Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ann Sheridan's Little Known Gem



Inspector (Robert Keith): Don't you eat anything but dog food?

Eleanor (Ann Sheridan): He's not particular, and I'm lazy, so we eat out.

With its snappy dialogue, I'm kind of surprised that "Woman on the Run," which debuted on this date in 1950, didn't receive an Oscar nomination for its writing.

But not really. A film noir seldom seems to have been recognized by Oscar in those days — unless a big name was involved.

It was still a good story. When the movie began, a fellow was out at night walking his dog, and he saw someone in a car talking about a crime. That person was shot at point–blank range by the driver of the car, who then saw the shadow of the fellow and fired at it twice, thinking it was a person and, consequently, missing both times. Unseen by the audience, the killer then drove off in a hurry.

Turned out that the person who was shot had been planning to testify in court against a gangster. He wisely went into hiding.

The police then tried to get information from his barely wife (Ann Sheridan), who didn't seem to have much love left for her husband but did appear to be loyal to him. When he called her and the police tried to trace the call, the wife warned him and he promptly hung up.

Dennis O'Keefe played a newspaperman who was after an exclusive story, and he managed to enlist the wife in helping him search for her husband.

And thus was launched a kind of competition between the wife (with the newspaperman) and the police.

As the story went on, Sheridan's character learned that her husband was still in love with her — and the audience learned that O'Keefe's character was really the killer, trying to find — and silence — Sheridan's husband with her help.

At one point, the police thought they had found Sheridan's husband — or what was left of him. The body had been badly beaten, and the police had to ask Sheridan to come in to make an identification. When she saw the body, she got weak at the knees and had to be helped from the room. But she later confided to O'Keefe that the corpse had not been her husband.

And, in a scene that foretold an event early in Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," which made its debut the following year, Sheridan and O'Keefe found themselves in a seaside amusement park at night — and Sheridan took a harrowing roller coaster ride.

Before Sheridan rode that roller coaster, the movie had one of my favorite dialogue exchanges. It's the kind of snappy dialogue that was sprinkled throughout "Woman on the Run," so much so that it may well have been overlooked by audiences then — and now — simply because it came late in a movie in which that kind of dialogue was commonplace.
Eleanor: I don't like this place.

Danny (Dennis O'Keefe): It's a good spot. I used to come here with my girl when I was a kid.

Eleanor: It's more frightening than romantic.

Danny: It's the way love is when you're young ... life is when you're older.

Sheridan's character was a hardened woman of her times who probably would be uncomfortable in the modern world. In a conversation with the police early in the movie, she spoke of how her husband was a drifter who drifted from job to job and city to city. When she was asked if she had ever gotten a job to help the couple through the rough patches, she observed that supporting the family was his responsibility, not hers.

Saying that her role in "Woman on the Run" may have been the best of Sheridan's career probably doesn't mean much to modern viewers. Few have ever heard of her. If they have seen any of her movies, it was purely by accident, and they may not even remember seeing her.

But if "Woman on the Run" had been recognized at the time, Sheridan might be better known today.

As I say, a film noir typically does not receive that kind of recognition. But "Woman on the Run" wasn't a typical film noir.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Last Time Niles Saw Maris



Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): All right, what's going on?

Martin (John Mahoney): Maris is really gone. I'm on the phone with the station right now. ... Yeah, Mike, I'm still here. Yeah, that's right. She's been missing three days. ... Thin. Make that very thin. Caucasian. Very Caucasian.

Maris Crane has to be the greatest television character no one ever saw but about whom everyone knew everything since Vera Peterson on Cheers! — which isn't surprising given that they were both created by the same writing team.

And when I say the viewers knew everything about them, I include all the inside jokes the other characters told about them. Maris was always the butt of jokes about her appearance. As a child, she was overweight but she lost weight as an adult and became painfully thin with a phobia about gaining weight. She was ghostly pale, perhaps moreso than Frasier's wife Lilith, who was seen often.

Other abnormalities emerged as the seasons went on. Because Maris was entirely fictional with no actress portraying her who could be typecast by the role, the writers were free to make her as bizarre as they could. Maris was born into an enormously wealthy family, which produced a spoiled, demanding, neurotic woman, prone to all sorts of medical conditions that could be tragic in real life but contributed to a cartoonish image. David Hyde Pierce, who played her husband Niles, has described her as "a refugee from Taming of the Shrew."

Twenty years ago tonight Maris turned the Crane household upside down. She had disappeared, and Niles was frantic. There had been no note, no indication that she was going anywhere. She might have been kidnapped — but no ransom demands had been made.

Niles didn't notice that Maris was gone for three days. He had knocked on her bedroom door and been greeted by what he interpreted as Maris' customary icy silence. He presumed that everything was status quo.

But then he realized she was gone and became worried. (His first instinct was to drag the koi pond for Maris' body. Cooler heads prevailed.)

So his father and brother were at his house to lend him their support. Martin (John Mahoney) was on the phone with one of his buddies at police headquarters. He told the family there had been a bunch of charges on Maris' credit cards in New York — Cartier, Tiffany's, Armani. Niles, fearing that Maris had been kidnapped and someone was using her credit cards to charge things, wanted to know if there were any charges at restaurants.

"Not a one," Martin replied.

"She's alive!" Niles exclaimed, and a wave of relief washed over him. But he could see that Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was not as relieved.

And that sparked a conversation in which Frasier said Maris was arrogant and selfish. Niles preferred to label Maris' behavior eccentric. But he soon conceded that Frasier was right.

Apparently, Niles and Maris argued (out of sight of the cameras, of course), and Niles stormed out, announcing that he was going to Frasier's.

That was where Maris finally reached him by phone. When their conversation was over, Niles told Frasier that Maris wanted a divorce.

Frasier felt responsible. After all, he had encouraged Niles to stand up to Maris.

So Frasier went to see Maris to plead Niles' case, but he got nowhere with Maris.

So Frasier and Martin accompanied Niles to his house to pick up some of his things, and Marta, the Cranes' maid, informed Niles that his wife had told her that if he said their split had been his fault — which it hadn&pos;t; Maris had gone to New York without leaving a note or any kind of indication where she had gone or whether she had left by choice — he didn't have to leave.

Niles asked his brother and father for their opinions. Frasier was against it, but Martin wouldn't give an opinion. All he would say was that he and Frasier would support Niles, whatever he decided to do. When Niles turned and began walking toward the stairs, Martin exclaimed, "What are you, nuts? You're going to go up there and grovel to that woman after what she did to you?"

Niles said he had only been going to get his car keys, which were resting on the table at the foot of the stairs. "But thanks for the impartial advice, Dad."

Niles and Maris were separated for the next couple of years before they finally got their divorce and Niles proceeded to pursue his longtime attraction to Daphne (Jane Leeves), even though there was a brief marriage to Mel (Jane Adams) in the interim.

The episode was a nice reminder that there will always be people who will be impossible to please. They might be your spouse, classmate, co–worker, and you may try to appease them up to a point.

If at first you don't succeed, they say, try try again.

Then stop, I say. No use being a damn fool about it.

Reconstructing the Pineapple Incident



Lily (Alyson Hannigan): There's a girl in there.

Ted (Josh Radnor): I know.

Marshall (Jason Segel): And a pineapple.

Ted: I know.

Lily: Who is she?

Ted: I don't know.

In the episode of How I Met Your Mother that first aired on this night in 2005 — "The Pineapple Incident" — Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) was chastising Ted (Josh Radnor) for overthinking things. He kept urging Ted to go with the flow and not think so much, and Barney coerced him into drinking five shots (the bartender's special creation, five blood–red drinks dubbed "Red Dragons").

Ted drank the shots, insisting that they could not affect his brain, but then he apparently passed out. His next memory was waking up the next morning with a sprained ankle, a pineapple on his bedside table and an unfamiliar girl in his bed.

And no one — not Ted, not Barney, not Lily (Alyson Hannigan), not Marshall (Jason Segel) — knew anything about any of those things.

Ted also had a phone number written on his arm. No one had any idea whose number it was.

So he called the number. Turned out it was Carl the bartender's number. He had sent Ted home the night before and had written his number on Ted's arm, telling him that if he passed out in a gutter somewhere, someone should call Carl, and he would come get Ted and take him home.

So that solved that mystery.

But there were still the matters of the ankle, the girl and the pineapple.

By a kind of twisted process of elimination, Ted concluded that the girl sleeping in his bed was Robin. He hadn't seen her face because she was laying on her stomach, but Ted had been calling Robin over and over after drinking the shots, and he figured it had to be Robin.

"Are we dating now?" he wondered, adding that he hadn't imagined things going that way, but perhaps it was necessary for the two of them to become a couple.

Lily told him to go in the bedroom and talk to her, which is what he did.

But just as he was about to wake her up, Ted's phone rang. He answered it, and it was Robin (Cobie Smulders), who wanted to come over to talk about all of Ted's drunken phone calls the night before. Obviously, the girl in his bed was not Robin after all.

Ted returned to the living room and, as they were all wondering who the girl in Ted's bedroom could be, the girl walked through the door and announced that her name was Trudy.

Trudy (Danica McKellar) proceeded to fill them in on what had happened.

During one of his many drunken phone calls to Robin, Ted had been serenading the bar patrons and fell, injuring his ankle. He later followed Trudy into the rest room, believing he was going to be sick. But he wasn't and, instead, got into a conversation with Trudy, who had just broken up with her boyfriend. And, as these things sometimes work out, the two of them wound up back at Ted's place.

Well, Trudy slipped away somehow, and Ted never got in touch with her again. He left messages on her cell phone, but she never replied. And the gang never found out about that pineapple, either. But it was delicious.

I guess some things are destined to remain mysteries.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Letters From Home



"I have no need to write letters to communicate with children. I have you for that, Pierce."

Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers)

On this day in 1980, M*A*S*H's second episode of the season aired. Traditionally, a network television series begins its new season in September.

Why the delay? Well, there was this three–month strike by the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA against television and movie studios, and it delayed the start of most series by a month or two.

At the time, as I recall, the public angst was over having to wait to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas. There certainly was no shortage of suspects, and the subject sparked some pretty intense debates while impatient viewers waited for the strike to be resolved.

But perhaps the greater tragedy was the fact that the delay deprived TV viewers of some top–quality writing and acting, such as was displayed on M*A*S*H on this night in 1980.

It was the ninth of what turned out to be 11 seasons on the air for M*A*S*H. The show was a fixture in the Top 10, and its producers knew it had nothing to prove. That is truly a rare opportunity in television — or in any human endeavor, for that matter — to be able to pursue any creative angle you desire, knowing that you can get away with it even if it bombs — but, because you are who you are, such a failure is not likely.

(Sort of like Apple Inc., I guess.)

It can encourage people to push the envelope, which is what the folks at M*A*S*H did in an episode called "Letters."

Speaking of envelopes ...

In the episode that aired on this night in 1980, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) had received a package from home. It was from a friend of his who was teaching fourth grade in Hawkeye's hometown of Crabapple Cove, Maine. In the package were letters from this friend's pupils, who had been assigned to write letters to the people serving in Korea. Hawkeye had written a letter to his friend telling him how boring life could be around the compound — between those chaotic periods when casualties kept the surgeons on their feet for 18 or 20 hours — so his friend had the idea of perhaps sparking some pen pal relationships between the kids and the folks in the M*A*S*H unit.

Hawkeye distributed handfuls of letters to the familiar gang — B.J., Col. Potter, Charles, Hot Lips, Klinger, Father Mulcahy — and made only one rule: They all had to answer the letters they had been given. No swapping, trading or stealing.

Even though Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) had already opened a letter that asked if he had saved many lives. "A doctor really should answer that one," he noted. "I specialize in saving souls, not lives."

Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) reminded Mulcahy of his efforts with someone named Irving, which inspired Mulcahy's response. Turned out Irving was a homeless dog who showed up around the compound — and had a bit of a taste for booze. Well, more than a taste. Irving was a lush.

Mulcahy recalled that there had been a dog like that when he was in seminary. The way the seminary students had cured him was to make him drink bowl after bowl of whiskey until he was sick, then give him more whiskey when he was hung over. It worked on Irving.

"If people only had the horse sense dogs do," Mulcahy wrote.

One of the best vignettes of the episode focused on Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) and the attachment she formed to some of the patients who came through the compound — even, or perhaps especially, the ones who died. The viewing audience saw her sitting next to a mortally wounded soldier, smiling even though she knew he only had an hour or two to live. It was a rare glimpse into what touched Hot Lips on a personal level.

Col. Potter shared his exploits as "Hoops" Potter and his near miss at tying the camp record for making consecutive free throws.

"Take a word of advice from a retired bucketeer," Col. Potter wrote in his reply to one of the students. "If you take up a sport, make it horseshoes where you don't have to be perfect."

Klinger (Jamie Farr), the first–class Army scrounge, told one of the correspondents about his latest get–rich–quick scheme. He had acquired a couple of chinchillas and was planning to breed them for their fur — until Charles (David Ogden Stiers), who had worked with lab rodents when in medical school, informed Klinger that both of his chinchillas were male.

Hawkeye found himself having to answer a letter that struck a nerve. It was from a youngster whose older brother had served in Korea. He had been wounded and was sent to a M*A*S*H unit that patched him up and sent him back to his unit, where he was killed in combat.

"You doctors just make people better so they can end up dead. I hate you all," the letter concluded.

Hawkeye tried to get Father Mulcahy to write the reply, but Mulcahy refused. He said the letter had stirred up deep emotions within Hawkeye, and he would have to deal with them whether he wrote the letter or not. So Hawkeye answered the letter.

"It's not a good idea to take the love you had for your brother and turn it into hate," Hawkeye wrote in his reply. "Hate makes war, and war is what killed him. I understand your feelings. Sometimes I hate myself for being here, but once in awhile in the midst of this insanity a very small event can make my being here seem almost bearable."

That was good, but I think my very favorite part of the episode involved Charles. He had been enjoying penning sarcastic replies to the letters he had been given, but one letter made him pause. It was from a young girl who wrote about autumn in Maine and the beauty of the leaves. She enclosed a leaf from a birch tree because she wasn't sure if Korea had an autumn, and she wanted to share the beauty with the person who got her letter.

Charles, a native of Boston, knew about autumn in New England. "It is with indescribable joy," he wrote, "that I accept your gift. It is indeed testimony to the beauty that exists in all creation, but perhaps nowhere more than in a young girl's heart."

From time to time, M*A*S*H aired episodes that followed a similar structure. A single thing, like the receipt of all those letters, was an opportunity to look into the hearts and souls of the leading characters. I don't think it was a new technique, but I believe M*A*S*H perfected it.

Perhaps on this night 35 years ago.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Have a Happy Blitzgiving



"Life moves pretty fast, Barney. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you might miss it."

Marshall (Jason Segel)

My guess is that it is difficult for TV writers to face the task of writing a truly creative holiday–themed episode.

In the scheme of things, television is still relatively new in the human experience, but its growth was so explosive, especially after the emergence of cable (which gave most people access to more than the traditional three broadcast networks), that it must have become even more daunting as the years have gone by to have to write a holiday episode that doesn't seem to be a rehash of something that has been done before — perhaps many times before.

On this night five years ago, I thought How I Met Your Mother's episode demonstrated genuine creativity in the episode "Blitzgiving."

It all began when Ted (Josh Radnor) decided to leave the bar early because he was to host his first Thanksgiving for the gang the next day, but he was told not to leave, lest he inherit the curse of The Blitz, so called because, as legend had it, it originated with a fellow whose last name was Blitz and was passed along over the years, finally ending up with a college friend named Steve (Jorge Garcia).

Whenever Steve left his circle of friends early, incredible things happened. On one occasion, a coed wearing nothing but a towel wandered into the dorm room, explained she had gone into the wrong room by mistake and promptly dropped her towel. On another occasion, when The Blitz left the bar, the tap broke and beer was free to everyone.

Ted scoffed at the Curse of The Blitz — but he changed his tune when he woke up on Thanksgiving morning and found his apartment in a shambles. The whole gang was there, including Zoey (Jennifer Morrison), Ted's enemy, an activist who opposed the demolition of an historic building — a project for which Ted was responsible.

That was apparently the thing that upset Ted the most, that his friends would spend time with his enemy.

But it turned out that the worst part for Ted was that Steve the Blitz was there for the whole thing — and, consequently, passed the Curse of The Blitz to Ted, who was sleeping peacefully in his apartment.

"I'm finally free," Steve proclaimed. "You have no idea what I'ved missed all these years. ... Colors seem so bright now."

The whole gang got a bit free the night before and, at some point, wound up in Ted's apartment, where Robin (Cobie Smulders) tried to dance on Ted's stove but broke the oven door when trying to step up on top of the stove.

(I always wondered how Ted was able to sleep through that.)

Unable to use his stove, Ted and the gang went in search of another place where they could cook his culinary creation, a turkey stuffed with a smaller turkey. They didn't have much luck.

They finally decided to go to Zoey's — and discovered that Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) was no longer with the group. He was laughing in the back seat of another cab — until it dawned on him that leaving the group early made him the new Blitz.

In Barney's absence, the group had become part of the Thanksgiving Day parade. Robin related to Barney that Ted had been handed a microphone by Tony Bennett and had proceeded to sing "Twist and Shout."

"Life moves pretty fast, Barney," Marshall (Jason Segel) observed. "If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you might miss it."

A worthwhile holiday observation in a world that seems to go faster with each passing day.

But How I Met Your Mother wasn't finished teaching a holiday lesson. Ted and Zoey had a lesson about friends becoming enemies, which I won't spoil for you if you haven't seen the episode. At a time when the world is fearful of terrorists, it probably depends on your political leanings whether you think the assertion that enemies can become friends is a valid one.

And don't worry about Barney. In typical Barney fashion, he was where something amazing happened, and Steve was not — and reacquired the curse.

I thought it was a clever holiday episode — and a welcome change from the episodes that did the obvious and incorporated Indians and pilgrims in one way or another.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Flying Over the Cuckoo's Nest



"If Mr. McMurphy doesn't want to take his medication orally, I'm sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way."

Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher)

As Roger Ebert wrote, Miloš Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which premiered 40 years ago today, "is on every list of favorite films." There's no arguing with that, I guess. In almost every conversation I have had with people who are movie fans, it winds up on such a list — and deservedly so. The American Film Institute ranks it #33.

But, in all that time, I have found zero agreement on what the movie is. Just about as many people say it is a comedy as say it is a tragedy — and even within those two groups, there is little further agreement.

I suspect that, as it so often is, the truth is somewhere in between. As the commercial parody on Saturday Night Live used to say, "It's a floor wax and a dessert topping."

The arrival of R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a free–spirited repeat offender, in a mental institution caused ripples in the institutional framework that had been established by the dictatorial nurse in charge, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy was just trying to convince the authorities that he was suffering from mental illness, and he could do his time in a mental hospital instead of a prison, but he was interfering with Nurse Ratched's oppressive regime of degradation, drug therapy and a mind–crushing routine.

The stage was set for a battle of wills — and, for the first three–quarters of the movie, I suppose, McMurphy had the upper hand. That part of the movie was definitely comedic, with McMurphy increasingly getting the better of Nurse Ratched. That wasn't easy to do because Nurse Ratched seemed to know what each patient's vulnerable spot was, and she didn't hesitate to exploit it.

I have never read the book on which the movie was based so my next observation may be obvious, but I always felt, for example, that when Nurse Ratched advocated keeping McMurphy in the ward even though her colleagues favored sending him back to prison — and prevailed — that she was motivated by the desire to break McMurphy as a warning to the others. Don't mess with me.

Maybe the group therapy sessions she had with some of the patients gave her insights that she noted for future reference.

McMurphy seemed to outsmart her at every turn in the first three–quarters of the movie, and there are some parts that everyone remembers about "Cuckoo's Nest" — even if the viewer has only seen it once.

For example, everyone remembers the fishing trip on which McMurphy took his colleagues. He hijacked a bus, then introduced the group (truthfully) as being from the mental institution but then (untruthfully) called nearly all of them "doctor."

A part that I always remember is McMurphy's reaction upon learning that most of the patients in the ward were there voluntarily and could leave whenever they chose — but he was committed and could be kept there indefinitely. Few people seem to remember it unless it is mentioned to them.

"Jesus, I mean, you guys do nothing but complain about how you can't stand it in this place here," McMurphy said, "and you don't have the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are, for Christ's sake, crazy or somethin'? Well you're not! You're not! You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets, and that's it."

I suppose, if you mention that to one–time viewers, many of them will then remember that scene — and perhaps some will also remember how it foretold what the Chief (Will Sampson) did at the end of the movie.

But, as I say, they remember the fishing trip.

Or they remember McMurphy's campaign to have the TV tuned to the World Series. That was the first significant confrontation with Nurse Ratched, and McMurphy won it by persuading the Chief, who was believed to be deaf and dumb, to vote for the World Series.

But Nurse Ratched, in her controlling way, closed the vote before the Chief could break the tie and give McMurphy his victory. So I guess it wound up being a draw.

If you haven't seen it, I won't say any more — except to observe that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" received nine Oscar nominations and won five — becoming the first movie in more than 40 years to sweep the five major categories — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best (Adapted) Screenplay. Only one movie has duplicated the feat in the 40 years since.

I don't know if it was their first movie appearances, but it was the first time I recall seeing Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito in anything. A few years later, though, they would both be cast in one of my favorite TV shows, Taxi.

Nothing's Gonna Touch You in These Golden Years



"I'll stick with you, baby, for a thousand years
Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years."

The older I get, the more aware I become of the uselessness of many skills I had when I was younger.

Some of those skills were skills I learned in school — like how to process film (in my college photography class). In the digital age, dark rooms simply do not exist. As a result, that knowledge has no value anymore.

Other skills were useless even at the time. For example, I mastered the timing of the snapping of fingers and the clapping of hands at the beginning of David Bowie's "Golden Years," which made its debut on this day in 1975. I was proud of that at the time, but it has had zero value in my job searches over the years.

Employers simply aren't interested in whether someone can snap fingers and clap hands in time with the background singers on "Golden Years," and it is a skill that is incredibly difficult to work into one's resume.

It is even more difficult to work into a conversation.

But, anyway.

"Golden Years" never really seemed like it belonged on Bowie's "Station to Station" album, which came out in January 1976. Musically, I suppose it had more in common with the "Young Americans" album that was released earlier in 1975. It had kind of a funky, soul–like quality to it. It even had a touch of disco in it — but not much, really.

It was just out of place on "Station to Station." To me, "Station to Station" always seemed to have more of an edge.

Want another kick in the head? Bowie has said he offered the song to Elvis Presley, but Elvis turned him down. Can you imagine "Golden Years" sung by Elvis?

"Station to Station" was an extension of Bowie's journey into funk and soul, I guess, but "Station to Station" had more of a synthesizer sound than the "Young Americans" album — or "Golden Years," for that matter.

Bowie was in a transitional phase when "Golden Years" was released. As I understand it, his cocaine addiction was at its worst at that time, too, and he has said that he remembers little of the "Station to Station" recording sessions.

I knew nothing about his cocaine dependency when "Golden Years" was being played frequently on the radio. In my rather sheltered hometown talk of things like cocaine really didn't exist in 1975. Conversations about marijuana were about as hardcore as it got.

I don't really think about it when I hear that song now, either. But I do think of what my life was like in 1975 and the line in Bowie's song that goes, "Nothing's gonna touch you in these golden years."

And I think of all the people I knew, all the people I went to school with, my parents and their friends, my grandmothers (both of whom were still living at that time). The image is frozen in my memory as if we were all posing for a group photo. Many of those people I knew are gone now. Something obviously did touch them in the intervening golden years.

But I've been lucky, I suppose. I've had my share of setbacks, and I haven't had perfect health, but nothing has touched me that dramatically or directly. I have been touched indirectly, I guess — when I have lost people I cared about.

I recall once many years ago when I lost a friend to cancer. At the time, I was working as a teaching assistant at the school where I was completing my work on my master's degree. When I came home after the funeral, one of my students came up to me and asked me how I was doing.

"I'm all right," I told her. "If you live long enough, these things are bound to happen. You will lose people you care about."

I don't know. At the time, I guess I thought I was sharing some special wisdom with her, but it really isn't wisdom. It's something anyone can figure out — provided one lives long enough.

I've had far too many opportunities to reflect on that conversation in the years since. Many of the people I cared about are gone now. When I heard David Bowie singing "Golden Years," it never occurred to me which of my friends and family members I would lose in my lifetime. It just wasn't something I thought about. Of course, I don't remember giving much thought to the lyrics, either.

Yep, I've been lucky. I've lived all these years, these golden years, and nothing has touched me. One day, it will. It happens to everyone. It has already happened to many.

So Bowie wasn't entirely correct, was he? Something will touch us. Sometime.

It's still a catchy song.

Frasier's Unexpected Surprise



Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Frasier, I'm sorry I ruined your evening.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): It's all right, Niles. It's a small price to pay to finally see you and Daphne together.

I guess it was around this time in the Frasier timeline that my interest in the series began to wane — mostly because I found the relationship between Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) implausible.

They had been going through a very difficult time trying to be a couple after Daphne left her fiance at the altar and Niles left his wife of just a few days. The two jilted lovers were all too eager to make life difficult for their exes, and the story really was a nice one about the commitment and love Daphne and Niles shared.

At the time this episode was shown, I suppose — to my great regret — that I was being very superficial. I couldn't comprehend why Daphne would want to be with Niles, and I began to lose interest in the series.

Later, I caught up on the episodes I missed and discovered that the episodes about Daphne and Niles were very inspiring.

The episode that aired on this night in 2000, "Taking Liberties," was a tantalizing taste of things to come. Having watched all those episodes in syndication, I must say that Daphne and Niles were great role models. It's a pity there aren't more like them today.

The episode opened with Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) searching for a housekeeper to replace Daphne. Now that she was Niles' girlfriend, Frasier felt uncomfortable asking her to do household chores around his apartment.

Niles was having his own problems. His wife Mel (Jane Adams) was stringing him along, trying to lay the foundation for a face–saving way for her to exit the marriage by having Niles act boorishly in public. She promised that, within a few weeks, he would be free to pursue a public relationship with Daphne. But she kept pushing back the deadline, and Niles was getting frustrated.

The latest indignity had come at a prominent colonel's funeral. Niles' cell phone rang during the service, and Mel would not permit him to answer it. The ringer had been set to play "La Cucaracha."

While describing the service, Niles mentioned that the colonel's butler had been there, and Frasier interrupted him for more information.

Frasier contacted the butler (Victor Garber) and hired him to fill the role that Daphne would be giving up — and then some.

The butler, whose name was Ferguson, took considerable liberties, making suggestions for Frasier's self–promotion — not that Frasier objected although, eventually, he chastised Ferguson for "taking far too much liberty with the liberty taking."

But Ferguson was generous. He was prompted to take liberties not for his own sake but for the sake of others.

In Frasier's ongoing campaign to climb the Seattle social ladder, Ferguson suggested a pre–opera party for the folks who could make a difference in his bid for a spot on the opera board. Many of the board members were elderly and a post–opera party might be too late for them.

Things seemed to be going very well — the party was a success, and Niles and Daphne had plans to go out — until Mel unexpectedly showed up.

To Daphne's great pleasure, Niles stood up to Mel and proclaimed his love for Daphne for the room full of people to hear.

It appeared that Frasier's bid for the opera board was suddenly brought down in flames, though. But he claimed not to mind, that it was worth it to see Daphne and Niles free to live and to love each other in the open instead of the shadows.

Over and over in its last few seasons, Frasier pleasantly surprised me like it did 15 years ago tonight. Or it would have if I had been watching the series in 2000. But I wasn't — darn it!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Lesson in Commitment



I've never been married, but most of my friends have. (Why do I suddenly feel as if I'm writing a script for a Holiday Inn Express commercial?) I have observed most of the aspects of married life through them.

Consequently, I've never been through the experience of being the expectant spouse, either — although most of my male friends have. Again, I have observed most of the aspects of that experience through them.

Based on my very secondhand knowledge, I would have to say that there is more than a nugget of truth in the episode of All in the Family that was first shown 40 years ago tonight.

All of the episodes that dealt with Gloria's pregnancy seemed to ring true. Her mood swings were plausible, and the situations were realistic, if a bit exaggerated.

The episode that first aired on this night in 1975 was a good example. Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith (Jean Stapleton) were excited about their soon–to–be born grandson, but Gloria (Sally Struthers) was going through that stage that expectant mothers always go through — feeling fat and unattractive.

"How do you feel?" Edith asked Gloria.

"Like it should say 'Goodyear' right across here," Gloria said, indicating her belly with her hand.

Gloria was also uneasy about Mike (Rob Reiner), who had been tutoring a comely coed named Linda (Bernadette Peters), who suddenly needed two sessions a week instead of one.

"I guess she's only half as smart as she thought she was," Edith said.

"She doesn't have to be smart," Gloria replied. "She might have a C–minus brain, but she's got an A–plus body."

It had been Linda's habit to come to Mike and Gloria's house for her tutoring sessions. But on this occasion she had asked Mike to come to her place.

Gloria confided to Edith, "I'm beginning to wonder if Linda is taking lessons or giving them!"

When Archie learned of Gloria's suspicions, he tried to reassure her that Mike loved her, but as soon as she left, Archie turned to Edith and asserted that Mike was "fooling around." Edith wouldn't accept that, insisting that all Mike was doing was earning some extra money.

Archie resolved to get the truth out of Mike while Edith and Gloria were at the movies. He said he would get Mike drunk on wine and find out what was going on.

By the commercial break, it appeared that something, indeed, was going on between Mike and Linda.

After he had stumbled around Linda's apartment, both verbally and physically, when he tried to get started on the tutoring session, Mike found himself with Linda sitting on his lap and kissing him passionately. Fade to black.

When the broadcast resumed, Mike was at Archie's, drinking wine and — apparently — bonding. They were so chummy that Mike started to confide in Archie. He wanted to tell him what happened at Linda's place, and Archie appeared to comprehend before Mike said anything, but then he passed out — and missed Mike's affirmation that he had resisted temptation.

"When the chips were down," Mike said, "I thought to myself, 'What am I, crazy? I mean, I've got a wife that I love and a baby on the way. What am I gonna do? Am I gonna throw all that away?' So, before anything happened, I jumped up, and I got the hell out of there."

Mike certainly was to be commended. Not many men could resist Bernadette Peters.

And he was to be commended for what he did the next morning. He bolted out of the house early, leading Gloria to further suspect that he was up to something — which he was, but it wasn't what she thought. When Mike returned to the Bunkers' home that morning, he said he had a big surprise. Gloria confronted him and demanded to know what had become of the money he had been supposedly earning through tutoring.

Mike told her that was the big surprise he had for her and went out to the porch of the Bunkers' home, returning with the baby buggy he and Gloria had been wanting, but they had decided it was too expensive.

It also happened to be the same buggy Archie had picked up the day before.

Within a month, Gloria would give birth to the Bunkers' grandson — and the infant would inevitably lead the ground–breaking series to new television milestones — like the first case of full frontal nudity on television when Archie tried to change the baby's diaper.

But that is a topic for another blog post about two months from now.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Four of a Kind



On this day in 1960, Ferlin Husky's "Wings of a Dove" became just the fourth song to climb to #1 in Billboard's Hot C&W chart that year.

You could expand that list to five if you include Marty Robbins' "El Paso," which reached the top spot late in 1959 and remained there through the first five weeks of 1960.

But in the year itself, only four songs ascended to #1 on the Billboard chart. The other three were Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go," Hank Locklin's "Please Help Me, I'm Falling" and Cowboy Copas' "Alabam."

Compare that to modern times, when there seems to be a new #1 hit on music charts every week.

Friday, November 13, 2015

'Fantasia': A Live Action/Animation Triumph



Mickey Mouse: [Pulling on Stokowski's coat] Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!

[Mickey whistles to get Stokowski's attention]

Mickey Mouse: My congratulations, sir!

Leopold Stokowski: [shaking hands with Mickey] Congratulations to you, Mickey!

Mickey Mouse: Gee, thanks! Heh heh! Well, so long! I'll be seeing ya!

Leopold Stokowski: Goodbye!

Classical music and cough drops. That's what I think of when I think of Walt Disney's "Fantasia," which premiered on this day in 1940.

I was a senior in high school when I saw "Fantasia" for the first time. I had seen other Walt Disney movies, of course, just not that one. And I probably wouldn't have seen it then, had it not been for the fact that I was in love and my girlfriend talked me into seeing it when it was being shown one night on one of the college campuses in my hometown.

I don't know why I hadn't seen it before. It doesn't seem to have been a conscious choice that I made, but maybe it was. Maybe I saw or heard about something that was in it that I didn't like and decided I didn't want to see the movie, but I honestly have no memory of anything like that.

And, while I probably wouldn't have said this at the time, it would have been a mistake never to have seen it.

If I did make a conscious decision not to see it, it was probably because of the classical music. I didn't care for much classical music when I was 17. My tastes have changed since I was a teenager — it happens to all of us — and today I am inclined to view "Fantasia" as a multimedia triumph.

The movie opened with a fellow named Deems Taylor, a composer/music critic, who explained to the audience that "Fantasia" had "three kinds of music ... First, there's the kind that tells a definite story. Then there's the kind that, while it has no specific plot, does paint a series of more or less definite pictures. Then there's a third kind, music that exists simply for its own sake."

The composition that would open the movie, Taylor said, was of the third kind. It is called absolute music, and Taylor said it would be accompanied by images on the screen that might be like the mental images one would have while listening to the music being performed in a concert hall.

The result was a two–hour experience that was, simultaneously, like ones I had had at home and unlike any I had ever had.

My parents made sure I was exposed to all kinds of music when I was growing up. My mother loved bluegrass, my father liked Middle Eastern music, and they both liked classical music. I added some personal favorites to the list — rock music, of course, and jazz and blues. As a result, my music collection looks like a rummage sale — albeit a classy rummage sale.

The music wasn't entirely unfamiliar to me. But the Walt Disney animation was a new twist on things.

And there was no telling what kind of images would be conjured by the music.

Probably the most famous segment of the movie was the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" starring Mickey Mouse.

That, as I understand it, was the inspiration for the movie — a short cartoon of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski concluded that the concept of merging animation and classical music with live action imagery was too good to limit to a single cartoon so they went about putting together a two–hour movie.

I had no complaints about the music that was included in the movie, but at the time I would have liked to have seen "Peter and the Wolf" included. As a child, I remember listening to a recording of "Peter and the Wolf" and enjoyed it immensely. It was probably my first real introduction to classical music.

I learned later that Disney made a feature based on the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" in 1946 that was originally meant to be a sequel to "Fantasia." Great minds, huh?

Oh, and about those cough drops ...

We went to see this movie at about this time of the year, and I had a cold. Karen had a very strong nurturing instinct, and she insisted that I pop a cough drop in my mouth before we went to the movie. The flavor of wild cherries always seems to be in my mouth whenever I see "Fantasia," and I haven't used cough drops since that afternoon.

The American Film Institute rated "Fantasia" No. 58 on its 1998 list of the top 100 movies of the previous 100 years. Oddly, it received no Oscar nominations, not even for music or animation.

But 75 years later it is still one of the best animated motion pictures you will ever see.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In the Eye of the Beholder



"Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place and when is it? What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? You want an answer? The answer is, it doesn't make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence, on this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out amongst the stars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned ... in the Twilight Zone."

Closing narration

As I observed in this blog when actress Donna Douglas died earlier this year, her most noteworthy pre–Beverly Hillbillies role was an appearance on the original Twilight Zone. That episode was called "The Eye of the Beholder." Fittingly, it was about beauty, and it was shown for the first time on this day in 1960.

Douglas played a woman who was undergoing surgery on her face. Her face wasn't visible until near the end. For most of the episode, it was wrapped in bandages.

You couldn't see the faces of the doctors and nurses who came in and out of her room, either. They were photographed in shadows or at angles that made it impossible to make out their facial features.

But the viewer got a good idea of what was going on from the conversations between the patient and the doctors and nurses who tended to her. She was "disfigured" and seen as ugly by the normal people around her. She had undergone numerous surgeries to correct her deformities. All had been unsuccessful.

Her latest surgery had been one last try. Apparently, there was no other option if this one failed — except for her to go live in a separate colony with others like her.

I was already familiar with Donna Douglas by the time I saw this episode. I had seen the Beverly Hillbillies frequently, and I was sure I recognized her when I saw "The Eye of the Beholder." After all, she was one of the women on TV who was the subject of many a young boy's fantasies, including mine.

But I was bewildered. She didn't sound the same. Now, I was old enough by that time to know that actors and actresses alter their voices to fit their roles, but I also knew that, no matter how much they altered their voices, you could usually identify them. This actress didn't sound at all like Douglas.

When the patient's head was wrapped in bandages, she was played by an actress named Maxine Stuart, who was about 14 years older than Douglas. When the bandages were removed, the actress underneath them was Douglas.

She never spoke — well, she sobbed — but the leader of the futuristic society did. He gave a speech about "glorious conformity" that was being broadcast on devices that looked remarkably like the flat–screen TVs of today.

Actually, I should amend that. Words did appear to come out of Douglas' mouth — but they were in Stuart's voice. Pretty good job of lip syncing, too, considering that label wouldn't be invented for another three decades.

As Douglas ran down the hallways of the hospital, the leader droned on about "a single norm, a single approach, a single entity of people ..." and urged his listeners to "cut out all that is different like a cancerous growth."

It was an interesting episode, one that had allusions both subtle — to fascism — and not so subtle — to conformity.

And it made reference to the old saying that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Over the years, I have learned — repeatedly — how true that is.

How often have I wondered why someone who is drop–dead attractive is with someone who is ugly — or just plain? More times than I can count. And each time I do it, I feel ashamed for having judged a book by its cover.

But that's something we all do, isn't it?

And it isn't just looks, either, although that is probably the most convenient scapegoat. It can be anything — age, religion, politics, race, you name it.

But if this episode was to be remade today, it couldn't use age or religion or race as the dividing line because that wouldn't be politically correct.

You would just about have to stay with looks, and you would get away with it, too, because there is a general perception that good–looking people get their way all the time. That probably isn't entirely true, but, as one of the many nonbeautiful people, I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be one of the few truly beautiful people and be treated like royalty because of it.

Or to be a star athlete and have everything handed to you in school and on your way up the professional ladder.

I'm sure even the beautiful people have other beautiful people whom they imagine to be more attractive — and the star athletes are probably jealous of other star athletes whom they perceive to be more talented.

No one is immune.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves



Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable): But the prisoner is dead, sir!

Capt. William Bligh (Charles Laughton): Never mind. Continue with the punishment!

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the reason why movies in the '30s and '40s were so good is because so many were based on classic stories.

Sometimes the recent original stories on which movies are based are pretty good, but, in my experience, most are not. If reliably quality storytelling is what you want, you can't go wrong with the classics — the stories by Shakespeare or Mark Twain or Robert Louis Stevenson or Charles Dickens. It isn't a foolproof system, of course. It is possible to mess those stories up, but you really have to work at it.

Director Frank Lloyd's "Mutiny on the Bounty" was such a story although it was not really a classic. There have always been questions about the accuracy of the story, but that is not the fault of the movie. It is the inevitable fault of a novel about certain facts, not a report about the facts themselves. Consequently, the fault lies with Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who published the novel in 1932.

While the novel may not have been written in another century, the movie on which it was based took home Best Picture, beating several movies that were based on stories that were at least a century older than "Mutiny on the Bounty""David Copperfield," "Les Misérables," "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

But the movie won no other Oscars, even though it was nominated for several, and that is an extremely rare occurrence for a Best Picture. One would think, even in those early days of filmmaking, that the Best Picture of the year would also stand out in some other way — for its acting or its editing or its music, something. And, in fact, that was the last time — to date — that the Best Picture took home no other awards.

The movie's three stars — Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone — were all nominated for Best Actor and lost to Victor McLaglen for "The Informer." I've never seen "The Informer" so I don't know if McLaglen's performance really was better, but my guess is that Laughton, Gable and Tone wound up canceling each other out.

That's only speculation, of course, and a rather obvious conclusion, I think. It's much harder to figure out the reasons for the other Oscar losses.

Modern conventional wisdom holds that the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars usually go to the same movie, but John Ford ("The Informer"), not Lloyd, won Best Director. "Mutiny on the Bounty" lost Best Adapted Screenplay, again to "The Informer." It lost Best Score to guess who? Right. "The Informer."

(Maybe I ought to see "The Informer.")

It also lost Best Film Editing — this time to "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

As I say, there were questions about the accuracy of the story, but it was a novel, not a work of nonfiction. Poetic license was taken, much of it, apparently, at the expense of Capt. Bligh, who was portrayed as a callous fiend, calling for the continued flogging of a prisoner who was already dead. Certainly, Capt. Bligh is an effective villain. The American Film Institute named the character the 19th–best movie villain of all time. AFI didn't say which film portrayal — Laughton's or Trevor Howard's 27 years later — was the best, and I haven't seen the movie that was showing at theaters in 1962, but it would be hard to beat Laughton's performance. It's good material, a juicy role, but it's not entirely true.

There were other things like that in the movie. Apparently much of Bligh's treatment of his men in the movie and book simply doesn't find support in the historical record.

So, while Laughton's performance was great as always, it wasn't necessarily true to life.

There was an HMS Bounty, and there was a mutiny aboard the Bounty in the late 18th century.

But anyone who is researching the event for a term paper or something should look elsewhere for the facts.

The Day Ted and Georgette Got Married



Mary (Mary Tyler Moore): You do love him?

Georgette (Georgia Engel): Of course, Mary. Somebody has to!

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was consistently good for seven years, then voluntarily bowed out while the ratings were still high. In other words, they left 'em begging for more.

The episode that aired 40 years ago tonight has always been one of my favorites. It was sitcom script writing at its finest performed flawlessly by a top–notch cast. Ahhhh, they just don't write 'em — or perform 'em — like that anymore. More's the pity.

The episode that made its debut on this night in 1975 centered on something that we've all experienced — a wedding. Even if you have never been married, you have probably participated in one or, at least, attended one. Maybe more than one.

And, centered around this universal theme, the story gave perfect capsule glimpses into the hearts and souls of the characters in the series.

Yet, true to tradition, this wedding was about the bride, Georgette (Georgia Engel). She was the girlfriend of Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) and a recent addition to the ensemble. The viewing audience hadn't had much of a chance to get to know her yet, but that would change. Yes, this wedding, like all the others, was about the bride. Strangely, though, the title of the episode was "Ted's Wedding."

Let me share samples of the dialogue with you.

The episode opened with Georgette and Ted having Saturday brunch at Mary's apartment. Mary was trying to be sensitive to Georgette's concerns that everyone in the newsroom treated Ted with disdain, but Ted really hadn't been helping his own cause, even with Georgette. For months, he had been proposing to her, she had accepted, then he found a way to get out of it and she allowed him to do so. This had happened so often that Ted was treated like the fabled boy who cried wolf. No one, least of all Georgette, took his proposals seriously.

Anyway, Mary was making an effort to include Ted in more things, and her way to get the ball rolling was to invite Ted and Georgette to brunch at her apartment. She also tried to include Mr. Grant (Ed Asner), explaining to him that this kind of thing would make Ted a better anchorman — instead of being preconditioned to be oafish and vain by the negative perceptions of his peers.

Adopting a professorial demeanor, Mr. Grant told Mary that she was speaking of the "self–fulfilling prophecy," in which a person's behavior is governed by the assumptions of others. People expect a certain kind of behavior from someone, be it good or bad, and that is precisely what they get.

Mary was fascinated to learn that there was an entire theory devoted to what she had been thinking. She was also gratified that Mr. Grant understood what she was talking about, and that knowledge emboldened her.

She said she wanted Mr. Grant to join them for brunch, and, in one of the most delightful exchanges I believe I have ever seen, Mr. Grant wiggled out of it by asking Mary what her assumption had been about his response. She conceded that she had assumed that he would say no.

"Well, there you are!" Mr. Grant exclaimed with a triumphant grin on his face. "Personally, I'd have loved to have come. I probably would have had the time of my life. But your previous assumption made it impossible for me to come. You do see that, don't you, Mary?"

And so it was that Mary found herself having brunch alone with Ted and Georgette. Mary complimented Georgette on her dress, and Ted was inspired to propose — again — this time with an onion roll in his mouth.

But this proposal was met with a frosty resistance from Georgette, who asked Mary if she and Ted could have a few minutes of privacy. Mary went into her bedroom.

Georgette told Ted she had doubts that he had ever been serious about marrying her. "If you really wanted to marry me," she said, "you wouldn't talk about it. You'd do it."

Ted protested that he'd get married that day if he could.

"We can, Ted," Georgette countered. "We've had the blood test. We have the license, and it's still valid. We can call and get a minister over here. We can call our friends and tell them to come over here. What else do we need?"

Then mousy Georgette, usually so soft–spoken you couldn't hear her if she was shouting into a megaphone, delivered her character's best line ever. With her hands on her hips, she said, "So whaddya say, buster? Ya still wanna get married?"

Ted was just as assertive in his reply. "Yes, I do."

Then came The Shriek. I know you've heard The Shriek. You may even have emitted a Shriek — but only if you're a female. It seems to be a biological characteristic that only females possess.

The Shriek brought Mary running into the living room. "What would you do if I told you there's going to be a minister over here with all our friends in the next half hour to have a wedding?" Georgette asked her.

Mary's reply: "Vacuum!"

Getting the wedding together in half an hour was a bit more problematic.

Mary called Mr. Grant and had to talk him into coming over instead of watching a basketball game. Besides, she said, if everything was done quickly, he could get to the bar before the game was over.

Murray (Gavin MacLeod) had to be dragged away from his son's football game — he was the coach.

The minister was playing tennis, but Georgette said his wife had assured her she would try to get in touch with him. Georgette didn't tell the minister's wife why he was needed. She only said it was an emergency.

"I wasn't sure he'd interrupt a tennis game for a wedding," she told Mary.

Ted tried to get his mother to come over, but she declined. After hanging up, Ted explained that she had to wash her hair. "But we can save her a piece of cake," Ted said. "We do have a piece of cake, don't we, Mary?"

"The whole wedding was put together in half an hour," Mary replied as the doorbell rang and she went to answer it. "You can't expect too much preparation on that kind of notice."

Enter Sue Ann (Betty White), the Happy Homemaker, radiant in wedding attire and carrying flowers for the ceremony, champagne and rice for after the ceremony and a veil for Georgette to wear — as well as a gift for the "happy couple." Sue Ann was always the bridesmaid, never the bride, and she was always ready for the occasion. And she wouldn't tolerate slackers. "What are you all standing around with your thumbs up your noses for?" she demanded. "We've got to get this show on the road!"

Part of getting that show on the road was settling on a best man, and Mr. Grant wound up with the honor.

Turned out his primary responsibility as best man was to reassure Ted that he was doing the right thing.

"If you're going to get married," Mr. Grant told Ted, "you're going to have to stop acting the way you do."

"What way?" Ted asked.

"The way you act," Mr. Grant said somewhat evasively. But he could see he wasn't getting through so he tried a different approach.

"Ted, what I'm trying to say is, you gotta become different."

Ted still didn't understand.

"Look," an increasingly exasperated Mr. Grant said, "you know how you always are?"

Ted said, "Yeah."

"Don't be that way," Mr. Grant told Ted.

The minister was played by John Ritter, and he arrived dressed in his tennis clothes and carrying a tennis racquet. He was newly ordained and unprepared to conduct a wedding ceremony, but Georgette suggested that they should each say something instead of repeating vows. Ted, as an anchorman, was accustomed to having Murray write the words he would deliver so he had Murray come over next to him and whisper in his ear what he should say. It came out like this:

"Georgette, I promise ... to be a devoted husband ... and to never give you cause ... to regret ... having married ... such a cluck!"

Anyway, when the wedding was over and everyone had left, Mary, Ted and Georgette looked at each other.

"Well," Mary said.

"Well," Georgette said.

"Well," Ted said. "What's for dessert?"

John Denver's Triple



John Denver was one of my early favorites.

Not long after I got my first stereo, I was listening to Denver's music on a regular basis (along with Three Dog Night and Cat Stevens). At one time in my life I had most of his albums, but I wasn't exactly blazing a trail there. I mean, a lot of people liked John Denver in those days. He was quite popular. You didn't really have to have his records in your possession to listen to him, either. You could hear his latest hits on mainstream radio pretty frequently.

But if you wanted to hear his latest songs that were not being played on the radio, you pretty much needed to have his latest album.

I would venture to say that most people didn't think of John Denver as a country musician. He was primarily regarded as a pop star, but he sang about country topics — simple pleasures, the rural lifestyle and small–town values — but his music never really met the definition of country music that had been established by David Allen Coe as a spoken interlude in his 1975 recording, "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" — at least not in my opinion.
"Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song
And he told me it was the perfect country and western song.
I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the
Perfect country and western song because he hadn't said
Anything at all about mama or trains or trucks or prison or gettin' drunk."

No, that wasn't John Denver's style.

He had a lot of crossover appeal, though. It seemed there were a lot of artists who were like that in the '70s — or maybe it just seems that way in hindsight. Most of today's music seems to be designed to appeal to a narrow niche.

Of course, there are acts that try to blend styles and create something new, but that isn't really the same thing. Most such acts seem to be little more than cynical attempts to cash in on more than one market simultaneously.

What I'm talking about is a genuine connection to people and how they relate to others, to places, to themselves. Earlier in 1975, Denver had a big hit with a song titled, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," which spoke to the human condition more than it did to musical genres. That was the essence of Denver's music. It was a uniter, not a divider, to borrow a famous phrase.

There aren't many performers these days who try to push the envelope and make music that attracts a diverse audience, but it wasn't too uncommon 40 years ago. It seems as if I was always surprised to learn that a pop star I liked was getting a lot of airplay on country stations.

John Denver was one of those musicians, and the best evidence of that may be that on this day in 1975, his single "I'm Sorry," which had been released in July, reached the top spot on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart. In September, the song reached the top position in Billboard's Hot 100, just as "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" had.

I suppose the greatest difference between the two is the fact that "I'm Sorry" turned out to be the final #1 pop hit of Denver's career.

In the mid–'70s, Denver probably was at his peak in popularity with a string of #1 songs and #1 albums, crossing over into multiple categories. "I'm Sorry," for example, not only occupied the top spot in Billboard's Hot 100 before claiming the same spot on the Hot Country Singles chart, but it was also #1 for awhile on Billboard's Easy Listening chart (now Adult Contemporary).


"I'm Sorry" was Denver's last #1 hit on the Hot Country Singles chart — the last of three, all in the mid–1970s. He had been topping other charts in the earlier years, but he had only reached #1 with the country audience for the first time about a year earlier with "Back Home Again," a song with a country flavor but still very much the folk music for which Denver was known originally.

In fact the B side of "I'm Sorry" is a good example of Denver's versatility. One would never mistake it for a country song.

Until just a few years ago, I thought the B side — "Calypso" — was an A side. It was a tribute to French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and his vessel, the Calypso, and it was featured in a television documentary about Cousteau's work. I was certain I had heard it played on the radio more often than I had heard "I'm Sorry." And, as I say, I was a John Denver fan in those days.

Truth is, "Calypso" apparently did receive more airplay than "I'm Sorry" did, and RCA reversed the order on the single, making "Calypso" the A side and "I'm Sorry" the B side.

"Calypso" may have had more airplay, but it never made it to #1 on any chart.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Taking a Trip Through a Tollbooth



Milo (Butch Patrick): That's my speech! I didn't know I was going to eat my words.

King Azaz (Hans Conried): Of course you didn't. That's what we're all doing. You should have made a tastier speech.

I don't remember when I first saw "The Phantom Tollbooth," which made its debut on this day in 1970 — but I can tell you where I saw it.

As I have mentioned in this blog before, the merchants in my hometown used to sponsor free movies for kids on Wednesday afternoons in the summer (it's been a long time since I was in my hometown in the summer so I have no idea whether that is still done. Probably not.). My hometown was small and only had one single–screen theater downtown (and a drive–in on the outskirts of town) when I was growing up.

The free movies that were shown were hardly first–run movies. Most were two or three years old, if not older, so my guess would be that "The Phantom Tollbooth" was probably shown in my hometown in the summer of 1972 or 1973. But I could be wrong about that.

I went to a lot of those free summer movies when I was a boy, and my memory is that the kids who went to them — and that was probably most of the people I knew — rarely watched the movies. They were too busy throwing popcorn at each other. Come to think of it, I didn't usually pay much attention to the movies that were shown, either.

But I paid attention to "The Phantom Tollbooth."

I don't know why. I mean, I never read the book on which it was based, and the people I know who have read the book have told me it is superior to the movie — which wouldn't surprise me. I've known for a long time that books are almost always better than the movies they inspire.

But, as I say, I never read the book so I wasn't watching the movie to compare the two.

I guess I was initially drawn to it by the fact that a child actor named Butch Patrick was cast as Milo, a boy who was bored with his life and came home from school one day to find a tollbooth in his room. Who was Butch Patrick? you ask. Well, shoot, back in those days everyone knew who Butch Patrick was — but perhaps not by name. I know I didn't know his name until many years later, but I knew who he was on television — Eddie Munster.

He looked a lot different without the wolfman makeup.

Anyhow, it turned out this tollbooth had magical properties. Milo had nothing better to do so he got into a toy car and drove through the tollbooth into a world of puns and idioms.

Milo found himself on a road to Expectations, got mired in the Doldrums and was rescued by Tock, a watchdog with an honest–to–God pocketwatch in his belly. The two set off on their journey through the Kingdom of Wisdom. They had to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore order to the kingdom.

On this journey they encountered all sorts of oddballs whose voices were supplied by actors most of my contemporaries would have recognized from their TV work, not the least of which was the voice of Hans Conried, whose face was known from his many TV appearances and whose distinctive voice was easily as recognizable as his face.

I doubt that most of my friends were familiar with Mel Blanc's face — and most of us probably didn't know what his real voice sounded like. After all, he created the voices of cartoon characters we all watched on Saturday mornings — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam. Blanc was known as "The Man of a Thousand Voices," a figure that must have included the three characters he voiced in "The Phantom Tollbooth."

There are many people who believe — and justifiably so — that Blanc was the most influential voice actor who ever lived.

There were times when Patrick did some voice acting, too. Most of the movie, in fact. Once he crossed through the tollbooth, his character was an animation. This was 1970, after all. Oh, sure, there had been some live action combined with animation in some Walt Disney movies, but not much else. "The Phantom Tollbooth" shifted from live action to animation and back again rather seamlessly but didn't combine the two.

Well, it might have. It's been a long time since I have seen the movie, and it may be that I have forgotten something — but I don't recall anything like what was seen in "Mary Poppins" several years earlier — or "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" nearly two decades later.

It seems to me that I would have remembered if "The Phantom Tollbooth" had merged live action with animation. I think I would have made a mental note of that, as unusual as it was. Perhaps the process was so expensive at that time that you had to be a Walt Disney to afford it. Come to think of it, Disney was behind "Roger Rabbit," too.

Well, anyway.

I guess my greatest issue with "The Phantom Tollbooth" was its music. Sometimes it could be shrewd and inventive, I'll grant you that, but it could also be tedious. Might have been effective to use the tedious music in the tedious places in the story — like the Doldrums.

And I would have to say that, while I always liked The Munsters, I really found it hard to empathize with Patrick's character, which he played so churlishly that it was difficult for me to imagine anyone really having much sympathy for him — in the beginning, anyway. My memory is that his character got better as the movie went on. But you know the old saying — you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and I think Patrick lost a lot of the audience early.

Still, my memory is that, overall, the movie was clever, a good children's flick. Unfortunately, Patrick was a teenager when he made it, a bit old for his part even if he was short for his age.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Spreading a Little Sunshine



Ben Clark (Richard Benjamin): I'm getting chest pains. You give me chest pains!

Willy Clark (Walter Matthau): It's my fault you get excited?

Ben Clark: Yes! I only get chest pains on Wednesdays!

Willy Clark: So come Tuesdays.

If there is a moment that sums up "The Sunshine Boys" — which made its debut on this date in 1975 — for me, it would be late in the movie, when Walter Matthau's character was recuperating from a heart attack.

His nephew Ben (played by Richard Benjamin) was visiting him on a Wednesday, as he usually did, and he suggested to his uncle that he should move into a retirement home across the river in New Jersey.

Matthau's character wanted to know if his nephew would continue to visit him at the retirement home, and his nephew assured him that he would. Why would he think otherwise? Ben asked.

"Well, you know," Matthau said, his eyes glistening, "people don't go out to New Jersey unless they have to."

Those few words revealed so much about Willy Clark; the audience finally understood that he was driven by a fear of abandonment that was rooted in experience. As half of a successful Vaudeville act, he had experienced the abandonment of his long–time partner (played by the one and only George Burns).

Through much of the movie, Willy was a tough guy, but at the very end the audience saw just how squishy soft, how vulnerable he really was.

It was a poignant moment for that character.

For the most part, I suppose poignance is not what audiences were after in 1975. Furthermore, I presume that those audiences expected — and rightfully so — that a movie starring Walter Matthau and George Burns was bound to have a lot of laughs.

And "The Sunshine Boys" certainly had plenty of laughs. But poignance is what gave the comedy its true meaning.

"The Sunshine Boys" was recognized then and is known today as a comedy, one of the best ever, the story of former Vaudeville partners teaming up again for one night only.

And there was never anyone better for a comedy than George Burns.

There are so many moments in "The Sunshine Boys" that showcased Burns' talent, but my personal favorite has always been the scene where Matthau's nephew (and agent) went to visit Burns to try to persuade him to reunite with Willy in a one–time–only performance of some of their greatest Vaudeville routines.

Burns' character was living with his daughter, son–in–law and grandchildren. When Ben arrived and began making his pitch, Burns interrupted him.

"How old are you?" he asked.

Ben replied, "I'm 34. Why?" Turned out Burns wanted to tell him why he and Matthau split up.

"He called me a son of a bitch bastard," Burns said, then quickly looked around the room. "The kids aren't home from school yet, are they?"

Assured that they were not, he went on to explain that he had been called that simply because he didn't want to do the show anymore.

Well, they got over their personal issues and got together to do their act again.

And Matthau's previous trauma with Burns poking him in the chest with "the finger" appeared to be playing out again. Yep, everything seemed to be going according to Matthau's fears ... er, expectations.

Of course, there were some good things about their routine — like blonde bombshell Lee Meredith, more eye candy than actress who began her big–screen career as a mostly silent office bimbo in "The Producers" seven years earlier and ended it as a Vaudeville bimbo in "The Sunshine Boys."

I don't know what Meredith has been doing with herself for the last 40 years, but being in a movie with George Burns and Walter Matthau would be the highlight of most people's careers.

Surprise! Meredith didn't get an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Of course, that really isn't unusual for comedies — even though some of the greatest performances I have ever seen were in comedies.

Nevertheless, Matthau was nominated for Best Actor — but lost to Jack Nicholson for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Burns was nominated for Best Supporting Actor — and won. Neil Simon also received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Albert Brenner and Marvin March received a nomination for Best Art Direction.

Four Oscar nominations and one win. Not bad for a comedy.