was as despised — even by those who voted for him — as any public figure I have seen in my lifetime) could hoodwink millions and be elected president twice seemed too incredible.

In 1976, nearly two full years after Nixon resigned, that idea was still too far out there for some people — even though movie audiences of that time readily accepted stories that dealt with the concept of the antichrist, a giant ape on the loose in New York City, a telekinetic (and vengeful) high school girl who wrecks her prom and a past–his–prime boxer who gives the defending champ a run for his money.

There was nothing make–believe about the people in "All the President's Men," and one of the best was the rather understated character of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee — portrayed admirably by Jason Robards.

Robards delivered some of my favorite lines in the film ...

Like when he said, "We're about to accuse Haldeman, who only happens to be the second most important man in this country, of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right."

Or when he said pretty much the same thing when he reminded Woodward and Bernstein that they were "about to write a story that says the former attorney general, the highest–ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook!"

But especially when he urged them, near the end, to get some rest. The lesson was that there is no rest for those who protect freedom from those who would chisel away at it. Constant diligence is required, the same as is asked from those who stand between you and identity thieves — or between you and terrorists.

After 15 minutes of rest, Robards told Woodward and Bernstein, "Get your asses back in gear. ... Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f**k up again, I'm going to get mad."

Even if you've seen it before, watch it again. It's a reminder of how important a free press is in a free society.

The Song of Life

(Warning to readers: This is another installment in my ongoing defense of the reincarnation of the Twilight Zone in the mid–1980s.)

The episode that aired 25 years ago tonight, "Grace Note," made my point, I think.

It was about an aspiring (but struggling) opera singer who received a special gift from her dying sister (named Mary) — a glimpse into her own future.

Mary said she wanted to be remembered, and her sibling assured her she would be. "Until my dying day, you will always be in my heart," she said. But Mary had her doubts and, later, made the proverbial wish on a shooting star — for her sister the singer.

Still later, on her deathbed, Mary encouraged her sister to "follow the music" that only the two of them seemed to hear — but urged her to return.

And the older sister followed the music ... to what was the then–modern day of 1986, where she saw herself starring in La Traviata.

She returned to Mary's bedside in 1966, where Mary gave her a pendant with her picture in it.

It was the same pendant that the older sister had seen herself looking at in her dressing room in her glimpse into the future.

Satisfied that her wish for her sister would be fulfilled, Mary died.

You probably wouldn't recognize anyone in the cast — unless you happen to be a devotee of opera. The star of the episode was Julia Migenes, a Grammy–winning opera singer but hardly a household name, either now or in 1986.

Her life has been devoted to music. She has rarely been on the screen — and sometimes only to sing (although "only," in this usage, refers strictly to the number, not quality, of the tasks she performed, because she is not a bad actress).

On this night 25 years ago, she was permitted to stretch her wings and do both.

"To live life fully, one should hear the melody the world makes," said the narrator at the end of the episode. "Pity those who stumble through their years without ever hearing the song. The greatest gift we can bestow on those we love is to help them hear it. One life ends, another begins. But the song of life fills the universe, even into the last highest darkened balcony row ... in the Twilight Zone."

Words worth remembering ... and an episode worth seeing.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Eddie Murphy Is 50

In the 1980s, I guess there was no comedian who was hotter than Eddie Murphy.

He really seemed to be on top of the world. He was the star of Saturday Night Live for some five years, then he began making movies — and comedy specials for cable TV.

Murphy was his generation's Richard Pryor or George Carlins in the 1980s — both were influences on him, by the way, as they were for, most likely, every comedian who has come along in the last 40 years. Comedy Central ranked them as the top two comedians of all time, but it had a lot of regard for Murphy, too, ranking him 10th.

His career — and his life, too, for that matter — has had its peaks and valleys, I suppose, and he was criticized at times for being too insensitive. But he has managed to re–invent himself whenever it has been necessary.

I guess it is only to be expected that, from time to time, he would fall from such lofty heights. Murphy's films, according to Box Office Mojo, are second only to Tom Hanks' in box office receipts.

His lifetime total — for his voice work in the "Shrek" movies and his signature performances in films like "Beverly Hills Cop," "Coming to America," "Trading Places," "48 HRS." and "The Nutty Professor" — exceeds $3.7 billion.

Happy birthday, Mr. Murphy, and I would wish you many more — except I have to wonder if there are any mountains left to climb.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Science Fiction Comes of Age

It was 55 years ago that "Forbidden Planet" premiered on America's movie screens, and I suppose it's kind of a bittersweet time for fans of the sci–fi classic.

Anne Francis, who was in her mid–20s when the film was made, died three months ago at the age of 80. Her co–star, Leslie Nielsen, died about five weeks earlier. He was 84 — would've turned 85 in February.

By 1956, filmmaking in general had been maturing for decades, but some genres — science fiction, for example — were still in their infancies. Bruce Eder of AllMovie observes that science fiction didn't really begin to distinguish itself from "horror films and movie serials" until after World War II.

Nielsen and Francis helped the genre come of age.

A few years ago, the American Film Institute came out with its Top 10 lists of movies in 10 categories — and "Forbidden Planet" wasn't on the list of science fiction's best.

That wasn't terribly surprising. Only two of the films on the list (and I would argue that one of those films would be more properly designated as a "horror film," to borrow Eder's phrase) were made before "Forbidden Planet" — and the subsequent films on the list all came along more than a decade later, when the special effects were more advanced.

A sci–fi film's special effects are crucial, and the effects in "Forbidden Planet" often look cheap to modern eyes. Thus, it may come as something of a surprise to those modern viewers to know that most critics, Hal Erickson of AllMovie among them, think the special effects were state of the art.

And they were — for that time.

Beyond the special effects, though, the story was great — timeless, in fact — and the cast was top notch.

Ultimately, I guess, that is what "Forbidden Planet" proved on this day in 1956. Even though sci–fi flicks have always needed whatever special effects the then–current technology could provide, they will always need a good story to hold everything together.

And there was no question that "Forbidden Planet" had a great story. It was inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Consequently, it was really more of a romance than it was a story about space exploration.

It was a story about a lot of things, really. Obviously, it raised some eyebrows over the subplot's hints at Francis' relationship with her father (played by Walter Pidgeon).

But it also introduced a more humanlike robot — "Robby" — to the science fiction story. Robby has been the model for generations of mechanical companions that have followed (the robot from Lost in Space, the characters in the "Star Wars" movies, etc.); after "Forbidden Planet," robots were routinely members of the cast.

It has been observed that, before "Forbidden Planet," science fiction was a genre that mostly appealed to juveniles. After "Forbidden Planet," the genre came of age.