Monday, April 25, 2011

She's a painter -- a boxer -- a fashion model!


"Having observed her over the years, one senses that Couric feels liberated in leaving a job that utilized only part of her emotional palette. She’s a bit bruised by the experience, but ready to bandage her wounds and try on a brighter wardrobe."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the (old) movies....

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s recent western double feature….

“California Gold Rush,” directed by R.G. Springsteen and released by Republic Pictures in 1946, features a character who’s probably best known today for a movie he never actually appeared in – “A Christmas Story,” Bob Clark’s classic rendition of Jean Shepherd’s masterwork of nostalgic humor.

I’m talking, of course, about Red Ryder – he of the “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!” that young Ralphie so desperately wants, despite the adult voices warning him that "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Red Ryder originated as a comic strip character. In the movies he was brought to life by several actors, including, in this film, “Wild Bill” Elliott, accompanied by Bobby Blake (at right, and later known as, yes, that Robert Blake) as his sidekick, Little Beaver.

I’d never seen Elliott before. As an actor he’s no threat to Laurence Olivier, but that’s OK because the part doesn’t call for that. For this kind of role you need a guy who knows his lines, can ride a horse and is very personable – kind of like the next-door neighbor who always says hi with a friendly smile, a guy you can trust; though he might well mostly keep to himself, you know in your heart that you could dig up his basement without finding any trace of a body.

Robert Blake’s charm as a child actor mostly eludes me – and I’m talking about not only this film, but also those Our Gang comedies he was in near the end of that series’ run. He has a nice smile, but when he’s not smiling he seems ill at ease, as if he has to go to the bathroom, or one or both of his parents are just out of camera range, ready to flog him if he blows a line.

And although, years later, I enjoyed “Baretta,” I sometimes feared that Blake’s career would evaporate if he ever lost his right arm – he always seemed to be pointing at he other performer while saying his lines. (“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time! And! That’s! The! Name! Of! That! Tune!”)

In “California Gold Rush,” Red’s services are requested after a series of stagecoach robberies led by a harmonica-playing smiler with a gun, named Chopin. (That pretty much clues you in to the level of humor here.)

Turns out that the real leader of the gang is the guy who runs the local hotel. Also turns out the guy’s name is Murphy. (A Murphy who’s a less-than-perfect human being? Talk about suspension of disbelief.)

Murphy finds out that Red is on his way, so he hires The Idaho Kid to ambush Red and ride into town accompanied by a kid posing as Little Beaver. (Why just killing Red wouldn’t be enough is never explained, unless I wasn't paying attention.)

Fortunately, Red foils the ambush, in the process killing The Idaho Kid, and comes to town as himself. (He knows The Kid is The Kid because while searching the body he finds a wanted poster of The Kid – and a little bag of money or grub or something that has “The Idaho Kid” written on it. Accommodating, eh what? Red does stop short of checking to see whether the dead bad guy’s mom sewed “The Idaho Kid” into his underwear.)

Eventually Murphy finds out that the guy posing as Red really is Red, then gets him framed for something or other. But eventually things turn out all right.

I realize I’ve been making fun of this movie, but it would be wrong to be too hard on it; I often like watching low-budget movies to see what they do within their limitations. Sometimes they do remarkably well.

In this case, I fear the pardners who rustled up this entertainment shot themselves in the foot by breaking two of the Commandments for Chief Bad Guys. (And I’m not talking about that silly Murphy name.)

1. Thou shalt not surround your Chief Bad Guy with henchmen who are at least half a foot taller than he is.

2. Thou shalt not cast as your Chief Bad Guy an actor whose worst scowl provokes not abject fear but genuine concern that he hath gone far too long without a bowel movement….

“New Frontier” (also known as “Frontier Horizon”), directed by George Sherman and released by Republic in 1939.

The film is one of a series of pictures featuring “The Three Mesquiteers,” a trio of cowpokes who went around righting wrongs in complete compliance with The B-Movie Cowboy Code of Behavior.

According to Wikipedia, 12 actors appeared as Mesquiteers over the run of the series. In this film, the Mesquiteers are Ray Corrigan, Raymond Hatton and a young guy who would soon be going places via a legendary stagecoach captained by John Ford: John Wayne.

In this outing, the Mesquiteers come to the aid of settlers who’ve been swindled in a phony land deal. The chief settler’s daughter is played by a very attractive young woman named Phyllis Isley who, a few years later, would win an Oscar for “The Song of Bernadette” under the name Jennifer Jones.

Playing her brother Jason is Dave O’Brien, who never achieved Isley/Jones’ fame but is fondly remembered as the fall guy (often quite literally) in the Pete Smith shorts.

All in all, it was a mildly entertaining evening at the movies, and the company as always was good.

And none of us got shot in the eye.

The worst crossword puzzle clue ever?

I'm sitting at the grocery store, killing time before my bus comes, and I decide to do the crossword puzzle in one of the local weekly newspapers.

If you've seen the movie "Wordplay," about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, you might recall Jon Stewart saying that when the New York Times crossword is unavailable, he sometimes does the USA Today puzzle, "but I don't feel good about myself when I do it."

Imagine me with this puzzle, which includes two-letter answers, which alone would make Will Shortz throw it back to the constructor with fearsome force.

At one point, I come to this clue: "About chronology."

The answer is 13 letters.

As I work my way around the puzzle, I begin to discern what the last seven letters are.

Naw, I think, couldn't be.

But the answer (I checked the solution on the back page) does indeed turn out to be:


Madelyn Pugh Davis and Sol Saks

Two writers who left their mark on classic TV comedy died within the past seven days.

If you've ever watched "I Love Lucy," you've almost certainly seen Madelyn Pugh Davis' name at the end. She also wrote for "Alice" and "The Mothers-In-Law."

Sol Saks created "Bewitched" and wrote that show's pilot episode. He also wrote for "Duffy's Tavern" and Ozzie and Harriet on radio and for Joan Davis on TV, and wrote the screenplay for "Walk, Don't Run," Cary Grant's last movie.

Some years ago Saks wrote a very good book, "Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing." I haven't read it in years, but I hope to reread it soon.

Saks also is the author of one of my favorite quotes, which goes something like: "Never try to ad lib with professional comedians. They can remember faster than you can think."

Saks is among a number of veteran comedy writers interviewed in an excellent book, "The Laugh Crafters," by Jordan R. Young. Sadly, most of them are gone now; I think Hal Kanter might be the only one of them who is still around.

By coincidence, I "met" Mr. Young on Facebook this week after I discovered that he and I had a "friend" in common. He graciously accepted my compliments on his book.

If you're interested in show biz history, and particularly the history of TV and radio comedy, "The Laugh Crafters" is indispensable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

'Changes, changes....'

A close friend of my family, an older lady named Agnes, often used to say that.

And as she said it, she'd always shake her head.

I thought of her a little while ago after I took a few minutes out to have a noontime snack in front of the TV.

I, who watched a lot of daytime TV when I was a kid in the 1960s -- especially game shows.

I, who remember seeing Jonathan Harris, who played Dr. Smith on "Lost in Space," as a celebrity player on "You Don't Say!" I particularly remember the day he screwed up something and said what must have been "Damn!"

Only I couldn't know for sure because the censors bleeped it.

Today, within less than five minutes, I saw:

A commercial for toilet paper featuring two cartoon bears, a mother and her little boy, trying to sell the idea that after you use their product, bits of it won't stick to your ass.

And a commercial for some kind of ointment, intended for couples who want to get, um, a little more out of life.

As for Agnes, I'm sure she is in heaven now.

I have no idea whether they have TVs there.

But if they do, and if Agnes has been watching, I can only imagine her saying "Changes changes" (or something stronger) and shaking her head even more.

I have no idea whether Agnes has an HMO in heaven.

But if she does, I hope it covers whiplash....

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hello again, Mary Lou

On a beautiful afternoon 35 years ago this month, some fortunate souls at my college, myself included, gathered in the lounge of a campus building and listened to a genius.

Mary Lou Williams (that’s her on the right, from about 1946) was scheduled to perform in concert the next evening and at a Mass – which she had written, on a commission from the Vatican – the day after.

But on this Friday afternoon she was conducting what was billed as a “workshop” on jazz. That wasn’t quite accurate; it was more of a lecture and performance.

Not that I objected.

I'd taken a few years of piano lessons in grammar school. The nun who taught me figured out that I had a fairly good ear (my first “arrangement,” in the third grade, was a right-hand rendering of that notorious jingle, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” – even as an 8-year-old I was a sellout).

She also thought I had an above-average sense of rhythm. So she tried to steer me toward jazz. Which was fun but didn’t work out as well as it should have because I was such an uptight moron, afraid of making a mistake; and God forbid I should try to have fun at the piano.

After a few years the nun moved on and I decided to stop taking lessons. I didn’t touch the piano much over the next few years, but then I was introduced to – and immediately captivated by – the works of Scott Joplin (below); this was several years before “The Sting” made him a household name, more than 50 years after his death.

So I began to play the piano more often and even tried writing my own rags.

And now, on that Friday afternoon, under the impression that jazz and ragtime were the same thing (I told you I was a moron, didn’t I?), I was expecting Mary Lou Williams to play some Joplinesque stuff.

But in her opening remarks in this very informal setting, Ms. Williams almost immediately set me straight, saying that ragtime, Scott Joplin music, wasn’t what she was going to play. (Not that she despised it – I didn’t get that impression – but it wasn’t her thing, as we kids used to say way back then.)

The eerie thing, though, was that as she said this she looked directly – and pointedly – at me.

I suppose this could have been a coincidence. But, although Ms. Williams and I had never met and never did meet, I can’t help thinking that it wasn’t.

My theory: Just as some people supposedly have something called “gaydar,” which lets them know whether a certain person is homosexual, jazz musicians – especially ones as hip as Ms. Williams – have something called “square-dar,” which sets off internal alarms whenever the musician is anywhere near anyone who is tragically unhip. If that’s true, Ms. Williams’ interior alarms must have been buzzing like crazy; had we been in a David Cronenberg movie, her head surely would have exploded.

She went on to play – for the better part of an hour, as I recall – accompanied by a bassist. At one point, while she was deeply into one of her solos, she looked up at him, and the two of them grinned. They’d just struck the musical equivalent of pay dirt, a sort of musical intimacy that could perhaps be verbalized with only one word: joy.

And I think she also managed to work in some stride piano and boogie-woogie, which to me are at least first cousins to ragtime.

I've been thinking about Ms. Williams because over the weekend I found a DVD of a performance she gave a couple of years later at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

It’s very well done. For one thing, whenever I watch a TV performance of pianists like Ms. Williams, I look for the shots of their hands at the piano, to see how they do it. Whoever made the video not only did a good job of this but also added close-ups of her face. You see the concentration, eyes closed or just about closed, as she literally composes on the spot. Sometimes you see sweat. Once in a while, a lot of sweat. But that’s to be expected – although she obviously enjoys what’s she’s doing, it is, of course, damned hard work.

Then, after the number, a beatific smile. A smile of (here’s that word again) joy.

Put one hundred cats in a room, sit each of them at a typewriter, and they will produce a perfect transcript of “King Lear” several eons before I can achieve even one-fifth of Ms. Williams’ mastery.

I suppose this should depress me, but it doesn’t.

It doesn’t depress me because when I sit at the piano these days – I play much better now, with a fairly good amateur right hand balanced by a terminally hopeless left – I sometimes, in the heat of improvisation, surprise myself, at my own level, and it is then that I think I understand what Ms. Williams and the bassist were feeling that day.

And now, if I’ve been doing my job right, chances are you want me to shut up so you can go find some of Mary Lou Williams’ music.

I’m way ahead of you, with a selection from that video: “The Man I Love,” from YouTube. Especially watch what she does with her left hand. It fascinates me, even if my own left almost hurts as I watch it. Enjoy.

No room at the IHOP?

The McDonald's in my neck of the woods has TV sets hanging in several corners of the dining room.

Under one of the screens is this message:


Friday, April 15, 2011

A digital thumbs down

Hmm. I suppose that headline might seem like a redundancy. After all, isn’t a thumb, pretty much by definition, already a digit?

Maybe “A doubly digital thumbs down” would be more appropriate.

Anyway, in days of yore (and, sad to say, I fear I’m finally old enough to be able to refer to my “days of yore,” even if I’m not sure exactly what “yore” is and I’m still young enough to be too lazy to look it up), if I wrote something I thought The New Yorker, or any other magazine, might be interested in, I’d stick it in an envelope, schlep it to the post office, and find out how much postage I needed to put both on that envelope and on the return envelope (in the of course unlikely event that the magazine would want to send it back to me).

This required a fair amount of effort, and of course the cost of postage never seems cheap.

Not to mention that I’d have to wait a few months for a yes or no.

Well, sir – and madam and all the kiddies – times have indeed changed.

Early this week I sent another humor piece to The New Yorker. But this time I sent it as a PDF attachment to an email – which is the way the magazine now wants it.

A couple of days later, I got a response.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of those “your email couldn’t be delivered” messages, accompanied by inscrutable sets of numbers and upsettingly mysterious words like “daemon.”

Nope. Turns out my piece was rejected.

In what may have been record time.

But you’ve got to hand it to whoever wrote what I take to be The New Yorker’s standard rejection message. (I guess we can’t say “rejection slip” anymore, can we? We poor mediocre scribes are even being denied the pleasure of papering our office walls with such slips – or at least bragging that we’ve been doing so.)

The message said my piece had been rejected despite its “evident merit.”

Although I don’t know who composed this message, I’m betting it was someone who was taught by Jesuits.

I say this because the phrase “evident merit” evokes (for me at least) the concept of “mental reservation.”

In theological terms (and I speak authoritatively as a non-theologian), “mental reservation” is Catholic-speak for “yes, it’s kind of a lie, but…”

One classic example given involves the issue of what to do when someone in your home is being pursued by a killer, and said killer comes to your door and asks, “Is so-and-so home?”

Under the theory of mental reservation, you would be allowed to say, “No he isn’t” when what you really mean is “No, he isn’t home to you, and he wouldn't be if you were the last homicidal maniac on earth!” It’s not the killer’s fault if he or she can’t figure out that you’ve only uttered part of what you really mean.

Then again, I’m not sure this really qualifies as a practical example; I’ve never known any killers, but I somehow doubt many of them spend much time studying, let alone observing, the niceties of etiquette. They’d be more likely to shoot you first, and then, at best, apologetically say, “Oh, please pardon my manners, but is so-and-so home?” as the maggots begin to congregate around your bleeding body.

And now you might ask (among many other questions), what does all this have to do with “evident merit”?

I mean simply that the clever New Yorker rejection message writer might really be saying: “It obviously seems evident to you that this piece has merit, but after looking at it, we had to fumigate our hard drive – twice, to make sure.”

Eventually, I suppose technology will get to the point where a magazine will be able to see what you’re planning to submit before you even submit it, at which point a pop-up will appear and say “Don’t even think of sending this! And if you do, we’ll send a murderous daemon to your home, asking for you -- and he won't take no for an answer!”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Shall We Dance'

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

Right off the bat, I suppose I should make something clear to any fellow copy editors who might be reading this: The title of this movie does not have a question mark. Don’t know why; the budget seems to have been lavish enough so that you’d think an extra piece of punctuation wouldn’t have sent RKO into bankruptcy.

There’s no question, however, that this 1937 film, directed by Mark Sandrich, is a typical Astaire-Rogers vehicle. Of course the plot is ridiculous – you were expecting maybe “Death of a Salesman”? (Come to think of it, one of the characters – an impresario played by Jerome Cowan – is named Arthur Miller.) But criticizing 1930s musicals for having silly plots is a little like criticizing a junkyard dog for having fleas – they do tend to come with the territory.

And to a great degree it’s mighty nice territory, and if you’re in the mood it’s a pleasantly familiar turf, what with the usual plot misunderstandings and secondary characters played by a couple of the best character actors of their time – and quite possibly of all time.

I must admit that for years I didn’t really appreciate Edward Everett Horton. I knew him mostly as the voice who narrated the Fractured Fairy Tales on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. But in the Astaire-Rogers films, he’s one of the ones who has to carry the burden of keeping the movie going while Fred and Ginger are resting. If Horton isn’t the fussiest of all the movie fussbudgets, he comes pretty close – and his arsenal includes some of the best double takes in the business.

If Horton weren’t enough (he plays Astaire’s manager, if you’re keeping score), you also have Eric Blore (below) as a hotel manager – lisping, blundering, easily frustrated. Horton and Blore have one brief scene together and a longer scene in which they’re kind of together – Blore in jail, talking to Horton on the phone. Both scenes are very funny (it’s hard to forget Blore, on the telephone, trying to spell “Susquehanna”), but when the two of them are physically together and trying to understand each other, the result is sublime, kind of a mutual stupefaction society.

Besides the musical numbers (the closing one, which also resolves the plot, is quite clever if a bit odd), perhaps “Shall We Dance” is best known for its songs, by George and Ira Gershwin.

True, you don’t hear “Slap That Bass” and “Beginner’s Luck” that much anymore, though the latter is kinda catchy. But then you have “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” I don’t know about you (obviously), but whenever I see the first performance of a song that was written for a movie and became a classic, I always get at least the beginnings of goose bumps. And I always wonder: Did the audiences at the time know right then and there that they were listening to an indelible part of the national culture?

Then I stop wondering and just sit back and enjoy a form of entertainment that will probably never be done as well.

Sidney Lumet

Aside from his considerable achievements in movies, I think that Mr. Lumet might have been the last of the major movie directors to come from the era of live TV drama in the 1950s (sometimes referred to as TV's "Golden Age") -- including Franklin Schaffner, George Roy Hill, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn (who died just last year).

Or am I forgetting someone?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'All Through the Night'

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

“All Through the Night” (Warner Bros., 1941) is the kind of film that is usually described as “Runyonesque” – a reference to journalist and author Damon Runyon, whose fiction features a lot of cutesy gangsters who say things like “The companionship of a doll is a pleasant thing even for a period of time running into months.” (Sky Masterson, “Guys and Dolls.”)

I generally run away from Runyon’s stuff; for me a little of his cuteness goes a long way. Oh, there are some exceptions: I can tolerate “Guys and Dolls” because of comedy genius Abe Burrows’ contributions to the script; Frank Capra’s “Lady for a Day” has its moments (Capra remade it almost 30 years later as his last film, “Pocketful of Miracles.” Capra, too, was a genius of sorts, but this was not his best idea – oops, pardon me, this Runyonesque syntax is catching); and Lucille Ball, with Henry Fonda, gives perhaps her best performance in “The Big Street” as a callous showgirl.

But although “All Through the Night,” directed by Vincent Sherman, has Runyonesque elements, Runyon (that's him at left) had nothing to do with it. Subtle it’s not, but it generally manages to steer clear of coyness.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Gloves Donahue, who is described as a “promoter.” Apparently the studio didn’t want to make him a full-fledged gangster, although we’re pretty much told several times that Gloves isn’t averse to giving orders and that those who don’t follow those orders are made to wish that they, um, had done so.

Gloves does not lack for sidekicks or gofers. Fortunately for us, they include William Demarest, Frank McHugh and two performers who would eventually fare better in another medium: Jackie Gleason (here Jackie C. Gleason and rather svelte) and Phil Silvers. Gleason and Silvers aren’t given much to do, but as usual they do their best.

A denizen of Manhattan, Gloves probably hasn’t heard of Casablanca, but oddly enough, he does have something in common with a prominent resident of that city and a character Bogart fans would come to know well: Rick Blaine.

Both characters don’t care a fig about world affairs until they’re personally affected. For Rick, the catalyst is the love of his life, Ilsa Lund, played, of course, by Ingrid Bergman. Gloves’ motivation is more visceral – quite literally, his gut: When the baker who makes Gloves’ favorite cheesecake is rubbed out, Gloves’ gloves come off. (Not necessarily a good thing, particularly when Gloves accidentally leaves one of his gloves next to the body of a murder victim and is then pursued by the cops as he pursues the real killers – almost becoming a classic Hitchcock “wrong man,” or as Gloves himself might put it, the “wrong mug.”)

There’s plenty of action and comedy – and, on the bad guys’ side, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt and that grande dame of sweetness and light, Judith Anderson – and the whole thing moves fast enough that you don’t question the logic of the plot, but then again, with a film like this, you weren’t exactly on the lookout for logic, were you? Nor should you be – and that’s as it should be.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fun with the phone

I get home and find a message on my answering machine: a recorded voice from a company I deal with, asking me to call an 877 number.

I notice that the Caller ID has a different number.

I sit down at the telephone table and call the 877 number, and a recorded voice begins to talk to me.

And that’s exactly the moment when the cat jumps on the telephone table, once again trying to prove he’s the boss.

The phone isn’t exactly a trendy model; it has a handset connected to a fair-size console that has big buttons – buttons that the cat has been known to step on, disconnecting me.

So I put the console on my lap as the voice tells me to punch in my home phone number.

I do this, and the voice says it’s sorry, but they can’t find a match, and could I try again?

I do this, and the voice says it’s sorry, but they can’t find a match, and could I call later when I’m at the number to which their call was placed.

On the theory that having the console on my knees might have screwed up my dialing (or rather punching in, if you want to be literal about it), I put the console back on the table, hang up, lift the cat, carry him out of the room and put up a barricade to keep him out.

I then dial the 877 number again and get the same prompt.

I punch in my number again.

I get the “we’re sorry” message again.

I punch in my number again.

I get the “we’re sorry and call back later, idiot” message again.

I haven’t erased the Caller ID.

I write down the number and call it.

This time, I’m immediately connected with another recorded voice, but this one knows my name, and I am finally able to conduct my business.