Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hamming It Up

When a TV show has been on the air for many years, as Frasier was, it is difficult to pick an absolute favorite episode.

It's particularly hard for me when the subject is a series like Frasier. It is easier, I guess, for me to identify my favorite episodes from other series, even M*A*S*H, which was on the air for 11 seasons — same as Frasier.

Every episode of Frasier was delightful, but the one that was shown for the first time 15 years ago tonight, "Ham Radio," definitely is one of my favorites.

The premise was this: KACL was observing its 50th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, was re—creating the kind of live murder mystery that radio was known for in its golden age. Frasier was revising the script and directing the production.

His brother accused him of having an "Orson Welles complex" and asserted that "he doesn't know when to stop directing ... By the end of this week, you will not only be directing, you will have rewritten the script and be playing the lead."

Which, of course, is precisely what happened.

Frasier protested that he had no intention of performing in the radio play — but, as it turned out, it took very little to convince him to — you guessed it — take the lead role.

Thus, all the ingredients were in place for a first–rate Frasier catastrophe — the first real indication of which could be seen in the rehearsals at Frasier's place the night before the show.

All the main characters from the radio station had parts, including the husband of a girl in accounting who had experience with dialects and had been asked to play half a dozen of the smaller parts.

But Frasier's controlling personality proved to be too much for him, and he buckled under Frasier's criticisms that "my gamekeeper sounded too cultured, my Irishman sounded more Protestant than Catholic and my dwarf was too tall!"

Niles was brought in to replace him — and Niles' own theatrical ego was only one of many obstacles facing Frasier on show night:
  • Roz had been at the dentist and was dealing with the after effects of novocaine;
  • Bulldog had a case of stage fright that left him unable to speak;
  • Gil kept fighting to the last second to deliver a "delicious" speech that Frasier wanted to cut from the script in the interest of saving time;
  • Bulldog's girlfriend, who was brought in to deliver a single line, turned out to be dyslexic, and her line ("Look out — he's got a gun!") was rendered nonsensical when "gun" came out "nug."
And Noel, who was in charge of the sound effects, unleashed sounds that could only be described as those of a passing ice cream truck, forcing Frasier to ad lib.

In the end, of course, Frasier's meddling had alienated just about everyone, including his brother, which worked against him when the play was finished nine minutes early, and no one in the cast was willing to bail him out by participating in a "post–play discussion."
(This theme was revisited a few years later when Frasier was asked to write a small jingle to promote his radio program — and he wrote a mini symphony that required a small orchestra and a choir.)

The Man Who Really Shot Liberty Valance

I've never really been a John Wayne fan.

While he was living, I suppose I could have been called a casual fan — if such a thing exists. I didn't watch many of his movies — as opposed to some of my friends, who saw them all.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call me a selective fan.

(On the other hand, maybe that is nothing more than semantic gymnastics.)

Anyway, today is the 50th anniversary of the theatrical release of one of my absolute favorite John Wayne movies — John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" — and the thing that I like about it is that, in the end, it turns out that John Wayne was not the man anyone thought.

Oh, he was a rancher named Tom Doniphon, of that there was no doubt, and, as the movie opened, there was also no doubt of something else. He was as dead as a doornail.

But it turned out that he hadn't really been the man people thought he was.

The movie paired Wayne with Jimmy Stewart for the first (but not the last) time. Stewart played an aging senator who returned to the western town where they had met as young men for Wayne's funeral.

While paying his respects, Stewart was asked to sit down for an interview with a local reporter, and he proceeded to tell the story of their friendship through a series of flashbacks.

In spite of being two very different personalities, Stewart and Wayne became friends. Stewart was the more cerebral of the two, a young lawyer with a commitment to justice and education. Wayne was the strong–and–mostly–silent type he often played, a man more given to action than words.

There was a third character without whom the stories of the other two would have had no real meaning — the character whose name appeared in the title, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He was a bully who manipulated and terrorized the town's residents.

The moment of truth finally arrived. Stewart's character agreed to face Valance in a gun duel, even though he wasn't very handy with a firearm. To everyone's surprise, including his own, Stewart killed Valance with a single shot.

Or, at least, he seemed to.

It was the clear turning point for Stewart's character. Now known as "the man who shot Liberty Valance," he rode his new reputation to a successful political career. By the time Wayne's character died, Stewart's character had been a senator twice and an ambassador once and was the apparent favorite for his party's nomination for vice president.

Wayne, meanwhile, lived his life in relative obscurity. Stewart also married the woman Wayne wanted (Vera Miles) so it was also a life of solitude.

And it was a life spent concealing a secret — Wayne was the man who actually shot Liberty Valance, but he persuaded Stewart to accept the credit and pursue his career in public service. His motivation? The happiness of the girl he loved — but who did not love him.

Stewart chose to reveal the truth during the interview, but the reporter chose not to print it and burned his notes instead. The truth remained known only to a few people in the movie — and to the audience.

(By the way, if you're one of those people who likes to do an unofficial imitation of Wayne's speaking style, it may interest you to know this was the movie in which he spoke of a "pilgrim."

"Whoa, take 'er easy there, Pilgrim," he says at one point, inspiring a generation of John Wayne imitators.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Art Imitates Life

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen): Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat ... college.

When Woody Allen's name is mentioned, the listener probably thinks of many things.
  • A successful career directing movies and occasionally appearing in them;

  • a successful career prior to that as a Broadway playwright and a TV writer;

  • his somewhat soap operatic private life.

  • I know I think of many things when I hear Allen's name.
    But the thought that comes immediately to mind for me — and, I suspect, for many others — is of "Annie Hall," the movie that premiered 35 years ago today.
    I owe that, I suppose, to the fact that I was in the throes of my first real love when "Annie Hall" was making the theatrical rounds. Karen and I saw most of the movies that came out that year — the good, the bad and the ugly.
    Going to a movie was about the only way I could figure to get time alone with her so we went to see anything and everything. The really special movies stood out, of course, but there's no doubt that we saw some real dogs that year, too.
    "Annie Hall" was no dog. It wound up winning the Oscar for Best Picture, and Allen was named Best Director, although he wasn't there to accept the award. Instead, he was playing clarinet with his buddies in a jazz band in Manhattan, as he always did on Monday nights.
    I don't know how such a thing would be received today. In the late 1970s, it was seen as delightfully quirky. Of course, that was in the days before Allen's very public legal wrangling with longtime partner Mia Farrow — and the revelation of Allen's (in the words of a judge) "grossly inappropriate" relationship with her adopted daughter.
    I suspect the reaction would have been much less tolerant if Allen had made that film 15 years later.
    When"Annie Hall" hit the theaters, Karen and I hadn't started dating yet. That came along a couple of months later. But 1977 was a different time. Hit movies routinely spent several months in theaters. Video recorders weren't unheard of in private homes, but they were extremely rare so there was no rush for theaters to get rid of one movie to bring in another one, especially one as popular as "Annie Hall."
    Made on a $4 million budget, it made more than $38 million at the box office.
    My memory is that Karen and I saw that movie in the summer. We saw a lot of movies that summer. I think her father recommended it to us. He was (and, I assume, still is) a big fan of Woody Allen.
    I am, too, I guess, although I haven't seen all the movies he's made in the last 20 years. But, at the time that Karen and I were dating, I had seen most of his early movies, and I loved 'em all.
    "Annie Hall" had a similar sense of humor, but it was different from those earlier efforts, too. It was humorous like the others, but the humor was much more autobiographical, much more personal. I was at a time in my life when I appreciated personal irony and self–deprecating humor, and "Annie Hall" was loaded with both.
    That was obvious from the opening monologue, in which Allen looked into the camera, spoke directly to the viewers and said, "Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other one says, 'Yeah, I know; and such small portions.' "
    (I laughed so hard at that I almost missed the next joke.)
    "Well, that's essentially how I feel about life — full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly. The other important joke for me is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud's Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, and it goes like this — I'm paraphrasing — 'I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.' "
    Those were, Allen told the viewers, the jokes that had the most relevance to his adult life.
    I saw "Annie Hall" on the big screen twice, and it occurred to me, as I was watching it for the second time, that sometimes his brand of humor — and his deadpan delivery — went right over most people's heads.
    In his earlier movies, he could write pure slapstick and get away with it, but "Annie Hall" was much more cerebral. It was a thinking man's kind of humor.

    It still makes people think after 35 years. I guess that's the best compliment that can be paid to a film.

    Friday, April 13, 2012

    '12 Angry Men' Still a Compelling Film

    Today, it almost seems like an obvious thing, a cliche of moviemaking.

    "12 Angry Men," originally a TV play, made its debut as a movie 55 years ago today. I wasn't around in those days, but I have to think that the basic premise — a solitary member of a criminal jury votes "not guilty" and persuades his fellow jurors to change their votes — wasn't new then.

    It probably just hadn't been used as much as a plot device by 1957 as it has in the 55 years since.

    If that was so, it must have gotten a fresh spin as a movie.

    "12 Angry Men" has been remade a few times since then — and with some pretty big names, too — but I always maintain that the '57 version was the best — if only because of Henry Fonda, who played the lone juror.

    Fonda was the perfect actor to cast if a director and/or producer of a movie had a lesson to teach, and Juror #8 (that was all the audience knew to call him — until the very last minute of the movie) had plenty of lessons to share.

    But the roles were kind of reversed on this project.

    Originally, Reginald Rose wrote the play for TV's Studio One, and the TV production did so well that Sidney Lumet was persuaded to direct a movie adaptation. Rose co–produced the movie along with Fonda — Fonda's only foray into movie production — and the two of them were responsible for bringing Lumet into the project.

    The brilliance of the story lies in the way that each juror's true colors were revealed through a series of fairly typical jury discussions (I've served on my share of juries). After I watched "12 Angry Men" the first time (I was visiting my grandmother, as I recall, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college), I felt that I knew the characters of each of those "jurors" better than I knew the characters of some people I had known most of my life.

    In our polarized culture, I think there are lessons in "12 Angry Men" that might actually promote civility and tolerance of dissenting opinions.
    "It's always difficult to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this. And wherever you run into it, prejudice always obscures the truth. I don't really know what the truth is. I don't suppose anybody will ever really know. Nine of us now seem to feel that the defendant is innocent, but we're just gambling on probabilities — we may be wrong. We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don't know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that's something that's very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it's sure."

    Juror #8

    As great as that piece of dialogue is, it really took someone of Fonda's moral authority to give it meaning.

    For modern movie viewers, raised on the slick and the gaudy, the absence of splashy special effects — or even much variety in the setting (nearly the entire movie takes place in the jury room) — may be an obstacle to their enjoyment of the great story.

    But anyone who has ever served on a jury will recognize at least some of the personalities of the jurors — the rather timid clerk; an anxious businessman whose thoughts are of his estranged son; a laborer; a sports fan eager to complete his jury obligation so he can attend a baseball game; a thoughtful older (and presumably retired) man; an immigrant; a bigot.

    And more, much more.

    I've watched it many times since that first time back in my college days, and I find it compelling each time. When it is over, I can't say enough good things about it.