Friday, June 30, 2017

The Irresistible Force vs. the Immovable Object

Upon first glance, Hume Cronyn seemed miscast as the ruthless prison guard in "Brute Force," which premiered on this day in 1947.

Physically unimposing as he was, though, Cronyn was the perfect choice. His performance effectively demonstrated how an apparently meek — but nevertheless narcissistic — individual can abuse even a dollop of power — and Cronyn's character had considerably more than a dollop of power. He was not above using anyone and anything to achieve his objectives, either.

I honestly felt that the character, with his sadistic personality, should have made the American Film Institute's list of the Top 50 movie villains. But it didn't.

Now, let me be clear. I don't have any issues with AFI's actual choices for its lists of villains and heroes. But the role was so unusual for Cronyn and he played it so well that I thought the performance at least deserved an honorable mention (although I don't think such a designation was available).


The story was essentially a retelling of the fabled irresistible force colliding with the immovable object. Burt Lancaster played an inmate who hated Cronyn and came up with an escape plan after having served a stretch in solitary confinement. It built up to a bloody finish, a riot when the escape plan didn't go very well.

It was good, but I'll be the first to say the movie had its weaknesses.

There were times when the story seemed a bit forced — like when the movie told the stories of the other inmates through flashbacks. To me, it seemed like a rather obvious tactic to introduce women into what was otherwise an all–male cast. And not just any women, either. These women were femme fatales, the ones who (directly or indirectly) were responsible for those men being on the inside while the women remained on the outside.

Clearly there were times when the movie was awash in stereotypes — at least those that existed in the '40s — and the references to World War II do make the story seem dated.

But for a movie that is 70 years old today, I think it has held up rather well.

"Brute Force" provides an unflinching, albeit melodramatic, glimpse into prison conditions for viewers today, but as I say, it is not without its shortcomings.

It really didn't have much to say that was new, even when it was in theaters. Prison movies weren't new when "Brute Force" was made, nor was the idea that conditions behind bars weren't good.

But it may have made that point better than any movie that preceded it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Death of a Sex Symbol

Most people living today probably have no memory of Jayne Mansfield.

In her day, she was a sex symbol — not as accomplished as Marilyn Monroe but certainly more endowed. And, by this time in 1967, Monroe had been dead for nearly five years. Mansfield had the sex symbol spotlight virtually to herself.

It was 50 years ago today — around 2:30 in the morning — that Mansfield died in a car crash in Slidell, Louisiana, less than 20 miles north–northwest of New Orleans, where Mansfield was to appear on TV station WDSU's ground–breaking Midday show.

Mansfield made two appearances at a supper club in Biloxi, Mississippi, the night of June 28, then she and five others — her boyfriend, her three children and their 20–year–old driver — began the trip to New Orleans around midnight.

The car crashed into the rear of a tractor/trailer that had slowed down behind a truck spraying mosquito fogger. The driver of the car couldn't see the tractor/trailer because it was shrouded in the mosquito fogger. The three adults in the front were killed immediately. The three children, who were sleeping in the back, escaped with minor injuries.

Mansfield was before my time, but her death became notorious. I can remember talking about it with my friends on the playground of my elementary school. I don't remember how the subject came up. One of us probably heard our parents talking about it.

Anyway, we knew the most notorious part of the story — that she was decapitated in the collision. That was an urban legend that began with pictures showing Mansfield's blonde wig in the wreckage. I have heard that she was wearing the wig at the time of the crash so there may have been parts of her scalp and strands of her real hair in the wig, but the official cause of death was given as a crushed skull, not decapitation.

Monroe's appearance as Playboy's first centerfold got the magazine off the ground in December 1953, but Mansfield's appearance as the centerfold in February 1955 gave it a real shot in the arm — as did her other appearances in the magazine (more than 30 of them).

Actually, it was a very modest pose by modern standards, but it created quite a stir in 1955.

Mansfield cultivated the role of sex symbol in a way that Monroe never did. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" had nothing on Mansfield. Her clothes were forever falling off in public or there would be strategic bursts at the seams or she would wear low–cut dresses with no bra.

In fact, it was during a promotion for a movie ("Underwater!") that Mansfield deliberately wore a bikini that was too small. When she dove into the pool, the top came off — and attracted Playboy's attention.

But in death, Mansfield did make a contribution to the betterment of mankind. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommended installing underride guards on all tractor/trailers. The objective of the underride guard is to provide a little protection for passenger cars that collide with a tractor/trailer from behind.

It is known as a "Mansfield bar."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ooh, That Smell

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

J.J. (Burt Lancaster)

I am a fan of black–and–white movies for many reasons, but one of the things I really like about them is they remove the distraction of color.

Don't get me wrong. Color movies have their place, and some stories simply could not be told without color. But the absence of color somehow allows more emphasis to be placed on the characters and their dialogue — and that is where I think "Sweet Smell of Success," which was first shown on this day in 1957, really came through for the audience.

It came through on several levels.

Frankly, I don't care how long you have been watching film noir movies or how many you have seen. You've never seen one with dialogue that crackled like this one did — and it seemed that everyone in the movie, from the stars to the bit players, got to deliver at least one snappy line. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman should have received an Oscar nomination for their writing. It's some of the best you'll ever experience (this is a lifetime of writing talking here).

They weren't the only ones who contributed to "Sweet Smell of Success," but no one received an Oscar nomination for work on that movie.

And that was a big mistake. Tony Curtis gave what many people regard as his greatest performance as Sidney the smarmy press agent. If he was outdone by anyone, it was Burt Lancaster who played J.J. the callous newspaper columnist who wanted to prevent his sister from marrying perhaps the only good guy in the movie. His lines in the movie were the most savage.

But Curtis had some pretty good — and pretty insightful — lines, too. At one point, he advised, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" then observed, "That gives you a lot of leeway."

I can understand why "Sweet Smell of Success" got no Oscar nominations. As I have mentioned on this blog before, the folks who vote on the Oscars seem to like to reward movies that promote the positive side of human nature — love, loyalty, honesty, integrity, that sort of thing. The Oscars rarely recognize movies that focus on the gritty reality of life with so much as a nomination. It is as if the voters don't even want to have the option of voting for such a movie, let alone rewarding it with a statuette.

Of course, there are exceptions to that, but it does seem to be an unwritten rule.

To maintain a sort of balance, the Oscars tend to avoid nominating comedies, which is why some of the greatest entertainers in movie history were never nominated for Academy Awards.

"Sweet Smell of Success" was hardly a comedy, but you really had to look hard to find a good guy in the story.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Film Farewell to Two Old Pros

"The Lord's bounty may not be for sale, but the Devil's is — if you can pay the price."

Gil (Randolph Scott)

Mariette Hartley is mostly known for her work on television programs — except for a time in the late '70s and early '80s when she was so convincing in her Polaroid commercial work with James Garner that many people apparently believed they really were married.

Consequently it is easy to overlook her movie career, but the fact is she did have a movie career, and it started with Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country," which premiered on this day in 1962.

The stars of the show were Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two old pros nearing the ends of their careers. It was to be Scott's final film appearance. McCrea would make a few more, but it would be his last significant role.

McCrea played an aging lawman who was hired to escort a shipment of gold through dangerous territory. In hindsight, he kind of resembled Gus and Woodrow in 1989's Lonesome Dove — he had been tough and respected in his prime, but he was way past his prime, and this represented his last opportunity to have an adventure. But he knew he couldn't do it alone. To help him with his task McCrea hired an old friend (played by Scott) who made a living as a sharpshooter named The Oregon Kid.

Scott had more on his mind than making a few dollars a day to guard someone else's money. He was bringing along a young protege and they intended to persuade McCrea to steal the gold rather than protect it. Well, they planned to steal the gold, anyway, whether McCrea went along with them or not. It would be a lot easier on everybody if he went along — but his cooperation was neither expected nor necessary.

On the way, with this as a backdrop, the men spent a night on a religious fanatic's farm where they encountered Hartley, who played his daughter. She wanted to escape her father and planned to elope with her boyfriend.

To that end, she insisted on joining up with McCrea and Scott the next day, leading to several complications and setting up an eventual reconciliation between McCrea and Scott, who had grown apart in some ways over the years, as even the best of friends can do.

As was so frequently the case, Peckinpah's film dealt largely with the human conflict between values and ideals. It wasn't as violent as his later efforts, most notably "The Wild Bunch," but it was more cerebral; thus it can be recommended to movie fans who do not ordinarily like to watch westerns. It didn't feature as much violence as "The Wild Bunch," but that doesn't mean violence was missing entirely. It simply means it wasn't as brutal as it came to be in later Peckinpah movies.

Violence was always an element — at least — of a Peckinpah movie. But "Ride the High Country" was about more than that. It was about right and wrong; even the naive character Hartley played could see that, but she could also see that it was more complicated than that implies.

"It isn't that simple, is it?" she asked McCrea at one point.

"No, it isn't" McCrea, the virtuous man in this western morality play, answered. "It ought to be, but it isn't."

Right vs. wrong was just one of many themes that were explored in "Ride the High Country." Others were: age vs. youth, chastity vs. debauchery, strictness vs. wickedness. It didn't stop there. "Ride the High Country" was loaded with conflicts.

I know people who only like westerns if they have a lot of shooting, and such people won't be disappointed with "Ride the High Country." But I have always felt that one of the main attractions of a western is the sweeping panoramic views of western landscapes. Much of the modern West is still frontier, even with modern highways running through it; still there are more and bigger cities in the western half of the U.S. than there were a century ago.

In another century it may be as congested as the eastern half of the country — which is why I am all in favor of preserving images of it while we still can.

"Ride the High Country" had some gorgeous cinematography (even though much of it was filmed in the Los Angeles area), but it received no Oscar nominations, not even for its cinematography.

In hindsight that seems odd, given how its following has grown over the years. In fact, many people will say "Ride the High Country" was Peckinpah's finest movie.

If you have seen "The Wild Bunch," you know that is high praise indeed.

And if that is true, much of the credit goes to Scott and McCrea. Not only did they give riveting performances. They were originally cast in opposite parts — and, quite quickly, came to the conclusion individually that they should swap roles — which they did, and it made all the difference.

A coin flip at the Brown Derby determined whether Scott or McCrea would get top billing in the credits. Scott won, but it could just as easily have been McCrea; their contributions to the movie's success were equal.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Kubrick Crazy

"These are great days we're living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we're gonna miss having anyone around that's worth shooting."

Crazy Earl (Kieron Jecchinis)

I've seen enough Stanley Kubrick movies that I am pretty sure I could identify one even if I stumbled onto one I had never seen before while I was channel surfing.

Some directors are like that. They use certain styles — for example, certain types of lighting or camera angles — in all their films.

If you've seen some of Kubrick's movies, you're bound to recognize things like shots that show as much of a room as possible, giving the shot unusual depth.

Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," which was first shown on this day in Beverly Hills in 1987, was like that. I first saw it on the big screen and knew who directed it long before I went to see it. But if my first exposure to it had been a few years later when it was showing on TV and I stumbled onto it when it was already half over, I'm sure I could still figure out rather quickly who had directed it.

I always thought one of the most telling signs that it was a Kubrick movie was the performance of Vincent D'Onofrio who played an overweight Marine recruit.

The character's weight was an important part of the story. The character was originally written as a "skinny ignorant redneck" but was rewritten as fat and clumsy instead. This required D'Onofrio to put on 70 pounds — the greatest weight gain for a movie role ever (eclipsing Robert De Niro's record of 60 pounds for "Raging Bull"). Physical transformations are big in Kubrick movies.

More telling than that, though, are facial expressions. And D'Onofrio, a weak–minded overweight recruit who was ridiculed mercilessly by his sergeant (R. Lee Ermey, a Marine–turned–actor whose name became a household word with this movie), finally snapped.

When the audience caught up with him in the barracks lavatory late one night, the expression on his face was one Kubrick's audiences had seen before — most notably on the faces of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" and Malcom McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange."

But I've got to tell you. I thought D'Onofrio did Kubrick crazy best. Even better than Nicholson.

D'Onofrio shot his sergeant, then shot himself so he wasn't a factor in what happened in the rest of the movie.

But there was plenty of Kubrick crazy in the second half of the movie.

The rest of the movie was about one of D'Onofrio's fellow recruits (Matthew Modine) and his participation in some of the atrocities of the Vietnam War at the time of the Tet offensive that essentially doomed the American war effort.

From what I have heard, just about everyone who served in 'Nam was at least a little Kubrick crazy — some more than others. And the experiences of the platoon with which Modine found himself in the city of Huế during the Tet offensive certainly seemed to bear that out.

In case you aren't up on your Vietnam War history, Huế was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the conflict. Fighting there lasted nearly a month. Thousands were killed or wounded on both sides.

It is always striking to me how violent the movie is — but, of course, you can't really make a movie about war that isn't violent, can you? And while it is tempting to criticize Kubrick for making an excessively violent movie, the nonfiction account of that war is filled with even worse.

It also occurs to me when I watch this movie that it must take a special mentality to fight a war. I suppose it has always been that way, even when the weapons in use were not as sophisticated as they are today (although the automatic weapons of today are certainly more efficient than the weapons that were used in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War). So many people are shot (graphically) in full view of the audience and the other characters in the movie.

I tend to put myself in the position of those other characters. Would I be able to carry on with an offensive after watching one of my best friends get killed in front of me? I feel like I would at least need some time to grieve before channeling my energies in another direction — so maybe it is a good thing that I was never called upon to fight in a war.

But in "Full Metal Jacket" — and probably in reality — there was no time to grieve, not even for Modine when a buddy from his boot camp days (Arliss Howard) was shot by a sniper and died in Modine's arms.

They found the sniper — turned out to be a young girl, probably in her teens. One of the guys in the platoon shot her and as she lay dying she begged for someone to end her life and her misery, repeatedly saying just two words — "Shoot me." Modine finally performed the mercy killing.

"Full Metal Jacket" was nominated for one Oscar — Best Adapted Screenplay — but lost to the big winner on Oscar night that year, "The Last Emperor."

More Than Meets the Eye

In the early 1970s, there was probably no more popular work of fiction than "Jaws."

Nearly everybody read it, and then it was made into what was probably the first true summer blockbuster.

Author Peter Benchley's next novel, "The Deep," was also successful, and the movie it inspired, which premiered on this day in 1977, was one of the top moneymakers in the United States — a considerable feat when you think of the movies that premiered in 1977, movies like "Star Wars," "Smokey and the Bandit," "Close Encounters," "Annie Hall" and "Saturday Night Fever" to name a few.

But neither the book nor the movie did nearly as well as "Jaws."

In its own way, though, I thought the story was just as suspenseful — although it got overshadowed by off–screen controversy about something minor that was on the screen. Jacqueline Bisset played one–half of a vacationing couple (Nick Nolte was the other half) who discovered sunken treasure while diving on the reefs of Bermuda. In the diving sequences, Bisset could be seen in a rather revealing T–shirt.

It is still an iconic image. Ask someone who is over a certain age what comes to mind when Bisset's name is mentioned, and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the answer will be her wet T–shirt in "The Deep."

Given that Bisset has been in several dozen movies, that doesn't seem fair, and it almost certainly would not raise any eyebrows today, but remember this was 40 years ago.

It is also important to remember that "The Deep" was made when Bisset was 32 and still getting movie roles primarily because of her youthful beauty. Still beautiful but no longer young, she has continued to make movies into her 70s, proving that looks may change but talent never does.

There can be no denying the boost those shots gave the movie at the box office. Even its producer believed they made him a wealthy man, but the story was enough to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

The divers found all kinds of treasure — the old–fashioned kind (jewelry and the like) and the new kind (ampules of morphine from a ship that sank during World War II).

And therein lay the plot of the movie. In the grand tradition of shallow summer escapism, the movie had nothing remarkable to say. It was just a good movie to watch on a summer afternoon or evening.

In 1977 that sort of thing was believed to be behind us. It was practically an article of faith that escapism movies would dwindle in the years ahead and deeper and more complex topics were the new order. But the summer of 1977 was loaded with escapism.

So much for that theory.

What made "The Deep" work for audiences, I suppose, was the fact that it was plausible escapism.

"Jaws" wasn't really plausible. It was inspired, as I understand it, by a real event — but the very rarity of that event (a great white shark in the North Atlantic) is what makes it implausible. Like most horror stories, believable implausibility made "Jaws" work.

The story of Nolte and Bisset was the kind of thing that, seemingly, could happen to anyone.

Benchley, of course, is not remembered for "The Deep." He is remembered for writing "Jaws" and the series of movies it inspired.

Ironically, I guess, two members of the cast of "The Deep" appeared in the "Jaws" movies — Robert Shaw played the shark hunter in the original, then played a treasure hunter in "The Deep" and Louis Gossett Jr. was a drug kingpin in "The Deep," and then played a SeaWorld park owner in one of the "Jaws" sequels.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Impossible Mission

"I reckon the folks'd be a sight happier if I died like a soldier. Can't say I would."

Samson Posey (Clint Walker)

I've been fortunate. I've never had to fight in a war.

When I was a kid, I guess I expected to be in a war. The war in Vietnam had been raging as far back as I could remember, and as I got older, I guess I assumed that my time to go would come in due course. I never really thought twice about it. But the war ended well before I turned 18.

If I had been in a war, though, I would probably assume that, if command wanted to attempt a truly extreme mission, they would want really extreme people to carry it out — you know, murderers, rapists and the like.

"The Dirty Dozen," which premiered 50 years ago today, was about such a mission — and such a unit.

In advance of the D–Day invasion, a select unit of the Army's worst was assembled for a special mission — to assault a chateau that was hosting a meeting of high–ranking German officers. By eliminating these officers, the Nazis' ability to react to the invasion of Normandy would be severely thwarted.

It was a hazardous mission, but these men were regarded as expendable. At best they had been convicted of crimes for which they had been given sentences of at least 20 years. Nearly half had been given death sentences.

If they succeeded in their objective, those who survived would be pardoned and returned to active duty, but few were expected to survive, successful or not. Their commander (Lee Marvin) repeatedly reminded them during their training that most of them would not be returning.

And that was OK, too.

After all, if they died in this mission, they would die a soldier's death. On the other hand, if their death sentences were carried out, they would die by hanging — definitely not a soldier's death. Hanging is typically regarded as a criminal's death.

And in the meantime they would have to be fed, clothed and sheltered for who knew how long.

Of course, one would be just as dead either way. It was the method of death that would pass the final judgment on the life. Everything else was incidental.

At the time of its release some people criticized the violence in "The Dirty Dozen," and a pretty good case could be made that it was excessively violent, needlessly so, particularly at the end. But isn't that the nature of war? Isn't war — all war whatever one may think of the rationale for it — excessively violent, needlessly so?

When you get right down to it, war is messy, and the people who fight in wars don't always play by the generally accepted rules.

"The Dirty Dozen" had an all–star cast, but some of the performers were more memorable than others — like Donald Sutherland and Jim Brown and Telly Savalas — and Ernest Borgnine, who played the officer who appointed Marvin and Bronson and provided them with the list of convicts they would train.

You know, the violence probably was a little over the line, but, as I say, war is messy, and the mission wasn't carried out by a Sunday school class.

A seemingly impossible mission calls for incorrigible people to carry it out.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Influence of a Great Teacher

"I don't know how to answer you except to say that I teach you truths. My truths. Yeah, and it is kinda scary, dealing with the truth. Scary and dangerous."

Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier)

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a truly great teacher.

"To Sir With Love," which premiered on this day in 1967, was the story of a truly great teacher — who, in the mold of many truly great teachers, did not start out to become a teacher at all. Sidney Poitier played the teacher who was sidetracked — temporarily — from his goal of becoming an engineer. He had applied for an engineering position but had heard nothing; acting on the conviction that one must have a job, he applied for work as a teacher in the slums of East London — and got the job.

And he encountered a classroom of the most sullen, rebellious students imaginable.

It took awhile, but they finally warmed up to each other — enough that Poitier's character rightly concluded that the education his students required couldn't be found in books. They needed discipline and survival skills they weren't learning at home.

So he implemented a new method for education in his classroom. He and the students would treat each other as adults with the proper respect.

He realized that his students also needed self–respect when he came to school one day and found that a used sanitary napkin had been burned in the fireplace. That was when he did something he had pledged not to do. He lost his temper.

"I am sick of your foul language, your crude behavior and your sluttish manner," he told the girls in his class. "There are certain things a decent woman keeps private, and only a filthy slut would have done this and those who stood by and encouraged her are just as bad. I don't care who's responsible — you're all to blame. Now, I am going to leave this room for five minutes by which time that disgusting object had better be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stench. If you must play these filthy games, do them in your homes, and not in my classroom!"

That was the inspiration for his new system. It was successful at first as Poitier shared his wisdom about, as he put it, "life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion."

If you have never seen the movie, there are several noteworthy quotes from this section that you might want to post in your office or wherever they can be most inspirational to you. One of my favorites is this one: "I believe one should fight for what one believes. Provided one is absolutely sure one is absolutely right."

But Poitier lost the support of many of his students over his handling of a confrontation between a student and a gym teacher.

In retaliation, they did not invite him to the class dance — nor would they accept his contribution toward the purchase of a wreath for the funeral of the mother of one of the students.

As the school year drew to a close, Poitier's character received an engineering job offer. He had applied for the job before taking the teaching position so he had been waiting for nearly a year.

And he won back his students' admiration when he beat the class ringleader in a boxing match, then recommended that the student teach the younger pupils how to box when school resumed. He was invited to the dance, where the students presented him with a gift. Poitier got choked up and left the room without telling the students that he was planning to take the engineering job he had craved all year.

While he was away from the group, he realized that he had unfinished work as a teacher and tore up the job offer letter.

It was a good movie and, coming from a family of educators, I like movies that tell about influential teachers. They get little enough credit for all the things they do.

But every time I watch "To Sir With Love," it seems strange to me that, given the time when the movie was made, race was virtually a nonissue in it. Perhaps things were different in England in 1967, but America was seeing race riots from coast to coast. It got worse less than a year later when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

Racial conflict was really percolating in America in the '60s, but, as I say, maybe it was different in England.

There have been many movies about influential teachers, but few, if any, others have had their theme songs reach No. 1 on the pop charts. Scottish singer Lulu made her movie debut as one of Poitier's students and reached the top of the charts with "To Sir, With Love" in the fall of 1967.

Additional music for the movie was provided by The Mindbenders, a popular British group of the time. Ironically, considering the fact that the Beatles had released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" about two weeks earlier, an album that contained the song "Getting Better" with the refrain "It's getting better all the time," a Mindbenders' song from "To Sir With Love" told audiences that things were getting harder.

I doubt that there was any collaboration between the two. If there had been, I'm sure we would have heard something about it in the last half century. I'm sure it was a coincidence that two songs that were so similar and yet so contradictory were unveiled at nearly the same time.

The movie was directed by James Clavell, whose real claim to fame was as a novelist, but he had a flair for directing, too. He just didn't do it too often.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A One-Two Punch

Recent days have felt like a one–two punch to me — I guess boxing aficionados would call it a combination.

I heard yesterday that Adam West, the star of the 1960s Batman TV series, had died at the age of 88, unleashing memories of my childhood.

About 24 hours earlier, Glenne Headly, an actress whose work I have greatly respected as an adult, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 62.

They were both body blows for me — I guess the greater was the one from West's death although, given his age, I should have expected it. I didn't know he had been suffering from leukemia, which is not the death sentence it was when I watched West in my childhood, but when one is nearly 90, any disease has the potential to be fatal.

Batman's run ended in 1968 so I probably watched it in syndication. So did my best friends in those days. When we played together — and that was darn near every day — our games were almost always variations on Batman episodes we had seen recently. We made capes out of bath towels and played games in which we were the caped crusaders on a mission to save not only Gotham City but the whole world from some dark menace.

Sometimes we created villains to suit the circumstances of our games. Most of the time, though, we simply used characters we had seen on TV, like the Riddler, the Joker and the Penguin. (I never liked playing one of the villains much, but I did rather enjoy playing the Penguin with his distinctive quacking sound.)

Batman is a cherished memory from my childhood. There have been many Batmen in the movies, but West will always be Batman to me. West even played Batman in a movie once, but if you want to watch it you really have to look for it.

You don't have to look too far to find Headly's movies although most of her recent work has been on television.

I don't remember the first time I saw her in anything, but she definitely made an impression on me in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." When I heard of her death, I also thought of "Mr. Holland's Opus," in which, as usual, she wasn't the star, but she left her mark.

I did not think of "Dick Tracy," but apparently many people did. I liked the movie. It just didn't come to my mind.

I did think of her television work, mostly Lonesome Dove in which she played an Arkansas sheriff's wife who was still attached to a bad–boy lover.

To my great regret, I didn't mention Headly's work when I observed the 25th anniversary of Lonesome Dove a few years ago. But, as always, she could be a scene stealer, no matter what she did. And, while her screen time in Lonesome Dove was probably brief, it was memorable.

The same could be said of her work several years later in the made–for–TV movie "And the Band Played On" in which she played one of the researchers in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. As usual, she was surrounded by many talented people; also as usual, she left an impression.

They both did.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Bigfoot in the House

"Nancy, I'm not a doctor, but it's got no pulse, it's not breathing, and it's cold as a Popsicle. Believe me, honey, whatever he is, he's definitely dead!"

George (John Lithgow)

As I have mentioned here before, I usually like to look for the lesson or moral of a movie or TV show I write about.

But sometimes you don't want to watch something with a lesson or a moral. Sometimes you just want to escape. Know what I mean?

And if anyone in the movie industry knows about escapism, it's Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg didn't direct "Harry and the Hendersons," which made its debut on this date in 1987, but the production company he founded — Amblin Entertainment — produced it. And, unless you happen to believe in Bigfoot, it was pure escapism — reminiscent of "E.T." in many ways.

(In fact, I know people who think "Harry and the Hendersons" was better than "E.T." Personally, I don't, but that's just me.)

Actually, there was a lesson or two — kinda — at the end, but I'll get back to that.

When the movie began, the Henderson family (John Lithgow, Melinda Dillon and their children, played by Margaret Langrick and Joshua Rudoy) had been on a hunting/camping trip in the Pacific Northwest and were on their way to their home in Seattle when their car struck a large figure whose details were obscured by glare.

At first it appeared to be a bear but, upon closer inspection, the Hendersons concluded it must be Bigfoot. They also concluded it was dead and decided to bring it back with them, figuring it would be worth a lot of money to them.

But the creature (played by 7–foot actor Kevin Peter Hall) was not dead and, after learning rather belatedly that the world at large was not ready to accept the notion of Bigfoot's existence, they decided to make him a member of the family.

That was quite a challenge by itself. "Harry" (in the movie, it was suggested that his name originated from his appearance — but, in fact, it was an homage to Harry Nilsson. Bill Martin, who wrote the screenplay for the movie, also wrote some songs for Nilsson's "Harry" album) was not exactly domesticated and caused considerable damage to the house and the car.

And he was shocked to see Lithgow's hunting trophies on the wall. After all, some of them could have been Harry's friends.

But he was a gentle giant. His destructive behavior wasn't deliberate. It was mostly a matter of not knowing how his bulk and strength could affect his new environment — but you sure didn't want to make him mad.

He was remarkably intelligent. After only a short time with the Hendersons, he seemed to understand what they said to him. He even managed to speak one word of English before the end of the movie. Even in a situation in which observers really had to suspend their disbelief, that was tough to swallow.

It is safe to say that everyone had adjustments to make.

And while they were making those adjustments, there were other characters from outside the family circle who became involved in the story — notably a Bigfoot researcher (Don Ameche) and a Bigfoot–obsessed hunter (David Suchet).

Their contributions to the plausibility of the story were significant, and I'll leave it to you to discover how — if you're so inclined.

But as for the lessons of the story, which I mentioned briefly earlier ...

"Harry and the Hendersons" essentially told viewers not to judge a book by its cover. In this story some humans could — and did — behave in more beastly manners than the beast. Harry's compassion was genuine, but you had to look past his intimidating exterior to see it.

For those with more saintly dispositions, there was a lesson in the story that went like this: Forgiveness is a powerful thing. Do it whenever you can.

And another theme that was a little ahead of its time — but would be embraced by many today — is the suggestion that we should play an active role in protecting our environment.

It was more entertaining than I expected, and it was definitely a family friendly movie in the sense that objectionable language was kept to a minimum.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

'Mrs. Miniver' Is Dated But Still Relevant

"I know how comfortable it is to curl up with a nice, fat book full of big words and think you're going to solve all the problems in the universe. But you're not, you know. A bit of action is required every now and then."

Carol (Teresa Wright)

William Wyler's "Mrs. Miniver," which arrived in theaters on this day 75 years ago, occupies an elevated position in the history of World War II movies.

And it contains what was long the most intense battle scene I personally had ever seen in motion pictures (until "Saving Private Ryan" and its graphic depiction of D–Day). But its intensity was on a psychological more than visual level — which may still make it the most intense of its kind.

There may be no more powerful battle scene — and excruciating in its length and growing sense of claustrophobia — than the one in which the Minivers (Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson) and their children huddled in a crude bomb shelter waiting out a German air raid. In the grand British tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip, they tried to pass the time with conversation about mundane topics — like knitting — while the tension from the hellish cacophony of bombs and bullets from outside built to an unbearable level.

It was all the more powerful as an illustration of how war can touch anyone; it has no regard for age, race, gender or social status. The Minivers lived in the comfortable world of the upper class, a world where Mrs. Miniver could calmly go about her daily routine while her husband participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk, but they were brought to their knees by World War II the same as their cook and maid.

As the vicar observed in a pivotal sermon near the end of the movie, "There's scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart.

"And why?"
he went on to ask. "Surely you must have asked yourselves this question? Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness? Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed?"

Aren't these the questions many ask today when people are dying in airports, at concerts and in restaurants and nightclubs rather than battlefields?

The movie hasn't aged particularly well, but the message is still a good one: War truly is hell and is not made less so by the knowledge that it was started by someone else. If there were plans to remake "Mrs. Miniver" today, the characters probably could use some work — Garson's character particularly seemed a bit naive, especially when she confronted the downed German paratrooper in her kitchen, but perhaps that illustrated how off guard many people were caught by the Nazi threat and the reality of war.

Her daughter–in–law in the movie, played by Teresa Wright, seemed far more grounded in reality than Garson's character (who, for example, refused to permit Nazi bombing raids to ruin her roses — later in a climactic bombing raid that set up the vicar's sermon, a rose that had been nominated in a local flower show competition was named for Mrs. Miniver).

Garson did her part for the war effort propaganda that "Mrs. Miniver" really was. Her character was brave and noble — and in real life she did her part for the war effort at home, too, but Winston Churchill said "Mrs. Miniver" did more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers.

"Mrs. Miniver" received a dozen Oscar nominations and won half of them. The movie won Best Picture. Wyler won Best Director. Garson won Best Actress (and delivered a record–long acceptance speech). Wright won Best Supporting Actress (beating co–star Dame May Whitty). The movie also won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Black–and–White Cinematography.

Pidgeon was nominated for Best Actor but lost to James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Richard Ney, who played Garson's son in the movie, became her husband the following year. The union lasted until 1947.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Turning the Page

"Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

Horace Mann

My parents were both teachers. My mother taught first grade, and my father (who is still living) taught on the college level. Early in their marriage they were missionaries in Africa.

Neither of them ever spoke to me of whether they felt they had left their marks on their students — although I am sure that they, like all other teachers, must have wondered about that from time to time. I can understand that because I, too, have been a teacher, and I must confess that there have been times when I have wondered if I have influenced my students.

Well, I know I influenced some of my students but not all — and most teachers probably aren't satisfied with a batting average that low.

But there are so many variables in education. Sometimes it seems to me that teachers have to be happy with what they can get. It's a lesson most of us learned in Little League. You'd like to bat 1.000, but you can't. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to make contact with the ball. Maybe our problem was we learned that lesson in the context of the baseball diamond, not the classroom.

In the episode of Twilight Zone that premiered on this night in 1962, "The Changing of the Guard," an aging literature professor at a boys school (Donald Pleasence) pondered that very question after being informed that he had been terminated — although he was told to regard it as retirement, not termination, since he was well past the traditional retirement age.

Later that evening, after contemplating his years in the classroom and the countless boys who had paraded through it, the professor concluded that he had wasted his life, that he had left no mark on the young men he had tried to teach.

Despondent, he went out into the cold of Christmas Eve night with the intention of killing himself near a statue of educator Horace Mann in the campus courtyard. But just as he was about to pull the trigger, he was interrupted by the ringing of a phantom bell and he was inextricably drawn into his classroom — where he encountered the ghosts of some of his students.

One by one they told him how he had influenced them. Some had shown great heroism or courage when they died. Others had sacrificed themselves in pursuit of knowledge that could benefit future generations.

And the professor was persuaded that, while he may not have won one of Horace Mann's victories for humanity, he had helped others to do so and could, therefore, claim to share those victories.

It was kind of an interesting twist on the theme of "It's a Wonderful Life." The protagonist comes to realize the influence he has had on the lives of others. In that movie, of course, George Bailey discovered how different life would have been if he had not been there. In the episode of Twilight Zone that aired 55 years ago tonight, the professor discovered the difference his presence had made. It didn't imply a world in which he hadn't existed at all.

Nor did it suggest that the course of history would have been changed if he had not been there, only that he made his contribution. I guess that is the one thing we all crave — the reassurance that the efforts of our lives have not been in vain.

The title of the episode is a reminder to me of all the changes in life. Sometimes we're prepared for them, sometimes we are not.

A change is happening in my own life this weekend that makes this anniversary particularly poignant for me. I think I am prepared for it, but I guess I won't know until it happens. My father, a retired professor, is moving into a senior living facility, and I will be helping him with his move. I remember, as a teenager, helping him move my grandmother (his mother who was also a teacher when she was a young woman) into such a facility. It turned out to be the last stop for her, but she functioned independently for another year or so, driving her car and spending time with her friends, until her health would no longer permit it.

I expect this will be the last stop for my father, too, but there really is no reason he cannot continue to function as he has for awhile yet. He is in good health. He still drives. He enjoys the company of friends — and, even though he has made new friends in the place where he is moving, he continues to see the friends who have been part of his life as long as I can remember — and I am sure he will continue to see them, to have dinner with them, to attend the symphony with them.

At some point that will end. Everything does. And when it does, it will simply be another changing of the guard.