Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Dressed to Kill'

Some notes from another meeting of the local cinephile society….

I should tell you right off that we’re not talking about the 1980 movie directed by Brian DePalma or the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film that share this title.

“Dressed to Kill” (Fox, 1941) stars Lloyd Nolan as detective Michael Shayne, whose cases were described in a series of novels and short stories that were published under the byline of Brett Halliday, which was the pseudonym of a guy named Davis Dresser. Dresser wrote many of Shayne’s exploits but eventually handed the detective over to ghostwriters.

As a mystery writer of some repute (if Roget will accept “some” as a synonym for “minuscule”), I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read a Shayne story. I suspect that unlike the works of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, they’re out of print and available only in used-book stores, along with copies of a magazine bearing Shayne’s name that was published for many years.

The Fox film is one of a B series that also included the studio’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies. Director Eugene Forde was a veteran of the Chan films.

If “Dressed to Kill” is any yardstick, I’m sorry to say that the Shayne series is the least of the Fox mystery movie series. It’s like a car that starts out almost out of gas and eventually runs only on fumes, and in this case the fumes are provided by Lloyd Nolan, who seems to be trying his best to make this work as he looks in vain for the nearest filling station.

He’s not helped by various roadblocks put in place by the writers.

Early on, for example, Shayne finds two bodies in a hotel room – a double homicide. Is he horrified? Does his discovery whet his appetite for justice?

Nope – he’s delighted, because he can call one of the newspapers and give the editors a scoop in exchange for some cash. Not the most sympathetic lead character I’ve ever seen, though the screenwriters are kind enough to stop short of having him kick a baby down a flight of stairs.

But Nolan makes it work (barely) by playing such scenes for all their comic worth, even if “all,” in this case, turns out to be – what was that word again? – minuscule.

The plot also involves a murder device that is supposed to be ingenious but comes across as needlessly complicated, to the point where I was expecting the cops to issue an APB for Rube Goldberg.

Speaking of cops, one bright spot is Nolan’s nemesis, a police inspector played by William Demarest who is once again playing, well, William Demarest. And to me, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. (I have little patience with people who criticize some old-time character actors for playing the same characters each time. You want a William Demarest type? Who could do it better than old Bill himself? And in “Dressed to Kill” we are reminded once again that nobody did pratfalls quite like old Bill, bless him.)

The cast also features Mantan Moreland, who later played Chan’s chauffeur, in a stereotypical scene that aims to take comic advantage of his big, scared eyes but which these days induces cringes that could give the Richter scale a workout.

But there’s also Henry Daniell, villain extraordinaire, who is engagingly cast against type as a sort of doofus. (Something tells me that if you Google “Henry Daniell” and “doofus,” this might be the only hit you’ll get.)

Shayne, who is about to be married as the movie begins, manages to solve the case but lose his impatient fiancée, played by Mary Beth Hughes, one of the queens of Fox’s B movie lot.

By this time I had lost more than a little patience myself, but the movie wasn’t all that long, and the popcorn was good.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"Christmas - 1954"

Stare
In awe
At Him
On straw --

Fleshed Law,
Fleshed Love,
Deity without flaw.

Look down
Above to see:
Kneel to
Mystery


-- The Rev. Robert H. Flood, C.S.B. (1919-1974)
(my uncle)


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

First Gene, Now Connie and Arnold

This is turning out to be a bad month for the celebrities of my youth.

About two weeks ago, Gene Barry died. And within the last few days I’ve learned that two other performers have gone on to that big rerun in the sky….

Although she did a “Perry Mason” episode that I remember, I mostly associate Connie Hines with “Mr. Ed,” where she very attractively played straight to Alan Young (still alive), who, in turn, played straight to a horse. Kind of a menagerie-a-trois, I guess you’d say.

(Quick: What was Mr. Ed’s real name? Bamboo Harvester. I’ll bet that was your first guess, right? Sorry to say, though, that Ed – or Bamboo – crossed the final finish line some years ago.)….

My first memory of Arnold Stang is from his days as a pitchman for Chunky chocolate bars. “Chunky! What a chunk o’ chocolate!” he was wont to say.

Stang had been in show business long before television, in radio and movies. In movie cartoons he played Herman the mouse and Popeye’s friend Shorty. In the 1960s he was also the voice of Top Cat – something that impressed me at the time (I was easily impressed way back when) because Top Cat’s silky-smooth voice was so different from the goofy voice Stang usually used. It took me some time to figure out that Top Cat was an homage to Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko, the word “homage” being derived from a Middle French term, “le ripoff.”

Then again, the first time I saw the original famed 39 episodes of “The Honeymooners,” the plots seemed tired until I realized I’d seen them before on “The Flintstones.”

(It sometimes takes me a long time to figure out stuff like this. Lately I’ve been hearing that professional wrestling is fixed. Have to look into that one of these days.)

Gene, Connie and Arnold. I’m sorry to see them go, partly because they were fine performers and seemed like nice people, and partly because when people like them leave, parts of my youth go with them as the fabled past recedes – along with my hairline. (Oh, where are the follicles of yesteryear?)

Clarification: Mark Evanier, whose blog, "News From Me," is indispensable (see blogroll) says that although Shorty was featured in three Popeye cartoons, Arnold Stang's voice was featured in only one of them, "Moving Aweigh." In the other cartoons, Shorty was played by Jack Mercer, who also did Popeye's voice most of the time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

3,000 and counting

This blog reached another milestone today -- 3,000 hits.

So I'd like to take this occasion to thank all my visitors.

Notice I said "visitors" but not "fans." For it seems that most of the people who come upon this blog don't get here because their respective breaths are bated as they await the latest drippings from my alleged mind.

They get here because they're searching for something, and their search brings them indirectly (perhaps "detoured" would be a better word) to this establishment.

I notice a lot of you -- and that's putting it mildly -- have landed here because you've been doing a search for "sinbad movies." Heaven only knows what kind of hold Sinbad has on you people. And I thought the characters from "Star Trek," in all its permutations, had a herculean fan base.

Lately I've been getting a lot of visits from Googlebot. I've been trying to ascertain exactly what a Googlebot is, but although I have a rough idea, I can't quite figure it out. My local computer guru has tried to explain it to me, but to no avail, although he does say that to be stalked by a Googlebot is a good thing. (Hmm. I wonder if a Googlebot can mate with a doodle bug. If you happen to know the answer to that, please refrain from telling it to me.)

I do know that I have a loyal reader in Boise, Idaho, who was kind enough to write to me. Someone from Rockville, Md., comes here, too. And I occasionally see visitors from Rochester, N.Y., and Wampsville, N.Y. ("Good old Wampsville -- gateway to Oneida," as Bob Hope would say if he were here, which I'm glad he isn't, because I'm sure I couldn't afford his price.)

Anyway, thanks to all of you regulars, whether you identify yourselves or not. It's always nice to know there's someone out there, even when I'm not completely sure there's anyone in here.

Onward.

At the (old) movies: 'The Captain's Paradise'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

“The Captain’s Paradise” (London Film, 1953) is about a guy who is, well, a louse.

But because this is one of those cute British films from the fifties (such as “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Ladykillers”), and because the louse in question is played by Alec Guinness, and because the film comes right out and tells you that it’s a “fairy tale,” the louse, ferryboat captain Henry St. James, comes across as the kind of bad boy you want to wave your finger at instead of socking him one.

Why is Henry a louse? Simply because he has a wife and a mistress. The wife, played by Celia Johnson, is a homebody who keeps the St. James home well-kept while Henry is keeping a mistress, Nita, a dancer played by Yvonne De Carlo, in Tangiers.

The two women seem to exemplify what Henry wants in a woman – domesticity, with a walk on the wild side (or at least a side that’s as tamely wild as things usually get in this kind of movie).

With this kind of plot setup, what usually happens is that the wife finds out about the mistress or vice versa (I had a teacher who pronounced this “vissy versa,” the original Latin pronunciation, I would guess). And in this film, you keep waiting for this to happen, so that the “fun” can begin, Henry can get his comeuppance, and the prop department can earn some overtime by supplying enough pots and pans and other utensils for the women to throw at him.

But this never happens.

Instead something else happens, something a lot more subtle and enjoyable, and I won’t spoil it here.

It’s not a long movie (the filmmakers are smart enough to realize that this kind of plot can’t be stretched as far as two hours’ worth of screen time), and although I don’t like it as much as “The Ladykillers” (I’m of course referring to the Guinness film, not the Tom Hanks remake, which I, with no regrets whatsoever, have never seen), it is a little gem.

Aside from Guinness’ performances – another of his Little Men With a Lot More to Them Than Meets the Eye – Celia Johnson once again proves that it’s almost physically impossible for her to give a bad performance, and Yvonne De Carlo might well surprise those who know her only as Lily Munster.

Charles Goldner has some very good moments as Henry’s chief officer, who finds out about the boss’ double life. And in a small role, you can find Sebastian Cabot of “Family Affair” as a vendor, apparently on his day off from taking care of those three kids and making some extra money. (Geez, you’d think with that fancy-schmancy Manhattan apartment, Uncle Bill could afford to pay the guy more….)

Friday, December 18, 2009

E. White, T. Eliot spin in their graves

The New York Times' Web site is reporting the death of the author of thee 1976 book "Friendly Fire." I never read the book, but I remember it. It's about the death of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, and it was made into a TV movie featuring Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty as the soldier's parents.

The book's author was C.D.B. Bryan. That was the guy's byline.

I don't know what The Times' hard-copy newspaper says, but its Web site has this headline:

C. Bryan, 73, 'Friendly Fire' Writer, Dies

I know what you've been thinking...

It's only a week before Christmas and you've watched the Grinch, watched Charlie Brown, watched Rudolph.

You know there's something's missing.

You're thinking, when is Murphy once again going to post the link to that charming Christmas mystery story he wrote a few years ago so I can enjoy it yet again?

Well, who am I to ignore my public's wishes? Scrooge? Or Mr. Magoo, even? (And why do I suddenly seem to be channeling Snagglepuss?)

All right, already. The link to "The Afternoon Before Christmas," a 1,500-word epic featuring crime-solving copy editor Chuckie Charles, is right here.

And I hope you enjoy it again. Or even for the first time.

And feel free to drop me a line about it, if you're so inclined.

Ho ho ho.

Friday, December 11, 2009

He wore a cane and derby hat

While I was channel surfing around 1 or 2 in the morning a few years ago, I discovered that one of the cable stations was about to begin a marathon of episodes from the “Bat Masterson” TV show, starring Gene Barry, who died this week.

I hadn’t seen “Bat Masterson” in many years. Since then, and in recent years, I’d seen reruns of other shows I’d grown up with. Some held up; some didn’t.

I figured I’d watch a “Bat Masterson,” then head to bed.

I wound of watching three of them. Or was it four?

They seemed to hold up quite well for two major reasons: the quality of the writing (I think someone named Andy White basically created the series) and, of course, Gene Barry, who played the man who “wore a cane and derby hat.” (And it only now occurs to me, a professional editor, that "derby hat" seems redundant. Oh well.)

So I watched a lot more of the episodes when the cable station began showing them regularly.

I wasn’t that big of a western fan when I was a kid. I was too young to stay up for Paladin, though I was permitted to watch “The Rifleman.”

But I used to watch “Bat Masterson” because it was different – or rather, the hero was different. A lot different. The series purported to be based on a biography of Masterson, which I’ve never read, and in seeing them again, I got the impression that the episodes were based on things that happened to the real Masterson or things that might have happened to him. (And who knows what the guy was really like? I’ve seen a picture of the real Bat, apparently taken in later years, and the real guy looks like a guy who’s trying to be as dapper as the guy who would play him decades later.)

Heck, I even had a “Bat Masterson” board game. Kind of like Clue, as I recall. (Where is the bad guy hiding? The saloon? The livery stable?)

A few years later, Barry resurfaced in “Burke’s Law,” playing a rich guy who solves crimes as the head of a homicide squad because he likes doing it and he’s good at it.

Barry’s character, Amos Burke, had an eye for the ladies – actually, two eyes for the ladies, and you shuddered to think what he could do with more. The show at times at least bordered on sexist, I suppose; for the most part, it was, to me, engagingly silly. And it had some fine writers, too, among them Richard Levinson and William Link, who created “Columbo,” and Harlan Ellison.

“Burke’s Law” was produced by Aaron Spelling for Four Star and used a formula Spelling would later use on “The Love Boat”: lots of guest stars, some of them on their way up, some of them not so famous anymore but worth seeing. (I fondly remember one episode that included a pre-“Bewitched” Elizabeth Montgomery and, as an older lady, Ann Harding, a very interesting actress whose heyday was in the 1930s.)

After a few years, someone got the idea of making Amos Burke a secret agent, and Capt. Burke’s fortunes couldn’t have fallen more precipitously if he’d been shoved down an elevator shaft. I never could watch an “Amos Burke, Secret Agent” episode all the way through.

Barry’s next role was Glenn Howard, newspaper publisher, in “The Name of the Game.” He was one of three stars, the others being Anthony Franciosa and Robert Stack. Each episode was 90 minutes. Maybe I was too young, or maybe the show was padded, or what, but I usually couldn’t get through any of these episodes, either.

A little later, Barry played the murderer in “Prescription: Murder,” the pilot film for “Columbo.”

In the 1990s, Spelling and Barry resurrected “Burke’s Law.” I tried to get through a couple of episodes and got through one, I think. For one thing, Amos Burke now had a son (got to appeal to the younger generation, y’know). And each episode featured Dom DeLuise. I’m sorry Mr. DeLuise isn’t around anymore, and I did find him amusing, but to me, a little of him always went a long way, or at least halfway around the block.

So what are we to make of Gene Barry? He’d been a movie star before “Bat Masterson,” but, as far as I can tell, not a major one. And he was a good musician – a pianist – and he could sing and dance, as evidenced by the acclaim he won on the stage in “La Cage Aux Folles.”

When all is said and done, Gene Barry radiated class. (Is it a coincidence that his real last name was Klass?) But the movies of the fifties already had someone who radiated – indeed oozed – class, namely Cary Grant.

And when you consider that a lot of early television lacked this kind of class (though it did have its charms and, once in a while, a kind of quality that has seldom, if ever, been equaled), and when you consider that Fred Astaire rarely appeared on TV and Cary Grant never did, someone was needed to provide some polish. Gene Barry was in the right place at the right time, and – cane and derby hat or not – he delivered the goods.

Monday, November 30, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Destry Rides Again'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

Many years ago, I finally saw “Gone With the Wind” for the first time.

I saw it under the best possible conditions: with a receptive audience and in a theater that had been built in the late 1920s by the parent company of MGM and had been lovingly kept in shape.

After I saw the movie, I was glad that I had finally seen it.

But I’ve never felt the urge to watch it again.

Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie. It’s just that for me, it’s the kind of film for which the phrase “been there, done that” was coined.

I’ve also had the same feeling about a few other famous movies.

Yet there are other movies that I can watch again and again – and, in fact, do watch whenever I run into them while channel surfing. Among them are “Out of the Past,” “Double Indemnity,” “Ball of Fire,” “The Gunfighter” (a nifty but, I fear, not-too-well-known film starring Gregory Peck) and “Destry Rides Again.”

“Destry Rides Again” (Universal, 1939) is one of those movies that are so effortlessly well done as to be outright deceptive—you finish watching it, and you think you, too, could make a film just as good even though you barely know the difference between a klieg light and a kangaroo.

Which, of course, is silly. And which makes films like this all the more admirable, because the effort doesn’t show.

And when you come right down to it, there are so many ways in which this film could have been a disaster.

Consider, for example, what they did with the source material. The movie is based on a book by Max Brand—a neat name for a prolific writer of westerns, eh? Except that Max Brand—who also created Dr. Kildare—was actually a guy named Frederick Faust. (Which, in turn, sounds like a name that could have been thought up only by a guy named Max Brand, who actually was—oops, I said that already, didn’t I?)

I’ve never read the book, but I saw it in a bookstore recently and could tell that it was not supposed to be a comedy.

So here we have a studio that has the rights to a novel by a top-selling western writer, and the studio folks decide to make it into a comedy. The modern equivalent, I suppose, would be a studio buying the rights to a Stephen King novel and turning it into a rollicking comedy (with a couple of musical numbers for good measure). I don’t know what Brand/Faust thought of Universal’s idea; then again, the studio had already bought the book years ago (and made a “straight” version of it with Tom Mix in 1932), so I suspect there was nothing he could have done.

And did I mention that the producers also decided that the town dance hall girl would be played by a German actress?

I don’t know how they made this all work, but they did, and just about every element works: James Stewart in the lead role, when he was younger and his “aw shucks” persona hadn’t calcified into caricature; Marlene Dietrich (this is the only film I’ve ever enjoyed her in); and such comedy veterans as Charles Winninger, Una Merkel, Mischa Auer, Jack Carson, Billy Gilbert and Allen Jenkins.

And, to balance Fraulein Dietrich as Frenchie, an all-American-as-apple-pie miss named Irene Hervey (who was also the mother of singer Jack Jones).

Brian Donlevy plays the heavy but doesn't play him heavily.

The film’s various elements—comedy, music and some dead serious drama—are so well blended that they complement one another instead of clashing.

If the film has any flaw, it might be that the whole is a little less than the sum of its parts – but what parts! Not only the cast, but the scenes: Dietrich amiably parodying herself in the musical numbers; Stewart suddenly socking Jack Carson for mouthing off; and not one but two moving death scenes.

And did I mention the Great Marlene Dietrich-Una Merkel Hair-Pulling Contest?

What more could you ask for?

I can hardly wait to see this again sometime.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'In the Navy'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

For years, for me, Abbott and Costello were synonymous with Sunday mornings.

That’s when one of the local TV stations used to show the pair’s Universal films when I was a kid; my siblings and I would watch as much of Bud and Lou as we could before it was time to go to Mass.

The local show was called “Movietime” – I can hear the theme music now, just as I can conjure up the memory of the theme for the same station’s “Movie of the Week,” shown at 11:30 p.m. Sundays, and which I wasn’t allowed to watch when school was in session. And then there was “Sunday Movietime,” a late-afternoon show that was hosted by the same guy who, dressed as a carnival barker, also hosted “Popeye’s Funhouse.” This being Sunday, though, he always wore a suit as he stood in front of a set that was supposed to look like the exterior of a movie theater, which he would “enter” after introducing the week’s film.

“Movietime” wasn’t limited to Abbott and Costello – there were only so many A&C movies to go around. So we also saw all the Henry Aldrich movies (I always identified with Henry, who made Charlie Brown look like an overachiever) along with the Francis the Talking Mule movies, which always seemed old hat (unfairly, I know now) because we’d seen the same basic gags on “Mr. Ed,” produced years later. (Similarly, the first time I saw the old “Honeymooners” show in reruns as a kid, they seemed old-hat too, until I realized I’d seen those gags on “The Flintstones,” which, of course, had, um, borrowed the basic idea.)

But Abbott and Costello were the gold standard, and I ate them up. What kid didn’t identify with Lou Costello, who built his career on playing a little kid who was somehow, inexplicably, in a grown-up’s body?

Eventually one of the other stations began showing the team’s TV show from the 1950s, and I was introduced to the charms of Mr. Fields. (Years later, I would come to appreciate, in a different way, the charms of Hillary Brooke.)

But as I got older, Abbott and Costello seemed tiresome. Corny. Kid stuff.

But as I got older still, I began to realize a couple of things.

1. Although I’d outgrown Costello’s antics (there’s a fine line between childlike charm and infantile obnoxiousness, and as Lou Costello got older – and, as I would later read, more obstreperous – he saw no shame in pole-vaulting over that line), I more and more became a fan of Bud Abbott. Groucho reportedly called Abbott the best straight man in the business, and I can see why. I love watching Abbott set up the routines and control the pacing. He’s flawless – never seems to break character. Yes, it was the only character he ever played, and no, of course he could never have played Hamlet, but I somehow doubt that Laurence Olivier could have put “Who’s on First?” across half as well.

2. The Abbott and Costello films – and especially their TV show – are, in a way, museum pieces of a theatrical history that is well worth preserving. Bud and Lou came from vaudeville and burlesque and knew all the routines – among them “Flugel Street,” “Niagara Falls” and “Pack, Unpack,” along with the baseball sketch – and because of them, a valuable and often very funny oral tradition survives.

“In the Navy” (Universal, 1941) is a typical example. The plot is next to nothing, to put it most charitably. Actually, when you come right down to it, the title is the plot, though you also have Dick Powell around as a famous singer who has enlisted incognito, and the relentlessly cheerful, yet somehow endearing, Andrews Sisters.

To me, the alleged plot is nothing but a framework for several classic routines – in this case, the Lemon Table Sketch, the Math Lesson (Lou shows that 7 times 13 equals 28) and, early on, a variation of Pay the Man the Two Dollars, which shows Bud at his aggressive best. And in the Lemon Table routine they are ably abetted and assisted by the always welcome Shemp Howard, whom I tended to undervalue as a kid because he wasn’t Curly (who, come to think of it, knew how to play a grown-up little kid without ever becoming obnoxious. Then again, from what I’ve read, he apparently really was a grown-up little kid).

Would I like to watch all of Bud and Lou’s movies all the way through all over again? For the most part, no.

But in short doses, they can be just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

At the (old) movies: Before the Wizard

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s recent showing of “There’s Always Tomorrow” (Universal, 1934)….

For years, the name Frank Morgan meant only one thing to me – and, quite possibly, to you, too: the Wizard of Oz.

After all, for many years, the annual showing of MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” was the only time I saw Morgan, though once in a while he might show up in some other old movie my folks were watching.

In recent years, Morgan has been more visible, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. He’s always a welcome presence, even if he sometimes does go over the top with a vehemence that would make Chuck Yeager dizzy.

But when he turned down his rhetorical rheostat, Morgan could be quite affecting. One of the many virtues of “The Shop Around the Corner” is his performance as store owner Hugo Matuschek. As Matuschek, Morgan is his usual, endearingly funny self, yet he is also quite touching after Matuschek finds out that his wife has been cheating with one of his employees.

This subtler, lower-gear version of Morgan is also on display in “There’s Always Tomorrow.” (If that title sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the 1956 movie with the same name – and plot – that was also made by Universal and stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.)

Morgan plays Joseph White, a married man whose wife and five children are so busy that they don’t seem to have time for him. One of them is played by a young actor named Robert Taylor.

One night, while Joseph is reading the paper on the front porch (the rest of the house is occupied by family members and guests who are attending a party he apparently forgot about), a woman approaches him and asks for directions. By a strange coincidence (which later turns out to have been no coincidence at all), the woman is Alice Vail (Binnie Barnes), whom Joseph used to work with. They renew their friendship, and if you don’t know where the plot is headed from there, it’s a cinch that you haven’t been to any movies since the world premiere of “The Great Train Robbery.”

On Thursday nights, Joseph goes to lodge meetings, or so he tells his family, but we and the entire free world know better: He’s really hanging out with Alice.

Perhaps because of censorship reasons, we’re supposed to believe that all the two of them do is talk. This may be a tall order, but Morgan and Barnes do their best, and the effect is kind of refreshing in a retro sort of way, especially considering that if the movie were to be made today, we'd probably see them both between the sheets, in 3-D, with off-screen color commentary.

Eventually Joseph’s kids find out what’s really been going on, and Alice finds out that they’ve found out. The rest of the plot would take too long to summarize, but let’s just say that:

Alice gently puts Joseph’s insensitive offspring in their place.

Alice gracefully bows out of Joseph’s life.

Binnie Barnes was one hell of an actress. She’s able to portray the sadness of unrequited love, but with a wistfulness that never threatens to teeter into the abyss of self-pity.

(Did I really write that last sentence? Geez. I’d better stay away from movies like this. But I won’t stay away from movies that feature Binnie Barnes, and you shouldn’t, either.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's the perfect blend for your tofu kebab

The label on a recently purchased bottle of barbecue sauce proudly proclaims that the product is:

Gluten free.

Lactose free.

Fat free.

Vegan.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Tin Pan Alley'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Remember the “Twilight Zone” episode where Dennis Weaver has the same dream each night – he’s on trial for murder, convicted, condemned to death and sent to the electric chair, but just as the switch is pulled, he wakes up, terrified?

And each time he has the dream, the cast of characters is jumbled – the guy who’s the judge now, for instance, was a death row inmate last time?

The 20th Century Fox musicals from the late 1930s and early 1940s are a little like that, though the casting doesn’t change that dramatically, and as far as I can recall, Don Ameche never went to the electric chair. (Of course, he did have the foresight to invent the telephone so the governor could call and commute his sentence.)

The Fox musicals of that era seem like permutations of each other, as if a casting director, informed that a new film needed X number of stars, donned a blindfold and tossed darts at a wall containing pictures of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Cesar Romero, Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, John Payne, Carmen Miranda and Sonja Henie, among others, and when the requisite number of darts had been thrown, you had your cast.

Which is why I have a hard time telling these films apart. (And, to be honest, I haven’t seen many of them.)

Anyway, for “Tin Pan Alley” (1940), the casting director’s mini-missiles scored direct hits on Alice Faye, John Payne, Betty Grable and Jack Oakie.

And it’s a pleasant enough film, even if you’ve seen the plot before. (Heck, I’ll bet the audiences who saw it the first time had seen the plot at least a few times before. And they probably would see it at least a few times again.)

Alice Faye and Betty Grable are sisters who have a singing act. Alice loves composer John Payne, who might well love her back, but for most of the film he seems to love himself a lot more as he does his best to get the attention of the Powers That Be of the early-century music world. Unfortunately, he’s such a heel that he’s more likely to get mash notes from Dr. Scholl.

Payne’s partner is Jack Oakie, a comedian whose name isn’t well known these days, which is too bad because he’s quite good – kind of like that annoying colleague or neighbor who thinks he’s funny, except that Oakie really is funny, and he knows how far he can push things without becoming annoying.

The music is a pleasant mix of vintage tunes and newer material, especially “You Say the Sweetest Things, Baby,” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. It’s a really catchy tune, and it’s performed so many times that in order not to catch it, you’d have to be the butterfingers of all time. (I can hear the studio execs now: “We paid good money for that tune, and the audience is going to hear it! And hear it! And hear it…..”)

One nice surprise: Elisha Cook Jr., pre-“Maltese Falcon” and the other psychopaths he specialized in, playing a composer and showing a subtle flair for comedy. (Which is ironic, I suppose, because it might have done a world of good for John Payne’s egotistical composer to have a roscoe shoved up his nostrils. Or elsewhere.)

Before the film: “Hollywood Rhythm,” a Paramount short subject from 1934, featuring Jack Oakie and songwriters Harry Revel and Mack Gordon – yes, the same Mack Gordon who co-wrote “You Say the Sweetest Things, Baby.”

Gordon and Revel’s songs include “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking?” and “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Chances are that if you grew up in a TV market that showed a lot of Paramount’s Popeye cartoons from the 1930s (in my youth, one station’s slogan might as well have been “All Popeye All the Time”), you’ve heard these and other Gordon-Revel songs as background music.

The featurette shows the two as they are supposedly composing a new song, “Take a Number from One to Ten.” They seem like OK guys, but as I watched the short I once again wondered why so many of the composers of this country’s classic romantic tunes in person seem about as romantic as your average shoe salesman. (“Would you like to see something in B flat, three-quarter time?”)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Another Rx, another show

I well remember my acting days.

That’s chiefly because there’s not much to remember and because I’ve never really been an actor.

In high school, my fellow students and I would sometimes perform plays during English class, just sitting at our desks. And I enjoyed that.

And I’ve sometimes wished I’d been born long enough ago to be an actor during the Golden Age of Radio, where all you had to do was stand at a mike and read from a script – no memorization required! (The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to memorize lines – or anything else.)

Now … where was I?

Oh, yes, acting.

Although I enjoyed reading parts from my desk in school, and although I appeared to be fairly decent at it (though it’s hard to know for sure as the school’s policy strictly prohibited the throwing of foodstuffs), when it came to acting on stage, where I had to know what to say, when to say it, where to move, when to move, whether to say something and move at the same time without bumping into someone or something ….

You get the idea. Let’s just say that if Stanislavski had directed me, his book would have been titled “An Actor Despairs.”

Do I ever get a hankering to practice the thespian craft these days?

Sure.

But when I need to test my acting chops, I don’t go to the Actors Studio. (Not that I haven’t tried, but as far as I know, James Lipton still has an injunction against me.)

Nor do I visit a community theater group to “show them how it’s done.”

No, when I want a quick workout, there’s one place where I can always go:

The prescription counter at the neighborhood drugstore.

Every once in a while I go there, and we do a very brief one-act play. There’s little in the way of blocking, not a lot to memorize, and it’s the same thing every time – kind of a pharmaceutical Kabuki.

It goes something like this (as comedians used to say)….

CLERK: Name?

ME: Murphy, Mark.

(CLERK walks over to a set of shelves and spends up to 20 seconds looking around before turning to me.)

CLERK: Did you just drop this off?

ME: No, I called it in to your automated phone line yesterday morning.

(CLERK leaves the shelves, walks over to a computer, presses some keys and looks concerned. Then the CLERK walks over to a box, searches that, talks one or two people, goes over to a second set of shelves and searches that, then returns to the first set of shelves and searches the exact same section that was searched before.)

CLERK (with a note of triumph that would make Archimedes bow his head in shame): Got it!

… This is basically it, though the script does allow for minor improvisations, bits of business, etc. For example, if the clerk is a guy he might address me as “buddy,” even though calling our relationship an acquaintanceship would be at most somewhat of a stretch.

I wish I could say that we adjourned to Sardi’s afterward to await the reviews, but one is so pressed for time these days, although once in a while the head pharmacist does have us stay for a bit so he can give us notes.

But as it is, it’s a heady enough experience – the roar of the Bengay, the smell of the Muzak!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'White Heat'

The local cinephile society shows a lot of forgotten films, but “White Heat” (Warner Bros., 1949), presented recently, certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

The James Cagney film, directed by Raoul Walsh, is so well-known that it’s hard to find anything new to talk about. Who doesn’t know about killer Cody Jarrett, his catchphrase – “Top of the World, Ma!” – and his odd relationship with his mother, played by Margaret Wycherly?

And that literally explosive ending.

The film still holds up, still moves along quite nicely.

But there’s one aspect of it that perhaps has not been mentioned enough:

Edmond O’Brien.

O’Brien plays the cop who pretends to be a convict and wins Jarrett’s confidence in prison. It’s a solid performance by an actor who I fear has been overlooked in recent years.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve also recently heard some episodes of the radio series “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” that featured O’Brien. He was one of several actors who portrayed the lead character, a crime-solving insurance investigator "with the action-packed expense account." O’Brien played Dollar as a tough guy who, under all the toughness, was a bit of a softie – but just a bit.

O’Brien, particularly in the 1950s, was a master when it came to playing guys who were hard-boiled but not glamorous, and maybe not all that heroic. The typical O’Brien character was not larger than life; he was more like you and me, and sometimes maybe uncomfortably so. (I’m particularly thinking of his Oscar-winning portrayal of Oscar Muldoon, the glib but craven press agent in “The Barefoot Contessa.”)

Then there’s “The Comedian,” a “Playhouse 90” episode (written by Rod Serling from a story by Ernest Lehman), in which O’Brien plays Al Preston, a desperate TV comedy writer who steals material from another writer. (“The Comedian” used to be on VHS. I hope someday it’ll be on DVD, because it’s too good to miss, with other outstanding performances by Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter and Mel Torme and direction by John Frankenheimer. All done on live TV, too.)

(Update, 4/26/10: I'm very happy to report that a DVD of "The Comedian" is now available as part of a box set that is titled "The Golden Age of Television" and also features kinescopes of "Marty," Rod Serling's "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "No Time for Sergeants," "A Wind from the South," "Bang the Drum Slowly" -- starring Paul Newman -- and "Days of Wine and Roses.")

As O’Brien got older, his performances could go a little over the top, though sometimes endearingly so – I’m particularly thinking of the senator in “Seven Days in May.”

I don’t know much about O’Brien as a person, but he seemed like the kind of actor who enjoyed acting and wasn’t in it just for the bucks.

And in “White Heat” he more than holds his own against Cagney.

Let’s not forget him.

Soupy Sales

A lot of kids my age grew up watching Soupy Sales.

I wasn’t one of them.

This was simply because Soupy’s show (somehow I can’t refer to him by his last name) wasn’t shown in my area.

I did, occasionally, see Soupy on other shows. He struck me as a nice enough guy, though maybe a bit too silly and corny for my taste.

But I didn’t dislike him; he seemed to know he was silly and corny – he never pretended to be Noel Coward – and maybe that was part, or most, of his charm.

And as I got older and watched him on game shows, I began to fully appreciate him, to become aware of something that I don’t think has been pointed out very often, if at all:

Unlike some comics, Soupy, who got his start in radio, was a total pro as a broadcaster, knowing when to crack wise and when to play the game, never hogging the spotlight, looking out for the needs of the show first.



Case in point: an episode of the syndicated, post-John Daly version of “What's My Line.” The mystery guest is Rodney Dangerfield. Someone (Soupy, I think) guesses him right away. This means that the host has some time to fill.

During a lull in the post-game interview, Soupy jumps in -- not with a joke of his own, but with a setup line for Rodney (something like, "Rodney, how's you're wife been?") and Dangerfield is off and running for a very funny couple of minutes.


I remember thinking that this was a classy thing to do, and thinking that Soupy Sales, despite the many-times-warmed-over gags, was a very classy guy.

I still think so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Thirteen Hours by Air'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

“Thirteen Hours by Air” (Paramount, 1936) stars Fred MacMurray as an airline pilot. This was early in his career, when he was in his devil-may-care mode – far different from the roles he played in his later, Geritol-may-care mode.

If you only know MacMurray from “My Three Sons,” you should give his early films a try. Instead of just reacting to the latest antics of Chip, Ernie and Robbie (not to mention Uncle Charley’s sputterings), he is suave, charming, knowing, even cocky, but not in an off-putting way. Years later he would put a darker spin on this character as Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity,” but here his goal is not murdering anyone’s husband but merely getting his plane to California on time.

But although MacMurray’s character doesn’t have his mind on murder, he definitely fancies himself as a lady killer, and the quarry in question here is passenger Joan Bennett.

The film is a mix of comedy and suspense, the latter provided by two mysterious characters – one (played by Alan Baxter) who definitely seems up to no good. (Was Baxter ever up to any good? ) The other character (played by Brian Donlevy, minus mustache, and, like MacMurray, just starting out) may or may not be a doctor.

Much of the comedy is provided by Zasu Pitts, who is in charge of a bratty kid portrayed by Benny Bartlett. I like Zasu, but a little of her can go a long way, and here her character is on a cross-country plane trip, so I could have used a little relief from the comedy, though her airsickness scene did make me laugh.

The airplane and airport sets seem realistic (or at least not very fanciful), and there’s a doozy of a sequence set in a snowstorm. But if you’re looking for hyperrealism, book another flight: At one point here, MacMurray throws a gun out of an airplane door while the plane is in flight, and in another scene, his co-pilot – also in midflight – opens his window to scrape some ice off.

Then again, this was made during the Depression, so maybe they couldn’t afford air pressure.

Before the film, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Hare Lift,” in which the wascally wabbit does battle with Yosemite Sam on a plane that’s out of control.

It’s always great to see these Warner cartoons on a big screen, with an appreciative audience. It’s the way they were meant to be seen, and director Friz Freleng’s timing of Warren Foster’s gags is impeccable. I think one reason so many Warners cartoons hold up so well is that they had to be a certain length, and every foot of film, every frame, had to count, as they do here.

And only Bugs could get away with stopping the crashing plane at the last possible moment and telling us that this could be done with no sweat because the plane had “air brakes.” He tells us this with a look that almost dares us to groan, implying that if we did groan, we wouldn’t be cool like Bugs. And who doesn't want to be cool like Bugs?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

And the award goes to ... a friend of mine

If you look at my blogroll, you'll see a link to the Web site of Julie Hyzy, mystery writer.

Last I looked, Julie hadn't updated her blog since she announced that she was on her way to Bouchercon, the top annual gathering of mystery authors and fans, being held this year in Indianapolis. (I've been to a couple of these things, but I didn't make it this year.)

I suppose the key reason Julie hasn't updated her blog is that despite recent advances in technology, there is currently no Internet service on Cloud Nine.

Which is where Julie is currently residing, having just won the Anthony Award for Best Original Paperback for her book "State of the Onion."

This is a big deal, folks.

"State of the Onion" is the first in a series of novels about the adventures (or misadventures) of Olivia Paras, a chef at the White House.

I first met Julie and her friend and fellow author, Michael A. Black, whose blogroll is also on this blog, at a Bouchercon in Toronto. Since then, Julie has not only read my few published stories (with apparently no deleterious effects) but has been cheering me on.

You couldn't meet a nicer person than Julie, but if you can't meet Julie, you can do the next best thing: Get one of her books ("Hail to the Chef" is also available, and "Eggsecutive Orders" is due out next year) and meet Olivia Paras, who sounds a lot like -- suspiciously like -- Julie. But hey, what's wrong with that? Didn't Flaubert say he was Madame Bovary?

And where is his Anthony Award?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If you act now, they'll throw in a preposition

A magazine I subscribe to -- a magazine for writers, no less -- sent me a notice today, stating that if I don't renew ASAP, my subscription will expire.

A sign at the top of the notice -- boxed and in larger type -- says:

Choose Your Bonus Renewal Savings
-- Now -- To Avoid A Lapse Service!

At the (old) movies: 'College Holiday'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

Chances are pretty good that you haven’t seen “College Holiday” (Paramount, 1936) on TV lately. Chances are at least as good that you won’t see it there any time soon.

The film is for the most part a typical example of a kind of movie that seems to have been very popular then: the college musical. (Given that these movies were made during the Depression, I can’t help wondering whether these fake campuses were far more populated than the real ones.)

But two things set “College Holiday” apart, and they are not good things.

The focus of the plot (to use the word loosely – so loosely that it almost fell apart as I was typing it) is a plan to carefully mate college students so that the next generation will be a superior population. Yes, folks, we’re talking eugenics – a cute idea for an innocuous musical in 1936 (maybe), but a less than innocuous idea for a series of terrible events a few years later.

The other thing is a minstrel show at the end of the movie. At first it doesn’t seem that offensive; most of the performers aren’t in blackface.

But then a couple does a dance in blackface.

And, more to the point, there’s the Martha Raye number.

For those of you too young to remember, Martha Raye was kind of like Bette Midler without the irony. She could be very funny. Touching, even.

But here she sings a song in blackface – not the result of makeup, but of lighting.

And as she is singing the lighting changes, she turns white. And (as I recall) black again.

If my enunciation isn’t all it should be right now, it’s probably because I still haven’t mustered the strength to lift my jaw off the floor.

And it’s really too bad that the film has these strikes against it, because otherwise it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half, with some appealing songs and mostly likable performers, including Jack Benny (in his early, smartass mode, before he became a professional miser) as the lead, with Burns and Allen in top form. (Was there ever a more perfect actress than Gracie Allen, at least in the sense that she never went out of character? She was beautifully consistent all through her career.)

But one particular treat is an early performance by Marsha Hunt.

Hunt was one of those performers who was always dependable but never achieved top stardom. One major reason: She and her husband were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Although she plays a major role here, I suspect this film didn’t do much for her career; she eventually moved to MGM. Perhaps one thing that held her back was the co-star she is saddled with here: Leif Erickson, later known as the crusty old guy on TV’s “The High Chapparal,” but in this film a leading man who is, to perhaps put it most charitably, stiff, the kind of guy who is buttoned down even while wearing an undershirt. In terms of restraint, Leif Erickson is perhaps the only performer in history who makes Nelson Eddy look like Jerry Lewis.

Despite all this, Hunt is her usual charming self. And I’m happy to report that, from all accounts, she is still charming – one of the few 1930s film performers who is still alive today. At last year’s Bouchercon – the international get-together for mystery writers and fans – I saw her in a chilling short film, “The Grand Inquisitor,” made just last year. Catch it if you can – but don’t expect another “College Holiday.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

I bet she knows what 'condescending' means

Headline on the cover of the Summer 2009 issue of The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society:

"Why Your Waitress Might Be Smarter Than You"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My uncle, Aristotle and Dick Tracy

It’s a summer evening in the late 1950s. My uncle and I are in the library at St. John Fisher College.

He and I are the only ones there. He runs the place and has his own office. The office includes an intercom. He has been known to open the intercom, hold a paper bag next to it and squeeze it so that it makes crunching noises that can easily be heard by his secretary, the loyal but long-suffering Dorothy Kalb.

And he also has been known to drop water balloons out the window.

I myself have not been witness to these shenanigans, but my brother Michael, who once also stayed with Unk for a few days, remembers them well.

My uncle is a Catholic priest and a published poet, and he has done a lot to build up the library’s collection through connections he has in Canada, which include Marshall McLuhan.

My uncle also has a portable TV in his office. I’ve never seen a portable TV before. It is red, and tonight its offerings include an episode of “Men Into Space” starring William Lundigan, who is from our hometown. (Michael got his autograph once at the airport.)

As impressed as I am by the TV, right now I’m probably looking at a book. I’ve been staying with Unk for a day or two. As Mrs. Kalb was driving us on the Thruway, from my hometown to Rochester, I little suspected that Unk had a Hidden Agenda.

For although I have not yet set foot in kindergarten, I already know how to read. I don’t know how I know how to read; my guess has always been that, as a sickly kid, I picked it up watching TV game shows like “Concentration.”

I am the Wonder of the Neighborhood. One neighbor lady, who suspects some kind of trickery, sometimes shoves a magazine under my nose and asks me to read an article out loud, which I do.

Because of all this, Unk thinks I’m a genius, not realizing that although I can read stuff out loud, that doesn't mean that I can understand what I'm reading, and very often I don't.

He’s aiming to indoctrinate me into the kinds of things that a 5-year-old Genius should know.

Like the works of Aristotle.

It’s not that he expects me to read the original Greek, or even a translation; he just tries to teach me some of Aristotle’s ideas. It doesn’t work then, and I still don’t do all that well years later when an ethics professor tries to do the same thing to me in college. How disappointed Unk must have felt when, later during my visit, I made him buy me a Dick Tracy comic book.

(One time, he signed me up for a kiddie book-of-the-month club which sent me a science book each month. When I showed no interest, he tried to cancel the subscription. When the books somehow kept coming anyway, my uncle, whose name was Robert H. Flood, at least bent one of the commandments and wrote a letter to the book company, posing as a a friend of R.H. Flood and relaying the sad news that Father Flood had recently dropped dead. That did the trick, though it might later have led to a week in Purgatory.)

My big interest at this point in my life is geography. Every week my parents buy the latest volume of the Golden Book Encyclopedia at the grocery store. Even now, I remember these books fondly – wonderfully well-designed, with bright colors and maps of the states and countries, with the little icons denoting cattle ranches, factories, etc.

My uncle and I are alone until a student walks in. I remember talking to him. My uncle will later say that I said, “Can I help you?”

I recall that the guy said he needed to talk to my uncle.

My uncle asks him what he wants.

The guy says something like, “I’m looking for ‘Egypt during the War.””

My uncle says, “Ask the kid.”

The student says, “Ask the kid?!”

My uncle says something like, “Mark, could you go over to that shelf over there and find the book he’s looking for?”

“Yes, Uncle Bob!”

I go over, find “Egypt during the War,” bring it over and hand it to the student.

The student says, “This kid reads?”

My uncle says, “Doesn’t everybody?”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Bulldog Drummond'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation….

“Bulldog Drummond” (Samuel Goldwyn, 1929) was Ronald Colman’s first talking picture, and he’s the main reason for seeing it – right out of the box, he’s the same handsome, debonair guy that we’re used to seeing, casual and not stilted, unlike some of the folks who share the screen with him. (Or like Cary Grant in his early appearances.)

No doubt about it: For years, if you had derring that needed doing, Colman was the man who'd get it done.

His co-star in this film is Joan Bennett, who was still a teenager and looks it; in the early scenes, she seems positively prepubescent.

Colman plays Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, who, bored after World War I (and apparently too impatient to wait around for World War II), takes out a want ad seeking excitement. He winds up rescuing a rich guy from kidnappers.

Yep, that’s the plot, pretty much. But unlike some other early talkies, “Bulldog Drummond” has much to recommend it. It’s less stagy than, say, much of what MGM was doing at the time. The action scenes aren’t bad, considering the era, and director F. Richard Jones isn’t afraid to move the camera.

Two notable co-stars: Claud Allister, who must have gotten a royalty for years whenever anyone used the word “twit,” and Lilyan Tashman, who, as the villainess, does a lot of squinting; if only her character had used her talents for good – or at least seen a decent optometrist.

Colman made a sequel, “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back,” a few years later. I’d very much like to see it – the cast includes Loretta Young, and it’s supposed to be quite funny. (Nunnally Johnson’s name is on the script, and that’s almost always an indication of first-rate goods.)

Unfortunately, because of the kind of copyright quagmire that Hollywood seems to specialize in (the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers,” which was unseen for many years, comes to mind), “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back” cannot legally be shown in the United States.

If only we could put Colman on the case – and tell him to keep his eyes peeled for a shady, sexy copyright lawyer who squints a lot....

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Happy 90th birthday, Unk

As you have probably deduced from that headline, today is my uncle's 90th birthday.

Unfortunately, my uncle, the Rev. Robert H. Flood, died 35 years ago, a few months shy of his 55th birthday -- a milestone I myself recently reached.

In addition to being a Roman Catholic priest, my uncle was a published poet.

I've mentioned him before, here, here and here.

And I'll be writing more about him this week.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Sitting Pretty'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first presentation of the fall season….

“Sitting Pretty” (Fox, 1948) is the film where Clifton Webb overturns a bowl of oatmeal on a baby’s head after the tot refuses to stop flinging the cereal at him.

Then again, we never see Webb actually doing this; we just see him in a victorious two-shot with the vanquished, bowled-over, bawling boy (who, according to the Internet Movie Database, was portrayed by the aptly named Raymond C. Hair Jr.).

Having seen this movie a few times before, I’ve sometimes wondered why we never see Webb overturning the bowl. Was the scene too hard to stage? Or, perhaps more likely, would Webb’s character – Mr. Belvedere, of course – have seemed too unsympathetic if we had seen him doing the deed?

(Apparently this movie was Young Master Hair’s debut and swan song, for IMDB reports no further appearances by him. My guess is that he could have tolerated the oatmeal-shampoo bit. Or Clifton Webb. But not both.)

Mr. Belvedere, whose first name is Lynn, has been hired sight unseen as a baby sitter by a couple who thought he was a woman. Actually, he's a male know-it-all whose presence in the King household sets tongues a-wagging in the community of Hummingbird Hill.

The film holds up well for two reasons:

The script (by F. Hugh Herbert from a Gwen Davenport novel) is well-structured and witty.

The cast, mostly old pros, knows how to play this sort of almost-but-not-quite-realistic comedy so that any plot holes are pleasantly paved over. Aside from Webb, it’s hard to go wrong with Robert Young, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Haydn and Ed Begley.

Other performers worth mentioning: Betty Lynn (later Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou) as a teenager who has a crush on Young; John Russell, who, though fine, seems out of place in a non-western (he would later play TV’s “Lawman”); and Louise Albritton, an actress I’d never really noticed before. She was never a true star, but she was vivacious and attractive, and I’ll have to keep an eye out for her other films. (She later married CBS journalist Charles Collingwood.)

But the key to the movie is Webb’s performance. “I happen to dislike all children intently,” Belvedere says, and although the character never seems to do or say much if anything to contradict this, he is never hateful toward the three boys in his care.

In one scene, he proclaims himself to be something of a philosopher.

“Oh, I see,” Young’s character says, “you just sit and think.”

“Mr. King,” he replies, “if more people just sat and thought, the world might not be in the stinking mess that it is.”

Is there any truth to that statement? These days, who knows? But (and here’s the brilliance of Webb’s performance) when Mr. Belvedere says it, you're sure it’s true.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Happy birthday, Ivan Pavlov

Hmm. I don't know why I feel compelled to post this.

And I suppose that, considering it is Mr. Pavlov's birthday, I really should write something about him.

But at the moment I'm too busy wiping the spittle from my keyboard....

My forecast? His future is cloudy

It’s early on a recent morning, and I’m trying to figure out whether I should walk to the shopping center to get some groceries because I could use the exercise.

It’s cloudy – certainly looks as if it could rain at any moment – so I turn on the local 24-hour news station to get the forecast.

The forecaster, a young guy, says something along the lines of: “Yes, I know it’s cloudy out, but there’s only a 20 percent chance of rain, and the clouds’ bark is worse than their bite, so to speak, so go ahead, go out – you probably won’t get rained on.”

So I did. And I didn’t get rained on.

But I’m still in a state of shock. And I greatly fear for this guy’s career.

Doesn’t he know that, as a TV weather forecaster, it is his job, practically his sworn duty, to make things seem as bad as possible?

Doesn’t he know that he’s supposed to say something like this:

“Yes, there’s only a 20 percent chance of rain, but that still means you have a 1 in 5 chance of getting rained on. Poured on. Drenched. Which, as we all know, can lead to a chill, which can lead to a cold, which can lead to pneumonia and maybe even dengue fever, which I really don’t know anything about – I just like saying ‘dengue fever’!

“And what’s worse, you never know what’s above those clouds. Planes are up there all the time, hidden from view, and one of them could crash. Or one of them could be carrying a grand piano in it’s cargo hold, a cargo hold that it’s a wee bit too heavy for, and the fuselage might crack and the piano – and maybe the whole darn plane – might come crashing down on you!

“Oh, and did I mention the vultures? You never know when they’ll be circling. And you have been looking a little thin lately…..”

Friday, August 21, 2009

This just in (and pass the Maalox)

From The Associated Press:

"NEW YORK - Combine one part silver fox, one part distinguished actor and one part devoted husband of Barbra Streisand.

"Toss in the natural-born gravitas of a president or network news anchor, and what do you get?"

I get the impression that the AP has laid off all of its editors.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We'd like to think he's in even better hands

The insurance industry has certainly taken a public-relations beating within the last year, what with all the credit default swaps and bailouts and bonuses to executives.

I know less than beans about the intricacies of the insurance business, but I am rock-solid certain of one thing:

None of this would have happened if Ed Reimers were still in charge.

OK, so maybe he wasn't in charge. So maybe he was only a pitchman for an insurance company, namely Allstate.

But to those of us who grew up watching Allstate's commercials in the 1960s, Ed was more than a pitchman -- he was a rock himself.

I should explain for those of you who are much younger: The typical Allstate commercial back then showed a house burning down, its owners (always a family with kids) distraught and overwrought. Then (as I recall; unfortunately none of Ed's oeuvre has made it to YouTube), a guy with a suit would appear with a check that would allow the family to rebuild without any hassles.

Dissolve to Ed, who would wind up the pitch by invariably saying: "You're in good hands with Allstate." While saying this, he would cup his hands, and a little house would magically appear.

And we could all rest easy.

I'd figured that Ed had made his visit to the Great Adjuster in the Sky some years ago, but I am now informed that he died just the other day, at age 96.

It also turns out that he was an actor. He appeared in an episode of "Star Trek" (I seem to remember that) and also portrayed a minister in "The Loved One," the movie version of Evelyn Waugh's satire of the funeral business.

I wasn't aware of that, but I would like to think that at one point, Ed, in character, cupped his hands and a little mausoleum appeared....

The short, fast summer

Those of you who stop by this blog regularly (and I know there are a few of you, bless you) have probably figured out that it's been a while (July 20, to be exact) since my last post.

Whoops.

All I can say is that it's been a busy summer here at Murphy's Craw. In addition to my regular freelance editing gig that helps pay the bills here (that durned MacArthur Genius Foundation still isn't returning my calls), I took on a major project (about 500 pages) that took almost exactly one month, enriching my coffers but not giving me much time to do anything else.

Besides that, the local cinephile society has been on hiatus for the summer. (By the way, I notice that my post on the group's showing of a Sinbad movie has attracted an unusual number of hits. Who knew the guy had such a following?)

Anyway, now that I am between projects, I hope to catch up on a number of things, including this paltry effort to amuse you.

Please stay tuned.

Monday, July 20, 2009

40 years ago today

4:17 p.m. EDT: Apollo 11 lands on the moon.

4:18 p.m. EDT: Abner Guernsey of King of Prussia, Pa., becomes the first human being to utter a sentence beginning: "Yeh, they can put a man on the moon, but....."

Friday, July 17, 2009

A law of physics Newton didn't get around to

The bedroom smoke detector will begin emitting that telltale "dead battery" squeak in the middle of the night -- after you have finally fallen into a deep, pleasurable, much-needed sleep.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ken Roberts

One of the public radio stations in my area plays old radio shows each night, and the other night one of those shows was an episode of “You Are There,” from the 1940s.

This series, which was later a TV show, re-enacted historical events as if they were breaking news, “covered” by actual CBS reporters. This particular episode, about the sailing of the Mayflower, was anchored by John Daly, a veteran journalist who is best known today as the host of “What’s My Line?’ The other “reporter” on the scene was longtime announcer Ken Roberts.

I was surprised to hear Roberts on “You Are There” because he wasn’t a real journalist, but no one can deny he was a superb announcer. You can hear him on 1930s episodes of “The Shadow” that starred Orson Welles, and he worked on many other radio and television programs, including soap operas.

As recently as the 1970s, on “The Electric Company,” he was the announcer for a parody of soaps, titled “Love of Chair.”

His son is actor Tony Roberts.

As I was listening to “You Are There,” it occurred to me that Ken Roberts had probably died some time ago.

Imagine my surprise when I found out, a few minutes ago, that Mr. Roberts passed away June 19 at the age of 99.

He might very well have been the last living old-time radio announcer and one of the few remaining old-time radio performers, period.

(Have you figured out by now that I’m a sucker for old-time radio anecdotes and performers?)

I know that the wonderful Anne Francis, who first attracted my attention – and that of many other young males – when she starred as Honey West in the 1960s, was a radio actress as a kid.

Does anybody out there know of any other surviving performers from that era?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Captains Courageous'

Notes from another gathering of the local cinephile society….

This movie, made by MGM in 1937, was directed by Victor Fleming, who several years earlier, at the same studio, directed “Treasure Island,” a film that’s kind of a legend in my family.

Its legendary status has nothing to do with the film’s quality. It has everything to do with my Uncle Bob.

Unk, a Roman Catholic priest, visited us often, usually staying over for one or two days. During one of these visits, my grandmother, upon noticing that Unk had left some socks on the floor near his bed, remarked that her only son had done some nice girl a favor by becoming a priest.

My uncle watched a lot of TV, and sometimes one of us kids would come into the room and say, “Whatcha watchin’, Uncle Bob?”

Unk, just to get us out of his receding hair, would invariably say that he was watching “Treasure Island.” It didn’t matter that at various times Treasure Island seemed to be populated by Fred Astaire, Edward G. Robinson and Audie Murphy.

Once one of us asked what he was watching, and darned if it wasn’t “Treasure Island.”

Which we kids thought was hilarious.

My uncle, who usually had a terrific sense of humor, was not nearly as amused.

Anyway….

According to The Internet Movie Database, “Captains Courageous” was remade in 1977 and 1996, both times for TV.

After seeing the 1937 version of Rudyard Kipling’s book, you might wonder why – MGM got it right the first time.

This is the story about the snotty rich kid (played by Freddie Bartholomew) who falls off a luxury ship and is rescued by the crew of a fishing vessel, where a Portuguese fisherman (played by Spencer Tracy in an Oscar-winning performance) teaches him how to be a grown-up.

Tracy’s performance as Manuel is pretty much the high point, and he particularly deserved the Oscar when you consider what he was up against: Not only did he have to share the screen with a kid, but he had to put on both an accent and a wig that caused Joan Crawford to remark that he looked like Harpo Marx.

Tracy is reported to have said, on at least one occasion, “Don’t let them catch you acting.” Maybe a sharper eye would have caught him doing that in “Captains Courageous,” but I couldn’t spot any acting, though near the end there is a clumsy insert of Manuel beaming as he realizes the kid is going to turn out all right after all. (Seems like the kind of insert that would have been ordered after one of the studio’s famed sneak previews.)

Tracy’s performance, with accent, wig and all, is a high-wire act: One false move, and he would have fallen onto the sawdust of caricature. But he never slips.

A strong ensemble cast also helps: Lionel Barrymore, as the skipper; Mickey Rooney, before his appetite for scenery got the best of him, as Barrymore’s son; and Charley Grapewin and John Carradine as other crew members. On shore, Melvyn Douglas gives the right amount of shading to the role of the brat’s daddy.

A couple of things, though: Barrymore’s character is named Disko Troop (?! Rudyard, what were you thinking?) and the name of his vessel is We’re Here. Had he lived longer, Kipling could have made a nice living writing for Abbott and Costello – “Abbott, what’s the name of our boat?” “We’re Here!” “I KNOW we’re here, but what’s the name of the boat?”

Never mind what the first mate’s name is….

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You don't think punctuation is important?

After you read this, you might want to think again....

The reporter was apparently untethered, too

From The Associated Press:

"Like watching a hairy man reluctant to pull off a Band-Aid, reporters listened as (South Carolina Gov. Mark) Sanford -- apparently unscripted and untethered by aides -- apologized to his wife of 20 years, Jenny, and their four boys."

Monday, June 22, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'If I Had a Million'

Notes from another gathering of the local cinephile society….

Want to know whether you’re my age or older? Here’s a quick quiz:

Suppose I told you that a Mr. Michael Anthony was now on your doorstep. How would you react?

If your response was “Who? Get rid of him,” you are probably under 50.

If your response was to hide behind the biggest piece of furniture in your house and cuddle up with an Uzi, you probably are not going to get to be 50.

But if your response was to grin from ear to ear and say, “Great! Let him in,” chances are you’ll have a special interest in the movie I’m about to discuss.

Because back in the 1950s, long before Lotto, Michael Anthony was an assistant to a mysterious man named John Beresford Tipton, who each week would give Mr. Anthony a check for $1 million to be given to someone Mr. Tipton had personally chosen, on a TV series called (Surprise! Surprise!) “The Millionaire.”

Before you start Googling for Mr. Tipton’s address (the old guy would probably be dead now anyway), I should tell you that he and Mr. Anthony were fictional, and each episode would tell the story of the New Millionaire of The Week and how the huge bonanza affected his or her life. (Some of the episodes were directed by a then-unknown Robert Altman.)

Clever idea, huh? (Although one might wonder why Mr. Anthony, given all these chances – more than 200 episodes – never merely forged a recipient’s name, then took off for Tahiti.)

Anyway, this idea didn’t start there. It had its roots in “If I Had a Million,” made by Paramount in 1932, when it must have been a particularly appealing fantasy, especially for people who counted themselves lucky if the could find someone who could spare a dime.

Mr. Tipton doesn’t appear here. Instead we have John Glidden, a dying tycoon played with paradoxical but delightful gusto by Richard Bennett. Angered by relatives and other hangers-on who are awaiting his demise, he decides to give his money to strangers whose names he picks out at random from a city directory.

This leads to a series of episodes filmed by various directors and featuring various Paramount contract players, among them:

George Raft, who plays a forger who finds that because of his reputation he can’t cash Glidden’s check.

Gary Cooper, as one of three Marines who don’t think Glidden’s check is on the level.

Gene Raymond, as a man on death row, in a segment directed by James Cruze, who apparently neglected to tell Mr. Raymond that when it comes to playing a condemned man, less is particularly more.

Charles Laughton, as a meek employee, in a segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Charles Ruggles as a china shop employee who keeps bumping into things.

Perhaps the movie is most famous for two segments, both of which screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a hand in, years before his directing days:

A prostitute (Wynne Gibson) uses the money to get a room in a well-appointed hotel and go to bed by herself.

Rollo and Emily LaRue (W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth) use their windfall to buy a long-dreamed-for car – which is then struck by a careless driver. They then buy a whole fleet of cars and use these vehicles to run other “road hogs” off the street.

This segment marks the first time Fields used the phrase “My Little Chickadee,” which Mankiewicz wrote into the script. I read somewhere that Fields paid him for any future use of the phrase.

I first saw this movie almost 40 years ago and hadn’t seen it much since; it doesn’t seem to be readily available on DVD.

I was looking forward to seeing it again – especially with an appreciative audience – and it didn’t disappoint.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Allowing for shrinkage

You know the drill: You’re at the doctor’s office, and it’s the prelim round: A nurse is taking your blood pressure, going over your meds and, finally, checking your height and weight.

If you’re like me, you’re more interested in finding out how much that big, old-fashioned-looking scale says you weigh. I mean, I already know how tall I am, right?

On this particular day, this past week, my blood pressure and my weight are just fine. Then, just for the heck of it (being in a dangerously jaunty mood) I ask about my height.

Five foot nine, the nurse says.

What?! Can’t be! Why, I’ve been five-eleven (OK, OK, maybe five-ten and three quarters, if you really want to get technical) ever since I was a teen, and maybe even a little before that.

OK, the nurse says, I’ll try it again.

This time I make sure I am standing really tall and straight.

And now I’m five-nine and a half.

Which is an improvement.

But still.

Somewhere I have lost an inch. Not only for that, for years I have put my height down on forms as five-eleven (I figure they’ll laugh at me if I am really technical and say five-ten and three quarters), and apparently for some time now the folks who have looked at these forms and then looked at me have been privately and quietly shaking their heads, pitying me for harboring such a grand delusion.

“Poor guy,” they must be thinking, “too proud to admit it. Oh well, at least he doesn’t dye what’s left of his hair, and that comb-over isn’t too ridiculous. Let’s humor him.”

As you might expect, part of me is mightily embarrassed.

But another part of me is wondering: What happened to that inch? (OK, OK, that inch and a quarter. Geez, you math whizzes are so insufferable.)

What’s worse, I don’t know exactly where I lost the inch. Or whether I lost it all at once or gradually. Did I mislay it on a bus? (I’ve been known to do that with umbrellas.) Or was it more gradual? And where is my missing inch now? Is someone who saw me lose it on that bus but didn’t speak up about it now mysteriously an inch taller? (Can’t trust anyone these days.)

Or should I be checking the cushions of my living room furniture? Maybe that lost inch is somewhere in a chair, along with 56 cents in change. Or maybe I left a quarter of an inch in my living room chair and the rest of it fell out over time while I was napping on the couch.

Hmm.

If you’ll all excuse me now, I have to get out the vacuum cleaner….

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I hate to have to break it to ya, Amelia....

On Thursday, NBC's "Today" show had a segment about a man who says he was the boy who disappeared from outside a bakery on Long Island in 1955.

The "Today" reporter called this "the ultimate cold case."

Which will probably come as a surprise to Amelia Earhart, Judge Crater, Ambrose Bierce, Jimmy Hoffa, D.B. Cooper....

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'My Favorite Blonde'

Notes from a recent get-together of the local cinephile society:

I’ve sometimes wondered what it felt like for people in this country to watch a World War II-themed comedy like “My Favorite Blonde” (1942) while they were smack in the middle of that war. Especially for people who had family members serving in that war – or who had lost family members int hat war. Did comedies like this relieve the tension some people felt? Did they make things worse for others?

I’m certainly not saying that films like this shouldn’t have been made. The best of them are still fairly amusing today, if dated. And maybe they did boost morale.

Anyway, “My Favorite Blonde” stars Bob Hope as an entertainer (big stretch there) who gets involved with a British agent (Madeleine Carroll) who is on a mission. It’s basically a chase movie (vaguely reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” which also starred Carroll) with typical Hope gags; you get the idea that he passed the script around to his team of writers, each member of which added a gag or two.

Some of the gags, as you might expect, are dated, but at least one still seems fresh in these times:

Carroll: There’s no time to lose. Do you know what it feels like to be followed, hounded and watched every second?

Hope: Well I used to, but now I pay cash for everything.

And of course there’s the obligatory “surprise” cameo by Bing Crosby.

Unlike “My Favorite Brunette,” made later in the decade with Hope and Dorothy Lamour, “My Favorite Blonde” doesn’t have a strong enough story line; the parts are greater than the whole, though amusing enough. And I can’t help wondering why the filmmakers, having obtained the services of two of the best heavies in the business – Gale Sondergaard and George Zucco as the main villains – didn’t make more use of them. I could be wrong, but I think Sondergaard has only one scene with Hope, and not much happens there. This seems like a waste of one of the screen’s best (and probably sexiest) villainesses. But Sondergaard and Zucco are always nice to have around.

Before the movie: a short comedy, “On the Wrong Trek” (Hal Roach/MGM, 1936), starring Charley Chase.

Not many people seem to know about Charley Chase today, but in the 1920s and 1930s he was kind of an early version of Dick Van Dyke, specializing in the comedy of embarrassment. A trained stage performer, he easily made the transition to talkies, and he made some pretty decent sound shorts (some of which featured songs he’d written), but somehow I prefer his silent films, such as “Mighty Like a Moose.”

Early in his career he performed in Mack Sennett films, and you can see him in a few of the early Chaplins, including “Tillie’s Punctured Romance.” He later went to Hal Roach’s studio, where he was a director for a while before going back in front of the camera. For a number of his silent films, his director was Leo McCarey (“Going My Way”), who later said he learned all he knew about comedy from Chase.

Why isn’t Chase better remembered? Maybe because he was featured mostly in shorts, though he appeared in a few features, most notably Laurel and Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert.” But although his style of comedy resembles Van Dyke’s, he either didn’t have Van Dyke’s depth or, if he did, didn’t get the chance to show it. His one attempt at a starring feature failed, and in fact, “On the Wrong Trek” (which includes a cameo by Stan and Ollie) was the last short he did for Roach before his longtime employer let him go. For the next few years he worked at Columbia, starring in shorts (sometimes remaking one of his silents) and even directing Three Stooges shorts, including “Violent Is the Word for Curly,” which features the song “Swinging the Alphabet,” written by Chase.

Chase was a heavy drinker. At one point he was in very poor health indeed. And he was warned that if he kept drinking, he’d die.

In June 1940 he died of a heart attack. He was 46.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"I told 'em it was a Rolls. Oh, a Kia? My bad!"

Sign in a parking lot at a local apartment complex:

IMPROPERLY IDENTIFIED VEHICLES PARKED ON THESE PREMISES MAY BE TOWED AT VEHICLE OWNERS EXPENSE

Friday, May 29, 2009

At the (old) movies: Mystery times two

Notes from a recent double feature presented by the local cinephile society:

When I was a kid, I think I first knew Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, so when I got a little older I was surprised to learn that this Japanese detective was really being played by a German guy. That probably wouldn’t happen today.

“Mysterious Mr. Moto” (Fox, 1938) begins as Moto, posing as a prisoner, escapes from Devil’s Island with a prisoner played by Leon Ames. (Ames was one of the unsung utility players of old Hollywood, often playing bad guys, before easing into fatherly and grandfatherly roles.)

By now you’ve probably figured out that Moto has buddied up to Ames because he knows that Ames is Up To Something, that Something being the planned assassination of a diplomat in London – the type of guy whose dialogue is largely variations on “Threats! Pshaw – I get them all the time!”

The movie moves quickly and engagingly enough, leading to an effective climax involving a falling chandelier. The identity of the Secret Mastermind is not much of a surprise if you remember the Mystery Rule of Redundancy: the one character who doesn’t seem to be furthering the story is usually The Bad One…..

“The Mark of the Whistler” (Columbia, 1944) was one of series of B movies based on a radio show called, oddly enough, “The Whistler.” Each week, The Whistler would narrate a story that usually involved a murder and a twist ending. In addition to narrating the story, he would taunt the lead character, saying things like: “So you think you’re in the clear: The police think Aunt Martha’s death was an accident, and even if they didn’t, you have a perfect alibi – everyone saw you pitch that no-hitter at Yankee Stadium, didn’t they? But are you really in the clear?”

And sure enough, there would be one fatal glitch in the murderer’s perfect plan. But I’ve never understood why these hapless killers never responded to The Whistler -- never said, “Ah, shaddup, you glorified staff announcer, you!” My best guess is that they couldn’t hear OR see him. (Kind of like The Shadow in reverse.)

This movie, like almost all of the Whistler movies, stars Richard Dix, who was a big actor in the 1920s and early 1930s but now was winding down his career in B movies at Columbia – as was a similar actor, Warner Baxter, who starred in the “Crime Doctor” movies. Behind the camera was a man whose directorial career was just starting: William Castle, he of “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler” and the Skeleton Appearing Over the Audience’s Heads and the Nurses Standing By In Case Anyone Faints.

Dix plays a down-and-out guy who poses as someone else to get money in an old bank account. The story line is by Cornell Woolrich, who, as the author of “Rear Window,” “Phantom Lady” and “The Bride Wore Black,” seems a perfect author for this noirish film.

Unfortunately, the plot depends too much on The Long Arm of Coincidence, which by the end of this movie is in dire need of a sling. But the movie is watchable, and the female lead – Janis Carter – is kinda cute.

One interesting note for TV fans: Near the end of the film, a car and a truck crash, and the truck’s driver gets out and tells police where to find the folks in the car, who have run away.

I recognized the truck’s driver instantly: Bill Raisch.

Never heard of him? Chances are, if you were watching TV in the late 1960s, you’ll remember him – he was The One-Armed Man whom Dr. Richard Kimble chased for years on “The Fugitive.”

But this movie was made before Raisch lost his right arm in a fire.

I did keep an eye out for David Janssen and Barry Morse. Maybe they were across the lot, in a Crime Doctor picture. (Come to think of it, the “Blondie” movies were shot at Columbia, too: “Oh, Dagwood, we just have to hide this poor man! I’m sure he didn’t kill his wife!”)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

There's always a Captcha-22

A few moments ago I sent a message to someone but, before sending it, I was given a couple of words to type in just to show I'm not some "bot" that goes around stealing people's e-mail addresses and spamming them -- in addition to ripping tags off mattresses and neglecting to floss.

Turns out the term for such pairs of words is "captcha." Who knew? Who would really want to know?

Anyway, in this case the words were "interpreted drinker."

Which made me wonder: Is that anything like "interpretive dancing"?

I suppose we could combine both ideas. Think of the possibilities for the world of ballet:

"Sleeping-It-Off Beauty."

"The Beer Nut Cracker."

And, of course, Anna Pavlova's "The Falling-Down Dead-Drunk Swan."

The night Mayor Fah died

It’s the late 1970s, and I’m on the copy desk.

I’m editing an obit for Walter J. Fah, a resident of a nearby community I’ll call Roundsville.

It’s a two-page obit, taken over the phone by a reporting intern whom I don’t know and, in fact, don’t recall ever seeing in the newsroom before.

Unlike most of the obits my paper runs, Mr. Fah’s sendoff has what we call a “display headline” – two lines of 36-point type, as opposed to a 12-point headline that would just say “Walter J. Fah.”

I soon realize the reason for the 36-point headline: Mr. Fah was once mayor of Roundsville and thus, according to the Great Obituary Chain of Being, deserves a display hed.

But as I go over the list of survivors, I notice that he has two sons who have the last name of Smith.

Well, anything’s possible, but it’s always best to check.

I call the undertaker, and our conversation goes something like this:

“Hello, I’d like to check something on the obituary for Walter J. Fah.”

Pause.

“You mean Smith, don’t you?”

“No. Fah. Walter J. Fah.”

“Don’t you mean Smith?”

Another pause.

I say, “Was this guy mayor of Roundsville?”

“Yes! Walter J. Smith!”

… I’m certain there was more to this conversation, and I’m equally certain that I’m happy to have completely forgotten it.

After getting off the phone, I walk over to the managing editor and tell him that we very nearly ran a headline saying “Former Mayor Fah Dies.”

Within minutes, but not within my earshot, the night city editor asks the intern about this.

This is an era in which news stories as well as obits are often dictated by phone, and the intern’s response is similar to what some non-intern reporters have told me when I’ve questioned them on a dictated story:

“That’s the way they gave it to me over the phone!”

Thirty years later, I still haven’t figured this out.

And I haven't seen that intern since.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

One reason I'm glad I no longer edit news

From The Associated Press:

WASHINGTON - Greed is good. A world without nukes is better.

Actor Michael Douglas, whose performance as the conniving Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" won him an Oscar in 1987, spent part of Wednesday evening focused on a more critical cause -- ridding the world of nuclear weapons....

Memo to AP: Michael Douglas never said "Greed is good." Gordon Gekko, a character played by Michael Douglas, said "Greed is good." Gordon Gekko never said "A world without nukes is better." It's Michael Douglas who -- oh, never mind....

But just for future reference, AP: As far as we know, Mr. Douglas' father, Kirk Douglas, still has both ears intact.

Monday, May 18, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Rose Marie'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

Some years ago I attended a wedding reception on the second floor of a movie theater in my town. It’s not just any movie theater – it was built in the late 1920s by the folks who owned MGM, and it’s one of the last great movie palaces.

A younger co-worker, sitting across the table, looked at our surroundings and said something along the lines of, “Geez, this seems like a really fancy place to go to just to see a movie!”

Upon which I very nearly said something along the lines of “You *%#%#* moron!”

Instead, I patiently explained that way back when, people didn’t go to this place “just to see a movie” – there were live acts, possibly an orchestra, and newsreels, cartoons and maybe other short subjects. People who were down on their luck could spend a few cents and be transported to another world, if just for a little while.

I thought of this as I was watching MGM’s “Rose Marie” (1936), which doubtless played that very same theater when it hit our town during its original run.

I especially thought of how the movie’s production values matched the theater’s opulence. MGM was the preeminent studio of the time, and after the execs previewed a film with a test audience, they thought nothing of ordering retakes or shooting other footage to improve it. MGM put a lot of money into its movies, and it showed. Even its B movies seemed at least a step up from other studios’ B pictures; it was almost as if, when it came to making B movies, the studio wasn’t really trying.

This philosophy of “make it better (and perfect, if possible), no matter the cost” paid off big time 70 years ago. And, for that matter, so did MGM exec Irving Thalberg’s theory that the Marx Brothers’ careers could be saved if their movies included a romantic subplot with two contract players. Problem is, these ideas haven’t traveled well into the 21st century; just as no one rents “A Night at the Opera” to satisfy a craving for Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle (charming as they are), the spend-all-you-need-to-spend production values of “Rose Marie” make the movie seem rather overstuffed, almost too well put together – unless you imagine yourself back in the ‘30s, watching it in one of those fabled movie palaces. Then it works perfectly.

On the other hand, 1930s films from the less prosperous studios often have a seeming offhandedness that travels much better. This seems especially true if the studio in question (I’m thinking Paramount, for example) was teetering on the edge of receivership or bankruptcy or some other financial catastrophe.

Anyway....

“Rose Marie” is the Quintessential Mountie Musical – “Indian Love Call” and all – featuring, of course, Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, with an up-and-coming contract player named James Stewart as MacDonald’s brother, who is on the run after killing a mountie.

At this point, you might expect me to make fun of MacDonald and Eddy. And heaven knows it would be easy enough to do that, as so many people, over the years, already have.

But although the two are not my favorite performers, making fun of them would, well, be too easy, and they do have their fans, even today. There must be some reason for that.

So, to give them their due, the two of them certainly know how to sing, though it’s not my favorite kind of music. And they do have a certain chemistry. They know what their fans want, and they give it to them, without pretending to be anything else than exactly what they were. It also helps that the script of "Rose Marie," by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (two of the best screenwriters of their day) and Alice Duer Miller has enough wit to amuse those of us who feel that even the merest snippet of “Indian Love Call” goes a long, long way.

In addition, Stewart makes more than do with the little screen time that he has. As Eddy is taking him away to be tried and hanged, he’s so likable, and even moving, that you almost forget he’s a cop killer.

Finally, the cast also includes a pretty much forgotten performer named Gilda Gray, who became famous in the 1920s for popularizing a dance called “the shimmy.” She isn’t given much to do here, and I suspect a lot of her performance is still shimmying on the cutting-room floor.

Friday, May 1, 2009

At the (old) movies: '7th Voyage of Sinbad'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation:

“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (Columbia, 1958) is one of those movies that are mostly famous for their special effects. Ray Harryhausen is justly renowned for this film, in which he gets great performances out of such stop-motion creatures as a Cyclops and a dueling skeleton.

Unfortunately, the producers apparently wouldn’t let Ray anywhere near the actors, some of whom perhaps could have used his help. Then again, this isn't supposed to be the type of film that caters to audiences who hunger for in-depth demonstrations of Stanislavski’s theories.

One performer who does stand out is Kathryn Grant, later to become more famous as Mrs. Bing Minute Maid Crosby. Here she is charming as Princess Parina, who is Sinbad’s main passenger – and fiancée – as his ship heads from Chandra to Baghdad.

Our story gets under way as Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews), who apparently left his Triple-A guide at home before setting sail, makes the mistake of stopping for supplies at an island where a magician with a magic lamp is being pursued by a Cyclops. Sinbad, his crew and the princess escape – but the lamp falls into the hands of the Cyclops.

The magician (Torin Thatcher) is not pleased. Once in Baghdad, he tries to persuade the Caliph (the father of the princess) to give him a ship so he can return to the island. Yep, that wizard wants that lamp, and he wants it bad – so bad that there’s something disturbing about it, especially when you consider that the wizard is a middle-aged guy and the genie of the lamp is played by an actor (Richard Eyer) who was about 13 years old at the time.

But Sinbad persuades the Caliph that the return trip isn’t really necessary. The magician then puts on a magic show for everyone in which he turns Parina’s handmaid into a snake woman (terrific animation, but given the handmaid’s general personality, not much of an improvement), and makes yet another plea to the Caliph for the return trip. He eventually ticks off the Caliph so much that the Caliph banishes him, warning that if he doesn't get out of town within the next couple of days, the magician’s eyes will be poked out. (And you thought those New York critics were tough.)

So that night the magician sneaks into Parina’s bedchamber and casts some kind of spell that shrinks her.

And Sinbad finds her that way.

Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that if your future father-in-law banished and threatened someone who has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, and if you found the next day that your fiancée, with no prior history of glandular disease, was now only a few inches tall, you wouldn't need a slide rule to put two and two together, and you would then go after that magician and give him what for.

Our man Sinbad dutifully tracks the magician down – then tells him what happened to the princess and pleads with him to help. (Oh well. He was known as Sinbad the Sailor, not Sinbad the Mensa Member.)

The magician tells Sinbad that to help the princess they need a piece of eggshell from a bird that lives on that very island where the Cyclops hangs out. And Sinbad swallows this. (Hmm. I think I have a bridge I’d like to sell him. Several bridges, actually.)

So they head back to the island. The Cyclops reappears, Sinbad blinds and kills him (I did feel sorry for the big galoot -- I mean, Sinbad invaded his turf, not the other way around, right? Or did I miss something?), the aforementioned skeleton takes on Sinbad (perhaps the most impressive set piece) and a dragon squashes the magician after being nice enough to wait until the wizard has brought the princess back to her normal size.

In short, it’s the old Hollywood formula: Boy gets princess, boy loses princess (well, most of her, anyway), boy gets fully restored princess, along with lamp and genie and the Cyclops’ treasure.

But is that all there is to the story? After all, that poor Cyclops must have had some relatives. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the sequel, “The 7th Lawsuit of Sinbad.”