Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Visit of Big Mac

Col. Whiteman (Graham Jarvis): While the general is here, do not address him unless he first addresses you, and then always use his full name and rank in reply, as 'Yes, General MacArthur,' 'No, General MacArthur,' 'Thank you, General MacArthur.'

Trapper (Wayne Rogers): God almighty!

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Close, very close.

Douglas MacArthur was frequently the butt of jokes on TV's M*A*S*H, but rarely was an entire episode devoted to it. The episode that first aired 40 years ago tonight was devoted to it.

The camp received a phone call when all the surgeons were in the O.R. Radar took the call. It was a head's up that MacArthur was coming to visit. Seems the 4077th had the best survival rate of any medical unit in the theater.

At the pre–visit briefing, there was some one–upsmanship going on.

Frank (Larry Linville): I think the colonel might like to know that Major Houlihan's (Loretta Swit) father was under General MacArthur in the cavalry.

Hawkeye: (To Trapper) Her father was a horse! Did you know that?

Trapper: (To Hot Lips) Our engagement is off!

Everyone was busy getting the 4077th spruced up for MacArthur's visit. Radar put all kinds of special doo–dads in the VIP tent, including two red–white–and–blue lamps, prompting Trapper to waggishly ask if he was looking for two honest men.

Frank, meanwhile, was busy burning books because of objectionable content of one kind or another.

Trapper: Frank! What are you doing?

Frank: Burning books.

Hawkeye: Oh. Any special reason, Dr. Hitler?

Frank: One of the greatest living Americans is coming and I'm not going to let him see some of the trash that's read around here.

Trapper: Plato's Republic? The Life of Red Grange?

Hawkeye: Revolutionaries.

Frank: Right!

Trapper: Robinson Crusoe?

Hawkeye: Everybody runs around half naked.

Trapper: Norman Mailer.

Frank: It's got that word in it.

Hawkeye: Frank, you burn one more book, I'm gonna give you a dancing lesson in the mine field. Now, knock it off, gnat brain!

At one point, Hawkeye took a group picture of the 4077th staff. It was intended to be included in the commemorative photo album that would be presented to the general.

Hawkeye told Frank to get in the front row because "I want to catch those eyes."

Frank was pleased — until Hawkeye added another instruction: "Keep them spinning counter–clockwise!"

The 4077th was doing a rehearsal for MacArthur's arrival when Big Mac actually did drive through the compound — but he didn't even stop. All he saw was the rather astonished staff saluting him as he drove past ...

And Klinger (Jamie Farr), dressed as the Statue of Liberty, at the sentry post as MacArthur's jeep left the compouond.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is Blood Thicker Than Wine?

Fifteen years ago tonight, Frasier explored relationships. Well, in a way, I guess it always examined relationships in one way or another. Usually it explored Frasier's love relationships — which tended to be short–lived — but the episode that aired 15 years ago tonight dealt with more permanent relationships.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was depending on his brother (David Hyde Pierce) to nominate him for corkmaster of their Wine Club. Ordinarily, Niles was a dutiful brother and would have gladly done that favor for Frasier. He was willing to do so, anyway, but he was under the spell of his latest love interest, Mel Karnofsky (Jane Adams), who had coaxed him into seeking the post himself.

When the club met to decide its next corkmaster, Niles told Frasier he would nominate him — adding that he hoped Frasier would return the favor, which Frasier grudgingly did.

Frasier didn't realize that Mel had been pressing Niles to pursue the post of corkmaster when he spoke to Roz (Peri Gilpin) of his misgivings about Niles' and Mel's relationship. When Roz asked him on what his misgivings were based, he confessed that he really didn't know Mel very well — and decided to have a Sunday brunch for her to meet the family and vice versa.

By that time, Frasier hoped to be the corkmaster–elect, and the brunch could serve two purposes — introduce Mel to the family and celebrate Frasier's triumph.

To Frasier's surprise, though, Niles explained that he wanted Frasier to reciprocate — "unless you're afraid of a little competition."

Predictably, I suppose, the vote ended in a tie. To resolve the tie, there had to a blind taste–off with five bottles of wine.

It remained deadlocked until the final bottle, which turned out to be a blend. Niles won because he identified the wine that represented 55% of the blend whereas Frasier identified the wine that represented 45%.

So Niles was corkmaster–elect, setting up one of my favorite moments in Frasier's 11–year run — Niles doing the British monarchy wave while the club members serenaded him to the tune of "Rule, Brittania."

"Hail, Corkmaster!
The master of the cork
He knows which wine goes
With fish or pork."

Anyway, it was at the brunch for Mel that Frasier learned she had been the catalyst for Niles' apparently sudden interest in the post of corkmaster. Things seemed to go downhill from there.

But not so that Niles or Mel noticed. Mel was called away, and Niles stayed behind to find out how everyone felt about her. Frasier and Martin (John Mahoney) tried to be nice, but words slipped out, first from Daphne (Jane Leeves), whose tongue was loosened by one too many Bloody Marys, then from Roz who had left the room to liberate Eddie the dog from his exile to the balcony.

Niles was shocked by the revelation that no one in his family unit liked Mel, and he stormed out of the apartment.

Oh, yes, there was a side story in this. Martin had been sleeping with the recently widowed wife of an old friend — and feeling guilty about it. He confided in Frasier, who thought it was cute, but that wasn't what Martin needed to hear.

At the end of the episode — in dialogue that rapidly foreshadowed her changing relationship with Niles — Daphne learned about Martin's relationship with the widow and chastised him for it. We all have impulses, she told him, but we don't explore them, no matter how tempted we may be.

Before long, though, Daphne would be pursuing her temptation.

Experimental Worked for 'Physical Graffiti'

On this day in 1975, Led Zeppelin's only double album — if one doesn't count recordings of concerts — hit the music stores.

The album was "Physical Graffiti," and it was Zeppelin's first album in a couple of years — since the release of "Houses of the Holy" almost exactly two years before.

The music covered the range of Zeppelin's repertoire and displayed their mastery of styles. By the time "Physical Graffiti" was released, everyone knew Zeppelin could play hard rock, and there were plenty of examples of that on the album — but Zeppelin showed they could also play funk ("Trampled Under Foot"), acoustic ("Boogie With Stu"), blues ("In My Time of Dying"), country/rock ("Night Flight"), even ballads ("Ten Years Gone").

Probably the best known song on the album is "Kashmir," an Eastern music–influenced track — and a good one, too, although it isn't my favorite.

"Where Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy integrated influences on each song," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine for, "the majority of the tracks on Physical Graffiti are individual stylistic workouts."

It always struck me as a very experimental album. Zeppelin explored territory that was unfamiliar to their fans, but they always retained just enough of what drew people to them initially to make it palatable for that fan base. In modern lingo, I guess you would call it putting their own spin on a style. No one spoke of spin in 1975, but it seems to me that is what Zeppelin did with the variety of styles in the songs. The double–album format obviously gave them more artistic freedom than they had in their previous five records, all of which were single albums.

Zeppelin fans who sought some lengthy masterpiece comparable to the utterly incomparable "Stairway to Heaven" might have found it in the 11–minute "In My Time of Dying." Frankly, though, I always thought it was futile to look for such similarities in group output. "Stairway" was unique, and I always appreciated the fact that Zeppelin was one of those groups that didn't keep trying to duplicate past successes but instead looked for new worlds to conquer.

I remember getting the album on a double cassette when I was a teenager, and I always had a fondness for the very first track, "Custard Pie." I'm not sure why. I guess it was more hard rock than many of the tracks, more of what I expected from Zeppelin.

The rest of it needed time to grow on me, I guess.

And it did.

Erlewine complained that there was an unevenness to the second half of the album; it was, he wrote, "filled with songs that aren't quite filler, but don't quite match the peaks of the album, either."

And I know what he meant by that.

"[E]ven these songs have their merits — 'Sick Again' is the meanest, most decadent rocker they ever recorded," Erlewine wrote, "and the folky acoustic rock & roll of 'Boogie with Stu' and 'Black Country Woman' may be tossed off, but they have a relaxed, off-–and charm that Zeppelin never matched."

That very unevenness was a part of the album's appeal, I think. If you didn't like the mood one song was promoting, relax. In a few minutes, another song would be playing, and it was almost certain to create an entirely different mood.

Most of the time, I would be inclined to think that was a bad thing, that it didn't establish a theme of some kind. But it was almost an advantage for "Physical Graffiti."

I don't know what that says about the album — maybe that it had the widest appeal the band ever had. After all, its best–selling single was the funky track, "Trampled Under Foot," which made it to #38 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

When Edward G. Robinson Gave 'Em Something to Talk About

"You know something, a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."

Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson)

I'm sorry to say that I had not heard of "The Whole Town's Talking," which premiered 80 years ago today, until a month or two ago. Then I watched it online, and I must say that it is one of the most underrated movies of all time.

It had a great cast — Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur and Lucille Ball in a small uncredited role. It was directed by John Ford. It was a great comedy, not exactly what you'd call a screwball comedy, although Arthur was very good in those. It was more a case of mistaken identity.

Robinson actually played two roles in the movie — mild–mannered clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones and a notorious killer. The resemblance was so strong that, after the initial mistake was clarified (in which the clerk had been detained on the suspicion that he was actually the notorious killer) and the police knew who he really was, they issued him a special pass instructing anyone who stopped him to let him go.

Word got out about this special pass that he had been issued, and the notorious killer saw an opportunity to take advantage of his look–alike.

It was kind of a refreshing change. Robinson was mostly known for his gangster roles — and roles that, while not exactly of the gangster type, were rugged individualists. Arthur Ferguson Jones was, to use modern labels, a wimp, a wuss.

Now, "Killer" Mannion was precisely the kind of character everyone imagines when they think of Edward G. Robinson. Robinson probably could play that role in his sleep. For 1935 filmmaking technology, though, it was pretty impressive to see Robinson confronting Robinson on the big screen.

Anyway, as I say, I wouldn't call this a screwball comedy — but I could call it a romantic comedy, given the sparks between Robinson and Arthur.

And Arthur's character, as she so often did in her movies, fell in love with her leading man. It usually made for a rather unconventional romance bristling with extraordinary obstacles. In this case, the obstacle was that her leading man happened to look like a notorious killer, public enemy #1 — yes, they actually used that phrase in the movie — and he posed quite a threat to their lives.

To be fair, there was a kind of screwball, slapstick quality to the final minutes of the movie. At times, it resembled a human shell game. Which Edward G. Robinson was the mild–mannered clerk, and which one was the killer? Don't look away from the screen for even a second, or you might miss something important.

Arthur, wrote Robinson, "was whimsical without being silly, unique without being nutty, a theatrical personality who was an untheatrical person. She was a delight to work with and to know."

Someone who may have benefited from working with and knowing the "quintessential comedic leading lady," as Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne called her, was Lucille Ball, whose memorable TV career almost certainly was influenced by Arthur.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Fixate on One Word: 'Huck Finn' Was Mark Twain's Best Work

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Sometime in February of 1885, Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are those who will tell you that it was published 130 years ago today — but I haven't been able to confirm the exact date, only the month and year.

I admit, I got around to reading it a lot later than I should have. I've tried to make up for lost time by re–reading it several times, though, and I believe it really is the fabled great American novel (although, interestingly, it was first published in England in December 1884). I've read a lot of Twain's writing in my life — I admire his work as only another writer can, and much of his best work can be found in the pages of Huckleberry Finn.

(I would be tempted to drop the "much of" portion of that preceding statement — except there are just too many excellent books and articles that Twain wrote in his lifetime to be that absolute.)

It is also a great glimpse into 19th–century America told by a man who lived in that century. Twain was a gifted writer, and his descriptions of people and places Conversations were written in the regional dialect of eastern Missouri where Twain grew up. The dialogue of the black characters was in the race–specific dialect — much of which survives to this day.

To an extent, I suppose, that was responsible for some of the attempts over the years to ban Huckleberry Finn from school libraries and such. But, mostly, the objection has been to the use of the word nigger, which is used frequently in the book — but, strange as this may sound, it wasn't intended in a racist way. It was a descriptive word, not a slur — unless it was preceded by words that were more specific accusations, and that definitely would change the context of the use of that word.

Fact is, Abraham Lincoln used the word nigger in conversation — and I think we all would agree that Lincoln was not a racist. Language has struggled in the last century or so to find an acceptable descriptive word for that segment of the population. When nigger came to be seen as a slur by most, the word colored came into favor, then the word black was preferred.

I believe that books that are about particular times and places should use, as much as possible, the language that was used in that place in that time, just as the characters should dress as the people of that time did and see the things those people saw — especially if the writer lived in those times.

And make no mistake — Twain definitely was writing from memory. The world he described in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had ceased to exist a couple of decades before that book was published.

Not so long ago, there was a movement to sanitize Huck Finn by inserting a politically correct term every time nigger appeared in the book, but I have never felt right about that. It isn't used maliciously in the book, and by inserting a 21st–century word, you're forcing 19th–century characters to live by linguistic rules that were not of their time. There is no need to subject them to that just because we in the 21st century struggle with that issue. It changes the writer's work. You may not think it is much of a change, but I do. Writing is a form of self–expression. It is an art form and such external editing changes it, no matter how subtle you may think the change is. It reminds me of several years ago when there was a movement to "colorize" black–and–white movies. I tried to watch a colorized movie once, and it was like watching someone paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Only the artist should change an artist's work.
"We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft."

Twain had a great memory, though. He was nearly 50 when he wrote Huckleberry Finn — and, in spite of what Huck said in those first sentences, maybe he did make up a lot of it, but his memory was sharper than that, and I think the world and the people he described really were those of the antebellum South. It is almost a time capsule, a glimpse at a world that existed nearly two centuries ago. Warts and all.

A point that those who complain about the use of the word nigger always seem to miss is that Huckleberry Finn was intended as a satire — and a scathing satire it was, too, on the attitudes of the time, particularly racist attitudes. In the story, Huck Finn was about 13 or 14 so, if Twain was using himself at that age as the model for the character and the time he was that age, the times he described were probably more than a decade before the start of the Civil War.

Huckleberry Finn is an entertaining history lesson that must never be allowed to vanish. I have the same copy on my shelf that I have had since I was in college. It's a bit ragged and dog–eared now, but I wouldn't part with it for anything.

As one who often laments the absence of knowledge of history in young Americans, I believe young people should be encouraged to read Huckleberry Finn, not discouraged. At the very least, it should not be banned from libraries — for libraries are supposed to contain knowledge for generations to come, to enlighten those who walk through their doors.

Not-So-Sweet Dreams

Of all the thought–provoking episodes the MASH TV series created in its 11 seasons on the prime time schedule, the one that first aired 35 years ago tonight may have been the series' most poignant.

Called "Dreams," the episode explored the dreams of the series' leading characters, and each revealed something about the character — his/her desires, fears, insecurities. Everyone was tired after the marathon sessions the MASH staffers put in. Sometimes they flopped into their cots and were asleep before their heads hit their pillows. Other times they dozed off while sitting in the mess tent or post–op.

Inevitably, there was a peaceful quality to many of the dreams that would be interrupted by the reality of the nightmare they couldn't escape. Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) dreamed of riding his horse through an open field and hearing his mother calling to him. At that point, he was awakened by Klinger with news that he was needed in surgery. Potter lamented the fact that he couldn't have had a little more time so he could taste his mother's cooking again.

That was an indirect intrusion of the war. The intrusion was more direct with the others. It was absorbed into the story line of the dream — the way that dreams do. Or, at least, mine do. I don't know about yours. When my alarm goes off in the morning, it often weaves itself into whatever dream I am having, and for a moment there is a tug–of–war going on between my dream and my reality.

Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) was nodding off while listening to a wounded soldier's confession, and the soldier's words became gibberish. Mulcahy would rouse himself, and the words would begin to make sense again, but then he would drift off again and the gibberish would resume. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed he was the pope blessing the faithful before he was roused from his slumber by the soldier.

I don't recall having many dreams that were as intimate and deeply personal as the dreams of the MASH staffers, but their dreams clearly revealed their most cherished desires and principles — and their greatest fears. Being awakened from the dream was almost a relief for many.

Charles (David Ogden Stiers), for example, dreamed he was a magician, performing magic tricks that astonished the MASH staff. But, when he was faced with a life–and–death matter, none of his tricks could save the patient.

Hawkeye (Alan Alda) dreamed he was in a medical school class being conducted in the camp's mess tent. He couldn't answer the professor's questions so, each time, he had to surrender one of his limbs. Then he found himself in a boat floating in a river with arms and legs all around him. On the shore, he saw a little girl who was holding an apparent wound. She looked at Hawkeye with the silent plea for help. He looked at her and shrugged.

Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) had perhaps the most bittersweet dream. She was dressed in a white wedding dress that became blood stained from the wounded.

Clearly, her mind had concluded that her problems finding the husband and home she had always wanted were the result of her work in a war zone. Not an entirely injudicious conclusion, either.

His dream took B.J. (Mike Farrell) all the way back to his home in Mill Valley, Calif., where he was dancing with his wife. But he was called away to the O.R. by his sense of duty, and his wife went back to the ballroom on the arm of another man.

Klinger (Jamie Farr), too, went all the way home in his dream — back to his beloved Toledo. He saw all the familiar sights, then looked in a window and saw Potter operating on someone. The person on the table turned and looked in his direction — and Klinger saw that it was himself.

Potter beckoned for Klinger to come in.

It was a powerful episode made plausible by the writers' ability to portray the ways of dreams. I was impressed with their skill when I saw this episode for the first time, and I have been envious of it, as any writer should be, on the occasions when I have seen it again. Given the fact that a 30–minute episode is really about 23 or 24 minutes when one accounts for commercial time, the writers had, on average, less than four minutes to tell the story of each character's dream.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson: It Was Complicated

Joan Rivers, who died a few months ago, was never my favorite. I know many people who thought she was funny. I didn't.

But a lot of people did.

And they thought so long before she made her first appearance with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show 50 years ago today. In the '50s, she was on the stage. Her first role, as I understand it, was as a lesbian who was infatuated with a character played by Barbra Streisand. She appeared in New York comedy clubs in the early '60s and got a gig writing for Candid Camera — where, thanks to her relative anonymity up to that point, she was both a gag writer and an on–camera participant, luring the unsuspecting into bizarre situations.

She spent some time in front of the camera as well as behind it. When she appeared with Carson 50 years ago tonight, it was not her first time on the Tonight Show. She had been on the program when it was hosted by Jack Paar.

Rivers had lots of irons in the fire, as the saying goes, which was how she lived her life. She was always involved in several projects at once. In the '60s, she also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and she had a part in a movie with Burt Lancaster. For awhile, she even had her own daytime talk show on TV. She had several shows, in fact.

But it was her appearance with Carson that changed the trajectory of her life. He was one of those who thought Rivers was funny, and she made many appearances on his show over the next 18 years — until Carson named her the permanent "guest host" of the show.

Carson was unique in many ways, but one of the most remarkable (I always thought) was the fact that, even when he took time off, he believed his audience deserved fresh material. He refused to run a rerun of one of his old shows. Instead, he would have a "guest host" fill in while he was gone. (Carson always went to England for two weeks in the summer to attend the Wimbledon tennis tournament so that was the plum assignment for an up–and–coming comedian.)

Some of Hollywood's most talented people filled in for Carson over the years, and Rivers did her share. It was a floating assignment, and regular viewers got to see a wide assortment of talent sitting behind Carson's desk whenever he was taking time off. But by August '83, Carson was ready to name Rivers his permanent guest host. That was as good as making her his heir apparent.

But that wasn't how it played out. The Fox Television Network, which was about to go on the air, offered Rivers her own late night talk show. She accepted, and Fox announced it before she could speak to Carson. When she did, she said, Carson hung up on her.

I don't know if that is how it happened or not. I don't know if Rivers wanted to speak to Carson first. If she did, she should have said something to Fox executives and asked them to withhold any statement until she confirmed that she had spoken to Carson. Perhaps she wanted to approach it as her asking for career advice from Carson or perhaps seeking his blessing instead presenting it as a done deal in which he had not been consulted.

Of course, if the Fox executives told her they would keep quiet and then spilled the beans, it was Fox's fault.

However it happened, I know that Carson and Rivers had no relationship in public — or, apparently, in private — after that. According to Rivers, he never spoke to her again.

But it all began 50 years ago tonight when Rivers made her first appearance with Carson on the Tonight Show.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

'The Breakfast Club' Was More Than Just a Comedy

Brian (Anthony Michael Hall): Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain ...

Andrew (Emilio Estevez): ... and an athlete ...

Allison (Ally Sheedy): ... and a basket case ...

Claire (Molly Ringwald): ... a princess ...

John (Judd Nelson): ... and a criminal ...

Brian: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

"The Breakfast Club," which began playing on America's movie screens 30 years ago today, was better than most of the coming–of–age flicks I have seen — and more than just a comedy.

So often, "coming of age" seems to be code for "losing one's virginity" — or trying to lose one's virginity and failing miserably. Excuses for exploiting the young and the beautiful. (That seemed to be especially true of movies of the mid–1980s.)

That really does seem unfortunate to me because there are so many other aspects of the maturation process that do not involve sex — but do involve a voyage of self–discovery. And, to be fair, there have been some movies that have tried to tackle the topic of coming of age from a more cerebral perspective. Some succeeded. Some did not.

"The Breakfast Club" was one of the better ones.

The premise was that five students, each occupying a different rung on the ladder of high school popularity, were brought together to serve a day of detention on a Saturday. They didn't know each other when the day began, but they knew each other pretty well when the day was over.

This was an old tactic, critic Roger Ebert observed, given a new spin. "William Saroyan and Eugene O'Neill have been here before, but they used saloons and drunks. 'The Breakfast Club' uses a high school library and five teenage kids."

OK, it wasn't an original tactic. But the folks who put the movie together managed to attract an audience by casting five of the hottest young stars around at that time — Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy.

Once they had 'em in the theater, they could tell their story.

With nearly all of the action taking place in that high school library, the dialogue became the most important part of the movie. "The Breakfast Club" was like a high school version of the United Nations, with each campus clique represented. Thirty years later, the labels are probably different — language, after all, defines each generation — but the types are universal.

Anyone who ever spent any time in high school is familiar with them. The athlete, the brain, the criminal, the prom queen, the misfit. The cast of "The Breakfast Club" seemed to accept the spots in the high school pecking order to which they had been assigned by life; when the movie began, the characters knew little about each other — and really did not want to know much about each other.

An hour and a half later (by moviegoer's time) they knew all about each other. They had bonded, each in his or her own way but learning in the process the things that they had in common.

The two girls bonded in ways their peers never would have been able to comprehend. The prom queen (Molly Ringwald) was applying makeup to the face of the misfit (Ally Sheedy).

"Why are you being so nice to me?" she asked with the wary suspicion of one who has been humiliated before.

"Because you're letting me," the prom queen replied, and one suspected that, in her experience, things like trust frequently came with strings attached. At the same time, the audience knew that Sheedy didn't trust people easily, that it was a pretty big deal for her to allow Ringwald to be that close.

But girls' agendas are always more complicated than boys'. For the boys in "The Breakfast Club," it was about making the grade. One was driven to get grades that were good enough to merit a full academic scholarship. Another was driven to get grades that were good enough that, combined with athletic skill, would merit an athletic scholarship. The third was driven, simply, to get grades that were good enough to get by.

And, while there has always been and always will be a certain amount of macho posturing in male relationships, the boys managed to get past that on several occasions.

I don't think I ever expected that any of them would win acting awards, but I hoped that the movie might receive some recognition from Oscar. But it did not. That was in keeping, I suppose, with the Academy Awards' general — and long–standing — bias against comedies.

But there were many dramatic moments and dramatic lines in "The Breakfast Club." To dismiss it as a comedy is to do it a disservice.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Well, I hope you're happy!

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Snap out of it! What you were doing was completely dishonest.

Niles: Ooh, said the pot to the kettle!

Frasier: What does that mean?

Niles: I think you know what it means.

Frasier: Oh, don't be ridiculous! Our two situations are totally different.

Niles: Oh, really? How so?

Frasier: Well, for one thing, you've been misleading a woman for your own selfish gain.

Niles: And so are you!

Frasier: Well, I'm not finished. She was also trusting you to tell the truth!

Niles: Oh, and the difference would be?

Frasier: Your woman is English!

Niles: Frasier, you've lost this one.

Frasier: I know, I know. It's just going to take a little while to climb down off of this particular high horse.

Twenty years ago tonight, Frasier took a look at honesty.

Through an odd set of circumstances — was there ever any other kind in Frasier's world? — Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) became acquainted with pop psychologist Dr. Honey Snow (Shannon Tweed). He really didn't think much of her work, especially her best–selling advice books — but he felt an uncontrollable lust for her so, when she asked him to read the manuscript for her latest book and write the foreword for it, he reluctantly agreed.

At the same time, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was doing some investing in the stock market on behalf of Daphne (Jane Leeves) through his broker. The initial investment paid off with a 40% return following a takeover bid, and Daphne decided to follow the broker's advice and "roll it over" the gain — i.e., re–invest it.

That first big payoff was unexpected, but, when Daphne threw her arms around Niles and kissed him, he realized he had found a sure thing so he kept giving her "profits" even though the stocks had been losing ground. She kept hugging and kissing him each time; Frasier caught on to what he was doing and confronted Niles.

"The first stock really did pay off," Niles told Frasier, "but then the rest all tanked. And what was I supposed to do? Tell that poor, working–class Venus I'd lost her life savings? I had to pay her back and if I threw in a little extra, well, where's the harm in that?"

Frasier was having none of it.

"Niles, you are giving a woman money in order to obtain physical affection!" he told his brother. "We are talking the world's oldest profession. Granted, this is sort of the Walt Disney version, but still. It's wrong, and I insist you stop it."

"No," Niles replied. "It's altruistic, it's noble, it's fun, and you can't make me stop."

Besides, Niles was equipped to return Frasier's fire. Against his personal principles, Frasier had agreed to write the foreword for Honey Snow's book, motivated by the hope that she would sleep with him.

Now, he knew he had to tell Honey that he would not write that foreword — and he expected that she would not want to sleep with him when he told her that.

When he did tell her that he couldn't write the foreword, he started to leave — only to be stunned when he heard her say how attracted she was to him at that moment. Most men would say or do anything to get women to sleep with them, she said. It was refreshing to meet a man who was so honest that he would rather risk rejection than be dishonest.

"I have to be true to my inner voice," Frasier said, clearly sensing that he had stumbled onto Honey's weakness.

Honey confessed that she also felt the book was weak. It had been rushed, she said, to meet a deadline.

And the two started to make out while telling each other their faults. Frasier told Honey her chapter titles were "clumsy and jejune." Honey replied that Frasier used "way too much French in everyday conversation."

Frasier said he thought her sandalwood candle smelled awful. Honey retorted that "When you talk about wine, I wish I had a gun."

But then Frasier overplayed his hand, telling Honey what he really thought of her first three books. Talk about a mood killer.

"I am immensely proud of my first three books," she said.

The petting party was over.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Sexism of 'The Stepford Wives'

I'd be tempted to say that you couldn't remake "The Stepford Wives" that premiered 40 years ago today — except that they did remake it more than a decade ago. It wasn't as good — honestly, can you think of a remake that was as good as the original? — but it certainly wasn't the worst remake I have ever seen.

The original of "The Stepford Wives" really was kind of creepy — and I say that from the perspective of the teenager I was when I first saw it. The original doesn't seem creepy to me now — and the remake never has. I guess it would be strange to feel that way about the remake. It was more of a parody of the original, a comedy. The original was anything but a comedy.

When I first saw it, I didn't think of the sexist angle — that the men had all the choice in Stepford and the women had none. I didn't think of that, only of having one's individuality stripped away. I never really thought of it in gender–specific terms. Maybe I was the only one who didn't.

I'd like to think that is understandable. I'm a writer; writers are creative and very individual. To be stripped of our individuality is a fate worse than death.

Katharine Ross was one of my favorite actresses in those days. She was in many of my favorite movies from that period — "The Graduate," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" — and she was always playing characters who had very strong individual streaks. They all had other flaws — but not in that department.

In "The Stepford Wives," Ross played a photographer. A pretty good one, too, as I recall. When she and her family left the big city for the country town of Stepford, the audience saw Stepford as she saw it — through the lens of her camera. And she began to observe things through that lens — the women of Stepford were all gorgeous and obsessed with keeping their homes clean but had few, if any, interests beyond that.

There was a men's association in Stepford and, to counter it, Ross and a couple of free spirits (Paula Prentiss and Tina Louise) tried to organize a women's lib group, but it dissolved into a discussion of cleaning techniques.

Later, after Louise went away for the weekend with her husband and came back a changed woman, you might say, Ross and Prentiss began to do some investigating of their own — and didn't like what they found. Apparently, there was some kind of conspiracy to replace the individual women with mindless, obedient robots — if that is what they were. That part remained in doubt for awhile until Ross encountered her own duplicate, an android that looked like her and sounded like her but had no interests beyond cooking and cleaning — and had black, lifeless eyes.

My memory is that the movie was well received — but not enthusiastically — and has achieved something of a cult status over the years.

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films named Ross its Best Actress for 1975.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Coming Clean

"Face it, they know we're always trying to nail 'em, and they don't like it. They like it, and they don't like it. It's got nothing to do with you, Lester. It just happened."

George (Warren Beatty)

George, the in–demand hairdresser in "Shampoo," which premiered 40 years ago today, was cynical. I got that when I saw it — and I was young and perhaps not quite as in tune with my cynical side as I am today when I saw it.

But it wasn't until I read Roger Ebert's review several years later that I began to understand things about the symbolic nature of "Shampoo." For example, this is Ebert's opening paragraph from 40 years ago:
"Beverly Hills, Nov. 4, 1968. In 24 hours, Nixon will be making his victory speech on television, pledging an open administration. In 40 hours, George, a hairdresser, will have negotiated the ruins of three affairs, bedded tentatively with a possible new recruit and seen the wreckage of his delusions. Shampoo never quite connects its images of national mediocrity and personal self–deception, but maybe it doesn't need to; maybe the message is that in a nation that doesn't connect, doesn't trust authenticity, what you get is a Nixon in the White House and a stranger in bed."

I guess the timing, of both the presidential election in the movie and the movie's theatrical debut is worth keeping in mind. It never occurred to me when I first saw it, but perhaps the Nixon metaphor was too tempting at the time. Nixon, after all, resigned the presidency in August 1974. I was in junior high at the time, and I knew there was a lot of anger, a genuine sense of betrayal.

So setting the story in "Shampoo" against the hopeful backdrop of the immediate aftermath of a divisive presidential campaign — for an audience that knew only too well how soon those hopes were dashed — may have been appropriate. But it counted on the viewers to know how the Nixon presidency played out because the movie only showed news footage of Nixon and Agnew — and never showed footage that seemed to foreshadow what was to come.

Ebert was disappointed in "Shampoo." I wasn't. As I will explain later, my attitude when I saw it was simply to experience whatever the filmmaker wanted me to experience. I went into it with no expectations.

I guess that was the problem with the women in "Shampoo." They had too many expectations — about life, about love, about lifemates.

At times, it seemed to me the script for "Shampoo" was written in some kind of code. The word great, for example, was thrown around in much the same way as the word awesome is today. In fact, every time a character (usually Beatty) says someone or something — or whatever — is "great," try mentally substituting the word "awesome."

It will work — grammatically, that is — every time. It might even make more sense.

Carrie Fisher, the 18–year–old daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, made her film debut in "Shampoo" as the daughter of Lee Grant and Jack Warden. Julie Christie played Warden's latest love interest — and one of Beatty's previous bed partners.

And Beatty bedded all three women — as well as Goldie Hawn, who was trying to decide whether to accept an on–location acting job in Egypt or stay in the States with Beatty — whose lack of interest should have tipped her off. But Hawn was in the grip of love — and, well, we've all been there before, right?

(There's that "self–deception" Ebert mentioned. That was the story of the women in "Shampoo;" Beatty just wanted to get financial backing to open his own salon.)

The movie "didn't quite work" for him, Ebert wrote. "Its timing wasn't confident enough to pull off its ambitious conception. It wasn't as funny as it could have been in the funny places ... It isn't as savage as it could have been in its satire ... And it's not as poignant as it could be in its moments of truth, because we can see the wheels turning. We can sense that the movie's providing obligatory scenes instead of engaging us in a series of discoveries about its characters."

Fair enough.

In a way, I guess I was disappointed in "Shampoo" as well — but not as much as Ebert. Maybe it was because I had already read some articles about it and had a pretty good idea what to expect, but, as I say, it was one of those movies that I went into with no expectations about what it should or should not be.

I just let it wash over me — so to speak.

Monday, February 09, 2015

An Eye for an Eye ...

"You remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town and that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along, and he shouted, 'Hey, hey, you, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' A helicopter was hovering overhead, and a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey, you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder, and I'll take you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well ... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man. I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'"

Father Thomas Cavanaugh (Karl Malden)

The episode of the West Wing that first aired 15 years ago tonight was one of those episodes that I regard as one of the series' finest hours — and it had many of them that season.

The topics that were addressed in this episode were the death penalty and presidential pardons.

To set the scene: A man had been sentenced to death for murder, and his latest appeal, to the Supreme Court, had been denied late on a Friday. His execution was set for the following Monday just after midnight so his defense team began trying to contact someone in the White House who could lobby the president for a pardon. Time, obviously, was of the essence, and the president was out of the country — due to return on Saturday morning.
Leo (John Spencer): Sam?

Sam (Rob Lowe): Yeah?

Leo: Why Monday morning?

Sam: What do you mean?

Leo: The Court denied his appeal. Why isn't he being executed at midnight tonight?

Sam: We don't execute people between sundown Friday and sundown Sunday.

Leo: Why?

Sam: Hard as it is to believe ...

Leo: You're kidding me.

Sam: No.

Leo: We don't execute people on the Sabbath.

Sam: No.

Leo: Well, that's about the most bizarre thing I've ever heard.

Sam: Leo, I think you're going to find as you go through this weekend that there is virtually no part of this discussion that isn't bizarre.

Now, I don't intend to make this a conversation about the pros and cons of death penalty law — and, for that matter, neither did the writers for the West Wing. The focus was on the question of granting a presidential pardon, not the right or wrong of the law.

Still, it couldn't help provoking some debates the night it aired.

In the finest tradition of the West Wing, there were other stories going on at the same time — and one guesses that must be what life at the White House is like. The big story is the one that requires the involvement of the most West Wingers, but the others must go about their jobs and put out the fires they encounter there.

On this night, for example, Josh (Bradley Whitford) had to meet with a disgruntled campaign manager who didn't feel the White House was giving her congressional candidate enough support.

But the side story in this episode didn't really demand as much attention as side stories usually did on the West Wing. In this episode, the side story about the campaign operative (Marlee Matlin) only served to introduce her character to the audience. She would be back.

The emphasis was primarily on the death penalty and the question of issuing a pardon to someone convicted of murder — and the political aspects that are impossible for those who work for politicians to ignore.

One of the things I always appreciated about the West Wing was its unflinching candor. In one of the best, most honest — yet most understated — scenes of the season, the president had a conversation with his young aide, Charlie. Charlie's mother had been a police officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty, leaving Charlie to care for his younger sister.

His conversation with the president showed all too clearly the kind of passion that surrounds this issue on both sides.
President Bartlet (Martin Sheen): Charlie, I'm going to ask you a question. And this is one of those times that it's OK to tell me I've stepped over the line, and I should shut my mouth, OK?

Charlie (Dule Hill): OK.

President Bartlet: What happened to the guy who shot your mother?

Charlie: They haven't found him yet, sir.

President Bartlet: If they did, would you want to see him executed? Killing a police officer is a capital crime. I figured you must have thought about it.

Charlie: Yes, sir.

President Bartlet: And?

Charlie: I wouldn't want to see him executed, Mr. President.


Charlie: I'd want to do it myself.

Fair enough. No matter on which side of this issue you stand, I think most (if not all) of us can agree on that.

Earlier in the episode, the president had asked Charlie to arrange for his priest (Karl Malden) from New Hampshire to come visit him in the White House. The president wanted to talk with him about the death penalty and whether he should pardon the killer.

The priest didn't show up until a few minutes before the scheduled execution — I don't recall any explanation why.

The execution went ahead as scheduled. There was no pardon.

It was a remarkable, thought–provoking episode. It pulled no punches, and I think it was fair to all sides.

That was the West Wing standard.

Joanne Woodward Got One of the First Stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame 55 Years Ago

Fifty–five years ago today, the official groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The first star to be dedicated on the popular tourist destination belonged to Joanne Woodward, Academy Award winner for "The Three Faces of Eve."

Well, actually, that is what is said, but it isn't really true. Woodward was one of eight people who originally had stars on the Walk of Fame. The first star placed on the walk was for director Stanley Kramer. Nothing special should be read into that. It is my understanding that a block of more than 1,500 stars was designated, and Kramer's was merely the first to be created. Woodward was the first to pose with her star, though, which is located on Hollywood Boulevard.

Woodward's late husband, actor Paul Newman, is on the Walk of Fame, too.

It is my understanding that more than 2,500 stars are on the Walk of Fame now. Not all of them belong to movie stars, of course. Some are entertainers from TV, others from radio, still others from recorded music and/or the theater. Some, like Gene Autry, had multiple stars along the walk.

And there are special stars awarded to those who have distinguished themselves in other fields — for example, the crew of Apollo 11, the first mission to the moon, and boxer Muhammad Ali.

Former movie star Ronald Reagan is the only U.S. president on the Walk of Fame.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

When Worlds Collide

"We're all very happy that you're going to live, John Book. We didn't know what we would do with you if you'd died."

Rachel (Kelly McGillis)

"We're inside this story," declared film critic Roger Ebert when "Witness" premiered 30 years ago today.

That was an astute observation for, indeed, the viewer was inside the story — and for the reasons Ebert outlined. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

For me, what was fascinating was to study the clash between two worlds — the modern world and the (literally) horse–and–buggy world of the Amish — in what undoubtedly struck moviegoers of the time as a fairly common event, the murder of a man.

Maybe my fascination with the collision of those two worlds stems from my upbringing. My father was a religion professor.

Anyway, the movie began with a kind of glimpse of Amish life. The residents of the community gathered for the funeral of one of their own — the husband of a character, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), who would become prominent in the story. The Amish keep mostly to themselves in real life as they did in the movie, but there were times when they had to interact with modern people ("the English," the Amish called them). Rachel and her young son temporarily left their Amish home to visit her sister, taking the train.

The murderer and the victim were of the modern world, but the witness was a young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who was in a bathroom stall in a Philadelphia station and saw what happened as he peeped through the slot between the stall door and the stall walls.

The two worlds were on a collision course.

The investigating officer was Harrison Ford, and he had to question the boy, who told him that two men had been involved in the murder, but he could only see one, a black man, which launched an investigation into all the known black criminals in the city. Ford subjected the boy to police lineups and photo albums, but no suspects could be identified — until he spotted a picture of Danny Glover, a respected narcotics officer, in a glass case at the police station.

Glover was the one the boy had seen cutting a man's throat in the bathroom at the station.

Ford's character remembered that Glover had been in charge of a raid of some high–priced chemicals used in the production of speed — and that the chemicals had disappeared while in police custody. The obvious conclusion was that Glover had been involved in the disappearance, maybe even the ringleader, and was selling them. The killing had been done to protect the guilty.

He shared what he knew with his superior, then was ambushed by Glover in a parking garage. Ford's character realized that, since he had only told his superior what he knew, his superior must be corrupt as well and had tipped off Glover. Ford was wounded in the parking garage shootout.

At this point, the two worlds collided in full. Ford took McGillis and Haas back to their home and passed out shortly after their arrival, causing considerable angst among the villagers. No one was trained as a doctor, and Ford needed that kind of attention.

But he was a police officer, and he knew the routine. If he was taken to the hospital with a bullet wound, there would be a police investigation, and he would be found — and if he was found, the boy would be found, too.

That was a pretty persuasive argument for the Amish folks, who decided to give him shelter — and hoped he would recover. They had no idea what they would do if he died.

So he stayed with the Amish and tried to blend in. He wore their clothes. He worked on their farms. He helped them raise houses and barns.

(And he and McGillis were falling in love. In defiance of social codes of conduct.)

Even so, his adversaries from Philadelphia managed to find him. It wasn't easy, considering that the Amish had no phones and literally thousands of people in that vicinity had the same surname as the boy and his mother. But they found him, and that led to a final showdown.

If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil the ending for you. I'll just get back to Ebert's observation about being "inside this story." I had seen the movie before I read Ebert's piece, and I knew exactly what he meant when I read that. Well, I thought I did.

At the time, I thought he was speaking of the camera angles — which really do make a viewer feel like he/she is inside the story. Then, I thought perhaps it was a reference to Maurice Jarre's Oscar–nominated score, which did a brilliant job of summarizing the two ways of life.

(I'm a fan of Jarre's work, anyway. Even if I didn't particularly care for the movie, I always liked his music.)

But Ebert went on to speak of how all the elements of the movie worked so well together that they drew the viewer into the story. And that, ultimately, was my sensation. The camera angles, the score, the performances, the Oscar–winning screenplay and film editing, they all worked together to make an excellent movie.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Twilight Zone Logic

"Witness Flight Lieutenant William Terrance Decker, Royal Flying Corps, returning from a patrol somewhere over France. The year is 1917. The problem is that the lieutenant is hopelessly lost. Lieutenant Decker will soon discover that a man can be lost not only in terms of maps and miles, but also in time — and time in this case can be measured in eternities."

Opening narration

On this night 55 years ago, Twilight Zone, in its first season, the TV series continued to explore its favorite theme — a character is inexplicably transported to a different time. Sometimes the episodes examined things as being alternate realities but not the episode that aired on this night in 1960. In this case, it was a World War I British pilot (Kenneth Haigh) who passed through a cloud and couldn't hear his engine for awhile — after which, he landed at a U.S. air base in 1959 France.

The pilot was stunned to learn that it was 42 years later than it had been when he took off in his plane that morning. He was even more stunned to learn that an old American colleague was scheduled to visit the base that day — a colleague the British pilot had been certain had died during air combat in World War I.

But he was informed that his colleague had survived and had gone on to distinguish himself in World War II.

That was a bit of a head scratcher for him. But then he got the idea that they both could not occupy the same time. If he got back in the air and flew through that cloud back to his own time, then his colleague would be OK. But if he stayed in 1959, it might turn out that his colleague really did die in World War I.

You know, don't you, the brand of logic that Twilight Zone used to follow?

Anyway, the pilot was being held in custody for questioning, but he felt strongly that he and his old colleague must not cross paths.

So he broke out and ran across the airfield to his plane, started it and made his getaway.

It was very Twilight Zone–esque.

It also had a sci–fi feel to it. Normally, I'm not much of a sci–fi fan. There are a few books and movies in that genre that I do like, but it isn't really my thing. In the hands of Twilight Zone's writers, though, it worked for me.

That is really the only explanation I have for why I liked this episode. It wasn't unique. It said nothing profound. Some Twilight Zone episodes were both — unique and profound. This one was neither.

But I liked it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Goober and the Art of Love

Barney (Don Knotts): You'd better be going on your date, hadn't you? It's almost eight o'clock.

Goober (George Lindsey): I already been.

Barney: You're on your date already?

Goober: Yeah, and it sure went fast. I follered all the directions.

Barney: Goober, you were on a date. You weren't taking medicine.

The Andy Griffith Show had many amusing episodes, episodes that still make me laugh today after countless viewings.

The one that first aired 50 years ago tonight, "Goober and the Art of Love," was such an episode for me.

Andy and Barney were frustrated because Goober insisted on being around when they were on double dates with Helen (Aneta Corsaut) and Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), and they decided that Goober needed a girlfriend of his own. Goober wasn't enthusiastic about the idea, but he admitted there was one local girl he'd had his eye on — Lydia (Josie Lloyd). Apparently, she came in to have her car's oil changed.

Goober said he'd like to go out with Lydia, but he wouldn't know what to say. Andy noted that they talked when she brought her car in for service. Goober agreed. Well, what did they talk about then? Andy asked.

"Her tires," Goober replied. "She's got bad tires."

"Don't you talk about anything else?" Andy asked.

"Well, she does have an oil problem," Goober answered.

That was a bit much for Barney. "You mean you never talk about anything but her tires and her oil?" he asked.

"Well, ain't nothing else wrong with her," Goober observed.

Which made perfect sense from Goober's point of view. He was a mechanic; Lydia brought in her car for service. But it brought Andy and Barney no closer to their objective.

So Andy tried to steer the conversation back to more promising pursuits. He encouraged Goober to call Lydia and ask her out that very night.

"I wouldn't know what to say on a date," Goober protested.

So Andy and Barney gave him some conversation starters.

"By the end of the evening, you ought to be friendly enough to hold her hand," Andy said.

"Hallelujah," Barney muttered sarcastically.

But Goober took their advice too literally and raced through the conversation starters like he was double parked. He went back to the courthouse to get further instruction from Barney, who recalled that Andy was over at his girlfriend's house watching TV. He took Goober over to observe from the shadows of Helen's front porch.

That would have been a good idea — or, at least, one with better results — if Goober had been able to restrain himself, but he got worked up when Andy and Helen began to kiss. And that was that.

Anyway, the Goober situation continued to be a rocky one until Goober announced that his social calendar was "all dated up" with Lydia and wouldn't be able to spend time with Andy and Barney anymore.

Barney and Andy told Goober a good way to start his new relationship would be to bring Lydia a box of chocolates, and they gave him some money to get the biggest box available. It was a well–intended gesture that backfired.

When the two couples were about to go to a dance, Goober showed up once again, this time with Lydia. They had eaten all the candy, he said, and "there wasn't nothing else to do."

The fifth wheel had returned — with a sixth wheel.