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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Standing Up to Bullies

I have often mentioned that I believe Andy Griffith was the best TV dad anyone could have, and I also believe he was the best friend anyone could have. And one of the qualities that makes someone a good friend is the capacity to help somebody face difficult situations — like bullying.

It isn't a one–size–fits–all solution, of course. But it is one of those things that friends do for each other.

The episode of the Andy Griffith Show that first aired on this day in 1962, "Lawman Barney," proved that not only was he the best sheriff on TV — and the best friend — but, well, he was just the best everything.

Do people like that really exist? Or are they the creations of TV writers? Perhaps, as Forrest Gump might say, it's a little of both.

No doubt Andy Taylor had his flaws, but the ones the audience saw were comparatively minor. He possessed some kind of insight that enabled him to make all the best choices — even inspired ones — at all the right times.

It was a gift, all right — but did it come from the writers or someone/somewhere else?

Clearly there were times when he took calculated risks, and sometimes that appeared to backfire on Andy, but things usually seemed to work out. One such time was in "Lawman Barney."

When the episode began, Barney was telling a couple of street peddlers (Allan Melvin and Orville Sherman) to move their truck outside the city limits because what they were doing was against the law. But they didn't take Barney seriously, and they ran him off.

The experience was quite a blow to Barney's ego, and it was clear when he returned to the courthouse that all was not well. Andy put two and two together and figured out what the problem was — especially after Andy encountered the peddlers and told them to pack up their stuff and move outside the town limits. The peddlers took Andy seriously, and Andy learned through them what had happened.

So he made up a story about how tough Barney really was — and how, when people didn't do as he told them, he played an "ugly game" with them. Andy told the peddlers that Barney had a lot of tough–guy nicknames — "Barney the Beast," "Fife the Fierce," "Crazy Gun Barney."

Then, after Andy had thrown a real scare into the peddlers, he went back to the courthouse and told Barney that he had heard about some street peddlers and he needed Barney to "take care of it."

That was the gamble — or at least the first one — of the episode.

When Barney reluctantly returned to the spot where the street peddlers had been selling their produce, they were still there but packing to leave and they scattered, leaving behind a now–pompous Barney, who returned to the courthouse brimming with confidence.

On their way out of town, the peddlers stopped off at Wally's filling station for some water. Barney happened to drive by, and one thing led to another. The peddlers said they had heard that Barney was a tough guy, and the fellows who were gathered at the filling station to drink soda pop convulsed in laughter.

The peddlers left, but not before telling those guys at the filling station to tell Barney that they were back in business — and wanted him for a customer.

When that message was relayed to Andy back at the courthouse, Barney realized why the peddlers had run off when he returned, and he was, as you can imagine, deflated by that knowledge.

Andy told Barney to forget it and started to go run the peddlers off once and for all, but Barney told Andy he wanted to go with him. Andy agreed.

Then when they were a short distance from the peddlers, Barney told Andy to get out of the car. He wanted to take care of things himself. Andy agreed again.

And Barney proceeded to run off the peddlers, encouraged to stand up to his tormentors thanks to Andy's example — and without the safety net that Andy tended to provide.

That is why, even after half a century, I believe this episode should be shown to all children, especially those who have faced bullying. There were several Andy Griffith Show episodes like that. Sometimes they involved Barney, and sometimes they involved Opie (Ron Howard).

In each one, Andy showed the same sure instincts that made his character such a legendary one on TV.

By the way, if Melvin looks familiar to you, he should. He was a fixture on TV in those days, appearing on many of the most popular TV series. He made seven separate appearances on the Andy Griffith Show alone.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Walking the Walk

Kathy (Dorothy McGuire): You think I'm an anti–Semite.

Phil (Gregory Peck): No, I don't. But I've come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti–Semitism is far away in some dark place with low–class morons. That's the biggest discovery I've made. The good people. The nice people.

There have always been personal comfort zones, I suppose, and people become more inclined to guard them and hold on to them tightly as time passes.

That which is different and unfamiliar can be very frightening, very threatening. I suppose that is some sort of primitive self–defense mechanism buried deep in our DNA. It's there to protect us.

And that was probably a good thing up until a certain point in human development. It was prudent to be wary of people and things that were unfamiliar. Changes came slowly and gradually gained acceptance once people discovered they could trust those changes — like giving up a horse and buggy for one of them newfangled automobiles.

It is probably a byproduct of technological development, but changes happen at a more rapid pace now than they did for previous generations. Those generations could continue to live in their comfort zones for most, if not all, of their lives, but that really isn't possible today.

I often find myself lamenting changes — and I know that some are just minor annoyances, really. No big deal. For example, I used to enjoy watching the marching bands at halftime of football games on TV. Some were really good. I'm sure some are really good today, too, but you never know unless you attend the game in person and remain in your seat at halftime — or unless whoever is televising the game shows a five–second snippet of the band (most likely on the sideline waiting for the half to begin).

Otherwise they are treated as afterthoughts.

But as I say, that's a minor thing. There are bigger things, like human relations. People are more sensitive to how they treat others and the language that they use than I can remember at any other time in my lifetime — and that's a good thing, even though there are times when I think things get taken too far.

There is much progress still to be made, but I am a student of history, and I believe it is always important to remember how far we have come. Without that memory, no matter how painful it might be, permanent progress isn't possible.

And "Gentleman's Agreement," which premiered 70 years ago today, is a reminder of how far we have come — and perhaps how far we have yet to go.

Granted, the story is a bit dated now, but the message is still good.

Gregory Peck played a writer for a progressive magazine who had agreed to write about anti–Semitism, but he struggled to think of a good angle — until he came up with the idea of posing as Jewish to see what kind of reactions he received. He was new to the magazine so most of the people who worked there knew little about him, and he felt he could use that in his article.

He didn't intend to confine himself to the magazine staff, though. He planned to explore New York City and see how a Jewish man was received.

He encountered anti–Semitic behavior from predictable and not–so–predictable sources. One of the unpredictable ones was his new girlfriend (Dorothy McGuire). Her character, like so many others in the movie — including the magazine's publisher, a crusading liberal who was eager to expose anti–Semitism but wasn't prepared for the revelation that things weren't so squeaky clean in his own domain — talked the talk but didn't exactly walk the walk.

As Peck's character discovered, there are always people who give lip service to racial and religious tolerance but don't apply it to their actions.

Oh, he encountered the usual suspects, the ones you always expect to find — but he almost preferred them. They were honest if misguided. But Peck's character found "[t]he good people, [t]he nice people" to be disappointments.

At one point, for example, one of the minor characters asserted that "some of my best friends are Jewish," which drew a telling response from Celeste Holm, who won Best Supporting Actress: "I know, dear, and some of your other best friends are Methodist, but you never bother to say it."

Holm, by the way, wasn't the only Oscar nominee from "Gentleman's Agreement." Ann Revere, who played Peck's mother, also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Peck was nominated for Best Actor, and McGuire was nominated for Best Actress.

The movie received Best Picture and Elia Kazan won Best Director.

Jewish actor John Garfield, who played a Jewish friend of Peck's, wasn't nominated — but he, along with other members of the cast and crew (including Revere and Kazan), was brought before the House Un–American Activities Committee. Because his wife was found to be a member of the Communist Party, Garfield, in fact, was brought before the committee twice, was blacklisted, then removed from the blacklist, then put back on it.

There were many who believed at the time that the stress of this experience led to Garfield's death of a heart attack at the age of 39.

Following One's Calling

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): Sorry I'm late, I stopped half way to listen to a jolly band of Frasier Crane Day carolers. I tried to join in on "The Twelve Days Of Frasier" but forgot the words around day seven. How does it go again?

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): I believe it's "seven snobs a–sniping."

As anyone who saw him on Cheers! or Frasier could tell you, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was as elitist and narcissistic as they come. He seldom failed to exploit an opportunity to be the center of attention.

But he was also deeply devoted to his work as a psychiatrist and truly did want to help people. Sometimes that was a problem for him.

Case in point: In the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 1997, "The 1,000th Show," those two elements of Frasier's decidedly complex personality came into direct conflict.

Frasier was about to mark his 1,000th program on fictional radio station KACL, and the station was making a big to–do over the externally modest but secretly — or, at least, not so secretly as far as his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was concerned — pleased Frasier.

Frasier had given the impression that he found all this fuss distasteful, but the truth was that it gave his ego the stroking he so desperately craved.

And it drove Niles mad.

To be fair, Niles was already a little put out. When the episode began, he was peeved because the waiter at the cafe knew Frasier's "usual" but didn't have a clue what Niles' "usual" was — even though Niles frequented the cafe about as often as Frasier did.

But when he learned of Frasier's honor, he became extremely jealous. The series was into its fifth season, and the sibling rivalry between Frasier and Niles had been well established by this time so Niles' reaction was good for some laughs.

But the episode took something of a turn in the second half.

Frasier was feeling a bit jittery prior to the Frasier Crane Day celebration at the base of the Space Needle, and he suggested that he and Niles go for a walk to relax and clear their heads. A series of events — not all of which were seen by the viewing audience — left Frasier with ruined shoes and no money (after they had been mugged), and they could see the Space Needle from where they were but it was still a long way away.

Niles, who had been consumed with envy earlier, suddenly had a change of heart — and the true nature of the Crane brothers' sibling relationship became apparent.

Niles had begrudged his brother's big fuss, but now he was determined to see to it that Frasier got to the Space Needle, if only for a curtain call.

So Niles went off with a quarter they had taken from a blind street musician (it's a side story that has to be seen) to call for a cab. But just after he left, a limo driver pulled up in front of Frasier and offered him a ride to the Space Needle. Frasier accepted.

On the ride, Frasier learned that the driver was trying to decide whether to catch a flight to Pennsylvania for his ex–wife's wedding. His main motivation was to see his two children, who had lived with their mother since the divorce. Apparently, they didn't have a very good relationship, and the viewers got the sense that he wanted to make it up to them in some way, but he was torn. Perhaps they would be better off if he didn't go.

About that time the limo arrived at the Space Needle, but Frasier's commitment to helping others was getting the better of his desire to be the center of attention, and he started asking the driver — who said his name was John — about his kids.

I guess Frasier never made it to his big day, but one got the sense that he would be much happier counseling John. I guess that is the test of a true professional.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Losing Grasp of Reality

"I had a dream last night that I was asleep, and I dreamed it while I was awake!"

Hawkeye (Alan Alda)

In the episode of MASH that first aired on this night in 1972, "Bananas, Crackers and Nuts," the staff had just put in a brutal stretch of surgery — but the word was that the enemy had pulled back to regroup and no further action was expected for a week.

Immediately Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) lobbied for some R&R, but Henry (McLean Stevenson) was leaving the camp for awhile, which left Frank (Larry Linville) in command. And Hawkeye and Trapper knew Frank wouldn't approve a leave for them.

So they came up with a scheme to try to persuade Frank that Hawkeye was losing his grip on reality and would need time off in Tokyo. In their plan, Trapper would accompany him because Trapper was "the only one that can handle him." It seemed like a foolproof plan.

They staged a scene in the mess tent in which Hawkeye, dressed in surgical garb, came in with a plate of freshly cooked liver and sat down within arm's reach of a bottle of ketchup. In his conversation with Frank and Hot Lips (Loretta Swit), Hawkeye strongly implied that the liver came from the corpse of a North Korean.

Frank agreed to authorize the time off.

But Hot Lips wasn't convinced and suggested that they summon a psychiatrist to examine Hawkeye. It turned out that Hot Lips knew a brilliant psychiatrist (Stuart Margolin) who had been crazy about her for years.

When they first met, Hawkeye implied that he was in love with Frank — an eyebrow–raising confession as far as the psychiatrist was concerned. And the psychiatrist decided to take Hawkeye back to Tokyo with him for observation.

That was when the episode really took off. Hawkeye and Trapper hatched another plan — with the help of Radar (Gary Burghoff) — to set up the psychiatrist using the object of his affections as the unwitting bait.

They switched the signs on Hot Lips' tent so the psychiatrist would think he was going into the visitors' tent. Then, once he was inside, the sign was switched again. When Hot Lips went into the tent, the psychiatrist grabbed her, Hot Lips screamed and the rest of the camp came running.

It was still early in the series' first season, but Hawkeye was establishing a reputation for resisting authority. OK, his character had already established that in the movie — but a TV series is a different animal. Each sitcom must have its own running jokes to succeed and must maintain them regularly. MASH did a pretty good job with that. After all, it lasted 11 seasons.

Margolin made another appearance on MASH — in its second season — as yet another specialist, summoned to the camp to perform nose surgery.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Maturing of Natalie Wood

"After three husbands, it takes a lot of butter to get you back in the frying pan."

Rose (Rosalind Russell)

Natalie Wood was in a distinctly different phase of her career when she appeared in "Gypsy," which premiered on this day in 1962.

She began her career just shy of her fifth birthday and made more than 20 films as a child — including "Miracle on 34th Street."

But as Wood got older, she began transitioning into more mature roles in the 1950s and early 1960s — and her performance in "Gypsy" was, to say the least, mature.

Or, to be more specific, for mature audiences.

It didn't begin that way. It started innocently enough.

But the young girl who captured the nation's hearts in "Miracle on 34th Street" grew into a complex young woman, alternately enchanting, captivating and beguiling on the silver screen.

Sometimes she was all three. That was how it was in "Gypsy."

When the movie began, Wood played Rosalind Russell's supportive daughter. Russell was the epitome of a stage mother, but she wanted Wood's older sister (Ann Jillian) to be the star so, with the help of an agent (Karl Malden), she formed a Vaudeville act around the girls and took it on the road. That wasn't what Jillian wanted, though, and she eloped.

That left Wood, and Russell's character pushed her onto the stage — but it turned out to be a different kind of stage.

See, part of Russell's pitch was presenting her daughters as young girls. But, of course, no one stays young forever, and that illusion became harder and harder to maintain as the years went by.

Jillian just couldn't keep doing it and eloped with one of the dancers in the sisters' Vaudeville act, which left Wood — Russell's less talented daughter — and Russell poured everything she had into promoting her.

But there was a complication.

The rising popularity of movies with sound was causing a decline in the popularity of stage entertainment, and work was scarce. To make ends meet the act took a job at a burlesque house, in effect providing cover for the more unsavory activities that went on there.

One day one of the strippers was arrested for shoplifting, and Wood was more or less drafted to fill in for her. She didn't make much of an initial impression, but as she gained confidence in herself, the audience responded.

And a star was born.

Inevitably, though, Wood's stardom clashed with her mother's obsessive behavior. Something had to give.

The audience got to witness a remarkable transformation. The first time Wood was seen, she was about 13. Roughly 15 years passed by the end of the movie, and Wood had turned from a rather ordinary young girl into a self–assured and beautiful young woman.

I always thought she deserved an Oscar nomination, but "Gypsy" received no nominations for acting. It did, however, receive three Oscar nominations — ironically, given the subject matter, one of the nominations was for costume design.

The Return of the Anti-Hero

"What we have here is failure to communicate."

Captain (Strother Martin)

It is often said — and justifiably, too — that 1939 was the greatest year for movies.

And it was.

But the runnerup on that list has to be 1967. It produced "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "In Cold Blood," "In the Heat of the Night" and so many others — and then, on this day, two months before the end of the year, the hits just kept on coming.

On this day in 1967 America first watched "Cool Hand Luke" on its movie screens.

And, while it is hard to single out one performance from all the performances in his career, Paul Newman's work as the nonconformist Luke may well have been his best.

Luke was a cool customer, all right, just like the tagline for the movie said — "He was a cool customer ... until the law made it hot for him!"

He was a member of a Southern chain gang who absolutely would not give in to authority. It was a trait he paid for, frequently.

His fellow prisoners admired that quality.

"You're an original," George Kennedy, who won Best Supporting Actor, told him at one point. "That's what you are!"

The audience learned fairly early just how much of a nonconformist Luke was. In the service he had been awarded a bronze star and became a sergeant — but was a private when he was discharged.

The men all seemed drawn to Luke. They looked up to him. He was a hero to them. He wasn't comfortable in that role, though. It wasn't one he sought. After all, it required him to live up to others' expectations, and he was still trying to find his own way.

The prison staff took every opportunity to break Luke, even putting him in solitary after his mother had died.

The guard who put him in solitary tried to justify it by saying, "Sorry, Luke. Just doin' my job. You gotta appreciate that."

Defiant as ever, Luke replied, "Callin' it your job don't make it right, Boss."

The prisoners called everyone on the staff boss, but I guess the only true boss was Strother Martin, who played the Captain — and uttered the line that everyone always remembers from that movie: "What we have here is failure to communicate."

And the scene everyone always remembers — well, all the guys for sure — is the one in which actress Joy Harmon, known only as The Girl (Kennedy's character called her Lucille), washed a car in full view of the spellbound prisoners.

There was a void left in the cinematic role of anti–hero when James Dean died. Newman, who was nominated for Best Actor (and would have been a better choice than the winner, Rod Steiger), stepped forward to fill that void along with Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen.

A persuasive case can be made that each man proved himself worthy of being Dean's heir as the anti–hero, but Newman's body of work was the most convincing.

And "Cool Hand Luke" was his best work, signaling the true return of the anti–hero.