Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Telling the Greatest Story Ever Told

"By his wounds ... we were healed"


Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was, without a doubt, one of the most controversial movies of my lifetime.

Movies with religious themes typically are controversial because they are usually so biased. I felt at the time that Gibson's movie about the final hours of Jesus' life was controversial primarily because it accepted without question so many things as literal truth.

Now, personally, I didn't really have a problem with that because I grew up in the American South. Church plays a huge role in daily life in the South, always has, and you grow up there accepting certain things as fact. (Truth is another matter.)

Call it indoctrination if you wish.

(That's especially true of my home state of Arkansas. After all, that's where creation science got its first real legal foothold.)

Consequently, it wasn't hard for me to accept what was presented on the screen. I don't consider myself a religious person, but I don't usually get into religious debates with Christians, either. I may not necessarily agree with their interpretations of the biblical accounts of Jesus' life and death, but I have heard so many different interpretations in my life (my father was a religion professor, as was his father before him). I was exposed to a lot of faiths when I was young, and it is easy for me to accept the idea that a man named Jesus lived in those times; whether I believe in many of the things that people say about his life is fine print.

I realized at the time, though, that Gibson's movie was more problematic for people who were not Christians. And it did spark a controversy, in part by being released on Ash Wednesday 10 years ago today.

That didn't really bother me, either, but the other thing that made the film objectionable was what was seen as excessive violence, and I must say it was a very violent movie. How could a movie about the Crucifixion be anything else? The answer is, it couldn't, but I thought Gibson went over the line in the scene where Jesus was scourged.

My understanding of Jewish law in those days is that scourging traditionally was limited to 39 lashes, and all the Protestant pastors I have known since I was a child accepted that as the number of lashes Jesus received. That was the number they always mentioned when they spoke of Jesus' crucifixion. I'm not sure if it is ever mentioned in the Bible, but, as I say, Jewish law limited scourging to 39 lashes, a number that was based on the accepted belief that 40 lashes would result in death. Therefore, 40 minus one was considered the most severe scourging that could be administered without causing death.

(No doubt there were those who received 39 lashes — or fewer — and died, anyway, but 40 was the number that was considered certain to cause death.)

The scourging in "The Passion of the Christ" went far beyond 39 lashes. I don't know if Gibson's version was correct, only that it was excessive when compared to what I have been taught since childhood. I couldn't even tell you how many lashes were re–created in Gibson's movie. I lost count long before the scourging ended, so engrossed was I in what I was seeing.

But the thing that I found truly fascinating about Gibson's production is that it was made entirely in reconstructed Aramaic and Latin. That required a lot of meticulous research. Of course, there probably weren't many people in the world who could authoritatively dispute the authenticity of the script or the actors' pronunciations of the words.

But most people could probably tell what the characters were saying.

Of course, the stories of the gospels differ in many ways. They don't attribute precisely the same quotes to the same individuals, they don't always identify the same individuals, and they don't include the same details. But, to believers like Gibson, that is fine print. The challenge when making a motion picture based on the gospels is to reconcile them so they tell essentially the same story.

One of the intriguing examples of this reconciliation from within the New Testament could be seen early in the movie when Jesus was arrested. All four of the gospels mention a servant of the high priest who participated in the arrest. One of the disciples struck him with a sword, cutting off his ear. The gospels agree on that — but that is where the accounts begin to differ.

The servant is only named in one of the gospels, and another gospel, which does not name him, is the only one to report that Jesus healed the ear. In the movie, the servant is called by name and his ear is healed, as if it had been reported that way in all four gospels.

Still, there were other parts of the story that can only be explained as Gibson taking poetic license. Early in the movie, when Jesus is praying in the garden, he is visited by Satan (a character who pops up regularly in the movie), and Jesus crushes a snake beneath his heel. For those who are familiar with the Bible, this is a reference to the prophecy of a Messiah in Genesis. The gospels do not mention this event in the garden.

Nor, for that matter, do the gospels mention Judas being tormented by demons who look like children, but that scene also appears in "The Passion of the Christ."

Like any good dramatist, Gibson made effective use of symbolism.

The story of Jesus' life was told through a series of flashbacks — and I will admit that this is where I paid the most attention to the subtitles. The story didn't follow a chronological thread so the subtitles helped me make sense of the flashbacks. Once I knew what was being shown (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount or the Last Supper), I seldom felt the need to look at the subtitles.

But there were parts that had to have been inserted as symbols of things Gibson wanted to be sure the audience remembered. There is a flashback scene in which Jesus is building a table. As far as I know, there is no such story mentioned in the gospels. Its purpose in the movie must be to remind people of Jesus' earthly father and the trade Jesus was taught as a boy.

While Gibson acknowledged that the New Testament was the primary source for the movie, it is known that the Hebrew Bible also was used along with other sources.

I thought Jim Caviezel did a credible job as Jesus, not so much for what he said but for what he represented in the re–creations of Jesus' brutal final hours.

Roger Ebert called it "the most violent film I have ever seen."

Ebert pulled no punches: "You must be prepared for whippings, flayings, beatings, the crunch of bones, the agony of screams, the cruelty of the sadistic centurions, the rivulets of blood that crisscross every inch of Jesus' body."

But this movie tells the story of Jesus' death by crucifixion. From all the accounts I have read, it was a particularly brutal, painful and lingering death.

An honest depiction could not avoid those facts.

I can't say that I always agreed with Gibson's filmmaking choices or his biblical interpretations, but I thought he deserved a lot of credit for a realistic treatment of the event. As a student of history, I appreciated that he didn't do as others did and overemphasize the resurrection while glossing over the particularly brutal parts.

If anything, Gibson was guilty of going too far in the other direction. But, I suppose, from his perspective, it was necessary to show what Jesus suffered on behalf of all mankind. Putting people to death 2,000 years ago was not a quick task.

"This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness," Gibson said. "[Jesus] died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. It's time to get back to that basic message."

Gibson tried to edit some of the most gruesome footage in an attempt to get a PG rating on re–release — and make it more accessible to more people — but the rating still wasn't changed, and the re–release only lasted a few weeks.

Bait and Switch

Martin Crane (John Mahoney): I'll bring a quart of whiskey in case of snakebite.

Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce): Dad, Dad, there are no snakes up there.

Martin Crane: All right, I'll bring a snake!

On the episode of Frasier that aired 15 years ago tonight, Niles was emotionally drained from watching the blossoming relationship between Daphne (Jane Leeves) and Donny (Saul Rubinek).

On the other hand, he was encouraged because Daphne had confided that she and Donny weren't sleeping together.

He was further torn because, although Donny was pursuing the woman Niles had worshiped for years, he had done a great job as Niles' divorce attorney.

For example Donny had secured a rustic cabin from Maris in the settlement, and Niles planned to go there to get away from things. Actually, the suggestion was made by Frasier, who suggested that he, Niles and Martin go up to the cabin for the weekend. Niles would go first, then Martin and Frasier would join him the next day because Martin had a dentist appointment.

Then, while having coffee at the cafe, Niles learned from Roz that she and Donny had been lovers at one time, but the relationship had soured because he wanted a family and she didn't. Roz lamented the fact that now she had a family (her daughter, Alice) but no Donny.

"I wonder who he's seeing these days?" she mused.

Niles started giggling, and Roz asked him what amused him so. Niles promised to tell her in a minute; he wanted a few seconds to savor the irony. When he told her that Donny and Daphne were dating, Roz wasn't amused.

But Niles was hatching a plan.

He invited Roz to come to the cabin. "Frasier and Dad are coming up tomorrow," he told her, "but tonight it would just be us — love's losers, licking our wounds, laughing at our pain?" He told her she could bring her baby.

Roz agreed to it.

"This reminds me of that wonderful moment in 'Streetcar Named Desire' when the brutish Stanley says to the ultra refined Blanche, 'We've had this date with each other from the beginning,' " Niles said.

Roz protested that "I'm not all that refined."

"Actually," Niles replied, "I was picturing you more as Stanley."

Niles' plan was to invite Donny to the cabin as well — ostensibly to do some legal work. But the purpose was to reunite Roz and Donny, who would learn that Roz had the family he always wanted and, hopefully, be encouraged to drop Daphne — opening the door for Niles to step in.

It seemed to be working, too — until Frasier and Martin showed up a day early.

Frasier got the impression that Niles and Roz were having a rendezvous — and, although he had urged Niles to make a "fresh start" with someone now that Daphne was seeing Donny, he told Niles "Roz isn't the freshest start you could make."

While duck hunting with Martin, however, Frasier was reminded that opposites attract.

"Look at your mother and me," he said. "We went together six months, nobody thought it would last, we had 40 happy years together."

And the episode then became a revolving doors shtick with people popping in and out of rooms just in time to keep up various illusions.

But, eventually, the whole thing collapsed when Daphne showed up unexpectedly.

Frasier figured out what was going on and encouraged Daphne and Donny to go off by themselves. Daphne had the idea to go to a bed–and–breakfast for the night.

A crestfallen Niles had no choice but to watch them walk out the door.

I have liked this episode for a long time, and I never understood why it wasn't nominated for any Emmy awards. It had an excellent mix of comedy and pathos.

Pierce did win a Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series from the Emmys (for the third time), but nothing specifically related to the episode was rewarded.

The Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series went to Frasier's Jay Kogen for an episode that I didn't think was as good as the one that first aired 15 years ago tonight. David Lloyd, the writer of this episode, was with the series from 1994 to 2001 and wrote 15 episodes, none of which received an Emmy nomination.

But he had already secured his spot in television history as the writer of the legendary "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

A Lesson in Dying With Dignity

In the latter years of All in the Family, Edith (Jean Stapleton) ventured outside the home and began doing volunteer work at the Sunshine Home, a senior citizens' rest home.

It was the joy of her existence — until the episode that aired 35 years ago tonight.

The irony of this episode is that Edith did what the head nurse told her to do for a terminally ill patient (Angela Clarke) — "give her what she asks for."

The trouble is that what she asked for was to be allowed to die in peace. Well, not in those words.

After a brief conversation, Edith asked if there was anything she could do. "Just hold my hand," the patient said, "and don't let go."

And that is what Edith did. She held the patient's hand as she passed away. She didn't call anyone, and for that she was fired.

The woman's daughter (Dolores Sutton) came to see Edith, and the two had a touching conversation about death. The daughter wanted to know what her mother talked about, how she had spoken of her daughter in her final moments. And Edith told her.

The daughter seemed to be seeking some kind of absolution. She spoke of how she was scared of death, implying that was the reason she hadn't visited her mother as often as she would have liked.

"You're a very strong woman," the daughter told Edith before she left, "and I'm very grateful my mother had you with her today."

"What did you do?" Archie asked after the daughter left.

"I did what she asked me to do," Edith replied. "I held her hand, and I didn't let go."

Until this evening in 1979, I do not recall hearing much about death with dignity.

I had heard about euthanasia — so–called "mercy killing" — but that isn't what this was about. This was about dying with dignity.

The elderly patient had had more than one heart attack. She was at peace with her life and with the idea of dying. She told Edith that, as she was having her most recent heart attack, she could see her late husband beckoning to her,and she wanted to go to him, but the doctors kept her alive.

"I've lived a good life," she told Edith. "Why can't the end be good, too?"

It's the kind of question I have heard of more and more people asking. Three states have Death with Dignity Acts, which mostly deal with cases where physicians help terminally ill patients end their lives.

Here in Texas we have had an Advance Directives Act since 1999. Under the Advance Directives Act, a health care facility can stop life–sustaining treatment 10 days after giving notice. The hitch is that the treatment must be considered futile care by the medical team that is treating the patient.

But Death with Dignity Acts and an Advance Directives Act don't address what Edith did — nothing more than hold her friend's hand and provide some comfort in her final minutes. She didn't do anything to help end her friend's life — except by omission. She didn't summon help that might have extended her friend's life for awhile.

She just held her hand and didn't let go.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Free Spirit of Miss Jean Brodie

"For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like."

Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith)

Was there a Miss Jean Brodie on the faculty when you were in school?

There were teachers in my schools who had some of her qualities — but I can't think of anyone who was quite like the very liberated Miss Jean Brodie.

(And when I say "liberated," that was kind of a scandalous thing all by itself in the period between the two world wars.)

She was a spitfire.

A teacher at a girls school in Scotland in the 1930s, Miss Jean Brodie had a reputation for wandering from the prescribed course of study in promoting art, music, drama and seeking, in general, to influence her girls (or "gulls," as she pronounced it). She believed she was in the prime of her life, and she intended for her students — in particular, four 12–year–olds (Pamela Franklin, Shirley Steedman, Diane Grayson, Jane Carr) — to be the beneficiaries of her knowledge.

Brodie and the four often went to plays, concerts, museums — which provoked the headmistress and others on the faculty, especially since Brodie was involved with a male music teacher and had been involved with a male art teacher.

The music teacher, who was also church choirmaster, was asked to resign by the church because of his relationship with Brodie, and she lost the allegiance of the art teacher, who had been more prone to be supportive of Brodie's unorthodox classroom approach than just about anyone else on the faculty.

"I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the creme de la creme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life."

Miss Jean Brodie

The art teacher, as it turned out, had begun a relationship with one of Brodie's girls (Franklin). It was the subject of some conversation. But the art teacher was still obsessed with Brodie, and Franklin's character broke things off with him.

"Miss Brodie never got married like our mothers and fathers," observed Grayson's character at one point.

"They don't have primes," Franklin's character said.

"They have sexual intercourse," replied Grayson.

The script crackled, especially when Franklin's character figured out Brodie and confronted her. There was no such confrontation in the book upon which the Tony Award–winning play and, ultimately, the movie were based.

Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance, but, otherwise, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was largely ignored by the Oscars. Rod McKuen's song "Jean" was nominated for Best Song but lost to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head."

Franklin wasn't nominated for an Oscar, but she did win the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" at 5 p.m. (Central) this Thursday.

Being Good at Being Bad

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Will you listen to yourself?

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Oh, this is more than just sex, Niles. This is passion, kismet. A gift the gods bestow on only a chosen few. Wouldn't the real sin be to refuse it?

Niles: Isn't that your old second–piece–of–pie argument?

Frasier: Well, maybe it is, but I haven't had 'pie' in six months.

Aficionados of the Frasier series — and I like to think that I am one — became aware of the existence of Frasier's first wife (Nanny G, whom he met and married during his college years) when Cheers was still on the air.

The character made two appearances on Frasier, the first as part of a fantasy sequence and the second 10 years ago tonight.

In the latter, Nanny G (played this time by Laurie Metcalf) was in Seattle with her children's show. Frasier went with Roz and her little girl to get tickets from Nanny G — the show, you see, was sold out, and Frasier had offered to use his personal connection to get tickets for Roz.

The flame of passion still burned inside Nanny G, though, and Frasier, who admitted that he hadn't had sex in six months, was all too willing to comply — but there was a problem. Nanny G was married. It was a marriage of convenience — to her producer — but it was still a marriage, and that produced an ethical predicament for Frasier.

Nanny G was lonely, tired of the monotony of being a children's entertainer and loaded with sexual frustration. At Frasier's apartment, she tried to explain her situation to him.

"If you knew how bored I am ..." she lamented.

"You have a wonderful career," Frasier offered.

"But nothing ever changes," Nanny G replied. "Do you have any idea what it's like to play the same character for 20 years?"

Well, as a matter of fact ...

(That was a clever jab at Kelsey Grammer, who, by that time, had played Frasier on first Cheers and then his own show for about 20 years.)

After talking to his brother, Frasier had decided to resist temptation, and he offered to be a shoulder for Nanny G to lean on. When they went to the prop room to talk, Nanny G pounced, and Frasier gave in — and wound up accidentally being part of the show.

He wasn't naked — that would have been a completely different kind of show. Nanny G gave him a costume to wear, and he posed as her infant brother.

"Caught in the Act" received no nominations, not even for its guest star. That was really unfortunate because I thought it was one of the best episodes in an 11th season that, while good, wasn't completely up to the series' standards.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Music of Our Lives

"Music is my life and my life is music. Anyone who does not understand this is not worthy of god."

Wolfgang A. Mozart

Sometime in 1779 — 235 years ago — Wolfgang Mozart composed "Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra." The 23–year–old Mozart was on a tour of Europe when he composed it while dabbling with the sinfonia concertante genre.

In a brilliant example of how art transcends media, the composition was mentioned in William Styron's "Sophie's Choice." After being molested by a stranger on the subway, Sophie heard "Sinfonia Concertante" on the radio, and she was taken back, in her mind, to her childhood in Poland, lifting her spirit.

A writer for the New York Mirror once wrote that Mozart was the Shakespeare of music. "As long as the immortal bard is read," wrote the author (whose identity is lost to history), "Mozart will live in the admiration of mankind."

That's an appropriate comparison. Shakespeare wrote about the human condition, and Mozart's music has been the soundtrack for countless lives.

"Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra" is but one reason why Mozart is my favorite composer; anyone who wants to know more needs only to listen to it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The First Movie to Sweep the Major Oscars

"I want to see what love looks like when it's triumphant. I haven't had a good laugh in a week."

Peter (Clark Gable)

There may have been movies that premiered before this date in 1934 that could be classified as screwball comedies.

But the genre really began to gain popularity when "It Happened One Night" premiered on this date in 1934. For all intents and purposes, I suppose, the screwball comedy was born 80 years ago today. (As a comedy, the American Film Institute ranks it eighth all time.)

And its influence can be seen in numerous movies in the decades that followed, even though the screwball comedy's heyday was in the 1930s. The blueprint for the genre — a headstrong, runaway heiress gets hooked up with someone, frequently a reporter, who can gain something from the relationship — has shown up in various forms over the years.

"Roman Holiday," for instance, had a runaway princess (Audrey Hepburn) in the company of a reporter (Gregory Peck) who needed a scoop to revive his career.

That, in a nutshell, was the plot of "It Happened One Night." (There were a few differences, but not many.)

But, because it was so different from other movies in the still–emerging motion picture art form, it didn't enjoy the enthusiastic support of some of its principal participants. Claudette Colbert, for example, had worked with director Frank Capra before, and the experience had not been pleasant. She wasn't going to work with him again, but she relented on the conditions that her pay be doubled and that her work on the project be done in time for her to take a planned vacation.

Capra claimed that Clark Gable was hesitant to participate in the project as well.

And Capra himself reportedly said it was "the worst picture in the world."

Ellie (Claudette Colbert): I'll stop a car, and I won't use my thumb!

Peter (Clark Gable): What're you gonna do?

Ellie: It's a system all my own.

Thus, it caught just about everyone by surprise when "It Happened One Night" became the first movie to sweep Best Picture, Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert), Best Director (Capra) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin) at the Academy Awards. It was a feat that would not be duplicated for more than 40 years — until 1975, when "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" won all five Oscars.

Modern movie viewers who have watched other movies from the 1930s undoubtedly will notice that "It Happened One Night" was more daring than its contemporaries, and there is a good reason for that. "It Happened One Night" was made just before enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code for Will Hays, Hollywood's censor–in–chief of the day) began.

Consequently, there was more of a sense of freedom in "It Happened One Night" than there was in most of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Certainly, there was more bare skin than one sees in most movies from that decade. No nudity, but scenes in which skin — like Gable's bare chest and Colbert's bare leg — was shown.

In other movies of the '30s (and for decades after), you rarely, if ever, saw an unmarried couple sleeping in the same room, much less the same bed (even married movie couples didn't do that).

Gable and Colbert didn't sleep in the same bed, but they did sleep in the same room.

And they used a clever strategy for maintaining their individual privacy — they hung a blanket between the beds.

Peter (Clark Gable): Remember me? I'm the fellow you slept on last night.

Ellie (Claudette Colbert): You needn't concern yourself about me. I can take care of myself.

Peter: You'll never get away with it, Miss Andrews.

I never understood the objections that some actors had to the quality of the script. I thought it was smart, clever.

To be fair, some movie stars who turned down the roles that ultimately went to Gable and Colbert claimed that the actual script in the movie was not the same script they had been shown.

Be that as it may, there was an undeniable chemistry between Gable and Colbert in "It Happened One Night," and that more than anything else made it such an appealing movie.

The story transcended global politics — both Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler were said to be fans of "It Happened One Night."

They weren't the only ones. Before "It Happened One Night" swept the Oscars, it swept the country. It was a smash hit for Columbia Pictures. Made for an investment of $325,000, it earned $2.5 million at the box office.

It's hard to imagine a better return on your investment in 1934.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Otis on Four Wheels

"I never realized when I was elected county sheriff that the main requirement for this high office was to be read up on Grimms' Fairy Tales."

Andy (Andy Griffith)

As town drunks go, Otis (Hal Smith) on the Andy Griffith Show wasn't bad. He was usually pretty good–natured. He didn't seem to be abusive or despondent. He was almost childlike, hardly a threatening presence.

But on this night 50 years ago, he represented a genuine threat to the well–being of every citizen in Mayberry. For it was in the episode that aired on this night in 1964 that Otis appeared to be on the verge of buying a car.

Andy and Barney (Don Knotts) had no idea what Otis planned to do, only that he was going to buy something he had had his heart set on for a long time. It was so important to him that he asked Andy and Barney to wake him up at 8 a.m. the next day.

After waking Otis at the appointed time and seeing him off, Andy and Barney speculated about what Otis had in mind — right up to the time that Otis drove up to the courthouse and honked the horn to get their attention.

Andy demanded to know if Otis had a driver's license.

"Oh, sure," he replied. "I've had one for years. Just never had a car before to use it on."

Barney was aghast.

"It's bad enough having a plain old town drunk," he told Andy, "but now we got a mechanized one. ... As of this minute, we are living in a disaster area!"

Barney tried to take steps to prevent that disaster by giving Otis a driver's test, but that didn't work, and Andy told Otis he could leave.

"Send a man out there with a deadly weapon," Barney said. "See if I care."

Andy told Barney he could follow Otis around during his first weekend on wheels if it would make him feel better, and Barney jumped at the chance.

"He won't even see me," Barney assured Andy. "I'm an old hand at stakeouts. I'll just melt into the shadows, and he won't have the faintest notion I'm within 100 miles."

Well, that isn't exactly the way it was, but Barney did find Otis passed out drunk on (not in) his car, which he believed validated his concerns.

When Barney asked if Andy could imagine what would have happened if Otis had managed to get behind the wheel, Andy suggested that there might be a way to make that work in their favor.

They took the unconscious Otis back to the courthouse, put him in his cell and pretended that he had been killed in a car accident. The idea was to scare him into giving up driving.

"If only he hadn't tried to drive in that condition," lamented Andy. Otis tried to get their attention, but Andy and Barney both acted as if he wasn't there.

It turned out that Otis had sold his car before taking his first drink. He didn't even have the keys. He regarded the whole thing as a "nutty nightmare" and confided that "I have 'em all the time."

The episode was noteworthy in the series for the fact that only three people — Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and Hal Smith — had speaking lines in it.

Beyond that, it was a clever, funny and — dare I say it? — sweet entry in the annals of the Andy Griffith Show.

It showed the lengths to which some people will go to protect their friends. Well, the supposed lengths. To be honest, I'm not convinced that there were any people then who would go to such lengths, and I am even less convinced that there are people like that today.

But there were people like that in the Mayberry universe.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Archie's Brush With Food Poisoning

Food poisoning was the topic of the All in the Family episode that aired 40 years ago tonight.

Gloria (Sally Struthers) was sick with the flu and didn't feel like eating the beef and mushroom stew that Edith (Jean Stapleton) had prepared. When Archie (Carroll O'Connor) got home, he was hungry and wouldn't wait for Mike (Rob Reiner) so Archie wolfed down a helping of the stew. Edith said she had had a big lunch at a women's meeting at the church so Archie ate alone.

When Mike arrived, however, he bore the distressing news that a brand of canned mushrooms had been recalled because it caused food poisoning. Mike and Edith thought that no one in the Bunker household should eat any more of the stew until they could be sure of the brand; Edith had thrown out the empty cans and didn't remember what the brand was.

"Oh, my, I hope I ain't poisoned you, Archie," Edith said when she heard about the recall.

Since no one knew the brand of the mushrooms Edith had used in the stew, they couldn't be certain. So, to be on the safe side, the Bunkers made a mad dash for the emergency room.

All except Gloria.

It's one of my favorite moments in the series' history. After all four Bunkers had exited the house, Mike brought Gloria back in a few seconds later and admonished her: "You can't go to the hospital. You're sick!"

At the hospital, Archie got frustrated with the admitting nurse's questions, something with which just about anyone who has ever been hospitalized will sympathize. The nurse asked Archie his mother's maiden name.

"She's dead!" he replied. "What do you gotta know that for?"

Edith gave the nurse the information she had requested, then Archie told her, "I'll tell her you asked for her when I see her in a few minutes."

When the doctor saw Archie, he couldn't be sure if Archie had food poisoning. The symptoms might take awhile to show up. To be on the safe side, Archie wound up getting a shot. Always looking to make a quick buck, Archie began plotting a lawsuit against the company that canned the mushrooms, and he instructed Gloria to contact the Jewish law firm that had represented him previously.

Then Edith came in, having stopped at the market on the way home to pick up some ice cream for Archie. She had more than ice cream with her. She had news. She hadn't use the tainted mushrooms in her stew after all. She had remembered a pink–and–yellow label, just like the product that had been recalled, but the label on the mushrooms Edith purchased was actually pink with a yellow sticker that identified it as a sale item.

Obviously, the lawsuit fell through.

That left Archie with, in his own words, "a lot of that anti–toxin dope cruising through my system looking for some disease to attack!"

A sympathetic Mike gave Archie a pat on his arm — bad move, considering that was the arm that got the inoculation.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

'Stagecoach' Was About Images

"Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from."

The Ringo Kid (John Wayne)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the first of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
As in most genres, the movie western has many icons. John Wayne is certainly one of them.

In fact, the Duke is probably the first image that comes to mind for most people when they think of big–screen cowboys. And he made a lot of westerns in his life, many of them in the 1920s and 1930s.

But it is the one that made its debut 75 years ago, John Ford's "Stagecoach," that really launched his career.

Ford, too, had made many westerns, but "Stagecoach" was his first since the introduction of "talkies." I suppose he had made movies in just about every other genre, but, for some reason, he hadn't directed a western with sound. Maybe he regarded it as more of a risk to his reputation.

(That's kind of hard to rationalize, but, really, what other explanation could there be? After Ford made "Stagecoach," he went on to make classic westerns like "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Fort Apache," "My Darling Clementine" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," among others.)

Wayne made his initial appearance in the movie when a stagecoach, eastbound from Arizona to New Mexico, picked him up after it came across him carrying his saddle after his horse had gone lame. Wayne's character, the Ringo Kid, was a fugitive from justice, and he wasn't so much picked up as he was taken into custody by a cavalry lieutenant who was on board.

Actually, it was sort of illogical that Ringo should be taken into custody on that particular stagecoach, which was occupied by a rather unsavory group — a prostitute (Claire Trevor), a banker (Berton Churchill) who was embezzling $50,000 from his bank, a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) and a gambler (John Carradine). About the only respectable passenger was the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer (Louise Platt).

The rest of the movie was about the various hazards the stagecoach encountered on its journey. A subplot was the budding romance of Wayne's character and Trevor's character.

I've heard it said that an authentic country music song has at least one of a certain list of elements — drinkin' or guns or pickup trucks or prison or trains or Mom. The more the better, I suppose.

I guess it is that way with a western movie. I'm not a diehard fan of the western. But if that comparison is valid, then "Stagecoach" pushed all the right buttons.

It had horses and Indians and gunfights. There was a spine–chilling scene in which Wayne's character (played in the scene by stuntman Yakima Canutt) walked along the team of running horses to retrieve reins that had been dropped by Andy Devine when his character was shot, even a showdown on a town street in the Old West.

Speaking of which ...

I imagine that most moviegoers in 1939 weren't very well traveled. Air travel was still an emerging technology in those days, and the nation didn't have the extensive highway system it has today. My guess is that most Americans had no idea that there were places in this country that looked like the region in which "Stagecoach" was set.

Ford often used existing locations in his films. When moviegoers saw "Stagecoach," they saw the sprawling landscape of Monument Valley on the Utah–Arizona state line. Ford returned to the area several times, helping to make Monument Valley what most moviegoers imagine when they picture the Old West in their minds.

So Ford's movie entertained and educated at the same time. Escapism at its finest.

I watched this movie again for the umpteenth time two weeks ago when it aired on the opening day of Turner Classic Movies' annual salute to the Academy Awards, "31 Days of Oscar." It was shown, appropriately, on a Saturday afternoon, and I allowed my thoughts to wander to what it must have been like to be a boy in 1939, watching John Wayne in cowboy movies in a darkened theater.

By the time I came along, Wayne was the definition of what it was to be a cowboy. But that really began 75 years ago today.

"Stagecoach" is said to be one of the most significant movies ever made. It has been further said that Orson Welles watched it dozens of times prior to making "Citizen Kane."

Part of what made it so important was the performance of Mitchell, who had quite a year in 1939. Most movie scholars will speak of 1939 in reverent tones, and it was an exceptionally good year for movies. It was also a good year for Mitchell, who was a supporting actor in three of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture — "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Gone With the Wind."

Mitchell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in "Stagecoach" — and won it, too — but he could just as easily have been nominated for either or both of the other two.

Strangely, though, 1939 seems to have been the peak of Mitchell's career; although he kept making movies until his death in 1962, he wasn't even nominated for his performance as Uncle Billy in the now–classic Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Patriarch of 'The Waltons' Passes Away

It's becoming depressingly routine.

Here we are, not quite halfway into February, and celebrities are dying at an alarming rate. The month began with the news of Maximilian Schell's death, which was quickly followed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's death.

A few days later, it was Shirley Temple, followed by Sid Caesar.

And now, Ralph Waite, the father on The Waltons, is dead at 85.

I remember watching The Waltons when it was on during prime time, and I tried to think of an episode that summarized Waite's character, but I couldn't come up with one.

What comes to mind when I think of Waite as John Walton Sr. is not a particular episode but the steadiness of his character within the context of the series, always there for his family, ready to offer advice but not insistent upon it.

He was probably the ideal father, supportive of his children, whatever they wanted to do. He was a faithful husband and a dutiful son. He didn't draw much attention to himself.

Oh, I'm sure there must have been an episode or two when the spotlight was on Daddy Walton. I just don't remember now what it was. Maybe it was a conversation he had with John Boy when he was facing some sort of crisis. The series really was about John Boy, after all. He was the aspiring writer, the young man with his life stretching out in front of him.

But there were episodes in which John Boy wasn't the focus, and it is possible that there was one about John Sr.

He was the only adult in the cast who didn't win at least one Emmy during the series' nine–year run. Richard Thomas, Michael Learned, Ellen Corby and Will Geer were all winners; I'm not even sure Waite was nominated.

Perhaps that is appropriate. When The Waltons was slated to come on the air in 1972, Waite was reluctant to audition for it. He was a stage actor, and he didn't want to be locked into a TV series that might run for several years — even though CBS seemingly tried to make the show fail, scheduling it opposite two popular programs on the rival networks.

His agent persuaded him to do it, telling him he could make a little money before the show was canceled. He wound up staying with it for nine years, demonstrating the kind of personal commitment to his work that his character had to his family.

Outside of his acting career, Waite, a liberal Democrat, sought election to the U.S. House from California three times in the 1990s; he lost each time.

I suspected that he might have won if he lived in another part of California. The southern California district leans Republican even though the state has voted for Democrats for president six straight times. It was represented for a time by Republican Sonny Bono, and Waite lost both the special election and the general election following Bono's death in 1998.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Salute to Shirley Temple

The news that Shirley Temple had died during the night brought back many fond memories of my grandmothers.

Temple was a child star when my parents were children, and I always had the impression that my parents — well, my mother, at least — saw many of her movies. I frequently heard my maternal grandmother humming Shirley Temple songs as she went about her daily business.

I remember my grandmother humming "On The Good Ship Lollipop" as she hung up the laundry on the clothesline in her back yard, and when I was small, she used to sing "Animal Crackers In My Soup" to me — often when she actually did give me animal crackers to eat, with or without soup.

Temple matured into a beautiful teenager who still retained some of that girlish appeal, but she outgrew her movie career. I guess she was typecast as a little girl.

When she was 9, a British film critic wrote that "[h]er admirers — middle–aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well–shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."

Imagine writing such a thing about a 9–year–old girl! Perhaps she was too provocative for the time; anyway, she retired from movies when she was in her 20s.

She turned her attention to other pursuits, primarily raising a family. She dabbled in television, but her main preoccupation outside her home was a career in politics.

Temple was 85 when she died. She had great–grandchildren. Obviously, she had changed a lot from the little girl of my grandmother's day.

And, for that matter, I have no real memory of seeing her in a movie. To my knowledge, I have only seen her in clips. I do know the sound of her voice when I hear it — but doesn't everyone?

To most, it may seem she lived a charmed life, but it did have its speed bumps along the way. She was 17 when she married for the first time. The marriage ended five years later, and Temple re–married less than two weeks later, acquiring the last name of Black by which she was known as she pursued her political ambitions. The marriage lasted 54 years — she called it the love of her life — until his death in 2005.

A conservative Republican, Temple served in various diplomatic capacities under three Republican presidents — Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush.

That was not how she made what I think was her most important contribution as an adult. Forty years ago, she went public about having been diagnosed with breast cancer and having undergone a modified radical mastectomy.

She was one of the first prominent women to speak openly about the affliction. Others have come along since — Nancy Reagan had a mastectomy while she was in the White House — but my memory is that Temple and Betty Ford were the ones who first brought public attention to the disease.

I have known some women — and even a man — who were stricken with breast cancer, and I have been grateful, on those occasions, that Shirley Temple shared her experience with the world.

We will never know how many lives were saved by that unselfish act.

Niles in the Spotlight

The episode of Frasier that premiered on this night in 1999 is hardly my favorite.

In fact, as its title — "Three Valentines" — suggests, it is actually three vignettes, two of which I don't particularly like.

The one I do like has almost no dialogue. It featured Niles (David Hyde Pierce) in some of the best purely physical comedy I have seen. Good physical comedy needs no dialogue, and Pierce could convey so much about his character in the ways he moved and the things he did. He didn't need words.

I have had the audacity (in the opinion of some) to compare Pierce's performance to the best of Dick Van Dyke or Don Knotts, both of whom I admire very much. I understand where my friends are coming from, but I still think the comparison is justified.

Quite simply, Niles had been given use of his brother's apartment to entertain a Valentine's Day date. He was at his fastidious best, spotting a (mostly imperceptible) wrinkle in his trouser leg and setting about pressing it before his date arrived. But he got distracted by the meal he had cooking in the kitchen, and the trousers began to smolder after being under the iron too long.

The episode's other two vignettes simply weren't very amusing. In one, Frasier kept getting mixed signals from his companion about whether she was open to more than a kiss at the evening's end. In the other, Daphne and Martin were dealing with romance issues while dining together at a restaurant.

But Niles had the stage all to himself — except for Eddie, who watched Niles intently and barked occasionally. And Niles certainly was a sight to see.

He tried to press his trouser leg, but he noticed an errant thread. Distracted by the thread, he put the iron down on his trousers and went off to find scissors to cut the thread. (One of the hilarious touches was how Niles' childhood training kicked in as he retrieved the scissors, deliberately slowing down so as to be sure not to run with scissors and reversing the way he was holding them so the sharp end pointed down — no doubt as his mother had instructed him when he was a little boy.)

He still succeeded in cutting his finger, producing some light bleeding, but, once again, Niles' childhood training kicked in, and he passed out frequently from supposed loss of blood.

Eventually, he accidentally set fire to his brother's couch and tried to put it out — but he just couldn't manage the fire extinguisher.

So he fell back on a pot of pasta from the kitchen, dousing the flames but filling Frasier's apartment with smoke.

Niles tried to get rid of the smoke by opening the door, but he caught a glimpse of his cut finger, remembered his blood loss and collapsed on the floor while Eddie ate the pasta in the couch cushion.

Game over.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Niles Crane's Honor

I've always enjoyed the episode of Frasier that made its debut 20 years ago tonight.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Maris' marriage was beginning to show signs of the cracks that would lead to a full–scale breakup a few years later. Acting on his brother's advice (which was actually inspired by a conversation with Roz), Niles tried to spice up his love life with a little sexual role playing.

Niles chose to dress as a swashbuckling pirate — wearing pantaloons that looked like they might have been worn by the mascot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had been chased from the house after an unpleasant confrontation with the maid that was witnessed by Maris, then, after spending the night at Frasier's, he called Maris to try to reconcile. But it turned out she had been "so shattered by the experience she had to fly to her favorite spa to contemplate the future of our marriage," Niles reported.

Acting on his father's advice, Niles decided to make a romantic dinner to make up with Maris — and Daphne (Jane Leeves) volunteered to help — but the fates conspired to mess things up. When Daphne arrived, she had just broken up with her boyfriend, and Maris was being detained by a storm.

Niles and Daphne were alone together in Niles' sprawling mansion.

It was still fairly early in the series, but folks who had been watching it already knew that Niles had feelings for Daphne, feelings of which Daphne would remain unaware for several years. They were feelings that had largely been confined to relatively harmless flirtation in previous episodes; it seems to me this was the first time that Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) actually believed those feelings might really bubble over from worship from afar into something else.

"It's a recipe for disaster!" Frasier told his father. "You've got a vulnerable woman and an unstable man in a Gothic mansion on a rainy night. The only thing missing is someone shouting 'Heathcliff!' across the moor."

So Frasier and his father went out into the storm to rescue Daphne.

Meanwhile, Niles and Daphne were having a heart–to–heart talk that was really quite deep and profound — even if their conversation was being conducted on two different levels.

"Love is a funny thing, isn't it?" Niles said to Daphne. "Sometimes it's exciting and passionate, and sometimes it's something else, something comfortable and familiar — that newly exfoliated little face staring up at you from across the breakfast table, sharing a laugh together when you see someone wearing white after Labor Day."

Frasier didn't know that Niles had managed to keep his behavior under control, and he burst in on them, intent on preventing the disaster he anticipated. Daphne was offended.

"You have some nerve to imply that your brother would do anything so deplorable!" Daphne scolded Frasier, explaining that Niles had just made "a beautiful speech about how much he loves his wife, how he cherishes her excruciating little face and how they laugh at white people."

Well, it was something like that.

As Frasier fans know, Niles and Daphne ended up together later in the series. If you allow your mind to wander to those later years when you watch this episode today, you will miss the point — that Niles was committed to his relationships. He was dedicated to it even though he longed for Daphne.

By the time TV audiences met him, Niles' marriage probably was already doomed to fail. The unseen Maris was a spoiled wealthy woman, selfish and demanding. She was the subject of many jokes, and she was a source of endless anxiety for him, but Niles was true to her until it was clear that she was no longer committed to him.

Niles had his own share of problems, but infidelity was not one of them. He deserves credit for being a positive role model. We have so few today.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Beatles' First Appearance on Ed Sullivan

"Tonight, the whole country is waiting to hear England's Beatles."

Ed Sullivan
Feb. 9, 1964

The Ed Sullivan Show introduced America to many performers who went on to become icons, bestowing a kind of legitimacy on them, but, even for a show on which that was routine, today is the 50th anniversary of something that was truly special — and is still regarded as a milestone in the story of U.S. culture — America's introduction to the Beatles.

Lots of people — including Sullivan himself — expected it to be a repeat of the Elvis Presley experience. Elvis made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show to much media fanfare nearly eight years earlier, but it wasn't his first appearance on American TV. He had previously been on shows that were hosted by Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

Fifty years ago tonight, however, was the Beatles' very first live appearance on American television, and it drew an audience of 73 million — a number that has been exceeded several times since but was a record at the time.

The Beatles played five songs in their Ed Sullivan Show debut. They sang "All My Loving," "Till There Was You" and "She Loves You" in the first half of the show, then they played "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in the second half.

A two–hour CBS special, "The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles," will be shown tonight at the same time as the original show. I plan to watch it. I wonder if it can capture the Beatles' "endearingly goofy" personae, to quote Andrea Peyser in the New York Post.

I work with college journalism students, who do seem to appreciate the Beatles' music, but I don't think they fully grasp what happened 50 years ago today, and I am skeptical that a TV program will change that.

"It is almost impossible to convey to anyone under 50 the immense impact and import of that event," writes Mark Hendrickson in Forbes, "because nothing comparable to it has ever happened."

That about says it all.

When Ted Baxter Met Walter Cronkite

Mary (Mary Tyler Moore): [meeting Walter Cronkite] So nice to meet you. Really. Nice. Nice. Really.

Murray (Gavin MacLeod): [meeting Walter Cronkite] So nice to meet you. Really. Nice. Really.

It probably isn't most people's favorite Mary Tyler Moore Show episode.

Most people would probably say the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode is their favorite — and that would be hard to dispute.

And I do like that one.

But I also like the one that aired 40 years ago tonight, "Ted Baxter Meets Walter Cronkite."

When I was a kid, Cronkite was trusted by just about everyone — so much so that some people actually called him "Uncle Walter"

I don't remember how the writers for the Mary Tyler Moore Show established that Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) was an admirer of Cronkite. Maybe it was never really established — except for the presumption that viewers knew that the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cronkite's evening news program were on the same network — CBS.

But Ted definitely was an admirer of Cronkite.

He also openly coveted a Teddy Award, the fictional (at least, I think it is) award for broadcasting excellence in the Minneapolis–St. Paul market, but he had never won one.

He had his acceptance speech all ready, and he launched into it on several occasions, often when he failed to win the award.

But this time he got to recite it for real — largely because he had campaigned for it. Uncharacteristically for Ted, he had invested a lot of money in it. I don't remember if the writers made him the only WJM staffer to win an award that night or not. I just remember that Ted won a Teddy, and the others resented the way he had won it.

The fact that Ted won a Teddy was enough to irritate his co–workers even if one or more also won a Teddy — but then came the coup de grâce — Cronkite was in town to see Lou (Ed Asner) and he happened to come by the TV station.

Lou had no choice but to introduce them. After introducing Cronkite to Mary and Murray, neither of whom distinguished themselves in the presence of such an important journalist, Lou introduced the legendary newsman to Ted — who had the idea that, somehow, Cronkite's visit was an unannounced audition for him. If he did well enough, Ted reasoned, he would be invited to be Cronkite's partner on the evening news.

So Ted took over, putting his arm around Cronkite's shoulder and delivering one of my all–time favorite lines: "Well, Walt, let's talk shop. Which words do you have trouble pronouncing?"

As they walked out the door of the newsroom, Ted was reciting that evening's newscast to Cronkite, who glanced back at Lou and said, "I'm going to get you for this."

Saturday, February 08, 2014

When Folks Weren't Afraid to Go in the Water

I remember when "Jaws" was the hottest bestseller I had ever seen — in the spring of 1974.

Everywhere one looked, a copy of the book could be seen — even in my small Arkansas hometown. I know there were bestsellers that swept over the landscape before, but I had never noticed one. Of course, I was a boy at the time. I didn't have much firsthand knowledge stored away in my mental files.

I have seen similar phenomena since, but I still don't think I have seen anything truly comparable to "Jaws."

It was first published in February of 1974; the movie rights were purchased before that happened so there was a lot of anticipation long before the book hit the shelves. It was on the hardback bestseller list for nearly a year.

The next year, everyone in my school seemed to be reading the paperback. Teachers tried for awhile to conceal their fascination with the book, but their cover was blown. Too many copies of "Jaws" had been spotted clumsily hidden in desks and purses, under jackets, even in the teachers' cars in the parking lot.

Students carried copies with their textbooks, and I was no exception. It was a real page turner, and I raced through it. I looked forward to the movie, which was scheduled to be released that summer. The movie is remembered now as the original summer blockbuster — although I never understood why savvy marketers never figured out before that summer was a great time to tap into the youth market.

There were several differences between the book and the movie. Most of those differences were minor, I suppose, although I thought there was one aspect of the novel — an affair between Sheriff Brody's wife and the young shark enthusiast, Matt Hooper — that was significant. There was no such affair in the movie, which changed a lot of other things about the story.

In the book, the sheriff suspected the affair and the thought gnawed at him even though he could not prove it. He bickered with Hooper when they were on the boat that went out in search of the shark. Frankly, when I read the book, I felt more empathy for the shark than I felt for the humans in the story.

The shark in the book finally died of injuries it had sustained in its battles with Brody, Hooper and the captain of the boat, Quint. It wasn't blown up in the Hollywoodesque way that Roy Scheider accomplished it in the movie.

In the novel, Hooper didn't survive his underwater encounter with the shark the way he did in the movie. It was Brody who made his way back to shore alone.

I don't remember people being hesitant to go in the water at the beach in the summer of '74. I remember when my family went to the beach in the summer of '74 and we all went in the water, but I do remember that anxiety in '75. Maybe I just imagined it based on media reports I read or saw. Isn't it funny how the visual influences us?

Friday, February 07, 2014

When Beatlemania Crossed the Pond

Many Americans probably knew little, if anything, about the Beatles when they arrived in America 50 years ago today.

That was understandable. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated 11 weeks earlier. Americans were in a daze, numb, grieving, shocked, scared. They weren't focused on pop culture.

Beatlemania was already in full force in England 50 years ago, and many Americans probably had already seen the Beatles in a four–minute segment on NBC's Huntley–Brinkley Report a few days before the assassination, but, in the dizzying flurry of events in late 1963, it would be understandable if few remembered.

(Then, as now, teenagers were more likely to be aware of shifts in pop culture than their elders, of course, and there was considerable excitement among the young on this day 50 years ago.)

CBS actually broadcast a segment on the Beatles on its morning news show the day of the assassination, a segment that was slated to be repeated on the evening news but was not, obviously, because of the events in Dallas. A couple of weeks later, CBS finally ran the segment on the evening news, prompting a hurried release of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" the day after Christmas.

The United States, consequently, was probably one of the last countries in the civilized world to recognize what was happening. But, like the rest of the world, music in America was dominated by Elvis Presley and the so–called "Memphis sound." Even the bands in Britain — the Beatles included — sought to emulate that sound, thinking it to be the key to their success.

But the Beatles — and the groups that followed them in the British invasion — were responsible for a new sound, and music lovers in America were looking for a new sound.

"Everything about them ... seemed outlandish, compared with American pop groups," writes Allan Kozinn in the New York Times. "And though their music was firmly rooted — as they were always quick to point out — in American rhythm and blues, soul and rock, they produced a sound that was fresh, energetic and unmistakably their own."

A lot of people in America were eager to hear that sound.

Roughly 4,000 people were on hand when the Beatles arrived at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport 50 years ago today — about the same number who saw them off at London's Heathrow Airport.

Two days later, they were introduced to the American people at large — via the Ed Sullivan Show — and set new records for TV viewership.

Beatlemania had arrived on American soil. America and the world would never be the same again.

Mel Brooks' Masterpiece?

"If you shoot him, you'll just make him mad."

Jim (Gene Wilder)

A friend of mine recently observed, after watching it again, that "Blazing Saddles" is still good after 40 years. "Why is that?" she asked.

I guess the answer to that is different for everyone. In my case, it's just always funny, no matter how many times I see it. Some movies (or sitcom episodes or comedy CDs) are like that. They always make me laugh, even though I know what is coming.

Others have much shorter shelf lives.

But "Blazing Saddles," which premiered on this day in 1974, always makes me laugh. It's one of those movies that you can just say the punchline and usually make the people around you laugh.

Such as ... "Mongo like candy." (I suppose that is my personal favorite.)

"Blazing Saddles" was like anything else Mel Brooks did. It was simply silly fun, usually offensive to someone, in some respects a guilty pleasure, I guess.

It might have been his masterpiece, though.

Whatever you might say about any other Mel Brooks movie — that, for example, it was not politically correct — went double for "Blazing Saddles."

In many ways, Brooks seemed to save his most objectionable stuff for "Blazing Saddles."

Like this line (delivered by Slim Pickens) on testing for quicksand: "Horses? We cain't afford t' lose no horses, you dummy! Send in a couple–a niggers."

The "N–word," as it is called now, was abundant in "Blazing Saddles." I can only wonder what kind of response this movie would get if it was making its debut today. Would people appreciate the satire? Or would they focus only on the use of an offensive word?

The head of Warner Bros. objected to the word at the time — but he also objected to the campfire scene and the scene in which Mongo punched a horse, two of the scenes I hear mentioned the most. He wanted those scenes and every use of that word cut from the final product, but Brooks had complete control and ignored the complaints.

A few years ago, in an interview that served as the basis for an article in the Directors Guild of America's magazine, the DGA Quarterly, Brooks said he probably would have to leave out the N–words if he made the movie today.

Interestingly, both actor Cleavon Little and writer Richard Pryor encouraged the word's use 40 years ago.

Frankly, it would be wrong for anyone to take offense at anything Brooks said or did in his movies. He was impartial about that, an equal–opportunity offender. He made fun of blacks, but he made fun of whites, too. He made fun of Jews, but he also made fun of Christians. He made fun of women, but he also made fun of men. He spared no one.

I have always thought his humor was — mostly — just plain silly. If I had a complaint about Brooks' humor, it was that I often thought it lacked sophistication. Sometimes I thought his humor was a little, well, obvious. I like wit that catches you by surprise. But that's just me. There have certainly been times over the years when I have felt that the humor on Saturday Night Live was just plain silly, lacking sophistication, a little obvious. But I still watch it. (OK, I don't watch it as often as I did, but I do watch it.)

I guess it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it seems to appeal to most people in a guilty pleasure kind of way. I always liked what Roger Ebert said about it: "It's a crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken."

Ebert conceded that the movie's goal wasn't lofty — merely to make people laugh.

"It's an audience picture," Ebert wrote, "it doesn't have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess."

And, yet, Brooks always makes me laugh. Saturday Night Live does that, too. Not as much as it once did, but still ...

Did you know that Brooks wanted John Wayne to make a cameo appearance? Wayne declined. He loved the script and assured Brooks he would be "the first in line" to see the movie, but he thought the risqué material wasn't right for his image.

Others have been more willing to publicly embrace the movie. The American Film Institute ranked it #6 on AFI's list of the Top 100 comedies. And the Academy Awards recognized it with three nominations.

Madeline Kahn received one of those nominations — for Best Supporting Actress, which she lost to Ingrid Bergman. It was Kahn's second straight Best Supporting Actress nomination. She was nominated for her work in "Paper Moon" but lost to co–star Tatum O'Neal.

For my money, Harvey Korman could have received a nomination. At one point in the movie, his character actually does say, "You men are only risking your lives while I am risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor."

But Korman was not nominated. The movie received its two other nominations for film editing and best original song.

He could have been nominated. It was one of the best things he ever did. Likewise for Kahn, who was nominated.

And it is one of the best things Wilder has done. (Wilder wasn't nominated for "Blazing Saddles," but he has been nominated for Oscars twice, both times for Brooks projects.)

All the folks who worked on "Blazing Saddles" deserve to have it mentioned in the lead paragraphs of their obituaries when they die — as it was when Kahn's death was reported in the New York Times in 1999 and when Korman's death was reported in the Los Angeles Times in 2008.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Re-creating a Miracle

"[N]ow that we have Dream Teams, we seldom ever get to dream. But on one weekend, as America and the world watched, a group of remarkable young men gave the nation what it needed most — a chance, for one night, not only to dream, but a chance, once again, to believe."

Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell)

All my life, I have told people that the book is better than the movie — any book, any movie.

The same is true, I suppose, of movies that are based on real events.

It certainly was true of the gold–medal winning U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980. I am not a hockey fan, but I will never forget the thrill of seeing the U.S. topple the mighty Soviets on that February day in 1980.

By the time I saw "Miracle," which premiered 10 years ago today, I had reached certain conclusions. For one, I believed it was impossible to duplicate dramatic sports moments like that, and, for the most part, that is true. I didn't believe that just because of the 1980 U.S. hockey team's triumph, although that did support my conclusion. But "Miracle" did manage to give viewers a sense of what the experience was like.

The story itself was so preposterous that it had to be the product of a creative mind. The American hockey team goes into the Olympics a few days after being thoroughly dominated by the Soviet team — and minus a player who was injured against the Soviets — and goes on to win the gold medal.

That U.S. hockey team overcame all kinds of obstacles, including a rematch with the Soviets.

Kurt Russell, as coach Herb Brooks, was inspiring — but I never truly figured out if that was because his performance really was inspiring or because I already knew how the story ended and I was inspired by what I knew Brooks had accomplished. (I do have my suspicions.)

I couldn't help wondering if anyone could have played Herb Brooks and been inspiring. I mean, with that kind of material, how could you go wrong?

But then I realized that really wasn't the right way to look at it. The story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team was the story of the coach. The gold medal was the culmination of his vision.

(OK, I'll admit that I am influenced now by my own experience as a teacher.)

Patricia Clarkson — a very talented actress — played Brooks' wife and was good with what she had, but hers was a small role. I don't know how much she influenced that hockey team, but there were clear indications that the marriage was a solid partnership. I'm sure Patti Brooks played more of a role in the development of the team than was suggested — but to establish it in the film might have made it impossibly long for most moviegoers.

I think the best decision that was made by those who put the movie together was to cast unknowns in the roles of the hockey players. Using famous young actors would have distracted too much from the story.

Besides, none of the hockey players was a household name before the Winter Olympics. Neither was Brooks. It was appropriate that unknowns accomplished on film what unknowns accomplished on the ice a quarter of a century earlier.

There were no expectations for the U.S. hockey team that February. In his playing days, Brooks had been dropped from the '60 gold medal–winning team just prior to the Olympics. It is safe to say there were no expectations for him, either, even though he coached the University of Minnesota to three national championships.

When the U.S. won the gold medal, the reaction was unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime. "Miracle" did a remarkable job of recapturing that.

"Great moments are born from great opportunity."

Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell)

I don't know if Brooks' inspiring locker–room speech really happened. If it didn't, it should have, I suppose. Any good sports movie needs that motivational speech that — supposedly — gives the team that one final advantage that makes the difference between winning and losing.

Maybe that no–name squad needed that emotional boost just before taking on the mighty Soviets who had humbled them in an Olympic warmup less than a month earlier. Maybe the team just came together at the right time and didn't really need any more motivation that night.

But in a story that sounds too good to be true (except that it was true), if the writers made up Brooks' speech, they did a good job of what had to be done — making it a plausible part of a totally implausible story.

They justified their paychecks ...

... and inspired a generation of moviegoers.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Return of the Thinking Man's Western

"It's not dying I'm talking about, it's living."

Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall)

I remember vividly when "Lonesome Dove" made its first appearance on American television 25 years ago tonight.

I was a graduate journalism student at the University of North Texas working at the local newspaper to help with my expenses. On Saturday night, Feb. 4, there was plenty of excitement around the paste–up board for the front page of the entertainment section in the next morning's paper. The entire front page was devoted to the scheduled broadcast of the first installment of "Lonesome Dove" that night.

Believe me, in those days it was rare to see the front page of any section of that paper devoted to a single topic. It was also rare for the entertainment section to require any work on Saturday night — usually, that sort of thing was done during the week. But it reflected the general enthusiasm for the subject — an enthusiasm I had not anticipated. I knew Larry McMurtry's novel had been very successful a few years earlier and had won the Pulitzer Prize, but I had not read it yet so I didn't understand what was happening.

What was happening? Well, I guess the best way to describe it would be that the book was the barely perceptible start of a cultural seismic shift and the miniseries was its inevitable result, a transition to a renaissance for the western enjoyed on TV and the big screen.

(It also led to a revival of the TV miniseries, but the western genre really is the focus of my attention today. Still, a pretty good argument can be made that the boost for the miniseries has been the longer lasting of the two.)

If I had read the book before the miniseries, I'm sure I would have recognized the phenomenon. It was the same thing that happened when "Jaws" was a bestseller — everywhere you looked, people were carrying copies under their arms, in their backpacks and purses. They could be seen reading the book at bus stops, in waiting rooms, everywhere.

Then, when the movie came out, there were lines at theaters everywhere for weeks.

My mother read "Lonesome Dove" before the TV miniseries, and I found myself asking her questions after each installment. Did it happen that way in the book? I asked her repeatedly. Or did the screenwriters make that up?

Mom insisted the series was true to the novel. I remember that she was particularly impressed with the scene in which Jake (Robert Urich) was hanged by his old buddies for being a horse thief.

(I was inspired to read the book by what Mom told me, and I had to admit that the miniseries was, indeed, true to the story.)

I guess Jake wasn't really a horse thief, but he was a shiftless and unreliable sort, and he fell in with horse thieves — for protection, he insisted, when he was trying to get through Indian country. The code of the West held, however, that any man who would steal a horse was no better than a murderer because people needed their horses to do things and get around — and most likely would die if their horses were taken from them.

In the story, the men with whom Jake was riding had killed the owners of the horses and then taken them — so, technically, they were both killers and horse thieves. But that was neither significant nor a mitigating factor. Jake's buddies (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover) didn't want to hang him. It was a real crisis for everyone, and the book made that clear.

Such moral dilemmas are the trademarks of extraordinary westerns. I know some people who only want to see gunfights when they watch westerns, but the truly great westerns are the ones that are more than mere 19th–century turf wars.

They are thinking man's movies — like "High Noon" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" — and "Lonesome Dove" deserves credit for reviving the popularity of the western genre. Of course, you've got to take the bad with the good. For every "Unforgiven" that came along in the wake of "Lonesome Dove," a purely shoot–'em–up flick or two would pop up.

I like a good western that makes me think, and, while I celebrated the revival of the genre, I lamented the fact that quantity often trumped quality.

In the coming years, movies like "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven" achieved considerable followings. It can be argued that "Back to the Future III," which was set in the Old West, and the "City Slickers" movies were beneficiaries as well.

Westerns haven't been as prominent in the last decade or so. But if there were more TV westerns like "Lonesome Dove," maybe there would be more westerns in the theaters. Maybe it is time for a renewal of the genre.

I really thought we would see a longer revival period than we saw 25 years ago.

In those days, as I have said, I was kind of busy — working on my master's degree and working full time at the local newspaper. I didn't watch TV much — well, except for the occasional sports event, maybe a movie now and then. Maybe there was talk at the time of how "Lonesome Dove" originally had been developed in 1972 as a feature film idea with Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda imagined in the roles that eventually were played by Duvall, Jones and Urich, respectively. The original project never materialized. I don't know the reason. Probably contractual issues.

If there was such talk at the time, I didn't hear it. I heard it after the fact — and rather piecemeal at that.

And I couldn't help wondering how the same story would have worked with Stewart, Wayne and Fonda cast in those roles. To be honest, I simply don't know.

I never heard who was considered for the roles that were played by Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane.

Huston, of course, was the one who got away as far as Duvall's character was concerned, and Lane was the one who started out attaching herself to Urich's character but then gravitated to Duvall when Urich abandoned her on the trail.

It's hard for me to imagine those legends — Stewart, Wayne and Fonda — playing the three male leads instead of the ones who did. I guess that's a clear indication of how well the ones who appeared in "Lonesome Dove" played their parts.