Friday, May 30, 2014

Hollywood's Young Mr. Lincoln

"I may not know much of law, Mr. Felder, but I know what's right and what's wrong. And I know what you're asking is wrong."

Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda)

The last time I watched "Young Mr. Lincoln," which premiered 75 years ago today, it occurred to me that it is always a treat to watch Henry Fonda — especially when he is appearing in a John Ford movie.

I've heard that Fonda was usually hesitant to play historical figures, especially people like Abraham Lincoln. Supposedly, he didn't feel worthy. He didn't think he measured up.

But I can't think of any of his contemporaries who would have been a better choice to play the young Abe Lincoln — and, in 1939, with the outbreak of World War II literally only months away, folks needed a Lincoln to inspire them.

In the absence of the real thing, a surrogate was needed. Who would have been better than Henry Fonda? For that matter, who would have been a better choice to direct the movie than John Ford?

And, apparently, Fonda relaxed his policy when he learned that Ford's project told the story of Lincoln who had yet to mature into the president Americans remember today. It was not the story of Lincoln's presidency; in fact, the movie ended just before Lincoln took the oath of office.

I realize that most Americans don't know much of their own country's history, but Abraham Lincoln was larger than life, even in his lifetime. Nearly four dozen men have been president of the United States; only a handful are familiar to nearly all Americans living today, and Lincoln is one of them.

Nevertheless, most Americans know little of his life before the presidency, and "Young Mr. Lincoln" was a wonderful opportunity for Americans of 75 years ago to learn a little about what shaped Lincoln into the man he became. It is still a wonderful opportunity for Americans to learn about their 16th president — but I wouldn't recommend it as a source for a term paper.

Ford is probably best remembered for the many movies he made with John Wayne, but he and Fonda enjoyed a productive relationship, too. Over two decades, they made seven films together. "Young Mr. Lincoln" was their first — and one of their best.

That isn't intended as a criticism. The Fonda–Ford association produced some of the greatest movies in Hollywood history. The year after the premiere of "Young Mr. Lincoln," they made "The Grapes of Wrath" together. In between, they made "Drums Along the Mohawk."

"Young Mr. Lincoln" wasn't as successful as Ford's most recent project at the time, "Stagecoach" with John Wayne, but it has been described as "a deeper, more multi–leveled work."

One of those levels that may well surprise modern viewers is the one that deals with Lincoln's love life. Both of the significant women in his adult life are important characters in "Young Mr. Lincoln" — Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln's first love who might have been first lady but died of typhoid at the age of 22, and Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), who did become first lady.

Moore's part in the movie was short–lived, but her character's influence could be felt throughout the telling of the story of Lincoln's formative years. She died at a point in Lincoln's life when his values were being defined, and the value that comes through loud and clear is compassion.

It's a fictionalized account of Lincoln's life, of course, but Lincoln's compassion wasn't fiction. There are plenty of examples of that compassion in the true story of Lincoln's life, but it worked well as a fictional story, too, and Ford was a great story teller.

He got a little carried away, falling into the trap of treating Lincoln like a saint, which is a little surprising given that Ford was no more eager to make the film than Fonda was; there had been successful Broadway plays about Lincoln's youth in recent years, and Ford was only persuaded to make the movie after reading the script by Lamar Trotti, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Story.

Trotti lost to Lewis R. Foster for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" but won an Oscar five years later for "Wilson."

"Young Mr. Lincoln" received no other Oscar nominations.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Wrong Number?

Tony (Ray Milland): How do you go about writing a detective story?

Mark (Robert Cummings): Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime's the thing. And then you imagine you're going to steal something or murder somebody.

Tony: Oh, is that how you do it? It's interesting.

Mark: Yes, I usually put myself in the criminal's shoes and then I keep asking myself, what do I do next?

Margot (Grace Kelly): Do you really believe in the perfect murder?

Mark: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.

Tony: Oh? Why not?

Mark: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't always. I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge. I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.

"Dial M for Murder" premiered 60 years ago today.

That was before my time — which is true of nearly every Hitchcock movie — but I still enjoy watching it whenever it's on.

It seems dated now, I admit, but I didn't mind that when I saw it the first time. Nor did I mind that nearly all the action takes place in a single location, which makes it seem more like a stage play than a movie. Actually, the movie was based on a very successful stage play.

The author of that play, Frederick Knott, did the screenplay as well, which may account for its virtually seamless presentation. In my opinion, movie adaptations of books or plays usually turn out better if the original author is involved. That isn't always possible, of course, but if the author is involved, it seems to improve the chances that his/her vision will be faithfully represented on the big screen.

Well, it helps to have a good cast, too — and the cast of "Dial M for Murder" was top notch. I have written before of my admiration for Grace Kelly, and she was excellent as Margot, Ray Milland's wealthy and (for the most part) faithful wife. Her character was also a bit naive, I thought. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

At one point, Kelly was roused from her slumber by a ringing phone (which was intended to lure her into the living room, where her intended killer waited for her). It seemed to me, when I first saw "Dial M for Murder," that only a handful of humans have ever been able to roll out of bed and look like they were ready to go out on the town. Apparently, Grace Kelly was one of them.

Her character was also alert enough to fight back against her attacker and stab him with some scissors. She was convicted of murder (in one of the few segments in the movie that took place outside the cozy little flat that Kelly and Milland shared), but, apparently, she never figured out that Milland had planned the attack.

Well, not until the very end.

She had had an affair with an American writer (Robert Cummings) but then broke it off. He wrote several letters to her, all of which she destroyed except one, which disappeared. But she never put two and two together until it was spelled out for her at the end — the man she had killed had been sent to her apartment by her husband to kill her.

She had acted in self–defense.

I guess Margot was an exceptionally trusting sort. The first time I saw "Dial M for Murder," I thought Milland's complicity was obvious. Apparently, it never occurred to Kelly's character. Well, they say love is blind ...

In his droll yet understated way, John Williams, as the chief inspector, helped persuade her that her husband was behind it all.

But, while I always enjoy watching Kelly in any of her movies (and she made three of them for Hitchcock), I have to say I don't think her British accent was very convincing. For me, that was and continues to be a distraction, mainly because "Dial M for Murder" is such a talkative movie.

There is more to it, I suppose. My parents spent a lot of time overseas in the first years of their marriage, and they met many people from other countries, some of whom came to visit us in the United States later. A few of those people were British so I had more exposure to that accent (and some of its variations) than most.

But perhaps I am nitpicking. Most people probably didn't notice.

"Dial M for Murder" may seem to have a transparent plot — but you have to remember that the plot hasn't been a secret for 60 years. It probably packed quite a punch when it was new. Personally, I have always thought the early scene in which Milland blackmailed his old friend into murdering his wife was impressive.'s Michael Costello appeared to agree. "Kelly, and Robert Cummings as her lover, are forced to contend with underwritten stock characters," Costello wrote. "Neither comes off particularly well."

I'm not sure I would take it quite that far. I have already praised Knott's "seamless" story and the quality of the cast — and I stand by that. I still think "Dial M for Murder" was a good movie, but maybe Costello was on to something. Kelly and Cummings did not come off well even though their characters prospered. Maybe it was hard for some viewers to care what happened to them.

Sometimes, I suppose, all the elements in a movie are good — until they're mixed together.

Technically, "Dial M for Murder" was noteworthy for its early attempt at 3–D. If you look closely, you can see remnants of the rudimentary technology that Hitchcock used to create the 3–D effect.

Personally, I have never really cared for the 3–D effect, but I was never sure why until I read an online journal entry by Roger Ebert.

"There is a mistaken belief that 3–D is 'realistic.' Not at all," Ebert wrote. "In real life we perceive in three dimensions, yes, but we do not perceive parts of our vision dislodging themselves from the rest and leaping at us. Nor do such things, such as arrows, cannonballs or fists, move so slowly that we can perceive them actually in motion. If a cannonball approached that slowly, it would be rolling on the ground."

I guess that explains it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Near Masterpiece

"The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did you know that? That's a fact. In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got 'em in the gas stations over there. And ladies? You know that in Miami, you got — you listenin' to me? — you got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita on a given day, there's probably 300 of 'em on the beach. In fact, you can't even scratch yourself without gettin' a belly button up the old kazoo there."

Ratso (Dustin Hoffman)

"Midnight Cowboy," which premiered on this day in 1969, was "one of a handful of films that stay in our memory after the others have evaporated," wrote Roger Ebert 25 years after its debut.

But, after apparently taking the opportunity to revisit it after a quarter of a century, Ebert asserted that it was "a good movie with a masterpiece inside, struggling to break free."

When the movie was in the theaters in 1969, Ebert wrote that it "comes heartbreakingly close to being the movie we want it to be."

Perhaps there is a subtle nuance or two that I am missing, but it sounds to me like he had pretty much the same reaction to the movie in 1994 that he had in 1969.

It was a near masterpiece, I guess you could say. The American Film Institute ranked it 43rd on its list of the top 100 movies of all time — and AFI chose Ratso's iconic line, "I'm walking here! I'm walking here!" as its #27 movie quote (just ahead of "Play it, Sam" from "Casablanca").

It may be something of an urban legend that Hoffman improvised that line. The producer disputed that account in the movie's two–DVD package.

While that point may be up for debate, there is no debating this: "Midnight Cowboy" holds the distinction of being the only X–rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Two other X–rated movies — also from the early days of movie ratings — were nominated for Oscars but did not win ("A Clockwork Orange" and "Last Tango in Paris").

Given the considerable changes in both the public's perception of and the requirements for an X rating, I feel pretty safe in asserting that an X–rated movie will never be nominated for — let alone win — an Oscar again.

"Midnight Cowboy" did not remain an X–rated movie. It was re–evaluated and given an R rating, which is more appropriate, on its reissue a few years later.

It did have a pretty strong sexual content (and most people probably would agree that sex is a must in the modern definition of X–rated filmmaking), but the sex was rather tame compared to today's movies. I have seen more explicit nudity in PG–rated movies than I saw in "Midnight Cowboy."

True, one of the characters, Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight), was a gigolo, and some of the story was about his adventures (and misadventures) in New York. But the sexual content that led to the X rating had more to do with the implication that Voight's character might have been homosexual.

That is the important distinction. In 1969, an X rating was treated like a legitimate film rating, which it was. It meant that the content definitely was not suitable for children, because of either extreme violence or extreme sexual activity, and that they could not be allowed to see such a movie, even if accompanied by an adult.

In those days, people who were at least 16 could watch an R–rated movie without an adult.

Then the adult film industry latched onto the X rating; over time, it ceased to be recognized as a legitimate movie rating. It became code for pornographic movie. Mainstream commercial theaters stopped showing X–rated movies, and reputable actors stopped appearing in them.

And the bar was raised on R–rated movies. The Motion Picture Association of America raised the minimum age for admission without an adult to 17.

But sex wasn't the only consideration in 1969. The rating also was the result of the gritty, realistic depiction of New York street life in those days.

Ultimately, the R rating, as I say, was the most appropriate one for "Midnight Cowboy." The material wasn't anywhere near mild enough for a PG rating, but X was too extreme.

The acting really was impressive. Both Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Oscars but lost to John Wayne (for "True Grit").

An Alien Experience

"In space no one can hear you scream."

"Alien" tagline

It was my own fault.

I had been to see director Ridley Scott's "Alien" not long after it hit the theaters on this day in 1979, and I knew how many scary scenes there were in it. Before I went to see it, I saw Sigourney Weaver making what I assume was her first appearance on The Tonight Show, and I remember she told Johnny Carson that "Alien" did "all the things a piece of celluloid is supposed to do."

After I heard her say that, I had to see it.

Anyway, I went to see it by myself the first time. I didn't know much about it, other than it was supposed to be one of the scariest movies in years — and it was. When I left the theater, I felt drained.

Not long after that, Mom was making noises about wanting to see it. She had been hearing and reading a lot about it, and she was intrigued.

Now, when Mom was alive, I enjoyed watching movies with her, and I watched many of the best movies that were ever made with her — sometimes at the theater, other times at home on our TV set. We talked about the movies after we watched them, and she often pointed out things to me that I had missed. I have often longed for those conversations since her death.

I knew that intense movies had a particular effect on her, though. See, whenever Mom was watching a (pardon the pun) gripping movie, she had a tendency to grip the arm of the person sitting next (or perhaps I should say closest) to her in the especially intense moments — preferably someone she knew, but, if it happened to be a stranger, well, she wasn't bashful about grabbing that person's arm.

If it was an arm and it was close to her, it was fair game.

I suppose Dad had been to enough movies with Mom to know better than to go to a scary one with her. He didn't mind going to the comedies with her, and they often went to dramatic movies together, but he left the task of taking her to scary movies to others.

On this occasion, I miscalculated.

See, I figured that, since I had seen "Alien" before, I had a pretty good idea how intense it was — and when the especially intense scenes were coming up. I must have figured that I could be prepared for Mom's reaction to those scenes. I figured wrong.

Before the movie was over, my right arm was a mass of bruises.

"Alien" was really one of the first sci–fi/horror movies to be set in the dark depths of space — and the promoters capitalized on it.

"In space no one can hear you scream" was the tagline on the trailers and the movie posters. I feel it had to be the inspiration for the scary movies set in space that came after — although it certainly wasn't the first.

It just gave a fresh — and plausible — spin to an old theme.

The American Film Institute ranks it seventh among the sci–fi movies. It continues to be cited as a groundbreaking movie that still influences filmmakers today. Yet it won only one Oscar (visual effects).

Still, it was hugely successful, earning more than $200 million after being made for a paltry (by comparison) $9 million — and it can truly be said to have launched Weaver's career.

The movie was nominated for two Oscars, winning for visual effects.

I wonder how many other arms were bruised during the showing of that movie.

(P.S. H.R. Giger, the artist who designed the monster for "Alien," died less than two weeks ago at the age of 74.)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Introducing the Thin Man

Nick (William Powell): Now how did you ever remember me?

Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan): Oh, you used to fascinate me. A real live detective. You used to tell me the most wonderful stories. Were they true?

Nick: Probably not.

Dashiell Hammett was a great mystery writer. He created some of the great characters to be adapted for the big screen, including Sam Spade, the detective in "The Maltese Falcon."

But Sam was a rather somber sort. Hammett's most entertaining detectives, Nick and Nora Charles, made their screen debut in "The Thin Man" 80 years ago today.

Nick and Nora were a married couple who solved mysteries together. Their boozy banter ("The Thin Man" was rated #32 among the comedies by the American Film Institute) was part of their charm — which they parlayed into six movies between 1934 and 1947.

They had a pet terrier, Asta, who accompanied them in all six of the "Thin Man" movies — although, like the dog from the Frasier TV series, the character wasn't played by the same dog from start to finish.

All six of the titles included "the thin man," and I assumed (until I saw the first one) that it was a reference to William Powell, who played Nick Charles — but, in fact, it was a reference to the man Charles was originally hired to find.

Actually, Powell and Loy appeared in 14 movies together. "The Thin Man" was only the second of three movies they were in together in 1934, but it was the best.

In fact, "The Thin Man" may have been the best of the six–movie series. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, but lost all four to "It Happened One Night."

("The Thin Man" series of movies kind of reminds me of the "Rocky" series or the "Star Wars" series. The original "Thin Man" movie was a sleeper. It was made in a couple of weeks for less than a quarter of a million dollars. Not much was expected from it, but it ended up inspiring not only five big–screen sequels but radio and TV programs as well.)

About halfway through the movie, Charles referred to the missing man as a "thin man with white hair." The missing man turned out to be dead — a fact that was revealed before the movie ended — but the titles of sequels to the original always mentioned "the thin man." I don't think I was the only one who was confused by that — Powell was rather lanky — and Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer, I am certain, did what it could to encourage that confusion among moviegoers of the time.

Anyway, when moviegoers first met them in 1934, Nick was a retired detective and Nora was a wealthy socialite. Nick was pressed back into service when an industrialist friend (the thin man, played by Edward Ellis) vanished.

Nick Charles: The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox–trot time, a Bronx to two–step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.

And that took Nick and Nora (Myrna Loy) down a twisting path that ultimately led to the revelation Nick shared with the suspects who were gathered together for a dinner party in the final scene.

Four decades later, Neil Simon lampooned Nick and Nora — as well as Sam Spade and other classic movie detectives — with David Niven and Maggie Smith in "Murder By Death." Much of the humor focused on a spoof of the old gathering–the–suspects–in–one–place scene.

In 1934, it wasn't the cliche it has become. In fact, it was a rather effective device — 80 years ago.

Too bad there wasn't a butler in "The Thin Man." That cliche originated elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rockin' Around the Clock

Sixty years ago today, Bill Haley and His Comets first released "Rock Around the Clock" — their signature song.

Several versions of this song have been recorded, but Haley's version is the one that comes to mind for most folks.

It wasn't the first recording. It wasn't even the first recording for Haley, who started out as a country/western yodeler. After he made his transition to rock 'n' roll, he and his band came to be regarded by many as being as influential on the youth of their day as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were 10 years later.

In fact, the anniversary of the release of Haley's recording seems to have reignited — in some quarters — the debate over whether Haley is the father of rock 'n' roll.

That is a debate I have been hearing much of my life.

When I was growing up, I was under the impression that Elvis Presley was the father of rock 'n' roll. Presley, of course, was born and raised in Mississippi, and he made his adult home about 100 miles away — in Memphis.

I grew up in the neighboring state of Arkansas; being a good Southern boy, it wasn't hard for me to accept that premise — especially since I always believed Southern blues strongly influenced rock 'n' roll, and Presley's style was obviously influenced by the blues.

But, while Presley did make some demo recordings in 1953, they leaned toward ballads. He didn't record his first real rock 'n' roll song until July 1954 — and, by that time, Haley had already released "Rock Around the Clock."

(In fact, the top–selling recording artists of 1954 were Doris Day, Jo Stafford and Eddie Fisher.)

If Presley wasn't the father of rock 'n' roll, I figured it had to be Chuck Berry. Similarly, Berry started out singing the blues. His first rock 'n' roll single, "Maybellene," was recorded and released in 1955.

According to Margaret Moser in the Austin Chronicle, Haley died "haunted, embittered, and neglected" in 1981.

"Haley bought into the pointless argument of who invented rock & roll," Moser wrote, "believing he deserved the title. He had a legit claim, too, having recorded the genre's first bona fide anthem, 'Rock Around the Clock.' The other firsts he deserves credit for have been marginalized along with his memory."

As Moser observed, "Rock Around the Clock" has been credited with being an anthem for the youth of the '50s, but, for a song that supposedly had such an influence on that generation, Rolling Stone only ranked it #159 on its list of the top 500 songs of all time while other songs from the '50s — Elvis' "Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Jailhouse Rock," "Mystery Train," "Suspicious Minds" and "That's All Right" and Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," and, ironically, "Rock & Roll Music" — were praised more prominently.

Those songs may be better known, but they all came along after "Rock Around the Clock."

The song got its first real exposure when it was played as part of the opening credits for "The Blackboard Jungle" starring Glenn Ford, Anne Francis and Sidney Poitier. With the help of that movie, it shot to the top of the charts, where it stayed for eight weeks.

I think the first time I ever heard it was when it was used as the original theme music for the Happy Days TV show. Haley's recording was part of the soundtrack for the movie "American Graffiti," too, but I don't think I saw that movie until it was shown on TV years later.

(There was no special reason why I didn't see it sooner, I suppose.)

My first exposure to "Rock Around the Clock" came to me courtesy of Happy Days. Being young and naive, I thought it was an original song written for the TV show. I had no idea who Bill Haley and His Comets were.

I do now, of course.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Unnecessary First Chapter of the Star Wars Saga

"Every Generation Has A Legend. Every Journey Has A First Step. Every Saga Has A Beginning."


Every story must start somewhere, and I suppose that the Star Wars saga needed a first chapter. (I was OK with leaving the original "Star Wars" as the first chapter — forget this prequel stuff — but no one asked me ...)

But I really felt like "The Phantom Menace," which made its highly anticipated debut 15 years ago today, was the weakest of the six Star Wars movies that have hit the theaters — so far.

I didn't see it at the theater. I was never terribly excited about it, even though I saw the fan frenzy that the movie inspired among supposedly otherwise normal people who stood in long lines for tickets. I didn't go through that; a co–worker bought it when it was released on video tape, and I borrowed it from him.

I could understand why reactions were mixed.

Film critic Roger Ebert said it was "an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking."

Mark Deming of was less glowing in his assessment.

"While the computer–generated alternate universe was top notch and [George] Lucas' knack for whiz–bang special effects action reached an apex in the Ben–Hur–esque pod race," Deming wrote, "critics (professional and otherwise) objected to the wooden human characters, overly kiddie–friendly atmosphere, and goofy alien sidekick Jar Jar Binks."

That pretty much covered it for me.

When I watched it on video tape, my initial impression was that the entire project was designed to market a line of children's toys. Oh, sure, there has always been an element of that in the Star Wars movies, going back to the original. But it was always kept under control in the first trilogy (OK, things were starting to unravel in "Return of the Jedi").

It was rampant in "The Phantom Menace." For a long time, I was convinced the movie had been written to support the toys that were flooding the market. (There's a part of me that is still not convinced the movie wasn't motivated entirely by commercial interests.)

And "goofy" is only one of the words I would use to describe Jar Jar. Others would be "annoying," "stupid," "distracting."

"Grating," possibly. Definitely "irritating."

But certainly not "endearing."

I know some people who liked Jar Jar. I didn't. That won't change. Let's move on, shall we?

I had to agree with Deming when he praised the special effects in the movie, and the pod race did bear a striking resemblance to "Ben–Hur." I suppose it was a glimpse into what that chariot race scene might have been if the makers of "Ben–Hur" had the technological advances that were available to the makers of "The Phantom Menace."

Ebert was enamored with the whole eye candy thing.

"Unlike many movies, these are made to be looked at more than listened to," Ebert wrote, "and George Lucas and his collaborators have filled 'The Phantom Menace' with wonderful visuals."

If the visual was more important than the audio, then perhaps anyone could have played the parts, but I didn't really think that was true. Some people complained that the actors were wooden, but I felt they did as much as their parts would let them. Liam Neeson made a strong contribution to the story as the Jedi knight who trained Ewan McGregor as his apprentice, a young Obi–Wan Kenobi. It gave the audience some new insights into the old Obi–Wan Kenobi.

Please don't misunderstand. I thought the visuals were impressive. But, for the most part, I thought that was most of what "The Phantom Menace" really had to offer.

And I expect more from a Star Wars movie. Or I did — until 15 years ago.
Likewise, Natalie Portman did a good job as Queen Padmé Amidala, who went on to marry Anakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader) and give birth to Luke and Leia. (I don't need to tell you who they were, do I?)

In "The Phantom Menace," Anakin was portrayed by 10–year–old Jake Lloyd. His character was played by an older actor in Episodes II and III.

Actually, I am inclined to think that maybe Ebert was on to something when he spoke of the appeal of the visuals, possibly at the expense of the story.

"We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema, I think, in which digital techniques mean that budgets will no longer limit the scope of scenes," he wrote. "Filmmakers will be able to show us just about anything they can imagine."

From the perspective of a mere 15 years down the road, it seems positively prophetic, doesn't it?

Frasier's Pursuit of Happiness

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): I suppose the situation you're in is you'd like to stay with Maris, but you'd like to have an affair with Daphne.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Yes. Can I do that?

Frasier: No, you can't!

I enjoyed the episode that closed Frasier's first season 20 years ago tonight.

It was a little talky, I suppose, but that didn't bother me. It isn't unusual for a sitcom episode to be dialogue driven. If it is action you're looking for, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.

The episode was done in real time and took what was already a familiar setting — the coffeehouse where Niles and Frasier met frequently during the series' 11–year run — and made it the only setting for the entire episode. All the primary characters — even Eddie the dog — came to Cafe Nervosa, where Niles and Frasier had been trying to have coffee together.

Initially, there were no tables available. "Well, Niles, it doesn't look like anybody is leaving," Frasier said. "Why don't we take a table outside?

"Why not?" Niles replied. "I'm feeling al Fresco."

In his geeky Crane–boys way, Frasier provided the punchline. "Oh, how does Mrs. Fresco feel about that?" They both giggled.

When seen in the context of the series' decade–plus on the air, that exchange really said a lot about their relationship. It was complex, as most sibling relationships seem to be. A certain amount of sibling rivalry always existed between them, but they were supportive and respectful of each other, too. They laughed at each other's jokes. They understood each other's references, all those things that went completely over other people's heads — like the time they reminisced about when they saw a picture in a family photo collection of themselves as children dressed for Halloween. They wore snouts and took a wading pool with them — they were dressed as the Bay of Pigs, but no one got it so they started saying they were Swine Lake. No one got that, either.

Frasier, as the older brother, took the lead, and Niles, as the dutiful younger brother, followed.

Viewers saw glimpses of the young Niles and Frasier over the years — and, as a consequence, gained some insight into how they developed into the men they became.

It was all out there on the table 20 years ago tonight.

The subject of each other's happiness came up while they were having their season–ending coffee. Niles was the first to ask the question, but Frasier turned it back on his brother, and Niles confessed that he was not happy, then tried to shift gears. Frasier had none of it.

"Let's not gloss over that," Frasier demanded. "You, my only brother, have just told me you're not happy, and it pains me to hear that. Why?"

Niles proceeded to tell Frasier a story about a segment from a documentary on the Depression that he had seen, about the joy on the face of a desperately poor boy upon being given a pair of new shoes. "I have never experienced that kind of happiness," Niles said. "Not in my whole life. Not even when I bought these $400 Bruno Maglis" and raised one foot for Frasier to see.

Niles observed that the shoes had tassels and asked Frasier if he liked them.

"I'm not really a tassels guy," Frasier replied (although Frasier had a different answer when asked about tassels on Cheers!).

"Neither am I," Niles said. "Nevertheless, there they are."

The subject of happiness was pushed to the back burner — but only temporarily — by the arrival of Roz (Peri Gilpin) and the interruption of an increasingly annoyed waitress who couldn't quite manage to serve Frasier the cup of coffee he desired. Then rain began to fall, and Frasier and Niles were forced back inside.

Thanks to a little brotherly conspiracy, they grabbed a table. Not long after, they found themselves sharing it with Martin (John Mahoney) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) — with Eddie in tow. Martin was cranky for no clear reason.

The presence of their father made Frasier reflect on the problems he had forging a relationship with Martin. "Why is it always so difficult between me and Dad?" he asked. Niles pointed out that Martin's life had changed. "Railing against the world is his way of controlling his ever–shrinking sphere of influence."

They changed the subject again. Niles recommended "something light and frothy," so Frasier asked if he was in love with Daphne, and Niles spewed a mouthful of coffee.

"That's a little frothier than I had in mind," Frasier said.

Niles confessed that he didn't know, then asked, "Why did you have to hire Venus herself? Couldn't you find some beefy east European scrub woman who reeked of ammonia?"

"Well, I asked," Frasier replied, "but it was an Olympic year. The agency was fresh out."

Niles admitted that Daphne stirred "a passion in me I've never known before." Then, displaying footwork a boxer would envy, he tried once again to work the subject around to Frasier's happiness, but that went back to the back burner as Roz interrupted and then Martin returned to apologize for being cranky; he had observed a birthday recently, but no one mentioned it.

Eventually, the gathering broke up. Frasier and Niles said they would take Martin and Daphne to dinner, and everyone left — except Frasier, who finally got the cup of coffee he wanted.

"Are you happy?" asked his waitress.

"You know, in the greater scheme of things," Frasier replied, "yes, I'd say I am."

It was an introspective episode.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Mr. Chips

Mr. Chips (Robert Donat): I thought I heard you saying it was a pity ... pity I never had any children. But you're wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them ... and all boys.

(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 fifth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
Forty–five years ago, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" was remade as a musical starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark. When I saw it several years later, I had no idea there had been another movie by the same name.

But there was, and it was released on this day in 1939 — and it was better. Much better. Not as good as the book that was published in 1934 but a pretty good movie even so. Fifteen years ago, the British Film Institute rated it the #72 British–made movie of all time.

The version of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" that premiered 75 years ago today was kind of like its generation's "Little Big Man." Well, a British version, I guess. It covered more than six decades of Mr. Chips' life, from his first days as a teacher to his retirement.

One of the things that made the movie (and the book upon which it was based) so good was that it was like a time capsule, telling a story of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the O'Toole remake, everything was rewritten, propelling the story well into the 20th century.

(A nice little touch early in the movie shows a couple of 19th–century teachers, presumably Mr. Chips' colleagues, curriculum specialties unknown. One, holding a book, identifies its author as H.G. Wells. His colleague replies, "He'll never come to anything. He's too fantastic.")

But the version that premiered today told the story of Mr. Chipping, a 19th–century Latin teacher at a boys boarding school. When the movie began, he was starting his career and was the target of numerous practical jokes from his students. As inexperienced teachers are prone to do under such circumstances, he became a hard–nosed disciplinarian, which earned his students' respect but not their friendship.

He was given the nickname "Chips" by Greer Garson's character, and that was adapted to "Mr. Chips" by the boys at his school.

Much of the story was told in a kind of flashback mode. Mr. Chips was retiring after a half century or so of working with young boys.

Sometimes the story was a little implausible. For example, Chips met the love of his life (played by Garson) while mountain climbing in Austria.

That part of the story would have been more believable, I suppose, if the two of them had been wearing clothes that were appropriate for scaling steep mountains.

Yet there they were on the rocky cliffs, Chips wearing a tie and a vest, Garson's character in a dress.

And then, upon their return, Chips was treated like some kind of conquering hero, saving a damsel in distress — when, in fact, Garson never appeared to be in distress at all. In fact, she admitted as much when Chips found her on a mountain peak.

"I'm sorry I wasn't in any danger," she told him. By that time, he was smitten with her — but too shy, in his British way, to say so.

The tragedy of Chips' life came some time after that — after he had married Garson's character and then she died while giving birth to their child (who also died).

Robert Donat won Best Actor. "As soon as I put the mustache on, I felt the part," he said, "even if I did look like a great airdale come out of a puddle."

The 34–year–old Donat aged 63 years during the course of the story, thanks to great makeup work — which probably would have won an Oscar if the Academy had rewarded makeup work in those days.

There weren't many Oscars that "Gone With the Wind" lost, but Best Actor was one of them. Donat beat a distinguished field — Clark Gable, James Stewart, Laurence Olivier and Mickey Rooney.

"Goodbye Mr. Chips" was nominated in seven categories and lost five to "Gone With the Wind" (the other loss was to "When Tomorrow Comes" for Best Sound).

Monday, May 12, 2014

Nancy Malone, Pioneer

You probably never heard of Nancy Malone.

That's OK, although you missed out on one of the more interesting figures from television history. Malone died last Thursday of what is called "leukemia–induced pneumonia." The news of her death did not hit the media until yesterday.

She is probably remembered by casual viewers for her acting roles in numerous TV series. Her acting career went back to the 1950s and stretched into the 1970s. Malone performed on some of the most popular programs of her time; she co–starred with George Lindsey in the last original episode of the Andy Griffith Show, "A Girl for Goober," and, ironically, died almost two years to the day after Lindsey did.

She also appeared in episodes of The Outer Limits and the original Twilight Zone, the latter of which is the TV episode I always associate with her. (She co–starred with Barry Nelson.)

Malone appeared in the fifth and final season of Twilight Zone. Most of the series' fans will tell you it seemed to be running out of steam in that last season, but Malone's episode was probably one of its better ones that year. It managed to do what the best Twilight Zone episodes did — send a little unanticipated chill down one's spine.

There was more to her than the TV episodes in which she appeared, though.

She was a groundbreaking TV director, working on shows like Dynasty, Cagney & Lacey and Star Trek: Voyager at a time when women didn't do much directing.

She made the transition from acting to producer and learned that side of the business, then got into directing in large part because of a bad experience with a director during her producing days.

Malone won an Emmy for her directing and continued to pursue that aspect of the business into the 21st century.

The Tribulations of a Real-Life Natural

"You told me once, 'A man has to know where he's goin'!' Where are you goin', Monty?"

Ethel (June Allyson)

Yesterday, I wrote about the debut of "The Natural" — a fictional story about a natural–born baseball player.

Today, my topic is a movie about a real natural — Monty Stratton — whose mostly true story was made into a movie starring James Stewart and June Allyson that made its debut 65 years ago today.

Don't feel bad if you never heard of Stratton. His was a very short career — only five years.

And I say the story was mostly true because there were some liberties taken with it. Of course, that tends to be the case with biographical movies, even those that appear to be meticulous about details.

See, the story of Monty Stratton was that he was a baseball player, a pitcher, during the Depression. Frank Morgan (who was the wizard of Oz 10 years earlier) played the baseball scout who discovered Stratton playing semipro ball when he wasn't working on his Texas farm and persuaded him to come to California for a tryout with the Chicago White Sox during spring training.

The tryout went so well that Stratton made the team, and the scout was hired to coach pitching prospects.

It wasn't a fairy–tale career, though. It certainly had its rocky moments.

One of them, Stratton's actual major–league debut, yielded one of the best lines in the movie — but the scene was manipulated, presumably for what would be an understandable reason.

Stratton made his first major–league appearance on June 2, 1934, coming in as the second and final relief pitcher of the day for the Sox, who lost, 12–0. He didn't pitch as poorly as the two pitchers who preceded him; he only gave up two of the runs. But he was sent down to the minors, anyway, and didn't pitch in the majors again until the following year.

In the movie, he told his wife (Allyson) that the game had been against the New York Yankees. In fact, it was against the Detroit Tigers.

I don't know why the identity of the opponent was changed like that, but my guess is that it had something to do with the facts that (a) the Yankees had been in four of the previous eight World Series (when Stratton made his debut), whereas the Tigers had not been in a World Series in a quarter of a century (although, ironically, the Tigers did go to the World Series in 1934 — and 1935), and (b) the Yankees had guys named Gehrig and Ruth in their lineup.

The Yankees simply were better known (although, in a noteworthy filmmaking mistake, Joe DiMaggio could be seen rounding the bases in the stock footage that was used for Stratton's debut. DiMaggio didn't make his major–league debut until 1936).

"Honey," Stewart said to Allyson, "do you know there's a tailor in Chicago that gives a suit of clothes away to any ballplayer that hits the scoreboard in center field? As of yesterday, the New York Yankees are the best–dressed team in baseball."

If Stratton really did say that to his wife, he was exaggerating. Detroit scored a lot of runs that day, but no home runs were hit. The Tigers had a bunch of singles and half a dozen hits for extra bases. Zero home runs.

Stratton's next four years were more successful than his debut. He did struggle in 1935 and 1936, but he won a total of 30 games in 1937 and 1938. He was an All–Star in 1937 and received votes for Most Valuable Player after the 1938 season.

The future looked bright.

But then Stratton was injured in a hunting accident. It was severe enough to cost him one of his legs, and his baseball career appeared to be over.

That much was true. But, in reality, Stratton shot himself with a revolver. In the movie, the wound was inflicted with a shotgun. I don't know why that change was made — unless it was to avoid having to answer questions about why he had a revolver with him on a hunting trip.

If a Supportive and Long–Suffering Movie Spouse Hall of Fame is ever created, June Allyson is sure to be a charter member. At times, it seems to me that she was the very definition of the label supportive movie spouse in her movies, especially (but not exclusively) the ones in which she was paired with Stewart because some sort of personal trial was sure to follow — and Allyson's spouse was equally certain to be in denial about the situation. Thus, it was up to Allyson to be the stronger of the two.

In "The Stratton Story," it fell to her to decide between her husband's leg and his life. She chose his life, realizing that losing his leg meant the end of his dreams of major–league success.

Then she had to deal with her husband's mood swings and his apparent tendency (though never spoken) to blame her for the loss of his leg. As she so often did, Allyson played the supportive, long–suffering wife, putting up with his peevishness in silence.

Of course, I know it wasn't always that way. Allyson once played Jose Ferrer's malicious and shrewish spouse — at Ferrer's request — and she had several separations from her real–life husband, Dick Powell.

In real life, Stratton did come back. He didn't make it all the way back to the major leagues, but he did pitch in the minor leagues from 1946 to 1953 wearing a prosthetic leg. It was a truly inspiring story that was worthy of inclusion in the American Film Institute's list of the most inspiring films — but was not.

There were times during the movie when I thought it was a little heavy–handed in its foreshadowing — of the loss of his leg especially. The hunting accident wasn't presented until about two–thirds into the movie, but there were allusions to it. Early in the movie, for example, the viewers learned that, on the days he pitched for the semipro team, Stratton walked five miles into town, pitched, then walked five miles home — and then worked on his farm.

Another time, he learned how to dance so he could dance with his wife. Unbeknownst to his wife, he had a membership at a dance studio, of which he could take advantage at studio outlets in every American League city. It was a big subject in the movie.

I have never lost a limb — and I hope I never do — so I can't know how the real Stratton must have felt, but it must be an unimaginable blow to be 26 years old and lose one of your legs, particularly if you are a professional athlete. Stewart's reactions rang true — and, as it was with so many of his performances, it was hard to imagine anyone else playing Monty Stratton once the movie was made.

In fact, though, Ronald Reagan tried to get the part, but he was under contract to Warner Bros., and Warner wouldn't let him do it, fearing the movie would be a flop (in fact, it turned a profit). At one point, Van Johnson was inaccurately reported to be playing the role of Monty Stratton.

In hindsight, Johnson would not have been believable in the role. Reagan might have, but his Stratton almost surely would have differed from Stewart's — and Stratton himself said Stewart "did a great job of playing me, in a picture which I figure was about as true to life as they could make it."

Based on that, I think Stratton was at peace with the liberties that were taken. If he was OK with them, who am I to disagree? It must be tremendously challenging to be asked to portray someone who is still living.

Agnew Moorehead played the role of Stratton's mother. It was the kind of role she played frequently in her career, sort of a semi–animated Whistler's mother, and she was usually quite believable in it, but she was an odd choice because of the difference between her age and Stewart's age (she was roughly 7½ years his senior).

Allyson and Stewart were paired in three movies; "The Stratton Story" was the first. In their second movie, they played Mr. and Mrs. Glenn Miller, and Allyson's ordeal was living through the loss of her husband's life. In the third, she played the spouse of another baseball player (fictional this time) who was injured flying a new aircraft for the Air Force Reserve.

"The Stratton Story" won the only Oscar for which it was nominated — Best Story.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Pay No Attention to Those Flickering Lights

gas·light [gas-lahyt]

1. light produced by the combustion of illuminating gas.
2. a gas burner or gas jet for producing this kind of light.

3.gaslit ( def 2 ) .

verb (used with object), gas·light·ed or gas·lit, gas·light·ing.
4. to cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation: How do you know if your partner is gaslighting you?

Origin: 1800–10; gas + light1 ; def 4 in reference to the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which an abusive husband secretly and repeatedly dims and brightens the gaslights in the house while accusing his wife of imagining the flickering

Random House Dictionary

Ingrid Bergman won her first Oscar for George Cukor's "Gaslight," which premiered 70 years ago today. That movie also earned the rare distinction of serving as the illustration for a term in the dictionary — in this case, a verb.

I don't know if gaslight is used frequently anymore, but, surely, everyone can understand the concept. Bergman's character was driven to the very brink of madness through the psychological manipulation of her husband (Charles Boyer).

"I think [Bergman]'s my favorite movie actress," wrote Roger Ebert, and I think many people would agree. Bergman was still young in 1944, but she already had a reputation and a following. She was pretty well known by the time she won her Oscar for "Gaslight."

See, Bergman played a turn–of–the–century young singer who fell for a dashing older man (Boyer). They got married and set up their home in a house Bergman's character had inherited from her aunt, also a singer who had been murdered there a decade earlier.

The man who had murdered her aunt had been searching for her jewels, but he was interrupted by Bergman as a child and fled. He was never identified.

"If it was I who took that picture down ... if it was I who took it down the other times, if I do all these senseless, meaningless things, so meaningless, why should I take a picture down? But then, I don't know what I do anymore. ... But then, if that's true, then you must be gentle with me. You must bear with me, please."

Paula (Ingrid Bergman)

It was all part of Boyer's character's plan. You see, he was the one who had killed Bergman's aunt, and he tried to manipulate her psychologically. When he moved around in the attic, looking for the jewels he left behind all those years ago, his footsteps could be heard, and the gaslights in the house flickered when he switched on the lights in the attic because that reduced the gas supply to the rest of the house.

He systematically attempted to drive her insane. If she were certified insane and put in an institution, he would be free to search for the jewels whenever he pleased.

As her paranoia increased, Bergman's character became convinced that her maid (Angela Lansbury, a real spitfire in her first movie role) detested her.

It was Joseph Cotten, as an inspector from Scotland Yard, who provided the alliance Bergman needed to convince herself that all the odd things really were happening, that they weren't her imagination — and, most importantly, that she was not responsible for them. There was a reasonable explanation for what had been happening.

The movie got seven Oscar nominations, but only the mesmerizing Bergman and four others (for Art Direction) took home the statuette. Boyer and Lansbury were nominated for their acting, the movie was nominated for Best Picture, and John Balderston, Walter Reisch and John Van Druten were nominated for their adapted screenplay, but Cukor was not nominated for his direction.

There were some heavyweights in that category that year, though (Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry King and the winner, Leo McCarey), and it is hard to imagine how Cukor could have been wedged in.

Not Necessarily the Best There Ever Was ... But Close

"I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for."

Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford)

I don't know if "The Natural" was particularly inspirational. Its subject matter, after all, was probably the kind of thing that most kids have been fantasizing about forever — being the best at something.

Sometimes those dreams come true. More often, they do not.

I thought of my own boyhood dreams when I saw "The Natural" not long after it premiered 30 years ago today. I wasn't very athletic when I was younger, but I fantasized about it. Who wouldn't? When you're an awkward teenager, any scenario in which your buddies hoist you on their shoulders and parade you around in triumph — and all the girls want to be with you — is as valuable as one of Walter Mitty's daydreams.

(Come to think of it, Mitty's heroic fantasies usually ended unhappily, just short of achieving his goals.)

When I see "The Natural" now, I am more inclined to think of Roy Hobbs' perseverance, his dedication to his dream, his desire to follow that rainbow wherever it led — even though he had been, to use his own word, "sidetracked."

I guess he summed up his heart's desire when he was talking about how differently his life had been than he had expected. If he had begun his major–league career when most players do, in their 20s, he speculated that he could have rewritten the record book. "And then when I walked down the street people would've looked and they would've said, 'There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.' "

It's corny, I know, but sometimes you need some corn. What happened to Roy Hobbs is the kind of thing that can happen to people in any walk of life, especially when they get blindsided by something beyond their control. It's worse for an athlete, I suppose, because an athlete's window of opportunity is so brief. People in non–athletic walks of life can afford to be more patient; the clock ticks loudly for a sidetracked athlete.

Roy wasn't bitter. He was a little wistful at times, but it just made him more determined to make the most of the time he had left.

Apparently, movie critic Roger Ebert wasn't impressed.

"Why didn't they make a baseball picture?" Ebert wanted to know. "Why did 'The Natural' have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford?"

That wasn't the way I saw it then, nor is it the way I see it now.

But Ebert felt that audiences knew too much about Hobbs' character and not enough about the other people on screen. "I'd love to get to know Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), the cynical, old team manager," Ebert wrote. "Robert Duvall, as the evil sportswriter, Max Mercy, has had his part cut so badly that we only know he's evil because he practically tells us. Richard Farnsworth, as a kindly coach, has a smile that's more genuine than anything else in the movie. But you have to look quick."

There were some things about Hobbs that we didn't know — like where he had been for 16 or 17 years

OK, it's a Robert Redford movie. I didn't have a problem with that. His was the bankable name in 1984, even though his star was falling while Glenn Close's was rising. (In case you never saw the movie before, Close was Redford's childhood sweetheart in the movie.)

Redford was the reason why people paid to see that movie. And pay they did. "The Natural," which was made for $28 million, took in nearly $48 million at the box office.

I've seen many movies that were focused on a single character — seemingly to the exclusion of everything else. I thought "The Natural" handled that better than most. It had a pretty good story. Most such movies do not. And, unlike Ebert, I had no quarrel over the amount of screen time everyone else got.

The young Roy Hobbs ran into problems with a mysterious woman (played by Barbara Hershey) he met on a train. In a sense, isn't that every man's story? Well, not every man, I suppose, but many a young man has fallen from grace because of a pretty face.

And Roy Hobbs fell hard. He dropped out of sight for years, finally resurfacing as an older man trying to break in with a struggling baseball team.

He didn't know all the intrigue behind the scenes. He didn't know that Pop Fisher, minority team owner in addition to being its manager, had made a deal with the principal owner. If the team won the pennant, Pop got the team. If the team didn't win the pennant, the principal owner got all of Pop's shares. Winner take all.

Hobbs' arrival complicated things. The team was well on its way to losing the pennant, but Hobbs turned things around to the point where the principal owner had to bribe him to play badly. He wouldn't do it, promising to "hit away."

I think this is where Ebert really objected. Redford, apparently bleeding and in pain from his stomach injury, hit the dramatic home run that won the pennant — and ran around the bases amid a shower of sparks from the stadium light fixture he blasted with his mighty shot. OK, it was a little over the top.

It was "cheap and phony," Ebert wrote.

"Either he hits the homer and then dies, or his bleeding was just a false alarm," Ebert explained. "If the bleeding was a false alarm, then everything else in the movie was false, too."

Yes, except that this is the movies, not real life. A lot of things happen in the movies that are implausible in real life.

I admit, Ebert had a point when he observed that Close was "the childhood sweetheart who doesn't hear from Roy after an accident changes the course of his life. Then she turns up years later, and when she stands up in the bleachers she is surrounded by blinding light ... In the few moments she's allowed alone with Roy, she strikes us as complicated, tender, and forgiving. But even the crucial fact of her life — that she has borne this man's son — is used as a plot gimmick."

OK, Close did have a kind of beatific look on her face when she was around Redford later in the movie. I didn't really notice it when they played young lovers, but it was noticeable when they were reunited roughly 20 years later.

See, I was a child of the Nixon years. Pat Nixon always had that kind of look on her face.

Are there things about the movie that I would have done differently? Sure, but it was what it was. And, for what it was, I thought it was good. Maybe better than good.

It belonged on a list of the best sports movies. There are sports movies that I like more — the ones that deal with actual events and people (like "Eight Men Out" and "Miracle") are my favorites — but the fictional ones can be pretty good, too, and "The Natural" told a pretty good story.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Write Brothers

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Niles, I would shave my head for you.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): A gesture which becomes less significant with each passing year.

There were several themes that the writers of Frasier explored repeatedly during the series' 11 seasons on the air.

One of the funniest — and, in my opinion, the most fertile when it came to inspiring comedic material — was the theme of the sibling rivalry between Frasier and Niles.

Through most of the series, the Crane brothers were exceptionally close. They shared the same tastes, the same interests. At times, they even finished each other's sentences. But they were also very competitive.

That had been implied in other episodes during Frasier's first season on the air, but the episode that aired 20 years ago tonight, "Author, Author," was the first to bring the message home.

In that first season of Frasier, the audience learned a lot more about Frasier than it had known during his Cheers! days — and became acquainted with his father and brother and his father's physical therapist.

By this point in the 1993–94 broadcast season, the audience knew of the tension between the elitist brothers and their blue–collar father. They had witnessed episodes in which the brothers pulled back the curtain and revealed an often turbulent relationship.

That relationship was the source of much humor over the next decade, but it truly was in "Author, Author" that the seeds were sown. The spotlight had never shone so brightly on the Cranes' sibling relationship as it did on this night in 1994.

Niles was trying to achieve a goal of writing a mental health book, but he had trouble coming up with a topic. He was about to tell his publisher that he had nothing when the publisher posed the idea of two psychiatrist brothers writing a book about sibling relationships — and Niles jumped at the idea without consulting Frasier.

That meant Niles had to persuade Frasier to write the book with him. Frasier didn't want to do it, but Niles talked him into it, reminding him of the success of their last collaboration in prep school.

And they embarked on a voyage of self–discovery — discovering in the process that they couldn't work together. (Turned out their father could have told them that and spared them a lot of grief.)

They conveniently forgot (or overlooked) that lesson in later episodes, and it was always funny, but it was never quite as funny as it was 20 years ago tonight, in my opinion.

Frasier: Oh, so that's what this little tantrum is all about? You're jealous of my celebrity?

Niles: It's not a tantrum, and I'm not jealous. I'm just FED UP! I'm fed up with being second all the time. You know, I wanted to be a psychiatrist like Mom way before you did, but because you were older you got there first. You were first to get married. You were first to give Dad the grandchild he always wanted. By the time I get around to doing anything, it's all chewed meat!

Frasier: You're crying about something that we can't change.

Niles: Oh, you wouldn't change it if you could. You love it!

Frasier: Oh, let it go, Niles!

Niles: I can't let it go! My nose is rubbed in it every day! I'm the one on the board of the Psychiatric Association, my research is well–respected in academic circles, four of my patients have been elected to political office, but it's your big fat face they put on the side of buses!

Later in the series, Niles and Frasier would try to work together as practicing psychiatrists and fledgling restaurant owners with disastrous (and hilarious) results. They were adversaries in the courtroom and competitors for corkmaster of their snooty wine club. A few times they were rivals for the affections of the same woman (or believed they were).

It was all funny — and it was all set up by the episode that premiered 20 years ago tonight.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

R.I.P., Bob Hoskins

I really intended to write earlier about the death of English actor Bob Hoskins this week, but it's been a busy week for me.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Folks have their own memories of him, and mostly they center on his movie work, I guess. That's understandable. He probably reached more people through his appearances in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Hook" than in just about anything else he ever did.

And I don't want to take anything away from that.

But he also reached a lot of people through the medium of television.

Most of his early TV work was in England, but, in the last 15 years or so of his life, he was increasingly a familiar presence on American TV.

He was on Saturday Night Live in 1998 — and, in February 2003, he was a guest star on Frasier, in an episode called "Trophy Girlfriend."

And that is how I remember Bob Hoskins.

It's one of my favorite episodes. Niles had teamed up with someone else in the squash club's annual tournament, so Frasier accepted an invitation to play mixed doubles with a girls P.E. teacher (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Frasier and his partner hit it off, but her job brought back painful memories of an abusive coach from his childhood — and every time he saw her at work, he saw that coach.

Hoskins played the coach.

It got so bad that Frasier saw the coach whenever he saw his girlfriend outside of the P.E. setting as well. My favorite scene was when he was meeting her at Cafe Nervosa. In walked Hoskins, but only Frasier (and the audience) saw him. His father and brother saw Tripplehorn and made comments. Niles raved about her beauty, and Martin cautioned his sons to watch their language because "[t]here's a lady present."

Nope, that was no lady.

Hoskins did most of his TV work in England so I haven't seen most of it, but I've read that he treated his TV work with the same respect he showed to his film work.

That doesn't surprise me. It's consistent with the kind of man I have always thought him to be.

Because of his Parkinson's diagnosis a few years ago, he was retired from acting so his death won't deprive anyone of his performances.

But, sadly, we are deprived of his presence. Rest in peace.