Thursday, January 30, 2014

Up on the Roof With the Fab Four

"We went on the roof in order to resolve the live concert idea because it was much simpler than going anywhere else.

"Also nobody had ever done that so it would be interesting to see what happened when we started playing up there. It was a nice little social study.

"We set up a camera in the Apple reception area behind a window so nobody could see it, and we filmed people coming in.

"The police and everybody came in saying, 'You can't do that! You've got to stop.' "

George Harrison

If there is a seminal moment from the '60s that still lives in pop lore, it is probably the fabled rooftop concert given by the Beatles on the roof of the Apple building in London on this date in 1969.

Ultimately, about half of the 42–minute show served as the concluding segment of "Let It Be" — the fourth and final Beatles movie.

As George Harrison said, it was an interesting study. The movie captured a range of reactions on the street level in London, from excitement to exasperation. In hindsight, probably the Beatles were the only musicians who had the luxury of conducting such a social experiment. Anyone else might have been arrested, and their careers would have been reduced to punchlines.

But they were the Beatles, internationally known. Everything they did made news — not always good news but news. They could get away with things that other groups could not — like playing loud music in the business district during the noon hour.

In the movie, pedestrians could be seen looking skyward, trying to ascertain where the sound was coming from. A few of the older pedestrians clearly were annoyed by the intrusion into their lives.

They didn't realize they were witnesses to history — the Beatles' last public concert. They were hearing something for which Beatles fans would yearn for 11 years — until John Lennon was murdered in December 1980 and it was no longer possible — a Beatles concert.

(In the 1970s, the talk was not of a Beatles concert but of a Beatles reunion. It was understood that they would perform together, but the shape that performance would take was never established in the discussions I heard or in which I participated. If such a reunion had taken place, it might have been on a TV show. It might even have been in the form of a multi–city tour.

And a few might have dreamed of a repeat of the rooftop performance. Who knows?)

The concert took place nearly five years to the day after the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How Are Your 'Precious Bodily Fluids' Holding Up?

Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!

President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers)

I am a fan of movie director Stanley Kubrick's work. I really like all of his films — can't think of one that I don't like — but my absolute favorite is probably the one that premiered 50 years ago today, "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Actually, "Dr. Strangelove" isn't my favorite Kubrick movie all the time. Sometimes my favorite is "2001: A Space Odyssey," and sometimes it is "A Clockwork Orange." Sometimes it's "The Shining."

Occasionally, it is "Lolita" or even "Eyes Wide Shut." Heck, as I say, I like 'em all.

But none of Kubrick's other movies match "Dr. Strangelove" in terms of producing lines that I love ...

Like when Peter Sellers, as President Merkin Muffley, tells an American military official (George C. Scott) and a Russian ambassador who have come to blows, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" (The American Film Institute named that the #64 quote in movie history.)

But, really, there are so many wonderful lines in "Dr. Strangelove" that I can't narrow it down to a single favorite line. I discover new lines to enjoy and appreciate every time I see it.

There are some lines, of course, that have amused me from the start.

Just about every time that Slim Pickens opens his mouth is funny, whether he is preparing his crew for "noo–klear combat, toe to toe with the Rooskies" or whooping while he rides a bomb to his death.

Everything is built around a really simple premise — an Air Force officer, aptly named Jack Ripper, issues an order for bombers in the air to attack Russia, and the movie is about the attempts on the ground to stop that attack. A very similar movie, "Fail–Safe," was in the theaters that year as well, but, whereas Kubrick's movie was a black comedy, the other was definitely a drama.

I've always been an admirer of George C. Scott. His performance in "Patton" is one of the great portrayals of an historical figure in cinematic history, but I always enjoy watching him as Gen. Buck Turgidson, an adviser to the president. Scott was a complete actor, able to do comedy as well as drama.

The lines were great, but a big part of that was hearing them from the mouths of just the right people.

Peter Sellers has long been one of my family's favorites, but he was never funnier than he was in "Dr. Strangelove," in which he played three parts. Three times as many chances to be funny — and two were with foreign accents that he could exaggerate as he wished.

Still, some of my favorite scenes are when Sellers is playing the American president. At one point, for example, he asserts that Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is a psychotic.

"I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that," Scott's character replies, "until all the facts are in." (This is after Ripper has already sent the bombers on their mission.)

And, of course, it is always funny to watch Hayden rant that "I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."

I also enjoy Ripper's description of his personal battle to protect those "precious bodily fluids."

"I first became aware of it," he tells Mandrake, his British attache, "during the physical act of love. A profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence."

Never fails to make me laugh.

As it is with every Peter Sellers movie I have ever seen, it gets better with each viewing, too. Perhaps that is because I know what is going to happen, and I can focus my attention on the lines that always make me laugh.

And that, in turn, permits me to "discover" other lines on subsequent viewings.

I thoroughly enjoy watching Sellers as Mandrake, timidly declining Ripper's order to help him fire his weapon at incoming troops. Sellers' gift for physical comedy was evident — even though he took no pratfalls.

But it is as the movie's title character, Dr. Strangelove, that Sellers is at his most entertaining.

He projects a very Nazi–esque demeanor when he rhapsodizes on the benefits of a Doomsday Machine, then chastises the Soviets for keeping their development of one to themselves.

"The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost," he says, "if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world?"

In 50 years, it's never been a secret how funny "Dr. Strangelove" is. AFI ranks it #3 among the comedies (#39 overall).

Some of us might rank it higher than that. Much higher.

Here's to Hot Lips

Lt. Linda Nugent (Peggy Lee Brennan): Do you dance, Radar?

Radar (Gary Burghoff): Uh, no. Football knee.

Lt. Linda Nugent: Oh, you played football?

Radar: Not much, I had a bad knee.

Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) was a pioneer among women's TV characters.

There had been other women in American television who were positive, assertive role models by 1979, but I can't think of any (other than women in TV movies) who had to overcome as much as Margaret Houlihan.

By the time the episode that made its debut 35 years ago tonight was aired, M*A*S*H was in its seventh season. Just think of all Hot Lips had been through in that time. She had had an affair with a married man, then she had married an officer, from whom she had just become officially divorced.

As a coping mechanism, Hot Lips threw herself into her work, devising a new triage system for her nursing staff and annoying Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) with the details of her plan. Hot Lips told Potter that she was determined to "go as far in this man's Army as any woman can go." Talk about gung–ho. It was a bit much for Potter.

For validation, she invited a general (Walter Brooke) to come and review her crew in action.

Meanwhile, Radar (Gary Burghoff) struggled to get the attention of a new nurse (Peggy Lee Brennan) with whom he was smitten. He turned to ladies' man Hawkeye (Alan Alda) for help.

Mostly, though, the episode was about Hot Lips and her attempt to elevate herself after the psychological beating she had taken over the failure of her marriage — a commendable objective, to be sure. But her effort to build a new and improved Margaret nearly got derailed by the general who came to review her new triage system.

The general, you see, had been acquainted with the old Hot Lips and had ideas of his own for her future.

He wanted to promote Hot Lips and take her back with him to his base, where she could be his mistress — a high–ranking mistress but a mistress all the same.

He didn't realize she was a different woman — at least, not at first. He soon found out.

Hot Lips was unaware of his ulterior motive when she greeted him at the compound, but it became clear enough to her in due course.

And she wasn't willing to go along with it. The general stormed angrily out of Margaret's tent when she turned him down. When he had gone, she held up her glass in a silent toast to herself and said, "Here's to me."

I see no such role models for young girls on 21st–century TV. More's the pity.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bringing Out the Biker in Barney

Barney (Don Knotts): If you ride with your mouth open in the wind and put your tongue against the roof of your mouth, it's impossible to pronounce a word that begins with the letter 's.'

Andy (Andy Griffith): You didn't let anyone see you riding with your mouth open?

Whenever Barney went to an auction, it was usually bad news for Andy.

On one occasion, he returned with gypsy cards and other items used for contacting the spirits of the dead — and managed to contact a ghost that granted Opie three wishes.

And 50 years ago tonight, he came back to Mayberry from a war surplus auction with a motorcycle with a sidecar.

The sheriff's office had been getting complaints about speeders, and Barney had the idea that the motorcycle could be used for trapping speeders and all sorts of official functions — as well as some functions that were not official, such as "going back and forth to the store."

The new addition to the Mayberry motor pool encountered considerable resistance from the citizens.

Along with the verbal gags, the townsfolk engaged in a little sabotage. When Barney was about to take Andy to the diner in the motorcycle, they unfastened the sidecar so, when Barney accelerated the motorcycle, the sidecar stayed where it was (with Andy sitting in it). That drew a hearty laugh from everyone, including Andy.

There was greater backlash in store.

When Barney enforced speed limits on truckers with whom local law enforcement had always had an understanding that a little leeway was needed to get over a steep hill, there was pushback. The truckers began driving through town at night, making noise and keeping everyone awake.

They certainly succeeded in keeping everyone in the Taylor household awake.

"I have a feeling it's their way of saying hello to Barney and his new motorcycle," Andy told Aunt Bee and Opie.

Andy knew he had to do something about the motorcycle, and he drew inspiration from the simplest thing — Opie's woodburning set.

Viewers became aware that Opie had a woodburning set earlier in the episode so its introduction as the resolution of the story wasn't abrupt. But Andy's solution to the problem of the motorcycle probably did surprise some viewers.

Andy used the woodburning set to burn what appeared to be an historical claim onto a piece of wood and then placed it under the sidecar's seat cushion. The claim was that the motorcycle had played an important role in an historically prominent battle during World War I.

Andy pretended to find it, showed the plaque to Barney, suggested that it had been made on the battlefield, burned into the wood with a bayonet, and made the case that the motorcycle belonged on display. Grudgingly, Barney agreed.

And the problem was solved.

Michael Jackson's Pepsi Commercial

When one mentions the name Michael Jackson, so many things come to mind ...

... His unparalleled success as an entertainer. He was known to be one of the hardest–working folks in show business,

... His general influence on pop culture — not only through his music but also through his dance style and fashion,

... The public's fascination with his — sometimes commendable, other times distasteful, always volatile — personal life,

... Even his untimely death.

He has been an endless source of fascination for decades. And Michael Jackson continues to fascinate. Even today, nearly five years after his death, there are many things about Jackson that compete for the public's attention — including milestone anniversaries of important dates in his life.

One of which is today.

It was 30 years ago today that Jackson suffered second–degree scalp burns when pyrotechnics went off accidentally during the filming of a Pepsi TV commercial at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Most people would agree that was a bad way to start a new year, but, within 3½ months, Jackson was on top of the world again.

He had recovered sufficiently from his injuries to appear at the White House where President Reagan presented him with an award for supporting charities that assisted people who had abused alcohol and/or drugs.

His Victory Tour that year was a huge success. Jackson donated his $8 million revenue from the tour to charity — and Pepsi had agreed to a $1 million out–of–court settlement of his lawsuit.

Jackson donated the entire settlement to the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, Calif. Brotman now has a burn center that bears Jackson's name.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Paean to Non-conformity

"What's so terrible about being beautiful? After all, isn't everybody?"

Suzy Parker (Lana)

The episode of the Twilight Zone that made its debut 50 years ago tonight almost never shows up on a "Best of" list — yet I often hear it mentioned by Twilight Zone fans as being one of their favorite episodes.

I don't know why it is such a fan favorite. It isn't one of my favorites.

That doesn't mean I didn't admire the talents of the people who appeared in it. Collin Wilcox, who played Marilyn, is probably best remembered for playing the alleged victim of a black rapist in "To Kill a Mockingbird" a couple of years before she appeared on Twilight Zone.

That, of course, was a role she played. It wasn't her — although attendees at a conference of the NAACP had to be reminded of that when she showed up as a participant.

When I saw "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" for the first time (whenever that was), I was familiar with Richard Long from his extensive TV career, and, once in awhile, I have seen him in a movie on television. I knew less of her other co–stars, Suzy Parker and Pam Austin. Most of Parker's career apparently was spent in advertising work as a print model or an actress in TV commercials, although I have seen her in a few movies. Austin apparently guest–starred on several TV shows that I seldom, if ever, watched.

I appreciated the theme of individuality vs. conformity. It was definitely a Twilight Zone theme, but it didn't give me that familiar chill down my spine the way the really good episodes did when I was a child — and still do today.

The premise was simple. In some future time (Rod Serling suggested, in his opening monologue, the year 2000), young people are required to undergo what is called a physical transformation. They choose from a rather limited selection of attractive model types and then have some sort of surgical procedure that changes them into that type.

The procedure didn't appear to alter their personalities (although there was a reference to its influence on an individual's psychological adjustment), but it did seem to extend their lives, slowing the aging process and rendering them immune to disease. They were identifiable as individuals only by the names sewn into their garments.

(Parker, who played Wilcox's mother even though, in reality, she was only a few years older, did not appear to be any older or younger than anyone else who had chosen her model type.

(There were, of course, model types for men as well, but there was only one that I saw — portrayed by Long, whose primary role in the episode was as Dr. Rex, the man who was to perform Wilcox's transformation.)

Wilcox's character resisted the transformation, though, preferring to hold tightly to the allegiance to individuality that she had been taught by her father. (Her father was deceased, but a picture of him could be seen in the episode, and the image in that picture was the same as Dr. Rex. It also bore a striking resemblance to her uncle.

(I must admit that all those characters who looked and sounded the same was so very Twilight Zone.)

It was a good metaphor for those who resist what they see as a conspiracy to make everyone the same. "When everyone is beautiful," Wilcox's character said, "no one will be." She argued that the powers that be didn't care whether everyone was beautiful, only that everyone was the same.
Marilyn (Collin Wilcox): Why are you going to force me to do something I don't want to do? You can't make me do it, can you? Nobody can make me do it.

Dr. Rex (Richard Long): Now, now, my dear child. No one has ever been forced to take transformation if he didn't want it. You see, the problem is simply to discover why you don't want it and then to make the necessary correction.

As I say, there was no actual influence that the transformation seems to have had on personalities, but the very act of the physical transformation seems to have affected them to an extent.

When Marilyn finally gave in and had the transformation, she chose the "pattern" her friend Valerie had chosen.

"The nicest part of all, Val," Marilyn said, " I look just like you!"

An interesting — and prophetic — angle of the conformity story was the tendency of the characters to encourage other characters who were sad, melancholy, even pensive to "drink a glass of Instant Smile." Seen from the perspective of half a century later, doesn't that seem to foretell of humans' growing desire to self–medicate?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can You Imagine Pearl at 71?

Seventy–one years ago today, Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas.

When I was in college, a female acquaintance and I used to listen to Janis Joplin on my friend's stereo while we drank beer and smoked cigarettes. Joplin had been dead for quite awhile at that time, but my friend and I were throwbacks to the '60s. Janis was one of our favorites, even though she wasn't one of our contemporaries.

If it is hard to picture Janis Joplin at 71, you have to remember that she has been dead for more than 40 years, forever a member of the 27 Club. Maybe she just burned out, a victim of all the booze and hard drugs she inflicted on herself. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would flame out the way she did.

(I always think of Joplin when I hear Neil Young sing "Hey Hey, My My." Of course, that could be because my friend was a Neil Young fan, and there's mental association involved for me there.)

"It's hard to imagine what Janis would be like in the 21st century," writes USA Today, "but it's safe to say no one has come close to matching her voice since."

Joplin was, as USA Today observes, "one of the first major female forces in rock 'n' roll." She was a pioneer, and pioneers have to be tough. You have to work hard, and you have to party hard if you're going to be taken seriously.

Her only #1 hit was "Me and Bobby McGee," which was released the same month that the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon and only rose to #1 after Joplin's death the following year.

On Rolling Stone's list of the Top 100 artists, Joplin ranks #46. Among female artists, only Aretha Franklin and Madonna rank higher.

"She loved her whiskey and made no bones about it," wrote Rosanne Cash for Rolling Stone. "This was a full–blown one–of–a–kind woman — no stylist, no publicist, no image–maker. It was just Janis."

Rolling Stone's list was tough for solo female artists to make. The only other women on it after Joplin were Patti Smyth, Joni Mitchell and Tina Turner.

"She wasn't just a great woman in rock — at the time she was the woman in rock," gushed Cash. "Janis really created this whole world of possibility for women in music: Without Janis Joplin, there would be no Melissa Etheridge. Without Janis, there would be no Chrissie Hynde, no Gwen Stefani. There would be no one."

That may be a bit extreme. Women's voices in rock could not be kept muzzled, but the truth is that Joplin accelerated their influence on modern music.

She was a true pioneer.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Joni Mitchell's Masterpiece

"I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song"

Joni Mitchell

Imagine if you can what it must be like to be Joni Mitchell.

While she was still in her 20s, she released "Blue," which is ranked #30 on Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 albums of all time.

Then, 40 years ago today, she released "Court and Spark." It, too, made Rolling Stone's list. It wasn't as highly regarded (#113), but, with its fusion of folk and jazz, it was ranked higher than most albums — and deservedly so.

Mitchell was barely 30 years old at that time, but she had already released her most successful (and, arguably, her best) albums. They were really quite difference from each other. "Blue" was mostly what Jason Ankeny of calls "confessional songwriting," but "Court and Spark" was primarily "evocative character studies."

The music was exquisite, and I believe it ensured Mitchell's place in popular music history.

If you were Joni Mitchell, where would you go from there? Which musical mountains were left to climb?

It would be hard for me to narrow down my favorite Joni Mitchell song, but "Free Man in Paris" certainly would be close to the top of my list. It was pretty popular with the public, too, climbing to #22 on Billboard's Hot 100.

The first single from the album — "Raised on Robbery" — actually was released a couple of months before the album was released, and it gave listeners a taste of what was in store. Robbie Robertson of The Band played electric guitar on a tune that sounded like it would have been right at home on a Manhattan Transfer album.

There was no shortage of talent supporting Mitchell on "Court and Spark." In addition to Robertson, the album had Graham Nash and David Crosby contributing background vocals on "Free Man in Paris" (Jose Feliciano played electric guitar on that one), and comedians Cheech and Chong provided background voices on (appropriately) "Twisted."

I suppose most casual listeners would name "Help Me" as their favorite song from the album, and that would certainly be a safe choice. It was Mitchell's first Top 10 hit, and it was probably the best of the "wary love songs" (as Ankeny put it) that dotted the album.

But "Help Me" got too darn much airplay for me. I liked it, but, if pressed to pick my favorite of the "wary love songs" on "Court and Spark," I probably would choose "People's Parties."

But that's just me.

Whichever song she sang, I always thought Joni Mitchell had a wonderful voice, and Rolling Stone agreed with me. It ranked her #42 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'Happy Days' Turns 40

Forty years ago tonight, America got its first look at Happy Days, a midseason replacement for something (like the guy who was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who remembers? OK, it was Wally Pipp who was replaced by Gehrig, but no one remembers what Happy Days replaced) — and a nostalgia wave was born.

Well, that isn't really true, I guess. That particular nostalgia wave probably began a few months earlier when "American Graffiti" hit the movie theaters. But, while "American Graffiti" did have some stars who went on to greater fame on (or by way of) Happy Days, it wasn't a natural extension of "American Graffiti."

"American Graffiti" was set in the early 1960s; in its early episodes, Happy Days was set in the mid–1950s, although, by the time it ended its run, Happy Days was set in the early 1960s, too.

Neither the film nor the TV show introduced Americans to Ron Howard, only to an older version of him. Howard, of course, played Opie on the iconic Andy Griffith Show in the real early 1960s, and Tom Bosley, who wasn't in the movie, was a familiar face to TV viewers thanks to his series and commercial appearances, but the rest of the cast were largely unknowns.

(Well, Marion Ross' face probably was familiar enough for viewers to scratch their heads and wonder, "Now, who is she? I know I've seen her in something else ...")

Before this night 40 years ago, though, few, if any, knew who Henry Winkler was. No one expected his character, Arthur Fonzarelli, to be the cultural sensation that he became. Cast members who became household names because of Happy Days included Anson Williams (Pottsie), Donny Most (Ralph) and Erin Moran (Joanie).

Cindy Williams, who did appear in "American Graffiti," was not an original star of the show, but she made a guest appearance on it that led to her long–term role on the popular spinoff show, Laverne & Shirley.

One of my enduring questions about Happy Days, though, was whatever became of the oldest of the Cunningham children, Chuck, played by Gavan O'Herlihy, who appeared in a few episodes and then disappeared with virtually no explanation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Age Is No Barrier

When I was a child, birthdays were magical times. I guess it is that way for most children, but it was especially so in my house.

My mother really made a production out of birthdays for my brother and me. There were balloons and streamers, and Mom always made a birthday cake that really was a sight to behold. Even if the birthday gifts weren't spectacular, the day was.

Forty years ago tonight, Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) was observing a birthday, but he wasn't happy about it.

He was under the impression that it was his 49th birthday. The rest of the family, however, was certain that it was his milestone 50th birthday.

"I can prove that you're 50," Edith (Jean Stapleton) told him.

"How are you gonna do that?" Archie demanded.

"It says so on your birthday cake!" Edith replied. Archie responded that the cake was "a liar."

Turned out that Archie was 50. His birth certificate was found — and it proved Archie's age.

Anyway, not long after Archie's true age was revealed, he slipped away from the party to have a beer at the neighborhood bar — where he was tracked down first by Edith, who had a gift for him, something Archie had always wanted, she said.

The gift was a ukelele, and Archie was, indeed, pleased — but he couldn't play it.

Archie was later visited by one of the guests at his surprise party, Mr. Quigley (Burt Mustin), who claimed to be only a few hours from his 83rd birthday (in reality, Mustin was about to turn 90).

Mr. Quigley massaged Archie's bruised ego a bit by calling him a "young sprig," and he told Archie about the things he was going to do — like learning to speak French.

The lesson was not lost on Archie. Age is only a barrier if one allows it to be.

The Debut of Led Zeppelin

Today, Led Zeppelin is regarded as a classic rock band, a cultural icon, but 45 years ago today, the world was really getting its first taste when Led Zeppelin released its debut album.

As I understand it, the initial reviews were negative, and I guess that is understandable, really. No other band, no matter how rebellious its music sounded, could compete with Led Zeppelin. Their sound was a unique blend of blues, heavy metal and hard rock, and it was just about guaranteed to annoy the older generation.

What more could a young person, determined to challenge authority, want from a band?

But anyone who listened to Led Zeppelin in those days quickly discovered there was more to Led Zeppelin's sound than noise. It was a radically different kind of sound, and a lot of people didn't know what to make of it.

In hindsight, it can be said that Led Zeppelin was more than a means to annoy the older generation. Led Zeppelin made really good music.

I discovered Led Zeppelin several years after that debut album, but "Dazed and Confused," one of the tracks on that original record, has long been one of my absolute favorites.

The record itself reached #10 on Billboard's chart following its initial release. Today, Rolling Stone ranks it #29 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (higher than any other Led Zeppelin album). Ten years ago, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

That debut album has had a lasting influence on the cultural landscape. Other albums contained songs that are more recognizable to mainstream audiences, but Zeppelin's fans have a fondness for many of the tracks that easily matches songs like "Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to Heaven."

There were those in America who had heard of Led Zeppelin before the album hit the store shelves but not many. The band launched an American tour to introduce themselves to U.S. audiences in late 1968, starting the day after Christmas in Denver.

The material on that first album had been recorded a couple of months earlier, so, when the band began its tour, it was way ahead of other groups at that stage of their chronological development. The Led Zeppelin sound was well developed, and the tracks on the first album bear witness to its uniqueness.

Led Zeppelin took what folks like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck were doing and made it their own. Songs like "Dazed and Confused" get most of the attention with their obvious blues influences, but songs like "Communication Breakdown" were — in hindsight — much more representative of what fans could expect.

It is worth noting that the record came out at a time when an album's cover art was almost as important as the music, and Led Zeppelin did not disappoint. The album's artwork was based on the famous photo of the Hindenburg ablaze in May 1937. It was a reference to the origin of the group's name, which, supposedly went something like this: Jimmy Page was discussing forming a band with Jeff Beck, Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Moon said that would "probably go over like a lead balloon," and Entwistle said, "[A] lead zeppelin." The four didn't form a band, but a name for a band had been born.

This is really an important date in the development of hard rock (and, for that matter, heavy metal) as a musical genre. Led Zeppelin was a pioneer, a band with a harder edge than anything that had come before — and a harbinger of things to come.

Hawkeye's House of Cards

Frank (Larry Linville): [after being handed a Section 8 form to sign] You're asking me to let a pervert out of the Army?

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Oh, by all means, Frank. Let's leave the perverts in the Army.

Trapper John (Wayne Rogers): Anyway, Klinger's not a pervert.

Hot Lips (Loretta Swit): How do you know?

Trapper John: Because I'm one — and he's never at the meetings!

People will sometimes to go to remarkable lengths to accomplish apparently small things.

That was the point of the episode of M*A*S*H that first aired 40 years ago tonight.

Hawkeye needed a new pair of boots. As you can see from the photo above, his old ones simply weren't suitable for Korea (or anyplace else, for that matter) in winter.

So he did the logical thing and went to see the supply sergeant (Johnny Haymer). But the supply officer would only let him have them in exchange for dental work. So Hawkeye went to see the dentist, who wanted some R&R in Tokyo in exchange for his services.

Thus began an hilarious stretch of horse trading that finally reached its peak when it brought Hawkeye to Hot Lips, who wanted a birthday party for Frank Burns. Frank had been feeling low on his birthday, and Hot Lips thought a party — with lots of guests and presents — would perk him up.

Hawkeye really needed those new boots, but he resisted Hot Lips' request — at first. "You expect me to drag 20 screaming people to a party for Frank Burns and paint smiles on their faces? And presents?" an incredulous Hawkeye asked. "Half this camp spends its time sticking pins in little Frank Burns dolls."

He and Trapper found the suggestion ludicrous and laughed in Hot Lips' face. But they weren't laughing long. As they left the tent, Hawkeye stepped in a puddle of icy water and immediately started making plans for the party.

Hawkeye didn't exactly have to paint smiles on the guests' faces, but the room was full of people whose deals with Hawkeye were so tenuous that the whole thing was a house of cards that was vulnerable to even the slightest breeze.

It didn't take long for an ill wind to start blowing, either. Appropriately, it came from Frank himself.

When Frank appeared to be as happy as it was possible for him to be, Hawkeye and Trapper approached him about signing the Section 8 form to which Klinger had dedicated himself. It had been the condition for getting his assistance in the plan to get Hawkeye his boots.

Margaret: They love you, Frank!

Frank Burns: It was their hatred that fooled me.

But Frank was having none of it.

And one by one, the little deals that made up the one big deal fell apart.

"Look, we made a deal," Zale, the supply sergeant, said in explaining why he wouldn't provide the boots that Hawkeye wanted. "He didn't come through."

"Do you know what I did? How I degraded myself? How I groveled, how I humbled, how I cheapened myself?" Hawkeye asked. "All for a pair of miserable, lousy Army boots? I swear to you, as dedicated as I am to the sanctity and preservation of human life, if I had a gun at this moment, I would send my head across the tent!"

"A gun takes six weeks," Zale told him. "There's a terrific waiting list."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Survival in the North Atlantic

It would be quite a challenge for a modern movie director to make a film like "Lifeboat," the Alfred Hitchcock drama that made its debut 70 years ago today.

It isn't that disaster movies are so rare. They aren't. But disaster movies like "Lifeboat" — which require a good story and great acting in the absence of splashy special effects — are quite rare, if not nonexistent, today.

Hitchcock had been playing it safe, I suppose, in the years before "Lifeboat." He had made some of his best movies in the preceding years, but they were mostly melodramas, not quite as thrilling as the thrillers he produced later in his career. In fact, many of his projects could be described as routine.

Apparently, he decided to stretch his creative wings with "Lifeboat."

"Lifeboat" was a real challenge for Hitchcock. It was really his first movie to be set entirely in a confined space. He revisited that style in a couple of movies a decade later — "Rear Window" and "Dial M For Murder."

In "Lifeboat," a diverse group of people found themselves together in a lifeboat in the North Atlantic after their ship and a U–boat sank each other, and they were forced to work with each other to achieve a mutual objective — survival.

The group included mostly British and Americans, but there was one German survivor who was pulled into the boat. That led to some remarkable discussions ...

For example, at one point, it was suggested that the German should be thrown overboard and allowed to die. But, after a spirited argument, the German (who was later revealed to have been the captain of the U–boat), was allowed to stay on the boat.

One could hardly imagine a more diverse cross–section of passengers in a cramped lifeboat — but Hitchcock's exploration of the characters made for a gripping story.

Hitchcock was known for his cameo appearances in his films. Usually he appeared briefly and casually as a very minor character, but a movie like "Lifeboat" presented him with some unusual problems.

Given the fact that "Lifeboat" was set at sea, Hitchcock couldn't exactly walk by as he did in other films. But he could be seen as the before and after photos in a newspaper ad for a weight–reduction project.

Hitchcock's greatest influence in the film could be seen in the performances he drew from his cast. Tallulah Bankhead gave what may have been her best performance as a cynical columnist, but she didn't outshine her co–stars, like William Bendix and Hume Cronyn.

If you've never seen "Lifeboat," you should — and you will have your opportunity a week from today. Turner Classic Movies will be showing it next Saturday at 7 p.m. (Central).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Remember 'Where's the Beef?'

Thirty years ago tonight, an iconic TV commercial made its debut.

It was titled "Fluffy Bun," and it showed three elderly ladies looking at a very large hamburger bun, ostensibly served by a prominent (but unnamed) fast–food outlet. "It's a very big fluffy bun," they all agreed.

But then they lifted the top half of the bun to reveal a tiny hamburger patty.

"Where's the beef?" demanded 81–year–old Clara Peller. The commercial promoted Wendy's hamburgers.

I was astonished at the popularity of the commercial. It was funny, but I never thought it was anything remarkable.

It was one of those instances where a commercial becomes symbolic of its times. I don't know if it is possible to explain why, other than to say it was a perfect storm of circumstances and media.

Like the title of the movie "Groundhog Day," which has come to be synonymous with the notion of spinning one's wheels, the commercial's punchline took on a life of its own; today, if someone asks "Where's the beef?" that person probably isn't inquiring about the nearest hamburger joint. Instead, it's most likely a comment on the substance (or absence thereof) of a person, place or thing.

In 1984, the original commercial spawned a series of popular followup commercials, each featuring Peller and her catchphrase, and she became a media sensation.

Later that year, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale used the catchphrase in his unsuccessful campaign.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Lincoln Metaphors Abound in 'The Stormy Present'

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present."

Abraham Lincoln
Dec. 1, 1862

The episode of The West Wing that aired 10 years ago tonight ("The Stormy Present") focused on a rare relationship in American life. It is the relationship that exists between American presidents — regardless of any of the usual barriers, including party affiliation and ideology.

It has been said before that those who have served as America's president belong to the most exclusive club on the face of the earth, and that may be true — although, now that we have a living ex–pope, perhaps the papacy, not the presidency, is the most exclusive club.

America has seldom, if ever, had more than five living presidents (former and present) at any given time in its history. Until last year, though, it had been centuries since there had been a living ex–pope.

On this night in 2004, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was attending the funeral of a former president whose views were often at odds with his own. En route to the funeral, Air Force One gave rides to a couple of other former presidents — played by James Cromwell and John Goodman. Cromwell's character (apparently based on Jimmy Carter) was more closely aligned with Bartlet philosophically and had been duly elected president; the conservative Goodman (apparently inspired by Ronald Reagan) was closer politically to the deceased former president and had served as the unelected interim president when Bartlet invoked the 25th Amendment and stepped aside temporarily during the search for his kidnapped daughter.

The story gave viewers a glimpse into the relationship between chief executives.

They had all dealt with the pressures of the presidency. They knew its isolation. They understood what Harry Truman meant when he called the Oval Office "the crown jewel of the federal penal system." A president could be candid with them in a way he could not be with anyone else.

He as much as said so himself. "When we were elected, I really thought we were going to own the place, do it differently, better," Bartlet said to his speechwriter, Toby (Richard Schiff), at one point. "Now I realize the men on this plane are the only others who have been there before, who really know."

"There ought to be a warning sign when you hitch up to be leader of the free world."

Martin Sheen (President Jed Bartlet)

As a backdrop, Bartlet was monitoring developments in a growing crisis in Saudi Arabia, and he got the kind of advice from his colleagues that a president can only get from those who have sat where he sits.

"You start saddling up camels in every country in the Middle East then you better be prepared to spend the next 50 years sifting through sand because this isn't a quick run on the beach, Jed," Cromwell's character warned him. "This is the new world order."

The writers for The West Wing had a technique of which, as a writer myself, I was envious — in the sense that I wished I had thought of it first. I guess I still am.

The writers used metaphors galore in this episode.

They used a phrase from one of Abraham Lincoln's presidential speeches as the name of the episode — then, as a tie–in, they had the entire cast preparing to go to a performance at Ford's Theater, which is, of course, where Lincoln was assassinated.

Just as the group was preparing to leave the White House, word came that a former president had died, and everyone's plans changed.

Lincoln was a recurring theme in the episode — from its name to the plan to go to Ford's Theater to a final plea from the late president.

Lincoln was there by implication, too, in a side story that was present in which the state of North Carolina was trying to get back a stolen copy of the Bill of Rights. Apparently, a soldier from Connecticut had taken it during the Civil War, and North Carolina wanted it back.

Josh (Bradley Whitford) was the mediator.

After the funeral, Bartlet and the widow spent some time together, and she gave him a letter her husband had left for Bartlet.

In it, he advised Bartlet to "go see Lincoln and listen."

And he did. At the end of the episode, Bartlet could be seen ascending the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And the story went on in the West Wing universe.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Scales of Justice

A decade ago tonight, as the Frasier series was coming to a close after 11 seasons, Frasier and his KACL colleagues were competing with a rival radio station to lose weight. The prize for the winners would be a trip to Las Vegas.

The KACL gang resorted to a number of strategies, including gorging just before the initial weigh–in to artificially boost their group weight ...
Bulldog Briscoe (Dan Butler): We got cheeseburgers, doughnuts, french fries, tacos ...

Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert): And a duck confit that's as rich as Donald Trump and twice as greasy.

and trying to steam away additional pounds in the hours before the penultimate weigh–in. Eventually, it all came down to a hilarious moment when Roz (Peri Gilpin), in a Rockyesque moment, got one of her colleagues to "cut me" (meaning her ponytail) — to claim victory by an ounce or so.

Frasier was disinterested, at best, and his initial weight–loss strategy was to add a salad to every meal (for you dieters out there, it didn't work — so don't try that at home!). But, after the first weigh–in, he had a brand–new motivation. At the weigh–in, he discovered that a prep–school nemesis was on the other team.

Apparently, in addition to being Frasier's main rival for the affections of a Scandinavian exchange student, this nemesis was memorable for how he tormented Frasier when he mistakenly signed up to play girls field hockey. To hear Frasier tell it, it was a completely understandable error.

"The sign said 'F Hockey,' " Frasier protested. "I assumed it meant 'Freshman Hockey.' "

"The little plaid skirt didn't tip you off?" Martin (John Mahoney) asked.

"I thought it was a kilt!" Frasier replied.

As a result, to the winners of the competition would go more than merely trips to Las Vegas. Frasier and this one–time nemesis made a bet. If Frasier's team lost, he would have to wear his field hockey uniform. And if Frasier's team won, the nemesis would have to replace a chess set he took from Frasier in prep school.

Bess Armstrong, making her second appearance on the show, was the host of the local TV program on which the competition played out and acted as the moderator for the competition.

In a parallel (although not necessarily connected) story, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Martin tried to nurse an ailing pigeon. The pigeon was a "buddy" of Eddie's who flew onto Frasier's balcony and observed Eddie through the glass doors — while Eddie observed him.

In explaining the relationship to Frasier, Martin said, "The bird's like his pet."

"Eddie is a pet," Frasier said. "He doesn't get to have a pet."

To prevent the pigeon from flying into the glass, Martin had put a smudge on it, but compulsive cleaner Niles cleaned up the smudge, and the pigeon — whom Martin called Barney — had flown into the glass.

"Are you happy?" asked Martin when they hurried to the balcony to see if Barney was all right. "You killed Eddie's friend. Poor little guy."

Then, after a pause, he looked at Niles and asked, "Now what should we do? Just kick him over the edge?"

The pigeon wasn't really dead, though, so Niles and Martin put it in a box and tried to nurse it back to health.

But, in the end, Eddie was the instrument of Barney's destruction.

Martin put the box on the floor next to Eddie and urged him to "say hello." Instead, Eddie stuck his head in the box, grabbed the bird and ran off down the hall.

Niles, who had been out of the room, returned, and Martin quickly closed the lid of the box. He told Niles that the bird was asleep, and Niles set down a bowl of bird seed he had in his hand.

"You know, Dad," Niles said, "I think he may like me even more than he likes Eddie."

"No contest," Martin replied.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Love Doctor

Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Loretta Swit): She's darling, Henry. Looks a little like your oldest daughter, doesn't she, Frank? He has three.

In the episode of M*A*S*H that aired on this night 40 years ago, Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) was returning to the camp after spending a week in Tokyo.

While he was in Tokyo, Henry made the acquaintance of Nancy Sue Parker (Kathrine Baumann), a 20–year–old former cheerleader, and thought he had fallen in love — even though the 40–something C.O. had a wife and family back home.

It's the kind of scenario of which many a middle–aged man has fantasized. There was a lesson about fidelity to be found in the episode, but mostly, I think, it was just good for a lot of great dialogue.

Not long after Henry's return, Nancy Sue visited the 4077th, giving Henry a chance to show her off and inspiring many jokes, not the least of which were the reactions of the male staffers to the attractive young lady.

When she pulled up in a Jeep, her physical attributes were immediately obvious, and she hadn't said a word.

"I'm a doctor; you can believe me," Hawkeye (Alan Alda) said to Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) as they watched Henry run to greet her. "That is a nice leg."

"That sweater's not stuffed with chopped liver, either," Trapper replied.

The gags continued when Henry introduced Nancy Sue to the staff.

"It's a very genuine pleasure to have you at the 4077th, Nancy dear," Hot Lips said to her.

"Oh, it's mine, too," the bubbly Nancy Sue replied. "Everyone's been so terrific about being nice to me!"

"It's nice to be nice ... to the nice!" Frank Burns (Larry Linville) contributed. (Frank, it is worth noting, was never known for his eloquence.)

Later, Nancy Sue gave a demonstration of the cheers her character had given at Ohio State. In fact, Baumann was a cheerleader in high school, and she was Miss Ohio five years before her appearance on "M*A*S*H" so her leaps and cheers were authentic.

Hawkeye and Trapper watched Nancy Sue, then glanced at Henry, who was beaming from ear to ear.

"The proud father," Hawkeye remarked.

Nancy Sue left a lot of people tongue–tied — but she did know how to untie some tongues, in a manner of speaking. While Henry was busy in surgery, she came on to Hawkeye when he escorted her to her tent. Hawkeye had a reputation for being a ladies' man, but the situation clearly made him uncomfortable.

After Nancy Sue kissed him, Hawkeye said, "In the first place, I want to thank you from the bottom of my mouth. Secondly, we're not in the parking lot at the prom. And lastly, one of us loves Henry Blake, and I think it's me."

(He later described the kiss to Trapper as a "good–night tonsillectomy you wouldn't believe.")

Henry, as it turned out, had already figured out that his place was with his wife back home, not young Nancy Sue.

And, inevitably, Henry's red–hot romance fizzled out.

George Reeves' 100th Birthday

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"

George Reeves, who was probably best known as TV's Superman, was born on this day 100 years ago.

The first glimpse that most people got of him was 75 years ago in "Gone With the Wind." He was one of the Tarleton twins seen early in the movie flirting with Scarlett.

Before he landed his career–defining role as Superman, Reeves appeared in several B movies, co–starring in a few with Ronald Reagan and James Cagney. The Superman role led to some other movie roles as well. In general, I guess you could say the '50s were good years for Reeves.

At least, until the last one.

In the early morning hours of June 16, 1959, Reeves died of a gunshot wound to his head. Initially believed to be a suicide, many people refused to accept that Reeves would take his own life; thus, the truth about Reeves' death remains shrouded in mystery more than half a century later.

Coincidentally, one of Reeves' last remaining co–stars from "Gone With the Wind," Alicia Rhett, died yesterday at the age of 98 in Charleston, S.C. Rhett played India Wilkes, the sister of Scarlett's love interest, Ashley Wilkes.

The 75th anniversary of the release of "Gone With the Wind" is coming up later this year.

If your only exposure to Reeves has been in his role as Superman or even "Gone With the Wind," you might want to look at Turner Classic Movies today. Four of his pre–Superman movies will be shown, starting at 9 a.m. (Central).

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Picking Up Extra Money

Oscar (Jack Klugman): I wouldn't bet somebody else's money on just a horse. I bet it on a horse. A sure thing.

Once, I gave some money to my friend Steve, about whom I have written before, to run an errand for me.

I don't remember the details surrounding that now. Maybe I had to work a double shift or something. Maybe that is why I couldn't run the errand myself.

Anyway, I gave this money to Steve and told him what I needed him to do with it — and he wound up betting it on a horse. I confronted him about that. I was angry about the way he had used my money after swearing to me that he would run my errand as I requested. Steve got a little defensive. I guess neither of us handled that matter terribly well.

I mention that now only because it is relevant to the episode of The Odd Couple that aired 40 years ago tonight. It was called "The Moonlighter," and it was about how Oscar had been given some money to buy season tickets to the Yankee games. He had gambled the money on "a sure thing" that turned out to be not so sure after all, and he was moonlighting at a diner to earn the money back.

His roommate, Felix (Tony Randall), was understanding about Oscar's predicament — until he learned it was his money that had been squandered. Well, actually, it was one of Felix's clients' money, but Felix had trusted Oscar with it, and he felt his trust had been betrayed.

Felix didn't like the idea of Oscar continuing to work in the greasy spoon at nights. He thought it would jeopardize Oscar's full–time job at the newspaper, and he suggested that Oscar work in Felix's photography studio to earn the money to cover the price of the tickets.

There was no real lesson to be learned from the story, I suppose. Felix was going to do a photo shoot with three beautiful girls, and he instructed Oscar that he was to treat them as "colleagues and co–workers" — which Oscar did, sort of.

The lesson, perhaps, came at the end when Oscar, to show his appreciation to Felix for his help and understanding, made a meaningful gesture.

Well, it was meaningful to Felix.

Oscar, the ultimate slob, had cleaned up his room.

Felix was stunned upon seeing it. "I'm very impressed," he told Oscar — until he lifted the bed cover to reveal Oscar's dirty clothes. Apparently, Oscar had just gathered them up off the floor and stuffed them under the bed cover until after Felix's inspection.

Same old Oscar.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Ride on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," which was published 80 years ago today, wasn't the first Agatha Christie book I ever read.

But it was one of the first, and it remains one of the best.

(It was the first Agatha Christie novel–inspired movie I ever saw, and I was, in turn, inspired to read the book after I saw the movie.)

Its primary inspiration was the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son in the spring of 1933. When Christie wrote the novel, the case was very much in the news. In the hands of a talented writer, such a case provided the revenge motive for the murderers.

Christie also was influenced in "Murder on the Orient Express" by another real–life event — the winter of 1928–29, said to have been the harshest winter Europe had experienced in decades. Blizzards and gale–force winds hammered the continent for weeks. Transportation was brought to a virtual halt by all the snow and ice.

The Orient Express was sort of a land version of the Titanic. It boasted luxurious accommodations and was believed to be infallible so, in spite of warnings from stations all along the train's route, its owners unhesitatingly gave the go–ahead to proceed from Paris to Turkey in late January; it was hindered all the way by snow and ice on the tracks. It did make it across the Turkish border but was stopped by huge snowdrifts. The passengers were trapped for days before realizing that help was not on its way, and they tunneled their way out, then crossed the snowy Turkish countryside in search of food and a place to sleep until help did come for them.

This was fairly typical of Christie — she often used real events as the basis for her stories but rarely as well. She made some changes to the facts, enough to make it her own story, and then threw in her usual twists and turns, just to keep the reader guessing.

And there was plenty of guesswork for the reader in "Murder on the Orient Express." Each of the passengers aboard the Orient Express had some kind of connection to the Armstrong family, which had lost its little girl, Daisy, and then suffered additional tragedies as a result of the initial crime.

Poirot, who happened to be on board the train, conducted the investigation and concluded that there were two possible resolutions: either a stranger had entered the train while it was stopped by snowdrifts and committed the murder, or everyone on the train (with the exception of Poirot) had participated.

The former was too easy for Christie's creative mind, so, for one of the few times in her writing career, Christie took an option that would permit the guilty to escape justice. All of the passengers on the train (including the conductor) wanted vengeance, and Poirot, having solved the case, permitted them to have it. He told the authorities that he had concluded that a stranger was responsible for the murder.

It was an interesting twist on the usual formula for a Christie novel. More often than not, she arranged for the least likely suspect to be the actual guilty party.

I guess a least likely suspect would be hard to choose in this case. There were several plausible candidates.