Monday, October 31, 2016

A Hair-Raising Tale



In the episode of Gilligan's Island that first aired 50 years ago tonight, "Hair Today Gone Tomorrow," Gilligan's hair turned white overnight.

I'll grant you, in some cases that can seem like it happened overnight — but it is never like this.

The event was set up by the fact that Gilligan (Bob Denver) was worn out from doing the castaways' laundry, and the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) warned him that doing the laundry would make him old before his time. Gilligan dismissed the Skipper's warning — until he woke up the next morning with white hair.

They went to see the Professor (Russell Johnson) to see if he could tell them why Gilligan's hair had changed color. But he had no idea. He recommended that Gilligan go about his normal routine, which included doing the laundry. The Professor assured him the girls (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise) wouldn't even notice.

But they did — and fainted in his arms.

Then Gilligan overheard the Skipper and the Professor talking about his condition. "He's suffering from follicular albinism," the Professor replied when the Skipper insisted on knowing "the truth." When the Skipper asked for an explanation, the Professor said it meant Gilligan had white hair.

Gilligan didn't hear that part, though. He heard the Professor say that there was a chance Gilligan had a rare tropical disease that was making him age rapidly, and and it had a psychological effect on him. Gilligan began acting like an old man — walking with a cane, sitting in a rocking chair with a shawl wrapped around him (that would be pretty uncomfortable in the South Pacific).

He gathered everyone together to distribute his belongings, calling the Skipper Sonny (the Skipper, in return, called him Pop).

After that, the girls were talking about what to do about Gilligan. How could they convince him that he was still young and virile?

That gave Mary Ann an idea. What is it that makes a man feel young? she wondered. The answer was obvious. Love.

So she went to see Gilligan, acting as if she was in love with him.

But she couldn't persuade him that he was still in the springtime of his life.

Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer) had an idea that she shared with the Skipper and the Professor. Many women dye their hair when they reach a certain age, she observed, and that makes them feel younger. So the Professor made a hair dye from berries on the island, then he, the Skipper and Mrs. Howell proceeded to apply the dye to Gilligan's hair while he was asleep.

The next morning, Gilligan discovered that he had lost his hair overnight, and he departed to live out the rest of his life on the other side of the island. The Professor thought there had been something in the dye that had caused Gilligan to lose his hair, but he couldn't figure what it was.

The Skipper took over Gilligan's laundry duties. Not long thereafter, he awoke one day to find that his hair had fallen out, too. So he left for the other side of the island.

The rest of the castaways tried to lure them back. The Professor came with wigs he had been given by the Howells. The wigs had been custom made for Halloween costumes, he told the Skipper and Gilligan. The Howells had gone to a Halloween party dressed as George and Martha Washington.

(I have often wondered why the Howells — and the girls, too, for that matter — brought so many possessions with them on a three–hour cruise. After all, no one knew — I presume — that they would be stranded on a desert island. The four of them had many changes of clothes whereas the Skipper, the Professor and Gilligan always wore the same clothes.)

Wearing the wigs, Gilligan and the Skipper tried to ease their way back into the castaways' circle, joining them for dinner — during which it was discovered that the homemade bleach that was used on the laundry had burned holes in Mr. Howell's (Jim Backus) trousers, and the Professor concluded that the bleach had caused the problems with Gilligan's hair and then the Skipper's hair after he took over the laundry.

Nature would soon restore what Gilligan's bleach had taken away, the Professor assured them.

In the meantime, though, they had to put up with some rather unpleasant side effects.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

They Say Every Vote Counts



"Salvatore, Feldman, O'Reilly, Nelson. That's an Italian, a Jew, an Irishman and a regular American there. What I call a balanced ticket."

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

As we approach the finish line for Election 2016, it is appropriate to observe the 45th anniversary of the All in the Family episode "The Election Story," that first aired on this night in 1971.

The episode was about a local election, and, as it is in this year's presidential election, one of the candidates was a woman. Mike (Rob Reiner) was supporting her and Archie (Carroll O'Connor) was opposed, setting up inevitable fireworks.

The big story in those days was the fact that the voting age had been lowered from 21 to 18 with the approval of the 26th Amendment earlier that year. Now an election in an odd–numbered year like 1971 would be considered an off–year election, and they certainly are rare, but some places do have them — and they have them in New York. In fact, a mayoral election was being held the day of the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in 2001.

Did they have off–year elections in New York in 1971? I don't know, but in order to use the lower voting age angle in an episode, it was necessary to have one in the plot, whether one was scheduled or not.

And I guess the temptation to use it as a plot angle in an episode of All in the Family was simply too great.
If you think this year's campaign has had sexist overtones, go back and watch this episode of All in the Family. Sexism was much more blatant in the '70s than it is today. By comparison sexism is more of an implied — rather than overt — thing today.

When Archie learned that the candidate (played by actress Barbara Cason, who appeared in two other All in the Family episodes) Mike and Gloria were supporting was going to come by, he said he wanted her to "turn around on her broomstick and fly the hell out of here." Imagine, if you will, the reaction such a remark would receive today, whether in a TV show or on the stump.

When she arrived, Archie called her the "queen of the liberals."

Near the end of their conversation, Archie told the candidate that instead of running for office she should be running for a husband "because from where I sit you've got some running to do."

Now Archie was never what could be called politically correct — but many of the things he said in the '70s simply would not make it on the air today — even though many of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" have become almost commonplace on television.

Resolve that one if you can.

Archie remarked that "Women and politics is like oil and gasoline. They don't mix." That would be a pretty volatile comment today.

Times certainly have changed. Women had been allowed to vote for half a century when this episode was made, but women running for office was still somewhat rare. Women being elected to office was rarer still.

In those days presumptive presidential nominees would dangle the names of women as possible running mates strictly to draw the attention of female voters. It was window dressing, nothing more. It wasn't until Walter Mondale in 1984 that a woman was actually nominated to run for vice president.

And it wasn't until this year, 45 years after All in the Family's "The Election Story," that a major political party nominated a woman for president.

The idea of a female nominee for president was likely little more than a fantasy in 1971. Only about a dozen or so women probably held seats in Congress at the time — and Congress seemed to produce most of the plausible candidates for president in those days.

Of course, a person's gender does not automatically make that person a good choice for public office. There are other factors that must be considered. Sometimes the female candidate is the better choice; sometimes the male candidate is the better choice. And sometimes the race is between two female candidates, just as for decades most campaigns featured two male candidates, which renders the whole subject of gender politics null and void — at least as far as that race is concerned.

As I say Congress tended to produce the front–runners for presidential nominations in the 1960s and 1970s. State governors have become more popular choices for the presidency in the last 40 years (even though no sitting governor has been nominated for president since George W. Bush in 2000). There were no female governors in 1971; there are six today.

So, yes, American politics has changed considerably since 1971 — even though there are those who continue to wage a battle against sexism, whether real or perceived.

One thing that hasn't changed is human nature. In this episode, it turned out that Archie wasn't planning to vote. Gloria (Sally Struthers) confirmed that for her astonished husband.

Archie insisted that he saved his vote for "the biggies""I don't waste it on these little meatball elections around here," he told Mike and Gloria.

He claimed that he "cherished" his vote — but most of the people I have known who would not exercise their right to vote were just plain apathetic. Not voting was not an act of patriotism for them. It was an act generally born of selfishness.

Apathy is a real problem in American politics, but it is a part of human nature — an unattractive part, to be sure, but a part nonetheless. And, to an extent, it is understandable. If polls suggest that a candidate is headed for a big victory, some voters may be discouraged from voting, figuring they can put the time to better use. People are so pressed for time these days.

Early voting has all but eliminated that concern in two–thirds of the states in the 21st century. It was not an option in 1971. Apathy needs a different excuse.

Anyway ...

Few things chase away apathy better than a desire to defeat a candidate, and Archie was filled with that desire after he met the candidate. So he and Edith (Jean Stapleton) headed off for the polls on Election Day — only to be told by Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), who was working the polls, that his name wasn't on the list of registered voters.

Archie couldn't believe it. He had lived in that neighborhood his whole life. In fact, he told Louise, he voted for Nixon for president. Louise said he must still be on the list because Nixon had been elected just three years earlier.

Then Edith interjected. The election that Nixon won was in 1968. Archie didn't vote in that election. He voted for Nixon against John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Louise was astonished that Archie hadn't voted in 11 years. Archie insisted he'd been busy. "Something was always coming up," Edith said. "One time he had a bad toe spasm."

Archie was not permitted to vote. He had been inactive too long, but he tried to talk Edith into voting his way since he couldn't vote. Whether she would or not was left undetermined when she went into the polling booth.

Later, when Mike and Gloria tried to get Archie to switch the TV channel to election coverage, he tried to discourage them by telling them their candidate couldn't win. Mike said turnout had been heavy. "She might squeak through," he told Archie.

"Yeah, how would you feel if Claire won by only one vote?" Gloria asked.

"Or two," Edith piped up.

And everyone knew how she had voted.

I guess the moral of the story was that there are some things that are too important to be left to someone else. Voting is one of them.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Slice of American Pie



The title song from Don McLean's "American Pie," which hit the music stores on this day in 1971, is the song that everyone remembers from that album.

But my first exposure to the album was through my mother, who actually bought it because she liked the song "Vincent." I'm not even sure Mom had heard "American Pie" before she bought the album.

I know she didn't know the title of the song she liked. She thought the title was "Starry Starry Night" which was the opening line of the song — and a variation of the name of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh that she liked ("The Starry Night").

I wasn't with her when she bought the album, and I have often wondered how she managed to make the sales clerk understand which album she wanted — since she didn't know the name of the album or the correct name of the song she liked. I suppose she must have told the clerk that the first line was "Starry starry night," and the clerk must have been familiar with more than simply the title track. "Vincent" had been released as a single before Mom bought the album, and it fared pretty well — not quite as well as "American Pie" but pretty well, rising to #12 on the charts.

If that wasn't how her purchase unfolded, then Mom must have required the assistance of more than one clerk to locate the album she wanted.

I had heard the single "American Pie" — many times — before Mom bought the album. It was released as a single in November 1971, became a fixture on the radio, soared to #1 in 1972 and has been inspiring discussions about the meanings of its lyrics for decades. When it was reissued 20 years later it reached #12.

Most people have nothing but praise for it. The Recording Industry Association of America ranked it fifth on its list of the songs of the century. The only ones ahead of it were Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow," Bing Crosby crooning "White Christmas," Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land," and Aretha Franklin belting out "Respect." That's pretty exclusive company.

While many people have discussed the song at length and sought to decipher all the clues in the lyrics, McLean has said little about it. "Sorry to leave you all on your own like this, but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence," he said. Fair enough.

Even though that song shares the name of the album, the song that comes to my mind first when I think of the album is "Vincent," inspired by the life and work of Van Gogh.

People have been praising the poetry of "American Pie" for many years, but the poetry of "Vincent" is easily its equal.

And while no other songs from the album were released as singles, any or all of them could have been.

"American Pie" was McLean's second album — and the peak of his career. That's pretty heady stuff for a man in his mid–20s.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

From Beyond Maps



"Trees lie where they fall, and men were buried where they died."

Narrator (Howard Keel)

If you like horses, you'll probably like "Across the Wide Missouri," which premiered on this day in 1951. It had a lot of horses.

Does that sound flippant? It isn't intentional. Fact is, I do like horses — and I liked "Across the Wide Missouri," too, but not simply because it had horses.

To be honest, though, there really wasn't much of a plot — at least by the standards of the times. When you sit down to watch a western from the '40s or '50s, you expect a movie that has obviously good guys (usually the cowboys or the soldiers) and definitely bad guys (typically the Indians although sometimes they were outlaws). The idea that the cowboys/soldiers might be the bad guys and the Indians/outlaws might be the good guys was seldom if ever explored in the movies — at least until comparatively recently.

And "Across the Wide Missouri" wasn't necessarily a radical departure from that norm. It simply seemed to take a more neutral position than most of the movies I have seen from that time. It made few judgments about who was right and who was wrong although it often spoke of issues that would provoke intense debates today. It simply told a story — in much the same way that a textbook would. You know ... This happened and then this happened and then this happened.

No in–depth exploration of cause and effect. All very matter of fact.

I'm not suggesting it lacked a story, but "matter of fact" is an apt description. The movie was based on an historian's book about actual fur traders and their experiences with the Indians. Clark Gable played the central character, a fur trapper, and he was surrounded by some well–known people — James Whitmore, Howard Keel (who did the off–screen narration), Ricardo Montalban — and some who were not so well known.

Like 24–year–old Mexican actress–singer María Elena Marqués, who portrayed the adopted daughter of an Indian chief. She had been in Mexican movies for nearly 10 years, but "Across the Wide Missouri" was one of her few Hollywood movies so she couldn't have been too familiar to American audiences. She was Gable's love interest.

Gable actually came to love her in time, but the marriage began as one of convenience. It basically allowed Gable's character to trap at will in Indian territory. It also saved him from being scalped.

His wife gave birth to a son then was killed by a warring Indian tribe. And for awhile, after Marqués' character was killed, it was uncertain whether Gable would care for his son or not. That wouldn't be a politically correct angle in the 21st century, but nearly 200 years ago it was apparently acceptable for a man to abandon his children if he lost his wife.

Well, perhaps not acceptable, but in those days it may have been considered a legitimate option for a man whose work kept him away from his home for much of the year.

It is important to keep such things in context. The movie was set about 30 years before the start of the Civil War. Many of the modern states west of the Missouri River were nothing more than unsettled territories, if that.

It's safe to say the rules were different in those days — starting with the fact that there were no rules in many places. In fact, there were few boundaries. A man lived by his wits and seizing the day.

In my favorite line from the movie, at a gathering of trappers, one was asked where they all came from. He replied, "They come from beyond maps."

I thought "Across the Wide Missouri" was probably a more realistic depiction of the times and the people than most movies of its genre — precisely because it kept that in mind.

And then there were the horses.

A Taste of Money



Karma, they say, is a bitch.

On this day in 1961, the city council of the fictional TV village of Mayberry held a meeting in the episode "Mayberry Goes Bankrupt" of the Andy Griffith Show.

Mayberry, as everyone should know, was a very small town, so small that its entire city council could meet in the mayor's office.

And it did. I suppose that is where the council always met. Viewers wouldn't know that because the city council meetings were seldom seen on the Andy Griffith Show. Having been a reporter and having covered my share of city council meetings, I can understand why. No one in his/her right mind would deliberately watch a city council meeting on TV. With rare exceptions, small–town city councils tend to discuss things like stoplights and sidewalks and zoning ordinances. The agenda is distributed a day or two before the meeting, and usually the only people who attend are those who are directly affected by something. Once their matter has been addressed, they leave.

You would think that such a modest group wouldn't get too carried away with itself. But in the episode that aired 55 years ago tonight, Mayberry's city council did.

When the show began, Andy was protesting a decision the council had just made to evict an elderly citizen (Frank, played by Andy Clyde) because he was behind on his property taxes. I always suspected that the real reason why the council was in such a hurry to evict him was because the councilmen had concluded informally that the house was an eyesore. When the old man was evicted, they could tear the house down and start over again.

As sheriff, it was Andy's job to serve the eviction notice.

"This is one part of sheriffin' I can do without," Andy said as he left the meeting.

The councilmen were right, though. The house was a mess with all kinds of clutter in the yard and chickens running loose, and the house itself was old and run down. The screens on the windows were torn, and the house needed a paint job. The old one was peeling in many places. Some of the boards needed to be replaced, too.

Andy felt bad about having to serve the notice. But Frank told him that he was glad Andy had been the one to do it. "It made it easier," he told Andy.

That evening, as Andy and Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and Opie (Ron Howard) sat on the porch and Andy played his guitar, they spoke about Frank and what a shame it was that he was being evicted.

Opie wanted to know what the word evicted meant. Andy tried to explain that Frank was losing his home because he was behind on his taxes.

Opie said that because Andy was serving the eviction notice, it seemed only fair that Andy should provide Frank with a place to stay. Andy and Aunt Bee tried to object, but they could never get around Opie's logic. It was decided that Frank would be invited to stay with them.

And he must have accepted because the next thing the viewers saw was Frank arriving at the house with Andy with his belongings in tow.

One of his belongings was his strongbox, in which he kept his "valuables" — like a medallion from the 1906 World's Fair and a slotted spoon with the Milwaukee skyline carved in it.

And a $100 bond issued by the town of Mayberry in 1861.

The bond had no expiration date. It only said it was redeemable at 8½% interest compounded annually.

After a conversation with the folks at the bank, Andy called a special meeting of the city council. At first the mayor and the councilmen insisted they were too busy to deal with Frank again, but they soon learned that they would have no choice. Frank's bond was worth nearly $350,000.

As the councilmen oohed and ahhed over a document that was a century old and worth more than a quarter of a million dollars, Frank remarked, "I'll take it in cash."

The fly in the ointment, though, was that Mayberry didn't have the money to pay Frank. Andy was recruited to offer Frank a settlement. He agreed to try, then, as he was leaving, he observed, "Just a few days ago we was ready to give Frank the boot. Now, for all we know, he may be giving the town 24 hours to get out."

Andy came up with a compromise that seemed to please everyone. The members of the council fixed up Frank's house — gave it a fresh paint job, did some repairs to the exterior, made it a showplace (Andy's word) that was sure to attract out–of–towners. And the banker worked out financial arrangements with Frank to get his taxes up to date. All this would be a settlement in lieu of paying off the bond.

Yep, everything seemed to be going just fine — until the councilmen realized the bond was bought when Mayberry was part of the Confederacy — which meant it had been bought with Confederate money — which meant it could only be paid back in Confederate money — and, since the Confederacy no longer existed, that meant the bond was worthless.

Once again, the councilmen were ready to evict Frank from his home — until Andy urged them to consider it a good deed for a citizen in need and let it go at that.

That was pretty good reasoning — and by agreeing to it, the council members might have spared themselves another visit from karma instead of a couple in a convertible who mistakenly thought they were in some place called Elm City.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Deconstructive Criticism



Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Oh my God. It is T.H. Houghton. We're a stone's throw away from one of the giants of American literature.

Roz (Peri Gilpin): Not the way you throw.

I guess the character of reclusive writer T.H. Houghton (played by Robert Prosky) in the episode of Frasier that aired on this night in 1996 was kind of a cross between J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee. Like Lee (at the time), Houghton had published only one book — albeit an influential one that was a pillar of English lit classes everywhere — but Lee wasn't the recluse that Salinger was. Houghton combined the quirkiest of both.

Anyway, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) had stopped at the cafe for some coffee before taking their father (John Mahoney) to buy new clothes. While sipping coffee outdoors, they spotted T.H. Houghton nearby.

And they began trying to meet him.

Their father, however, was the one who succeeded in getting to know the reclusive writer — without really trying. Frasier and Niles left him at a sports bar to watch the Mariners ("He's just dead weight," Niles told Frasier before they ran off on their quest), and it turned out Houghton was there, too. The boys didn't see him — he was probably in the bathroom because he walked into the room a minute or two after they left, sat down next to Martin and began watching the game with him.

They hit it off, talking about old TV shows and swapping war stories after the baseball game ended.

Meanwhile, after their fruitless search came to an end, Frasier and Niles returned to the sports bar — only to find their father sitting at a table with T.H. Houghton. But the writer didn't stay long; in fact, he left the bar as they were coming in, and the boys were left to wonder anew how they could finagle a meeting with him.

Later, after Niles and Frasier had been to an art exhibit, they returned to Frasier's apartment and crossed paths with their father and Houghton on their way out for dinner. Houghton had been there all afternoon. Another near miss.

Perhaps they could all spend some time together after the two returned from dinner, Niles suggested hopefully.

"I doubt it," Frasier replied. "They'll probably run into J.D. Salinger and Salman Rushdie and go out for margaritas."

The next day, Houghton was set to pick up Martin so they could go to a Mariners doubleheader. As Martin explained to the boys, Houghton was only in town for a few days to drop off his new book with his publisher.

Niles and Frasier nearly had strokes. A new Houghton book! In hindsight, their reaction reminds me a great deal of the reaction to Harper Lee's new book a year ago.

They didn't get to spend time with Houghton, but he went off without his satchel, which contained his manuscript, and Niles and Frasier took it out and read it while Houghton and their father were at the doubleheader.

But they didn't manage to return the manuscript to the satchel before being caught red–handed.

At first, Houghton was indignant about the invasion of his privacy. But soon curiosity got the best of him and he asked Niles and Frasier for their opinions. "Somebody had to read it first," he observed.

What happened next surprised everyone.

Niles and Frasier mentioned the similarities between Houghton's book and Dante's "Divine Comedy."

Houghton concluded that he had lifted the entire structure from Dante, and he interpreted that to mean that he nothing original left to say. "I was a fool to think I had a second book in me," he said before throwing the manuscript off Frasier's balcony.

Then he thanked Niles and Frasier and told them that if the book had been published, his reputation would have been destroyed. This way, he was left with a shred of dignity, and he marched with head held high — and a sheet from the manuscript stuck to the bottom of one of his shoes — out of the apartment.

I always liked this episode because, as a writer, I know that writing is not the kind of occupation for someone who is thin–skinned. Writers will always encounter criticism, no matter how good they are. They have to accept it as a fact of the life they have chosen. In a way, I guess, it is like being a politician. Even our greatest presidents had their critics.

In this episode, the shoe was kind of on the other foot. Frasier was a thin–skinned sort, too. In an episode in the previous season, he got all bent out of shape because one member of a 12–person focus group didn't like him. This time someone else was dealing with negative thoughts.

Well, that's life. No matter how funny or smart or good–looking you are, there will always be those who don't like you or what you do — or something. Always.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

You Say You Want a Revolution?



"This is the story of all tyrants, General. They have but one real enemy, and this is the one they never recognize until too late."

Priest (Vladimir Sokoloff)

There is one great truth in the world — and that is that human behavior is almost always predictable.

Because we are all imperfect — and we are imperfect in decidedly imperfect ways. We are all susceptible to language and actions that are crude and selfish and incendiary, the worst reflections of our true selves, just as we are all capable of noble self–sacrifice.

And we can all be carried away by forces we don't really understand — or sufficiently respect.

It's easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. When revolution is in the air, it can be intoxicating, especially for young people who frequently lack the perspective of history that tells us that revolution can be a good thing — or a bad thing. And for many people the relatively rapid acquisition of success is more than they can handle.

In the case of revolution — and the episode of the Twilight Zone that aired on this night in 1961, "The Mirror" — it is advisable to remember the old adage: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The episode chronicled the immediate aftermath of a Central American revolution that was successful in toppling the old regime. Its leader was played by Peter Falk, whose character would have been instantly recognizable to audiences 55 years ago as being modeled after Cuba's Fidel Castro. He's been out of the public eye so much and for so long now that I suspect many modern observers would not make that connection.

But that was clearly the inspiration for Falk's character.

At first, upon being swept into power by the revolution, he was all fired up to execute the tyrant he had replaced, advocating a slow death in retribution for all the times he had hurt the people in any way.

The tyrant was gracious, though. He told Falk that he was giving him a mirror that adorned the wall. The person who had given it to him, the tyrant said, told him he could see his assassins in the reflection.

And from that point on, Falk began to see reflections of his friends trying to stab or shoot or poison him. He killed them all — or had others do it for him.

A wise old priest visited him to complain about the round–the–clock executions. Falk protested that he had enemies, and he would continue with the executions as long as he had enemies.

The priest observed that Falk's triumph was not so sweet after all. It had the taste of ashes, not the taste of wine.

Then he observed that it was the story of all tyrants. "They have but one real enemy, and this is the one they never recognize until too late."

The priest left the room; a couple of minutes later he heard the smashing of glass as Falk threw an object at the mirror, then there was the sound of a gunshot as Falk ended his own life.

The priest rushed in, saw Falk's body on the floor and muttered, "The last assassin. They never seem to learn."

A cautionary tale for would–be tyrants.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Beginning of a Beautiful Partnership



Professor Winterhalter (Sig Ruman): All these newfangled machines. Fake! It proves nothing. In the old days, we used to do these things better. The man says he's paralyzed, we simply throw him in the snake pit. If he climbs out, then we know he's lying.

Specialist (Bartlett Robinson): And if he doesn't climb out?

Professor Winterhalter: Then we have lost a patient, but we have found an honest man.

I'm really fond of the Walter Matthau–Jack Lemmon movie partnership, and today is a milestone anniversary for that partnership. It began — officially — 50 years ago today when Billy Wilder's "The Fortune Cookie" premiered in New York City.

It actually began, of course, whenever the movie was being shot, but as far as the movie–going public was concerned, it began 50 years ago today.

Lemmon played a TV cameraman in Cleveland who was doing sideline work at a Cleveland Browns game on a frigid Sunday afternoon. One of the Browns (played by Ron Rich) ran out of bounds and collided with Lemmon, knocking him backwards over a rolled–up tarpaulin in full view of the folks at the game and watching on TV.

He was taken to the hospital, where his injuries were minor, but his conniving brother–in–law, an ambulance–chasing lawyer known as "Whiplash Willie" played by Matthau, cooked up a scheme to sue for big money.

Apparently Lemmon's character had suffered a compressed vertebra when he was a child, and Matthau observed that a new back injury was indistinguishable from an old one in X–rays. Matthau's plan was for Lemmon to fake paralysis to win the suit, then make a gradual recovery. Lemmon was resistant — until Matthau implied that it would be a good way to win back Lemmon's ex–wife, Sandy (Judi West) who had run out on him.

Matthau knew Lemmon was still carrying that torch. "You could carry it to Mexico City (site of the next Summer Olympics)," Matthau told him. And he was right. Lemmon's ex–wife was his Achilles' heel, and Matthau used it repeatedly to keep his brother–in–law in line and his plan from imploding.

Now, it imploded, anyway, and the discovery of how it imploded is the kind of movie experience that every viewer should have first hand. I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

But I will tell you that some of the funniest moments in the history of Matthau–Lemmon movies — and they weren't all comedies, but most of them were — occurred in "The Fortune Cookie."

Whiplash Willie must be one of the funniest characters ever to appear in one of Billy Wilder's movies — and that is certainly saying something. As one of the lawyers in the defendants' cadre of counselors described him, Willie was "so full of twists he starts to describe a doughnut, and it comes out a pretzel."

The defendants' lawyers wanted Lemmon to be examined by a team of specialists; all but one concluded the paralysis was genuine. With no medical evidence to contradict the claim, the lawyers hired a private detective (Cliff Osmond) to put Lemmon's apartment under surveillance in hopes of catching him doing something he couldn't possibly do if the paralysis story was true.

Matthau knew about this and warned Lemmon to be careful. That wasn't so hard until the ex–wife returned to look after him. Matthau told Lemmon to avoid any kind of hanky panky, which was a lot easier said than done.

Lemmon's conscience was bothering him. The player who had collided with him on the sideline was so ridden with guilt that it was ruining other aspects of his life. He performed poorly in a game and got into a fight in a bar. Lemmon battled with his inclination to give up the lawsuit and let the guy off the hook. At the very least, he wanted his brother–in–law to represent the player in court, but Matthau was too busy negotiating a settlement with the defendants in Lemmon's lawsuit.

Then Lemmon learned that the only reason his ex–wife was there was because she wanted a share of the money from the suit to put on a show at a prestigious club and give her singing career a boost.

And the jig was up.

Perhaps I have said too much already. But the ending alone was worth the price of admission.

Matthau won Best Supporting Actor for his performance. Wilder wasn't nominated for Best Director, but he shared a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond, a frequent collaborator.

There are all sorts of lists of movies that people should see before they die. I would put "The Fortune Cookie" on mine.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Friends and Enemies



Gilligan (Bob Denver): "He treated me like a father."

Mary Ann (Dawn Wells): "He was like a father to me."

Ginger (Tina Louise): "He was like a father to me."

Mrs. Howell (Natalie Schafer): "He was like a husband to me!"

There is an old Chinese proverb that goes like this: "He who is suspicious of his friends has a tiger by the tail."

Perhaps a more modern interpretation would be Michael Corleone's observation (which may originally have been a quote from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu although there is considerable difference of opinion on that) in "The Godfather Part II:" "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

Anyway ...

There may be some pretty good reasons not to tell someone if he or she will inherit anything from you after you die.

The positive side, of course, is that you receive accolades for your generosity. On the flip side, though, one or more of your beneficiaries may decide it is preferable not to have to wait for tangible proof of it.

At least that seems to have been the point of the episode of Gilligan's Island that aired on this night in 1966 — "Where There's a Will."

Mr. Howell (Jim Backus) — who was, of course, the millionaire mentioned in the show's theme song — came down with a minor malady, and all the castaways came by his hut to give him their best wishes. Touched by their concern, he resolved to remember them in his will.

It was early in this episode, in fact, that viewers saw how truly versatile the Professor (Russell Johnson) could be. He examined and diagnosed Mr. Howell with a stethoscope he made from vines and other material found on the island, and he used a thermometer that he made from the Minnow's barometer. Very clever — but he could never figure out how to patch the hole in the side of the Minnow so they could sail home.

Then, in truly Howellian fashion, Mr. Howell made a big production of announcing his decision, gathering the castaways together to tell them of the revisions to his will and giving a personal copy of the will to each. He could have gone to each one separately and confided his decision. But his ego would have none of it. Like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Wag the Dog," he craved credit for what he had done.

Not long after that, the Howells were walking in the jungle when things began happening — like an arrow barely missing him.

Then he overheard them talking about killing "the old boar."

He assumed they were talking about him; in fact, they were talking about killing a wild boar on the island to make a spare ribs dinner for a party in Mr. Howell's honor.

(An observation here: The island was too small to be on any maps or charts, which was the reason why the castaways were never rescued — at least not during the original three–year run of the series. But it was apparently big enough that the castaways and a wild boar could coexist on the island — and the wild boar was never seen, never even a topic of conversation, until this night in 1966.)

But Mr. Howell had left, presumably to live out the rest of his life in seclusion. He staged his death in quicksand, then hid and watched what happened from a distance.

It wasn't at all what he expected.

The castaways weren't glad he was gone. They held a funeral for him with the only thing of Mr. Howell's they had — the pith helmet he had been wearing when he left his hut and had been found on the quicksand. Before they started the service, the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) asked Gilligan if the grave was the right size. "It should be," Gilligan replied. "It's 6⅞."

(That was a joke I didn't get as a child. I think it's funny now.)

The castaways were genuinely grief–stricken, and each vowed not to accept his/her inheritance.

Touched once again by their love for him, Mr. Howell, who had been watching from a nearby tree, tumbled from the branches, revealing his whereabouts.

It's still probably a good idea not to tell most people that you are remembering them in your will.

Just to be on the safe side.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Remembering When Mike Met Archie



"Edith, I'm always nice. Go let the jerk in."

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Like most sitcoms — well, most TV programs, regardless of genre — All in the Family seemed to run out of gas near the end of its run.

But on this day in 1971, it was still a new program, a social phenomenon. Developer Norman Lear had tapped into something new. Sitcoms weren't going to be just silly anymore — at least not for awhile. There would be a purpose behind the humor.

In the case of All in the Family, it was an opportunity to examine the warts of American society through a humorous lens. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and his son–in–law Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) represented the extremes of the political and social spectrums of the day, and their arguments followed the logic of both sides, thereby shining a spotlight on the weaknesses — as well as the strengths — of both.

It really was fair and balanced. Lear is politically progressive, but his stories often lent credence to positions he did not hold.

All in the Family aired some of its best episodes in the 1971–72 season. In the episode that aired 45 years ago tonight, "Flashback: Mike Meets Archie," the audience got the chance to see how Mike and Archie met through a TV flashback. The Bunkers and Stivics were observing Mike and Gloria's first anniversary as a married couple — "It's like celebrating the 365th day of a toothache," Archie said. He compared it to other events like Pearl Harbor and the crash of the Hindenburg.

Mike was bringing home Chinese takeout food for dinner.

But Archie refused to eat with chopsticks as Mike and Gloria had requested so Edith (Jean Stapleton) went to the kitchen to get a fork for Archie. While she was gone, Mike and Archie got into one of their typical arguments over Archie's language. Archie, you see, used the slang word Chink instead of Chinese. Mike said Archie was "putting away" people with roots in Asia, a region that was not confined to China. Archue was pigeonholing people with roots in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Mike said.

Archie protested that he never called those people Chinks. Edith, who had returned to the room, observed in her truthful way, "No. He calls them Gooks."

Such a program almost certainly wouldn't last today. Few people at the time thought it would last. But it did, and it made a huge difference in the way Americans spoke about each other and looked at each other.

I've always felt that it survived largely because it pointed out failings without making it personal, without putting people on the defensive. If they recognized themselves or others in the stories, that was OK, but the point of the humor was not to make anyone feel foolish. It was to make people see the foolishness in some attitudes, not in some people.

Anyway, the episode that aired 45 years ago tonight answered a lot of unasked questions about Archie's relationship with Mike.

It was the first time Archie called Mike a meathead — and a Polack. Viewers were used to both, but they didn't know how or why Archie started calling Mike those words — until this night in 1971.

And Mike left the house while Archie was reciting, then singing "God Bless America."

But I guess the moral of the story was that love will find a way. Mike went to a pay phone and kept calling the house. Archie answered each time and said it was a wrong number. Gloria tried to intercept one of the calls, but when she finally did so, it turned out the call was for Archie.

A discouraged Gloria sought comfort from her mother. "How could everything go so wrong?" Gloria asked through her tears.

"Easy," Edith replied, adding, "but life goes in circles, and when things get wrong enough, then they start getting right again."

Gloria said she didn't believe that. Edith said she was still basting the duck because if she was right, Mike would be back. And about that time the doorbell rang.

It was Mike, of course.

And he had dinner with the Bunkers — and, of course, Mike and Gloria eventually got married.

And viewers gained some insight into Mike's relationship with Archie.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

To Dream the Impossible Dream



Niles (David Hyde Pierce): I hardly need to tell you how the story ends.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Just tell me when the story ends.

As I wrote a few weeks ago about the episode that kicked off the ninth season of Frasier, I have felt for a long time that the show really didn't utilize the opportunities that having a psychiatrist as the central character presented.

I'm not saying Frasier never used psychiatry as an element of its stories — it was usually present but in more of a supporting role. The series seldom tried to get inside Frasier's head.

It did 20 years ago tonight in "The Impossible Dream," when Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had a recurring dream in which he and a co–worker, KACL food critic Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert), were sharing a seedy motel room bed. In the dream, Frasier awoke in a room with a crescent moon lamp on the bedside table, a tequila bottle and a tattoo on his arm with the single word "Chesty." He heard a shower running, then the water stopped. The first time this happened, Gil emerged from the bathroom. The second time it was a well–endowed young woman who came into the room, smiled and apologized, saying, "Wrong room" — after which Gil appeared on screen and told Frasier they were going to a different motel.

Frasier, of course, was a devout heterosexual, but these dreams had him wondering if perhaps his subconscious was trying to tell him something about his sexuality. Well, it built up to that.

Most psychiatrists believe that, once a recurring dream has been correctly interpreted and its meaning has been brought to the surface, the dream will no longer occur. It will have served its purpose. So Frasier and his brother (David Hyde Pierce) went on a tortured journey to interpret its meaning.

First, Frasier concluded, through a kind of free association, that his subconscious was telling him that he had been too rigid about his diet. But that turned out to be wrong. Then he and his brother concluded that it must have something to do with their late mother, but that wasn't right, either.

All the while this was going on, Frasier was trying to deal with an extended dry spell in which he had been getting no callers who truly challenged him.
"In this dream of yours, were there any cigars, bananas or short blunt swords?"

Niles

It was a late–night conversation with his father (John Mahoney) that persuaded Frasier that his dreams were a subconscious effort to flex his analytical muscles while waiting for the challenging calls to return.

Frasier thought he had resolved the problem — until he went to bed that night and a form of the dream returned — only this time there was no tattoo on his arm and no tequila bottle in the room.

In the dream there was a knock on the door. A bewildered Frasier said, "Come in," and in walked Dr. Sigmund Freud, who complimented Frasier.

"I gave you a complex psychological problem," he said, "and you solved it."

A flattered Frasier said there were so many questions he wanted to ask. Freud said there would be time for that later, that there were more important things to be done first. And with that he squirted his mouth with breath freshener and hopped into the bed with Frasier.

The impossible dream still had not been solved.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

'Big City' Wasn't Your Garden-Variety Country Album



I'm not a country music fan, but there are some country singers I like, and Merle Haggard is at the top of my list.

I have assembled a pretty good (but hardly comprehensive) collection of Haggard's albums and, in the digital age, I have been able to combine most of my favorite Haggard tracks on a single CD so when I am about to drive somewhere and I have a hankering for Haggard's music, I can just take that CD with me.

I can be sure that I like every song on it.

But if I do have to listen to an actual album, "Big City," which arrived in music stores 35 years ago this month, is OK by me. I like every song on that one, too.

Two of the songs on "Big City" went to No. 1 — the title track, "Big City," and "My Favorite Memory."

"Big City" was Haggard's 27th No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart. It was released as a single in January 1982 and was inspired by Dean Holloway, a longtime friend and driver of Haggard's tour bus. The story goes that, after a marathon recording session in Los Angeles, Haggard went to the bus and asked Holloway how he was doing. Holloway replied, "I'm tired of this dirty old city."

And a song was born.

Actually, I guess, the concept of an album was born.

Lifelong country music fans probably have a different take on this than I have, but traditional country music — it always seemed to me, anyway, when I was growing up and heard it playing on radios in the hardware store, the doughnut shop and the barber shop around my hometown in Arkansas — really was about country. Country life. Country people. Country values.

"Big City" was the first country album in my memory that was more about the state of mind than the physical location — in fact, when I was growing up, the where in a country song was nearly always a small rural town or a lonely stretch of highway, seldom a big city — and the title track of "Big City" captured the yearning of an urban blue–collar worker for the freedom of wide open spaces.

Returning to the story of how the title track was inspired, Haggard clearly was refining the inspiration in his mind during his conversation with Holloway (something with which I am familiar from my days as a reporter — I often found myself composing the article in my head while I was finishing an interview for it) when, apparently sensing that the urban–dwelling narrator of the lyrics needed to identify where he would rather be, Haggard asked Holloway that question, and Holloway replied, "Somewhere in the middle of damn Montana."

And a chorus was born.

Haggard wrote the song, but he gave Holloway partial credit; the royalties wound up being worth about half a million dollars to Holloway.

"My Favorite Memory" is the kind of country song that I remember hearing when I was a child. I couldn't have heard that song when I was a child, but I heard songs like it.

I can't say it evokes specific memories, mostly general ones of lying on a rug in the dining room or the kitchen, reveling in the warmth of the room on a chilly winter's day and hearing songs like it playing on the radio. It was a country love song, not the kind of song that speaks of drinkin' and cheatin' and carousin' but of caring and commitment.

"I guess everything does change except what you choose to recall," Haggard sang in one of my favorite lyrics on the album. "There's a million good daydreams to dream on, but, baby, you're my favorite memory of all."

Thom Jurek of Allmusic.com wrote that "My Favorite Memory" was "one of the most beautifully sung and arranged moments of [Haggard's] long career." Although I haven't heard all of Haggard's songs, I would have to say that is true of the songs I have heard.

It is one of the best, inspired by the best elements of country music.

My very favorite song on the album, though, is "Are the Good Times Really Over?"

It didn't make it to No. 1, although I always thought it should have. It came close, just missing at No. 2. I liked a lot of things about it, but I guess one of the things I liked the most was that, although the title asked a negative question, the song itself provided a positive answer.

Haggard offered hope.

When I think of that, I think of another song on the album, "I Think I'm Gonna Live Forever." Sadly, Haggard didn't live forever, even though he claimed in the song that "Dyin' ain't on my list of things to do."

"Big City" was full of genuine Haggard classics — and others that should have been.

In its way, I guess, "Big City" was a harbinger of things to come. When I was growing up, most country music was kind of weepy sounding and mostly negative in its messages. "Big City" had a jazzier sound than most country albums — even today, when much of country music doesn't sound too different from rock 'n' roll.

"Big City" had horns and drums and piano that sounded like the barroom music of late 19th–century saloons.

Even the one song that, from its name, one might expect to be in that weepy tradition — "Texas Fiddle Song" — was more upbeat than most country songs.

A Libeled Lady Is Like a Woman Scorned



"You can't build a life on hate or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but I know."

Connie (Myrna Loy)

Since I worked for newspapers for many years, I have a residual fondness for movies about newspapers and newspaper people — as long as the stories are reasonably plausible.

And the story in "Libeled Lady," which premiered on this day in 1936, was plausible. Reasonably so, anyway.

It is important to remember that it was a screwball comedy, a genre that was at its peak in the '30s and '40s. That raised the bar for the quality of the movie. And it didn't tell a true story, which freed it to tell wildly exaggerated jokes without having to be accountable to the harsh truths of the business. Screwball comedies existed to entertain, not enlighten.

It is also important to remember how serious the issue of libel is. At the larger newspapers, entire legal departments are maintained on the premises almost entirely to deal with the subject of libel, how to avoid it, what to do when faced with legal action and so on. When I was in college, nearly all of my journalism classes had sections devoted to the subject of libel. I can't claim to know what it is like in journalism classes at four–year schools these days, but I don't think it was possible to graduate with a degree in journalism when I was in school if one did not have at least some comprehension of the subject of libel.

Screwball comedies were like the forerunners to Saturday Night Live, I suppose. They could take something serious like libel and turn it into a joke that kept feeding on itself. The story of "Libeled Lady" really was ridiculous, silly, but it was built on a deadly serious theme.

The movie was good enough that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It lost to "The Great Ziegfeld."

I believe it deserved the nomination, but what was it about the movie that merited a Best Picture nomination? Most of the time you can get an idea from the other nominations the movie received. Was it the acting? The directing? The film editing? The music? The story? What was it?

Well, you can't tell from the Oscar nominations because "Libeled Lady" received no other nominations. By modern standards, though, a Best Picture nomination for a comedy — especially a screwball comedy — is a considerable achievement by itself.

The Oscars tend to look down on comedies today even though the number of permissible Best Picture nominations has been 10 — the same as in the '30s — for several years. In the years when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, comedies were rarely among the nominees. These days stars tend to get pigeonholed as comedic or dramatic actors, and there is little crossover.

But in the '30s, everyone did screwball comedies — even (or perhaps that should be especially) if they also did dramatic movies. Screwball comedies were popular escapism in the Depression. They were money in the bank.

And "Libeled Lady" heavily promoted the fact that it had four bankable stars — William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.

Harlow and Powell were a couple off the screen, and Harlow wanted a particular role so that she and Powell would end up together. But the studio wanted to pair Powell with Loy to capitalize on the popularity of their Thin Man movies, the second of which premiered on Christmas Day 1936, and several other movies they made together, including "The Great Ziegfeld." (It was probably a prudent decision. Powell and Loy made more than a dozen movies together.)

Even so, in the role she played, Harlow did get to play a wedding scene with Powell. Considering that Harlow died before she and Powell could marry in real life, that was probably a fitting consolation prize.

Screwball comedies often have elements of film noir, but they are frequently comparable to some of the great stage comedies of all time as well. Some people may see elements of "Lysistrata" or "The Importance of Being Earnest" when they watch a screwball comedy. I usually see elements of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Much Ado About Nothing."

And, for me, "Libeled Lady" has always had a distinctly Shakespearean feeling to it.

Tracy played a newspaper editor whose newspaper had published a libelous story about an heiress (Loy), claiming that she broke up a marriage. The editor wanted to set her up so she would have to drop the lawsuit she had filed against him. He recruited a former reporter (Powell) to try to maneuver Loy into a situation where they were alone together and could be confronted by Powell's wife — and the press conveniently on hand to document it all. That would establish her track record as a home wrecker.

The problem was that Powell's character wasn't married.

No problem. Tracy volunteered his girlfriend (Harlow) to marry Powell — over her very vocal objections — and then play the aggrieved spouse.

Trouble was, Powell and Loy's characters really did fall in love. And Harlow came to conclude that she preferred being married to Powell to waiting for a newspaperman who had been stringing her along for years. When she confronted Powell and Loy, she really was aggrieved.

Powell and Loy persuaded Harlow that she was really in love with Tracy, so all was well that ended well.

To borrow a phrase.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

On a Road in the Twilight Zone



"This road is the afterwards of the Civil War. It began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and ended at a place called Appomattox. It's littered with the residue of broken battles and shattered dreams."

Opening narration

As the episode of the Twilight Zone began on this night in 1961, viewers saw a lonely country road with Civil War–era soldiers marching along, most with visible wounds and/or bandages. They marched in silence past a house where sat a solitary woman (Joanne Linville) in a rocking chair.

One soldier, played by James Gregory, stopped and asked the woman for a drink of water. She said he could have one, and they struck up a conversation.

And as the soldier sat under a tree and strummed the guitar he carried with him, the woman recalled the start of the war and the men's boasts that they would vanquish the Yanks in a month.

The women had cheered the men as they left on their mission, she lamented, believing they would soon return. "How wrong we were," she said, confessing that her own husband had been killed in the war.

So many of the soldiers on both sides did not go home — not alive, anyway.

She carried many things within her — anger, mostly, over her husband's death and the devastation of her home — but she also carried some sort of unnamed "fever."

Her anger led her to promise the soldier that if a Yankee ever walked by her home, she would take an old shotgun she had inside her house, aim it at him and fire after telling him he could consider it the final shot of the Civil War.

(Note: I've studied a lot of history in my life, and while I don't claim to be an authority on the subject I really don't think Civil War was a phrase that was in use at that time — at least not very much. Most people in the North, both civilian and soldiers, seem to have called it the "Great Rebellion," and the Southern equivalent seems to have been "War of Northern Aggression.")

Shortly thereafter, a Yankee soldier came riding by. He was obscured in the shadows, but the Confederate soldier was sure he had seen the Yankee before. And then he remembered. When he had been wounded on a battlefield, the Yankee soldier had stopped his bleeding.

The Confederate started to introduce the Yankee to the lady of the house, but then he saw that she had emerged from the house with the shotgun in her hands. She aimed it at the Yankee, and it appeared she was intent upon fulfilling her pledge. The Confederate tried to stop her, but she fired, anyway.

And the Yankee didn't move. Didn't slump over. Didn't fall. He just sat astride his horse as if nothing had happened.

"I couldn't have missed you," the dumbfounded woman said.

And then the Confederate soldier remembered something else from that battlefield encounter. A shell had exploded overhead, and he had believed the Yankee had been killed that day.

Turned out, he had been right.

The Confederate soldier came to a conclusion.

The road that passed by that house had been filled with soldiers from both sides, all going in the same direction, some helping each other along the way. Then, during the night, they stopped coming.

"There's something at the end of that road," the soldier told the woman, "and I'm going to find out what it is."

The soldier had a good idea what was at the end of that road — and his suspicion was confirmed when the woman's husband, believed to be dead, came walking along the road. The woman ran to embrace him. He told her that they were both dead — he had been killed in battle, and she had died of a fever.

She resisted the idea, but she watched as her husband proceeded down the road.

And along came Abraham Lincoln, who told her he was the last man on the road, "the last casualty of the Civil War."

(In fact, Lincoln was not the last casualty of the war. After Lee surrendered to Grant and Lincoln was assassinated, there were still skirmishes for awhile. A little more poetic license, I suppose. Lincoln's assassination has always served as a convenient conclusion for the Civil War — even though it wasn't.)

It was one of those Twilight Zone episodes in which each viewer had to draw his or her own conclusion about the point of the story. Sometimes the moral of a Twilight Zone story, as it were, was clear; other times not so much.

And while the moral of this story may be clear to others, it has not always been clear to me. I'm not sure it ever was.

After her encounter with Lincoln, the woman went running after her husband, who was walking down the road.

Perhaps the moral was acceptance of the inevitable.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Texas Carnival Was No Fun



My guess is that "Texas Carnival," which starred Red Skelton and Esther Williams and premiered on this day in 1951, coincided with the start of the Texas State Fair.

As long as I can remember, the Texas State Fair has opened here in Dallas at the end of September. It was probably that way 65 years ago, too. "Texas Carnival" was not specifically about the Texas State Fair, but it was in that same general setting. The only thing missing, I suppose, was Big Tex, the iconic 55–foot statue that greets fairgoers at Dallas' Fair Park.

Skelton and Williams were before my time; they were celebrities my parents probably saw in movies when they were children.

I remember Skelton vaguely from his final year or two on TV, his many characters and his signature signoff, "Good night and may God bless." He was amusing, which was good because his aspiration was to make people laugh.

Williams was retired from acting by that time. I have only seen her in old movies, nearly all of which centered on her prowess as a swimmer and promoted swimming in some way.

I wish they had left it at that instead.

Since they didn't leave it alone, I would have thought that they would have capitalized on the things that made Skelton and Williams stars in the first place.

Now Skelton always was a clown. While some people seem to gravitate (often a bit involuntarily at first) to that vocation, Skelton was what you might call a premeditated clown. He set out to become a clown, and he succeeded. But his role as a carnival dunk tank operator in Texas was a bit too over the top.

It was not as off the wall, though, as Williams' role. As I say, she was known for her swimming, and you would think that would be a big part of her role in any movie — but not "Texas Carnival." The objective of her role in that movie seems to have been to keep her out of the water as much as possible. Her biggest moment was when she swam in a waterless hotel room. Really. It was a dream sequence. I wonder who dreamed up that one.

She was the girl in the dunk tank, but that was only her job when the movie began. As the story — such as it was — evolved, Williams got farther and farther away from water.

That wasn't completely possible, but, by and large, it was achieved.

Then there was Ann Miller, a dancer, singer and actress but mostly a dancer and singer who was occasionally called upon to act. Whether she did so was largely a matter of opinion. She had some singing and dancing scenes in "Texas Carnival," but they lacked the vibrance that her singing and dancing usually brought to her roles.

But at least she lived in Texas when she was a child, and she brought a touch of an authentic Texas twang to her lines. I'm not sure if Skelton ever spent any time in Texas. Not that that would be necessary, but it wouldn't have hurt.

There was a lot of singing in "Texas Carnival," but none of the songs were memorable. Howard Keel played a singing ranch foreman who courted Williams. Skelton, meanwhile, was interested in Miller.

I wonder if audiences in 1951 were interested at all.

Keenan Wynn played a wealthy (and inebriated) Texas rancher, a character that barely managed to connect all the story's loose threads and held them together with all the stability of a house of cards.

Alcoholism may have been regarded as hilarious in the 1950s, but I doubt that such a plot device would be too warmly received in the 21st century. The story would need some considerable retooling in the unlikely event that someone chose to remake it.

The central theme — mistaken identity — probably could have been retained. Without it, it is hard to see where there would be much of a movie. Not that there was a whole lot to begin with.

Of course, if anyone happened to be foolish enough to try to do that, it wouldn't hurt to rewrite the whole story, not just the rancher's part.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

A Mid-20th Century Scarlet Letter



"Supposing is good, but finding out is better."

Mark Twain

Haven't we all known people who were a bit too quick to jump to conclusions?

And, if we are truly being honest, aren't we just a bit prone to that ourselves?

"The Mark," which was in U.S. theaters on this day in 1961 (it debuted in West Germany a few months earlier), is an example of that. And, while I prefer to keep my politically oriented writing on another blog, I couldn't help observing, when I saw it again on TV recently, that the idea behind the story actually supports both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the issues of bias and profiling.

I think Clinton is right when she observes that there is an element of bias in every human heart. It is human nature to be suspicious of anyone who is different, and I believe that is true of even the most liberal among us. It doesn't mean one is a hater, to use the label that modern progressives seem to favor for dismissing those who disagree with them. I think it is a self–defense mechanism that has probably been in man's DNA all along.

At the same time, I realize what a difficult job enforcing law and ensuring order is. I have known some police officers in my life, and I covered the police beat when I was a reporter. Profiling is a (typically) nonviolent method for narrowing down the general pool of potential suspects in a given population. It prevents police from, say, wasting time by scrutinizing all the men in a given area when investigating a crime — even though witnesses reported seeing a man in a particular age range wearing specific clothing who was leaving the scene of a crime.

At the very least such a person is a person of interest with whom the police would want to have a conversation.

Profiling isn't exclusively about race, as some would have you believe. Now, it isn't perfect. Nothing is, but it saves time — and don't we all try to do that in all sorts of ways in our daily lives? If, for example, you work in human resources, and your company advertises an open position that draws a couple hundred applications, you're going to look for ways to quickly whittle the pool of applicants down. After all, you have other things that must be done, other deadlines that must be met. Your methods may not be entirely fair. You might even miss someone who would be perfect for the job. But it seems more efficient than painstakingly reading through every resume.

Profiling is a tool — but like most tools, it must be used with other tools to do the job.

Stuart Whitman played a convicted sex offender whose crime had been intent to commit child molestation, not the actual crime itself (maybe that was too hot to handle in 1961). I don't even recall that the crime was committed — and if it wasn't it seems to me that intent would be difficult to prove. Perhaps attempt was meant — but there are laws on the books that deal with attempts to commit crimes. Intent would be a similar but hardly interchangeable term.

Actually "The Mark" addressed so many things about modern culture that are still true more than half a century later. It told a tale of so many things that are good and bad about people in the 21st century — their choices, their fears, their loves, their hates, their prejudices. And the ultimate point of the story, I have concluded, is that people so often reach conclusions to condemn and label without knowing the facts.

Anyway.

He had served his sentence. After he was released from prison, he tried to build a new life for himself and seemed to be doing a good job of it. With some assistance from the prison psychiatrist (Rod Steiger), he landed a job and was excelling at it. He started a relationship with the company's secretary (Maria Schell), a widow with a young daughter.

Then he came under suspicion for molesting and beating a child.

At first there was no real problem. The police picked him up for questioning — as they routinely do when a crime has been committed. Being questioned does not mean that one is a suspect, only that police feel the individual may be able to provide some useful information.

Whitman's character had an alibi and was released, but a reporter who covered his earlier trial recognized him and wrote articles about his activities — disclosing the fact that he had been alone with his girlfriend's daughter.

As a journalist that is something with which I have a problem. I was always taught never to report rumors as fact and not to write about a suspect's past unless the suspect was in custody, on trial or had been convicted.

When I watched "The Mark," I put the blame squarely for what happened on the reporter. When the story of Whitman's character's past was published, he lost both his job and his girlfriend.

Most modern viewers probably won't recognize Whitman. Mostly a supporting actor in the years leading up to "The Mark," he had both leading and supporting roles in the projects that followed. He received his only Oscar nomination for his performance in "The Mark."

Confronting What Frightens You



"A sandwich sure tastes better with milk."

Opie (Ron Howard)

There were episodes in the second season of the Andy Griffith Show in which I feel the program's writers lost their way.

And that is truly a shame because the episode that began that season on this night in 1961, "Opie and the Bully," was a great example of one of the eternal virtues of the show — Andy's relationship with his young son Opie (Ron Howard) and his parental efforts to teach the boy right from wrong.

I have never been a father, but it has always seemed to me that Andy's character knew instinctively what to say or do — even though he would undoubtedly be the first to say that he didn't have all the answers. (Of all the fathers on TV, I have always thought Griffith's character was the best.)

In fact, there was one episode late in the series when Andy was trying to resolve an issue with a teenage Opie. Andy was taking the wrong approach and everyone seemed to realize it but Andy — who eventually conceded the fact when someone from outside the family circle demonstrated the right way to handle the matter.

I suppose it isn't at all uncommon for parents to be unsure of their parenting skills when their children hit their teens. But on this night in 1961, Opie was still in elementary school, and he faced a situation nearly every kid faces at some point.

For one reason or another, every kid has to learn to stand up for himself or herself — and that formed the basis of one of the Andy Griffith Show's episodes that I must watch whenever it is on.

In this episode Opie found himself at the mercy of a bully who wouldn't let him pass on his way to school unless Opie handed over the nickel (nickels were worth a lot more 55 years ago than they are now) he had been given to buy milk at lunch. If Opie didn't pay, the bully threatened him with "a knuckle sandwich."

So Opie thought he had hit on the solution. He would get nickels from both Aunt Bee and Andy. He'd give one to the bully and still have one for milk.

But Andy became suspicious when Opie did that and asked him about that night. Opie insisted that he wanted the second nickel as a spare in case he lost the other one.

Andy let it slide — until he was talking with Barney about it the next day — and Barney told Andy that Opie had been in the jail earlier asking Barney if he had a nickel he wasn't using.

Barney offered to give Opie some fighting lessons, but Andy rejected the idea. Opie didn't need fighting lessons, he told Barney. Andy didn't want his son to be the kind of boy who went around looking for fights, but he didn't want Opie to back down from one when he was in the right. Andy had to figure out a way to impress that on Opie.

And it came to him when they were fishing one day. Opie wanted to know how Andy came across such a good fishing spot, and Andy made up a story featuring himself at Opie's age. In Andy's story, he had been chased off by the town bully, "Hodie Snitch," and he told Opie how he had stood up for what rightfully belonged to him.

The story should be seen in its entirety, but essentially Andy's point was that tough talk is just talk, and Opie was inspired to stand up to the bully who had been extorting money from him.

Opie repeatedly sought reassurance from his father, asking him to confirm things he had said in his story. Andy had claimed that he laughed when Hodie hit him, that he didn't even feel it. Opie was reassured, and he resolved to confront his tormentor.

Opie asked Andy to keep some spare clothes for him at the courthouse — in case something happened that got his clothes torn and messy. Andy agreed, knowing what Opie was planning to do. Later at the courthouse, Andy and Barney speculated about where Opie was and whether he had had his confrontation with the bully. Andy was having the kind of doubts that all parents must have at some time.

"Did you ever do anything," Andy asked Barney, "that you wondered if you was doing the right thing?"

Opie faced his fear — and got a black eye for his trouble. But for him it was a badge of honor.

And an important lesson had been learned.