Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Something to Talk About

From time to time in my life, a movie has come along that literally had everyone talking.

Usually, I suppose, that has been because the movie pushed society's boundaries in some way — and, to be honest about it, there were several such movies that were released in 1992.

But I really don't think anything — at least, up to that point — generated the kind of buzz that "Basic Instinct," which premiered 20 years ago today, did.

At first glance, it had the appearance of a first–rate murder mystery with just enough of a sexual angle to arouse the interest of those who weren't necessarily drawn to whodunnits.

It opened with a visual montage during the credits that was accompanied by a haunting score, all of which was worthy of Alfred Hitchcock at his best, in which a shadowy woman and an apparently prosperous man were making love. The woman appeared to be playfully tying the man's hands to the bedboard, introducing an element of bondage to their lovemaking.

And it seemed to be working. Judging from the sounds they made, both were excited, and the woman seemed especially so, grinding her hips on top of the man and appearing to flail her arms in a bit of a sexual frenzy.

But, in fact, she was reaching for a hidden ice pick, which she stabbed repeatedly into her partner.

And the stage was set for what could have been a great murder mystery.

Ultimately, though, the viewers got what was a good murder mystery that could have been — should have been — much better.

I always thought it would have been better if certain things hadn't thoroughly distracted the viewers' attention.

I mean, Sharon Stone was a sexy woman in 1992. She always was, I suppose. I mean, she was a model in her late teens, and she did some acting work in her 20s, but it was her role as murder suspect Catherine Tramell in "Basic Instinct" that opened the door to international stardom.

And a big reason for that, I have always believed, was the fact that Stone exposed herself on screen in the infamous interrogation scene. That sure got people's attention.

Stone was not entirely unknown at the time, but it is safe to say that her name was not a household word. It didn't remain that way for long, and she never seemed hesitant to cash in on her notoriety, but still she protested that she had been a victim.

Stone claimed she didn't know in advance how revealing the scene would be. "I knew that we were going to do this leg–crossing thing," she said, "and I knew that we were going to allude to the concept that I was nude, but I did not think that you would see my vagina."

The first time she saw it on the big screen, she was "shocked," confronted director Paul Verhoeven and slapped him.

That may be true, but it is also true that, shortly after the interrogation scene, Stone's character could be seen having a revealing conversation with the detective (played by Michael Douglas) in the car.

They were talking about lie detector tests — Stone's character had just taken one — and how easy it would be to beat one. Stone's character observed that Douglas' character had beaten a lie detector test — which was true, although he had never mentioned it to her.

"You seem to know a lot about me," Douglas said, and Stone replied that Douglas knew a lot about her, too.

Douglas protested that all he knew about Stone fell under the heading of police business, and she smiled. "You know I don't wear any underwear, don't you?" she asked.

Seems to me that it would be hard not to know the graphic nature of such a scene if one must deliver a line like that.

I mean, I understand that scenes are shot out of sequence, but, still, Stone must have at least read the script before filming began.

And it seems like common sense to me that, if a character tells another something like that, the audience must be aware of it, too.

Tellingly, Stone acknowledged experiencing a thrill when watching the film with a room full of strangers who hadn't seen it before. "It was so fun!" she admitted.

And lucrative.

Monday, March 19, 2012

When Mary Tyler Moore Left 'Em Laughing

"But now it's just another show.
You leave 'em laughing when you go.
And if you care, don't let them know.
Don't give yourself away."

Joni Mitchell

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the most consistently entertaining — and creative — sitcoms I ever saw.

And I have no doubt it would have gone on being funny beyond this day in 1977 — if the ensemble cast hadn't decided to pull the plug while the show was still riding high in the ratings.

So the episode that aired on this night 35 years ago was the finale. Everyone knew it. Everyone anticipated it.

And, for my money, it is one of the best TV series finales of all time — surpassed only by the surreal conclusion of Newhart.

(A lot of folks would mention the finale of M*A*S*H as one of the best of all time, and I would be inclined to agree — but that was a movie–length finale, and I'm thinking of final episodes that were the same length as any other episode in the series.)

The show, of course, was about the newsroom at a metropolitan TV station. The news anchor (Ted Knight) — the most visible member of the crew — was a blowhard whereas all the others (including hot–blooded Sue Ann, the Happy Homemaker) were, at least, competent.

The others had been putting up with Ted — occasionally rescuing his chestnuts from the fire throughout the series' run — but, at the end, the tables were turned.

A new owner had acquired the TV station, and he was looking for ways to economize — and he decided to keep Ted and let everyone else go. For those who had watched the show throughout its run, that was a delicious — and totally unexpected — turn of events.

Before the owner met with the staff to announce his decision, Ted made his newsroom colleagues promise to vocally support him if the owner decided to fire his anchorman.

When the situation was reversed, though, Ted put up a token protest but crumbled like a cookie when the owner said, "I wish you would reconsider."

Later, in the newsroom, a guilt–ridden Ted expressed surprise that his friends weren't angry with him.

Murray assured him there were no hard feelings. "When a donkey flies," he said in one of my all–time favorite MTM lines, "you don't blame him for not staying up there that long."

The second half of the show was pure tear–jerker, winning a well–deserved Emmy for the writers.

Everyone, it seemed, was coming back on stage for the show's final curtain call — even folks who hadn't been show regulars in years (Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper) were brought back for guest spots. The characters of Phyllis and Rhoda ostensibly returned to Minneapolis from their homes on the coasts at Lou Grant's request to cheer up the now jobless Mary.

That was tear–jerking enough, but it was nothing compared to the last scene, in which the WJM crew bade their heartfelt goodbyes to each other and participated in one long group embrace. That was followed by yet another classic Murray line: "Now for the hard part. How do we leave this room?"

Consistently in the Top 20 during its run, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dipped dramatically in the ratings in its last season, falling to 39th — respectable but a far cry from the cast's expectations.

That may well have been an indication that the show was losing its edge and its audience. But we'll never know. The cast decided to pull the plug, to leave 'em laughing and wanting more.

It's not hard to guess what most MTM fans were feeling as they watched the finale.

The WJM cast was like a family — to the viewers as well as to Mary. And it was sad for viewers to think that they wouldn't see these family members together in one place again.

It's probably the same feeling you had the night of your high school graduation. Or the night you watched Johnny Carson host The Tonight Show for the last time.

Or perhaps it's a feeling you've had in retrospect — on those occasions when you have thought of the last time you saw someone but you didn't know it would be the last time so things you wished you had said went unspoken.

I don't think much was left unspoken with the Mary Tyler Moore Show family. Not even at the end.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

As I've mentioned in all three of my blogs, I am an adjunct journalism professor on one of the campuses in the Dallas community college system.

I spend most of my weekday afternoons in the newsroom of the student newspaper, advising the student journalists as they work on their articles for the next edition. One of those students writes about movies for the paper, and one of his recent topics has been a limited theatrical re–release of "The Godfather," which was originally released to the theaters 40 years ago today.

He and I were talking about that movie in the newsroom before spring break began. I never saw it at the theater — I was much too young to be admitted by myself, and my parents thought I was much too young to see it, anyway, so neither would take me.

At the time, I didn't like that. No surprise there, right? I mean, does anyone ever like being restricted?

In hindsight, though, I must concede that they were right about that. I finally saw it for the first time about eight years later, when I was mature enough to understand the story — and not be traumatized by the violence.

But I still haven't seen it at a theater, and the prospect of finally seeing it the way audiences did 40 years ago was tempting.

I've seen "The Godfather" on television, of course. Several times. I even have it on home video so I have seen both the edited version that has been shown on commercial TV and the original, unedited version. I've just never seen it on the big screen.

I must admit, this student made a compelling argument for seeing the movie at the theater — and I would have done so except that it was only showing at one location in this metropolitan area, a location that is quite a distance from my apartment (and distance is a prohibitive factor for me, given the level of current gas prices), and the theater was charging more than $12 for tickets to this special showing (which may be in line with prices being charged for new releases but seems excessive to me for admission to a 40–year–old movie).

So I allowed that opportunity to slip past me, which may well mean that I will never have another chance to see "The Godfather" on the silver screen. Well, I've lived this long without that experience. I suppose I can live the rest of my life without it.

I guess the main thing, though, is that I have seen the movie — on the smaller television screen, to be sure — and, for someone who admires great stories and great acting, that's important because "The Godfather" had both and was recognized for both at the Academy Awards.

The theatrical experience might have enhanced my appreciation for the Oscar–nominated costumes and sound, but maybe not as much as you might think. I already appreciated both a lot. I didn't see much room for improvement.

I mean, how high is up?

Still, that theater sound — which is far greater than what I have in my humble home — would have been tough to beat. I may regret that from time to time — because ordinary, everyday sounds often seem enhanced on TV.

I recall watching "The Godfather" on commercial TV once and thinking to myself that, in an earlier scene in which Don Corleone slapped his godson, it sounded like a car door being slammed in an echo chamber.

Oh, well, no use fretting about it now. The limited engagement is over.

But, thanks to home video, "The Godfather" can be experienced by anyone anywhere at any time.

And it should be experienced by everyone, at least once. So should its sequel, "The Godfather: Part II," which was released two years later and was the rarest of all movies — a sequel that not only matched the original but actually surpassed it.

The American Film Institute named "The Godfather" the second–best film of the last century — second only to "Citizen Kane" — and deservedly so.

Of course, "The Godfather" also produced AFI's second–most memorable quote — "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse" — which is still recognized as a subtle but highly efficient way of telling people that their, ahem, cooperation is expected — and will be obtained, one way or another.

Taken out of context, the line means nothing, really, but within the context of the violent universe occupied by the characters, it had considerable meaning.

"The Godfather" also earned recognition from AFI for being the 11th–most thrilling movie of the last century. (FYI: The term thrill "crossed many genres," according to AFI, "including Action–Adventure, Silent, Film Noir, Horror, Science Fiction, Suspense, War and Western.")

"The Godfather" breathed new life into the gangster genre — even as its stars took the on–screen lives of the more modest characters.

It often did so without having to resort to graphic imagery. The infamous scene in which the movie mogul wakes to find the severed head of his prized horse in his bed is the ideal example.

But it was graphic at times, such as the scene in which Sonny was ambushed at the tollbooth.

Make no mistake about it. "The Godfather" richly deserved the R rating it received.

So, on this 40th anniversary of the release of what AFI apparently has concluded is the greatest film to be made since the end of World War II, let me offer a word of caution.

If you have never seen "The Godfather," but you would like to on this anniversary, and if you have children who have said they would like to see it, too, watch it first and then make an honest assessment of whether your child(ren) can handle it.

It is a powerful movie experience, and those who are not ready for it should not be subjected to it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Aunt Bee in Charge

I guess Aunt Bee on the Andy Griffith Show was like everybody's favorite aunt.

She doted on her family, and she was a world–class cook. And she had the most easygoing, mild–mannered disposition you could imagine. She was rarely moved to anger at any time during that series' nearly decade–long run.

As accepting and forgiving as Aunt Bee typically was, though, there was another side to her. I don't mean to say that she had a Jekyll–Hyde personality because that isn't true. But there was definitely, as I say, another side to her personality, a side that was seldom seen but apparently was always lurking just beneath the surface.

In March 1962, it was not common for women to be in the workplace. Certain professions were primarily the domain of women — notably professions like teaching and nursing — but, by and large, most women were not found outside the home.

That's where most women utilized any management skills they possessed, and that was a reality that was usually reflected on TV shows.

Consequently, the theme of women actually working in a non–domestic, non–nurturer capacity was fertile ground for sitcoms.

That, I suppose, is what made the episode of The Andy Griffith Show that aired half a century ago tonight so interesting — it merged the two.

See, this is how the episode played out ...

After supposedly injuring one of his arms while subduing some suspects, Andy brought in four prisoners, the Gordon boys, who had been running a moonshine operation he and Barney had been trying to find. With two prisoners in each cell, there was no place for Otis when he came in after tying one on.

Not that Otis particularly wanted to share the jail's accommodations with the Gordons. They accused him of fingering them. Whether that was true was never really established, but Otis clearly felt threatened in their presence.

Anyway, Andy concluded that they couldn't put Otis in a cell with one or more of the Gordon boys — so it was decided that Otis would stay at Andy's house under Aunt Bee's supervision.

Initially, Aunt Bee wasn't wild about the idea. When Andy first mentioned it to her, she and two of her friends were baking cakes for the church social, and Aunt Bee was knocked a bit off balance by the presence of the inebriated Otis. But she soon warmed up to her role as the warden.

(Meanwhile, back at the jail, Barney was warming to his expanded role as the supervisor of the Gordon boys. Asserting that the boys could have taken a more productive path in life "had your twigs been bent in a different direction," he embarked on a program of rehabilitation by dispensing arts and crafts kits.)

But back to Otis ...

The next morning, Aunt Bee brought Otis his breakfast, but he wasn't ready to get up and told her to keep it warm for him while he slept some more. "I'm a prisoner in this house, and I expect to be treated like one!" he told her.

"Well, if you're a prisoner, I'm responsible for you," she told him, "and that makes me the warden." And she put him to work doing things around the house — cutting the grass, cleaning the windows, chopping wood, scrubbing the floor.

Aunt Bee wouldn't allow the hung over Otis to take any breathers, and he implored Andy for help.

"She's about to work me to death," Otis told Andy.

"Aunt Bee?" Andy replied incredulously.

"Aunt Bee?" Otis answered. "Bloody Mary!"

Getting no relief from Andy, Otis began plotting his escape. But Aunt Bee was too clever for him. She was always one step ahead of him, thwarting every attempt.

Meryl Streep may have won an Oscar for her performance in "The Iron Lady," but Margaret Thatcher had nothing on Aunt Bee.

At the end of Otis' 24–hour incarceration, Aunt Bee had him wearing a coat and tie — and announcing to Andy that he wasn't going to drink anymore. Aunt Bee had put him on probation, he said. "If I make one more false move, I gotta come back!"

(Devotees of The Andy Griffith Show will tell you that Otis didn't keep that promise.)

Andy was duly impressed. "I believe you missed your calling," he told a beaming Aunt Bee. "Getting ol' Otis to walk the straight and narrow ain't no small accomplishment!"

Otis was eager to leave. "I don't ever want to see 'The Rock' again," he exclaimed. Andy advised him not to be bitter.

Aunt Bee, of course, was usually a sweetheart, and, to my memory, she never showed that tough–as–nails side on the show again.

(Oh, incidentally, that cast on Andy's arm was real, but the circumstances surrounding it are mysterious even 50 years later. Reportedly, Griffith hurt himself when he hit a wall; the reason for that act has never been adequately explained.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

War of the Words

Niles: Stop! Look at yourselves! This is wrong. What are words after all but a way to communicate, to bring us together? But you, you're using them as weapons! Now we still have an opportunity to walk out of here as winners. And wouldn't that be the greatest spellabration of all?

Frasier: He's right, son. Let's go home.

Clayton: Yeah, we're all winners. Except for the two cheaters. (Frasier, Niles and Freddie freeze but continue walking)

Warren: Hey, do you know how to spell "loser"? C–R–A–N–E. (Again the Cranes freeze but continue walking)

Clayton: You don't have to worry about ever seeing him again, son. Chances are he'll end up in a state school. (The Cranes spin around)

Niles: How dare you? (to Freddie) Can you take him?

Freddie: Yeah.

Niles: Then spell his ass off!

I always enjoy watching the episode of Frasier"War of the Words" — that aired for the first time 10 years ago tomorrow night.

There are probably several reasons for that. It was about the national championship of the spelling bee competition, which, by a happy coincidence, was taking place in Seattle. In an even happier coincidence for the Cranes, Frasier's son from Boston (Trevor Einhorn) was one of the contestants.

Having spent several years of my life working for newspapers (and most of those years were spent on the copy desks), I have more than a passing interest in spelling. I also taught journalism — specifically, editing — on the university level.

I took a different path for awhile, but I'm back in teaching, in my second year as an adjunct professor in the Dallas community college system. I teach news writing to journalism students and a more generic form of writing for non–journalism students. Spelling figures prominently in both.

When Frasier was on NBC's primetime schedule, I could usually congratulate myself on not being as eccentric or elitist as Frasier was about everything. Most of the time, anyway.

But this episode was something of an exception to the rule for me.

I guess I've always been a little picky about spelling. (For some people, I suppose, the word "picky" isn't really adequate for describing me.) In my copy editing days, I made the spelling corrections in individual stories, but I seldom mentioned the mistakes to the reporters. I just hoped they would notice that a change had been made.

A lot of people today will tell you that it is not as important as it once was to be able to spell, thanks to the existence of computer spell checkers. But I disagree. Spell checkers don't check for context — and even if they did, the auto correct feature in some programs often makes the wrong assumptions.

And a spell checker that does not automatically correct misspelled words is far too easy for most people to ignore.

So you're sort of damned if you do and damned if you don't with spell checkers.

At any rate, I admire folks who know how to spell and comprehend the subtle distinctions between words that sound the same but are not spelled the same. It's an underappreciated skill.

The episode of Frasier that aired 10 years ago tomorrow night was something of an homage to those who possess that skill.

Niles, apparently, was such a person. As viewers learned, he had once been a contestant in the national spelling bee — but he choked under pressure.

"Don't get sidetracked by all the glitz and glamour of the Bee," Niles cautioned his nephew. "Spelling well is its own reward."

Frederick persevered and won — but his triumph was short–lived. His runnerup accused him of cheating, and a tape of the competition appeared to support the accusation. Thus, Frederick was forced to relinquish his crown.

That twist of fate left a bad taste in Frederick's mouth, and he wasn't going to attend the awards dinner — until he had a little conversation with Niles.

Niles told Freddie the story of his moment in the spelling spotlight. He had never spoken of it before, he told Freddie, "but I will since you also have The Gift."

When Niles finished telling Freddie of his experience, Freddie had changed his mind about attending the awards dinner.

But after the Cranes arrived, they were unable to avoid a confrontation with the new winner — or his father — and they took matters into the street, where Freddie and the other boy squared off in a spelling contest ...

... which Freddie won and reclaimed the spelling trophy.

I suppose the episode could be classified as a feel good moment. At some level, most of us probably can empathize with Freddie and his struggle to retain what he (and we) believed had been taken from him unjustly.

And, to some extent, haven't we all been there?

Monday, March 05, 2012

The End of a Force of Nature

OK, I'll admit it. The knowledge that it has been 30 years since John Belushi died is disconcerting.

I do feel older — but not for the obvious reason.

You'd have to call Belushi a force of nature, I think. No other phrase really does him justice.

I am an adjunct professor in the local community college, and most of the students with whom I work are in the traditional college age range. Memories of Belushi are relics from my college days, not theirs.

In order to have more than a fleeting memory of Belushi when he was re–defining TV comedy on Saturday Night Live, a person would have to be in his/her 40s — at least.

I have worked with a few of those — but not many and none this semester.

Most of the people who would have watched him in his SNL and Not–Ready–for–Prime–Time days had to have been old enough to be allowed to stay up late on a weekend night.

Even with unusually permissive parents, anyone under 10 probably won't have enough stamina to stay awake that late. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is usually weak.

Consequently, I assume that you had to be at least a certain age then to have any memory of John Belushi now.

I was in high school at the time so staying up late on weekends was not an issue for me — and I remember his most classic routines — the Samurai warrior (and his variety of Western occupations), the Blues Brothers, the King Bee, his spot–on impersonation of British rocker Joe Cocker, his obese Elizabeth Taylor being interviewed by a starstruck Bill Murray on Weekend Update (and nearly choking on a turkey leg), his takeoff on Beethoven, his contributions to skits featuring the Coneheads and the Land Shark.

Those were the days (well, I guess nights would be more appropriate than days).

Thoughts of his Point/Counterpoint segments with Jane Curtin on Weekend Update never fail to bring a smile to my lips — if not an outright laugh. I still crack up whenever I see his impersonation of Bill Shatner as Capt. Kirk.

I always liked his "little chocolate doughnuts" commercial — in which he played an Olympic athlete who claimed, with a smoldering cigarette in one hand, that little chocolate doughnuts had been part of his training regimen since he was a child.

When the country was more or less familiar with him from his Saturday Night Live years, he embarked on a movie career that was short but no less entertaining.

I guess most people remember "The Blues Brothers" when they think of Belushi's movies, but I think first of "Animal House" — and Belushi's somewhat twisted take on Pearl Harbor.

The guy was just funny, no matter what he did. I honestly think he could have come out on stage and read the New York metro phone book and the audience would have been in stitches.

And then I think of that day 30 years ago today — when I heard that the laughter had died.

I was in college. It was spring break. The country was struggling economically, jobs were hard to find. It wasn't a great time to be getting out of college, but it still seemed like a wonderful time to be young and free and alive. The news of Belushi's death cast an enormous shadow over everything, at the time and ever since.

There were, of course, the recriminations, as there always are — the accusations, the investigations, the charges and trials. Books were written. Life went on.

But just think of all that we missed.

What a gift it was to make people laugh as easily as Belushi did — and what an appalling waste it was to lose him so soon.

Thirty years without Belushi. It wasn't fair to him — or us.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Defining Moment

I heard it said once that the Kennedy assassination was the most photographed murder in American history.

I have no reason to believe that is anything but true. The Kennedy motorcade was photographed by countless people as it made its way through downtown Dallas — by members of the press and folks along the motorcade route.

And it seems to me the Kennedy assassination is remembered not as a single event but more as an ongoing series of events that included the shooting of the alleged assassin and Kennedy's state funeral.

For Americans who were old enough to remember that time, the images probably blur together. I was not old enough to understand what was happening, and I didn't know who Kennedy was — my family did not have a TV in those days so we spent the next four days in the neighbor's house watching theirs.

(I have often tried to convince myself that I remember things from that time, but I really must be thinking of film clips I have seen so many times over the years, and I have persuaded myself that I remember. But I know that I was too young to remember or comprehend very much.

(What I do remember is playing with the neighbors' son's toys. If there is one overriding memory in my brain from that time, it is that I always believed he had the coolest and the latest toys. His family always seemed to be on the cutting edge. They were the first people I ever knew who drove a Mustang!)

Mention the Kennedy assassination to people, and some will tell you that the image that comes to mind is the sequence from the famous Zapruder fim of the presidential car creeping through Dealey Plaza as the shots rang out.

Others will talk about the famous photograph that was taken of Lee Harvey Oswald as Jack Ruby fired a single shot into his midsection.

And still others will tell you that the image of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father's funeral is the one that has remained with them all these years.

It is an iconic image, to be sure, and one that defined the life and career of photographer Stan Stearns, who died yesterday at the age of 76.

His image of John–John's salute — on his third birthday — was a poignant reminder of all that had been lost.

It is a reminder now of how much time has past. Nearly every prominent person in it — including John–John — is gone now.

Even the servicemen in the picture must be in their 70s, possibly 80s, if they are still living.

That photo is Stearns' legacy to future generations, a continuing link to a time and to a people that have receded into the mists of history.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Breaking the Code

I've found, over the years, that my friends who are devotees of the original Twilight Zone series tend to agree on which episodes are classics.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the debut of one of them.

It's the episode titled "To Serve Man," and it is the one in which aliens from another world — who stand half again as tall as their earthly counterparts — come to earth, bringing with them everything they need to make life on this planet bountiful and peaceful and, well, perfect.

The suspicious earthlings look for an ulterior motive and, finding none, accept the generosity of their benefactors. There is no apparent downside. Hunger is eradicated. Energy becomes cheap and plentiful. Nuclear weapons no longer have any effect.

But one thing continues to puzzle the earthlings, though — a book written in the aliens' language and alphabet. Researchers manage to de–code the title, which turns out to be "To Serve Man" — a sufficiently benign title — and the earthlings start lining up to take trips to the aliens' home planet.

It is at the end of the episode that it is revealed that the aliens' motives were not as altruistic as they appeared. "To Serve Man," it turns out, is the title of a cookbook, and the contents of the book deal with different ways to prepare man for the aliens' consumption.

As I say, it's regarded as a classic episode by many Twilight Zone fans. My latest proof of that came this afternoon.

I was advising the student newspaper staff as the next edition of the paper was being completed, and I mentioned that today was the 50th anniversary of this episode. The editor of the paper — a talented and industrious young woman — squealed, "That's so awesome!"

Awesome really isn't the kind of word that my peers would have used when we were her age, but those of us who liked the Twilight Zone probably would have said whichever word was in fashion at that time.

It's kind of reassuring to know that, 50 years after its debut, "To Serve Man" is still recognized as one of the best episodes in Rod Serling's ground–breaking series.

Lost Horizon

In the annals of movie history, there have been few film directors whose works have enjoyed the enduring popularity of Frank Capra's.

Maybe that is because you always know what you're going to get when you sit down to watch a Frank Capra movie. The mere mention of his name evokes a mental image of relentless optimism — of Jimmy Stewart waging a quixotic battle from the floor of the Senate or discovering the influence of a single life on everything it touches and, in the process, is persuaded not to throw away his own.

Audiences in the 1930s and 1940s consistently made Capra's movies the top money makers — even when Capra and his movie audiences weren't exactly on the same page.

Yes, you always knew what you were going to get with Capra. Or did you?

Columbia Pictures probably thought it knew what to expect 75 years ago when Capra was making "Lost Horizon," the film that was released on this day in 1937. He'd been money in the bank for Columbia in the past.

But "Lost Horizon" was a financial disappointment. It cost nearly 40% more than its original budget figure of $2 million (quite a lavish sum in 1930s dollars), and it was nearly five years before the backers broke even.

The more lasting damage was done to Capra's relationships with Columbia and screenwriter Robert Riskin, with whom Capra had built his reputation. In the preceding five years, Capra had been nominated for Best Director three times — and won it twice.

He wasn't nominated for his directorial work on "Lost Horizon," although he should have been. It was a bit of a departure for him.

Of course, Capra was mostly known for his work in comedies — and, to an extent, dramas — but "Lost Horizon" was really more of a fantasy.

And, while it would be fair to characterize many of Capra's movies as, at least, dabbling in fantasy, it was never as prominent as it was in Capra's film version of James Hilton's vision of paradise, the fictional Shangri–La, where there is no crime or hate, where wisdom is prized, self–improvement is encouraged and the age of 100 is roughly middle age.

But, of course, such a utopia cannot last, at least not for the outsiders who stumble into it. Consequently, one of Capra's trademark happy endings wasn't possible (as if the title didn't make that quite clear).

It was a challenging and ambitious project for Capra, and he deserved more credit and recognition for it than he received — but the truth remains that it was the only film he ever made that was nominated for Best Picture (or, in its earlier incarnation, Outstanding Production) for which he was not also nominated for Best Director.

That doesn't mean he didn't make a lot of critical decisions, especially in post–production. He cut back on the film's length, jokingly claiming that he merely lopped off the beginning and started the movie where the real action begins.

The truth is, he appears to have done a lot of meticulous editing from the heart of the film. He didn't just lop off the first 15 minutes.

I've seen both the edited and restored original versions, and I think Capra may have done his most skillful work on "Lost Horizon," whichever version was seen. The edited version seemed seamless to me.

It was an atypical entry in Capra's impressive body of work.