Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Night the Nation Watched

If, at the end of my life, I am asked to list the five days that I remember the most vividly, I have no doubt that list would include this day in 1983.

It was on that day that the final episode of M*A*S*H, titled "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," was broadcast. To this day, it remains the most–watched TV broadcast ever.

1983 was quite a year for historic TV events. Super Bowl XVII the previous month, The Thorn Birds miniseries the next month and The Day After TV movie in November are still among the Top 50 TV events of all time. But the M*A*S*H finale is the all–time champ.

Well, the last couple of Super Bowls might have surpassed the M*A*S*H finale. Those numbers aren't available yet. But even if they did, it seems to me that comparing an unscripted championship game to a scripted performance is sort of like comparing apples to oranges.

Frankly, there were many reasons why the M*A*S*H finale drew so many viewers — and why no comparable broadcast is ever likely to duplicate the achievement.

It was a popular series. Well, not at first. It got off to a rocky start in its first season, but it was a fixture in TV's Top 10 through most of its run. It lasted 11 years.

During that time, Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye Pierce, was recognized by the Golden Globes six times and by the Emmy Awards five times.

And any discussion of the quality of the M*A*S*H series and its record–setting finale must include the writing, which was always top notch. There were the regular writers, of course, but members of the cast often contributed to the writing — and the directing.

If you watch all the episodes that were broadcast, the inescapable conclusion is that never was there a more creative crew. M*A*S*H was truly an ensemble effort.

Even though cable did exist at the time of the M*A*S*H finale, it was still in something of a nascent phase. Many people were receiving it, but many more were not.

In my market, as I recall, cable subscribers could get maybe two dozen channels, not the hundreds that are available now. Thus, the potential audience was not as fragmented as it is today.

Because of the sheer number of the alternatives available, I'm inclined to think that nothing that is shown on a single channel today can attract the share of the TV market that the M*A*S*H finale did.

The overall audience for a major news event might exceed it, but many channels will show the same news event. And sports events are, as I say, unscripted. Among programming that is scripted (and, almost always, recorded in advance), the M*A*S*H finale's viewership has never really been challenged — and almost certainly never will be.

There were several memorable, poignant moments in that program, and many folks will mention the same ones.

But there's one scene that I always enjoy watching whenever the show is being repeated, even though it has rarely been mentioned in my presence. That's a scene in which Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) was taking a break between surgical cases and Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) came up to him to ask for some advice.

Potter told Klinger he only had a minute to spare.

"Do you understand women?" asked Klinger. The running joke about Klinger, of course, was that he had long been trying to get out of Korea by wearing dresses, but now, because he was in love with a South Korean girl who had been separated from her parents and would not leave the country until she found them, he was considering staying in South Korea after the impending end of the conflict.

That was the conundrum with which he had been wrestling. But no one else knew that.

"Oh," Potter replied, apparently relieved. "What I understand about women will take a lot less than a minute."

That, my friends, is great writing. That's just all there is to it. And Harry Morgan, old pro that he was, delivered it perfectly.

Equally fine writing was on display earlier in the program, when Hawkeye was coming to grips with his role in a tragic event. His attempts to repress that memory had landed him in a psychiatric hospital, and the scene in which he had his breakthrough remains one of the most emotionally devastating moments I have ever witnessed on television.

Each of the primary stars — Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit, David Ogden Stiers — had his/her opportunity to shine although perhaps not quite as brightly as the ones I have mentioned.

They were all great, but I think all would agree that they have never been affiliated with a project or a group of people as special as those who brought M*A*S*H into America's living rooms for 11 years.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winning the West

Narrator (Spencer Tracy): This land has a name today and is marked on maps. But the names and the marks and the maps all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man.

I don't remember if "How The West Was Won" was the first movie I ever saw at a movie theater.

It might have been. As I have mentioned in this blog before, I grew up in a small town in central Arkansas that had an old–fashioned single–screen movie theater downtown (and a drive–in on the outskirts of town). It wasn't unusual for it to take two or three years — or longer — for first–run movies to arrive in my town.

By that time, of course, they were no longer first–run movies. Many had probably already been shown on TV by the time they made it to my hometown theater.

I have vague memories of seeing "How The West Was Won" — which made its American debut on this date in 1963 (it premiered in the United Kingdom about four months earlier) — on the big screen.

In those days, the theater used to distribute cards that indicated which movies were showing on which days during whichever month it happened to be, accompanied by mini reproductions of the movie posters that were on display in the lobby and outside the theater. "How The West Was Won" had two dozen mug shots of the stars who were featured — and that caught my child's eye.

I was old enough, by the time I saw the movie, to read some, and I remember reading what I could of the card and pointing out the stars with whom I was familiar. My parents were both teachers, and my mother started teaching me the alphabet and how to read before I was in first grade.

I don't remember hearing the word "epic" before I saw "How The West Was Won," but that movie has always been my personal standard for what an epic should be — a big, sprawling movie so big it took three directors, two dozen Hollywood stars and thousands of extras to tell the story of Westward expansion in the 19th century.

And what a story it was.

Oh, sure, it was a sanitized version of American history, glossing over many of the more painful chapters, but it was still a good story. It was so sanitary that children could — and did — watch it without suffering any trauma. And, if the adults in the child's family didn't mind tap dancing around some sticky subjects.

As many stars as "How the West Was Won" had, only one that I know of — Debbie Reynolds — was in it practically from start to finish.

Sometimes I think it should have been called "The Story of Lilith Prescott," but I guess that wouldn't have attracted viewers.

Also, I suppose it would have been hard to give that kind of billing to just about any actress — even one as popular as Reynolds — over stars like Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda or John Wayne, even though those three actors had relatively small roles when compared to Reynolds'.

(Another thing. It probably would have been hard to justify a $15 million budget in 1962 for a movie in which Reynolds was regarded as the major star. She was a popular star in her day, as I say, but she was never the kind of bankable star Stewart, Fonda and Wayne were.)

Even though I was quite young when I saw it for the first time, I will always be glad I saw "How the West Was Won" on a big screen.

It was made for the wide screen. It was simply too big to be confined to a TV screen.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bringing Up Baby Turns 75

The golden era for Hollywood's screwball comedies was well before my time.

I still enjoy watching them, though, and I long ago concluded that they all had certain characteristics that they shared with each other, but I've always kind of felt that "Bringing Up Baby," which made its debut 75 years ago today, was unique.

I'm not really sure why that is so. There was nothing special about the stars — Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Both had been in screwball comedies before. Most stars in those days probably had. Screwball comedies in general were quite popular.

Hepburn and Grant did have a certain chemistry, though, that made "Bringing Up Baby" a lot of fun to watch. But I suppose most of Hepburn's screwball comedies were with Spencer Tracy.

Some stars got typecast in screwball comedies; others had more varied careers. When I hear names like Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, I think of screwball comedies and little else. But when I hear names like Hepburn and Grant, for some reason, I think of other kinds of movies as well.

Likewise, there really wasn't anything special about director Howard Hawks' involvement with the project. He made many kinds of movies during his career, including other screwball comedies, although "Bringing Up Baby" was probably his most noteworthy contribution to that genre.

An important element of the screwball comedies was (and still is, in movies that aspire to be screwball comedies today) a strong female character who dominated her relationship with the lead male character. Such a character was the embodiment of what was known as the "Hawksian woman" in those days — able to hold her own (and then some) with any male.

Hepburn fit the mold of the Hawksian woman, regardless of the genre.

And dapper Cary Grant was in many screwball comedies over the years, but he also appeared in very dramatic films. Personally, when I think of Grant's career, I always think first of his work with Alfred Hitchcock, especially in "To Catch a Thief" and "North by Northwest," and Hitchcock's is a name most people wouldn't associate with screwball comedies.

And yet ...

An early Hitchcock movie, "The 39 Steps," included a segment where a man and woman were handcuffed together and fell in love after being thrust together by fate. Clearly an element of the classic screwball comedy.

Maybe what made "Bringing Up Baby" different was the fact that Hepburn and Grant became the "parents" of a homeless leopard. Hepburn was Baby's original parent, I guess. Grant, a paleontologist who was only seeking a benefactor, rounded out the family unit.

Whatever the reason, "Bringing Up Baby" is often mentioned as one of the greatest of the screwball comedies.

I didn't know until long after I saw the movie for the first time that it was designed for Hepburn, that the male lead was never really considered an important part of the cast.

What I did know — or, rather, what I deduced on my own and later confirmed — was that "Bringing Up Baby" was a primary inspiration for 1972's "What's Up, Doc?"

It came out long after the heyday of the screwball comedy, but, nevertheless, "What's Up, Doc?" was one of my favorite movies in the 1970s so, when I saw "Bringing Up Baby" for the first time, the similarities were all too clear to me. Grant's character could have been played by Ryan O'Neal, and Hepburn's character was every bit as screwy as Barbra Streisand's.

But the O'Neal–Streisand partnership really was no match for Hepburn and Grant.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Art of Repetition

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to the movie "Groundhog Day," which was released 20 years ago today, is the fact that the movie's title has become a cliche.

Today, when someone mentions Groundhog Day, the thought that comes to mind is the sensation of deja vu, of repeatedly re–living the same experience. It is not what it once was, a rather superstitious ritual used to predict the duration of winter based on whether a groundhog sees his shadow.

Yogi Berra summed it up decades ago when he said something was "like deja vu all over again."

In some ways that sounds good — or, at least, it would be if one could select the experience that is being re–lived or, if you had no choice, if it was a good experience.

At one point in the movie, Bill Murray recalled an idyllic day he spent on a beach with a beautiful companion and he said wistfully, "That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over?"

But Murray was forced instead to re–live a cold, snowy Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Penn. And nothing could alter that fact. At first, it was an advantage. Then it became a burden. He threw caution to the wind, taking every foolhardy risk he could, and it seemed he had succeeded, but the next morning, he awoke in the same bed. February 3 never came.

The viewer could feel his frustration as he awoke to the same day every day. Heck, just having to listen to Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You, Babe" when Murray's alarm clock went off every morning was enough to drive a man insane, and Murray seemed to be dangerously close to that on occasion.

One of my favorite lines in the movie is near the end when Murray looks outside and discovers he has escaped the clutches of Groundhog Day.

"Today is tomorrow," he says with a sense of relief that can only be compared to a child's reaction to the arrival of Christmas morning. "It happened."

Its arrival is preceded by a sometimes grueling journey of personal discovery for Murray's character. Once self–centered, he develops a real empathy for others that is at once charming and redeeming for the viewer.

As a general rule, I am not a fan of Andie MacDowell, but I thought she did a reasonably good job of playing Rita, Murray's colleague who is at first skeptical of his story but comes to believe him — in spite of the rather ham–handed way Murray's character tried to use his new reality to seduce her in much the way he earlier seduced an unsuspecting female in the Groundhog Day festivities.

(Actually, 1993 was a pretty good year for MacDowell. She also appeared in "Short Cuts," one of my favorite movies of the '90s, later in the year.)

Nor, for that matter, have I ever been much of a fan of Chris Elliott, who was passable but mostly forgettable in the role of Larry the cameraman.

Even so, he was made better by the quality of the material — as was everyone else.

I've watched the movie several times, and I take something new from it every time.

Each time, though, it is a great lesson that never hurts to be repeated.

That is appropriate, is it not? Repetition is, after all, at the heart of "Groundhog Day."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Marathon Men

Fifty years ago tomorrow, the Beatles recorded their debut album, Please Please Me.

In a single day. In less than a single day. In roughly nine hours.

Well, not everything was recorded on that day. There were a few singles that had been released — and had been wildly popular. "Love Me Do," for example, was the Beatles' first release a few months earlier and rose to 17th on U.S. charts. "Please Please Me," the track for which the album was named, was #1 on most charts.

To capitalize on the popularity of those singles, the decision was made to release an album.

Albums were not always released in those days, but, when they were, it was typical in England for an album to include 14 songs. The two hits, with their B–side tracks, made four songs. The Beatles needed 10 more.

So, on Feb. 11, 1963, the Beatles recorded the rest of what would become the Please Please Ne album, which was released less than six weeks later.

The Beatles recorded all 10 songs in three three–hour sessions in London. Well, actually they recorded 11 songs, but one of the tracks, "Hold Me Tight," was not included. It was re–recorded later and wound up on the "With the Beatles" album a few months later.

"Twist and Shout" was the last one recorded because John Lennon had been sick, and producer George Martin was concerned that Lennon's voice might be ruined if they tried to record it first.

To everyone's surprise, the song was recorded in a single take. A second take was attempted, but, as Martin had feared, Lennon's voice was shot.

The first take was remarkable, though. Still is, for that matter.

In fact, if you listen to the Please Please Me album carefully, you can hear Lennon coughing in the background. Reportedly, he had been drinking milk and taking cough drops to soothe his throat, and it worked well enough for him to get through the other songs, but, after his vocal contribution to "Twist and Shout," he said his throat felt like "sandpaper," and it was weeks before his throat returned to normal.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Animal Kingdom

When I was growing up, there was only one single–screen theater in my central Arkansas hometown.

New releases came to my town when the distributors decided they had gotten all they could from larger markets. It could take a year or two for a movie to come to my hometown — if it ever did.

I suppose it goes without saying that the original "Planet of the Apes," which premiered on this day in 1968, wasn't showing at my hometown theater 45 years ago. It may have been showing somewhere in Little Rock. First–run movies usually did.

In fact, I'm inclined to think it may have been two years or more before it came to my hometown because, when I saw it, my hometown theater showed it as the first part of a double feature in which the movie's sequel was the second feature.

And the sequel came out two years after the original.

Logically, then, the original must have been at least 2 years old at that time. But that, of course, assumes that the sequel would have been showing in my hometown when it was first released — and, frankly, that defies logic. First–run movies hardly ever played in my hometown.

So I think it must have been a year, if not two, after the sequel was released when that double feature played in my hometown theater.

Oh, well ...

Whenever that double feature came to my hometown, I remember pleading with my parents to let me see it — and, to my great surprise, they did even though I was quite young (and my memory is that they usually weren't inclined to allow me to see anything they thought was beyond my years).

Anyway, after an unexpectedly easy time convincing my parents to let me see it, I spent one rainy Saturday afternoon at my hometown movie theater, watching the first two "Planet of the Apes" movies.

Those movies had a profound influence on me. They opened my mind to thoughts I had never had before.

I guess everyone remembers the iconic final scene in which Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison (his human companion, the alluring but mute Nova) learn the truth about the ape planet.

Likewise, I suppose everyone remembers when Heston, upon being captured by the apes, instructed them to "get your stinkin' paws off me."

Oddly, I suppose, those scenes and the dialogue really didn't register with me as much at the time as the general theme of the movie and its sequel, that the roles of the animals and the humans had been reversed.

That theme, as I understand it, was warmly received by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

As it should be, perhaps — and also, I suspect, as many, if not most, would expect it to be.

Even those who were not connected to the SPCA found that "Planet of the Apes" was a thought–provoking tale. Every time I have seen or thought of that movie since the first time I saw it, though, it has evoked thoughts of Heston.

I'm not entirely sure of this, but I really think that rainy Saturday afternoon was the first time I saw Heston in a movie (well, two movies, actually — Heston was in both of the movies I saw that day, but he was more prominently featured in the first).

Most people's first thoughts may be of "The Ten Commandments" or "Ben–Hur" when they think of Heston. I think of those performances, too, but the first thing I think of is the "Planet of the Apes" movies.

Like one domino falling into another, that initial thought will remind me of something or someone else. Inevitably, I am reminded of the rather obvious role reversals in that movie. For example, when Heston was being chased through Ape City, he interrupted a funeral service for an ape who was being lauded as the "font of simian kindness."

The ape who was presiding over the service said that the departed had once confided in him, "I never met an ape I didn't like."

Some of the more adult references went over my head. But I wasn't completely immune to some adult aspects of the movie.

Perhaps because I was young and drawn to beautiful women even then, I tend to think of Harrison as well when I think of those movies, although the first two "Planet of the Apes" were probably the high points of her fairly brief show business career.

She never spoke in the first one and only a few times in the second. I don't remember much about her voice.

The voices of the apes — most notably, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans — do evoke associative memories, I suppose. I've seen them all in other things — I had probably seen some, if not all, before I saw "Planet of the Apes" — but their voices always make me think of that movie.

I've seen Evans, for example, on Bewitched — many times — in the role of Samantha's father. But when I hear his voice, I still think of Dr. Zaius.

Likewise, I have seen Hunter (who had been in movies for a quarter of a century when she played Zira) and McDowall in many things. I may even have seen them in things before I saw "Planet of the Apes."

But their voices always take me back to that afternoon when I saw that movie and its sequel for the first time.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Nothing's Gonna Change My World

"Sounds of laughter, shades of life
Are ringing through my opened ears
Inciting and inviting me.
Limitless undying love, which
Shines around me like a million suns,
It calls me on and on across the universe."


On this day in 1968, the Beatles recorded "Across the Universe."

Eventually, it appeared on "Let It Be," the last album the group released.

I suppose no one had ever dominated popular music the way the Beatles did in those days. Less than a year earlier, they had released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which was widely praised and seen as a cultural game changer.

Only a few months earlier, they had wrapped up the recording sessions for the "White Album," so named for its white cover. That was the double album that was later revealed to have influenced Charles Manson and his murderous followers some 18 months later.

That album, I suppose, was in pre–production in February 1968. They were working on tracks for their final albums, but my guess is that their thoughts were on other things.

The Beatles, as accustomed to commercial success as they were bound to have become by that time, probably were more interested in Transcendental Meditation and its developer, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

There was clearly a spiritual element to the Beatles' songs during this period. It was mostly associated with George Harrison, but "Across the Universe" was actually composed by John Lennon and was credited, as had been the practice since the 1950s, to Lennon–McCartney.

Paul McCartney had little, if anything, to do with the writing of either the music or the lyrics of "Across the Universe." It was Lennon's composition, and, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, he called it "one of the best lyrics I've written."

That is certainly saying something when you think of the songs he had written — and had yet to write — when he spoke to Rolling Stone.

I don't know if I think it is the best song Lennon ever wrote — but it was definitely one of his best.

In that interview, Lennon also said he preferred his songs "that stand as words, without melody. They don't have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them."

You could certainly read the words to "Across the Universe," but it probably helped if you brought a certain amount of spirituality to the recitation as well.