Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On The Road to Wellville

Virginia (Camryn Manheim): The fresh air, the exercise and the pleasure of a leather saddle between one's thighs.

Eleanor (Bridget Fonda): Why, Virginia, what do you mean?

Virginia: Bicycle smile, I believe they call it.

"The Road to Wellville," which premiered 20 years ago today, reminded everyone that every generation must deal with issues of bowel regularity. It is a normal biological function that no one seems to have fully mastered.

It was also a reminder that, while every generation may think it discovered sex, that is also a normal biological function that, in all of human history, no one seems to have fully mastered.

Consequently, there are always people whose mission in life it is to help those who struggle with such normal biological functions.

Such a person was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who ran a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Mich., preaching the benefits of diet, nutrition, exercise and enemas. He also advocated sexual abstinence.

If Battle Creek sounds familiar, it should. It has been the world headquarters of the Kellogg Company (founded by Dr. Kellogg's brother) for more than a century. Dr. Kellogg and his brother had a falling out over cereal recipes.

While it was based in fact, it is important to remember that "The Road to Wellville" was a fictional account of both Kellogg and his facility.

Dr. Kellogg was portrayed in "The Road to Wellville" by one of my favorite contemporary actors, Anthony Hopkins. He gave his usual stellar performance — but it just wasn't my favorite Hopkins role.

The character was a little too over the top for me, I guess. Maybe that's how Kellogg really was. Maybe it wasn't merely an artistic decision that Hopkins made.

If it wasn't an exaggeration, though, I have a strong feeling that Dr. Kellogg and I wouldn't have agreed on much.

Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick played a young married couple (with the delicious surname Lightbody) who came to Kellogg's sanatorium for help. They had been struggling with health issues since the death of their child.

The movie followed them — and several others like them — in their journey to pure thoughts and clean living.

All Broderick really needed was some intimacy with his wife, and he knew it, but Kellogg's facility separated husbands and wives. He had a hard time coping with that. His wife, meanwhile, was becoming a devoted disciple of Kellogg's teachings, especially his stance against killing animals for food.

Broderick was forced to give his lustful attention to more accessible targets — a nurse (Traci Lind) and a fellow patient (Lara Flynn Boyle) — both of whom he imagined minus their layers of 19th–century clothes.

He did more than imagine with Boyle. That was against Kellogg's policy. In addition to being a vegetarian, Kellogg was opposed to sex other than for procreational purposes, and he forbade masturbation.

Dr. Kellogg obviously had some unorthodox ideas about good health — but, just as obviously, there must have been something to them if he followed his own advice. He lived to be nearly 92.

Of course, he may just have been a quack who got lucky and lived a longer life than most in spite of himself.

I didn't particularly care for "The Road to Wellville." It wasn't the people who were in it. As I say, I like Hopkins. I like all of the Fondas. I like Broderick. I haven't seen much of Lind or Boyle, but they were pleasant enough.

I guess it was the nature of the humor. Scatalogical humor is great when you're 7, but no 7–year–olds were allowed to see this movie without an adult when it ran at the theaters.

And that may go a long way toward explaining the indifferent response the movie received at the box office. It cost $25 million to make. It made $6.5 million in the theaters.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Transformative Nature of War

"I don't want to know what's good or bad or true. I let God worry about the truth. I just want to know the momentary fact about things. Life isn't good or bad or true. It's merely factual. It's sensual. It's alive. My idea of living sensual facts are you, a home, a country, a world, a universe. In that order. I want to know what I am, not what I should be."

Charlie (James Garner)

The late James Garner said his role in "The Americanization of Emily," which premiered on this date in 1964, was his favorite.

After he died, I asked a couple of people whose opinions about movies I respect which one they would choose as their favorite Garner movie.

One said he would pick 1985's "Murphy's Romance," in which Garner co–starred with Sally Field.

That was a good one, no doubt about it — and it did bring Garner his only Oscar nomination. Personally, I always felt it was a little light. Maybe that was the small–town ambiance.

The other said he would choose 2000's "Space Cowboys," which kind of surprised me. It was a good movie, but I wouldn't choose it over several that Garner made ...

... including "The Americanization of Emily." And I agree with Garner. That's my favorite as well.

Garner played an aide to an admiral (Melvyn Douglas) during World War II. He didn't care for combat — to be blunt about it, he was a coward — so he was sort of waiting out the war. Julie Andrews, the Emily of the title, was his British driver.

Predictably, I suppose, the two fell in love, but Andrews had problems with Garner's gutlessness.

Andrews was appearing in only her second movie. The roles for which she is most remembered — in "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins" — came later (although "Mary Poppins" hit the theaters first). Considering her astonishing vocal range, it is surprising that all her earlier roles didn't showcase her singing.

But "The Americanization of Emily" didn't. It asked her to act only. She didn't even get to hum to Garner during one of their love scenes.

And she was believable — as she was whether she was playing Emily or Mary Poppins or Maria von Trapp.

But let's get back to the story.

Douglas' character, mentally unstable since his wife died, obsessed about the upcoming D–Day invasion. He didn't want the Navy to be overshadowed by the Army and Air Corps, and he decided that the first casualty on Omaha Beach had to be a sailor. What is more, he wanted a film crew on the beach to capture it for a documentary about the invasion.

Garner, along with his zealous buddy (played by James Coburn), drew the assignment, along with a film crew. Although he tried to retreat at the moment of truth, Garner was forced forward by a gun–wielding Coburn — and wound up becoming the first casualty on Omaha Beach when a German shell landed near him. Or so it appeared.

Andrews was devastated — she had already lost her husband, her brother and her father in the war.

But then, lo and behold, it turned out that Garner was not dead after all.

Andrews was ecstatic. Even Douglas was pleased. He regretted Garner's death and had originally planned to use his death in support of the Navy in upcoming testimony before a Senate committee; relieved that Garner wasn't dead after all, Douglas decided to present him as a hero to the Senate committee.

Garner was going to be noble and tell the world what really happened — at the risk of being imprisoned for cowardice. Andrews, though, persuaded him to keep quiet and choose a future with her.

It was an interesting — and unexpected — role reversal at the very end.

"The Americanization of Emily" was nominated for two Oscars — Best Black–and–White Art Direction and Best Black–and–White Cinematography and lost both to "Zorba the Greek."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Christie's Venture into Historical Fiction

"It's as easy to utter lies as truth."

Agatha Christie
"Death Comes as the End" (1944)

There is more than one reason why I have always liked Agatha Christie's "Death Comes as the End," which was published 70 years ago this month — but I think it really boils down to one thing.

It really was quite a departure for her.

As far as I know, it is the only one of her books that was not set in the 20th century. Nearly all of her books were set in or near the time of the book's publication. Whenever Christie wrote about the past, it was in the context of a character's flashback.

It had no European characters, either, being set near the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes in 2000 B.C.

It wasn't Christie's only book to be set in an exotic locale. She did that lots of times.

But, as far as I can tell, it is the only book she ever wrote that wasn't set in the 20th century — and it didn't have at least one European character. Usually, the European character(s) solved whatever crime had been committed. But there was no Europe in 2000 B.C.

It was similar to a book that Christie published five years earlier, "And Then There Were None," in the sense that there were many deaths. And it was, as far as I can tell, the first book to combine a detective story with historical fiction. I have read many historical novels in my life, and I've enjoyed most of them. I'm an amateur historian, I suppose. It was my minor in both college and graduate school, and it's always been an interest of mine.

Perhaps that is why I have always liked "Death Comes as the End."

The fact that she didn't write more historical fiction doesn't surprise me. Good historical fiction is tougher to write than ordinary fiction. It demands a lot of research to make it plausible — almost as much research as a good term paper or thesis will require.

And, as I say, in this novel, as in "And Then There Were None," there were many deaths. The first was a woman who had married the patriarch of an affluent Egyptian family. The new wife antagonized everyone — and turned up dead just when anyone would be a likely suspect.

But she wasn't the last to die. And when the identity of the murderer was revealed, it was about as surprising as the revelation in "And Then There Were None,"

I've heard it said that Christie was inspired to write "Death Comes as the End" after working with her archeologist husband in the Middle East. Makes sense to me. Christie found inspiration in her life's experiences — as all writers do. Why not an archeological dig?

Telling Harvey Milk's Story

"I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you ... and you ... and you ... gotta give 'em hope."

Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk was a social pioneer.

In these days of general acceptance of same–sex marriage, it is probably difficult for some people to imagine a time when homosexuals not only did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual citizens, but most also felt they could not be open about themselves with their families and friends — and, with no legal rights to speak of, there was no reason for them to tell their employers the truth, either.

That is why the title of an Oscar–winning documentary on Milk mentioned his times, not his life. A documentary examining a public life that is lived separately from a person's private life can afford the luxury of focusing on that person's life achievements as well as the times in which he/she lived. When one is a pioneer, the times are much more important — because he/she changed them or was changed by them, more likely the former.

Milk became the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco. Folks who knew him early in his life probably would have been surprised by how he turned out. He was not a gay activist as a young man, nor was he interested in politics. He grew up in New York, served in the Navy and opened a camera store in San Francisco.

So his political identity was not separate from his personal identity. He was perceived as a gay politician, and he was referred to in the media as the "first openly gay supervisor." But he soon made it clear he was motivated to be an advocate for all his constituents, not just his gay ones.

One of the interesting observations in the movie described Milk's first campaign — and, I suspect, his later ones were much the same — as a microcosm of the city's population, with gays working next to straights, men working with women, young working with old, all with a common purpose and, I suspect, a common expectation.

His metamorphosis into a social activist can be seen in "The Times of Harvey Milk," which premiered 30 years ago today — nearly six years after Milk's death. It was directed by Rob Epstein and narrated by Harvey Fierstein.

Anyone under 40 would have no memory of Milk — but that is precisely the demographic group that really needs to see this documentary. Most of those people have grown up believing in equal treatment for all, which is good, but they need to understand that America has not always lived up to its creed. An historical context is necessary in any kind of empowerment movement — racial, religious, sexual — so the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future.

That same group has grown up or is growing up with a mental image of San Francisco as bursting at the seams with gay residents. Its gay population may always have been a little larger than the gay population in most American cities, but in the early 1970s, gays merely represented a fraction of the city's population. That demographic group was definitely growing, but it was simply one more group in the San Francisco melting pot. Milk's election was historic, and it forever changed the perception of San Francisco in the nation at large.

I think Milk was successful — and seemed to have outgrown "the movement" in the months before his death — because his emphasis was on people — of all kinds. Gay, straight, male, female, black, white, young, old. Perhaps he got into politics because of his sexual orientation. But, after his election as city supervisor, and maybe even before, he realized that his constituency extended beyond the homosexual community and that, if one group is denied something that is permitted to others, truly equal treatment does not exist, and everyone is demeaned.

I'm inclined to think Milk's transformation happened before he was elected — when he earned the honorary title "Mayor of Castro Street." On Election Night 1977, when Milk won in his fourth try, he was asked if he would be a supervisor for all the people. "I have to be," he replied. "The problems that affect this city affect all of us."

A year later, it was the sad duty of Dianne Feinstein, then the president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, to announce the killings of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in November 1978. If you're planning to watch this documentary and you don't know what happened to Milk, you'll see footage of Feinstein making the announcement during the opening credits.

So I guess I'm not letting the cat out of the bag by telling you that. The rest of the movie, after all, is built upon the presumption that the audience knows what happened.

I felt that two of the most powerful parts of the movie were news footage — of the mournful but peaceful candlelight vigil that filled San Francisco's streets the night of the murders and the angry mob that filled those streets several months later when former Supervisor Dan White was convicted not of premeditated murder but of voluntary manslaughter, thanks in large part to what became known as the "Twinkie defense."

The former did the city proud; the latter did not. In the movie, it was alleged that, if Moscone had been the only victim, White would have been sent to prison for life. "But he killed a gay," one person said in the movie, "and so they let him off easy."

I understand the raw emotions that surrounded these events, and that allegation may very well reflect the majority opinion in San Francisco at that time, but I thought the makers of the movie did no one a favor by giving voice to unsupported slander of the jury.

"The Times of Harvey Milk" received an Oscar for Best Documentary.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Butch and the Sundance Kid: A Product of Its Time

"Who are those guys?"

Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman)

I have long thought that "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," which premiered on this day in 1969, was a product of its times.

It told the story of a different time and place — the Old West in the 19th century — but from a decidedly contemporary point of view.

The movie came out in the year of the first moonwalk, which involved many kinds of people working together and eschewing individuality to an extent, but it was also a time of nonconformity, of thumbing one's nose at the establishment.

It was hardly surprising that, in such an atmosphere, a movie that glorified the exploits of two outlaws, nonconformists of their day, should be as successful as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Roger Ebert had his own take on the movie: It "must have looked like a natural on paper," he wrote, "but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing."

I guess that kind of depends on your point of view.

Ebert's point of view was that there were two problems with the movie: "First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman's script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it's a Western."

I disagree with both points — to different extents, I guess. I thoroughly disagree with the first point. I disagree with the second point, too — but not entirely, not unreservedly. Yes, there were times when the script was too cute, but most of the time I thought it was clever and funny.

Like the time when Butch and Sundance and Etta (Katharine Ross) arrived in Bolivia, and their destination turned out to be little more than a farm with livestock wandering around. Butch remarked that the whole country couldn't look like that.

"How do you know?" Sundance asked. "This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey, of all Bolivia, for all you know."

And I still laugh when Sundance refuses to jump from the cliff into the water below because he can't swim.

"Are you crazy?" Butch replies. "The fall will probably kill you."

It's hard to argue with logic like that.

Ross, not too far removed from her appearance in "The Graduate," was their sidekick, and she delivered what I thought was the best monologue in the movie when the subject of whether she would accompany Butch and Sundance to South America came up.

"I'm 26, and I'm single and a school teacher, and that's the bottom of the pit," she said. "And the only excitement I've known is here with me now. I'll go with you, and I won't whine, and I'll sew your socks, and I'll stitch you when you're wounded, and I'll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won't watch you die. I'll miss that scene if you don't mind."

And she didn't watch them die.

That, of course, came at the end of the movie. But even the audience didn't watch them die, just saw them running into a hail of gunfire.

In spite of Ebert's assessment, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" received seven Oscar nominations and won four. Goldman, by the way, took home one of those Oscars for his screenplay.

Goldman won another Oscar a few years later for his screenplay in another Robert Redford movie, "All the President's Men."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Middle Installment of Ford's Cavalry Trilogy

Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne): Were you ever scared, "Captain" Tyree?

Sgt. Tyree (Ben Johnson): Yes, sir. Up to and includin' now.

John Ford's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," which premiered nationwide on this day in 1949, took home the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.

And why shouldn't it? It was filmed against the backdrop of the awe–inspiring Monument Valley along the Utah–Arizona border. Nature gave Ford the perfect set, and it cost him nothing to make — which was good because, as it was, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" was one of the most expensive westerns ever made — at the time.

(Ford and Wayne had worked in Monument Valley before — when they made "Stagecoach" 10 years earlier.)

In hindsight, it is viewed as the middle installment in Ford's so–called cavalry trilogy — sandwiched in between "Fort Apache" and "Rio Grande" — although they weren't successive chapters of the same story. John Wayne, however, did star in all three.

Now, when you read your history (as most folks don't seem to do these days), you'll find many accounts of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's last stand. But, other than occasional references to what Custer's widow did, I have seen little about what happened after the massacre at the Little Bighorn.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" tried to fill that gap — albeit with what I assume was a fictional story. Wayne's character, a cavalry captain, was close to his mandatory retirement when he was given his final assignment — to deal with some renegade Indians who had broken out of a reservation.

Wayne's character also had to escort his commanding officer's wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stage. Dru caused quite a stir, as a young, attractive woman is apt to do when surrounded by soldiers who have been assigned to a remote outpost.

Wayne gave one of the greatest performances of his career — some will tell you it was his greatest performance, and I won't argue that. I can live with it — although there are other roles for which I could make a pretty good case.

Although they had worked together before, Ford supposedly said he didn't know Wayne could act until he saw him in "Red River."

The Academy didn't agree. Wayne didn't receive an Oscar nomination for "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." He was nominated the year before ("Sands of Iwo Jima"), but the only nomination he ever received for a role in a western was the one he received for playing Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" 20 years later.

And he won that one.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cocky vs. Cockney

"The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."

Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn)

My grandmother loved musicals. Her daughter (my mother) loved some musicals, too, not all — but they both loved George Cukor's "My Fair Lady," the movie version of the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play "Pygmalion" that made its big–screen debut 50 years ago today.

At one time, "My Fair Lady" was the longest–running musical in Broadway history, and that, I suppose, was the premise for making it into a movie.

That, however, was only one of several aspects of "My Fair Lady." It worked quite well on the stage and screen as a musical, and, with music by Lerner and Loewe, how could it not?

But it also worked as the spoof of the British class system that Shaw intended it to be. In fact, you could watch it several times, or a group of people could watch it together, and each experience could be unique.

There were lots of movie musicals in the 1960s; that wasn't what made "My Fair Lady" unique. But it may have been the pinnacle of the genre — beautifully filmed, elegantly costumed, gracefully acted.

The cast was wonderful, led by Rex Harrison and the always–beautiful Audrey Hepburn, who always lit up the screen (even if her singing was done by someone else — which it was. Marni Nixon did the singing in "My Fair Lady" as well as "The King and I" and "West Side Story.").

I am not a fan of musicals, but I would agree that the music in "My Fair Lady" was exceptional. I think it still holds up half a century later.

"I cannot decide if I am happier when the characters are talking or when they are singing," film critic Roger Ebert wrote. "The songs are literate and beloved; some romantic, some comic, some nonsense, some surprisingly philosophical, every single one wonderful."

As I recall, my mother and grandmother were especially fond of "I Could Have Danced All Night," the song that Audrey Hepburn sang after the iconic scene in which Harrison said, "By George, I think she's got it!" and he danced around the room with Hepburn while the two of them, along with Wilfrid Hyde–White (in perhaps his best–known role as Colonel Pickering), chanted variations on "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain."

If you haven't seen the movie, trust me, it makes sense when seen in context.

On the other hand, wrote Ebert, "The dialogue by Alan Jay Lerner [who also penned the song lyrics] wisely retains a great deal of 'Pygmalion.'"

Not to mention, as I said before, Shaw's original intent.

As I say, I'm not really a fan of musicals, but I think my favorite piece in "My Fair Lady" is the one from the race track, in which the patrons, to a minuet–like tune and in voices lacking any emotion at all, sang "Ascot Gavotte." Shaw would have been proud.
"Pulses rushing, faces flushing,
Heartbeats speed up,
I have never been so keyed up.
Any second now they'll begin to run.
Hark! a bell is ringing,
They are springing forward.
Look, it has begun!"

The horses ran past the totally still and silent onlookers, who resumed their song after the horses passed them, again with no emotion.
"What a frenzied moment that was!
Didn't they maintain an exhausting pace?
'Twas a thrilling, absolutely chilling running of
The Ascot opening race."

Hepburn was the Cockney flower girl whom the cocky Harrison was going to pass off as a duchess. It was a clash of the titanic wills. As Ebert observed, "It is characteristic that, in a musical that has love as its buried theme, no one ever kisses or seems about to."

I can't explain why it was that way with the rest of the cast, but, with Harrison and Hepburn, I think it's largely because their relationship was largely adversarial. The audience knew the characters were in love long before they did — and even when they realized at the end that they did love each other, they couldn't completely shift gears.

Astonishingly, Hepburn wasn't nominated for Best Actress.

"My Fair Lady" won eight Oscars — including Best Picture, Best Director (Cukor), Best Actor (Harrison) — but Hepburn wasn't even nominated. Julie Andrews won Best Actress that year for "Mary Poppins."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

'Mr. Smith' Was Capra-Corny

"It's a 40–foot dive into a tub of water, but I think you can do it."

Saunders (Jean Arthur)

(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 seventh of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
Back in February, Peggy Noonan wrote a column in which she mentioned the Netflix series "House of Cards." Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I have never seen an episode of this series, but, according to Noonan, the show "reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there."

She could have been describing "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which premiered 75 years ago today.

Jimmy Stewart gave a lot of great movie performances during his career, and, while it would be hard to pick out the very best, I'm usually inclined to pick the one he gave in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In so many ways, it was a great civics lesson. It was a fictional story, of course, like The West Wing TV series of which I was so fond, and, like The West Wing, it dealt with real–life matters — like filling legislative vacancies and filibusters and things like that.

But it was also a Frank Capra story — which means it was made with a heaping helping of feel–good idealism. Because of that, Capra movies were often called "Capra–corn" — and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" certainly was corny.

Well, Stewart's role was, anyway. He played a fellow named Jefferson Smith, a leader of the Boy Rangers in his state, truly a babe in the woods when it came to the ways of the world and Washington, a starry–eyed idealist who quoted American heroes like Jefferson and Lincoln and idolized his state's corrupt and thoroughly undeserving senior senator (played by Claude Rains). He was appointed to fill a vacancy left by the death of one of his state's U.S. senators.

But this wasn't entirely your standard "Capra–corn" fare. Nearly everyone else in the movie seemed to have a healthy dose of cynicism. Just not Jeff Smith. You probably couldn't find a more naïve individual. That was what his legislative aide, Saunders (Jean Arthur), loved about him. Pretty Capra–corny, huh?

"Did you ever have so much to say about something you just couldn't say it?"

Jeff Smith (James Stewart)

As a journalist, I have to say that I appreciated the comeuppance Smith got from the Washington media. I didn't think the press in that movie behaved in the way real–life reporters would under similar circumstances. They were a little rough on Stewart's clearly guileless character.

But they reached a point where they asserted that they could afford to be honest because they didn't have to face the voters to keep their jobs.

That's really a throwback to a bygone era. Far too many members of the modern press have compromised their principles — even though they still don't have to face the voters.

In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," many of the politicians were presented as being more virtuous than they almost certainly were in 1939. (It is beyond dispute that they were infinitely more virtuous than the politicians of today.)

Rains' character, caught up in the corruption Stewart was trying to defeat, confessed his sins on the Senate floor even though he had the upper hand against Stewart, whose voice was nearly gone from his filibuster.

"I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. And in this world today, full of hatred, a man who knows that one rule has a great trust."

Jeff Smith

And that is precisely the kind of corny–beyond–belief stuff that I'm talking about. For Capra–corn to work, there has to be a certain amount of plausibility there, however farfetched the story may be.

But the very notion that a politician, entrenched in a position of power, would behave so nobly is, well, hopelessly naïve. Perhaps it wasn't seen that way in 1939, but today, it is simply too farfetched.

Even if you tell yourself — if you stumble upon it while channel surfing — that "Mr. Smith" truly was Capra–corny, if you're like me, you'll watch it, anyway. It's entertaining, even if you've seen it several times before.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" received 11 Oscar nominations, second only to "Gone With the Wind." Lewis R. Foster took home the Oscar for Best Story.

When the Inmates Ran the Asylum

Ralph (Robert Christian): I was in that taxi cab, but I didn't rob it. It was my cousin. He's crazy.

Arthur (Al Pacino): What's his name?

Ralph: I don't know. I mean he lives out in Hillsberry.

Arthur: You don't know your cousin's name?

In many ways, Norman Jewison's "... And Justice For All," which debuted on this day in 1979, was better suited for current times, given its focus on corruption and injustice.

There is always an audience for that sort of theme, I suppose, because some people are predisposed to believe they have been victimized in some way, and I don't really see that changing. No matter how much we may reach for what we believe is a utopian society, human nature (being what it is) will pull in the opposite direction.

The story of "... And Justice For All" could have been written in the early 21st century. A longtime judge (played by John Forsythe, who really did look like a judge), the very picture of establishment privilege, was accused of rape. And the fact was that he was guilty, although he didn't say so to anyone.

He was already loathed by just about every lawyer who worked in his courtroom, including Al Pacino's character, a defense attorney. The judge asked for Pacino to defend him because he thought it would be good public relations. He believed he would be acquitted if the attorney who was defending him in court was also known to hate him.

"Inevitably, it's going to look as if the fix is in," Roger Ebert wrote, "unless the defense is conducted by a lawyer who's clearly on record as despising Forsythe."

That's a pretty cynical way of looking at things — unless you happen to be the product of a corrupt system.

It's also kind of daring for director Norman Jewison, given the many characters and subplots competing for the audience's attention.

As Ebert observed, the movie "has so many characters doing so many things to, with and against Pacino that it's a triumph of film making when all the stories end in the same movie."

When I say there was a lot going on, you can take that to the bank.

Perhaps the wildest character was played by Jack Warden. Warden played another judge who was as crazy as any character you'll find in the movies. He was a bit of a thrill seeker, spending his lunch breaks sitting on the ledge of the courthouse's fifth floor and flying helicopters, carefully calculating how far he could travel and return safely on the fuel he had — and then flying a little farther than that, just to see if he could make it back.

He took Pacino on such a ride — and, on at least one occasion, he fired a gun in his courtroom.

"Gentlemen," he said, "need I remind you you're in a court of law?"

I never have figured out the purpose of Warden's character in that movie. His helicopter flight with Pacino may have been good for a little comic relief, but, otherwise, I saw little relevance to the story.

Unless the point was that the lunatics were (and still are) running the asylum. Of course, that could have been it — or there could have been more to it, and I just didn't notice with all the competing subplots.

"... And Justice For All" received two Oscar nominations — Pacino for Best Actor and Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson for Best Original Screenplay — and lost both.

Simon & Garfunkel's First Album

It should come as no surprise that the Beatles were the most popular recording artists in the 1960s, but Simon & Garfunkel's popularity easily rivaled the Beatles' by the time the decade ended.

Simon & Garfunkel made their debut on this day in 1964 with the release of their "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" album — but widespread acclaim did not come until after they released their second album, "Sounds of Silence," a year and a half later.

Recorded over three daytime sessions in the spring of 1964, "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" offered five original songs and several traditional folk songs, much like the composition of Bob Dylan's debut album.

And, again, like Dylan's album, it offered a glimpse into the future.

It was my mother who introduced me to Simon & Garfunkel when I was just a little boy. Mostly it was the music from the "Sounds of Silence" album, which Mom played frequently — and loudly — on our old stereo. I have no memory of hearing "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" until I was much older, maybe when I was in college.

I don't think there were any hits on the album, nothing that would be recognizable to anyone except the really hard–core Simon & Garfunkel fans.

And Mom was a pretty devoted fan. She probably heard some of the tracks from "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM," which led her to purchase Simon & Garfunkel's second album. I have many memories of her humming along with songs from "Sounds of Silence" and "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme." Sometimes, when the spirit really moved her, she would belt out the songs with the gusto of Ethel Merman. My brother and I were her audience. We were little, but we would cheer and applaud when she sang Simon & Garfunkel.

I don't recall hearing her sing most of the songs from "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM," though, which is a shame. There were some good songs on that album. Not great songs, but good songs — and, as I say, they gave people a taste of what to expect.

The original Paul Simon songs on the album clearly indicated a folk direction to Simon & Garfunkel's music at the time. I guess the folk genre was always appropriate for Simon & Garfunkel's music, but it was probably most pronounced on "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" with its acoustic guitar presence, but it also had an element the duo's other four studio albums lacked — a banjo.

Of course, there were glimpses of the hit machine Simon & Garfunkel would become — like the original "The Sound of Silence," which it seems to me was the first Simon & Garfunkel song my mother brought home — in the form of a 45 rpm single.

That wasn't necessarily the version that was on the album that was released 50 years ago today. It might have been the revised (and, in my opinion, inferior) version that was included on the duo's next album — the one that brought them wide recognition.

So perhaps she heard "Wednesday Morning, 3 AM" after all. That song was featured more prominently in the album that shared that name.

I liked other original Paul Simon songs on the album, too. "Bleecker Street" was probably my favorite, but the historian in me appreciated "He Was My Brother," a song that was inspired by the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. One of those workers, Andrew Goodman, had been a classmate of Simon's. The song took certain liberties — for example, it said that the unnamed brother was five years older, when, in fact, Simon was about two years older than Goodman.

It was still a good song — and it was, I believe, Simon & Garfunkel's first foray into topical songwriting. It was also the song that first attracted the attention of Columbia Records.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stringbean's Killer Wins His Parole

News reached us this week that the convicted killer of David "Stringbean" Akeman has been granted parole.

I was a boy when Stringbean was murdered in November 1973. My family was living in Nashville while my father was on sabbatical. The weekend that Stringbean was killed, my father was at some kind of educators' conference, and my mother took my brother and me to Chattanooga, where we spent the weekend in the Chattanooga Choo–Choo hotel, which was a hotel made out of an actual train.

It wasn't until we got back to Nashville late that Sunday that we learned that Stringbean and his wife had been murdered by burglars at their cabin in the country late Saturday night.

Well, at the time, no one knew that it had been burglars — although the police must have suspected as much. The cabin had been ransacked.

I told the story of the murder of Stringbean on the 40th anniversary of that event last year. I don't really have much to add to that, just some thoughts on the occasion of his killer's parole.

We left Nashville before the Brown cousins were tried for the murders of Stringbean and Estelle so I have no memory of that. But I vividly remember seeing the picture below on the front page of The Tennessean, Nashville's newspaper, the Monday after the killings. See those Xes? They indicate where the bodies were found. The one at the doorway is where Stringbean was killed. The one near the cars shows where Estelle's body was found.

I suppose, if I had been one of Stringbean's friends and colleagues, I would be bitter about the parole, too, as The Tennessean is reporting. Most of Stringbean's contemporaries and co–stars on the TV show Hee Haw are gone now, but some are still around, and they opposed the parole. It was granted, anyway.

The Brown cousins were each given two 99–year sentences for taking the two lives, which adds up to a 198–year sentence apiece. The cousin who did not pull the trigger died in prison a decade ago; the cousin who did pull the trigger is being paroled after serving 40 years. That is not an insignificant length of time, but whoever it was who handed down the sentences, whether it was the judge or the jury or both working together, the fact is that it was decided at the time of the trial by a person or persons who heard all the testimony and saw all the evidence that neither of the defendants should ever walk the streets a free man again.

Judges and juries are asked to do some of the dirtiest work imaginable in a democratic republic. They are asked to sit in judgment of someone else, and they often have to see and hear some gruesome things in order to do what they are asked to do. (I speak from experience here. For about a year and a half, I worked as a police/courthouse beat reporter for a newspaper in Arkansas.)

When they do that thankless job, their decision should be respected. Forty years may seem sufficient punishment to you, but whoever handed down the sentences clearly believed neither man should be free.

Why do I say that conclusion was clear from the sentence? Well, you have to go back to biblical times (or a vampire novel) to find the last person who — supposedly — lived to be more than 200 years old. It just doesn't happen in modern times.

I'm not one of those eye–for–an–eye guys. Five years ago, I argued that Susan Atkins, a member of the infamous Manson Family who killed actress Sharon Tate and her house guests in 1969, should be granted parole on compassionate grounds. (Atkins did not receive that parole, by the way, and died of brain cancer in September 2009.)

If Stringbean's killer had been stricken with a deadly disease, I might have supported his parole — for the same reason. (I say "might have" because it is a hypothetical — speculative in nature — and I prefer not to speculate about what my reaction would be to a hypothetical circumstance.)

But Atkins' was a compelling special circumstance. I haven't advocated the parole of Charles Manson or any of his followers who have been in prison for more than four decades. If a compelling special circumstance does not exist — and there isn't one in the Stringbean murder case, as far as I know — then I believe a sentence that has been handed down by a judge or jury or both should be upheld.

Today, I have found myself remembering those days long ago and how the murders of Stringbean and Estelle marked the end of the innocence of Nashville's country music community. String wasn't a country music performer so much as he was a bluegrass performer. Well, that's my opinion. He played the banjo, and I have always believed the banjo is a bluegrass music instrument, not a country music instrument.

He performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, with country stars and bluegrass stars alike. (I have always regretted the fact that my family never went to the Opry while we lived in Nashville.) In fact, he had been performing at the Opry the night of his murder. The last song he ever sang was a song he practiced backstage with another performer — "Lord, I'm Coming Home."

I read every story about the killings, watched every news report. I knew all the grim details. In my mind's eye, I could almost see the whole thing as it played out. It was pretty intense for a young boy.

It was pretty intense for Nashville's country music community, too. Before Stringbean's murder, performers at the Opry would often have drinks with their fans at nearby bars after the show. That stopped after String's murder. Before the murder, many folks in Nashville — not just the performers although they were notorious for it — left their doors unlocked at night. That stopped, too. In fact, my memory is that door lock and gun sales went up, as did the demand for the home security systems of the day. The performers started hiring bodyguards.

It had truly been a simple, innocent time. And it was over.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

'Lady By Choice' Was Frivolous But Funny

Patsy (May Robson): Old people are respectable in spite of themselves.

My guess is that May Robson was the prime attraction when "Lady By Choice" premiered on this day in 1934.

Robson was in her 70s. She was born before Abe Lincoln was elected president; she started her career on the stage, and, by 1934, she was playing crusty old ladies with hearts of gold on the screen.

Her co–star, Carole Lombard, was popular, too, though; in fact, 1934 is widely viewed as her breakthrough year. I just wonder if her following matched Robson's at that time. Besides, the movie that is often remembered as her best, "Hands Across the Table" with Fred MacMurray, premiered the next year.

Well, anyway, "Lady By Choice" was commercially successful and well received by critics. Personally, I thought it was kind of corny and predictable. It was silly at times — well, frequently, actually. But, I suppose, movies that were made 80 years ago are bound to be seen that way by 21st–century viewers.

I think it is always worth watching, though, to see Lombard's comic skills in action.

Lombard played a fan dancer named Alabam who was convicted of violating local ethics codes. Robson played a drunken vagrant who was asked to pose as Lombard's mother. Lombard was in it for the publicity — a mother figure would give her image a boost — but Robson's character took the assignment seriously and set about nudging Lombard's character toward a career as a serious actress.

They made an enjoyable team, Lombard and Robson. Unfortunately, I don't think they made another film together, either before or after making "Lady By Choice." That was truly a missed opportunity. Only eight years after "Lady By Choice" was in the theaters, both Lombard and Robson were deceased.

I suppose it is anyone's guess whether Lombard, who made six movies in 1934, could have competed in the Best Actress category against Bette Davis or the eventual winner, Claudette Colbert. In fact, though, I have always been inclined to believe that Robson might well have won Best Supporting Actress at the then–fledgling Oscars — but the category didn't exist until two years later.

"Lady By Choice" received no Oscar nominations. Perhaps it was viewed as too frivolous, and there might have been something to that. I've noticed a tendency by the Oscar committee to be sparing in its nominations of comedies. It's one thing if the comedy's humor makes a point in the process, but some comedies are just written for laughs with no thought given to any sort of broader implication.

In its day, giving "Lady By Choice" an Oscar nomination might have been comparable to giving one to "Porky's" half a century later.

Then again, "It Happened One Night" was a sensation at the Oscars that year, winning the five major awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Clearly, the Academy was receptive to comedies.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Paradox of 'Pulp Fiction'

Vincent (John Travolta): And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Jules (Samuel L. Jackson): They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

Vincent: No, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

Jules: Then what do they call it?

Vincent: They call it a Royale with Cheese.

Jules: A Royale with Cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?

Vincent: Well, a Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it le Big Mac.

Jules: Le Big Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?

Vincent: I dunno, I didn't go into Burger King.

I don't know precisely when I got wise to the fact that, if I was going to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, I had to be prepared for the likelihood that the story would not be told chronologically.

And sometimes he throws in stuff that has no real meaning to the story. Just to make sure you're paying attention, I suppose.

Roger Ebert really liked the dialogue in "Pulp Fiction," which premiered 20 years ago today. So did I — and for pretty much the same reason. Ebert just expressed it better than I could.

"Dialogue drives Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction,'" he wrote, "dialogue of such high quality it deserves comparison with other masters of spare, hard–boiled prose, from Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard. Like them, QT finds a way to make the words humorous without ever seeming to ask for a laugh. Like them, he combines utilitarian prose with flights of rough poetry and wicked fancy."

That is the intriguing paradox of "Pulp Fiction," isn't it? A movie that is, ostensibly, about action is, as Ebert put it, driven by dialogue.

The conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson about Quarter Pounders and what they are called in France is my favorite example. Ebert cites his own, which is just as valid. There are many examples in "Pulp Fiction." The dialogue really is what makes the movie work.

It could have clashed with Tarantino's non–linear style of story telling, but it didn't because, as Ebert wrote, his was a utilitarian prose. There was purpose in each thing that was said, even if it wasn't readily apparent. And when the movie was over, the viewer felt as if he/she had been told the whole story and understood it as if it had been told in a more traditionally linear fashion.

The story began and ended with the same holdup in the same restaurant pulled off by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer. By the time the robbery was seen for a second time, everything had fallen into place.

It was the dialogue that made the movie the black comedy that it was. I guess that is always the case, but the subject matter in this movie was really pretty brutal. If the words prompted laughter "without ever seeming to ask for a laugh" — and they often did — that is why it is remembered as a great black comedy.

Of course, there was more of a purpose to the dialogue, as Ebert observed. "[T]here is a chronology in the dialogue," Ebert wrote, "in the sense that what is said before invariably sets up or enriches what comes after." In other words, the dialogue provided a context.

It was the movie that resurrected Travolta's career. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (but lost to Tom Hanks for "Forrest Gump") and was in some pretty good movies in the years that immediately followed "Pulp Fiction," but his career seems to have slipped from the radar again.

Seems to me I could almost say the same thing about Uma Thurman, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (but lost to Dianne Wiest in "Bullets Over Broadway"). She's made some noteworthy movies in the last 20 years — the "Kill Bill" movies come to mind — but she has mostly dropped out of sight lately, too.

In all, "Pulp Fiction" received seven Oscar nominations and won for Best Original Screenplay.

"It's all in the dialogue," Ebert wrote, and I really have to agree. Tarantino richly deserved the Oscar he shared with Roger Avary for the original screenplay — and he also deserved his nomination for Best Director.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

'Laura' Was Baffling, Even for Film Noir

"I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For Laura's horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her."

Waldo (Clifton Webb)
Opening line

"Film noir is known for its convoluted plots and arbitrary twists," wrote movie critic Roger Ebert more than 10 years ago, "but even in a genre that gave us The Maltese Falcon, this takes some kind of prize."

That's for sure. Not only is "Laura" a whodunnit, it's a whogotit as well. As in who got killed? For that matter, did anyone get killed?

From the beginning, viewers were told that Laura (Gene Tierney), a young advertising executive, had been murdered. A streetwise detective (Dana Andrews) investigated.

As the detective went deeper and deeper into the case, he began to fall in love with the beguiling Laura, a woman he had never met but had seen frequently in a portrait.

Then, just when Andrews (and the audience) thought the case was wrapped up, who should walk in but Laura herself, very much alive?

There were several interesting characters in the story — a rather prissy newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb), Laura's leech of a boyfriend (Vincent Price), her affluent aunt who was also interested in the boyfriend and her housekeeper.

When Laura was believed to be dead, any one of them would have been a worthy suspect.

But it turned out that she wasn't the victim after all, which changed the whole emphasis of the investigation.

I won't tell you how the investigation turned out — or who the victim turned out to be.

I will say that I thought it was an excellent film noir, the kind that would really keep you guessing — but I probably would have tried to find a different leading lady. Tierney was pretty, yes, but she came across as a bit young for the role of an advertising executive (she was not yet 24 when "Laura" premiered). She seemed better suited for the role of a schoolgirl.

Maybe the movie's producers tried to get someone else to play the part. Maybe Tierney wasn't their first choice. Not that she didn't give it her best shot. I just thought that someone else would have been more effective. She was a veteran of nearly a dozen movies by that time, but she just didn't have the look for it. She needed to look like someone who was old enough to be teaching a college class, not leading cheers on Saturday afternoons.

Anyway, that would have been my recommendation. Someone with a little more gravitas.

"Laura" was nominated for five Oscars and won one (Joseph LaShelle for Best Black and White Cinematography).

Oh, the Stories Bacall Could Have Told

"You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you're goin' around barefooted, 'cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive, especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed. I bet I been bit a hundred times that way."

Eddie (Walter Brennan)

There was an ... I don't know ... impertinence about Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not," which was released 70 years ago today, that was very appealing.

She was 19 when the movie was filmed and pretty ... and making her big–screen debut opposite Humphrey Bogart in a movie directed by Howard Hawks. How could it be much better?

Bacall and Bogart later married and co–starred in three other movies together, each memorable in its own way, but "To Have and Have Not" was always the standard against which the others were judged.

There was an electricity between Bogart and Bacall that simply could not be duplicated completely in their other movies. Part of that may have been the story, but a lot of it, I think, was due to the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall as they began one of the most successful Hollywood relationships of all time. It practically crackled on the screen.

Like when Bacall told Bogart, "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

That line, by the way, is #34 on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie quotes of all time.

Lots of movie fans came to think of the character Bacall played as being Bacall herself. I guess that was — and still is — a fairly common misconception.

In fact, as I have heard it, Bacall's character was modeled in many ways after Hawks' wife, who was also known as "Slim," wore captivating dresses, had long blonde hair and a sultry voice and was perplexing.

Ernest Hemingway wrote the original story, but, beyond the title, there really were few similarities between the book and the movie.

I felt it was like a remake of "Casablanca" — perhaps better. Bogart played the same I–stick–my–neck–out–for–nobody kind of character. He wasn't running a night club this time; he was a fishing boat captain in the Caribbean who sometimes smuggled French Resistance fighters to the island of Martinique. His faithful sidekick wasn't Dooley Wilson playing the piano but alcohol–swilling Walter Brennan.

And he had a beautiful love interest — who was even younger than Ingrid Bergman had been. (Was she more beautiful? That's a matter of personal taste.)

Several members of the "Casablanca" cast were in "To Have and Have Not" — primarily minor characters, probably not readily recognizable to anyone who isn't familiar with "Casablanca." But they were there.

As I mentioned earlier, Dooley Wilson wasn't around to play the piano, but Hoagy Carmichael was there.

There's an old story that says Andy Williams, who would have been about 16 at the time, did the singing for Bacall, but it isn't true. It was confirmed that Williams and some female singers were brought in to audition to do the dubbing because of fears that Bacall wouldn't be able to handle it. But, apparently, those fears were overridden by the wish to have Bacall do her own singing.

And, while I will admit that she wasn't perfect, she wasn't bad, either.

I regret that she didn't live to see this anniversary, the 70th of her movie debut. It would have been great fun to hear the tales she had to tell.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Flip Side of Dr. Strangelove

Prof. Groeteschele (Walter Matthau): Mr. Secretary, I am convinced that the moment the Russians know bombs will fall on Moscow, they will surrender. They know that whatever they do then, they cannot escape destruction. Don't you see, sir? This our chance. We never would have made the first move deliberately, but Group 6 has made it for us, by accident. We must take advantage of it. History demands it. We must advise the president not to recall those planes.

I have often said that Sidney Lumet's "Fail–Safe," which premiered on this date in 1964, and "Dr. Strangelove," which premiered in January 1964, should be shown back to back. They are, essentially, opposite sides of the same coin — unintended nuclear attack.

In "Dr. Strangelove," it was triggered by an insane U.S. Air Force general who kept babbling about "precious bodily fluids." In "Fail–Safe," a mechanical malfunction caused by Russian interference unleashed a squadron on a mission to bomb Moscow.

This forced the Americans to do things they never dreamed they would do — in order to prove to the Russians that the mission was a mistake, that a retaliatory attack was not necessary and that they would share secrets with the Russians that would help them shoot down the planes.

This led to some memorable dramatic performances by some actors who are remembered for their comedic skills. In his second–ever movie, Dom DeLuise, for example, played a small part as a technical sergeant who, because he occupied the lowest spot on the totem pole, was forced to divulge to the Soviets how to destroy air–to–air missiles on American aircraft.

DeLuise's character unknowingly triggered a false "go" signal when he replaced a failed electronic component.

Walter Matthau played a hawkish professor who happened to be addressing the Department of Defense that day. He provided reminders of unpleasant facts — for example, in arguing against futile attempts to rescue victims of a midday bombing of New York City, he said troops should be deployed to save the documents of the many corporations that kept their records in the city. "Our economy depends on this," he observed in a rather lifeless monotone that suggested that he could see both the irony and the absurdity of deploying troops with orders to rescue paper instead of people.

Henry Fonda was brilliant (as always) as the president who had been placed in an extremely delicate position, the kind that civilians know a president could face at any time — but they devoutly hope he never will. His translator was played by a young Larry Hagman; the relationship between Fonda and Hagman, sitting together far below the surface and sharing conversations with the Russians, was one of many highlights in a story of relentlessly escalating tension.

It was a riveting drama, the exact opposite of "Dr. Strangelove," which was a spot–on satire.

Interestingly, Roger Ebert wrote that 1983's "WarGames" was a "'Fail–Safe' retread." I never really thought of it that way, but I have to admit he was right — if he meant that in a complimentary way. And how could he not? There were similarities between the movies; being compared to "Fail–Safe" was a compliment — even if "WarGames" came up short.

Golden Pillow Talk

"If there's anything worse than a woman living alone, it's a woman saying she likes it."

Alma (Thelma Ritter)

The movies have seen countless couples over the years.

Most were manufactured for the big screen; some had the virtue of being real–life couples, but most were thrown together by the forces that combine to make movies.

Once in awhile, if the makers of a movie are really lucky, they strike gold with a couple that seem very natural together. That was the way it was with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. They only made three movies together — "Pillow Talk," "Lover Come Back" and "Send Me No Flowers" — but they always come up when people discuss movie couples.

Fifty–five years ago, the first — and, arguably, the best — of their movies, "Pillow Talk," debuted on America's movie screens.

If you haven't seen it, a word of caution before you watch it. You need to familiarize yourself with the concept of a party line. Those things probably don't exist now — we had one for awhile when I was a kid, but we lived in the country. I never realized until I saw this movie, though, that party lines existed in cities, too.

Well, at least, they did on Oct. 7, 1959. I, however, did not.

Now, you may have heard the words party line used in a political context — as in so–and–so has been "towing the party line" — but, in the context of this movie and my childhood experience, it refers to multiple customers sharing one landline telephone line. Whenever a call came in, the phones rang in the homes of all the customers sharing that line.

In this movie, it meant that Doris Day, playing an interior decorator, and Rock Hudson, playing a songwriter and very socially active bachelor, shared a party line. They didn't know each other except through their telephone calls — and that was Day's problem. In between the calls that came in for Hudson and the time he spent returning those calls, Day couldn't use her phone line for anything — business, personal matters, anything.

And she was frustrated.

Hudson's character spent long periods of time on the phone with his lady friends and crooned a song to each that he claimed to have written especially for her — but, in fact, it was the same song. He only changed the girl's name and, occasionally, the language.

Anyway, after accidentally encountering Day in public and adopting the persona of a country boy from Texas (complete with faux Texas accent), Hudson began to date her — while, simultaneously, predicting to Day (as the playboy) his own attempts to seduce her.

There was a complication for Hudson — his business partner and best friend, played by Tony Randall, who was also one of Day's clients (and was so enamored of her he once tried to give her a car).

Randall found out what Hudson was up to and lowered the boom. Well, he thought he did. He banished Hudson to Randall's country home in Connecticut, where Hudson was supposed to finish his latest musical project — and Hudson double–crossed him, inviting Day to go with him. She accepted his invitation; when Randall found out about it, he was livid.

In some ways, I suppose, the way the story played out was predictable, but that didn't change the fact that Day and Hudson just clicked together.

Apparently, that was no movie illusion. Day and Hudson became lifelong friends.

And, as was so often the case in her movies, co–star Thelma Ritter (a delight in this movie as Day's drunken housekeeper) had many of the best lines.

For example, when discussing single life, Day recited a list of her recent activities and demanded to know, "Well, what am I missing?"

"If you have to ask," Ritter replied, "believe me, you're missing it!"

"Pillow Talk" was nominated for five Oscars — and won for Best Original Screenplay.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Living and Learning From Experience

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland): Don't be kind to me, Father. It doesn't become you.

Try as I might, I just can't think of Olivia de Havilland as plain.

I say that having seen "The Heiress," which premiered 65 years ago today. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Catherine Sloper (the title character of an adaptation of a play based on a Henry James novella that supposedly was inspired by a true story) and that character was very plain and very shy.

But I would never call Olivia de Havilland plain. She considered herself a classical actress when she was appearing regularly in the movies, and she paid a professional price for refusing to play bimbo roles. A skilled makeup/hair person could make her look plain, I suppose, but she wasn't naturally plain.

Nor would I call her particularly shy, either. She sued Warner Bros. for extending her contract at a time when studios virtually enslaved their talent through unfair contract extensions. She paid a price for that, too, but, in the end, she won, and "the de Havilland Law," as it is known, shifted the balance of power in Hollywood from the studios to the performers.

I've never read James' novella, but if plain and shy is an accurate description of its heroine, I imagine that de Havilland really must have done a superb job of portraying her because she was clearly playing against type.

The only thing that her father (Ralph Richardson) thought she had going for her was her wealth, and he was determined that de Havilland's handsome, young suitor Morris (Montgomery Clift) wouldn't get his hands on it. Catherine saw her father as emotionally abusive. I think a pretty good case could be made for protective. I've known many fathers who didn't approve of their daughters' choices for husbands.

But as Lysander said in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"...

"The course of true love never did run smooth."

It wasn't really true love, though. Turned out Catherine's father was right. Her suitor was after her money, and he disappeared the minute it seemed her dowry would be cut off.

Richardson's relationship with de Havilland was devastating to watch. He was well–meaning and wanted to protect his daughter, but he also felt disdain for her. The scene where she realized that was painful to watch — and remains so even after several viewings.

Morris surfaced again several years later, after Catherine's father had died, and insisted he left because he wanted to spare her the "grief" of being disinherited. Her words told him he was back in her good graces, but the audience could see facial expressions he didn't see and body language he failed to pick up.

She told him to pick her up that night and they would be married, but she had no intention of going away with him.

"He's grown greedier over the years," she told her aunt. "Before he only wanted my money; now he wants my love as well. Well, he came to the wrong house — and he came twice. I shall see that he does not come a third time."

"Can you be so cruel?" her shocked aunt asked.

"Yes, I can be very cruel," replied Catherine. "I have been taught by masters."

And when he returned, the door was bolted. He kept knocking, but there was no answer.

One of the things I liked best about "The Heiress" — but I never hear it mentioned — was how director William Wyler made parts of the set silent characters.

Take, for example, the tall, narrow stairway in her father's home. When Catherine was anticipating Morris' arrival to take her away from her old life, one could imagine her bounding down the stairs in excitement. The audience didn't actually see that part, just the glowing Catherine with her bags all packed waiting by the front door.

But when she made the long, arduous climb back up those stairs after reaching the agonizing conclusion that Morris wasn't coming after all, each step was more painful than the last.

The acting in "The Heiress" was spellbinding, and de Havilland, as I mentioned, did win the Best Actress Oscar, but Richardson lost Best Supporting Actor to Dean Jagger ("Twelve O'Clock High"); "The Heiress" also won Oscars for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, Best Black and White Art Direction and Best Black and White Costume Design.

It was recognized with Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Black and White Cinematography. The movie's eight Oscar nominations and four victories outperformed every other motion picture that year, even the Best Picture winner, "All the King's Men."

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Not-So-Perfect 10

George (Dudley Moore): If you were dancing with your wife, or girlfriend you knew in high school, and you said to her, 'Darling, they're playing our song,' do you know what they'd be playing?

Don (Brian Dennehy): What?

George: 'Why Don't We Do It In The Road.'

Appropriately, Blake Edwards' "10," which made its debut 35 years ago today and had a wedding as its subtext, offered something — or, rather, someone — old and something (someone) new. (The something borrowed and something blue parts might apply, too. Kinda depends on how those terms are defined.)

Bo Derek, the comely co–star, wasn't exactly new to movie audiences — but she might as well have been. Her very first movie appearance was also rather brief — 1977's "Orca." Audiences didn't have a lot of time to see her in that one.

"10" was her second movie, and it gave her considerably more exposure. It doesn't appear to have led to better roles in better movies, though. Seems that "10" was the high point of her career.

According to her co–star, Dudley Moore, she was a perfect 10. Hence, the title.

Whether she really was a perfect 10 was — as beauty always is — in the eye of the beholder. But there was certainly a widespread public impression that she was. After being in "10," Derek was featured naked in men's magazines and appeared in movies that always seemed to show her in varying stages of undress; to be fair, perhaps there were exceptions to that, but none come to mind. (After awhile, she kind of faded from public view, seemingly having cashed in on her 15 minutes of fame.) Her braided hairstyle was adopted by young girls across the nation.

America was in the grip of a full–fledged Bo frenzy. "10" made her a superstar.

Moore, on the other hand, wasn't new. He had been appearing in movies for more than 10 years, and many moviegoers probably recognized his face, but he only managed to make his career breakthrough with "10," which he followed with "Arthur" a couple of years later. For awhile there, Moore, too, was a superstar.

In "10," Moore played a middle–aged man who was going through a midlife crisis. He seemed to have everything a man could want — a successful career, a beautiful home, a Rolls–Royce, a beautiful girlfriend (Julie Andrews). But it wasn't enough.

He fell victim to that nagging suspicion that nearly everyone must have at some point — that life was passing him by. As is so often the case with men, a big part of his melancholy had to do with his belief that an exciting sex life was history for him.

He found himself stealing glances at provocatively dressed young girls as they walked along the street, then looking away if it seemed they were on to him, and he was jealous of a neighbor he watched through his telescope. This neighbor seemed to be having orgies every day and every night.

One day, Moore caught a glimpse of Derek on her way to her wedding — and was smitten with her. (She wasn't actually a 10, he told his therapist. More like an 11.)

So smitten that he followed the newlyweds on their honeymoon to Mexico — and wound up rescuing the groom, who had fallen asleep on his surfboard and drifted out to sea.

The groom wasn't injured — in spite of a near–encounter with a shark — but he was badly sunburned and had to spend a couple of days in the hospital.

In his absence, Moore's character gallantly paid Derek a visit and took her out to dinner. Upon their return to her room, she started to seduce him (which took little effort) — and kicked off a modest boom in popularity for Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" in the process.

It was ironic, I suppose, that "10" came to be closely associated with "Bolero." The movie's only Oscar nominations were for its music — Best Original Score and Best Original Song, both the work of Henry Mancini.

As Derek and Moore were becoming intimate, the phone rang. It was the groom, and he spoke to both, apparently never guessing what he had interrupted.

When the phone call was over, Moore's character began having second thoughts and realized that the sexual relationship meant something completely different to Derek than it did to him. Maybe it was a generational thing. Anyway, he returned to America and tried to resume his previous relationship, reconciling with Andrews.

I guess that was the most surprising (and, in many ways, most rewarding) twist of all for me. It may seem hackneyed now, but, when I first saw it, it was surprising that, with the buildup for the movie, Moore chose in the end to stick with the faithful lover.

Maturity and personal values won over immaturity and impulsive infatuation. Moore's character was more mature than anyone guessed. Who knew?

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Dee Wallace, whom I have admired for many years. She is primarily known for roles that featured her more prominently, particularly as the young mother in "E.T.," and, more often than not, I have thought that she did quite well, but her performance in a supporting role in "10" really was remarkable, even by her own standards.

Wallace played a young woman who met Moore on his impulse trip to Mexico, and they hit it off in the hotel lounge. They returned to his room where they started to make love — but Moore's character was obsessed with Derek, and he was unable to perform with Wallace. She took it personally, and Moore tried to tell her it was a mistake to take it that way.

Wallace tried to relieve Moore of any guilt, explaining that something like that had happened with another boyfriend — who had since married and fathered several children. She told him not to blame himself, and there was something genuinely moving about her assertion that "Some of us just don't bring out the man in men." That was a reminder of the often unrealistic expectations we — and society — place on ourselves.

It was a stark contrast to the mood of the rest of the movie, which sometimes bordered on exploitation of Derek and other sexy young bodies. But the script was smarter than that. It managed to resist the temptation to pander. And it offered a generous helping of surprises, like Wallace's introspective observation and Moore's principled decency.

I thought Wallace deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she didn't get one.

Frankly, I always thought it was ironic that Derek came to be regarded as a sex symbol after appearing in "10." Other actresses in the movie (some of them uncredited) showed far more skin than Derek did. Through the first three–quarters of the movie, her most revealing scenes were in a decidedly unsexy one–piece swimsuit (ironically, CNN's Emanuella Grinberg recently asserted that the one–piece is staging a comeback), and her nude scenes with Moore were dimly lit.

Perhaps it was an example of the triumph of effective marketing.