Sunday, June 26, 2016

Steve Winwood's Return to the High Life

Sometime in June 1986, Steve Winwood released his "Back in the High Life" album — and for awhile there in the summer of 1986, the radio airwaves were a battleground between Winwood and the singles from Peter Gabriel's "So" album.

That was a battle that Winwood eventually won with his hit single "Higher Love" winning Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. Chaka Khan, who was probably a decade or more removed from her signature hit, "Tell Me Something Good," provided background vocals.

It was a good song, probably representative of the kind of music one tended to hear on the radio in the '80s. I thought it was good — but not great.

Which made the response from the music media somewhat baffling. Rolling Stone called it "the first undeniably superb record of an almost decade–long solo career." Seems to me that is a matter of opinion. Winwood did reasonably well with his previous solo albums, but it must have been hard to establish himself as a solo talent after a career playing with so many of the greats of popular music.

He did finally break through with "Back in the High Life."

Karyn Albano, in an online review, proclaimed "Back in the High Life" Album of the Year — although the Grammys reserved that designation for Paul Simon's "Graceland" album.

Albano wrote that Winwood had managed to combine songs that would "stand the test of time" with the commercial demands of the day. She must have had "The Finer Things," another single that cracked the Top 10, in mind when she wrote that.

Of course, it is hard to deny that Winwood found his musical niche with "Back in the High Life" and used his formula for success in his "Roll With It" album a few years later.

It just had that feel to it, you know? I have my doubts whether it will stand the test of time, but I know people who will tell you, 30 years later, that "The Finer Things" is their favorite Winwood song of all time.

It was nearly the most successful single on "Back in the High Life," and it had that same pop/rhythm and blues appeal that served Winwood so well on "Roll With It."

The more–or–less title track from the album, "Back in the High Life Again," was the third–most successful single from the album, reaching #13 on the charts — and hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts for awhile.

I always liked it, maybe the best of the Winwood singles that filled the airwaves that summer.

I don't know why that is. Perhaps it appeals to that desire we all have to show those who wrote us off in the past.

Plus it had James Taylor singing background vocals, and that's pretty hard to beat.

The fourth most–successful single on the album, "Freedom Overspill," seems like it ought to be applicable to someone's political campaign. It seemed that way to me at the time, but no one, to my knowledge, has used it in the last 30 years.

I always liked "Split Decision," too, which had Joe Walsh on slide guitar.

In general, "Back in the High Life" was kind of inspiration in the era of "Revenge of the Nerds," a series of movies about how a group of abused nerds got their revenge against the popular people on their college campus.

It was all in that "So how do you like me now?" frame of mind — a mindset to which most people can relate, I am sure.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Battle Between Good and Evil on Navarone

Mallory (Gregory Peck): Are you sure it will work?

Corp. Miller (David Niven): There's no guarantee, but the theory's perfectly feasible.

No one would ever conclude that I am a fan of war movies. I grew up that way. My parents were decidedly antiwar when I was growing up, and I grew up believing as they did.

As an adult, I have amended my position, acknowledging that sometimes it is necessary to fight, but that doesn't mean that my attitude about war movies has changed much. I've never really been much for splashy special effects and explosions. I'm a writer. I like dialogue. Lots of it.

I do like some war movies, just as I do like some westerns and some love stories. Just not all of them. Not even most of them.

My overriding preference when it comes to movies of any genre is that the movie tell a good story. And that is what "The Guns of Navarone," which premiered on America's movie screens on this day in 1961, did.

If it had been one of those war movies where two sides just begin shooting randomly at each other for no apparent reason other than the fact that they represent two opposing sides in an armed conflict, it wouldn't have interested me. I'll grant you, that is how most wars seem to be fought. Still, I want a story, something that gives the movie context.

"The Guns of Navarone" was a fictional story about World War II, and it was a darn good story.

It was set with a real event as the backdrop — the Dodecanese Campaign, in which the Allied forces sought to capture the Italian–held Dodecanese islands in the Aegean Sea in 1943, a mission that failed — on a fictional island called Navarone. Specifically, it was based on events surrounding the Battle of Leros, the central event of that campaign. The Italians had installed two powerful guns on the island that controlled the seas, but they were captured by the Germans in the battle.

Using that as the inspiration, Scottish writer Alistair MacLean penned the novel "The Guns of Navarone," in which a group of commandos sets out to destroy the island fortress and liberate more than 1,000 British soldiers.

Well, that's how it was in real life. In the novel (and the movie it inspired), there were 2,000 British soldiers. The British Navy planned to send in ships to rescue them, but first, those guns had to be neutralized. That's where the commandos came in.

Don't get me wrong. "The Guns of Navarone" had plenty of shooting and explosions — in fact, it won an Oscar for its special effects — but it also had a lot of dialogue that really told the story. (Carl Foreman was nominated for an Oscar for his adapted screenplay, but he lost to "Judgment at Nuremberg.")

Then, along the way, the movie's stars — Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn — kept propelling the commandos forward. Each brought a special qualification to the enterprise. Peck played a spy from New Zealand, talented at what he did but inexperienced as a leader; Niven was an explosives expert, and Quinn was a Greek patriot.

There were breathtakingly dramatic moments as the commando unit made its way to the objective. If you are part of the millennial generation and you've never seen "The Guns of Navarone" before, you may well see similarities between it and "The Lord of the Rings" when you do. The characters and circumstances are different, but the similarities are undeniable. Peck and Niven, in their quest for the guns, are not unlike Frodo and Sam in their journey to Mordor.

And both stories were about the clash between good and evil.

Joni's Opus

"All the debutantes in Houston, baby,
Couldn't hold a candle to you."

The Eagles
(who didn't write this about Joni Mitchell, but it fits)

I know most of you who are millennials think your generation has some good female singers. You might even believe that some of them are the greatest female singers ever. And I will admit that some of them do have potential.

But they just aren't in the same league with the women who dominated the music scene in the 1970s. I'll grant you, in many ways the '70s was a bummer of a decade. But one of the women who was recording in that decade was Joni Mitchell, and I defy anyone to top that.

Especially after you listen to the album she released 45 years ago today, "Blue." It wasn't her most commercially successful album, and it didn't contain any of her songs that most people think of when they think of her.

But "Blue" may well have been the most honest album in a catalog that was loaded with honesty. Rolling Stone called it the "ultimate breakup album" in 2012, and there is a good case to be made for that.

There is also a good case to be made for Jack Hamilton's assertion in The Atlantic less than a year later that "Blue" was "the greatest relationship album." Logic, it seems to me, would insist that both cannot be right — although Hamilton tried to have it both ways by observing that "the downside is that in our best–case scenario ... every single relationship we ever have, except for one, will end and end badly."

So I suppose it is possible for an album to be both a great relationship album and the ultimate breakup album. As they used to say on Saturday Night Live, it's a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Except it isn't.

I'm not sure whether "Blue" is a relationship album or a breakup album — or something else altogether. It is a question I have pondered the last few times I have listened to it, and about the only answer I have been able to come up with is that the album clearly has something to do with love.

I know that sounds vague, but, in my experience, love is often vague, particularly at first when one feels an attraction and desperately wishes to know if the feeling is returned. Then there is the vague unease one feels when a relationship that once showed such promise is coming apart. And there is the confusing vagueness of one's emotions about the other person after the two have split up.

In much the same spirit, I would say that Joni Mitchell was simultaneously a product of her times and an architect of them.

There may be no better song on the album than the title track. If you need evidence to convince someone of Mitchell's talent as a songwriter, the whole album would suffice, although the title track has everything you need.

There is so much more to the album, though, like "A Case of You."

I suppose, in almost any other era, and perhaps with almost any other singer/songwriter, "Blue" would be a landmark. But Mitchell should have proven her indisputable skill by that time. She had already released three successful albums and was the composer of "Woodstock," which was the B side for "Big Yellow Taxi," and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included their cover of the song on their "Deja Vu" album. And yet ...

If 1939 is considered the greatest year in movie production (which it was), then 1971 ought to hold a similar distinction in the music industry. Led Zeppelin released its untitled album with "Stairway to Heaven" on it. The Who released "Who's Next," which had "Won't Get Fooled Again." Carole King released "Tapestry." Jethro Tull released "Aqualung." Marvin Gaye released "What's Going On." John Lennon released "Imagine." Don McLean released "American Pie." The Allman Brothers released their "Live at Fillmore East" album. George Harrison and his friends released the "Concert for Bangladesh."

An embarrassment of riches, 1971 was. Hard for a performer and/or an album to stand out. And yet ...

Most people regard "Blue" as one of the greatest albums of all time, but the reception from the music media of the day was inexplicably hostile. Although she was not yet 30, Rolling Stone dismissed her as "Old Lady of the Year." Perhaps she merely seemed old because she had been in the public eye for several years, had already experienced so much — and had been so forthcoming about it in her music.

To listen to "Blue" — well, to any of Mitchell's albums from those days — is to hear folk music at its best — not unlike hearing Simon and Garfunkel in their albums that preceded "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

And when you listen to "Blue," you will hear frequent moments of indisputably Joni Mitchell stylistic sounds that became familiar in her subsequent albums.

"Blue" was Joni Mitchell's opus.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Culture Clash in the 19th Century

When I was a child, I had no idea there was a movie called "Anna and the King of Siam," which made its American premiere on this day in 1946.

I knew about "The King and I," the musical version of the story starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made about a decade later. My grandmother was a fan of musicals, and I remember watching that one with her on television when I was about 5 or 6 years old.

Set in the 1860s, "Anna and the King of Siam" told the story of an Englishwoman (Irene Dunne) who accepted a position teaching English to the children of the king of Siam (Rex Harrison). It was essentially the same story — minus the music.

Dunne's character got off on the wrong foot when she was greeted by the prime minister (Lee J. Cobb), who proceeded to ask her several personal questions. Dunne's character did not realize that was customary in Siam and took offense — only to be advised afterward to make amends with him on the grounds that she didn't understand. She took that advice, but things still weren't smooth. Dunne and her son had been promised a house of their own in which to live, but upon their arrival she learned that she was to live in the palace where she would be accessible for the king and any of his children at any time. The king did not remember making the promise of a house and, apparently, felt under no obligation to honor a promise he didn't recall making.

It was, I quickly determined, the same story — except that, apart from the music, "The King and I" was a much more light–hearted telling of what was a culture clash. I guess the music made it seem breezy. No problem like that in "Anna and the King of Siam" although as I understand it the king was portrayed as being much tougher and more traditional in that movie than he was in real life.

Both movies were based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, a British writer, educator and social activist who became the governess/teacher of the Siamese king's 39 wives and 82 children. I don't remember if the movie ever mentioned the number of children she taught, but I am quite sure I did not see 82 children in the movie — and very few of the king's wives were seen, either. There was one, sort of the top wife (Gale Sondergaard, in an Oscar–nominated performance), who knew English and interpreted for Anna, but, as I say, few others were seen.

While much of "Anna and the King of Siam" was fictionalized, one of my favorite scenes in the movie apparently was based in fact. In the movie, the king dictated a letter to American President Abraham Lincoln in which he offered Lincoln gifts of elephants to breed for transportation purposes — although the offer was actually addressed to Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, or, since the king was mindful of the presidential election taking place when he sent the gifts, Buchanan's successor.

(Buchanan was not a candidate for re–election. Lincoln was elected to succeed him.)

In real life, Lincoln graciously declined the offer, explaining that the United States' latitude made it unfeasible to raise elephants here.

As a history buff, I always liked that part of the story. I can't tell you how pleased I was to learn it was true — mostly.

Anna was a bit of a feminist, at least as far as her times were concerned — and certainly as far as the place where she was living and working was concerned. Women simply had no rights in Siam, and no one, male or female, challenged the king on anything and in any way. But Anna spoke her mind to the king, and she frequently made sense. It just took him a little while to mull things over in his head.

Then, when he came around — like as not in the wee hours of the morning — he would wake her up to go over the details with her. She became perhaps his most valued adviser by the end of the movie.

But there were still times when Anna's European sensibilities came into conflict with Siamese tradition.

It was a story about a culture clash that still has valuable points to make.

In addition to Sondergaard, "Anna and the King of Siam" received four other Academy Award nominations and won Oscars for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score and Best Black–and–White Art Direction.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Jeepers, Creeper

Sixty years ago tonight, Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired what may well have been the best episode of its debut season. Titled "The Creeper," it didn't feature anyone today's audiences would be likely to recognize — which probably makes it easier for modern viewers seeing it for the first time to concentrate on the story.

Well, devotees of TV soap operas might recognize Constance Ford, who had a long–running role on Another World from 1967 to 1992. She also had guest spots on some of the most popular TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that aired 60 years ago tonight, Ford played a jittery housewife who was anxious about a string of unsolved stranglings in the area. In that sense, she seemed to be like everyone else.

But she was jittery about other things, too. For example, an old beau of hers was hanging around when her husband was out of town. He claimed that her husband had asked him to keep her company while he was away — the husband didn't know about their history — but she knew nothing about such a request and was suspicious of her old boyfriend's motives.

As it turned out, she had left this guy a couple of years earlier because he had a penchant for cruel behavior. "There's something wrong about you," she told him, and she was right. Being confronted with his shortcomings led him to assault her, switching up the radio to cover her screams.

Indeed, when the maintenance man came knocking on the door, it was to tell her to turn down her radio because the other tenants were complaining — not because anyone had mentioned her screams for help.

At that point, every viewer must have been sure that the ex–beau was the infamous "Creeper" who had been killing women. His behavior was simply too suspicious.

But Ford had put in a request with a neighborhood locksmith for a new lock for her door. He was swamped, though, and couldn't get away to install it for her, but he promised to send someone over to install it as soon as he could. Once she got the old beau out of her apartment and the locksmith called to tell her that an assistant was on his way over to install the lock, she began to breathe a little easier.

It was at that point that her husband called. He confirmed that, yes, he had asked the man who had been in the apartment to come over and keep her company while he was gone.

While they talked the assistant arrived and began installing the lock. The woman returned to the phone. Her husband had some important news for her. The police had a lead in the "Creeper" case.

They were looking for a locksmith.

She knew already.

I know, the ending will be apparent to most modern viewers long before the end actually comes. You have to remember, though, the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was 60 years ago, and the plot must have come as a surprise to many viewers.

That's the way Hitchcock was. When he made "Psycho" a few years later, the story traumatized many viewers. More than half a century later, "Psycho" seems tame — if not lame — to modern viewers.

Hitchcock was cutting edge for his time. I can only wonder what he would do with all the advances that have taken place in film making and TV production since his death.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

"Bad news sells best 'cause good news is no news."

Charles (Kirk Douglas)

"If you build it, they will come."

That line belonged to another movie, not the one that premiered on this day in 1951 — Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole." But it could have.

Kirk Douglas played one of those old–fashioned reporters — the kind who learned the trade in the field instead of the classroom. Don't get me wrong. That can be a good thing if the right lessons are learned, but Douglas' character didn't learn the right lessons.

Early in the movie he practically boasted about losing nearly a dozen big–city newspaper jobs for one infraction or another (i.e., libel, adultery, drinking) as he worked his way west, and he hoped to get a big–city newspaper job again. For that, he needed a big story, a human interest story that would capture the public's imagination — and would be a valuable scoop for whoever hired him.

In the meantime, he needed to put food on the table — and get some repair work done on his broken–down car.

So Douglas walked into the newsroom of the newspaper in the city where his car had given out on him — Albuquerque, New Mexico — and sweet–talked his way into a job. But after a year on the job, he still wasn't sitting on a blockbuster human interest story. In fact, he was being sent out to rural New Mexico to cover a rattlesnake hunt.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Douglas and the newspaper's young and idealistic photographer stopped off in a bump in the road sort of town — where, they learned, a local man had just become trapped inside a cave where he had been searching for Indian artifacts. Douglas figured this could be his ticket to that big–city newspaper job and did the very thing that my journalism instructors told us not to do — don't become a part of your story in any way, they admonished us, and they were right.

No instructor ever told Douglas that, of course, because he never attended journalism school, and he began to manipulate the rescue effort behind the scenes, making the trapped man and his family believe he was their friend when really he was using them and persuading an ethically challenged sheriff to lean on the contractor who was trying to drill his way to the trapped man and get him to follow a strategy that would delay the rescue and keep the story on the front pages longer.

Douglas' character was really more of a showman than a journalist, and he knew that the best possible outcome would be a happy ending in which the trapped man was saved, and the people who had been following the story were left with that warm, fuzzy feeling. The more time that the outcome was in doubt, the higher the anxiety — and the greater the payoff when that warm, fuzzy feeling happened.

Douglas' character knew that people who follow dramatic stories make emotional investments in them — and they expect an emotional payoff at the end. Call it the feel–good factor.

That is what he was aiming for, but there were complications, you see ...

As the days dragged on, the man who was trapped became more despondent. And then, there was his wife, played by Jan Sterling, who was remembered for her performance as the "sluttish, opportunistic wife" in "Ace in the Hole" after she died in 2004 (Ronald Bergan of The Guardian wrote at the time that it was "[b]y far her best role"). When her husband was trapped in the cave, she had been planning to leave him — but she was persuaded to stay when Douglas told her the big story would bring crowds of people to the area, and the little diner/curio shop run by the victim's family would make more money than ever.

He turned out to be right about that. In almost no time, the area became a circus. Well, actually, it was a carnival, with rides and food vendors and all of that; it sprang up after its operators paid handsomely for the privilege. There was even a song that was sung about the victim by a traveling troubadour.

As I said, Douglas' character was, at heart, a showman, and in this case the show followed the showman. It was really drawn more by the fact that so many people had already arrived on the scene, hoping to witness a dramatic rescue.

And the victim's wife had dollar signs in her eyes as she watched a line of traffic coming through that quiet New Mexico valley that put the line of traffic at the end of "Field of Dreams" to shame.

After all she knew that people needed to eat.

But the good times came to an end when the victim died before the drill could reach him. No happy ending. Actually, there wasn't a happy ending in the real–life inspiration for the movie — a case in which a man named Floyd Collins was trapped in a cave in Kentucky in 1925. A reporter from Louisville won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the event — even though that victim died before his would–be rescuers could reach him.

Douglas' character mentioned that event — by then more than a quarter of a century removed from the fictionalized account that played on America's movie screens in the summer of 1951. Just in case you were inclined to think that media obsession over a single story is a new phenomenon. My guess is it's been going on at least since Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable–type printing press in the 15th century.

"Ace in the Hole" was a first in several ways, though, virtually all involving Billy Wilder.

It was the first time Wilder was writer, producer and director of a movie. That was a combination that worked really well in Wilder's later films, like "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie."

It was also his first project without Charles Brackett, his collaborator on "The Lost Weekend" and "Sunset Boulevard."

Last but far from least, it was the first of Wilder's projects to be both a critical and a commercial failure. Given his record of award–winning successes, the fact that Wilder ever had misfires is shocking to me — even though he had his share, like everyone else.

But if you understand something about the times, it isn't so shocking.

Wilder had been critical of the media of his day for its bias. Consequently, "Ace in the Hole" got bad reviews in American newspapers, and that kept attendance down.

Nevertheless, I have heard it said that "Ace in the Hole" was one of Wilder's favorites — high praise indeed when you consider the other movies Wilder made in his career.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Taking a Roller-Coaster Ride With Indiana Jones

Marion (Karen Allen): You're not the man I knew 10 years ago.

Indiana (Harrison Ford): It's not the years, honey. It's the mileage.

When George Lucas co–wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which premiered on this date in 1981, his intention was to re–create the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s.

That was before my time, but my parents used to watch the movie serials when they were children, and I gathered from their reaction to the movie that Lucas succeeded in his objective.

Film critic Roger Ebert apparently agreed with them, even though he was born in 1942. Movie serials continued to be made into the early 1950s so he was probably old enough to witness the end of that era — but certainly not its heyday. Nevertheless, his homage to the serials was as entertaining as it could be. I watched it again recently, and I probably enjoyed it as much as I did the first time I saw it.

Ebert wrote nearly 20 years after its debut that the movie "plays like an anthology of the best parts from all the Saturday matinee serials ever made," but he added that "I haven't seen much discussion of the movie's other driving theme, (director Steven) Spielberg's feelings about the Nazis."

Ebert went on to observe that Spielberg gave us his adult treatment of the Holocaust in movies like "Schindler's List," but it was Spielberg's inner teenager who made "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

It was full of edge–of–your–seat adventures from Nepal to Cairo with snakes, spiders, explosions, Nazis — and Karen Allen, who played Ford's sidekick, his best of the series, in my opinion. And it had moments that one remembers years after seeing them — like the iconic scene at the beginning of the movie in which Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) outran the big ball.

That was in the first seven minutes. After that, no one should have had any doubt about what to expect in the next hour and a half. And what followed was most of the stuff that tends to appeal to teenage boys — primarily action and pretty girls.

It was a roller–coaster ride, from one adventure to the next, each one loosely connected to the central theme of the race between the Nazis and the good guys to find the Ark of the Covenant.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about it was that it worked.

I have seen only a few original serial episodes, but that was probably enough to get a good idea what the serials were like, and my impression was that they were, in a word, preposterous.

I suppose they had to be. The plot, as it were, existed solely to get the hero into some kind of predicament so, no matter how unlikely the premise might be, the viewer would accept it — it was the price that had to be paid to see the hero hanging from a cliff by his fingernails or something like that.

(It is much like the strategy my journalism professors encouraged for prodding a reader to read one's story all the way through. Newspaper readers, we were told then, give — on average — less than half an hour to the daily newspaper, and with so many news sources available today I am sure the average is much lower now. Most newspaper readers, our professors told us, skim the headlines and read the first paragraph or two of stories with headlines that intrigue them.

(My professors told us never to reveal everything we knew about a story in the first paragraph — or the second or the third ... Instead, we should give just enough information for the reader to want to be hungry for more and continue to the next paragraph — and the next and the next. Before they knew it, the readers had read the entire story — even if that had not been their original intention. Well, that was how it was supposed to work. And sometimes I guess it did — or does.)

And, too, I suppose that the serials seem more preposterous to me in 2016 than they did to someone in 1946 because moviemaking technology is so much better now with computer–generated graphics and all that stuff that didn't exist during the serials' heyday. It can make even the most preposterous plot seem plausible.

And yet ...

Was it so implausible to think that the Nazis would devote all those resources to locating a biblical artifact that may or may not have existed outside of the pages of the Bible?

After all, it is pretty well known that the Nazis sought supernatural support and justification for their cause — and, according to legend, any army that possessed the Ark was invincible. Could the Nazis have resisted such a concept?

It is beyond doubt that the Nazis actively sought any advantage they could get in World War II. The prophecies of Nostradamus, for example, were used as propaganda tools, and we know the Nazis were in a race with the West to develop a nuclear weapon.

Is it so far–fetched to think they might have been looking for the Ark, just as Spielberg and Lucas suggested?

I guess that is a matter of opinion. But the truth of the story was mostly irrelevant because, as Ebert noted, it was "just plain fun" — whether you were a teenage boy or not.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Overcoming Stage Fright

On this night in 1966, Bewitched aired its final black–and–white episode, "Prodigy."

That was a big deal in 1966. Color television was not nearly as prevalent then as it is today, but there were enough color television sets in homes across the country that many TV series were making the transition from black–and–white production to color production. Bewitched went to color programming when the next season began in the autumn of 1966.

At the time, the networks were known to precede broadcasts with special announcements if the episodes were being shown in color. Such announcements were not necessary for owners of black–and–white TV sets — after all, color programming still appeared black and white on those TVs — but I suppose it alerted owners of color TV sets that their investments were about to pay dividends.

That last episode was also the final appearance of Alice Pearce as the original Gladys Kravitz, the Stephenses' busybody neighbor. Pearce died of ovarian cancer three months before this episode aired, and she was replaced as Gladys by her friend, Sandra Gould, when that first color season began. Gould played Gladys for the remainder of the series' run.

Gould did such a good job that most viewers probably forgot Pearce ever played Gladys, just like most viewers didn't really seem to notice when the original Darrin (Dick York) left the series. (Personally, I never saw the episodes with Pearce until the series was in syndication, and I grew up believing she played a different character altogether. For me, Gould was always Gladys Kravitz.)

I suppose much of that was due to the appeal of the undisputed star of the show, Elizabeth Montgomery.

But while Montgomery was the star of the show, the star of the episode that aired 50 years ago tonight was Pearce, who invited Darrin and Samantha to come over to watch her violinist brother Louis' (Jack Weston) first nationally televised performance, prompting the Stephenses to recall the first time they met Louis.

The Kravitzes considered Darrin and Samantha responsible for Louis' success. He had been regarded as a prodigy when he was a child, but he had been emotionally scarred when, midway through a public performance at the age of 9, his knickers had fallen to the floor. While he still had great talent, he suffered from extreme stage fright and had not performed in public since. He had taken to traveling from one relative to the next and living with each as long as possible.

On the night the Stephenses met Louis, Gladys' husband Abner (George Tobias) dismissed Louis as a freeloader, but Gladys continued to defend him, repeating what was no doubt the family line about how talented Louis was and how he was destined for greatness. Louis seemed to believe it as well and argued with Abner when Abner implied that Louis was the family leech.

Louis was pompous and arrogant, all right, but he definitely possessed a skill that he demonstrated before the astonished Kravitzes and Stephenses. Well, Gladys wasn't astonished. She had known that Louis had talent all along and didn't hesitate to remind Abner of that.

I took piano lessons as a child (regretfully, I haven't kept it up as an adult, mostly due to lack of access to a piano), and the students performed in an end–of–the–year recital every year. As I recall, many of those kids suffered from stage fright, but they were afraid mostly of bad things that might happen, not a repeat of something that had already happened. At least Weston had a real experience he did not wish to repeat.

Samantha was convinced that Louis needed a gig to boost his confidence, and she got one for him — playing at a benefit event. It served its purpose, and Louis was on his way.

It was a pleasant enough episode to wrap up Bewitched's black–and–white era and to end Pearce's career. It wasn't the best episode Bewitched ever aired, but it was entertaining enough — and it helped to introduce viewers to Weston.

He wasn't exactly a newcomer in 1966, but he wasn't a household name, either. I guess his appearance on Bewitched 50 years ago tonight brought renewed attention to him — and opened the door for some of his best performances on TV and the big screen.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Never Underestimate the Obsolete Man

"I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages!"

Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith)

Burgess Meredith made four separate appearances on Twilight Zone. I'm not sure what the record for appearances is, but that must be close. His co–star in the episode that premiered on this night in 1961, Fritz Weaver, only appeared in half as many episodes.

And most people, when they think of Burgess Meredith on the Twilight Zone, remember his portrayal of the bookworm who survived a nuclear blast because he was reading in the bank vault during his lunch break.

Meredith's Twilight Zone characters were usually bookish, nebbishy types — quite a contrast to the rough–around–the–edges boxing trainer he played in the early "Rocky" movies — and the one I liked best was featured in the episode that first aired on this night in 1961, "The Obsolete Man."

In a then–futuristic world that often seems to be emerging before our very eyes today, Meredith played a librarian who had been deemed obsolete and, consequently, had to be terminated. You see, in this futuristic world, there were no more books. (As a writer, I would not want to live in such a world, anyway.) As a result, there was no demand for the services of a librarian.

And anyone who could not justify his existence, anyone who could make no contribution to the success of the state, had to be terminated.

As is the case in any totalitarian society, it had been decided by a central committee what was true and what was not, what was needed and what was not.

It makes sense, doesn't it? In a twisted kind of way that, under certain circumstances, doesn't seem so twisted. Does it seem familiar? It should.

As Rod Serling said in his opening narration, "This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super–states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace."

Upon being found obsolete, Meredith's character was told he would be liquidated within 48 hours. He was allowed to choose the method for his liquidation and the time it was to be carried out.

Meredith's character asked to be assigned "an assassin" to whom he would disclose his chosen method for execution but no one else was to know. That was an unusual request, but it was granted. Meredith also wanted the execution to be carried out in his room at midnight the next day.

He also wanted to die "with an audience." The chancellor (Weaver) readily agreed. Executions, he said, were often televised. They had an educational effect on the viewers.

The next day the chancellor received a request from Meredith. He wanted the chancellor to visit him in his room. It was a request he honored, even though, as he told Meredith, he might well be the target of an act of vengeance from a condemned man. The chancellor had, after all, been partly responsible for the ruling that had condemned Meredith.

The chancellor told Meredith that he had come to prove something — "that the state has no fears, none at all."

Meredith giggled. "You come to my room to prove that the state isn't afraid of me? What an incredible burden I must be, to have to prove that the state isn't afraid of an obsolete librarian like myself."

Then he said he would tell the chancellor the real reason why he came. Although it wasn't stated in so many words, my best guess is the chancellor came out of a sense of curiosity. That would certainly be what Meredith's words implied: "I don't fit your formulae. Somewhere along the line there's been a deviation from the norm. Your state has everything categorized, indexed, tagged. You are the strength. People like me are the weakness. You control and order and dictate, and my kind merely follow and obey. But something's gone wrong, hasn't it? I don't fit, do I?"

The chancellor disagreed. In a few minutes, he told Meredith, he would be begging for mercy "like they all do."

But then Meredith turned the tables on the chancellor.

He explained that the method he had chosen for his execution was to have a bomb go off in his apartment.

He also told the chancellor that he had locked the door — and, consequently, the chancellor would also die when the bomb went off.

Meredith asked him how he would use the time he had left — and said that he would spend the time reading his Bible. As the state had determined that God did not exist, possession of a Bible was an offense punishable by death. That made it the only possession he had that mattered to him at all.

Meredith began to serenely quote from the Psalms, and finally, in the last minutes, the chancellor broke down and pleaded for Meredith to let him go "in the name of God." Under those terms, Meredith said, he would unlock the door — and the chancellor dashed from the apartment only seconds before the bomb went off.

Meredith had been calm and accepting of his fate, but the chancellor had shown cowardice during the broadcast of Meredith's execution and was himself judged to be obsolete.

A welcome reminder, I suppose, that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

What Would Marilyn Be Like at 90?

The question that is posed in my headline is purely hypothetical, of course.

Marilyn Monroe has been dead for more than 50 years. Trying to picture her at the age of 90, which is what she would be today, is just about impossible to do since we have no idea what she would have been like at half that. She died almost nine years before her 45th birthday. We need those images of an aging Marilyn to put things in perspective, but we have been deprived of that. You can't jump from 36 to 90, even in your imagination.

And yet we can't help speculating, can we? Would she be sharp in old age like George Burns and Doris Day? Or would she clearly have one foot in the grave, the way Bob Hope did?

She was truly remarkable in many ways. There were the obvious ones, of course — Marilyn's face and figure, her breathless voice, a way of walking that Jack Lemmon once described on camera as "Jell–o on springs."

That, of course, was in "Some Like It Hot," one of a couple of movies she made for Billy Wilder.

I always felt she was underestimated by many observers — seen only as a dumb blonde bombshell by many but recognized by some as the talented actress that she was. She still has the ability to persuade people. I have seen it happen. Someone who saw Marilyn as only a sex symbol sits down to watch "Bus Stop" or "The Misfits" and is converted.

Few human beings are recognized the world over by a single name — but Marilyn was one of them.

Her continuing popularity, more than half a century after her death, is testimony to her staying power.

She was a trailblazer in many ways.

She was Playboy's first pinup — Miss December of 1953 — although I do not believe the centerfolds were known as Miss Anything at that time. Marilyn's appearance was in the magazine's first issue. I don't know how many people thought there would be a second issue.

There was, of course, and it continues to be published today — and, until recently, with photos that were much more explicit than any of Marilyn's. But there can be little doubt that it survived and thrived due in no small part to Marilyn's contribution.

She had her share of problems when it was revealed that she had posed nude for photos before she became a star.

Such a scandal probably would have ruined many, but Marilyn was kind of like the Donald Trump of her day. She didn't run for president — although rumors persist that she slept with one — but it didn't really seem to matter what was said about her. Her popularity just grew.

It was part of what made her one of Hollywood's most bankable stars.

Unless they are unusually dedicated to staying in shape, sex symbols usually lose their looks, and Marilyn may well have met that fate, too. She died at 36, which is probably near the end of the line for most sex symbols. To make most, if not all, of the next 40 years as successful as her first decade or so, she would have had to evolve. She would have had to take roles that relied less and less upon how she looked and more and more on the way she acted.

Could she have done it? I think she could have. I think she was already doing it.

But we'll never know. All we can do is speculate.