Thursday, December 28, 2017

Survival in the Wild

"Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp as usual. A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway."

Daisy (Ann Harding)

On the rare occasions when I have seen "The Animal Kingdom," I have found it hard to believe it wasn't made in the 1960s. While it looks every bit the 1930s flick that it is, it was the classic tug–of–war between safe, conservative lifestyles/generations and rebellious ones.

In "The Animal Kingdom," which premiered on this day in 1932, Leslie Howard played a well–off book publisher who lived with his lover (Ann Harding), a Bohemian artist. (Remember, this was in the days before the implementation of the Hays Code.)

They also happened to be pretty close friends. Sex and friendship, as you may have noticed, do not always go hand in hand. In this case, though, they did.

His father wanted him to have a more conventional life, and when he acquiesced, his bride was Myrna Loy, who was socially prominent but did not have that same spark with Howard that he had with Harding.

It showed.

At Loy's insistence, Howard's character sold books he knew would sell — whereas, when he had been with Harding, he published the books he wanted to publish. Their sales potential had far less influence on his decisions.

Loy was also steering Howard away from his old friends; in fact, she just wanted him to sell the business and live with his father in New York where they could assume their rightful places as respectable members of society.

In the meantime, although she tried to stay away from Howard, Harding and the couple's circle of friends found it impossible to believe Howard truly was happy. That was a tough one for viewers to accept, too, given the fact that Howard kept seeking out Harding to use as a sounding board on, well, everything.

I know that Howard was a matinee idol in the '30s, and I know he was a civilian hero during World War II — but I also know that the characters he played (well, the ones I have seen) were weak–kneed schlemiels. Maybe that was just the kind of character he played — or perhaps that was how he chose to play all his characters, whether they were intended that way or not. Nevertheless his character in "The Animal Kingdom" fit that description.

Tom, his character in "The Animal Kingdom," was every bit as malleable as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind."

I doubt that anyone ever mistook Leslie Howard for John Wayne.

I only recently became aware of this movie; while I liked it, the title baffled me and still does. At first I concluded that it was an allusion to the fact that humans, as advanced as we are, are still animals, and we act on our animal instincts, primitive though they may be.

But the second time I watched it I picked up on one of Harding's lines — "For all our big talk, we both still belong to the animal kingdom."

And I began to think that maybe it means more than animal instincts. Maybe it is a reference to the different ways humans find to survive trials and tribulations.

And isn't the instinct to survive the most powerful instinct of all?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Pearl of a Movie

Lisa (Janet Margolin): What do you see when you look at me?

David (Keir Dullea): I see a girl who looks like a pearl. I see a pearl of a girl.

When I was in elementary school, I had a rather intense crush on a girl named Lisa.

I thought she was an exotic creature — well, as exotic as one can be, I suppose, when one is 7 or 8 years old. She told me she was part Indian (Cherokee, I think she said), and I believed her — I had no reason not to. It seemed plausible to me even though Arkansas' Native American population at that time was quite small.

But I was 7 or 8, and I knew nothing about population totals. I believed what my eyes and Lisa told me. Lisa had long straight black hair, and she had the bone structure of the Indian maidens I had seen on TV. She told me her family had moved to my little hometown from some other state. She probably told me which one, too, but it meant nothing to me.

It's hard to be sure now, but I think we met when we were in second grade. It seemed everyone who knew me knew of my infatuation with this girl, but then we took a family vacation that summer to visit some of my parents' friends who knew nothing about it. During that visit I recall that the subject came up one evening, and my mother made a remark of some kind about Lisa and me and a movie called "David and Lisa." I didn't know what she was talking about — I don't even remember the remark except that it included that title, and I gathered that there was some sort of irony about the names. I didn't know what it was, but all the adults apparently understood. I recall much chuckling and many knowing nods.

Well, Lisa's family moved away the following year, and I have not seen her since. It was many years after she moved away that I finally saw the movie that was mentioned that night. I thought it was very well done — but I saw no connection between my little schoolboy crush and the characters in the movie — other than the names and the fact that it was a love story (albeit an unusual love story).

As love affairs go, ours was sort of the Walt Disney version. But, really, what else would you expect from 7– or 8–year–olds?

Anyway, I guess that was a sort of sneaky way of getting around to saying that it was 55 years ago today that Frank Perry's "David and Lisa" made its big–screen debut in the United States (it premiered in Italy a month earlier).

As the movie began David (Keir Dullea, who is probably best known for his work in "2001: A Space Odyssey") was brought to a psychiatric facility by his mother. His chief problems were a fear of being touched and an obsession with clocks. He tended to keep to himself and absorbed himself in his studies — especially clocks.

Dullea's tantrums when touched were thoroughly believable, and he deserved praise for his work. He received a Golden Globe for Most Promising Male Newcomer.

While David was at the psychiatric facility he met Lisa (Janet Margolin), who suffered from split personality. One personality could only speak in rhymes; the other could not speak but could write.

Margolin, an unassuming beauty making her first movie appearance, could light up any room (or movie scene). She was just one of those totally likable personalities — even when her characters required her to do unlikable things. And Lisa did some pretty unlikable things.

Margolin's work earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer.

Both performances packed the kind of emotional punches that are rarely seen in movies anymore.

As time passed David began to open up to his psychiatrist (Howard Da Silva), but after he got into an argument with his mother during a visit, his parents decided to take him out of the facility and bring him home. It didn't take long for him to decide he didn't want to be home; with nowhere else to go, he returned to the facility.

Lisa discovered she was both girls and tried to share this revelation with David, but he was listening to another student play Bach on the piano. She ran away from the facility and got on a train to Philadelphia — where she had earlier put her arms around a statue of a mother and child.

David joined the facility staff in searching for Lisa, but of course they didn't find her. Then David realized that Lisa might have returned to the museum so he and his psychiatrist went there and found Lisa on its steps.

It seemed to be a turning point for both of them. Lisa, for the first time, spoke in prose, and David overcame his fear of being touched, allowing Lisa to hold his hand.

Perry was nominated for Best Director but lost the Oscar to David Lean for "Lawrence of Arabia." The movie was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to "To Kill a Mockingbird."

But the absence of Oscars on its resume is no reflection on the quality of the movie. The story was powerful. The performances were memorable. The black–and–white cinematography was brilliant.

There just aren't many movies that are as good.

(And you can see it on Turner Classic Movies Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, at 9:45 p.m. Central.)

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Seamy Side of Life

"If you dream, dream big."

Jonathan (Kirk Douglas)

Officially Vincente Minnelli's "The Bad and the Beautiful" premiered on this date in Los Angeles in 1952 — but it more properly belongs to 1953, when it was released in New York and nationwide.

Whichever is appropriate, "The Bad and the Beautiful" was one of the top moneymakers of its time. And it won five of the six Oscars for which it was nominated — a record for a movie that did not receive a nomination for Best Picture.

Set in Hollywood, the movie was about a ruthless producer (Kirk Douglas) who used a writer (Dick Powell), an actress (Lana Turner) and a director (Barry Sullivan) to achieve his personal goals. Walter Pidgeon played another producer, kind of the go–between in the story, much more of a supporting role.

Douglas played the son of another producer who was so disliked that, when he died, "extras" had to be hired to attend the funeral. Even though the movie industry was against him because of his father, Douglas was determined to prove everyone wrong.

The story that was told was in the form of flashbacks while Powell, Turner and Sullivan waited in Pidgeon's office for a phone call from Douglas regarding a new project he had in mind. Powell, Turner and Sullivan had unpleasant histories with Douglas, who needed to have them in the project in order to secure the funding he required.

Each flashback told a different story of Douglas' betrayal:

He took a movie idea that Sullivan had been developing and pitched it to a studio, then awarded directorial rights to someone else. The movie's success permitted Douglas to start a studio of his own.

Turner was the alcoholic daughter of a famous actor and didn't feel worthy of her lineage. Douglas boosted her confidence long enough to get the performance he needed from her, then drove her away.

Powell's character was once a professor at a small–town college who was content with his life even after writing a bestselling book. Douglas acquired the movie rights to the book and wanted Powell to write the script. Powell had no interest in that — but his wife did. His wife was a status–conscious Southern belle (Gloria Grahame), and Douglas found a way to use her to get to Powell.

But then she ran off with "Gaucho" (Gilbert Roland), a suave actor, and the two were killed in an airplane crash.

When the stories had been told, Pidgeon agreed that Douglas had ruined all their lives. He agreed sarcastically, though, making the point that each had profited from his/her association with Douglas.

After parting ways with Douglas, Sullivan had gone on to become an Oscar–winning director, Turner a successful actress and Powell a Pulitzer Prize–winning author.

The three decided not to participate in Douglas' project, but as the movie ended they couldn't help listening on an extension to Pidgeon's phone conversation with Douglas.

Speaking of Oscars, Grahame won Best Supporting Actress despite spending fewer than 10 minutes on screen. That would stand as the shortest appearance by a Best Supporting Actress winner for a quarter of a century — until Beatrice Straight won the award for less than six minutes on screen in "Network."

"The Bad and the Beautiful" also won Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design — all in the black–and–white category — and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay.

What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

"He knows the words, but he don't know the music."

Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson)

What became of Jimmy Hoffa?

We all know he disappeared in the summer of 1975, and he is presumed dead. He was 62 when he disappeared so that is a reasonable presumption; if he is still alive, he would be well over 100 years old.

It's pretty safe to presume he is dead. The courts declared him deceased more than 35 years ago, and there has never been a credible account that he was still alive in all the years since. No Elvis sightings for Hoffa.

But it is still the kind of thing about which people like to speculate. In some circles it is like a parlor game. In others it is the inspiration for movies — one of which, "Hoffa," premiered on this day in 1992. Jack Nicholson played Hoffa, and Danny DeVito, who also directed the movie, played a character that merged several Hoffa associates from over the years.

The movie told Hoffa's life story in flashbacks, primarily in the form of thoughts DeVito had as he and Hoffa waited to meet with organized crime leaders in the summer of '75.

That infamous meeting was supposed to take place at a roadside restaurant in a Detroit suburb in July 1975.

Jimmy Hoffa was long before my time, but from what I have learned Nicholson's portrayal was spot on.

I knew little about Hoffa's personal life before I saw the movie, and I knew little more than that after I saw the movie. And that, it seems to me, is appropriate. Hoffa was obsessed with the union. It was his whole life. Everything else came second.

To keep those and other matters in perspective, it was necessary for the story to have DeVito's character. Clearly he had to be created specially for this movie; if a person like that really existed, he wasn't willing to go on the record. And while the law frowns on fabricating witnesses, in Hollywood it is called poetic license.

So the audience had to accept Bobby Ciaro (DeVito's character), whose name fit the part and whose flashbacks filled in most — but not all — of the gaps in Hoffa's life story. Make no mistake about it. That is what "Hoffa" was. It was a biopic, not a theory about what happened to him.

I wouldn't recommend that a student doing research for a paper on Hoffa's life use the movie as a resource, though. At least, not as an unbiased one.

The movie did seem to provide faithful, albeit slanted, looks at Hoffa's well–known feud with Bobby Kennedy and his less–recognized conflicts with his successor as Teamsters president, Frank Fitzsimmons.

And I have no doubt that whenever and however Hoffa died, his last thoughts and acts were about the union.

The movie made a suggestion about how Hoffa died, by the way, but it didn't seem plausible to me. It didn't fit any of the facts with which I was familiar.

Then again it wouldn't be surprising to have witnesses go silent and physical evidence disappear in a case that might just involve organized crime. Would it?

So maybe things did go down the way the movie suggested.

I don't know. And, after more than 40 years, I doubt that anyone will ever know the truth.

But I didn't get the feeling that "Hoffa" was really about a search for the truth — or, at least, the specific truth about Hoffa's disappearance. Unlike "JFK," which premiered about a year earlier, it didn't explore suspects or motives or anything much, just gave a brief dramatization of what could have happened — but didn't seem likely, given how randomly it was presented — and concentrated primarily on the events of Hoffa's life.

I would have preferred a movie that examined the known facts about Hoffa's disappearance and offered suggestions about what could have happened. But I suppose that would have deprived audiences of Nicholson's portrayal of Hoffa.

And I will concede that Nicholson gave a great performance. His appearance was startling, like every photograph I have ever seen of Jimmy Hoffa brought to life. I haven't heard many recordings of Hoffa's voice, but Nicholson's voice was more gravelly. The real Hoffa's voice was a little higher pitched.

But I suppose that is a minor thing.

While the movie tended to be sympathetic to Hoffa, I thought it was well done but not necessarily Oscar worthy.

"Hoffa" actually was rewarded with two Oscar nominations, though — for Best Makeup and Best Cinematography. It won neither — understandably. Best Makeup went to "Bram Stoker's Dracula." In such a category, you can't beat vampires.

And Best Cinematography went to "A River Runs Through It." How could any movie compete with the Montana landscape?

Duel in the South Atlantic

I am no expert on war movies, but it has always seemed to me that "The Enemy Below," which premiered on Christmas Day 60 years ago, was the first war movie that really portrayed the opposing combatants equally.

Well, maybe someone told me that way back when, and I just think that I have always thought that.

And maybe it wasn't the first war movie to be sympathetic to both sides — just the first to be that way about World War II.

It didn't draw any conclusions — except that there really was no difference between Robert Mitchum, who played the commander of an American destroyer, and Curt Jurgens, who played the commander of a German U–boat. Their characters were men who were defending their homelands.

They didn't start the war. It wasn't personal. In civilian life, they may or may not have held strong political views. As civilians, they might have liked each other, might have been friends. In war, they had jobs to do, and they did them.

Mitchum's character was newer to the job than Jurgens' was. It was a new command for Mitchum, and he was about as new to the Navy as most of his crew. The destroyer was on patrol but did not anticipate any action.

Jurgens, on the other hand, was a career Navy man whose sacrifices for Germany — two sons — had been considerable over the years. The U–boat was on courier duty and was likewise not expecting any combat.

Nevertheless on the silver screen, the captains and their crews were engaged in a taut thriller in the South Atlantic in which a mistake could be fatal.

They didn't want to think about what they had in common. That would get in the way of what had to be done.

At one point Mitchum remarked, "I have no idea what he is, what he thinks. I don't want to know the man I'm ... trying to destroy."

That's about as blunt as it gets.

(Incidentally, the slogan seen in the submarine — "Führer befiehl, wir folgen" — means "The leader commands, we follow.")

It's become a cliche to label something a cat–and–mouse game, but that is what this was. The analogy is apt.

In "The Enemy Below," both sides kept maneuvering until the final showdown. When the duel had been decided and the two captains caught a glimpse of one another, they exchanged silent salutes. Gestures of mutual respect.

It was that respect, perhaps, that led Mitchum to save the U–boat commander. Later, with the battle behind them, Mitchum's character offered a cigarette to his former adversary, who took it and remarked, "I should have died many times, Captain. But I continue to survive somehow."

Maybe that is what the art of warfare really is — the art of survival.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Minor Matter of Make-Believe

"You should be very glad I'm not 12. I was a very straightforward child. I used to spit."

Susan (Ginger Rogers)

One of the things I enjoy most about my informal study of movies is observing how styles — both acting and directorial — evolve over time.

Take Billy Wilder, for example. He was a fledgling director when his comedy "The Major and the Minor" premiered on this date 75 years ago. There were many great movies in his future, movies that would bring him fame and fortune and half a dozen Oscars.

But the seeds for the things he did in those classic triumphs — like "Some Like It Hot" — were planted in his earliest efforts.

The female star of "The Major and the Minor" was Ginger Rogers. She was 31 years old — and had to play a woman who posed as a girl of 12 to get half fare on a train ticket. That was the premise of the story.

It was a preposterous premise.

No one who saw Ginger Rogers could be expected to believe she was 12 years old at that time. It was so remarkable that the tag line for the movie — the line that appeared on every poster — was "Is she a kid — or is she kidding?"

But I saw a clip of Wilder speaking about what he learned from "The Major and the Minor." He said he learned that audiences could accept and go along with outrageous notions — like a 31–year–old woman being mistaken for a girl less than half her age — under certain circumstances — like if you made viewers feel they were being let in on something.

That lesson served him well when he made "Some Like It Hot" more than 15 years later. After all, no one would have mistaken Jack Lemmon or Tony Curtis for women, but audiences could accept them as men who were posing as women because they knew why they were doing it.

It was the same logic, I suppose, that made dress–wearing Klinger one of the most popular characters on the TV show M*A*S*H. (Of course, Klinger wasn't posing as a woman nor was he a transvestite. He was pretending to be crazy so he would be discharged from the Army.)

It was probably easier to accept the gag when you saw how much Rogers seemed to be enjoying playing the part. In fact, I have heard that it was her favorite of all her movies — surprisingly, above "Kitty Foyle," which brought Rogers her Best Actress Oscar two years earlier.

Being an Oscar winner brings with it certain privileges, and by 1942 Rogers was in position to insist on certain things. One of the things she insisted on was having Wilder as the movie's director. It was a significant moment in his career.

"We had a lot of fun making the picture. It was that kind of story. And even though it was his first film, from day one, I saw that Billy knew what to do. He was very sure of himself. He had perfect confidence," Rogers said. "I've never been sorry I made the film. 'The Major and the Minor' really holds up. It's as good now as it was then."

Another person from the movie who would play a big part in Wilder's success was Rogers' male co–star, Ray Milland, who played a paternal Army major from a military academy. The story goes that, upon winning the job of the movie's director, Wilder pulled up at a red light next to Milland and called out to him that he was making a movie. Did Milland want to be in it? Milland said he would, and Wilder sent him a copy of the script. Milland liked it and made the movie.

A few years later, the two of them worked on another movie together, "The Lost Weekend." It won four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actor and two for Wilder (Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).

Just goes to show you that your life can change direction suddenly, probably when you least expect it. A seemingly chance encounter at a red light may well have been the catalyst for both men's careers — although I rather suspect both men would have succeeded even if their cars had not been next to each other at a stoplight.

Milland's character was just about the only one who didn't seem to know that Rogers was quite a bit older than she was letting on. He met Rogers on a train, bought the idea that she was really a 12–year–old girl and took her under his wing, encouraging her to call him Uncle Phillip.

Talk about asking the audience to suspend disbelief.

Even Diana Lynn, who played the younger sister of Milland's fiancée, knew that Rogers wasn't 12. Only Milland didn't know — or at least suspect — the truth.

But in true screwball comedy fashion, everything worked out in the end. Milland realized that Rogers was a grown woman, not a 12–year–old girl, promptly fell in love with her and seemed to be en route to a quickie wedding in Reno while traveling to the West Coast.

Only possible in Hollywood, the land of make believe.

Unlucky in Love

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Edwina, may I kiss you?

Edwina (Arlene Golonka): Is your mouth insured?

Actress Arlene Golonka made something of a career playing bubbly girl–next–door types on TV and in the movies.

She appeared on the most popular TV shows of her day and might have been America's sweetheart if not for the fact that the competition for that designation was rather strong at the time. I always thought she was cute and that she should have no trouble attracting attention from the opposite sex, but she never seemed to rise above supporting roles.

In the episode of MASH that aired on Christmas Eve 1972, "Edwina," Golonka played what is best described as a female version of Joe Btfsplk from the Li'l Abner comic strip. If you're too young to remember Li'l Abner, Joe Btfsplk was such a jinx that an ominous dark cloud followed him wherever he went.

Edwina, Golonka's character, was a female Joe Btfsplk. She was, to put it kindly, a klutz — impossibly inept and thoroughly unable to get a date, let alone a relationship. Her woeful love life was the basis of a heart–to–heart she had with Margie (Marcia Strassman in one of her last appearances on MASH) on the occasion of Edwina's birthday, and the outcome was a kind of boycott. None of the females in camp would have anything to do with the males (outside the O.R., of course) until one of them went out with Edwina.

This prompted something of a crisis among the males at the 4077th, and it was decided that someone had to take a bullet for the team. It was determined that the fair way to make this decision would be to draw straws to designate Edwina's date. Not participating was not an option; the penalty for nonparticipation was, in Hawkeye's words, to be "stripped naked, painted purple and dropped by helicopter behind enemy lines."

(In today's environment, such a condescending, politically incorrect approach to male–female relationships most likely would be frowned upon.)

Perhaps inevitably Hawkeye (Alan Alda), the 4077th's legendary Lothario, drew the short straw.

And he did try — boy, did he try — but his date with Edwina was a disaster by anyone's standards.

It was just one thing after another.

At first Hawkeye tried to put the best spin possible on everything. When Edwina tossed her martini glass while trying to think of a toast and spilled her drink on Hawkeye, he insisted that he liked wearing a wet T–shirt because it saved him the trouble of sweating.

But after a series of mishaps — most notably including broken glass and Hawkeye stepping on it in bare feet — Edwina lamented that she had "killed" him. Hawkeye protested, "I don't have that kind of luck."

In the process, though, Hawkeye may have found the root of Edwina's problem. Hawkeye concluded that, in a subconscious attempt to avoid getting hurt, Edwina was physically hurting others — to summarize Hawkeye, she was beating others to the hurt. Edwina seemed to be liberated by this revelation — and in her exuberance, she dislodged the stovepipe in the tent, covering Hawkeye in soot.

Far from being upset, Hawkeye began laughing uncontrollably.

Well, nothing lasts forever. Edwina's time at the 4077th came to an end shortly thereafter, and she was never seen in the compound again.

Golonka went on to other TV and film roles.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Odyssey of the Mummy

Boris Karloff is best known for his performances as Frankenstein's monster in the original movie and its sequels, but he also portrayed the Mummy in "The Mummy," which premiered on this day 85 years ago.

In the movie The Mummy's remains were found — along with a magic scroll that had the power to bring the dead back to life — by a team of British archaeologists. The discovery of an Egyptian tomb was a rather timely subject, given the fact that the tomb of King Tut had been discovered a decade earlier, and tales of the curse it contained were widely disseminated. "Frankenstein," by comparison, was published more than a century before the movie was made.

Audiences were probably more inclined to see "The Mummy" as a plausible horror story in 1932 — but audiences in 2017 are more prone to see it as almost a parody of itself. After all, the classic performances of Karloff and Bela Lugosi and their ilk that truly terrified audiences in the 1930s led to the rampant cliches of today. Considering that the motion picture industry was still evolving and learning about itself 85 years ago, I suppose that was inevitable — and that it is something of a compliment.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

After being discovered in 1921, the Mummy was brought back to life through that scroll I mentioned before. Fast forward 10 years. Clothed as a modern Egyptian, the Mummy went looking for his lost love, whom he believed had been reincarnated as a modern (i.e., 1932) girl.

It was established earlier that the Mummy's forbidden love led to his gruesome death in which he apparently had been buried alive. That was his punishment for committing sacrilege when he attempted to resurrect her.

Now reincarnated he went looking for his lost love.

The Mummy encountered a half–Egyptian woman (Zita Johann) he believed was the reincarnation of his lost love. Consequently The Mummy tried to kill her as part of his plan to mummify her, resurrect her and then marry her. She was saved when, after remembering her past life, she prayed to the goddess Isis for rescue — and her prayer was answered.

In a scene that modern movie viewers may find quite similar to one in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Isis discharged a beam of light that set fire to the scroll, breaking the spell of immortality, and the Mummy crumbled to dust.

Johann's work in the movie was good, but "The Mummy," like most horror movies of the 1930s, did not rely on acting as much as it did on atmosphere.

For folks who have been brought up in an era dominated by flashy computer–generated special effects, the pace of "The Mummy" and other horror movies of its time may seem pedestrian.

But it made for a spine–tingling experience for the audiences of the day.

When Karloff made "Frankenstein," his rival in the horror genre, Lugosi, complained that Karloff didn't act, he merely grunted. Lugosi, a native Hungarian, had to deliver his lines in "Dracula" in English, which he considered more demanding than Karloff's performance.

I haven't heard what Lugosi's opinion was of "The Mummy," but by Lugosi's previously stated standards, he must have been more impressed. The British–born Karloff had to deliver his lines with an Egyptian accent.

My opinion, having seen both the Karloff version and the 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser (I haven't seen the new one with Tom Cruise), is that Karloff gave a masterful performance. Stripped of modern special effects and multimillion–dollar production budgets, I doubt that anyone could carry a horror story the way Karloff could.

Johann's story is an interesting one. Her film career was brief and interrupted by more than half a century in which she focused on her theatrical work and, later, teaching acting to people with learning disorders. Was the exotic beauty disillusioned in Hollywood? I don't know, but I can't help but wonder if she might have been a major star of the silver screen had she not been lured to the stage.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Bewitching Spin on a Classic Christmas Story

In its seasonal spin on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the episode of Bewitched that first aired on this night in 1967, "Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here," was set on Christmas Eve, and Darrin (Dick York) and Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) were preparing for Christmas.

But Darrin was torn. He had to meet with a client, a Scrooge–like sort who insisted on meeting with the folks at the advertising agency even though it was Christmas Eve. In his own words, Christmas was just another day. He was far more concerned with marketing his line of instant soups, and he insisted that Darrin come up with a campaign idea by that night or he would take his business elsewhere.

But Darrin refused so Mr. Mortimer (Charles Lane) made good on his promise.

And Samantha decided that a nocturnal visit, a la the ghosts in Dickens' classic, would be just the thing to convince miserly Mr. Mortimer that Santa Claus existed and that Christmas wasn't humbug but rather something to be celebrated.

So with the help of her witchcraft and her inside connections (she was personally acquainted with Santa Claus), Samantha visited Mr. Mortimer that night and took him to the North Pole, where he met Santa and saw the elves' workshop.

When their journey was over, Mr. Mortimer found himself back in his own bed.

The next morning he paid a visit to Darrin and Samantha. Darrin and Larry (David White) had both tried to play Santa for Tabitha (Erin Murphy) but had not impressed her. Then Mr. Mortimer arrived with a Christmas gift — a case of Mortimer's Instant Soups.

That didn't particularly impress her, either.

But Mr. Mortimer wasn't all business on that Christmas morning. In the spirit of the season, he ate some fruitcake and drank some eggnog.

Lane lived a long life (he was more than 100 years old when he died) and enjoyed a long career as a character actor. Mr. Mortimer wasn't his only miserly character, either. He played many such characters, most notably a mean railroad executive on Petticoat Junction and a character who was hired by Milburn Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies to run the hillbillies off from a business suite they had rented in Drysdale's bank building.

The episode wasn't a unique spin on "A Christmas Carol," but its message was still timeless, and Lane may have been just the one to make it work. His characters could have given lessons to Scrooge.

Merry Christmas to all.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

If You're Craving 'Gone With the Wind,' Watch the Real Thing

"Greatness? Ha! If that great philosopher, Socrates, were living today, he'd be reduced to sitting on a cracker barrel, chewing tobacco. That's what America does for greatness."

Professor Stiles (Nigel Patrick)

When I first saw "Raintree County," which premiered on this day in 1957, my first reaction was that it must have been intended as a Northern version of "Gone With the Wind."

I had read nothing about the movie before I saw it, but after I did I read comments from film critics that showed I wasn't the only one who perceived it that way. I have no doubt that MGM saw it that way, too. But that isn't how things worked out.

It wasn't the award–winning blockbuster that had been envisioned. In fact the movie was a failure at the box office, and it was widely panned by critics. Elizabeth Taylor was nominated for Best Actress, and the movie was nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, but all those awards went to other nominees.

The funny thing is that I know some people who really like "Raintree County." I guess it is true what they say. There really is no accounting for taste (or the lack thereof).

People often forget that film critics merely express their opinions — and opinions are not statements of fact.

In this case, though, I tend to agree with most in their negative assessments.

I suppose if you were going to select a couple, you couldn't pick an odder one than Montgomery Clift and Taylor (who were actually pretty good friends in real life). Clift's character, a Yankee abolitionist, and Taylor's character, a self–absorbed Southerner, met before the Civil War broke out.

In its best opposites–attract mode, the story showed how Clift and Taylor were drawn together. Eva Marie Saint, who played a girl–next–door type, probably should have been Clift's bride — but that would be in an ideal world. And the pre–Civil War world they occupied was far from ideal.

The coupling was far from ideal as well. A friend of mine once observed, "Montgomery Clift went to bed with Scarlett O'Hara and woke up with Blanche DuBois." That should tell you everything you need to know about the volatile nature of the relationship.

The lead characters were really the only ones that were given any kind of in–depth examination. The supporting talents were mishandled. Lee Marvin wasn't suited for the kind of comedic role in which he was cast, and Agnes Moorehead was given very little with which to work. Rod Taylor was reasonably convincing albeit in a small part.

The odd thing about "Raintree County" was that, while it was set against the backdrop of the Civil War, more attention was given to Clift's character and his quest to find the meaning of life than to the far more significant events that were unfolding around him.

Clift, by the way, was nearly killed when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a telephone pole after leaving a dinner party at Elizabeth Taylor's home. Summoned from the party Taylor rushed to Clift's side and removed a tooth that was lodged in his tongue. If Taylor had not done that, Clift might have choked to death.

As it was, Clift suffered several injuries, including a broken jaw and nose, that required reconstructive surgery. His matinee idol looks were never the same again. In fact, they weren't even the same from scene to scene. If you watch closely, you can see differences in his profile — and, in closer shots, his nose and chin.

The cinematographer tried to work around it and did a generally good job. But the damage was too extensive to cover completely.

Gangbangin' in the 19th Century

"Remember the first rule of politics. The ballots don't make the results; the counters make the results. The counters. Keep counting."

Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent)

"Gangs of New York," which premiered on this day in 2002, can be a difficult movie to watch. Apparently, it was also a difficult film to make. Costs overran the budget by 25%, ballooning to over $100 million.

It opened with hand–to–hand battle in the snow in the infamous 19th–century gang fight of Five Points between the Protestant "Natives" and the Irish Catholic "Dead Rabbits," a fight "recorded in American history," wrote Roger Ebert, "but not underlined."

I don't know what the actual battle was like, but the movie depiction was grim. The combatants went at each other with clubs and hatchets, leaving red stains on the carpet of snow beneath them.

Actually, grim is a good word for "Gangs of New York."

It was a rough movie, full of violence and bloodshed.

Ebert acknowledged the film was a "triumph" for director Martin Scorsese "and yet I do not think this film is in the first rank of his masterpieces. It is very good but not great," he wrote.

"Scorsese's films usually leap joyfully onto the screen, the work of a master in command of his craft," Ebert continued. "Here there seems more struggle, more weight to overcome, more darkness. It is a story that Scorsese has filmed without entirely internalizing. The gangsters in his earlier films are motivated by greed, ego and power; they like nice cars, shoes, suits, dinners, women. They murder as a cost of doing business. The characters in 'Gangs of New York' kill because they like to and want to. They are bloodthirsty and motivated by hate. I think Scorsese liked the heroes of 'Goodfellas,' 'Casino' and 'Mean Streets,' but I'm not sure he likes this crowd."

Granted, there really wasn't a whole lot to like, but there were some worthwhile observations to be made.

For example, Ebert pointed out that the movie was loaded with Dickensian characters, and he compared the hero of the story, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, only five years removed from his heartthrob role in "Titanic," to David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. I had to wonder how the young girls who had flocked to theaters over and over again to see DiCaprio in "Titanic" felt when they saw Daniel Day–Lewis put a hot knife on DiCaprio's cheek, disfiguring his character. It was, to be sure, a different kind of role.

And Cameron Diaz, who played as volatile a love interest as the screen has ever seen, was compared to Nancy in Dickens' "Oliver Twist." Diaz was "a hellcat with a fierce loyalty to her man," Ebert wrote — not unlike Shani Wallis in "Oliver!" several decades before.

The movie also gave an unflinching look at democracy in America in the 19th century.

In 19th–century New York, that often meant the buying and selling of votes and the delivering of constituencies like lambs to a slaughter. Given the subject matter of the movie, that is probably a pretty good analogy.

"Gangs of New York" received 10 Oscar nominations but didn't win a single award.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

All Creatures Great and Small ... and Whatever

"If one place is as good as any other, it's high time we decided. Otherwise when we get there, we won't know we've arrived."

Doctor Dolittle (Rex Harrison)

For most people living today, I suppose, the mention of "Doctor Dolittle" brings to mind images of Eddie Murphy in the 1998 movie that went by that title and was often labeled a remake of the movie that made its debut 50 years ago today.

In fact, though, the movie that was released in 1998 was merely inspired by the books by Hugh Lofting; very little of the material from the original books was used in either of Murphy's "Doctor Dolittle" movies.

The movie that marks the 50th anniversary of its American premiere today (it premiered in England a week earlier), however, was a more faithful telling of Lofting's stories — well, three of them, anyway. Lofting wrote nearly two dozen Doctor Dolittle books.

In the 1967 version Doctor Dolittle was played by Rex Harrison. He was a physician in Victorian England who had treated humans but shifted to treating animals — and lived with a veritable menagerie. His sister once served as his housekeeper, but as the animal population in the house grew, she delivered an ultimatum: Either he got rid of the animals, or she would leave. He chose the animals.

Doctor Dolittle claimed he could talk to the animals — and he did. Movie audiences saw him carrying on conversations with the parrot. (The parrot's voice was supplied by talented voice actress Ginny Tyler.)

Ostensibly Lofting's books were written for children, but there was a decidedly adult angle to the movie's dialogue. For example:

"I speak over 2,000 languages," the parrot told Doctor Dolittle, "including Dodo and Unicorn."

"Unicorn?" Doctor Dolittle asked.

"I had a classical education," the parrot replied.

Movie audiences in 1967 first saw Doctor Dolittle when Anthony Newley's character and his young friend brought a sick duck to see the doctor.

Then, when he was treating a horse, Doctor Dolittle offended the horse's owner, and he was scolded for it by the owner's niece (Samantha Eggar).

The horse's owner and his niece went on to play more prominent roles in the movie.

A friend of Doctor Dolittle's sent him a rare pushme–pullyou — a creature that looked like a llama with heads at both ends of its body — and the doctor took it to a circus (Richard Attenborough played the ringmaster), where it became the main attraction. At the circus the doctor made friends with a seal that longed to be reunited with her husband at the North Pole, and he tried to help her escape, dressing her in a woman's clothes. Fishermen observed the doctor tossing the clothed seal into the water and believed he had murdered a woman.

They had him arrested; the judge in the trial was the horse's owner.

Although the doctor was acquitted, the judge insisted on sentencing him to a lunatic asylum. His animal friends saved him, and they set sail in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail.

It turned out that Eggar had stowed away on board, and in making her case to be permitted to stay, Eggar's character proclaimed, "I promise to ask for no special privileges."

"I promise to grant none," Doctor Dolittle replied.

They decided their destination would be Sea Star Island, a floating island that was determined to be in the Atlantic Ocean at that time.

Well, that led to other adventures for the travelers — and probably contributed to the verdict of sneak preview audiences that it was too long. Trying to compress three children's books into a single movie was a bit ambitious. Cuts were subsequently made, but even at its final 2½–hour running time, it was probably still too long.

The movie ran into production problems that, in hindsight, probably were predictable — and many may have been nothing more than legends. For example, there were stories that a goat ate a script and a parrot learned how to yell "Cut!"

But there was no disputing the evidence of the bottom line. The movie made about $9 million at the box office; it cost $17 million to make.

There could be many reasons for that. Personally, I have always wondered if the fact that musicals' popularity was on the wane in the late 1960s could explain why "Doctor Dolittle" fared so poorly.

Nevertheless the studio launched an unprecedented campaign for Oscar recognition and was rewarded with nine nominations, including Best Picture. It even won two — for Best Song ("Talk to the Animals") and Best Special Visual Effects.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A World of Toys

"Four stores and many Christmases ago, my father brought forth a factory conceived in innocence and joy and squeezable fun for everyone."

Leslie Zevo (Robin Williams)

You'd think that a movie called "Toys" that premiered at theaters exactly one week before Christmas would be a sure thing.

And yet Barry Levinson's "Toys," which starred Robin Williams and made its debut on this day in 1992, failed to make back half of its budget.

Perhaps, all evidence to the contrary, that is because "Toys" really wasn't a children's movie. It created a whimsical world, much like, say, "Willy Wonka" did, but it used simple childhood experiences and memories to make more complex and mature points.

A kooky toymaker (Donald O'Connor) was at death's door, and he knew it, but he had to decide who should inherit his toy empire. He didn't feel his children (Williams and Joan Cusack) were ready for the responsibility so he decided to leave it to his brother (Michael Gambon), a military general. He wasn't really suited for it; Williams' character had more in common with his father and would have made a better choice. He would have been more likely to represent continuity in the operation of the business.

Well, that was my opinion. (Of course, if the producers had done things in the way that made sense to me, they wouldn't have had a story to tell.)

For example, when the old man finally died, Williams and Cusack opted not to ride in a limousine to the graveside service, choosing instead to ride in their father's car — a bumper car.

It's the sort of thing their father would have done.

But their uncle was a different kind of guy. Frustrated by a career in the military that fell short of his expectations, he agreed to take over the toy factory when his brother died (after consulting with his father, played by Jack Warden in a very limited role) and made his biracial son (rapper LL Cool J) his second in command. He decided to run the factory in a very military way, cracking down on leaks and inaugurating the production of war toys.

That was important because his brother objected to war toys, wouldn't make them in his factory, and Williams' character had inherited that predisposition, it seemed.

The movie seemed to lose its direction, though. Critic Roger Ebert summed it up this way: "The opening scenes create a completely original world, and then the second half of the film invades that world, not with fresh imagination but with tired old conflicts. What are we to make of a world where the battle against war toys is carried out ... by programming peaceful toys to fight?"

It's even more bewildering when you realize how prescient "Toys" was. Several years before most people had heard of virtual reality, "Toys" introduced them to the concept.

"Toys" also introduced viewers to drones — again, many years before they became commonplace.

As always Robin Wright was pretty and charming, and there was an authentic quality to her down–home accent. I guess you could expect that, seeing as she was born in Dallas, but she was raised in San Diego. Maybe that's where she picked up her dolphin imitation.

In its way, I guess "Toys" was kind of a "Peter Pan" story for its generation. It was, more than anything, a tale about those who refuse to grow up — and those who are determined to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the adult world anyway.

Something's gotta give.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What's New?

The glee club meets in the mess tent at 0800 hours. The first number on tonight's schedule is, uh, Father Mulcahy's solo, "I'm Confessin' That I Love You."

P.A. announcer

The episode of MASH that first aired on this night in 1972, "Dear Dad," was the series' first to use what became a rather familiar tactic on the show — telling a story in the form of a letter being written to someone back home.

The device would be used with other characters over the years, but in this case it was Hawkeye (Alan Alda) who was writing a letter to his father during the Christmas season. Other episodes utilizing the "Dear Dad" title would focus on Hawkeye's letters to his father, but letters home from Col. Potter, Radar, Klinger, etc., were also used in future episodes.

Thus the narration was in fact the text of the letter that Hawkeye was writing during a lull in the fighting.

The episode also helped to firmly establish the dual themes of the series — the antiwar theme and the comedic theme. "Dear Dad" was only the series' 12th episode, and MASH was still seeking its identity.

As I say the Christmas season had arrived, and Hawkeye used the letter to fill his father in on the news from MASH 4077th.

Radar (Gary Burghoff) was mailing a Jeep back to the States — one piece at a time.

Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) delivered a sex lecture despite being clearly uncomfortable doing so.

And Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) sabotaged the tent where Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) and Frank (Larry Linville) were to spend the evening together.

But all those things could have happened at any time of the year. They didn't have to be a week before Christmas.

What really made the episode a Christmas episode was the final segment, in which the 4077th was hosting its annual Christmas party for the local Korean children. Hawkeye was slated to play Santa Claus.

But his plans changed. He was called away to do emergency field surgery on a chest wound.

Still dressed as Santa, he descended by rope from a chopper as the battle raged around him.

A soldier waiting in a foxhole with the wounded man saw Hawkeye's descent and said to his buddy, "And you said there was no Santa Claus."

The concept of using a letter as the narration for an episode was a good idea and worked better in future efforts. It was a case of improving each time it was done.

But "Dear Dad" succeeded pretty well as a first effort — and it is still a pretty good Christmas episode.

Spreading Christmas Cheer

Oh, joy. Christmas Eve. By this time tomorrow, millions of Americans, knee deep in tinsel and wrapping paper, will utter those heartfelt words, "Is this all I got?"

Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer)

On this night in 1987, Cheers! was in its sixth season — about midway through its run. The characters' quirks had been established even though some of the original characters were gone and some new ones were in the cast.

Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) had replaced Diane (Shelley Long), and Woody (Woody Harrelson) had replaced Coach (Nicholas Colasanto). Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) had been added.

On this night in 1987, it was Christmas Eve in the Cheers! universe — and everyone was distracted by things that were sure to exaggerate each character's quirk.

Cliff (John Ratzenberger) was obsessed with a postmen's canned food drive in which the winner would receive a trip to Disney World. He brought a big cardboard box to the bar and encouraged everyone to drop off cans.

Rebecca, the bar's manager for its new corporate owner, told the bar staffers that they had to work Christmas Eve. Carla (Rhea Perlman) had no problem with that. Neither did Woody, who had decided not to visit his family in Indiana during the holidays because he was participating in a Christmas play in Boston (even though he admitted missing his mother's "bone–dry" stuffing).

But Sam (Ted Danson) did. He considered a "holiday eve" a holiday.

Nevertheless all the Cheers! employees worked on Christmas Eve — and found themselves waiting to close the near–empty bar that night while one lone patron sat slowly nursing a drink. As they waited they decided to do their gift exchange — which was when Sam realized he had no gift for Rebecca, and he rushed out into the night hoping against hope he could find a store that was still open.

He couldn't — but he stumbled upon a lovely young lady carrying some shopping bags. When he explained his predicament to her, she offered to let him buy one of the items among her purchases. He picked a pair of earmuffs — and made a date with her for later when he learned that her shopping bags also contained intimate apparel.

Same old Sammy.

Norm was working a part–time gig as a department store Santa. On Christmas Eve he brought all his buddies from Santa School to the bar after the stores closed.

When the staffers exchanged gifts, it turned out that Sam had picked up the wrong package. Instead of earmuffs, he had given Rebecca diamond earrings.

After some initial resistance, Rebecca agreed to accept them, forcing Sam to spend much more than he had anticipated — but he thought it would pay off when Rebecca invited him to her place after work for a late dinner.

Then he learned that it would not be the one–on–one evening he expected. Everyone at Cheers! had been invited!

The episode ended on the same note with which it began — with everyone watching yet another airing of "It's a Wonderful Life" on a local TV station that was apparently showing it all month in the station's "It's a Wonderful Month" promotion.

Even Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), who had a decidedly Scrooge–like attitude, got choked up.

Scaling a 'High Wall'

Robert Taylor often turned in vapid performances, but that was not the case in "High Wall," a rarely remembered film noir that premiered on this day in 1947.

Taylor's character, a decorated war veteran, found himself in a situation like The Fugitive of the classic 1960s TV series. His wife was dead, and he stood accused of her murder, but he insisted he was innocent and tried to find the real murderer.

Initially, Taylor caught his wife being unfaithful to him with her boss (Herbert Marshall), and she ended up being strangled. All evidence indicated Taylor was responsible. He tried to kill himself by driving his car into the river, but he survived and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. He had no memory of what had happened to his wife, possibly due to an injury he suffered during the war.

It was strongly suggested that Taylor could be cured by surgery, but he refused, preferring to remain in the hospital rather than facing conviction of his wife's murder. It was only after he learned that his young son would be sent to an orphanage that he changed his mind.

In an attempt to cure his amnesia, Taylor tried to re–create the scene of the crime with the help of a doctor (Audrey Totter), who doubted his guilt and became his staunchest ally.

It is probably appropriate at this point to say a word or two about Totter. I have watched a fair number of film noir movies in my life, and Totter was frequently cast in them. She usually played a bad girl, but this time she played against type.

I have always found Totter to be an underappreciated talent. She appeared on the silver screen with many of the top stars of her day, but her kind of character fell from favor in the 1950s, and she gravitated to television, where she found steady work.

She was always good, but she may have delivered her best film noir performance in "High Wall."

The whole cast was at the top of its game, but particular mention should be made of Marshall, who was suitably creepy in his role.

But I have learned that you will never find unanimity in anything, and so it is with this movie — or at least the individual performances. I know one person, for example, who thought Taylor's performance was the redeeming feature of a movie in which Totter was a cold fish and Marshall was miscast. That was precisely the opposite of my reaction — and the reactions of most of the people with whom I have discussed "High Wall."

"High Wall" also introduced audiences to a term with which many were still not familiar in 1947 — sodium pentathol or "truth serum."

Turning the Page

As Christmas episodes go, the episode of How I Met Your Mother that first aired on this night five years ago, "The Final Page," wasn't your typical Christmas episode. In fact, it really only mentioned the season in passing and offered no unique spin on the holiday.

It was really more of a continuation of the series' timeline, telling a story that just happened to take place at Christmas.

By my definition, a Christmas episode tells a seasonal story. It might be a re–telling of the actual Christmas story, a spin on the traditional stories of Santa Claus or something that is unique to the nature of the show, but the one thing they all have in common is that they reinforce, in some way, the values and beliefs that inspire people of faith.

Well, on second thought, I guess there was an element of that in "The Final Page." Maybe a smidgen.

But calling "The Final Page" a Christmas episode is applying the broadest possible leeway to that term. What happened in that episode could have happened at any other time of the year — only without the Christmas lights and mistletoe in the penultimate scene.

Those elements would have had to be replaced in some way, I suppose, because they really did make a contribution to the effectiveness of the scene. And because I can't think of any comparable elements that could be used as substitutes, I am not really sure how they could have been replaced without significantly changing how that final scene was written.

So the Christmas season may have been the only realistic backdrop for this episode. Setting it at any other time of the year would have been a bit of a stretch.

But calling it a Christmas episode really is a stretch.

OK. Rant over.

But, really, the theme of this episode was not in keeping with the season.

It was a two–part episode, and both parts aired back to back on this night five years ago. The first part was inspired by "The Silence of the Lambs," and it was about throwing someone into one's pit.

Ted (Josh Radnor) wanted to throw one of his old architecture professors in the pit. This particular professor had never expressed approval of Ted's ideas, and Ted craved a "what do you think of me now?" moment. He never got it and reluctantly realized he had to let go of that particular desire.

Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel) were in someone else's pit — a former college classmate who had been obsessed with them. Understandably that made them uncomfortable. They bumped into each other, and he invited them back to his home. They imagined the worst. As it turned out, he had formed a phenomenally successful company that sold hacky sacks named for the three of them. He wanted to give them $100,000 because they inspired the idea, but they rejected the offer without knowing what they were rejecting.

Robin (Cobie Smulders) had someone in her pit — co–worker Patrice (Ellen D. Williams). Robin believed Patrice was in a relationship with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and was going to fire her, but she relented.

The viewers later learned that Barney's relationship with Patrice was an act designed to get Robin to realize her feelings for Barney. It was another one of his elaborate "Playbook" plans. Fans of How I Met Your Mother know that Barney's "Playbook" was filled with strategies for bedding women — not wedding them. But as the first part of the episode ended, Barney showed Ted the ring he planned to give Patrice when he proposed — and swore him to secrecy.

In the second part of the episode, Ted was going to break his promise to Barney and tell Robin, but he got cold feet and invited her to be his escort at the grand opening of a building he had designed. When they got together, Ted spilled the beans, and Robin ended up at the building where Barney was supposed to be proposing to Patrice.

When she got to the roof, where this was supposed to be taking place, no one was there. But she did find a page from the Playbook titled "The Robin" that detailed the plan for getting her to accept his proposal. After she read it, Barney appeared from the shadows.

As I say, it was not really a Christmas episode.

It was more of a Valentine's Day episode — in Barney's creepy, manipulative sort of way.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Stressful Season

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): I want my gifts to be remembered and cherished long after the holidays.

Martin (John Mahoney): Well, you know, nothing is cherished quite so much as the gift of laughter.

Frasier: If you want that highway patrol bloopers tape, you'll have to buy it yourself.

It is well known that the holidays, however much we may love them, bring a lot of stress to our lives.

In "Perspectives on Christmas," the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 1997, the members of the Crane family — including extended family members Roz (Peri Gilpin) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) — told a masseur about their stressful Christmases.

Mind you, it was the same Christmas, but each one had a unique way of perceiving the events of the previous few days, and it really began with Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) establishing the fact that he wanted his Christmas gifts that year to be memorable. He kept emphasizing that point through the episode.

Martin (John Mahoney) had agreed to participate in a church Christmas pageant and had been struggling with a high note in his rehearsals of "O Holy Night." But he didn't want Daphne to know as she had been inquisitive enough as it was.

Daphne, meanwhile, knew something was up — but she wasn't sure what. She put two and two together — while walking the dog, he had started to go toward the church "like he assumed that was where we were going," and Daphne misinterpreted some things she overheard — and concluded that Martin was dying.

In this case two plus two equaled five, but Daphne still stressed out over what she thought she knew.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) got stuck on the elevator in Frasier's building with some of the residents, and it fell to him to go through the trapdoor in the ceiling where he would find a lever that would open the elevator door. Except for the occasions when he and Frasier played squash, Niles was hardly a physical person, but he climbed an unadorned Christmas tree to reach the trapdoor. In Niles' definition of the term, that must have qualified as heroic.

Well, that is what he did, but afterward when he looked down through the trapdoor, the other occupants of the elevator were nowhere to be found and nothing was there but the tree. So Niles, clad in a new silk suit that was susceptible to tree sap, tried to climb back down the tree.

It was a rough descent, to be sure. Viewers didn't see much, but they could surmise a lot from what they heard — and what they could see when a disheveled and grimy Niles staggered into Frasier's apartment. Daphne mentioned Niles' entrance to the masseur, but she lacked the context that Niles' story provided.

That rings so true, doesn't it? It seems no one else is ever as aware of someone's trials and tribulations as the person who is directly affected. If for example someone is late to work because of a flat tire, that person's account of the morning is likely to center on that — and perhaps not so much on the complete absence of a co–worker, an absence that could be explained by any one of several much more serious circumstances.

The last tale was introduced by a detail that Niles gave — of Roz coming to the door, snarling "Merry Christmas" to Frasier and throwing a Christmas package on the floor. The sound of shattering glass left little doubt about the package's contents.

It had recently been revealed on the show that Roz was pregnant, but she had not yet informed her mother, who lived in Wisconsin but was coming to Seattle to visit her daughter during the holidays. Roz was stressed out over how to break the news to her mother — and she had been putting on some pregnancy pounds.

Frasier, though, had already spilled the beans. When Frasier and Roz were at the cafe, a call from Roz's mother was forwarded to Frasier's cell phone. She wanted to go over the details of her flight time with Roz. After Roz went to the counter to place her order, Frasier cautioned Roz's mom that Roz had been out of sorts because of picking up some pregnancy pounds. He urged her to be careful what she said to Roz, not realizing that Roz hadn't broken the news to her mother yet.

Roz was still stressing over how to tell her mother that she was pregnant when she and Frasier prepared to be Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus at a charity event. That was when she learned that Frasier had let the cat out of the bag.

And she was furious.

That package she smashed on Frasier's floor contained champagne glasses.

Anyway, when it was obvious that everyone had been through an enormously stressful holiday period, Frasier decided to give them his Christmas presents on Christmas Eve — he intended to take each one aside and tell them all how much they meant to him.

When that was met with an extremely negative response, Frasier quickly offered to have a masseur work on each one — and that was greeted with much more enthusiasm.

And that was where the whole holiday tale was told — on the massage table.

When There's a Full Moon Over Brooklyn

"Love don't make things nice — it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die."

Ronny (Nicolas Cage)

Love triangles are, by their nature, complicated.

They become more complicated when all the parties are friends — and even more complicated when some are related. Most of the time, I suppose some of the parties are related by marriage, but sometimes they are related by blood.

Norman Jewison's "Moonstruck," which premiered in New York on this day in 1987, had both — well, kinda. There were several romances going on, and sometimes they overlapped. And all that got complicated, too.

The primary love story in "Moonstruck" involved a widow named Loretta (Cher), her boneheaded fiancé Johnny (Danny Aiello) and Johnny's brother (Nicolas Cage).

I liked a description that film critic Roger Ebert wrote several years ago. The story, Ebert wrote, "exists in a Brooklyn that has never existed, a Brooklyn where the full moon makes the night like day and drives people crazy with amore, when the moon–a hits their eyes like a big–a pizza pie. The soundtrack is equal parts 'La Boheme' and Dean Martin, and Ronny Cammareri's feelings are like those of an operatic hero, larger than life and more dramatic, as when he tells Loretta why he hates his brother Johnny."

So there's that.

Johnny proposed to Loretta before departing for Sicily to be with his dying mother. Loretta accepted the proposal but said she wanted to be sure they followed tradition. It was her failure to do so the first time, she believed, that put the curse on her first marriage, leading to her first husband's death. Following tradition was OK with Johnny, and he told Loretta to be sure Ronny was invited to the wedding.

Loretta did not love Johnny; convinced that she was unlucky in love, Loretta was content to marry him even though she did not love him, but everything changed when she met Ronny.

Life can be funny that way, you know?

Further complicating things were a couple of extramarital affairs in Loretta's own family.

Her father (Vincent Gardenia) was having an affair and so was her mother (Olympia Dukakis).

Cher and Dukakis took home Oscars for their performances. Jewison was nominated for Best Director, and Gardenia was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And the movie was nominated for Best Picture.