Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Trip to the Moon on Gossamer Wings

"If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it."

Mrs. Lovell (Jean Speegle Howard)

The day that I saw "Apollo 13" (which premiered on this day in 1995) at a movie theater is crystal clear in my memory. Not much else from that time is vivid in my memory — except for the fact that my mother died in a flash flood two months earlier. I spent that summer with my father. He had been injured in the flood and needed someone's assistance every day.

That summer is a blur to me now. I guess it was the routine nature of most days. I didn't take Dad to physical therapy every day, but I took him often enough that it took on a routine quality. Cooking his meals were daily events for me. I did the laundry and the housework — not every day but most days. Cutting the grass was once a week. A very routine quality.

But I remember the day I saw Ron Howard's "Apollo 13." Some friends of my parents called us up and asked if we wanted to go see it. We jumped at the offer.

There are always a few movie directors whose work I want to see — regardless of the topic. Ron Howard is one of them. And there are a handful of actors whose work I always want to see — regardless of the topic. Tom Hanks is one of them. A movie directed by Howard and starring Hanks was made to order.

I wasn't much on the space theme when I was a child — and I was a child during the space race. I got caught up in it when most people did, like when Apollo 11 went to the moon, but I really didn't pay much attention to it a lot of the time. I don't know why. It seemed to be a pretty big thing with most of the kids I knew.

But I do remember Apollo 13 and how the world seemed to hold its breath during the effort to bring that crippled spacecraft back to earth.

Ron Howard reminds me of Steven Spielberg in so many ways. They both love technology that gives them new options for special effects, and they love using that technology to get the kind of response from their audiences that they desire. Camera angles are important, but those computer–enhanced special effects are hard to beat — and almost impossible to resist if you're making a movie about America's space program.

Even the actual footage of blastoffs couldn't provide the kind of angles viewers could see in "Apollo 13." After watching that movie, I, for one, had a much greater appreciation for the risks those astronauts took, strapping themselves into the nose of a rocket that went hurtling into the sky at hundreds of miles an hour and out into the unknown realm of space.

There were no guarantees of anyone's safety — yet the only astronaut fatalities in the first 25 years or so of NASA space travel were the three fire–related deaths on the ground in 1967.

That event provided one of the best moments in the movie, in my opinion. Hanks' character got moved up from backup crew to primary crew when the assignments were changed for medical reasons, and Apollo 13 was scheduled to lift off slightly more than three years after those other astronauts died in the fire.

Hanks' son in the movie — Jim Lovell's real son was only about 4 when Apollo 13 made its aborted moon flight — expressed his concerns about his father going into space (even though Lovell had been on a Gemini mission the year before the boy was born), and Hanks tried to explain to him about the lessons that had been learned from that fire and the improvements that had been made to spaceships because of it.

Hanks explained to his son that a problem during the fire had been the hatch — the "door," he told his son. The astronauts were unable to open it when the fire broke out. NASA, he explained, had fixed that problem. "It's not a problem anymore," he assured his son.

Later in the movie, when the astronaut's wife (Kathleen Quinlan) told the boy that "something broke on your daddy's spaceship," the boy asked in a hushed tone, "Was it the door?"

Most of the time, Hollywood can't resist adding drama to a story that really doesn't need it, and "Apollo 13" didn't need it.

"Ron Howard's film of this mission is directed with a single–mindedness and attention to detail that makes it riveting," film critic Roger Ebert wrote. "He doesn't make the mistake of adding cornball little subplots to popularize the material; he knows he has a great story, and he tells it in a docudrama that feels like it was filmed on location in outer space."

As astonishing as the re–creation of the event in space was, it was hard pressed at times to match the scenes from earth. That is one of the things I remember from that time — how the newscasts focused on the astronauts' families and how they were coping with the situation. At the time, I felt torn between wanting to know everything I could possibly know — and wishing people would respect the families' privacy.

The nice thing about a movie, though, is that somewhere deep down you realize that the families' privacy really isn't being invaded, that these are actors. But the dramatization of Hanks' on–screen family watching the news coverage of Apollo 13's attempt to re–enter earth's atmosphere was as intense as if the viewer was watching the real thing.

I'll grant you, it's hard to draw a distinction sometimes.

Howard's movie would have been incomplete if it focused only on what the astronauts — Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton — were facing. Much of the drama occurred on the ground — and not just on the home front. NASA's technicians, including Gary Sinise (whose character would have been on board if not for apparently needless worries that he might be sick with the German measles during the flight), performed heroically under pressure to come up with an ingenious device made from things on board the ship that would resolve problems with a damaged oxygen tank.

Television news did report that at the time, but my memory is that, when the astronauts were safely back on earth, the spotlight fell entirely on them. That probably suited the ground crew just fine. It was, after all, a team effort.

Ed Harris played Gene Kranz, the captain of the team. In the movie, he was credited with saying, "Failure is not an option," although I have heard that Kranz did not actually say it, that it was created by screen writers.

That doesn't take anything away from what NASA achieved 45 years ago, and it took nothing from Ebert's admiration.

"The space program was a really extraordinary thing, something to be proud of," he wrote, "and those who went into space were not just 'heroes,' which is a cliché, but brave and resourceful."

The Perfect Man Vs. Nature Movie

Bobby (Nark Wahlberg): I got a woman who I can't stand to be two feet away from.

Captain (George Clooney): Congratulations.

Bobby: Then again, I love to fish.

Captain: Son, you've got a problem.

I enjoyed "The Perfect Storm," which premiered on this day in 2000.

I didn't see it at the theater but on TV about two years later. I remember it vividly. It was the Fourth of July, slightly more than two years after its theatrical debut.

And I remember when that storm struck the northeast in October 1991 — because I took that week off from my job to review for and take my comprehensive exams, which I had to pass to receive my master's degree. I did pass my exams — in spite of periodic breaks in which I followed the progress of the storm. It was a big news story that week. It slipped my memory in the next few years, but the memory came rushing back when the movie was in the theaters 15 years ago.

It even seems to me that I heard reports at the time of a fishing boat that was lost in the storm — and her crew was presumed lost as well. Perhaps that is something of which I have persuaded myself since seeing the movie. Perhaps I didn't really hear such reports. But I definitely remember hearing about the storm and seeing footage on the news of the battering the northeast coast took.

The odyssey of that fishing boat — the Andrea Gail — formed the basis of Sebastian Junger's best–selling book and the film adaptation that was directed by Wolfgang Petersen (director of 1981's "Das Boot").

Of course, by the time people saw the movie, everyone had been reminded of the storm. The trailer made sure of that.

Film critic Roger Ebert conceded that. He wrote that the movie was "about ships tossed by a violent storm. The film doesn't have complex and involving characters, but they are not needed. It doesn't tell a sophisticated story and doesn't need to; the main events are known to most of the audience before the movie begins. All depends on the storm. I do not mind admitting I was enthralled."

So was I, in the same way that I am enthralled by dramatizations of other historic events, especially ones in which the force of nature simply overpowers humans. I suspect that was part of the attraction to "Titanic." More than 1,500 people were doomed when that ship left on its maiden voyage even though it had not struck the iceberg yet. Four days passed between the time Titanic set sail and the time it struck the iceberg. The audience knew it was simply a matter of time.

Just about everyone who saw that movie knew the story of the Titanic. They knew that most of the people on that ship would die — and anyone who had done any research into the story knew the names of most of the primary characters who would die.

"The Perfect Storm" was the perfect suspense story. The audience knew the crew of the fishing boat had been struggling, and the captain was making one last roll of the dice, trying to bring home a catch that would allow them all to live comfortably through the winter months. And they were remarkably successful on that fishing trip. But, in the movie, a critical event occurred. The refrigeration on the ship conked out, and the choice was simple. They could go full speed ahead, hoping to outrun the storm they had been hearing about and make it back to land before the catch was spoiled, or they could wait out the storm — and almost certainly lose all of the swordfish they had labored to catch.

I don't know if the crew really was that successful. The need to get back to land to cash in on a big catch added some dramatic urgency to the story, but it all could have been as simple as the crew having another poor experience and just deciding to call it quits and trying to make it to shore ahead of the storm. But no one would pay to see that.

Such stories — if they're done well — make me want to call out to the characters to go back before it is too late. "Stay where you are!" I wanted to shout at my TV screen the last time I watched "The Perfect Storm."

"The storm's like the shark in 'Jaws.' It is A LOT bigger than you think it is."

It was what appealed to me about an alternate account of the John F. Kennedy assassination from the mid–1980s Twilight Zone series.

Some of the story was based on verifiable facts. When the storm hit and who was on board the Andrea Gail are part of the record. The parallel story — about a sailboat caught in the storm — is also part of the record.

But the things that were said and done on those vessels are not known to those who were not there, particularly in the case of the Andrea Gail. There were survivors from the sailboat; there were none from the fishing boat.

"The film's best scenes are more or less without dialogue, except for desperately shouted words," Ebert wrote. "They are about men trapped in a maelstrom of overpowering forces. They respond heroically, because they must, but they are not heroes; their motivation is need. They have had a bad season, have made one risky last trip, have ventured beyond the familiar Grand Banks fishing grounds to the problematical Flemish Cap."

It probably didn't require much imagination to figure out the kind of frantic scenes that probably were played out on board the Andrea Gail in her final minutes and hours. It required more creativity, I guess, to set the stage for ultimately futile heroics. For example, there was conflict on the boat between characters played by John C. Reilly and William Fichtner. Jealousy over Reilly's character's wife was strongly implied as the reason, yet Fichtner dove into the sea to save Reilly, who had been caught in a fishing line and yanked into the water, where he surely would have drowned if he hadn't been helped.

As dramatic as the fictionalized scenes on the Andrea Gail were, it seems to me the most dramatic moments may have been the Coast Guard's actual successful efforts to save the folks on the sailboat — and the unsuccessful attempt to save one of the Guardsmen who was lost in the choppy seas.

Whether the scenes were true or not, the heroes were the men. The women were supporting characters, even a woman on the sailboat (played by Karen Allen) and a colleague (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) of the captain of the Andrea Gail (George Clooney).

So the audience had to know that some of the movie was made up. Heck, even movies that tell familiar dramatic stories find ways to ramp up the drama even more. But I think that the legitimately dramatic elements — even if partially made up simply because the whole story is not known — were dramatic enough. Ebert wrote that he was "wrung out" by the end of the movie.

I felt much the same way.

A word or two should be said about Diane Lane, an actress I have been watching for a long time. Hers was a supporting character, the girlfriend of Mark Wahlberg's character who was left behind when the Andrea Gail set sail on her final voyage.

She provided a face and a voice for many of the emotions that were undoubtedly surging through the audience — her frustration at the lack of information, her concern for the crew's safety.

I've been observing her career for many years — since her debut in 1979's "A Little Romance" — and I don't think Lane's role in "The Perfect Storm" was her best — but she is consistently good. Her role probably could have used a bit more depth — but, as Ebert observed, depth of characters wasn't necessary to tell the tale of the perfect storm.

"It's possible to criticize the sketchy characters," Ebert wrote, "but pointless. The movie is about the appalling experience of fighting for your life in a small boat in a big storm. If that is what you want to see, you will see it done here about as well as it can be done."

Monday, June 29, 2015

Waging a War of the Worlds

"Don't you get it? We're under attack!"

Ray (Tom Cruise)

Steven Spielberg's movie version of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," which was in theaters 10 years ago today, wasn't a bad movie, but, as film critic Roger Ebert observed, it was disappointing — mainly because, on the surface at least, it seemed to have all the necessary elements to make a genuine summer blockbuster.

In hindsight, the 1953 version was better — even if it didn't have the benefit of 21st–century special effects (although it did pretty well with what it had, winning an Oscar — half a century later, the remake was nominated for Oscars for sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects but didn't win any).

I saw that 1953 version once many years ago; while its effects probably do seem primitive to modern viewers and it is often summarized as a "loose adaptation" of Wells' book, it was probably a better adaptation of that book than the film that was in the theaters in 2005.

I don't know why it turned out the way it did. Spielberg has always had something of a flair for stories with an other–worldly bent, but this one simply wasn't as satisfying as his other movies.

Ebert picked up on that, too. He called it "a big, clunky movie containing some sensational sights but lacking the zest and joyous energy we expect from Steven Spielberg. ... What happened to the sense of wonder Spielberg celebrated in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' and the dazzling imagination of 'Minority Report'?"

And I agree that it was clunky — mainly because it lacked that "zest and joyous energy" to which Ebert referred. That is really the secret to Spielberg's phenomenal success — and the key to understanding his failures. Oh, sure, he's pretty good with special effects, too, but that is because he makes them so realistic that, even if the premise of the movie is preposterous, the viewer really does believe it could happen. When that is done as well as Spielberg has tended to do it, that is the real magic of the movies.

With "War of the Worlds," though, I never crossed that threshold. I never believed that what I was seeing on the screen really could come to pass. It was an entertaining movie, but I never got swept into Spielberg's world — or, at least, the world he wanted us to occupy for a couple of hours. Unlike the vast majority of my experiences with Spielberg's movies, there was never a time while I was sitting in the theater watching "War of the Worlds" when I was not aware of the fact that I was watching a movie.

Now, I'm not going to say the movie was a total loss. It did have its redeeming qualities — even if it wasn't Spielberg's best.

It was a surprise to me that Tim Robbins had a role in the movie. I hadn't heard he was in it so it really caught me by surprise. He was almost unrecognizable as a survivalist at first — especially to eyes (like mine) that expected to see the young Tim Robbins of about 25 years earlier (as you can probably guess, it's been awhile since I went to movie theaters very much). Once I realized who I was seeing, I was able to concentrate on the story.

And I thought he was good. Not Oscar–worthy good, but good.

Even though the movie was probably in the theaters when Tom Cruise was still regarded as one of the most bankable names in Hollywood, I thought the real shining star of the movie was young Dakota Fanning, already a veteran of more than a dozen movies at the tender age of 11. The Las Vegas Film Critics Society gave her its Youth in Film award for her performance, and she was nominated for Best International Actress by the Irish Film & Television Academy — but lost to Gillian Anderson.

Personally, I don't think it was the best performance I've seen Fanning give. I thought she did well in the role of Cruise's daughter, but I was more impressed with her performance as Sean Penn's daughter in "I Am Sam" in 2001. She played a different kind of role in "War of the Worlds," though, one that seemed to confirm her all–around talent, and, I must admit, I expected big things from her after I saw it.

She's made about two dozen movies in the last decade, I suppose, which makes for a formidable body of work for a 21–year–old actress, and she has received a boatload of award nominations (and she has even won some of those awards), but she's never received an Oscar nomination. When she clears that hurdle, win or lose, I will feel she has lived up to her potential.

Ebert didn't have much to say about Fanning, except to lament "scenes in which [she] has to be lost or menaced, and then scenes in which she is found or saved, all with much desperate shouting." Mostly, he seemed to say, it was much ado about nothing.

Ebert didn't like the tripod invaders in a 21st–century setting. "I do not like the way they look," he wrote, "the way they are employed, the way they attack, the way they are vulnerable or the reasons they are here."

Fair enough. His beef really had little to do with the acting. His assessment — and mine as well — was that Cruise, as the hero, was tolerable in his role. After I had seen the movie, I really had no complaints about the acting, either, but I felt vaguely unsettled about what I had seen — an atypical response to a Spielberg movie.

Earlier in his review, Ebert wrote, "You look at Spielberg's machines, and you don't get much worked up, because you're seeing not alien menace but clumsy retro design. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to set the movie in 1898, at the time of Wells' novel, when the tripods represented a state–of–the–art alien invasion."

Food for thought for whoever chooses to make the next adaptation of Wells' tale.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Not Your Ordinary Western

"They're trying to drive him off his ranch. They put manure in his well. They made him talk to lawyers ..."

Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda)

By 1965, the western genre had become stale and predictable. It needed something to spice it up.

Twenty–seven–year–old Jane Fonda provided it as Catherine "Cat" Ballou, a young woman from Wyoming who had been educated in the East and was returning to her father's ranch. All sorts of things happened from that point on, including the appearance of Lee Marvin, who stole the show with his dual role (which won an Oscar).

But it was Fonda who played the title character, and it was the kind of character that hadn't really been explored in the movies up to that time, particularly not in the context of the Old West — a strong, independent female.

Some people think Fonda's performance in "Cat Ballou" was her breakthrough performance; some people don't. I do, even though she got good reviews for her work in 1962's "Period of Adjustment."

I guess what made "Cat Ballou" special was the fact that Fonda succeeded almost in spite of herself. As I understand it, the folks who were making the movie wanted Ann–Margret to play the role of Cat Ballou, but apparently her manager declined on her behalf (she has since suggested that she would have taken the role) so it was offered to Fonda.

Fonda wasn't going to take it. She didn't want to do another comedy. She was looking for dramatic roles that would establish her as a legitimate actress, but her fiance, Roger Vadim, talked her into it. I guess he saw something in the script that Fonda didn't see.

The movie was based on a serious story; it was adapted to be a comedy, and that paid off handsomely. Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars but lost to Robert Bolt for "Doctor Zhivago."

The movie did win an Oscar for Best Actor — Marvin pulled off the relatively rare accomplishment of winning the award for a performance in a comedy.

Not that he didn't deserve it. He certainly did — although I am sure there were those who were shocked that he beat the likes of Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger by playing a gunfighter who had deteriorated into a drunk and his evil twin. (Steiger was regarded as the front–runner, and I am told that he was halfway out of his seat when Marvin's name was announced as the winner.)

"Cat Ballou," it is safe to say, was the inspiration for spoofs to come, like "Blazing Saddles." You could see it from the beginning, when Columbia Pictures' "torch lady" became a cartoon Cat Ballou with pistols in both hands that she fired into the air.

Oh, there was another nice touch that needs to be mentioned. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye sang "The Ballad of Cat Ballou" like a couple of country troubadours regularly punctuating scenes in the movie to round out the tale.

In the Twinkling of an Eye -- or the Twitching of a Nose

Jack (Will Ferrell): So were your parents in the witch business?

Isabel (Nicole Kidman): Both of them. My mother fixed the 1986 World Series.

I had pretty high hopes when I heard that a movie based on the Bewitched TV series was being made. I was a fan of that show when I was a child, and I have admired Nicole Kidman (who was tapped to play Elizabeth Montgomery's role) for many years.

Now, I'm not really a fan of movies based on TV shows. Occasionally, they turn out OK, but mostly I have found them to be huge disappointments. It's fair to say that my enthusiasm for the Bewitched movie was tempered.

But I like Nicole Kidman in much the same way that I liked the original Samantha. I thought she was a good fit for the role.

You know what? I still do. I had other issues with the movie. So did film critic Roger Ebert, who conceded that he didn't watch much prime–time TV and had never seen an episode of Bewitched. "When you see 500 movies a year," he wrote, "you don't have a lot of left–over yearning for watching television. In the evenings, you involve yourself in more human pursuits."

Ebert found the movie "tolerably entertaining," and so did I. Since much of it incorporated scenes from episodes of the original series — sometimes word for word, as I recall — I gather he would have found the series entertaining as well. But he had the same problem with the movie that I had — it threw together too many scenes from episodes of the series that had no unifying theme or context — other than whatever flimsy pretense was used to loosely link things together.

"Many of its parts work," he observed, "although not together. Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman are funny and likable, but they're in a plot that doesn't allow them to aim for the same ending with the same reason. It's one of those movies where you smile and laugh and are reasonably entertained, but you get no sense of a mighty enterprise sweeping you along with its comedic force. There is not a movie here. Just scenes in search of one."

That seems like fair criticism to me.

As I say, I like Kidman, and I think she was a good choice for Samantha. But there was some real chemistry between Elizabeth Montgomery and the first Darrin (Dick York) that transcended the transition to the second Darrin (Dick Sargent), who clearly was never as comfortable with Samantha as his predecessor, midway through the series' run.

That was material for one of those inside baseball kind of jokes in the movie. Ferrell observed that, on the TV show, Darrin had been so insignificant that the producers changed actors playing the role midway through the series' run — "and no one noticed!" But the series wouldn't have survived for four more years if not for the reservoir of good will the show's fans had for Montgomery. If she was even remotely convincing in her relationship with the second Darrin, the viewers would accept him without question. She was, and they did.

And the movie needed to be mindful of that. The movie wouldn't work if there wasn't the same kind of chemistry between Samantha and Darrin as there had been on the TV show — and there wasn't. Kidman and Ferrell could read the same lines that Montgomery and York did 40 years earlier, even re–create entire scenes, but they wouldn't work without the chemistry.

Kidman needed a different Darrin. I like Ferrell, too, but he needed a different Samantha. As Ebert observed, they were never really on the same page.

And I wasn't particularly wild about the supporting cast, either. For me, Michael Caine never really worked as Samantha's father (played by Maurice Evans in the TV show). And I had some trouble accepting Steve Carell as Uncle Arthur. I suppose that really was a tough one to cast, though. I mean, who could improve on Paul Lynde?

But my real problem was with Shirley MacLaine as Endora, the role played by Agnes Moorehead on TV. Now, I admire much of the work MacLaine has done over the years, but, frankly, I have found her recent work to be a little too flamboyant, and she really let her freak flag fly in "Bewitched." Not that Moorehead wasn't a little over the top at times; the role certainly called for some of that. But MacLaine was a little too over the top for me.

So, what we were left with was, as Ebert observed, an entertaining big–screen homage to a beloved TV series — but nothing that seemed likely to spawn a "Bewitched 2." I doubt that very many people in the audience left the theaters in 2005 hoping that a sequel would be coming along in 2006 that would let them know how things were working out between the new Samantha and Darrin.

Sadly, it is what I had been conditioned to expect — from previous attempts to make successful TV series into movies. Perhaps a little better than most, and, to be fair, "Bewitched" the movie did have some elements of creativity that the others did not. So it showed flashes of what might have been. I hoped for better.

I didn't get it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Making the Case for the Short Story

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Stephen King

I guess you could say I am a fan of Stephen King.

I haven't liked all of his books — full disclosure: I haven't read them all, not even close, but I've read enough to know that he's going to be good most of the time. As such, I figure he is worthy of my admiration.

I consider myself a writer, but I'm a slacker compared to King. Do you think he has written a lot of novels over the years? You're right. He has. Dozens of 'em. He's also written several collections of short stories, which is what "Skeleton Crew," which was published on this date in 1985, was — a collection of short stories. He has published about a dozen of those.

"Skeleton Crew" was his second collection of short stories. I prefer his early collections because they really are short stories. His later collections are more like a handful of novellas in a single volume. In that sense, I guess "Skeleton Crew" was a bit deceptive if you started reading without glancing at the Table of Contents. The first story truly was novella–like, but the rest really were short stories. There were roughly 20 stories in that book and a couple of poems; the poems were only a few pages long, and some of the stories weren't much longer than that.

Actually, that first story would have made the book worthwhile all by itself. I wasn't terribly impressed with the poems, but the legitimate short stories ranged from entertaining to astonishing.

I got interested in reading "Skeleton Crew" when I saw one of the short stories, "Gramma," dramatized on the second–generation Twilight Zone TV series in the '80s, but I suppose I was already predisposed to like the short story format. When I was in elementary school, I remember reading a series of short story collections that leaned heavily to the horror genre. Just the sort of thing a 9– or 10–year–old boy loves to read — you know, with plenty of zombies and such — and my buddies and I passed them around.

Those weren't single–author collections, though. In that respect, I guess they were more like anthologies, although not as voluminous as the ones I used to slog through in college.

As a writer, I found King's introduction to be the most satisfying I have read. It was a discussion of the art of writing, why writers write, that kind of thing. Near the end, he said he hoped the readers would enjoy the collection. "I suspect you won't like it as well as you would a novel," King wrote, "because most of you have forgotten the real pleasures of the short story.

"Reading a good long novel is, in many ways, like having a long and satisfying affair. ... A short story is a different thing altogether — a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. That is not, of course, the same thing as an affair or a marriage, but kisses can be sweet, and their very brevity forms their own attraction."

I hope "Skeleton Crew" reminded readers of "the real pleasures of the short story." It certainly reminded me, and it is a lesson that has stayed with me all these years.

In his introduction, King told readers that the collection spanned much of his life, from early in his writing career (the late '60s) to the time the collection was published. Trust me when I tell you there are treasures for every taste.

Each of the short stories is rewarding in its own way. People who avoid King because they aren't fans of the horror genre should read "The Reach," a charming tale about a great–grandmother who was born on an island off the coast of Maine and had been there her entire life. It's the kind of thing that King's fans share with non–King fans as evidence of his range as a storyteller.

Much of it, though, is the kind of King writing you've been conditioned to expect — although I would argue that he, like Alfred Hitchcock, is misunderstood. He doesn't write horror stories so much as he writes suspense stories, thrillers. That's a lot more difficult to achieve in the pages of a short story, and King did a great job of it in "Skeleton Crew."

If you read "Skeleton Crew," don't skip King's notes at the end. They're possibly the best observations on books and writing that I have read:

"Not everyone is interested in where short stories come from," King wrote, "and that is perfectly proper — you don't have to understand the internal combustion engine to drive a car, and you don't need to know the circumstances which surrounded the making of a story to get a bit of pleasure from it."

As I said earlier in this post, I am a writer. I like to think I'm a good writer — although I suppose that is a matter of opinion — but I don't think I am so good that I cannot learn from others, and King really is one of the best — if not the best — of his generation. So I enjoyed reading what he had to say about writing 30 years ago, realizing how successful he has been since he wrote those notes.

For King's part, he seemed almost apologetic — and appeared to encourage some readers to skip his notes altogether. "I've included a few notes here on a few of the stories — such things as I thought might interest the casual reader," he wrote. "But if you're even more casual than that, I assure you that you can close the book without a qualm — you won't be missing much."

With all due respect, yes, you will be missing much.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On a Mission From God

Mrs. Tarantino: Are you the police?

Elwood (Dan Aykroyd): No, ma'am. We're musicians.

One of the enduring mysteries of life is this: Why are some of the greatest talents in every field snuffed out far too soon? Entertainers appear particularly prone to this — or maybe it just seems that way, given that entertainers are in the public spotlight and people who teach or do important research generally are not. Nevertheless, talented people from every walk of life are taken before their time.

And every time I watch "The Blues Brothers," which premiered on this date in 1980, I am reminded that such a talent, John Belushi, was lost when he had so much still to share with us. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Belushi was one of the elite performers of my generation, but the sad truth is that he was known to most of us for only a few years before he died.

Ah, but what years they were! And "The Blues Brothers" is probably exceeded only by "Animal House" in terms of the influence Belushi's work had on that generation.

The story opened with Belushi (Joliet Jake) being paroled from prison and Dan Aykroyd (Elwood) picking him up. Jake's first stop after being released was a visit to a nun known as "the Penguin" who told them the orphanage where Jake and Elwood were brought up was going to be shut down unless $5,000 could be raised. The Blues Brothers offered to come up with the money another way, but the Penguin refused to accept stolen money.

And that led the Blues Brothers to their "mission from God."

They went to a church where James Brown was pastor — and they saw the light. They were inspired to raise the funds the Penguin needed by legal means. They set out to reunite their old band and put on a show to raise the money.

And thus began the Blues Brothers' odyssey. They found their old buddies in some pretty improbable places. Aretha Franklin, for example, was running a restaurant and Ray Charles was running a music store. (Franklin, wrote critic Roger Ebert, "occupies one of the movie's best scenes." I am inclined to agree.)

Along the way they trashed a mall by driving through it, offended a restaurant patron and encountered Henry Gibson and a group of Nazis blocking a bridge.

Somehow, they managed to do their benefit show and raise the money for the Penguin's orphanage. They were a little late to their show so Cab Calloway filled in to warm up the crowd with a rendition of "Minnie the Moocher."

And they repeatedly encountered a mysterious woman (Carrie Fisher) who was intent upon killing Jake. She took potshots at him periodically. She tried to blow him up. She used a flamethrower around a gas tank next to the phone booth where the Blues Brothers were trying to make a call. All without confronting him directly — until she actually did confront them at the end of the movie.

The Blues Brothers drove off in a hail of gunfire, and they were eventually followed by a line of police cars that rivaled the one that pursued O.J. Simpson in real life 14 years later.

I'm not kidding. There have been some wild car chases in the movies, but the one in "The Blues Brothers" has to be one of the wildest.

"The fact is," wrote Ebert, "the whole movie is a chase, with Jake and Elwood piloting a used police car that seems ... to have a life of its own."

In spite of everything it had been through, that car led a merry little chase at the end of the movie that was worthy of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" or "Sex and the Single Girl."

"The Blues Brothers" is still enjoyable. I watched it again recently, and it is as entertaining now as it was 35 years ago.

Trouble in Paradise

"There's so many things I don't understand, like why do the fish stop swimming and lie on top of the tide pools after a heavy rain? Why do you hear the waves inside the big shells? Why are all these funny hairs growing on me?"

Richard (Christopher Atkins)

In the weeks leading up to the premiere 35 years ago today of "The Blue Lagoon," I remember seeing many tantalizing and provocative movie trailers and TV commercials that emphasized the forbidden love aspect of two young cousins, a boy and a girl, being marooned alone on an island and surviving there for years, ultimately succumbing to sexual curiosity and the urgings of nature. I guess it wasn't quite as forbidden for cousins as it would have been for a brother and a sister. (They were cousins in the turn–of–the–century novel upon which the movie was based, too. The makers of this movie, as I shall discuss shortly, apparently had no interest in altering the original story in any way.)

Incidentally, film critic Roger Ebert said it was "the dumbest movie of the year," and that really is a difficult conclusion to contradict — especially when you read his summary of the story:
"It could conceivably have been made interesting, if any serious attempt had been made to explore what might really happen if two 7–year–old kids were shipwrecked on an island. But this isn't a realistic movie. It's a wildly idealized romance, in which the kids live in a hut that looks like a Club Med honeymoon cottage, while restless natives commit human sacrifice on the other side of the island. (It is a measure of the filmmakers' desperation that the kids and the natives never meet one another and the kids leave the island without even one obligatory scene of being tied to a stake.)"

Ebert's conclusion is rather remarkable, considering that, while 1980 produced some of the finest movies in recent memory, it also saw such bombs as "Can't Stop the Music," "Herbie Goes Bananas," "Little Darlings," "Motel Hell" and "Wholly Moses!" Competition for designation as the year's dumbest movie was pretty steep.

The girl was played by Brooke Shields, who was just barely 15 when the movie hit the theaters but was already an old pro in front of the camera. She wasn't even a week old when her mother declared that she wanted her daughter to be in show business. She was a child model before her first birthday and continued modeling even after she started appearing in movies.

In fact, it was around the time of the premiere of "The Blue Lagoon" that Shields appeared in a suggestive advertising campaign for Calvin Klein jeans. "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins?" she purred. "Nothing."

In addition to sending Calvin Klein's sales into orbit, I'm sure the publicity didn't hurt the movie. It earned nearly $59 million in the United States and Canada after being made for less than $5 million. It was the ninth–most successful movie of 1980. It even received an Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography) — and, from what I could see of it when I watched it on TV several months later, it deserved it. How could it miss with all that great scenery?

Of course, there was the matter of nudity — as there had been a few years earlier when Shields, then 12 years old, played a prostitute in "Pretty Baby," in which she allegedly did some scenes in the nude. I've only seen that movie once — like "The Blue Lagoon," it was on TV — and my memory is that the scenes involving Shields were dimly lit, but that did not keep people from complaining about the implications of child pornography. At the time, I heard that Shields actually did her nude scenes wearing a flesh–colored body suit.

I guess Shields and her mother learned from that experience. Or maybe the makers of "The Blue Lagoon" learned from it. Perhaps both. There was nudity in "The Blue Lagoon," but it was indistinct and fleeting, like underwater views of the young couple swimming, or otherwise obscured, as in a scene showing them beneath a waterfall. Shields herself tried to put to rest the allegations by saying that older body doubles were used for the nude scenes of her and co–star Christopher Atkins.

I don't know if that is true or not, but it made a satisfactory story for those who desperately wanted to believe that no one would abuse underage people like that. That was kind of a strange mindset, given what was driving people to the theaters to see "The Blue Lagoon."

"Let's face it," Ebert wrote. "Going into this film knowing what we've heard about it, we're anticipating the scenes in which the two kids discover the joys of sex. This is a prurient motive on our part, and we're maybe a little ashamed of it, but our shame turns to impatience as [director Randal] Kleiser intercuts countless shots of the birds and the bees (every third shot in this movie seems to be showing a parrot's reaction to something)."

The two young versions of Shields and Atkins were shipwrecked along with a cook who gave them guidance until he died, leaving the children to fend for themselves — which they did quite well, thanks to his instructions. He warned them about berries on the island that he believed to be poisonous, but he used words ("never–wake–up berries") that 7–year–olds would understand. They sounded odd coming from the lips of teenagers later in the movie — until you remembered that they hadn't had any instruction from adults in quite some time.

That was one of the things Ebert either forgot or failed to comprehend for one reason or another. The absence of adult supervision could be seen in many ways, but the staying power of the cook's lessons was evident, too. For example, at the end of the movie, the boy and the girl and the baby they conceived were adrift at sea, and they ate some of those berries the cook warned them about, fully expecting to die. It just so happens that, after they had eaten the berries and, as the cook described, fallen asleep (or lapsed into unconsciousness), who should come by in a ship but the boy's father, who, according to the original story, had been looking for his son ever since the first ship was lost.

Ebert thought the movie left the viewers hanging because it was never determined whether the berries had merely put them all to sleep or fatally poisoned them. The movie did leave the audience hanging, but the problem was, so did the book.

"The movie cops out," Ebert complained. "The burden of contriving an ending was apparently too much for such a feeble movie to support."

He was wrong to blame that entirely on the movie. The original sin was Irish author Henry De Vere Stacpoole's more than 70 years earlier. But that certainly doesn't absolve Kleiser and everyone else in the cast and crew of all responsibility for giving their audience an ambiguous ending to the movie — they could have changed it if that had been what they wanted, and, apparently, it was not. They chose a faithful re–telling of Stacpoole's story — and it can only be interpreted as a choice. Stories are "re–imagined" in the movies all the time. Sometimes they are done well. Sometimes not. But it is a choice to do that.

It's a calculated risk, especially if the movie is likely to draw armies of fans who are dedicated to the original book(s). For example, it is my guess that millions of the people who went to see the "Lord of the Rings" movies were fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien books and were likely to notice even the slightest deviation from the original text. In this case, however, I doubt that there were armies of Stacpoole fans going to see how faithfully his story was told; apparently, the story was told as it had been told for decades — there were other film versions before the 1980 edition. I've never seen them, but it is my understanding that none of them changed the ending, either.

Would a different ending have improved the movie? I don't know. A movie is what it is, with the beginning, middle and ending — and all the other decisions — the director made. Speculating on whether a movie would have been better if any part of it had been changed is an exercise in hypotheticals. Suppose someone else had played Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Would it have been better or worse?

That is a matter of personal taste and opinion. The only thing that could be said for certain would have been that the movie was different.

And that was what the makers of "The Blue Lagoon" could have given their audiences 35 years ago — something that was different from what previous generations had been given. But they played it safe. Ebert thought that was a copout. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Unnatural

General manager: Want to look at a pitcher?

Mouth McGarry (Jack Warden): At this point, I'll even look at you.

General manager: He's a lefty.

Mouth McGarry: Lefty, schmefty. What's the difference? If he's got more than one arm and less than four, he's for us.

Twilight Zone is absolutely one of my favorite TV series of all time. But no series is perfect, and Twilight Zone certainly had its share of misfires. I have mentioned before how I always watch the Syfy Channel's semiannual Twilight Zone marathons on New Year's and the Fourth of July and how there are certain episodes I always make it a habit to watch, whenever they happen to be aired.

Likewise, there are episodes I avoid. Those are the episodes I loathed the first time I saw them. Oddly enough, those episodes often turn out to be the most popular among other Twilight Zone fans. (I've never been able to explain that. It's kind of like being in my own personal Twilight Zone episode.)

That seems to be the case with the episode that first aired on this date in 1960 — "The Mighty Casey," a title that was inspired by Ernest Thayer's 1888 poem "Casey at the Bat." Now, I will admit that I have always liked baseball — more when I was a boy than now, I suppose — but I just never warmed up to this episode.

Others did, though.

The tale was about a fictional down–and–out baseball team called the Hoboken Zephyrs that was so bad it had to call a single victory a streak. The story opened with the team holding tryouts — and drawing a pretty motley crew.

Jack Warden played the beleaguered manager. He was convinced there were no — ahem — diamonds in the rough.

And then an older man came to the dugout. Warden thought it was a joke — a middle–aged man angling for a role as a rookie pitcher? No, he was a scientist who wanted to introduce Warden to the pitching prospect, s somber–faced fellow named Casey. The older man was Casey's creator. Casey, you see, was a robot.

Warden sent him out to the mound to throw a few pitches. His fastball scorched the catcher's mitt.

His off–speed stuff bewildered batters who tried to hit it. Granted, they were Zephyrs — and wannabe Zephyrs. The real test would come when he faced legitimate big–league batters.

Warden figured he had nothing to lose — his club was already 31 games out of first place — so he put Casey on his roster.

And it really seemed to pay off. The mysterious Casey appeared unbeatable. He went on a shutout binge; he put together a real winning streak and had Warden dreaming of winning a pennant.

Then disaster struck. Casey got beaned in a game and was taken to the hospital for evaluation. While he was there, it was determined that he had no pulse, no heartbeat.

Baseball rules clearly state that a lineup must be made up of nine men — and Casey didn't qualify, but his creator said he could give Casey a heart if that was what was necessary to earn the designation of human.

And that's what he did.

But, when Casey rejoined the club, there was a problem. The addition of a heart had given him something he had never had before — compassion.

It was obvious right away that something was different. He was smiling.

And when he took the mound, it was crystal clear that something was different. His pitches didn't baffle hitters. They were connecting — and frequently, spraying hits everywhere and driving in runs in bunches.

In the locker room, the scientist and Casey tried to explain to the manager that he no longer had the killer instinct that had served him so well before.

Casey said the scientist had urged him to go into social work, and that was what he was going to do. "I want to help people," he said as he left the locker room.

And the Zephyrs were back where they had been before Casey came along.

The scientist left Casey's blueprints with the manager — and it was strongly implied that those blueprints eventually were used to create a pitching staff that enjoyed great success.

As I say, I just never really cared for this episode. There were times during its run that Twilight Zone dabbled in stories about robots, and I never really liked them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Spencer Tracy's Finest Hour?

"I would like to say a few words about weddings. I've just been through one. Not my own. My daughter's. Someday in the far future I may be able to remember it with tender indulgence but not now. I always used to think that marriages were a simple affair. Boy meets girl. Fall in love. They get married. Have babies. Eventually the babies grow up and meet other babies. They fall in love. Get married. Have babies. And so on and on and on. Looked at that way, it's not only simple, it's downright monotonous. But I was wrong. I figured without the wedding."

Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy)

I like Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, and I thought their remake of "Father of the Bride" in 1991 had some creative and imaginative elements that the original did not have, but, if given a choice, I would rather watch the original version, starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett and Elizabeth Taylor, that made its debut on this date in 1950.

I'm not sure there is a logical reason for this preference. Martin is really a professional funny man. You'd think a professional funny man would be perfect for the male lead in a comedy. Tracy wasn't a professional funny man. He could do comedy, but he could do so many other things, too. That may be what worked in his favor. Being the butt of jokes was so out of character for him. As the father of the bride, he was playing against type.

Anyway, it worked well enough for him to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It was one of three nominations "Father of the Bride"
received. Three nominations, no wins.

In fact, it worked well enough that I am almost tempted to call it his finest acting achievement. Almost.

It wasn't surprising that he lost, though. Tracy was facing some long odds. He was competing with Jimmy Stewart and Bill Holden — and the winner was José Ferrer. Actors in comedies don't usually win Oscars, anyway. It's pretty rare for them even to be nominated.

It wasn't rare for Tracy to be nominated for Oscars. He was nominated for Best Actor nine times in his career and won twice. But, even for him, it was rare to be nominated for his roles in comedies. He could do them — pretty well, in fact — but he was quite versatile. He could shine in any genre.

And I suppose labeling this movie a comedy would be a matter of perspective. For any man who has ever been the father of the bride, many of the scenes that were played out on the silver screen must have rung painfully true. Even if they can laugh about it now, those fathers must have found the experience, at some times and at the very least, awkward.

Of course, Tracy was confronted with just about every conceivable pitfall that can plague a father of the bride. Most only have to contend with one or two; Tracy got the whole ball of wax.

"You fathers will understand," Tracy's character told the fathers of the bride in the audience, past and potential. "You have a little girl. She looks up to you. You're her oracle. You're her hero. And then the day comes when she gets her first permanent wave and goes to her first real party, and from that day on, you're in a constant state of panic."

If "Father of the Bride" was an accurate reflection of a, more or less, typical wedding in 1950, then I suppose it must have been a lucrative business for anyone who contributed anything to a typical wedding — flowers, wedding cakes, bridal gowns, bridesmaids' dresses, groomsmen's attire — and there are lots of rituals that go into a traditional wedding.

By modern standards, though, this certainly wouldn't be a middle–class wedding. Only an upper–class family could afford all the trimmings, and it may not have been that typical after all. It was mostly done at the insistence of the mother of the bride, played by Joan Bennett, who wanted the kind of wedding she and Tracy didn't have. Tracy had to foot the bill for the lavish proceedings plus he had to meet the groom's parents, have a man–to–man conversation with the groom, host the engagement party — as well as put out any other fires he encountered along the way.

And, of course, then — as now — the father of the bride was really only a supporting player in a wedding. Just like the groom. They were there to perform certain functions, but a wedding is really about the bride — and, by extension, the bride's mother.

Tracy and the audience had to be certain that it would all be worth it when the big day arrived. But when the big day actually did arrive, Tracy barely got to see his daughter and appeared to have missed his chance when things began to wind down and he realized the couple had left on their honeymoon.

But just before they were to board their train, Liz Taylor called her parents — and it really was all worth it for the father of the bride.

Now Martin and Keaton did a reasonably good job in the remake, but Tracy and Bennett gave it all a very human touch that elevated this version far above the remake.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

"I don't want to make a big thing out of this, but what kind of a place is this?"

Marsha (Anne Francis)

No doubt about it. Anne Francis was a beautiful woman ... especially when she was young. (Now, before you say, "Who wasn't?" hear me out.)

She had all the qualities necessary to play a damsel in distress in the movies. That was a big part of her beauty — the impression people seemed to get that she was fragile. But she wasn't. Appearances can be deceptive, and that was never more accurate than in the case of Anne Francis.

She was tough, and she could be skeptical. In "The After Hours," the episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1960, her character observed that the elevator that was taking her to a department store's ninth floor (which, as it turned out, didn't exist) was empty, save for her and the elevator attendant (they still had elevator attendants in 1960) even though the lobby had been crowded with shoppers wanting to be taken to the upper floors.

She was told that the elevator in which she was riding was an express elevator that only took customers to the ninth floor, where special items were available. Didn't really seem like the item she sought — a gold thimble — was so special, but she had told the attendant that it was advertised.

She was able to rationalize that ... but rationalizing things became progressively more difficult.

She became aware of strangers — apparently department store employees — who knew her by name (Marsha). And then she learned from the store's manager that the store had no ninth floor. Spooky, huh? Spooked Marsha so much she had to lie down in an office and slept through the store's closing. When she woke up, she was locked in.

So she went looking for a way out.

Then she became aware of people gathering around her — disembodied voices that seemed to be coming from the mannequins who could be seen throughout the store.

In the world of the department store, the mannequins had their own world, and each month one of them left the store to live in the world of the humans. It was like a little vacation.

Only Marsha had forgotten that she was a mannequin on holiday and that her time in the outside world had expired. She hadn't recognized the mannequins she encountered in the store — and her tardiness in returning had delayed the next mannequin's departure.

"Did you enjoy yourself, Marsha?" another mannequin asked Francis after her character remembered everything and the other mannequins said goodbye to the mannequin whose turn it was to live with the "outsiders," as they were called. "Was it fun?"

"Ever so much fun," she replied with a smile. "Ever so much fun."

And the mannequins assumed their natural positions.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

On Being a Non-Conformist

"In the parlance of the 20th century, this is an oddball. His name is James B.W. Bevis, and his tastes lean toward stuffed animals, zither music, professional football, Charles Dickens, moose heads, carnivals, dogs, children and young ladies. Mr. Bevis is accident prone, a little vague, a little discombobulated, with a life that possesses all the security of a floating crap game. But this can be said of our Mr. Bevis: without him, without his warmth, without his kindness, the world would be a considerably poorer place, albeit perhaps a little saner."

Opening narration

It is fair to say that James B.W. Bevis (played by Orson Bean) was eccentric. It is also fair to say it was hard for him to find his niche. When first we met him, he was about to be fired from his 11th job in 18 months.

It would, likewise, be fair to say that, if Mr. Bevis didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all. After he had packed his belongings and was about to put them in the back seat of his 1924 Rickenbacker, the jalopy was pulled away by a car whose back bumper had become entangled with the Rickenbacker's front one — and it wound up on its side following a traffic accident.

Somehow, Mr. Bevis got back to his home — except it wasn't his home anymore. He found the landlady carrying his belongings to the curb.

Mr. Bevis had no other place to go so he went to a bar — where he could look in a mirror and see his guardian angel sitting in a booth, but he couldn't see him when he looked directly at the booth.

Don't worry. Bevis was baffled, too — until the guardian angel explained it to him:

"Several hundred years ago, one of your ancestors performed an act of great courage. Now, part of his reward was to have a guardian angel assigned to one of his descendants in each generation. Current subject: James B.W. Bevis."

He went on to explain that it was his job to "watch over" Mr. Bevis, and he had been brought there by the events that had unfolded that day. He told Mr. Bevis that he could reverse the outcome of the day for him.

And he did. But it just didn't set well with Mr. Bevis. It wasn't who he was. In order for the day to turn out differently, he had to be different. He had to dress differently. He couldn't have a cluttered desk or play football with the kids on his street. He couldn't drive a 1924 Rickenbacker anymore.

He had to stop liking zither music and building model ships and the rest of it. He had to stop being himself.

And he wouldn't hear of it.

So his guardian angel restored his old life — with the original outcomes of each scenario. No job. No home. No car.

But James B.W. Bevis wasn't beaten. He resolved to find a new apartment and a new job and resume building a model ship he had been working on.

It was a nice examination of the life of a non–conformist.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Truly Divine Miss M

"Hi. It's me, don't you remember? The tomato from upstairs."

The Girl (Marilyn Monroe)

I'm a fan of Marilyn Monroe — even though she was way before my time — and I have always believed she was more talented than she got credit for. You probably couldn't tell that, though, from her movie that premiered on this day in 1955 — Billy Wilder's "The Seven–Year Itch."

(It also happened to be Marilyn's 29th birthday.)

She was such a dumb blonde in that one that her character didn't even have a name. She was simply called "The Girl." Oh, there was a time or two when the male lead, Tom Ewell, tried to convince his wife (in imaginary conversations — he was in New York and she was spending the summer in Maine) that he wasn't as predictably faithful as he imagined that she thought. At one point, it was suggested that he had a blonde in his kitchen and was asked who she was. He responded by saying, "Wouldn't you like to know? Maybe it's Marilyn Monroe!" — which, of course, it was.

A nice little inside joke, eh? Just between Tom Ewell and the audience.

But her character was never addressed by any kind of name, not even as The Girl, by anyone in the movie — which suggests two possibilities to me that may have been at work (and both could be happening at the same time). First, it is an indication of how socially insignificant women were in the 1950s. By implication, that seven–year itch was afflicting the man. The Girl just happened to be there. It could have been any female. The man in the scenario had an itch to scratch. With whom he scratched it did not matter.

Second, because she was deemed to be of so little consequence, she wasn't worthy of a name. Even a dog has a name and is addressed by that name, but "The Girl" was not. For all intents and purposes, I suppose, her character was less than a dog. She was a prop, eye candy.

(It's ironic, really, that the girl was regarded as replaceable. I have heard that Wilder wanted to cast Walter Matthau as the male lead, but 20th Century Fox preferred to have Ewell reprise his Broadway role.)

Of course, it didn't help Marilyn's case that her character provided perhaps the most iconic image ever in the movies in the course of making it. It was a very suggestive image, which shouldn't be a surprise really. In spite of the Hays Code, Hollywood has always been about sex appeal. Rather than banning certain thoughts, words or images from the big screen, the Hays Code merely made some things even more tempting because they were forbidden and encouraged some movie makers to skirt around the edges of what was acceptable and what was not.

(And sometimes the movie makers played with fire. I've heard that it was the spectacle of the repeated takes of that scene, before a leering audience from across the street, that was the straw that broke the back of Marilyn's marriage to baseball icon Joe DiMaggio.)

Marilyn certainly did her part to bring about the eventual demise of the Hays Code — in no small part because of the role she played in "The Seven–Year Itch." It was never explicit, mind you, but it was suggestive.

All of that contributed to her sex kitten image. Frankly, I think Marilyn shrewdly used that image whenever and however she pleased.

I've never really understood why Marilyn got such a bad reputation, especially since her character was often capable of some really insightful comments, the kind of thing you didn't hear women saying — openly, anyway — for a few decades, things like this ...

"You think every girl's a dope. You think a girl goes to a party, and there's some guy in a fancy striped vest strutting around giving you that I'm–so–handsome–you–can't–resist–me look. From this she's supposed to fall flat on her face. Well, she doesn't fall on her face. But there's another guy in the room, over in the corner. Maybe he's nervous and shy and perspiring a little. First, you look past him. But then you sense that he's gentle and kind and worried. That he'll be tender with you, nice and sweet. That's what's really exciting."

(Now, personally, I don't really buy that, but perhaps I have become jaded by the times in which I live. In the mid–'50s, though, it must have raised some eyebrows.)

But there was the flip side to that — and it was the side that fueled her dumb blonde image.

The Girl had some unusual tastes ...
"Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It's real crazy!"

The Girl thought things were elegant — it seemed to be her favorite word. She thought it was elegant that Ewell was married. Cool air on a hot summer evening was elegant, too — actually, she might have been on to something there.

And she thought it was elegant to have an imagination.

"I just have no imagination at all," she said. "I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination."

I'm not so sure that is true. Now, there was no doubt that Ewell's character had a vivid imagination — and, perhaps, when compared to his imagination, anyone's imagination would pale. He was a kind of dweebish publishing executive whose imagination was straining at its leash — the residue, I'm sure, of all his repressive years of proofreading manuscripts.

And there was no doubt that Marilyn's character did, indeed, have "lots of other things." (I suppose you can define that as you wish ...)

But I think she did have an imagination. It just couldn't compete with Ewell's. His only equal, I'm inclined to think, was Walter Mitty.

Even Walter Mitty couldn't conceive of the kind of scenarios Ewell's character could — for example, his fantasy about him and Dolores Rosedale (whose character did have a name — Elaine) in a spoof of the beach scene in "From Here to Eternity."

I guess it wasn't necessary for Ewell to fantasize about Marilyn; her character, after all, was living in the apartment above his. He was alone for the summer. He still fantasized about her, though.

No fantasy could compete with the real thing. And the real thing was right there, up close and personal all the time; Ewell's fantasies took off.

Like, for example, when he fantasized about seducing her by simply playing Rachmaninoff.

"It isn't fair," he imagined her saying. "Every time I hear it, I go to pieces. It shakes me, it quakes me. It makes me feel goose–pimply all over. I don't know where I am or who I am or what I'm doing. Don't stop. Don't stop. Don't ever stop!"

In reality, though, they had conversations and looked at books about photography and such.

I guess it was a concession that the movie made. In the play on which the movie was based, the two had sex. They couldn't do that in the movie. That made certain other changes to the story necessary as well.

In fact, Wilder called it a "nothing movie." It should be remade without censorship, he said. "Unless the husband, left alone in New York while the wife and kid are away for the summer, has an affair with that girl, there's nothing. But you couldn't do that in those days, so I was just straitjacketed."

Wilder and Monroe worked together again — in the biggest hit of Monroe's career, "Some Like It Hot."