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.


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….