Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Disaster at Sea Was No Disaster on Silver Screen

Disaster movies were fixtures in theaters in the 1970s.

"The Poseidon Adventure," which premiered on this day in 1972, wasn't the first disaster movie and it most assuredly was not the last, but it may have been the best.

It included five Oscar winners in its cast — Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson and Red Buttons — and won two Oscars — for Best Original Song and a Special Achievement Award for special effects.

In the movie Carol Lynley appeared to be singing the song — "The Morning After" — but, in fact, it was sung by an unseen vocalist, Renee Armand. Maureen McGovern recorded the song and made it a hit.

On a fictional cruise ship closely modeled after the RMS Queen Mary, a group of people fought to survive after the ship capsized in a tsunami on New Year's Eve. Up was down and down was up. To survive they had to make their way to what had been the lowest level of the ship — but was now the highest.

I always thought "The Poseidon Adventure" was a cut above most of the disaster movies of that era. Its characters were developed better; consequently, the viewers empathized more than they did in other disaster movies that were more superficial in their character treatments.

The disaster movies of the '70s benefited when the acting was good — which was seldom — and, to be sure, some of the stars of "The Poseidon Adventure" were guilty of flagrant overacting — most notably Hackman, Winters and Borgnine. By and large, though, the acting in "The Poseidon Adventure" was good. It was truly an all–star cast, although some of the stars made little more than cameo appearances.

There were some truly harrowing moments in "The Poseidon Adventure," too. Oh, sure, sometimes they were kind of cheap thrills, the ones that make you involuntarily recoil from the safety of the theater seat you're occupying when the characters on the screen face some kind of threat. Because the acting was better than usual for a disaster movie, audiences cared more about the characters in "The Poseidon Adventure."

Of course, the acting was never the main attraction in a disaster movie. It was the special effects that mattered — and, as I mentioned earlier, the special effects in "The Poseidon Adventure" received a special award at the Oscars.

In hindsight, sure, the story was over the top. I mean, this giant tsunami struck precisely at midnight on New Year's Eve. Perfect timing, huh?

(There has always been a segment of the movie market, though, that responds to escapism — while discerning viewers usually prefer plausible escapability, for some people escapism of any kind will do. Hence the appeal of the "Sharknado" movies. Somehow "The Poseidon Adventure" qualified as plausible escapability.)

But that was the thing about '70s disaster movies. They were always over the top.

Roger Ebert was more cynical in his review of the movie, saying it was "the kind of movie you know is going to be awful and yet somehow you gotta see it."

Like a car accident or a train wreck, I suppose.

But I disagree with that assessment. I didn't think it was an awful movie when I first saw it, and I didn't expect it to be (unlike, say, "The Towering Inferno"), but I was rather young and not as jaded as I later became. Maybe I should have expected worse.

But if I had, I would have been wrong.

The story was plausible enough that it sustained the viewer's interest, and that is a credit to the writers.

But, while "The Poseidon Adventure" received seven other Oscar nominations in addition to the one for Best Original Song, it was not recognized for its writing.

And that bothers me because it seems that it is from the story that the other categories — especially sound, art direction and cinematography — take their leads. If they were worthy of Oscar consideration, the writing that inspired them should have been as well.

Monday, December 11, 2017

To Catch a Falling Star

"If you're a star you don't stop being a star."

Margaret (Bette Davis)

It is human nature, I suppose, to be reluctant to give up anything that is comfortable and familiar — whatever it may be.

People who have been in the public spotlight — athletes, politicians, movie stars — seem particularly stubborn about acknowledging the ravages of time or the fickleness of followers. Their resistance is doomed to failure, of course, and most of them probably already know that the batting average for those who preceded them is roughly .000, but they always seem to think that they will be the exception.

Bette Davis played such a character in "The Star," which premiered on this day in 1952. There was an ironic twist to the casting — but I'll come back to that.

Davis' character had once been an in–demand Hollywood star whose latest movies always drew long lines at the box office, an Academy Award winner, but that was when she was young and beautiful. Davis still saw herself that way, but the moviegoing public did not. (Davis, by the way, was 44 when the movie premiered and more than 20 years removed from her own big–screen debut.)

Davis' character clearly was in the stages of grief later described by Elisabeth Kübler–Ross. Mostly in "The Star," she alternated between the anger and denial stages, but there was a generous helping of depression and even a bit of bargaining involved.

Ultimately all that was followed by the acceptance stage, but it came at the very end, and the audience had to go through that journey with Davis. It was the point of the movie.

Davis' character, who apparently hadn't been in a movie for quite awhile and was forced to sell many of her most valuable possessions to pay her debts, was offered a small role that was completely at odds with her self–image — the role of the older sister of a younger, sexier character (played by the latest Hollywood sex symbol).

In her screen test, Davis' character figured she could snag the starring role by putting a sexy spin on her performance. But that — predictably — was a dismal failure, and Davis realized what Sterling Hayden (a former actor Davis had helped once) and a young Natalie Wood (14 when "The Star" premiered and cast as Davis' daughter) had been trying to tell her.

Her career was over. It was time to decide what she was going to do with the rest of her life.

Wood's role was definitely a supporting one — and not really all that big, even for a supporting role — but symbolically she represented the future, Hollywood's real–life next generation — in many ways like Davis' younger rival in "The Star."

Davis did receive her ninth Best Actress nomination (she lost to Shirley Booth) but would be so honored only once more in her lifetime — for "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Wood, on the other hand, received only three Oscar nominations and rarely received praise for what she did, but she seldom lacked for work in her comparatively brief career.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Devil Made Him Do It

"Well, I suppose Lust and Gluttony really have to be rather near the bathroom."

Stanley (Dudley Moore)

Every generation has its sex symbol, and Raquel Welch was the sex symbol for mine — at least when I was a boy.

Her appeal had long been eclipsed by others when I got older — but she was 27 and still in her peak years when she appeared in a British Faustian comedy, "Bedazzled," that premiered on this day in 1967.

Well, she played a character named Lust. That should tell you everything you really need to know.

(Side note here: "Bedazzled" combined elements that could be seen in past and future projects. It reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode that first aired seven years earlier and a movie that was in theaters more than 30 years later.)

But she wasn't the object of Dudley Moore's affections when the movie began. Moore's character, a short–order cook, was smitten with a waitress (Eleanor Bron) with whom he worked. And he earnestly prayed for the courage to approach her.

Observing all this was the Devil (Peter Cook), who struck a deal with Moore for his soul. In exchange, Moore received seven wishes.

There were some inside jokes that mostly Britons would get. For example, after acquiring Moore's soul, Cook asked him what his first wish would be. Did he want to be prime minister? Then Cook corrected himself: "No, I've made that deal already."

Actually, Moore's wishes all involved winning the waitress, but the Devil kept manipulating things to make the wishes fail.

Well, the waitress might not have been terribly responsive, but Lust certainly was, visiting Moore in his bedroom and shucking her dress, revealing red bra and panties she wore underneath. Raquel often wore revealing clothes and underclothes — but I don't think she ever revealed much beyond that — in her movies.

If she had been the sex symbol for a later generation, she might have. But not at that time.

That tricky Devil really had it in for Moore, though. He made him squander his wishes, then cheated him out of the last one by claiming that the first "wish" had been one Moore made at the Devil's urging — to prove he really was the Devil.

That left Moore having to spend the rest of his existence in the form of his last wish — in Moore's case, that was as a nun.

And at a farewell party for Moore, Raquel was a go–go dancer.

Actually, it was a rather small part for Raquel. Not many lines. Not much screen time. I guess she was mostly eye candy.

As the story required personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, someone had to play Lust. And who better than the sex symbol of the day? But I really thought that Lust would figure more prominently in this kind of story.

Anyway, Moore had the last laugh, reacquiring his soul and returning to his old life as a short–order cook with the same crush on the waitress — but determined to get no more help from the Devil.

"Bedazzled" was underrated by the critics of the day, but it had a wry sense of humor that seems to gain admirers with the passage of time.

A Run-In With Runaways

Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) would probably tell you that a lawman is never really off duty — even in a bump in the road like Mayberry.

I'm pretty sure that would be his conclusion concerning the episode of the Andy Griffith Show that first aired on this night in 1962 — "Convicts at Large."

Barney and Floyd (Howard McNear) had been fishing and started to return to Mayberry — only to discover that they were out of gas. So they set off on foot to see if they could find some.

They stumbled onto a cabin in the woods that was owned by a friend of theirs who was known to be out of town — but they saw smoke rising from the chimney so they knew someone was there. They thought it was their friend; they didn't realize that the occupants of the cabin were three escaped convicts — three women.

When they went to the door, the convicts welcomed them — and then took them hostage.

The leader of the convicts was Big Maude, played by character actress Reta Shaw, who was recognized for her work on the big and small screens. She made appearances in many of the popular TV programs of her day — and returned to the Andy Griffith Show the following year in an appearance as Barney Fife's voice teacher.

In that episode Shaw played Barney's advocate. In this one she played his adversary. And when Floyd and one of the convicts went into town to pick up provisions, Big Maude warned him not to try any "funny business," or Barney would pay the price.

Well, none of the convicts called him Barney. They all called him Al because he reminded them of an old acquaintance. Before the show was over, it seemed they actually believed that Barney was Al.

During the excursion into town, Floyd bumped into Andy (Andy Griffith), and Andy gathered from what he heard and observed that there was some kind of party going on up at the cabin. But after Floyd and one of the cons drove off, the bus pulled up and Andy's friend stepped off. He was back from his trip.

And when Andy approached him and asked him a few questions, he insisted he hadn't rented his cabin to anyone while he was away and that no one should be living there. Andy had heard a radio bulletin about the escaped cons and concluded something was amiss at the cabin so he and the friend drove up there.

Back at the cabin, the convicts played some records and wanted to dance.

They also did some cooking, but they needed some water so one went out — and was taken into custody by Andy and his colleague.

When the first one didn't return, a second one was sent to see what the problem could be. She, too, was taken into custody.

That left Big Maude. And Barney maneuvered her into position to be handcuffed be agreeing to dance with her.

Just about everyone was involved in capturing the escapees — except Floyd, who was mostly an observer.

But, in the end, he got all the credit in the local newspaper.

This was kind of a bittersweet episode. It was the final one before McNear suffered a stroke that rendered one side of his body virtually paralyzed.

McNear was absent from the series for awhile, then came back but was always seen in a seated position.

His character is probably one of the best loved from the series, but he never walked on screen again after this episode.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Half a Lottery Ticket Is Better Than None

In the episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night in 1972, "Edith's Winning Ticket," it seemed like an ordinary weekend in the Bunker household.

Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) were on their way to an art museum; as long as they were going out, Edith (Jean Stapleton) asked them to mail a letter and Archie (Carroll O'Connor) wanted them to exchange some new shoes that didn't fit right.

This was one part of the story that struck me as odd. Archie must have tried on the shoes before buying them. Shouldn't he have known they didn't fit well? However contrived, though, it served a purpose for the story. To make the exchange they would need the receipt so Edith started going through her purse.

She eventually found the receipt — as well as some old lottery tickets that had been long forgotten. Archie chastised her for spending money on lottery tickets.

Meanwhile, Gloria had been reading the print on the tickets and discovered they were good for a year after purchase; then Gloria called the store where the tickets had been purchased to inquire about the winning numbers for that day. Turned out one of the tickets was a winner — of $500.

Archie was elated — until Edith told him the ticket didn't belong to them.

And she proceeded — in her unique way — to explain that 10 months earlier she had bought the tickets at the request of Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford). Both Edith and Louise had forgotten about the tickets.

Archie focused on how to keep from losing anything — until he realized that Mrs. Jefferson had never paid for the lottery tickets. As long as no money had changed hands, Archie reasoned, the tickets belonged to the Bunkers — regardless of Edith's reason for buying them.

But Edith was just as insistent that the tickets belonged to Mrs. Jefferson. When Louise came over, accompanied by her brother–in–law, Edith took Louise aside and gave her the ticket.

Louise wanted to split the prize money, but Edith wouldn't hear of it. She wouldn't have bought the tickets if Louise hadn't asked her to do so, Edith said, so Louise could reimburse her for the tickets, but the prize was hers.

Back in the Bunkers' living room, Archie and Louise's brother–in–law were arguing about the ticket.

While Archie's back was turned, Louise flashed the lottery ticket for her brother–in–law to see, and they both left the Bunkers' household. Archie, still thinking the ticket was in Edith's possession, grabbed his coat and told Edith they needed to get to the lottery office to cash in the ticket before it closed.

Before Edith could say anything, the doorbell rang. Archie opened the door to find Louise's brother–in–law standing there. He told Archie that he was willing to split the prize with him. Archie refused. The brother–in–law broke into a big grin and bolted.

Archie was amused — until he learned that the Jeffersons now had the ticket.

He should have remembered the old proverb that half a loaf is better than none.

Friday, December 08, 2017

In Pursuit of Justice

Even when he was dying from lung cancer, Paul Newman always looked younger than he really was.

Most of us would consider that a blessing in a culture that worships youth and beauty, but it can be a real hindrance for an actor. True, appearing to be forever young has helped some get roles that might otherwise have gone to others, but it seems to me that, at some point, a performer wants to play roles that more closely match his/her age, with the knowledge and experience that come with it.

I mean, it seems that it would be darn near impossible to be in your 40s and try to plausibly play a twentysomething. Too much happens in the interim.

"I always thought drinkin' men lost their looks," Elizabeth Taylor said to Newman in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Newman was 33 when he played the part of Brick, who was probably about that age in that story but obsessed with his glory days as a high school athlete. He still looked the part (to Maggie the Cat's chagrin) — and his character even tried to do some of the things he once did only to learn that time always has its way. So does gravity. Even if it doesn't yet show in one's face.

But that's an easier assignment than being, say, in your 60s and playing a character 15 or 20 years younger. So perhaps Newman's youthful appearance worked against him at times.

When Newman made "The Verdict," which premiered on this day in 1982, he wasn't quite 60 years old. I don't know how old his character was supposed to be, but he was a lawyer and a drunk, which is not a good combination, least of all for assessing one's age. Based on things that were mentioned in the movie — when he finished law school, when he became a partner, etc. — Newman's character was probably five or six years younger than the actor.

Not really a stretch, especially for someone who was graying but whose hair hadn't turned totally white. Newman faced greater challenges in his career.

Newman's character's story was a cautionary tale. All the failures in his life — his career, his marriage, everything — could be traced to his struggle with the bottle. But he was still in there pitching. He was mostly an ambulance chaser but a successful one. He seldom lost his cases, and a good friend and ex–teacher (Jack Warden) threw some work his way so he could keep a roof over his head and food on the table.

"The Verdict" was about one such case, a medical malpractice case that appeared to be open and shut. It was a "moneymaker," Newman's friend told him — an enticing word for a down–on–his–luck lawyer. A young woman who was about to deliver a baby was given the wrong anesthetic and was rendered comatose after choking on her own vomit. The Catholic–run hospital was willing to settle out of court, but after a visit to the hospital where the woman was being treated, Newman was determined to take the case to trial.

It was no longer about winning. It was about justice, and it was about redemption.

And the movie wasn't just about professional redemption. Charlotte Rampling was his opportunity for romantic redemption.

I advise the student newspaper at a local community college. Recently I was having a conversation with one of the other advisers about our favorite Paul Newman movies. We compiled a predictable list until I mentioned "The Verdict," and he replied, "Yes, I forgot about that one."

We spoke of the acting — and it received plenty of recognition at the Oscars. Newman was nominated for Best Actor, and James Mason as the lead defense attorney was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The movie was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet) and Best Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. But it didn't win any of those Oscars. It was the year of "Gandhi," and "Gandhi" claimed three of the Oscars for which "The Verdict" was nominated.

A little trivia for you now:

Warden and Edward Binns, who played a bishop, were reunited in a Lumet–directed movie. Twenty–five years earlier, they played jurors in Lumet's "12 Angry Men."

Also, the next time you see "The Verdict," watch for a young Bruce Willis. He was a courtroom observer in this, one of his first movie appearances. Look for him during Newman's closing argument.

(Side note: Whenever I watch "The Verdict," I think about my senior play in high school, Ayn Rand's "The Night of January 16th." I played the judge in that production, and everyone had to stand when I entered or left the room. I thought that was cool.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

When Less Was More

"I like the dark. It's friendly."

Irena (Simone Simon)

The Christmas season hardly seems like the time for a horror movie to be showing on America's silver screens, but that was the case 75 years ago.

I suppose for most people living today, when someone mentions the movie "Cat People," thoughts immediately turn to the 1982 movie starring Nastassja Kinski.

But that was actually a remake of a movie of the same name that premiered on this day in 1942. There were some differences between the two, especially in their directors' and producers' visions of what a horror movie should be — and what it could be, given the times when they were made.

Producer Val Lewton was hired by RKO Pictures to make horror films on less than $150,000 — and they were to be adapted to titles Lewton was given by the studio. Even though things cost less in 1942, $150,000 was still a pretty modest outlay to make a movie, and being given a title with no story was a challenge, to say the least, but Lewton did his job well. He recycled RKO's leftover sets, and director Jacques Tourneur completed filming in less than four weeks, coming in about seven grand under budget.

The movie made $4 million in its first two years, rejuvenating RKO financially.

When the movie began, a Serbian woman (Simone Simon) made sketches of a panther at New York's Central Park Zoo. She caught the eye of a young man who approached her and struck up a conversation.

The two ended up marrying, but Irena believed that she carried a Serbian curse and would become one of the fabled cat people of her homeland if they were intimate.

Thus followed an at times over–the–top story, although there was no denying that animals did react oddly to Irena. She couldn't walk into a pet store without frightening the birds there and provoking the dogs into barking fits.

Her fear of releasing the beast she believed to be within her kept her at arm's length from her boyfriend/husband and drove him into the arms of a co–worker. Audiences in 1942 had to imagine what went on with those two since the Hays Code was still in effect.

But viewers could assume what had happened between the two — as Irena surely did, and it provoked a powerful response from her. Suffice to say the beast had been released.

Frankly, the 1982 version was inferior to the original and pretty heavy on special effects and nudity, not so much graphic violence although there was some of that. It wasn't as heavy on dialogue as the '42 version, either.

By modern standards, I suppose the '42 version would be considered more suspense than horror. That was something Alfred Hitchcock knew well and employed in his movies. Hitchcock knew that sometimes it is better to show nothing than something. If he had shown more of the details of Norman Bates' mother during the infamous shower scene in "Psycho," it wouldn't have had the lasting impact it had.

You will still encounter people who believe Hitchcock directed horror movies, but his style was suspense, as I have mentioned here before. So, too, it would appear was it the style of Tourneur and Lewton.

At least in this movie.

In fact, it is clear to anyone who has watched Hitchcock's movies and the movies of Val Lewton that Hitchcock borrowed at least two scenes from Lewton productions. One was the pet shop scene in "Cat People," which was lifted almost shot for shot in "The Birds" two decades later. And the shower scene in "Psycho" bore a striking resemblance to a scene in "The Seventh Victim," which premiered in 1943.

For that matter Stephen King's books tend to be more suspense than horror, but he made his concessions to modern audiences in some of his books — and, consequently, in the movies that were based on them.

As I said sometimes it's better to show nothing than something. Viewers never saw the cat and never saw Irena's transformation into a cat. But, like the shark in "Jaws," the audience was always aware of the threat nearby.

"Cat People" of 1942 blended classic horror with pure suspense. Sadly, it is underrated and mostly forgotten today, but it is a reminder of Hollywood at its best — when it didn't hesitate to let the viewers be afraid of what lurked in their own minds.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Remake of 'Orient Express' Good Not Great

My father and I went to see the new film adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express" the other day.

It was appropriate that we did. My parents were avid readers of Agatha Christie's books, just as I am today, and I remember watching the 1974 movie adaptation of the story with them. I loved the cast; it was truly a star–studded show — Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, the list went on and on. A real blockbuster.

But there was some impressive talent in the remake, too — Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe.

I asked Dad if he liked it, and he said he did. But he noted the same differences between the movies — as well as similarities — that I did — some noteworthy, some not so much.

We were both glad that Branagh, who directed the movie and played Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, didn't do an exact remake of the first movie — even though the first movie stayed pretty close to the original book while the 2017 version freely admitted in its credits that it was "based" on Christie's book.

Even the parts of the films that were essentially the same were presented differently. In general I could live with that, but the heart of the story was the kidnapping and murder inspired by the real–life abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh's young son, and that seemed to get the short end of the stick in the remake. At least compared with the '74 adaptation.

We agreed that the 2017 adaptation was superior to the 1974 version in its technologically aided production. It's a good thing the acting in the '74 adaptation was so impressive because the '74 movie could never stand up to the new one on technical merits.

The cinematography in both movies was superb. How could it not be with all those picturesque scenes — in the snow?

But the big problem for the latest incarnation of this classic Agatha Christie tale is exactly that — the story itself. Or, rather, the adaptation of '74. Most folks have already heard about the original — and they know about the unusual twist ending.

So it is somewhat anticlimactic when the solution is revealed at the end of the movie.

Besides that, though, the acting was just so good and the '74 movie itself was just so memorable that the new adaptation simply couldn't compete.

I'm sure that those viewers who had no previous exposure to the earlier adaptation found the latest one to be a much more impressive movie than I did.

Not that I am saying that this adaptation was bad. I'm not saying anything like that.

I just think the '74 adaptation was better ... but I preferred the mustache on Branagh's Poirot.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Remembering Marty Feldman

"My looks are my comic equipment, and they are the right packaging for my job."

Marty Feldman

As hard as it is for me to believe, it was 35 years ago today that Marty Feldman died of a heart attack in Mexico City.

He was 48 years old.

I was deeply saddened when he died. It was no secret that Feldman had health issues — he suffered from thyroid disease and developed Graves' ophthalmopathy, causing his eyes to bulge, among other things — but Mel Brooks, who directed two movies in which Feldman appeared ("Young Frankenstein" and "Silent Movie"), apparently had a pretty good idea why Feldman died so young.

"He smoked sometimes half a carton of cigarettes daily," Brooks said, "drank copious amounts of black coffee and ate a diet rich in eggs and dairy products."

Feldman was a unique comedic talent, and, yes, he was right when he said his looks were his equipment. His bug–eyed look was a huge part of his appeal. It is impossible to overestimate the value of his looks to his vocation.

Somehow I think he still would have been funny with more normal eyes.

But without those bug eyes would it have been as funny when Gene Wilder said, "Damn your eyes!" in "Young Frankenstein," and Feldman replied, "Too late"?

I seriously doubt it.

I know that, if he had lived, Feldman would be in his 80s now and almost certainly retired. But we sure could have used his sense of humor in as many of the last 35 years as the fates would allow.

Of Lights and Bushels

"You'll have bad times, but it'll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren't paying attention to."

Sean (Robin Williams)

If you judge solely on the basis of Academy Award nominations and/or wins, "Good Will Hunting," which premiered on this day in 1997, was Robin Williams' best movie.

It may well have been.

When Williams died, I visited Facebook and all my friends were sharing the titles of their favorite Robin Williams movies. And they were all great choices, too. Everyone has a different fave, and it is a tribute to Williams' remarkable talent that so many of his movies made such lasting impressions on people. That is quite a legacy.

I would have picked different movies (I couldn't narrow it down to only one), but I could live with "Good Will Hunting," which was mentioned frequently that night. I only wish I had seen it sooner. It was a powerful performance, and it brought Williams his only Oscar.

That was the year that "Titanic" seemed to sweep the Oscars, collecting 11 awards (14 nominations in all) — but "Good Will Hunting" made its mark, receiving nine nominations and winning two awards. Williams was honored for his acting, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also appeared in the movie) were rewarded for their screenplay. (Damon was also nominated for Best Actor but lost to Jack Nicholson in "As Good as it Gets.")

I suspect there were lots of folks in the last decade or so who could empathize with Will Hunting (Damon). In the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, millions of people probably found themselves working at jobs that didn't match their intellectual predispositions. In those days you found many people with college degrees who were flipping burgers and waiting tables. Still do in some places, I suppose.

But those people were forced to do so by circumstances. Will Hunting was not. Not really. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant individual, and yet he worked as a janitor at MIT — apparently by choice. Why was that?

Well, that was at the heart of the problem — and the movie. The answer wasn't easy to find.

Will Hunting seemed to provide an answer when he spoke admiringly of people who were engaged in manual labor. In his mind, that was real work and worthy of respect and admiration. Mathematics, on the other hand, was not real work. Not to him. Real work required effort.

Will made finding answers look easy. At the beginning of the movie a math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) challenged his students to solve a complex mathematical problem that took multiple chalkboards to present. The professor told the students that few people had been able to solve the problem over the years.

The answer was found written on a board in the hall outside the lecture room the next morning. None of the professor's students would admit to having written it; turned out that Will had written it.

Among other things, there is frustration in being able to see true genius in others and pursuing it yourself but falling short. To be fair, the professor had experienced a certain amount of success in his field, but like Salieri in "Amadeus," he was bewildered when he saw someone who was truly gifted and for whom the application of that gift was effortless but who was almost casual in his treatment of it.

There were many people who tried to help Will find his way — the professor, one of Will's childhood buddies (Ben Affleck), a girl he met (Minnie Driver).

And then there was a therapist (Williams), who had been the professor's college roommate and stood in awe of the professor's intellect. The professor reached out to the therapist when Will ran afoul of the law as a condition for Will's release.

As Williams and Damon explored Will's psyche, it became a journey of discovery for both characters.

Damon's character was driven in part by an affinity for his old friends and neighborhood and in part by emotional injuries suffered earlier in his life. Childhood was clearly a mixed bag for Will.

Williams' character had his own wounds, and he helped Will get on the road to recovery by sharing them. Damon and Affleck put the words in Williams' mouth, but they were good words, and he delivered them with such feeling that the audience believed them to be true. In some ways, I think they were.

"Good Will Hunting" also received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Gus Van Sant), Best Actor (Damon), Best Supporting Actress (Driver), Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Original Song and Best Film Editing.

Had it not been for the language in the movie and the release of "Titanic" a few weeks later, I am convinced that "Good Will Hunting" would have been the big Oscar winner in the spring of 1998. A blockbuster like "Titanic" can come along and overwhelm everything else at any time.

As for the language, well, it wasn't pleasant, but it is an undeniable fact of life that people use those words in everyday conversation — a lot more than they did just a few decades ago. It is realistic for characters to use that kind of language in movies — but it probably was not as commonplace in 1997 as it is today.

Thus, while "Good Will Hunting" was not the big Oscar winner a couple of decades ago, it might well be if it was being released today — even with "Titanic" in the mix.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Taking a Magical Mystery Tour

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" hit the music stores six months earlier, and it was still making headlines on this day in 1967 when "Magical Mystery Tour" was released.

But so were other songs the Beatles had written and recorded but had not yet released on an album — like "All You Need Is Love" and "Baby You're a Rich Man," which were released as the two sides of a single six weeks after the "Sgt. Pepper" album.

The Beatles were constantly experimenting with sounds and recording techniques. They rose to prominence with no real long–term expectations and therefore felt free to go wherever their interests took them. I saw an interview with Ringo Starr from around the time the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he said he hoped the group would be successful enough that he could use his earnings to invest in a beauty shop in London. Neither he nor the other Beatles would have believed it if they had been told their recordings would still be influencing popular music half a century later.

Anyway, following the completion of "Sgt. Pepper," Paul McCartney had a brainstorm. He wanted to create an extemporaneous film about the Beatles and their music. "Ordinary" people (including the Beatles) would travel on a bus and have magical adventures.

The project yielded a 52–minute movie that was aired on the BBC the day after Christmas and was so savaged by the critics that it has been seldom seen since.

It also produced six new Beatles songs — not enough by themselves to make an entire album. Capitol Records rounded out the album by including five previously non–album singles.

As always, the music was good. In fact, for many observers, it was the music that salvaged the entire project. The film had no script and no real direction.

Still in the context of what had come before — and what was yet to come — "Magical Mystery Tour" was exactly what it seemed to be, a hodge–podge of songs consisting of a brief soundtrack and a group of songs that had been released as singles within the previous year.

As I say, though, the music was good. George Harrison was bursting with creativity that would reach full flower a few years later when he released his triple–album solo effort "All Things Must Pass." In 1967, though, he was still a member of the Beatles and getting a handful of spots on albums that were largely dominated by Lennon–McCartney compositions.

Nevertheless, Harrison contributed "Blue Jay Way" and shared credit with John Lennon, McCartney and Starr on the instrumental "Flying."

Yes, the music was good, but the album and film were disjointed. It wasn't surprising that both got mixed reviews.

It richly deserves its place in the Beatles discography. But it doesn't flow seamlessly in the Beatles' musical timeline.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Back in the Saddle Again

Coach (Nicholas Colasanto): Damnedest thing. I've been shivering all the way over here.

Diane (Shelley Long): Well, Coach, you don't have a coat on. It's 30 degrees outside.

Coach: Oh, thank God. I thought I had malaria.

I often think what a shame it was that Nicholas Colasanto died only a few seasons into the lengthy run of Cheers!

As a result, many of the people who watched the show never knew Coach — just as many people who watched M*A*S*H never knew Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson).

Stevenson left M*A*S*H voluntarily but later said he regretted that decision.

Both departures were abrupt. Through nearly all of his last episode, Stevenson was believed to be going home (leaving open the possibility of future guest appearances) — until his airplane was reported shot down over the Sea of Japan in the episode's final minutes. Coach just died without any explanation being given.

And both departures brought replacements — Col. Potter on M*A*S*H and Woody on Cheers! — who are remembered and loved while their predecessors have mostly faded from memory.

The episode of Cheers! that first aired on this night in 1982, "Coach Returns to Action," provides an indication of what was lost.

For the benefit of those readers who missed the character entirely: Coach was a former baseball coach, and he had been Sam's coach before the series' timeline began. When the series premiered, Coach was retired from coaching, now a bartender for Sam (Ted Danson). He was rather slow and plodding but with the proverbial heart of gold.

As the episode opened, Coach was even more out to lunch than usual. An attractive young woman named Nina (Murphy Cross) had moved into his apartment building, and he had helped her with her furniture. In the process he had become smitten with her.

The thing that bugged Coach was the difference in their ages. It was never specified for the audience, but there was a quarter century between the ages of the actor and actress, and the audience could see there was an age gap when Nina visited the bar.

Diane (Shelley Long) encouraged him to ask her out. She also ran interference for Coach, trying to dissuade notorious ladies' man Sam from approaching her. Sam approached her anyway and kept getting shot down.

Meanwhile, Coach made a sincere attempt to invite Nina out to dinner, but she insisted she still had a lot of unpacking to do.

That was when Coach used a ruse to turn things around. I'd rather not spoil it for those who haven't seen it. Catch it on the DVD of Season 1 or on Netflix. You'll thank me for it.

This episode also had one of my favorite Cheers! dialogues that had nothing to do with the story but everything to do with the characters' personalities.

Diane wondered aloud why people drink cold beer in winter. Norm (George Wendt) turned to know–it–all Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and asked for an explanation.

"How do you know he has one?" Diane asked Norm.

"Five bucks says he does," Norm replied. "Ten bucks says it's a doozy."

They both looked at Cliff, who said, "When the British ruled the Punjab ..."

"Ten bucks all the way!" Norm said triumphantly.

The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen on the Silver Screen

Ordinarily I don't like to devote a post in this blog to anything — movie, music, book, TV show — I have written about before.

But I'm making an exception for "Hans Christian Andersen," which premiered in New York 65 years ago today.

It was one of my favorite movies as a child, and that was what inspired me to write about it seven years ago. But what I wrote on that occasion was different than what I want to say on this one. This time I want to talk more about the movie.

Although, on the other hand, I really should start with something that I mentioned indirectly in 2010.

Before I learned to read, my mother read all kinds of children's stories to me, and the Hans Christian Andersen stories were always my favorites. I liked 'em even better than I liked Dr. Seuss — probably because they were more applicable to life as I knew it.

And that led to my introduction to the movie that made its debut in 1952.

I wanted to share that movie with the stepdaughter of one of my oldest and closest friends. I'm not sure how old she was at the time — maybe 6 or 7 — but I felt she was just the right age for the movie (it seems to me that I was 6 or 7 when I first saw it) so I made a video tape of it and gave it to her.

And it turned out I was right. I may not be exactly right about the age thing, but she loved the movie. Her mother told me she would sing snippets of the many songs Danny Kaye sang in it.

Talk about making a joyful noise.

The movie was never intended to be a true biography so I wouldn't recommend it as a source to anyone who may be writing a paper on Andersen's life. Instead it was a fictional account of Andersen's life based on his famous fairy tales, among them "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Little Mermaid" and "Thumbelina," among others — and there were songs written for each. In the movie Andersen told his stories to groups of children from his village and sang the songs for them.

It was enchanting — and, as I have said here on other occasions, I am not a fan of musicals. Elise found it enchanting, too, and I decided her Hans Christian Andersen experience was incomplete without the actual stories that she could read when she got old enough — so I gave her a collection of Andersen's writings.

The movie was in the works for more than 15 years. It was the brainchild of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had several writers work on the screenplay over the years. There was even a time when it appeared Walt Disney might produce the movie, but that didn't work out.

My guess is that Disney regretted that. The movie received six Oscar nominations, and it was one of the top 10 moneymakers in 1952.

One never really outgrows the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Sure, they are aimed at young people, but there are also valuable lessons for adults — and they are written to appeal to both groups.

The same is true of the movie.

One of the Best Film Noirs of All Time

"I sell gasoline. I make a small profit. With that I buy groceries. The grocer makes a profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere."

Jeff (Robert Mitchum)

One of my favorite Paul Simon songs never made much of a ripple on the radio but rode "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" to the top of the charts as its B side — "Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy."

"Out of the Past," which debuted on this day in 1947, always makes me think of that song.

Because, as the song says, some folks' lives do roll easy, and "some folks' lives never roll at all." Some people follow straight trajectories onward and upward to the top (or, at least, in that general direction); most of us, I guess, have something in our pasts from which we're trying to escape.

In director Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past," Robert Mitchum was trying to break free from his past as a private investigator. But, like Al Pacino in "The Godfather Part III," he kept being pulled back in.

The story line doesn't exactly roll easy, either, but that is what might just make "Out of the Past" one of the best film noirs of all time — maybe even the best. Don't sit back to watch this with a beer in your hand, though. You'll need all your wits about you to keep up with the twists and turns in this one.

You'll find it is worth it.

There is an intriguing dynamic between Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, who were distinctly different in their styles. In a typical film noir way, the movie reeks with symbolism from the (literally) dark scenes to the clear cinematic triangle of good–guy Mitchum, bad–guy Douglas and femme fatale Jane Greer.

Douglas was a gangster, and Greer was his mistress. Douglas alleged Greer had shot him and stolen money from him; Mitchum, as a private investigator, had been hired to track her down.

After he found Greer, Mitchum became infatuated with her and ultimately confessed that he had been hired to find her. This did not come as a surprise to Greer; in fact, she had suspected as much and had been preparing her story all along.

And what a story it was. She denied stealing Douglas' money and urged Mitchum to run away with her. But Mitchum discovered that she was a liar and a killer.

Then the story got complicated ...

It is probably important to note that much of the story was told through flashbacks. After Mitchum and Greer eventually split up and Mitchum tried to start over again as a gas station operator, part of his new life involved a new girlfriend. This one, played by Virginia Huston, was much nicer, a real girl next door, and it was to her that Mitchum told the story as they were driving to meet with Douglas.

"She can't be all bad," Huston said at one point. "No one is."

"She comes closest," Mitchum replied.

His character was right about that. Greer had the qualities of a great femme fatale — on the screen as in life, a true femme fatale has no remorse for anything she does. She is completely self–centered, and she is beautiful and seductive enough that any man, even ones as smart and as tough as the ones with whom she was involved in "Out of the Past," could fall for her.

Although uncredited in many of his early films, Mitchum was known largely as a film noir actor at first. In hindsight, he seems like a natural choice for the role in "Out of the Past," but he was the fourth choice to play the part. Humphrey Bogart was the first choice, and by all accounts I have read he wanted to play it, but Bogart was under contract to Warner Brothers and RKO Pictures owned the rights to "Out of the Past."

John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the role, and it went to Mitchum.

Sentiment Has No Cash Value

Mike (Rob Reiner): Doubleheader today, huh, Arch?

Archie (Carroll O'Connor): What do you mean?

Mike: You're gonna cheat the insurance company and Ma.

One of my favorite movie lines comes from a relatively unknown 1950s Christmas comedy, "We're No Angels," in which Basil Rathbone's character remarked, "Sentiment has no cash value."

That could have been Archie Bunker's mantra in the episode of TV's All in the Family that premiered on this night in 1972 — "The Locket."

Well, it could have been his mantra throughout the entire series — but especially in this episode. Archie had little regard for sentiment — except his own.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) couldn't find an antique necklace she had inherited from her grandmother, and Archie (Carroll O'Connor) had no interest in the matter until he learned how much the necklace was worth — enough to buy a new color TV.

Color TVs were real status symbols in 1972. Many folks still had black–and–white TV sets in their homes, and the one the Bunkers had in their home may have been a black–and–white. Most blue–collar households had black–and–white TVs in those days. When a household acquired a color TV, it was an event.

Archie hadn't been thinking of buying a color TV until that moment when two things happened at once — one was the disappearance of Edith's antique locket and the other was the fact that the picture tube was missing from the Bunkers' TV set. Edith told Archie that the repairman told her a new one would cost $75 — a considerable sum in 1972.

As Archie was complaining about his day, Edith commiserated and told Archie about her missing locket. When Archie dismissed the locket as being worthless — he called it a "hunk of junk" — Edith protested that a local jeweler had offered her $150 for it. Archie's eyes lit up, and he concluded they could get $300 from the insurance company when sentimental value was factored in.

Money could never replace the locket, Edith insisted, and Archie replied that it wasn't going to be replaced by money. It would be replaced by a brand–new color TV.

So Archie paid a visit to his insurance agent to report the loss and learned that he was only covered if the locket was stolen — and he made up a story about the locket being taken by "the neighborhood mugger."

There were too many gaps in Archie's account, though, so the insurance company arranged to send someone out to the Bunkers' home to get some additional details.

In the meantime, Edith returned to the house with good news. Her locket had been found. It turned out that the locket really had been stolen, and she had been called to the police station to identify it. The police were holding it as evidence for the trial of the thief, then it would be returned to her.

All the activity had kept Edith from doing her shopping so she left to do it then. Better late than never.

Archie, still unaware of Edith's news, returned home to accept delivery of a new color TV. He was positively elated. But his elation soon dissolved into desperation and despair when he learned that Edith's locket had been found, and he was determined to keep Edith away from the house while the insurance agent was there.

So he sent Gloria (Sally Struthers) out to run up and down the street and try to divert Edith when she came into view. Naturally it didn't work, and Edith showed up shortly after the insurance agent did. Archie thought all was lost.

But then Edith told the insurance agent that her locket had been stolen and she described the man who stole it. She even provided his name. Archie was delighted and encouraged Edith not to push her luck. She insisted that she wasn't lying.

Then she proved it.

When the insurance agent produced a document for her to sign stating that the locket had been stolen and she didn't know where it was, she balked.

"But I do know where the locket is," she said, and out came the whole story about her locket. The agent was delighted, having saved the company $300. Edith was delighted that the locket had been found.

And Archie was left with the bill for a new TV. It is safe to say he wasn't delighted.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Bringing a Stage Play to the Screen

For a long time, "Mourning Becomes Electra," which premiered on this day in 1947, was treated like a cinematic afterthought.

It was seldom seen on TV and unavailable in video tape or any comparable format (such as laserdisc) until it was finally released on DVD about a dozen years ago.

Why was that?

Well, it could have been the movie's performance at the box office. It lost more than $2.3 million.

I've read some reviews in which critics dismissed it as "stagey" and "wordy." I could understand that being a problem today. If it seemed that way to critics 70 years ago, I can only imagine what today's critics would say.

But it was adapted from a play written by Eugene O'Neill so it was to be expected that it would seem stagey. After all most of the action took place on a single set. And it would also be expected that it would be wordy. Plays tend to be driven by dialogue, not flashy explosions or car chases.

And, for its time, the movie was rather long — nearly three hours. But when it performed poorly at the box office and failed to win an Oscar, RKO Pictures made a decision that made matters worse — to slice about an hour from the film and re–release it. The original version, while long, made sense; the chopped–up version did not.

Fortunately, the movie has been restored to its original length — and, while it is not ordinarily my policy to promote a particular TV network, I must say that you can count on seeing that original version on Turner Classic Movies, which airs it fairly frequently. That is where I saw it, and I was impressed.

As a matter of fact, TCM will be showing the restored version on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 3 p.m. (Central). Do not — I repeat, do not — watch the pared–down version. You have been warned.

In case you aren't familiar with the background of the movie, it was an adaptation of O'Neill's 1931 play that was, in turn, a re–telling of Aeschylus' Greek play "Oresteia" set in post–Civil War America.

Rosalind Russell's performance as Lavinia was so good it was a foregone conclusion she would win an Oscar; according to Oscar lore, when the Best Actress nominees were recited but before the winner was named, Russell rose from her seat, only to sink back down in it when it was announced that Loretta Young had won for "The Farmer's Daughter."

The comedic actress was nominated for Best Actress four times but never won.

Michael Redgrave was nominated for Best Actor that year but lost to Ronald Colman in "A Double Life." That was a pity, too, because it was his only Oscar nomination in a long and distinguished career on the stage and screen.

Redgrave, incidentally, is the only Best Actor nominee to have two daughters who were both nominated for Best Actress as well.

For some Russell's performance may seem overblown, and maybe it was, but I thought the character called for some of that, and Russell was good at it — better than Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, both of whom reportedly were considered for the role.

Kirk Douglas and Raymond Massey were great, as always. In fact, the acting on the whole was superb.

O'Neill's play has long been regarded a jewel of the modern American stage so it was no surprise to me that the actors turned in top–notch performances, and that can be enthralling on the stage, where the play can easily run twice as long as the movie.

Producer/director Dudley Nichols adapted the play for the screen, and as a writer I can appreciate his fealty to the original work. If you have ever seen the play and the movie, you know he tried to resist the temptation to stray from O'Neill's work.

But that may have worked against him. As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther observed in his review, "It is one thing to watch a group of actors hiss and scream their deep emotions on a stage; it is quite something else to see the same thing done at great length by a group of photographs."

Motion pictures were still evolving in 1947, and filming adaptations of plays was still something of a mystery for many. That is why so many such movies appear now to be little more than films of stage productions — because that is essentially what they were. Shakespeare's plays have always been great on the stage, but it took considerable adaptation and experimentation to successfully bring them to the silver screen.

That was still a problem for O'Neill's plays 15 years later. By all accounts, director Sidney Lumet did a great job with "Long Day's Journey Into Night" — it even brought Katharine Hepburn an Oscar nomination — but, because that play, too, was largely confined to one set, even Lumet could not break past the impression that he had filmed a stage production.

Life's Rich Pageant

In "Rooms With a View," the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 2002, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) had been brought to the hospital for heart surgery — an event that had been set up nicely by the previous week's episode (in which the audience was introduced to a rarely discussed medical concept called referred pain).

Having spent more time in hospital rooms than I care to think about, I enjoyed this episode for its satirical treatment of the topic. The opening segment, in which the family was waiting with Niles for his surgeon to arrive to go over the procedure with them, was hilarious.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had beaten the surgeon to it. He had researched Niles' condition, put his findings on paper and made copies for everyone. That was his way of coping. In another episode, Frasier had bragged about his lifelong prowess at homework. This proved it as far as he was concerned.

(Frasier made sure that everyone — especially the surgeon — knew he had consulted with a colleague from his alma mater, Harvard.)

Martin (John Mahoney), on the other hand, was engaged in his typical response to a medical crisis — denial. It was what he had been doing as long as Niles and Frasier could remember — pretending the problem didn't exist.

"Things always turned out all right, though," Frasier told Niles. "They will this time, too."

Daphne (Jane Leeves) was simply terrified. Nothing would reassure her until Niles was out of surgery — although Roz (Peri Gilpin) tried her best to be reassuring, suggesting things like thinking about fun things to do (like take a trip somewhere) when it was all over.

But it was the next segment, in which Niles was being wheeled to the operating room, that gave the episode its name — and poignancy. Under the strong influence of hospital–administered drugs, Niles imagined moments from his past that had been spent in hospitals.

Like the time he was in the hospital with a broken leg, suffered when Frasier allegedly pushed him down the stairs (although Niles confessed that he hadn't been pushed; he had jumped because he wanted to fly like a Valkyrie). Niles recalled the scene in his hospital room when Martin brought him an Archie comic book to help him pass the time.

And the time he visited a heavily bandaged Maris following plastic surgery.

And the moment that had just occurred seconds earlier — when Daphne promised Niles she would be waiting for him when he came out of surgery.

In a few minutes, Frasier displayed the kinds of moments that hospital personnel have probably seen countless times.

But one of the best moments was one Niles couldn't possibly have remembered. It was the scene in his mother's hospital room after she gave birth to him. Neither mother nor baby could be seen — only a young Martin holding a small Frasier.

When Martin told Frasier that was his new brother in the crib next to his mother's bed, Frasier, in a typically honest child's response, replied, "I don't like him."

While the family was in the waiting room, Frasier remarked on how life was played out within the walls of the hospital. And there is no disputing that. People are born in the hospital, they recover from injuries and illnesses in the hospital — and sometimes they die in the hospital.

For most people that is probably where it all ends. Speaking of which, Martin's hospital flashback concerned the time the doctor shared a dire prognosis for his wife.

It didn't end that way for Niles, though. At least, not yet.

And as she was leaving his room, Daphne walked past another room and had her own flashback — or should that be flash forward? In it were Niles and Daphne — Niles held a small child and Daphne, in her hospital bed, held a newborn.

At the time, Daphne and Niles had been married a short time and had no children yet. The clear implication was that life would go on.

A positive note on which to end the episode.

And Leeves deserved kudos for her performance.

The First Slapsgiving

An ongoing holiday joke on How I Met Your Mother was born on this night in 2007 when the episode "Slapsgiving" first aired.

Nothing really new about that. Holidays are almost entirely about traditions, and those traditions frequently were started by those who continued to carry them out.

And so it was with this one, although there were several other things going on at the same time that tended to overlap with the holiday in typically How I Met Your Mother ways.

The tradition of the gang gathering for the holiday was initially the brainchild of Lily (Alyson Hannigan) who really wanted to celebrate her first Thanksgiving being married to Marshall (Jason Segel). Thus she wanted Robin (Cobie Smulders), Ted (Josh Radnor) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) to participate.

But there were complications.

Ted and Robin had been dating, but they broke up several months before Thanksgiving. In fact, by the time of Thanksgiving, Robin had started dating a man who was 41 but appeared to be much older to Ted (he kept seeing him as Orson Bean, who was nearly 80 when he appeared in this program).

It's safe to say Ted and Robin had some post–relationship issues.

A different kind of issue was obsessing Marshall and Barney.

How I Met Your Mother followers will recall "the slap bet" Marshall and Barney made the season before. If you haven't seen that episode, you should. It will make a lot of things make sense. But the bottom line was that Marshall was awarded five slaps to administer to Barney whenever he wished.

And Marshall had decided to use one at Thanksgiving, going so far as to post a slap countdown on the computer. Marshall clearly got a lot of enjoyment from taunting Barney, who dissolved into a nervous wreck.

Compelled by circumstances, Robin and Ted talked about their relationship and how awkward it had been. As a couple, they had a personal joke in which, whenever someone used a phrase that was preceded by a military rank (i.e., "general chaos") they would salute and say, in unison, "General Chaos."

Since breaking up, that hadn't happened, even when rather obvious opportunities presented themselves.

At Thanksgiving dinner, Barney was such a wreck that Lily — the slap bet commissioner — ruled that there would be no slap on the holiday. Barney was immediately revived and began gloating — and refused to stop, even when Lily instructed him to stop so Lily reversed herself and told Marshall to go ahead with the slap. He complied.

And Robin and Ted discovered that they could continue to be friends. When Bob used the phrase "major buzzkill," Robin and Ted saluted and said, "Major Buzzkill."

It was a well–written episode about life and love and all that stuff.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

What Happens on Board ...

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Latin singing sensation, Carlos 'the Barracuda' del Gato?

Roz (Peri Gilpin): Don't you remember him from the '70s? He invented that big dance craze, the Barracuda.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Believe it or not, Maris was a big fan of his.

Frasier: No.

Niles: Yes, that was the one dance she could do. The Hustle was too strenuous. She had no booty to shake.

It was common knowledge in the Frasier series that Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) liked rubbing elbows with celebrities.

Ordinarily he had a policy against doing commercial endorsements so when Roz (Peri Gilpin) approached him about an offer from a cruise line — a celebrity entertainer had canceled on a trip to Alaska, and if Frasier would give a lecture on the ship, he and Roz could travel for free — he was hesitant.

Until Roz dropped a few names of well–known folks who had gone on the cruises. Then Frasier was eager to go.

But Frasier's party didn't stop at two. The rest of the family came along as well. Frasier invited his father (John Mahoney) to accompany him — although I believe that must have happened off camera — then he invited Niles (David Hyde Pierce), who was despondent because his estranged wife, the often–mentioned but never truly seen Maris, was skipping town on their anniversary. Niles had hoped they could spark a reconciliation on their anniversary, but that had been taken away. To Switzerland.

So Frasier invited Niles along to help him forget.

Once on board the ship, Frasier discovered that the accommodations were not as lavish as he had been led to believe, and the other celebrities were far from A–listers. The only one the audience saw, other than Frasier, was Carlos "The Barracuda" Del Gato (Miguel Perez) — and he seemed to be primarily interested in Roz.

And then Maris showed up. The audience never saw her, but she was there. She kept sending waiters over to Niles' table to throw glasses of champagne in his face after he fell into the clutches of a man–crazy woman from his country club.

Apparently Maris had seen them together and concluded that Niles was cheating on her.

And Niles concluded that, if Maris thought Niles was having an affair, she would have one, too, to punish him. The Barracuda appeared to be made to order.

Frasier and Roz set out to talk to Maris, but she wasn't in her stateroom when they got there (they were let in by a maid who assumed they were the guests who were staying in that room). But when Maris arrived and was opening the door, Frasier and Roz slipped into the bathroom.

"Why are we hiding?" Roz wanted to know. "We came here to talk to her."

"Because it's impossible to extol the virtues of trust," Frasier replied, "to someone whose room you've just broken into."

But it turned out to be Martin, who came into the bathroom — sending Frasier and Roz scurrying for the shower, prompting Frasier to exclaim, "The shower is bigger than my entire cabin!"

Anyway, it turned out that Niles and Maris had begun a reconciliation of sorts. They had taken a stroll on deck and talked things out, and Maris had invited Niles back to her cabin for a glass of champagne.

Niles found Frasier, Martin and Roz hiding in the bathroom — and shooed them away so he and Maris could be alone.

Nothing special to take away from this episode, I suppose. Just one of those episodes that I always enjoy.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Debut of Steely Dan

Forty–five years ago this month, the concept of fusion wasn't new, but Steely Dan was.

Fusion has evolved, I suppose, from earlier uses in science and medicine to computing, and somewhere along the way it came to describe the result of the combinations of two musical genres. Like restaurants that try to join two kinds of food, it hasn't always been successful. I mean, some things work when they are combined with other things. Some things don't.

Steely Dan, which released its debut album, "Can't Buy a Thrill," in November 1972, was a unique fusion of jazz and rock.

Oh, that wasn't exactly new in 1972, either, and as Henry David Thoreau once observed, when a person is familiar with the truth of a concept or principle, that person loses interest in its many applications. Fusion wasn't a hot topic in 1972. There had already been decades of talk of nuclear fusion.

In fact, if time travel was possible and you could go back to November 1972, you most likely would find that the primary topics of conversation were President Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's declaration that peace was "at hand" in Vietnam. Sports fans would probably talk about the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

But "Can't Buy a Thrill" was a musical triumph in late 1972, spawning a huge hit in "Reelin' in the Years," which reached No. 11 on the charts. Elliott Randall's guitar solo was named by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page as his favorite solo of all time.

One of the things I remember from my childhood was how "Reelin' in the Years" was the favorite of a friend of mine who was probably a year or so older than I was. He was an aspiring guitarist, and he learned to play that song. He was pretty good, too.

But the bigger hit on the album was always my favorite — "Do It Again," which climbed to No. 6 on the charts.

Steely Dan's style leaned strongly to soft rock. That worked better with other styles, mostly jazz sprinkled with a little blues and some R&B.

Steely Dan never really seemed comfortable with anything stronger, as if fusing hard rock with jazz wouldn't work because jazz is too fragile.

I suppose that's in the way you look at it, but Steely Dan's fusion seemed new and fresh, even if it really wasn't.