Thursday, January 27, 2011

It ain't the Red River Valley, kiddies

In his excellent blog, The Laughorist, Paulie Kokonuts, my very good friend and staunch (not stanch) defender of the serial comma, wonders what John Steinbeck would say about bloggers.

Interesting question. I couldn't begin to speculate.

But I can try to imagine what Tom Joad would say in his farewell to his mother before venturing out into the Dust Bowl of cyberspace....

"I’ll be all around in the blogosphere. I’ll be ever’-where – wherever you can surf. Wherever there’s a flame war so witless goofballs can argue, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a troll beatin’ up a poster, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way needy nonentities brag when they’re cravin' attention – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re anonymously dishing dirt on some helpless nerd. An’ when the people are loggin’ off their systems, and lookin' for an actual purpose to their lives – I’ll be there, too.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

A conundrum Darwin never considered

Who has the shorter life span:

Any cop who gets partnered with Dirty Harry


Any new girlfriend of any lead character in any TV medical show of the '60s and '70s?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Who says computers don't have feelings?

When I got up today, the wind chill was minus 12.

As I write this, the temperature is 6 above with a wind child of minus 10.

Tonight temperatures might hit a record low.

Earlier today, I was playing my computer Scrabble game.

At one point, my virtual "opponent" placed this word:


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Me vs. Technology (Hint: Don't bet on me)

Two occurrences from this past week:

1. I was invited to volunteer my services for a local project that places locally designed posters – including locally written haiku – on downtown streets. I’ve agreed to interview some of the artists and poets by phone while recording the interviews, which I am to then transcribe and edit into blurbs that will appear on the back of the posters.

2. I opened the obituary pages and found that a local lawyer and professor, whom I’ll call Joe Farrelly, had died.

You will, of course, agree that this was an eerie coincidence.

Oh, you won’t?

I totally understand – you didn’t know me 36 years ago…..

(Cue the harp glissando as the special effects folks screw around with the picture to cleverly indicate a trip back in time.)

It was the fall of 1974, and I was a student in a Mass Media class. My big project, shared with another student, was to do the promotion for a career night that the instructor was putting together.

As part of this project, I set up an interview with Joe Farrelly and his wife, whom I’ll call Isabella, and who was also a lawyer. The interview was to run in the student newspaper, along with a photo of the couple, which was to be taken a couple of days after the interview.

I decided that the neat thing to do would be to record the interview.

So I signed out a cassette recorder from the college’s AV department and brought it to the interview, which took place on a Saturday afternoon at the house where the couple lived with their six children.

I cleverly set up the recorder somewhere near my chair and began asking questions.

Isabella, sitting on a couch perpendicular to my chair, gamely answered my lame queries while her youngest, who was maybe less than a year old, squirmed beside her. (Even at his young age, he was obviously reacting to the insipidity of my inquiries. I recall that at one point, when his mother picked him up, she and I both noticed a round, wet stain on the couch – as eloquent an editorial comment as I’ve ever seen.)

Joe Farrelly sat in a chair at the other end of the room. He was tall and very low-key (think Jason Robards on Quaaludes), and his voice was so soft that I decided I’d better try to write down some of his quotes in case the microphone didn’t pick him up.

After the interview, I went home and played the tape.


I’m not even sure you could hear dead air.

So quiet, you could hear my grade-point average drop.

Visions of the end of my college career came crashing down. (Can visions really crash? Oh well, it certainly felt that way.)

I imagined myself going to the registrar’s office on Monday to quit, dunce cap in hand.

But then I pulled what was left of myself together and decided to tough it out.

Luckily, I had a couple of things going for me:

1. The quotes from Joe that I’d written down, along with a quote from Isabella.

2. The Farrellys had provided a joint resume that uncluded everything except what the couple had for dinner on St. Swithin's Day, 1967. It made the average Thomas Pynchon novel look like a pamphlet.

I was able to somehow arm wrestle some of this stuff and the quotes into an article that the paper ran under a headline that referred to the Farrellys as “He-she barristers.” This was several years before I began writing headlines for a living, but even then that sounded weird to me, though I suppose that today it might be the springboard for another David E. Kelley show. (Coming to NBC: “Hermaphrodites at Law”!)

I attended the career night but was careful to avoid the Farrellys because somehow their picture was never taken; the student photographer said they weren’t home when he came by that night. Though it wasn’t my place to challenge him, my instincts told me he’d blown off the job (a family of eight away from home on a school night?), and I feared that the Farrellys would threaten to sue me over being stiffed….

This weekend I’ll get a start on my poster project work by trying to open the plastic package containing my new microcassette recorder. (Why do I always manage to cut my long fingernails a few days before they would have come in handy?)

Wish me luck.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Anne Francis

Most of the obituaries for Anne Francis, who died last week, seemed to emphasize her most famous movie, “Forbidden Planet,” which belongs in the category of Cult Films I Never Have Gotten Around to Watching.

I guess I’m more partial to another film she made around that time at MGM: “Bad Day at Black Rock,” with a cast that also featured Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and John Ericson. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing a 1950s film that still holds up, though the basic setup has been copied to death and beyond: A stranger with a mission travels to a small town where he is made to feel violently unwelcome. The motive behind the antipathy (I’ll let you find out for yourself) certainly isn’t dated.

“Bad Day” can also be seen (by me, at least) as a confrontation between two generations of actors: young punks Marvin and Borgnine think they can beat the crap out of Tracy, who is much older and whose character has one arm. They find out they’re wrong.

Years before I saw “Bad Day” I saw Anne Francis in what might have been her most famous role, in the TV series “Honey West.” It ran only one season, but I always remembered it.

Some years ago a cable TV station ran a bunch of episodes. The bad news, I found, was that the episode themselves didn’t hold up that well. The plots weren’t much, and although Honey West was supposed to be a very independent, I-can-take-care-of-myself lady, it seemed that near the end her partner, Sam Bolt, who was played by John Ericson (who’d played her brother in “Black Rock”), was always coming to her rescue.

The good news was that despite these limitations, Francis came across very well as a woman who was tough-minded and refused to take crap from anybody. In one episode, I believe Honey was supposed to be a bodyguard for a little girl. Honey made it clear that she didn’t like kids. On another series, the lead character and the girl would have been buddies by the final commercial. I don’t think this was the case here. (It didn’t help that the girl, as I remember, wasn’t sweetness and light either.)

Honey West’s refusal to get all mushy at the end impressed me – I wondered whether her attitude influenced the great Sue Grafton when she created Kinsey Millhone, who also has professed a lack of fondness for kids.

For years Anne Francis had a website in which she would write sweet little essays. She was obviously a nice person, and I’m sorry I never met her. But she’ll always belong in that pantheon of 1960s actresses whom I always remember from my growing years, along with Elizabeth Montgomery, Paula Prentiss (of the too-short-lived series “He and She”) and Diana Rigg, whose “Avengers” character, Emma Peel, was at least as tough as Honey West – with the addition of cool wit.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A new AARP member? Of course, of course

Mr. Ed made his TV debut 50 years ago this week.

Quick -- what was Ed's real name?

Bamboo Harvester.

You did know that, didn't you?

You didn't? Don't worry -- there is a consolation prize:

You apparently have a life.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A holiday memory lingers on....

Christmas Eve 2011: At the local strip mall, Santa Claus merrily greets passing shoppers at midafternoon while enthroned on a folding chair -- in front of a pawn shop.

At the (old) movies: 'I Wake Up Screaming'

Some notes from one of the local cinephile society’s screenings….

You’re probably not going to hear me say anything bad about “I Wake Up Screaming” (Fox, 1941). Perhaps the best compliment I can pay it is to say that I attended this screening even though a) I had seen the film once or twice on TV and b) I had some months ago bought it on DVD and watched it yet again.

Then again, I don’t want to oversell the movie. It’s not a mega-budget extravaganza, nor was it meant to be. But I think it holds up a lot better than a lot of the movies that the studios poured a lot more money into.

Before I explain further, let’s get the plot – or at least the setup – out of the way.

A promoter named Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) makes a bet that he can transform waitress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) into a celebrity. He pulls this off, but the plan backfires after she is murdered and he’s suspected of the crime. Meanwhile, Vicky’s sister, Jill, played by Betty Grable, has come to town, and she and Frankie eventually forge an alliance that promises to blossom into more than just an alliance. But can Frankie clear himself – particularly considering that the lead cop on the case, “Big Ed” Cornell, is pursuing Frankie with a doggedness that would make Rin Tin Tin hang his furry head in shame?

The movie was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone from a script by veteran pulp writer Steve Fisher, who must have had a thing about the name “Christopher”; in the 1954 comedy “Susan Slept Here,” based on a play Fisher wrote, the lead character is Mark Christopher.

“I Wake Up Screaming” is a perfect example of a dramatic film that succeeds although its two stars aren’t really dramatic actors but personalities. Which is by no means meant as a dig against Mature and Grable; it’s just that when you put two likable performers in the right kind of material, written and produced by people who know just what to do with them, the results can hold up a lot better than some of the films featuring “master thespians.” (I’m particularly thinking of people like Paul Muni and – at times – Fredric March.)

Of course, the studio was smart enough to surround Mature and Grable with some old pros, including Allyn Joslyn and Alan Mowbray as the guys on the other end of Frankie’s bet. Mowbray, best known as a comic actor, plays a faded “master thespian,” with all the comic touches – and, at one point, some unexpected pathos, in a scene that one again shows that the best comic actors are usually no slouches when it comes to drama.

Overshadowing everybody else – quite literally – is Laird Cregar as Cornell. It’s a performance you won’t easily forget. And let’s not forget the indispensable Elisha Cook Jr., who played the gunsel in “The Maltese Falcon,” another hapless character in “The Big Sleep” and who knows how many more similar specimens over the years. (Did any of his characters ever make it to the last reel?)

If you've seen enough movies of this type, you probably won't be too worried about whether Victor Mature will beat the rap. But don't get complacent: There's a great plot twist near the end.

Fox liked the movie enough to remake it in the 1950s as “Vicki,” with Elliott Reid in the Victor Mature part. The fact that you’re probably now saying “Who’s Elliott Reid?” should give you a pretty good idea of how well the movie stood up to its predecessor, though it did feature Richard Boone as Cornell and, in the Cook role, an actor who went on to much bigger stuff, though not as an actor: Aaron Spelling.

One thing I’ve always wondered about “I Wake Up Screaming”: The song “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” is featured on the sound track, even though MGM must have owned the rights. How did Fox get permission? It was common practice for studios to trade actors once in a while; did they do the same thing with songs?

If any of you know the answer, feel free to let me know. And even if you don’t, I hope you’ll look up “I Wake Up Screaming.”

Sunday, January 2, 2011

'It's been quite a night'

The 2011 People’s Choice Awards will be presented next Wednesday on CBS.

I won’t be watching.

There are several reasons why I won’t be watching.

1. Although I used to watch award shows, particularly the Emmys and the Oscars, I now find them particularly tedious, although I might tune in for a bit if someone who is receiving a special award is someone who I think should be receiving a special award.

2. In my former life as a newspaper copy editor, I was sometimes in charge of handling these awards – Emmys, Oscars and Grammys, too – on deadline for the next day’s paper. We had several editions, and I was supposed to get as many of the awards in each edition as possible.

This meant monitoring the wire service and the wirephoto machines while keeping an eye on the ceremonies as they unfolded on a newsroom TV. It meant impatiently waiting for some musical number to finish, or for someone to get an already announced special award and finish the obligatory acceptance speech, so that I could (I hoped) get one or two of the next awards into the next edition before the production folks began breathing down my neck.

(Which is why, as peaceable as I like to think I am most of the time, even now, years later, you might be risking considerable bodily harm by even whispering the words “Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award” in my presence. Mr. Hersholt himself is lucky to be dead because, were he still alive, I fear I might do him in. And don’t get me started on Irving Thalberg.)

3. But the reason I won’t be watching the next People’s Choice ceremony is that I remember the first one, back in 1975, and to my mind there’s no way the People’s Choice folks could top it.

The hosts were actor Richard Crenna and Variety columnist Army Archerd, and for the most part the telecast went well if unspectacularly. But after Bob Hope got up to receive his all-time award, I got a hint that all was not well.

I remember the exact moment when I realized this – when Hope, thinking he was finished, was asked (much to his consternation) to “stretch.”

The show was running short.

Yes, you read that right: A major, televised entertainment awards ceremony was running short. To say this was a freak of nature is an understatement; this was like seeing a square circle, or rain falling up.

Hope did his best, but his was the last award, and the hosts then had about three and a half minutes to fill.

Crenna and Archerd did their best. They basically recapped all the awards – in no particular hurry – and gamely ad libbed their way out of it otherwise. (You know for sure that an awards show is running short when one of the hosts mentions that one of the winners was “Mary … Tyler … Moore.”)

I suppose the two hosts deserved their own awards – Crenna, I suspect, would have been a shoo-in for Actor Mostly Likely to Kill His Agent, Right After He Disembowels the Producers.

You think I’m making all this up? You can watch the two of them here.

You might notice that the People’s Choice website lists the co-host’s name – twice – as Richard Brenna. Elsewhere on the site you might find a mention of actress Raquel Welsh. Then again, it isn’t the People’s Spelling Awards.

You’ll also notice one thing on the video that didn’t help the two co-hosts: The director positioned them in front of the table occupied by the folks from Carol Burnett’s show, who are merrily chatting, which is at least a little distracting.*

But I must admit that in once case my memory was faulty: I thought I remembered Tim Conway, grinning at the camera in the background during Crenna and Archerd’s ordeal. Which, of course, makes me wonder what else I’ve misremembered through the years….

*In all fairness, this wasn’t the Worst TV Camera Setup of All Time. That honor belongs to one of the stations in my town, which back in the 1970s aired a Christmas special, which featured the local Roman Catholic bishop and the monsignor who was the diocese’s PR guy sitting and talking in front of a fireplace. Unfortunately for the good monsignor, the doodads on the mantel included a white, cone-shaped ornament, and the shot of the monsignor was framed so that he seemed to be wearing a miniature dunce cap. (Or auditioning for the "Saturday Night Live" Coneheads.)