Thursday, July 30, 2015

Henry Fonda's Pursuit of Happiness

"All right! Who did it? Who did it? You are going to stand sweating at those battle stations until someone confesses! It's an insult to the honor of this ship! The symbol of our cargo record has been destroyed, and I'm going to find out who did it if it takes all night!"

James Cagney

After a lifetime of watching movies, I have reached a conclusion that may seem obvious, but it is truly amazing how few people really consider it before embarking on a moviemaking project. If they did, untold millions — perhaps billions — of budget dollars could be spared.

The best movies are the ones that honestly examine human conditions and traits (both good and bad) that are fairly common. John Ford's "Mister Roberts," which premiered 60 years ago today, was such a movie.

It was a clever twist on the end–of–the–war theme that has been done dozens of times, but there was much more to it than that. The Mister Roberts of the title was Henry Fonda, reprising his Tony Award–winning stage role as an officer on board a cargo ship in the Pacific at the end of World War II. The cargo ship was far from the action — so far, in fact, that it could just barely be regarded as being involved in the war at all — and Fonda's character craved action. So he was forever writing letters asking to be transferred, which were passed along as required by Navy regulations.

His problem was the captain of the cargo ship (James Cagney) consistently refused to endorse Fonda's transfer requests. Without the captain's endorsements, the requests weren't considered — and Fonda's character felt trapped, helplessly watching as the war seemed to be ending in front of his very eyes.

Cagney's character took a heavy–handed approach to his job, and Fonda's character served as a buffer between the captain and the crew, always letting the men bend the rules. He had two friends with whom he shared quarters and frustrations — the ship's doctor (William Powell in his last movie role) and Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon) who spent most of his time trying to avoid both the captain and work of any kind.

Although Mister Roberts was worried that he would never get into the war before it ended, he was unselfish in his relationships with the men he commanded. It was an unselfishness that went beyond merely bending the rules. Mister Roberts went behind the captain's back and requested liberty for the long–deprived crew, which was granted, but then the captain refused to permit the crew to go on liberty when they reached the port. Fonda confronted Cagney, who told him he would permit the liberty if Roberts stopped writing letters asking for a transfer, enforced the captain's rules and pledged never to reveal what they had discussed. Roberts agreed to the conditions — he didn't like them, but he agreed to them — and the liberty was permitted.

But the crew had been without liberty for a long time, and several crew members got a little boisterous, which led to their arrests by the military police — and the captain being chided by the port admiral. That didn't go down easily for the captain.

At the same time, the crew was baffled by Mister Roberts' inexplicable rigidity about discipline, and Cagney made them even more suspicious by implying that Roberts was selling them out for a promotion. They were even more confused by his refusal to take advantage of a new Navy policy that could make it possible for him to get a transfer without the captain's endorsement.

Roberts' sense of urgency was heightened when news of Germany's surrender in Europe reached the Pacific. At first, he was despondent, realizing that the war was rapidly coming to an end — when he was inspired to throw a prized palm tree — a reward for the ship's cargo record — overboard.

And it was when the captain confronted Roberts — and their entire conversation was broadcast over an open microphone — that the crew understood what had happened.

A few weeks later, Roberts received an unexpected transfer. The crew had competed in a secret competition for the opportunity to forge the captain's signature. Before he left, the crew presented Mister Roberts with a homemade medal, the Order of the Palm.

Lemmon was appointed to replace Roberts as cargo officer, and he and the doctor received letters at the same time. The doctor's letter was from Mister Roberts, who wrote with enthusiasm about his joy to be aboard a destroyer. Then Lemmon's character read his letter, which was from an ex–classmate, who informed him that Roberts had been killed in a kamikaze attack shortly after mailing the letter to the doctor.

It was an indication of how well written the script was that it could turn on a dime from comedy to pathos — and then back again as Lemmon's character fully assumed Fonda's role, tossing the replacement palm tree overboard (in spite of a new chain that was supposed to keep it securely in place) and then storming into the captain's quarters, demanding answers about movie nights on board ship.

If I didn't know better, I would have sworn Billy Wilder did at least some of the writing. But he had no connection to the original novel — or the successful play that was based on it or the movie adaptation that premiered 60 years ago today. Of course, it was also a credit to the considerable skills of the cast — especially Fonda, who was so good at being the good guy that, when he played a really bad guy in 1968's "Once Upon a Time in the West," many viewers who saw the movie were shocked.

"Mister Roberts" received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Lemmon, who won) and Best Sound Recording.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

It's In the Hole ... Well, Not Exactly

"Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac ... It's in the hole! It's in the hole!"

Carl (Bill Murray)
#92 on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 movie quotes of all time

I have friends who will tell you that "Caddyshack," which premiered 35 years ago today, was the greatest comedy ever made. I'm not one of those people. The first time I saw "Caddyshack," I got some chuckles out of it, but I figured that you had to be a golfer to really appreciate the humor — as haphazard as it was — and I still feel that way. I have never played a round of golf in my life.

Film critic Roger Ebert may have put it best. The movie, he wrote, "never finds a consistent comic note of its own, but it plays host to all sorts of approaches from its stars, who sometimes hardly seem to be occupying the same movie. There's Bill Murray's self–absorbed craziness, Chevy Chase's laid–back bemusement, and Ted Knight's apoplectic overplaying. And then there is Rodney Dangerfield, who wades into the movie and cleans up."

Dangerfield shook things up, all right.

But, even so, I found "Caddyshack" to be a disjointed tale with humorous scenes linked together by a story that really wasn't much of a story.

"The movie never really develops a plot, but maybe it doesn't want to," Ebert wrote. "Director Harold Ramis brings on his cast of characters and lets them loose at one another. There's a vague subplot about a college scholarship for the caddies, and another one about the judge's nubile niece, and continuing warfare waged by Murray against the gophers who are devastating the club."

Each of those subplots had its moments, but the movie never really united those elements behind a single story. As I said, golfers probably got a lot of the humor. Much of it escaped me — or came across as hopelessly juvenile.

"Maybe one of the movie's problems is that the central characters are never really involved in the same action," Ebert wrote. "Murray's off on his own, fighting gophers. Dangerfield arrives, devastates, exits. Knight is busy impressing the caddies, making vague promises about scholarships and launching boats. If they were somehow all drawn together into the same story, maybe we'd be carried along more confidently. But 'Caddyshack' feels more like a movie that was written rather loosely, so that when shooting began there was freedom, too much freedom, for it to wander off in all directions in search of comic inspiration."

It did have a kind of improvisational quality to it — sort of a "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" goes golfing (with some sailing on the side). Don't misunderstand. Improv can be good. Sometimes it can be very good. But I can't think of an example when it worked in the motion picture format.

The thing is that I liked all the stars — but in what I regarded as their own milieus. Ted Knight was great as Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Chevy Chase was funny on Saturday Night Live — which he had left a couple of years earlier and was replaced by Bill Murray, who struggled at first with a skeptical public but eventually endeared himself to viewers and found his niche on the show.

But I just never got carried away with "Caddyshack." I remember seeing it when it first hit the theaters — and laughing at the obvious points that tend to amuse young viewers. But much of it — like the Baby Ruth bar floating in the swimming pool — just didn't amuse me after I got past that stage in my life.

I'm not even sure I was amused by that the first time I saw it.

An Ode to Fame

I remember the first time I heard David Bowie's "Fame." It was this day in 1975, the day the song hit the music stores and the air waves.

I remember it for the oddest of reasons. I was at my home in Arkansas packing for a family trip to Dallas to visit my grandmothers. It was the kind of trip my family had been making at least two or three times a year every year for as long as I could remember. It was a bit more meaningful for me this time, though. I would be attending a week–long workshop for high school journalism students at Southern Methodist University the next week, and, even before it started, I knew one of the participants — the son of some family friends. We had known each other all our lives.

Anyway, I had my radio on in my bedroom as I packed for the trip to Texas, and the D.J. announced the latest song from David Bowie. It had just been released that morning, he said, and he proceeded to play the song for his listeners. I stopped packing and sat down to listen to it. Forty years later, I still listen to it. For the last 25 years, I have tended to listen to the remix that was recorded in 1990 for the "Changesbowie" CD ...

... but hearing the original recording brings back sweet memories of those days. John Lennon, my favorite Beatle, was credited as a co–writer of the song, but Bowie did most of the heavy lifting — lyrically speaking. In late 1974, Lennon and Bowie met and started jamming together. In January 1975, they had a recording session that produced a cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe" and a recording of the new song, "Fame."

Bowie said it was "nasty, angry," and acknowledged that it had been written with a malicious edge thanks to the nature of Bowie's relationship with the management group with whom he had been working.

Maybe Lennon's role in the creation of the song is why I was so drawn to it, but the truth is that I wasn't aware of his connection to the song when it was prominent on the radio. I just knew that I liked it.

I guess the style was funk — although I'm not really sure that's an accurate description. It was at a time when Bowie seemed to be obsessing over soul music. At any rate, anything that was co–written by Bowie and Lennon was bound to be unique.

Apparently, a lot of people were drawn to it. It became Bowie's biggest hit in the United States to that point. The song hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 and went to #1 in Canada as well. It was in the Top 10 in Norway and the Netherlands.

"Fame" was running through my head when I went to the SMU campus the following Monday to begin the journalism workshop. It was playing on my radio later in the day when I was back at my grandmother's house, and I could smell the evening meal cooking in the kitchen. If I close my eyes and listen to the original recording of "Fame," I probably can tell you what was on the menu.

For awhile there in the summer of '75, "Fame" was everywhere.

I like the remix. As I said, I've been listening to that version for many years. It doesn't revive memories from 40 years ago. But the original one sure does.

And, frankly, I have been surprised that more attention hasn't been paid to this milestone anniversary, especially when you consider how influential the song was in the summer of '75. Maybe people are too busy paying attention to the 40th anniversary of "Jaws."

But not Ryan Book. Last month, Book observed, in an article for Music Times, about Bowie's epic duets, that "perhaps the most legendary performer that Bowie ever formed a duet with was also the least present for the recording.

"'Fame' doesn't attempt to hide the fact that the former Beatle is included on the single,"
Book wrote, "yet it was hardly advertised as a duet. Bowie just happened to meet Lennon in New York while recording for Young Americans, and the pair shacked up for a few days and jammed. One of the results was a cover of 'Across The Universe,' but more unique inspiration was found when Lennon chanted the signature 'Fame!' line while guitarist Carlos Alomar improvised a riff. Bowie seized the initiative and quickly scribed the invective–laden lyrics, and keeping Lennon on as a rhythm guitarist, tasked vocally only with chanting the single word repeatedly. The song was tossed onto Young Americans at the last moment, and Bowie gave Lennon a disproportionate amount of songwriting credit, considering that he only contributed one word. Ah, but what an important word it was."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Clear Case of Mental Stalking

"The girl is certain she is going to die. She's praying. In her mind she's praying."

Cayce (Ally Sheedy)

I remember a time in 1991 when one of the premium movie channels — HBO or Cinemax or Showtime, I don't remember which one — was doing one of its periodic free weekends, when all the subscribers to the cable provider got the service for free for a few days. Presumably, it would show the subscribers what they were missing and convince some of them to add it to their service.

I suppose they still have those free weekends from time to time. I never seem to be aware of one, though, until it is too late.

Expanding my cable package was never an option for me in those days. I was in graduate school at the time and seldom had time to watch much TV when classes were in session. In fact, on that particular weekend, as I recall, I was busy with some sort of school–related project, probably the sort of thing that kept me in the library for hours, and I had to video tape things to watch later. Much later.

One of the things that I taped was a movie called "Fear," which actually made its debut on this day in 1990. Originally, I think the plan was to show it at theaters first, then move on to cable and then video distribution — but I don't think it ever made it to the theaters. For whatever reason, I think it made its debut on one of those premium movie channels and then was sold on video. That was why I had no memory at the time of it being in movie theaters. It never was.

In hindsight, I was glad I taped it — because I have never seen it again. It is possible that it was scheduled for broadcast a time or two in an area where I happened to be living, and I just didn't know it. But my experience has been that it is rarely, if ever, shown so, if you get the chance to see it, don't let it slip through your fingers.

Anyway, on this occasion, the movie wasn't going to be shown while I was in the library; it was going to be shown at a time when I would be in bed. So I set my VCR to record it, and I put the tape aside to watch later. I tried watching it piecemeal — you know, while I was getting ready to go to work in the morning, when I came home for lunch, etc. — but I discovered that did not work.

The movie put me under its spell. I had to watch it from start to finish. No interruptions.

Ally Sheedy was the star of the show. Well, actually, she was at her peak in popularity a few years earlier as a member of Hollywood's heralded "Brat Pack" (Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald). By the time she made "Fear," she was probably on the downside of her career — even though she was only 28.

Sheedy played a psychic whose special skills included mentally seeing images or scenes from a distance and experiencing what another person experienced simply by being wherever whatever it was had happened or seeing photographs of the scene or touching clothing that had been worn by the victim — or touching an object at the scene. She often assisted the police in cracking murder cases — as she had the ability to mentally connect with murderers without their knowledge — and she used that skill to help the police catch them. It was her special advantage — or so she thought.

Sometimes she was able to prevent a terrible crime. Most of the time, she could only help the police find the person who committed a terrible crime — or a series of them.

Anyway, she was helping the police track another serial killer when she discovered that the suspect was a psychic, just like she was — and he was better at it than she was, too. He used that ability to terrorize Sheedy and Lauren Hutton — who, as I recall, played Sheedy's friend and agent.

The Shadow Man, as he was called, wanted to experience the fear of his victims, whatever scared them the most. He fed on it. And he seemed to have an almost orgasmic reaction to the knowledge that he and Sheedy could connect mentally. While it wasn't called this in the movie, I would label it mental stalking.

As I watched it unfold, it struck me that this would be an enormous invasion of privacy. Every thought a person might have would hold the potential to wreak tremendous havoc — for that individual and everyone who was close to him/her. Everything that was secret or personal or confidential would be an open book.

Through Sheedy, the Shadow Man learned that Hutton's character feared suffocation — so that is how he killed her, by holding a plastic bag over her face until she died. As I recall, Sheedy didn't even have the thought. Hutton's character confessed her phobia to Sheedy, and the Shadow Man heard the confession.

Sheedy learned of what was happening to her agent/friend when she was powerless to do anything about it. The movie did a superb job of making the audience feel her helplessness as, in her mind's eye, she could only watch her friend die — and feel the terror that engulfed her.

With the help of a good Samaritan friend (played by Michael O'Keefe — lots of folks remember his performance in "Caddyshack" a decade earlier), Sheedy was able to foil the Shadow Man in a real battle of wills as the hunter became the hunted. It was nicely done.

Oh, I knew I was being manipulated. But it was one of those times when you enjoy being manipulated. The movie experience would be incomplete without it. You know what I mean?

As I say, I suggest you watch it if you can.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Untraditional Family Values

If there is a lesson to be taken from "The Kids Are All Right" — and, no, I am not speaking of the movie featuring the rock group The Who — it is that life is complicated.

There are three ways, Roger Ebert wrote five years ago, to interpret the title of "The Kids Are All Right," which premiered on this day in 2010: "Kids in general are all right, these particular kids are all right, and it is all right for lesbians to form a family and raise them."

(Actually, "The Kids Are All Right" got a positive response at the Sundance Film Festival in early July 2010, which accelerated plans to show it commercially. It opened a limited theatrical release on this day; a nationwide release followed three weeks later.)

All three ways are appropriate — often simultaneously — in "The Kids Are All Right." In other words, life really is complicated, and it is hard to imagine a family that could be more complicated than this one (although, in this culture, we are apt to find one that is more complicated before long). Annette Bening and Julianne Moore played married lesbians, both of whom had a child from the same sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) — none of whom seemed to be aware of each other's existence until the offspring (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) got involved, investigating to learn about their biological father.

And they went through all the same awkward moments that are probably familiar to most anonymous sperm donors and their children if they meet.

But there were all sorts of side issues to contend with as well, most of them the kinds of family issues that probably any family, not just those headed by same–sex couples, must address.

For example, Bening was the family conscience, endlessly nagging the children to write thank–you notes.

And what I found intriguing about the movie was how similar the same–sex parents' handling of things was to what I would expect from a traditional heterosexual couple. (In fact, there was a certain sameness to the roles in the relationships. Bening played a doctor, the family bread–winner, clearly the head of the household. Moore was more domestic, a stay–at–home parent, mainly because she never really found her professional niche).

Bening and Moore played a classic modern liberal couple, supportive of their children's desire to seek out their biological father. They approved the concept; in practice, though, they found it troubling — especially since he came to represent a threat to the life they had known.

The father turned out to be a former hippie who dropped out of school and was running his own organic restaurant serving food grown in his organic garden. He vaguely remembered donating some sperm nearly 20 years earlier and agreed to meet his children, apparently more out of curiosity than anything else.

They hit it off — well, he and his daughter more than he and his son — and he was invited over for dinner to meet the moms.

In the course of the dinner, proud mama Bening told Ruffalo about their daughter's recent graduation speech, then suggested that the daughter retrieve the text of the speech from her room and recite it right there on the spot for her father.

If ever there was anything guaranteed to evoke a rolling–of–the–eyes oh–Mom! moment, that was it. Seems gay parents and straight parents are pretty much the same once you get past that bedroom stuff.

Speaking of which, the gay parents apparently shared something else in common with at least some of their straight counterparts. They liked to watch porn while engaging in their preferred sexual activity.

Only Bening and Moore apparently liked watching male homosexuals. That was a little hard to explain — and more than a little difficult for Moore's son to understand.

Anyway, the free–spirited sperm donor learned that Moore was at loose ends professionally and trying to make a career of landscape architecture so he asked her if she would do some work on his home property. She agreed to do so, and that led to yet another complication. While they were going over the landscaping plans, they kind of, you know, fell into bed together.

Bening put two and two together and confronted Moore about the affair — and asked the kind of questions that straight partners undoubtedly would ask each other if the shoes were on the other feet.

As I was saying, life is complicated.

In the end, it seemed to me to come down to none other than the cliched label, "family values." In many ways, they are exactly what you think they are — and, in many ways, they aren't.

These days, both sides of the gay marriage debate would have you believe that same–sex couples are so different in every way from straight couples — when really the only difference is how they make love. In "The Kids Are All Right," the household was headed by a same–sex couple whose experiences probably mirrored those of their straight friends in many ways. Both had issues in their relationships with their significant others. Both had issues with their children — well, after all, the children in this family were teenagers.

"The Kids Are All Right" received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) and Best Original Screenplay.

Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella

"Isn't she lovely? Aren't they all lovely? Isn't everyone lovely?"

Ted (Dick McGarvin)

When I first saw "Smile," which premiered on this day 40 years ago, I was a hot–blooded teenage boy. If I had been asked before going into the theater what the movie was about, I wouldn't have been able to say much. I knew it was about a beauty pageant, and I recognized the names of a couple of the young female stars — but, frankly, I was just hoping to see them in bikinis.

After all, pageant contestants wear swimsuits during part of the competition. "Smile" was a satire about a fictional beauty pageant, and I figured that the contestants wouldn't necessarily be wearing the one–piece bathing suits that beauty pageant contestants traditionally wear. Bikinis might be part of the satire.

Anyway, that was my logic on the Saturday afternoon that I saw it.

It was 1975, and I guess the Hays Code that had dictated how movies were made for 40 years was still in charge — but its grip was slipping. In the movies I had seen previously, nudity was never shown, merely suggested.

"Smile" was rated PG, and nudity was still mostly implied in R–rated movies, let alone PG–rated ones, in 1975. It's fair to say I wasn't expecting to see any skin that afternoon that you couldn't normally see on any sidewalk or beach in the summer.

It's also fair to say that has changed considerably in the last 40 years. It is no big deal now if there are scenes of partial nudity in PG movies and full frontal nudity in R movies; in fact, it is almost routine. It was very different in 1975.

Anyway, I was watching the movie, still hoping to see some bikini shots, when there was a brief — ever so brief — scene in which a couple of the girls could be seen changing their clothes and for a second or two, parts of the female anatomy that were usually covered in the movies — and in public — were not.

To put it in the context of the story, the son of one of the pageant organizers (Bruce Dern) was going to use his Polaroid camera to take candid pictures of the girls in the dressing room, then he would sell the pictures. But his plans went awry when he was caught after snapping only a few pictures of Annette O'Toole and Melanie Griffith, who played two of the contestants.

Much of the movie, you see, was centered around the week of preparations for the pageant. In addition to their individual work, the girls all had to participate in a range of musical productions. The actual competition part took very little screen time.

One of the girls (I think it was O'Toole) wore panties with the day of the week embroidered on them. They punctuated the film, informing viewers which day of the pageant week they were about to see unfold, but only the words were visible on screen. The viewers never really knew — until the very end — that they had been looking at embroidered panties.

In his review, film critic Roger Ebert recalled the county fairs of his youth, which featured livestock judging and a beauty pageant (on different nights). "[E]ven in those days before women's liberation," he wrote, "it struck me that the two competitions had points in common. Even some of the judges were the same."

Ebert acknowledged that the cows "weren't expected to sing, dance or play musical instruments, nor did they change costumes. But both they and the girls in the beauty contest were essentially being sized up as meat on the hoof, and that depressed me. Here were girls I'd grown up with, and this dreary and demeaning ritual was forcing them to walk around in bathing suits on a stock–car track."

I gathered from the start of Ebert's review that he didn't go into the movie in the same frame of mind that I did. And I'm quite sure he did not. My state of mind reflected the sexist attitudes that dominated many areas of life when I was growing up. It is probably too easy, too simple to say I was the product of the times in which I was raised, and perhaps I am passing the buck when I say that. But it is true to a great extent.

Ebert's assessment was that the movie was "a sometimes funny, more often harrowing look at a teen–age beauty competition."

In many respects, I suppose, "Smile" must be viewed in an unflattering light.

The girls in the movie, Ebert observed, were "judged in all the categories such events pretend are important — talent, grades, personality, 'pep' — but everyone seem[ed] in tacit agreement that physical appearance is the crucial criterion."

In other words, it's what's on the outside that really matters.

And that really shouldn't come as a surprise, should it? I mean, after all, that is what those pageants really are all about, isn't it? Some of the girls were oblivious to it, but some were hip to what was going on, sharing their beauty secrets with their assigned roommates. In hindsight, cynical is probably the best word to describe the story.

Still, it is worth remembering something that Dern's character says when asked if anything ever gets him down.

"I get my apple cart upset sometimes," he says. "I just learned a long time ago to accept a little less from life, that's all."

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

He That Troubleth His Own House ...

Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March): I do not think about things I do not think about.

Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy): Do you ever think about things that you do think about?

I remember one Christmas when I was maybe 14 or 15, and my mother gave me a copy of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee's acclaimed stage script for the play, "Inherit the Wind," which was made into a movie that premiered on this day in 1960.

Mom frequently gave me books that she thought I would like, even if most people thought the books were beyond my years. They probably would have been right, too, if the subject had been anyone other than myself, but I was always reading things that, in most cases, would have been more appropriate for someone a few years older. Mom knew that, and she encouraged me to read things that I might not fully comprehend, that I might need to ask questions about — knowing that I would probably comprehend most, if not all, of it. And she was usually right about that.

Besides, "Inherit the Wind" was based on the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Scopes monkey trial that took place 90 years ago, in July 1925, and Mom knew I was always a history buff. She knew I had read about the Scopes trial before. I don't think we had studied it in school yet, though, so she knew there was a chance I might need to know a few things to fill in the gaps in my mind.

The trial — in a case that challenged a law that prohibited the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in a state–funded school — drew three–time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan and famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to Dayton, Tennessee, to serve as the legal counsel for the two sides. With oratorical firepower like that in town, the press of the day was there as well. It was the Trial of the Century — or, at least, the First Quarter of a Century.

(Did I say it was based on the trial? That's an understatement. It was practically a transcript of the trial, with the debates between Bryan and Darrow picked up virtually word for word.)

All that activity must have been unsettling for Dayton. In the most recent census, its population was slightly more than 7,000. I'm guessing it was considerably smaller in 1925.

The town's name was changed in the play — to Hillsboro, Tennessee — referred to as "Heavenly Hillsboro" by the press in the story.

The Bryan character was seen locally as the defender of traditional beliefs and values; in the movie, his character was played by Frederic March, and he received a hero's welcome when he and his wife arrived in town.

An equal and opposite reaction was given to the Darrow character, who was perceived as a threat to those beliefs and values. He was played by Spencer Tracy.

You don't have to watch much of "Inherit the Wind" to see clear parallels between the conflict portrayed in the movie and the many social conflicts that permeate our politics today.

"The movie casts the battle as a struggle between the followers of a fundamentalist preacher ... and the snowy–haired agnostic ... who believes Darwinism is as 'incontrovertible as geometry,' as indeed it seems to well over 99 percent of the world's scientists," wrote film critic Roger Ebert.

(Actually, Ebert could have been describing both sides in just about any modern debate, it seems to me.)

In fact, the play does seem to have accurately forecast 21st–century attitudes. The fundamentalists were ridiculed, as they are today, as being hopelessly out of step with modern thinking.

Thinking? The movie was about the right to think, and Gene Kelly's character believed it was in great jeopardy. "There's only one man in the whole town who thinks," he complained, "and he's in jail."

There were others in the cast, of course, including a character who served as the defendant (in the movie, that was Dick York) and Kelly as a reporter for a fictional newspaper, the Baltimore Herald, based on the very real H.L. Mencken and the newspaper that employed him, the Baltimore Sun, which provided financial support for the defense. Harry Morgan played the presiding judge, and there were some witnesses. Nearly all the witnesses testified for the prosecution. The judge ruled that testimony from the defense's academic witnesses was irrelevant, and the defense's only witness was the prosecuting attorney himself.

For the most part, the movie was a two–man show, and you couldn't have asked for two better actors to represent their generation. Tracy received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor; March didn't get a nomination but deserved one as well. (He enjoyed his share of Oscar success, though, receiving five Best Actor nominations in his career — and winning twice.)

("Inherit the Wind" received three other Oscar nominations. Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Ernest Laszlo was nominated for Best Black and White Cinematography, and Frederic Knudtson was nominated for Best Film Editing.)

Writing a few months after a similar court trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, Ebert observed that the movie was "a film that rebukes the past when it might also have feared the future. Beliefs that seemed like ancient history to [director Stanley] Kramer have had a surprising resiliency; two recent polls show that 38 percent of American teenagers believe 'God created humans pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so,' and 54 percent of American adults doubt that man evolved from earlier species. There is hardly a politician in the land with courage enough to state that they are wrong."

Ebert wrote that in 2006. The public's conclusions may or may not have changed in that time — but my guess is that there are quite a few politicians who would be willing to challenge the validity of those conclusions today.

Some might take a page from Spencer Tracy's dialogue in the movie. "The Bible is a book," he asserted at one point. "It's a good book, but it is not the only book."

Watch For This Little-Known Christmas Movie

"I'll say one thing about prison. You meet a better class of people."

Joseph (Humphrey Bogart)

In only the most tenuous of ways, "We're No Angels" — I refer to the movie that made its debut 60 years ago today, not the one that was in the theaters in the late 1980s — was a Christmas movie.

But only just barely.

Nevertheless, it was probably my mother's favorite Christmas movie. She loved to quote her favorite lines from it (well, actually, that's the way she was about all the movies that she liked; she had her favorite lines and she kept them in reserve for use at the appropriate moments). There were many lines — and many scenes — in "We're No Angels" that my mother loved.

My earliest memories of her quoting that movie were long before I saw it — and only she and my father were in on the joke. I guess I was in college before I finally saw it, and, over the years, I have observed that it isn't a popular choice for TV schedulers. I think it should be, although I realize it will never be the holiday favorite that, say, "It's a Wonderful Life" has become.

As Christmas movies go, it is probably an acquired taste, like "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

And I'll grant you it's a little difficult to warm up to a Christmas movie set on Devil's Island. But give it a try sometime. It's one of Humphrey Bogart's rare comedies — and it is a reminder of just how good he really was.

"We're No Angels" also reunited Bogart with the director of "Casablanca," Michael Curtiz.

Or you could watch it in the summer, as the original viewers did in 1955. Either way, it is very entertaining.

Besides, laughter seems to be in keeping with the joyous spirit of the Christmas season — unlike so many of the traditional seasonal songs and movies, which tend to be somber. Well, that's my take on it. If you haven't had the experience of seeing it yet, let me tell you a little bit about it.

I guess the first thing is to explain about Devil's Island. It was a notorious penal colony in French Guiana from the mid–19th to the mid–20th centuries. There were legitimate prisoners there, I suppose, but Devil's Island was primarily known as the place where political prisoners were kept.

The three stars of the movie — Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray — played traditional prisoners. I don't remember if their crimes were ever mentioned directly or if I just put two and two together, but it seems to me that Bogart was doing time for forgery, Ustinov was a safecracker who had murdered his wife and Ray had committed a sexual assault. The lessons each had learned from those experiences — both good and bad — were on display in the movie.

Just before Christmas, the three escaped from prison and made their way to a nearby town, where they found themselves at a store managed by a small family — the only shopkeepers willing to sell things on credit. The escapees offered to fix a hole in the roof and decided to stay until nightfall, when they would steal clothes and supplies and go on to a ship in the harbor, which would take them away from Devil's Island.

Well, that was the plan.

But the longer they observed things from their perch on the roof, the more they came to realize that the family was in dire financial straits. The family — Leo G. Carroll, Joan Bennett and their daughter, Gloria Talbott — actually ran the store for its owner, their cousin Andre (Basil Rathbone), who measured everything in terms of cash value — and, as it turned out, cousin Andre showed up on Christmas Eve to evaluate things at the store. He had his nephew Paul (John Baer) with him, and they suspected the store's generous credit policy had caused considerable problems.

Isabel (Talbott) and Paul had had a summer fling, and Isabel was still infatuated with Paul. Paul, on the other hand, appeared to have moved on, having become engaged to another woman. Isabel was crushed when she learned the truth, and the escapees, having become quite fond of Isabel and her parents, decided to do something about the situation, but they weren't sure how to accomplish it.

The answer was, literally, in a box that Ray carried with him at all times. Inside the box was a poisonous viper named Adolphe — who was never seen but was mentioned frequently. In hilarious fashion, first Andre and then Paul took the box away, unable to see what was inside until it was too late. Apparently, Adolphe's poison acted quickly.

The humor of "We're No Angels" was often subtle. It wasn't a slapstick kind of movie. The viewer frequently had to think about what had just been said by one of the characters on the screen and look for the deeper meaning. It was a very clever script.

Most people have to watch it two or three times because they miss some jokes when they're laughing at others.

It's worth it, though, especially at the end when the convicts decide to turn themselves in rather than face life in the real world, and, as they were walking away from the camera at the very end, halos appeared above each of their heads — and above Adolphe's cage, too.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Start of Phase 2 of Elvis' Career

In the last two decades of his life, everything Elvis Presley did made news. If he was making a movie, it was in the news. If he recorded a new song, it was in the news.

When he was inducted into the Army, it was in the news.

There was kind of a news blackout on Presley for a couple of years while he was in the Army — although he did have ten top 40 hits between his induction in 1958 and discharge in 1960 so I guess some people hardly knew he'd been away — but once he was discharged from the service in March 1960, his career roared back to life. He had barely been discharged when he was rushed into the studio in the spring of 1960 and recorded two of his biggest hit singles, one of which — "It's Now or Never" — was released on this day in 1960.

It was an interesting thing, that song. It was conceived in almost a casual way. The melody was inspired by "O sole mio," an Italian standard from the 19th century, but the theme of the song was inspired by a recording that had been a modest hit a decade earlier, and the lyrics were written in half an hour by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold — who were assigned the task of writing the lyrics because they were the only songwriters in the music publisher's office when he arrived one day.

Yet the song wound up selling more than 20 million copies and is second only to "Hound Dog" on the list of Elvis' top–selling songs.

In January, on what would have been Elvis' 80th birthday, wrote about Elvis' Italian legacy and listed the Italian–influenced songs he recorded.

That was an impressive argument, but more persuasive than any song in Presley's musical library, even "It's Now or Never," was this observation:
"Elvis, especially in the second phase of his career — from the '60s on — fell in love with the 'Bel canto,' became a balladeer and between his vocal influences he incorporated Italian tenors Enrico Caruso and his heir, Mario Lanza."

There isn't really a doubt in my mind that his vocal style was suited for Italian ballads, and it was especially obvious, I thought, in his post–Army recordings.

Early in his career, it was often noted that Elvis sounded like a black singer — due, no doubt, to the musical influences of his Mississippi roots — which gave him enormously lucrative cross–over appeal. I don't know if that is true, but the numbers don't lie. He had three dozen #1 hit recordings in his career and made nearly as many movies.

He never really lost that — for lack of a better phrase — black sound, but it didn't seem to dominate his work as it had before.

Much of his work was accomplished after his return from the service, and it is clear to me that his performing style was toned down, less the Delta influence and more the Italian crooner style. He wasn't stationed in Italy, but maybe he was influenced by music he heard on radios in the barracks or live in the clubs of Germany, where he was stationed.

I'm not enough of an Elvis fan to know about that — but I do know that, around the time he recorded "It's Now or Never," Elvis appeared on The Frank Sinatra Timex Show. In addition to his Italian lineage, Sinatra's disdain for rock 'n' roll was well known; long before they appeared on television together, Sinatra said of Elvis' staying power, "Only time will tell. They said I was a freak when I first hit, but I'm still around. Presley has no training at all. When he goes into something serious, a bigger kind of singing, we'll find out if he is a singer. He has a natural, animalistic talent."

Sinatra may well have influenced the second phase of Elvis' career before the first phase had ended.

During his lifetime, Elvis' fans probably would have bought anything that he recorded and, even though the quality of his music tended to suffer after his time in the service, in all likelihood because of the his movie career, it is clear from even a casual listening that the style of his music was different, possibly due to a different ethnic influence than the one he had at the beginning.

He continued to sell records, as always, but they were different. Even "It's Now or Never" was different from what had come before. True, it became Elvis' second–best–selling recording — but it had none of the in–your–face quality of "Hound Dog."

A new age had begun.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

'Airplane!' Is 35? Surely You Can't Be Serious

"Ladies and gentleman, this is your stewardess speaking. We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused. This is due to periodic air pockets we encountered. There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"

Elaine (Julie Hagerty)

"Airplane!" has always been something of a guilty pleasure. For me, anyway.

Even in the far less politically correct climate of this day in 1980, when "Airplane!" was first shown on America's movie screens, much of its humor was of the National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live variety — irreverent. Mostly, though, it was silly, the kind of stuff you probably giggled at when you were in fourth grade.

Film critic Roger Ebert put it this way: "It is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny and quite often very funny. And the reason it's funny is frequently because it's sophomoric, predictable, corny, etc."

A good example: Robert Stack pulling off a pair of sunglasses, revealing another pair of sunglasses beneath it.

If "Airplane!" premiered today, it would probably draw the wrath of many groups who would claim to be offended by something — either on their own behalf or someone else's.

Even in the context of its 35–year–old form, it probably is not advisable to quote lines from it if you're in the company of people who belong to certain social, ethnic and/or religious groups. In fact, I am convinced that it would not be a success today. The times just aren't right for it.

The times were right for it, though, in the 1970s and 1980s — which, despite their many shortcomings, were good years for movies like "Airplane!" — and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein."

"Airplane!" wasn't really discriminatory, though — at least, not in the traditional sense. It was an equal opportunity insulter.

The story was loosely based around Ted (Robert Hays) and Elaine (Julie Hagerty) and their rather dysfunctional relationship. Ted once flew planes in battle, but he suffered a traumatic experience and steadfastly refused to fly a plane again — until he was forced to do so by circumstances.

Ted (Robert Hays): Surely you can't be serious?

Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen): I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

One thing I have discovered with movies that I really find humorous, like "Airplane!" is that I find things that are new to me each time I watch them — and I can only conclude that I must have missed them the first time because I was laughing at the joke before it.

That would probably be my only complaint about "Airplane!" — there are places where its pacing could be much more beneficial to the overall script.

But I can say that about many comedies that I have enjoyed over the years. It often takes two or three viewings to get the full benefit from such a movie.

All my old favorite moments are still my favories — like the scene where the former June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) volunteered to translate the jive lingo of two black passengers for their white stewardess.

And I always laugh at the line that formed of people who wanted to calm an hysterical passenger. The first few people slapped her around; those standing in line had a crowbar, a lead pipe, a revolver ...

Randy (Lorna Patterson): Excuse me, sir, there's been a little problem in the cockpit …

Ted (Robert Hays): The cockpit … what is it?

Randy: It's the little room in the front of the plane where the pilots sit, but that's not important right now.

The last time I watched it, it occurred to me that "Airplane!" was written in the Mel Brooks style — not quite as clever as Neil Simon but easily capable of producing a belly laugh or two.

I will admit, though, that most of the movie's humor was related to things and people that would have been recognizable to audiences in 1980 — but not necessarily audiences in 2015.

There isn't much point in relating any more of the plot — such as it was — except that it is probably just as funny now as it was then for someone seeing it for the first time — even if that person isn't familiar with many of the references — although my guess is that, if you're seeing it for the first time and you don't know who June Cleaver was, you'd probably be wise to watch an episode or two of Leave It To Beaver before you watch "Airplane!" It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to watch the movie that is being parodied — 1970's "Airport." That's just my opinion, though.

Incidentally, "Airplane!" marked the debut — and probably the career high point — of actor David Leisure, who went on to star as Joe Isuzu in TV commercials in the late '80s and early '90s. He played one of the Hare Krishnas at the airport.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Occupying a World of His Own

"I made you too strong. I forgot to add some human frailty."

Keenan Wynn

On this night in 1960, Twilight Zone concluded its first season with an episode that I have always liked.

I wouldn't say it is in my top 10 Twilight Zone episodes, but it is probably in my top 20. Hey, that isn't bad. There were 156 episodes of the Twilight Zone between 1959 and 1964. The #20 episode on my hypothetical list would be in the top 13%, and I figure that the episode that aired 55 years ago tonight, "A World of His Own," probably deserves to be in my top 10% — which, I suppose, would put it around #15, and that is about right.

That really shouldn't surprise anyone. The theme was writing, and, for good or ill, I am a writer. (I also admire the work of the man who wrote this episode, Richard Matheson.)

Now, I understand about the drawbacks of profiling, but there are advantages to it, too. Profiling can be helpful in understanding why certain people seem predisposed to do certain things in life. To me, it has often seemed to be that way with writers. I often ask myself, why do writers write? Why do I write? Profiling could be useful in answering those questions.

Of course, writers come in all races so racial profiling doesn't really help. Nor does gender profiling because I have known both female writers and male writers. For that matter, age, religion, sexual orientation aren't very helpful. All those things contribute to the life experiences that writers so frequently write about.

After a lifetime of reflecting on the experience of being a writer — and writing about that experience — I have reached a conclusion. Writers want to be able to control their lives better than most of them actually do. Even writers of nonfiction — like the reporters with whom I have worked on newspaper staffs — want to have more control over things in their lives, and being able to write a complete eyewitness account of something that happened, whether a criminal trial or a football game, is a way of exerting that control.

I think most nonfiction writers secretly would like to be fiction writers because, in the pages of a novel, the writer alone decides what happens. If what happens in those pages seems unlikely but not entirely impossible, the writer's persuasiveness is what will determine whether the readers believe it is plausible.

In "A World of His Own," Keenan Wynn played a writer who had found a way to control his world. He used a dictaphone — one of those old–fashioned contraptions that busy people used to record ideas, dictate letters and other documents and so on half a century ago. Today's business executive probably sends out emails from his smartphone, which would require some extensive rewriting of this episode if someone was to remake it.

Anyway, Wynn's character could conjure up his ideal woman and the woman to whom he was married — different women — simply by dictating a description into this dictaphone. To make the character go away, he would take the tape describing that person and toss it on the fire in the fireplace in his study. That was how he "un–created" characters.

As you can imagine, his wife was skeptical. She was sure she had seen a woman through the window and was baffled about how that woman could have gotten out.

So Wynn's character did a demonstration for her, conjuring up his ideal woman — Mary.

It was all too much for his wife, who started to leave the house but was stopped when Wynn's character conjured up a rogue elephant to block her way. She assured her husband that she would escape at the first opportunity and have him committed.

Well, that left Wynn with no alternative. He had to dispose of his wife the same way he disposed of Mary — by throwing the tape describing her character into the fire. And that is what he did.

In an amusing twist, Rod Serling assured viewers, in the final scene, that it was a fictional story, that people couldn't really get rid of other people by tossing tape into a fire — to which Wynn took exception and tossed an envelope labeled "Rod Serling" containing tape into the fire.

And Serling dissolved, not to be seen again until the second season of Twilight Zone began in September.

On the Long Road With the Great Leslie and Professor Fate

Leslie (Tony Curtis): Are you a native of Burracho?

Lily Olay (Dorothy Provine): I ain't no native. I was born here!

"The Great Race," which made its theatrical debut half a century ago on this day in 1965, was pure slapstick from start to finish. If there was any doubt, the opening credits included this tribute: "For Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy."

It was set shortly after the turn of the 20th century. It was about a New York–to–Paris (by way of the Bering Strait) road race, and it was directed by Blake Edwards at a time when he was getting rave reviews for his early "Pink Panther" pictures — if you are familiar with his directorial style, you could see similarities between "The Great Race" and Edwards' other comedies.

Edwards made many of those movies, of course, with the great Peter Sellers, who had nothing to do with "The Great Race." In "The Great Race," Edwards worked with another of his frequent collaborators, Jack Lemmon.

The project also reunited Lemmon with his "Some Like It Hot" co–star, Tony Curtis, this time as genuine rivals (rather than the implied rivals — for Marilyn Monroe's affections — that they were in "Some Like It Hot"). And, although she seemed to shift her loyalties throughout the movie, Natalie Wood, as a feminist journalist reporting on the race, played Curtis' love interest.

Kind of an interesting twist, given that, only a few months earlier, Curtis and Wood had been adversarial co–stars in "Sex and the Single Girl."

In the context of 1965, "The Great Race" was a star–studded show with prominent people showing up even in small roles. Vivian Vance (probably best known as Ethel Mertz in the I Love Lucy sitcom), Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Larry Storch were there — along with others whose faces you probably would recognize even if you never knew their names.

"The Great Race" clearly identified the good guy and the bad guy. Curtis (The Great Leslie) was the good guy who always dressed in white; Lemmon (Professor Fate) was the bad guy, always dressed in black. And they periodically swapped the lead — for the screwiest of reasons.

In the end, the good guy seemed to be on the brink of victory — but he gave it all up to prove to Natalie Wood that he loved her.

When he stopped his vehicle inches from the finish line, Wood's character protested, "What are you doing?"

"Proving that I love you," Curtis replied.

"But you'll lose the race," Wood said.

"Can you think of a better way to prove it?" he asked before kissing her in a passionate embrace.

Sorta reminiscent of the Sylvester Stallone/"Rocky" experience, eh? When Rocky lost the fight and won the girl. Yo, Adrian.

Max (Peter Falk): We gotta do something.

Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon): Oh, don't worry. Before this iceberg melts and we drown like rats, we're going to do plenty.

Max: Yeah? What?

Professor Fate: We're gonna starve!

But Professor Fate wouldn't take a victory that way, though. After all, he had a reputation ...

"The Great Race" was terrific entertainment — complete with an honest–to–God pie fight near the end. Wood got pelted numerous times, but Curtis' character seemed unusually blessed, walking through a crossfire of pies without getting hit once, his all–white duds showing not even a trace of fallout from a pie — until almost the end of the fight.

Meanwhile, Lemmon's double, a dandified drunkard of a king, got hit with a brandy pie and encouraged the participants in the pie fight to hit him with more brandy pies, then got hit with a rum pie and scolded them with the admonition, "I never mix my pies!"

At the Oscars, "The Great Race" beat "Von Ryan's Express" for Best Sound Editing — and lost for Best Sound Mixing, Best Color Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Although he wasn't nominated for his work on "The Great Race," composer Henry Mancini went on to win four Oscars in his lifetime.