Friday, December 25, 2015

Let's just say I'm more than willing to take her word for it

“When we were doing our dance lessons together, I’m pretty sure he sweats from his butt first," Jennifer Lawrence told KISS FM in an interview about working on "Silver Linings Playbook" with Bradley Cooper.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Eve memory

When I was a kid I really liked board games. And that’s an understatement.

Monopoly. Scrabble. The Game of Life. Parcheesi. You name it, I probably had it.

And I was especially nuts about games that were based on TV game shows. We had the first edition – and many others – of “Password,” “Jeopardy!” and “Concentration.”

I even had first-and-only editions of TV games that didn’t last that long, including “Get the Message,” a Goodson-Todman show hosted by a guy named Frank Buxton, who was also the co-host of an ABC kids’ show called “Discovery” that I watched every weekday.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Buxton at an old-movie festival.

I told him that I once had the home game of “Get the Message.”

“I didn’t even know they had a home game,” Mr. Buxton said.


I probably got a new game every Christmas. My parents used to hide the stuff downstairs. But I got wise one year when I happened to look down there and see, sticking out from the side of a table, the Ideal toy company trademark – confirming that yes, my parents had indeed bought me the home version of ABC’s “Seven Keys,” hosted by the great Jack Narz.

As we six kids got older we either figured out or were told somehow that (Spoiler alert!) there was no Santa Claus.

So my parents would bring the swag up on Christmas Eve.

I especially remember one such night when my mother emerged from the basement and came toward me holding out a big, rectangular box, with an equally big smile on her face.

The game was “Risk.”

“I knew you wanted it!” she said, and her happiness at giving me what I wanted so badly was so great that I couldn’t bear to tell her that I never wanted it at all.

I’d seen “Risk” advertised, of course, but the goal of the game – which was, basically, conquering the world territory by territory – never appealed to me.

And when we started playing the game, I still didn’t like it much – it was basically, for all its cards and “men” and big board, a dice game. I couldn’t get into dice games. Yahtzee? Not me.

So why did my mother think I wanted “Risk”? As the years passed, I still could never bear to ask her.

I did notice that one of my brothers always seemed to play the game with special enthusiasm. Were I possessed of anything remotely resembling a brain, I would have picked up on the fact that this was a Clue (which happens to be the name of a game I did like, though it took me some years to figure out how to figure out who the killer was, and please don’t tell Mystery Writers of America that or they’ll drum me out of their group with a blunt instrument).

Years later, my brother fessed up: He had told Mom that I “really wanted” “Risk.”

And years later, I still have no urge to invade Irkutsk.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'On Moonlight Bay'

After I noticed that this movie was on the local cinephile society’s schedule, I was reminded of a guy I used to know.

This guy -- I'll call him Al -- was in his sixties when I knew him and was married to a woman I'll call Arlene. They were my older brother and sister’s godparents. Arlene was also my mother’s godmother. Arlene and Al themselves had no children.

In the 1920s Al was a reporter on the newspaper where I later worked. In the 1930s he became a police captain through the good graces of his friend the mayor. If what I remember my mother telling me is correct, they must have been exceedingly good graces indeed, because she said Al came to the force as a captain; apparently he never walked a beat. That must have set real well with the rank-and-file.

Al retired in the 1960s and died a few years later. In the late 1970s, after I had joined the newspaper, I looked up his clip file just for the heck of it.

And I got a heck of a surprise. For along with the usual “longtime police officer retires after decades of service,” there were earlier clips that showed that Al’s retirement came not too long after a woman he had questioned during a case accused him of making a pass at her.

I asked my mother about this, and she said yes, Al did consider himself to be something of a ladies’ man, even if the ladies themselves saw him as something worse than that. Faced with the possibility of being alone with him, most of them went out of their way to stay out of harm’s way.

Poor Arlene.

Al also fancied himself to be a poet, and over the years he wrote what was supposed to be light verse (it was really not so much Ogden Nash as Ogden Gnash) and submitted it to the paper, where he still had friends who would publish it. After he retired, he self-published a book of this verbiage and brought a copy of it over to our house.

I still remember my uncle, himself a published poet of some renown, reading Al’s book and laughing his ass off. He later showed it to a friend, who, after perusing a bit of it, said, “Was it meant to be doggerel?”

As if this weren’t more than enough, Al also thought himself to be quite the piano player. Arlene and Al didn’t have a piano, but it was not unusual for him to sit down at our Story & Clark and torture the ivories.

He never needed to be asked. Then again, I don’t remember anyone ever feeling the need to ask him.

And he seemed to know only two songs.

One of them was – you guessed it – “On Moonlight Bay.”

I like to think that I am nothing if not a fair person, and as I was heading out for the cinephile show, I was not about to let the sins of a semiliterate sexual harasser be visited upon this charming 1951 film from Warner Bros.

Then again, “On Moonlight Bay,” at first glance, is not the type of movie I like much. It begins during what was supposedly a simpler, more innocent time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It stars two people who are substantially older than the characters they’re playing. It’s set in a small American town, but it might as well be in Never Never Land.

But in spite of this, the film works, and the audience and I had a good time.

Why does it work? I can think of at least three reasons.

The first is that the screenplay was co-written by Melville Shavelson, who was one of Bob Hope’s better writers, back when Hope was actually funny. Shavelson also was the key writer behind “My World and Welcome to It,” a sadly short-lived TV series based on the works of James Thurber.

The second reason is that its stars, Doris Day and Gordon MacRae, are so charming that they almost wheedle you into suspending your disbelief.

The third reason is the supporting cast, made up largely of folks I used to see all the time on TV and in movies, a class of performers that I fear I and others took for granted: the character actor. In this case, they are Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as Day’s parents, Mary Wickes as a (surprise) maid and Ellen Corby as Day’s brother’s schoolteacher. Talk about typecasting: None of these actors had to stretch themselves much, but they certainly weren’t phoning it in, for they each played their roles better than practically anyone else could have played them.

One bonus: Billy Gray as the boy. I saw him for years as the teenage son on “Father Knows Best.” He was quite good in that, but in “On Moonlight Bay” he shows a talent for comedy that I didn’t know he had, and that sadly doesn’t seem to have been used to its full potential as his career continued.

Earlier I mentioned that the audience had a good time. One reason I like to attend the cinephile programs – even if I’ve seen the movie before -- is to see how the audience reacts. Normally I suspect this film would have gone over moderately well.

But sometimes one person’s reaction can goose the others into enjoying a film even more.

I’m particularly thinking of the scene in which Day is dancing with MacRae. Before the dance, her mother has stuffed a couple of powder puffs into Day’s dress, in an attempt to heighten (or maybe deepen) Day’s appeal.

You won’t be surprised to know that the puffs eventually fall out, and at the worst possible time. The gag was staged well – director Roy Del Ruth was a comedy veteran – and it caused a woman sitting near me to literally screech with delight, and caused the rest of the audience to fall like dominoes as they loosened up and laughed with her and kept laughing throughout the picture.

Would they have laughed so hard if the screecher hadn’t been there? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

A sequel to “On Moonlight Bay” was made a couple of years later, with the same basic cast but with a different director and different writers.

“On Moonlight Bay” proved so popular with the cinephile audience that the society might show the sequel next year.

The name of the sequel is “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” which – have you guessed it? – also is the name of the only other song that good old Al ever seemed to know.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A mysterious holiday tradition

You've heard of "the gift that keeps on giving"?

This is the gift that I keep on giving:

"The Afternoon Before Christmas," a mystery story that I wrote some years ago.

I've sold it several times, most recently to the wonderful folks at "Over My Dead Body," and you can read it here.

I often link to this story at this time of year, and I hope you'll give it a try -- or even read it again, if you like.

I hope you will enjoy it, and I hope you will feel free to let me know what you think of it. All comments accepted -- even those made of coal.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'Detective Story'

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the get-togethers of the local cinephile society, and this is mostly because my full-time job kept me too busy or tired – or both – to attend them.

The good news is that now that I’m semiretired, I have the time to go again.

The bad news is that the group’s current fall season is almost over. Aside from the film I’m about to write about, there is one more, scheduled next week, with the spring season set to begin in March.

For now, let’s look at William Wyler’s version of “Detective Story” (Paramount, 1951), based on the play by Sidney Kingsley. In the late 1930s, another Kingsley play, “Dead End,” was also filmed by Wyler.

I suppose some audiences might find “Detective Story” a little too familiar, especially if they’ve watched such TV shows as “Barney Miller,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” But “Detective Story” set the mold for this kind of thing. Most of it takes place in a squad room, with police officers and suspects who behave like real people. It’s a slice of life, but with a savage twist at the end.

Kirk Douglas – or, given his style of acting, maybe I should say KIRK DOUGLAS – stars as Detective Jim McLeod. McLeod is as easygoing as a triple dose of milk of magnesia; he is such a hardass that, were you to drop him from the roof of the Empire State Building butt first, he wouldn’t get so much as a hemorrhoid.

(And I don’t mean to knock Douglas’ acting – no one else could play a Kirk Douglas role as well as Kirk Douglas.)

For most of the movie, the story plays out like a typical day in a police precinct. A hapless shoplifter is brought in, played by Lee Grant in her movie debut (she originated the role on stage). Grant, who is excellent, provides the comedy relief.

A young man (Craig Hill) who is also a war veteran is accused of embezzling from his employer. His ex-girlfriend’s sister, who really loves him, stands by his side. She is played by Cathy O’Donnell, who throughout her career seemed to specialize in playing The Pretty But Sad Girl Who If She’s Really Lucky Might Make It to the Last Reel Alive.

Add to this mix two burglars (played by Michael Strong and Joseph “Dr. No” Wiseman, also re-creating their stage roles) and an abortionist (George Macready), whom McLeod has a particular dislike for, to put it in the mildest of terms.

And we also meet Mary McLeod, the detective’s wife, who is played by Eleanor Parker, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar – for a performance that, according to the Internet Movie Database, is the shortest ever to be nominated for a leading acting Oscar (20 minutes and 10 seconds). Another Oscar contender was Lee Grant, for Best Supporting Actress.

The film’s ending is still powerful – afterward, the audience stuck around and discussed it instead of dashing out to their cars as usual – but instead of discussing it myself, I’d like to pay tribute to the fine character actors who help make this a top-notch piece of ensemble acting, including Horace McMahon (the squad’s leader, who later played a similar role on TV’s “Naked City”); Bert Freed; Frank “Herbert T. Gillis” Faylen and especially William Bendix.

Bendix is probably best known for his years of playing the title role in “The Life of Riley,” and thus becoming the quintessential bungling TV husband and father.

But Bendix is another one of those actors whom I’ve come to appreciate more as I get older. For when he wasn’t playing America’s Favorite Idiot Dad, and playing it well, he could play other kinds of roles – such as Alan Ladd’s brutal, bestial enemy in “The Glass Key” or Alan Ladd’s tough but pathetic injured war comrade in “The Blue Dahlia.”

In “Detective Story,” Bendix’s character, who lost a son in the war, wants to give the embezzling veteran a break because his sense of right and wrong is not nearly as monochromatic as McLeod’s. Bendix is able to put this across without chewing any scenery – he doesn’t seem to play the part as much as he embodies it, and I can’t help thinking that as popular as he was, Bendix and his talents were still taken for granted.

Before the main feature: “How to Be a Detective,” a 1936 Robert Benchley short.

I am sure of increasingly few things in this world, but there’s one thing I can state with unqualified confidence: If it weren’t for Robert Benchley, I wouldn’t be writing these words. Or practically anything.

When I was a kid and had decided to be a writer, I discovered Benchley’s work, and from there on there was no stopping me. (Please don’t hate Benchley because of this.) I wanted to write funny things for newspapers, just like Benchley. Eventually I did, for a little while, anyway. And now I’m doing this.

For years I was unable to see Benchley’s movie shorts because they weren’t on TV, and it took a long time for someone to get around to inventing videocassettes and DVDs. I now have almost all his short films on DVD.

Unfortunately, to some extent they don’t wear well, for the same reason that “Detective Story” might seem familiar to modern audiences. Benchley was really the first person to do what he did, and is it his fault that so many people copied him?

Even so, when I watch a Benchley short by myself, I wish I could enjoy it more; I wish I could forget all the people who came after and copied The Master. Then again, no one could duplicate Benchley’s charm, and I doubt anyone ever will.

Then again (yet again), I am very happy to say that “How to Be a Detective” elicited a lot of loud, heartwarming laughs from the audience.

Maybe Benchley, like the Marx Brothers, needs to be seen with an audience to be truly enjoyed.