Thursday, March 31, 2016

Across and down to Stamford again

This weekend I'll be competing once again at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It'll be my ninth year at the tournament and my second one in Stamford, Conn.

The tournament started in Stamford in 1978 but moved to Brooklyn in 2008 after a documentary about it, "Wordplay," attracted a lot more competitors than the Stamford hotel seemed to be able to handle. My first tournament was the first one in Brooklyn, but the folks who'd been with it since the beginning (or close enough) liked the Stamford hotel better and the attendance seemed to be down enough, so it moved back to Connecticut.

I had some misgivings about the move to Stamford (changing trains, among other things), but I had no major problems last year -- the traveling was actually more pleasant -- so here I am, about to try it again.

As always, I'll let you know how I did. Last year I finished 153 overall out of 566. My best overall showing, back in 2012, was 142 out of 592.

I'll get back to you as soon as I can -- after the tournament, it usually takes a while for the scores to be finalized.

And besides, I'm probably going to need some rest. I usually do.

See you later.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Easter '51"

Watch for him
walking in the dawn
along the silver lawn.

Hail him hushedly

A surging
rising of joyousness
be gracefully yours.

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

Thursday, March 24, 2016

At the (old) movies: 'Three Blind Mice'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first get-together of the new spring season….

You’ve almost certainly seen “Three Blind Mice” (Fox, 1938) before.

Even if you’ve never seen “Three Blind Mice” (Fox, 1938) before.

This is because the basic plot of this movie has been used a lot.

How often is “a lot”? Let’s just say that several entire forests probably gave their lives so that the screenwriters could have enough carbon paper.

The most famous version of this plot, filmed many years after “Three Blind Mice,” is probably “How to Marry a Millionaire.”

At this point I could describe the plot, but I have too much respect for your intelligence to believe that you haven’t already figured it out.

The three “mice” are Loretta Young, Marjorie Weaver and Pauline Moore. The prospective rich husbands are played by Joel McCrea and David Niven.

But the women learn soon enough that things aren’t always as they seem.

That’s about all the plot I’m going to give you. There are some twists, not as much wit as one might like, but a lot of charm. The director, William A. Seiter, had a lot of experience with comedy, and he does fairly well here.

Niven is another of those performers whom I have come to appreciate more as time goes by. Perhaps I took him for granted because as I was growing up he seemed to take any role he could get. And he was always so good that he made it look easy. It couldn’t have been.

McCrea is on my short list of unappreciated actors. He didn’t always get the best parts, but he always did his best and, in my view, was always welcome.

In “Three Blind Mice,” McCrea turns in his customary professional job, but you get the idea that he’s doing this film as a favor for an aunt whom he couldn’t turn down because, well, he’s always been such a dutiful nephew. But I couldn’t help thinking that I could almost hear him saying under his breath: “Geez, I can’t wait for Preston Sturges to come along and do this kind of movie the way it really needs to be done!”

The real life of this cinematic party – and she comes to it late, but boy, is she welcome – is Binnie Barnes as Niven’s sister, who is, to put it mildly, outgoing.

I think Barnes was mostly known for comedy parts – I especially remember her as Fred Allen’s wife in “It’s in the Bag” – but she also played Catherine Howard, one of the wives of Henry VIII who didn’t live to a ripe old age, and she is very good playing opposite Frank Morgan in “There’s Always Tomorrow,” a moving domestic drama that I wrote about here.

Barnes made a comeback of sorts in the 1970s in the movie “40 Carats.” It helped that her husband, M.J. Frankovich, produced it, but although I have yet to see “40 Carats,” I suspect it proves that nepotism is not always a bad thing.

A friend of mine recently saw her on a “Tonight Show” repeat from that time and reports that even then she was a hoot.

In all, “Three Blind Mice” is a pleasant enough film, and though it may seem trite (because it is trite), it’s well worth the wait for Binnie Barnes to come in and kick it into high gear.

Before the feature: “In the Sweet Pie and Pie,” featuring The Three Stooges – Moe, Larry and Curly – as three unjustly accused and condemned murderers who wind up married to three sisters in a plot to save their inheritance. Imagine the sisters’ surprise when the three guys are exonerated and set free.

There’s some welcome gallows humor – I mean that literally – in the first reel, and as you’d probably expect from the title, flying pastries take precedence in the second reel.

Custard pie fights were old hat even in the late 1920s – the high point probably being the famous sequence in Laurel and Hardy’s “The Battle of the Century” – and by 1941, when “In the Sweet Pie and Pie” was made, at least three quarters of the old hat were already moth-eaten.

Still, the cinephile society's audience seemed to enjoy the pie fight, and although it’s not my favorite kind of humor, I can appreciate the skill required to correctly throw a pie, not to mention what it takes to take one in the face.

I mean, think of it: Someone is going to throw a pie at you, hitting you square in the face. You know this is going to happen. But you have to pretend that you have no way of knowing it’s going to happen.

Could Sir Laurence Olivier have done it? Quite possibly, though I never saw him try, and doesn’t the fact that he was able to avoid flying pies by hiding behind William “No Whoopie Cushions Here” Shakespeare at least hint that, when it came to dodging cream-filled discs, he didn’t want to be a poor second to Curly?

Or even Shemp?

Monday, March 21, 2016

A sales pitch that doesn't in thrall me

As I was trying to call up a web page a few minutes ago, an ad appeared across the top of if it:

Making your home beautiful

You in vision it we create it

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Another opportunity for 'Motive'

A few years ago, during the summer, ABC presented episodes of a Canadian police drama called “Motive.”

The next summer, ABC presented new episodes of the show.

Then it stopped, even though more new episodes were being produced for Canadian TV.

But I found out this week that new episodes of “Motive” will be presented at 10 p.m. Fridays (Eastern Time) on the USA Network.

I’m telling you all this because “Motive” is one of the finest mystery shows I’ve ever seen.

The setup is a bit like “Columbo”: You know who done it, and you know whom they done it to, and you watch as Detectives Angie Flynn and Oscar Vega try to solve the crime.

The setup differs from “Columbo” in that you don’t know WHY the killer done it. Not until near the end, anyway.

In lesser hands, this could be just a gimmick.

But “Motive” plays fair with the audience in terms of clues, and it plays more than fair in terms of the quality of the writing.

Although it’s a little like “Columbo,” it’s more like a series of short stories, well-known in the mystery field, by a British writer named Roy Vickers. Vickers’ stories were about people who got away with murder – or thought they did, until some stray, obscure, unexpected clue tripped them up, and they were brought to justice by a detective who often wasn’t so much brainy as lucky.

What makes Vickers’ stories memorable (to me, at least) is the quality of the writing; without any pretensions (but sometimes with a welcome dry humor), Vickers gives us a well-rounded portrait of the killer, to the point where you occasionally almost want to take his or her side. We’re not talking Shakespearean tragedy, of course, but sometimes we’re not far from its outskirts.

“Motive” often has this same quality.

But even with all this going for it, “Motive” would be nothing without Kristin Lehman as Angie and Louis Ferreira as Vega. And the rest of the cast is fine, too.

I don’t normally plug TV shows – that’s what the networks have promotion departments for – but I think that “Motive” has been flying under the radar for too long.

And I hope I’ve motivated you to watch it.

When Matt and Kitty and Doc and Chester were young

The other day I bought the first season of “Gunsmoke” on DVD.

That’s 39 episodes – remember when a TV show had that many episodes per season?

I didn’t buy the DVD set because I’m a huge fan of “Gunsmoke.” By the time I was old enough to be allowed to watch it, it had expanded to an hour. And although I remember some things about it – Burt Reynolds, when he was a regular; an episode in which Aneta Corsaut, Helen Crump on Andy Griffith’s show, played a nun; and an episode that introduced me to Bruce Dern, as a killer (surprise!) who, in the show’s climax, wielded a pitchfork as he chased after a little boy who had seen him commit a murder.

Of course Marshall You-Know-Who shot Bruce down, but I probably came close to wetting my pants as I watched that scene, being at that time about the same age as the kid Bruce was tormenting.

But “Gunsmoke” never meant that much to me, especially as the years went by and as the episodes more and more seemed to be produced in a molasses factory.

Then a couple of things happened.

First, one of the cable stations showed a few episodes from the show’s early days, when it was only a half-hour, in the days when most dramatic TV episodes seemed to be only a half-hour and seemed to work better that way. The shorter “Gunsmoke” was better and had scripts by people like Sam Peckinpah.

Then I began listening to some of the “Gunsmoke” radio episodes that preceded the TV show. Matt Dillon was played by William Conrad, later better known as Cannon (and to me as the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s adventures). Parley Baer, who was everywhere in those days, was Chester, and Doc was played by Howard McNear, better known as Floyd the Barber on (once again) Andy Griffith’s show. As Doc, McNear was tougher and more sardonic than Floyd. (Then again, pretty near everyone was tougher and more sardonic than Floyd, except maybe Barney Fife.) Georgia Ellis was Kitty.

Conrad portrayed Dillon as a lonely man with a sometimes grim outlook on life. That’s no surprise, considering that some of the stories were grim. I particularly remember one in which several guys robbed a family and scalped all its members, hoping that Indians would be blamed, until Matt saw through the scheme.

“Gunsmoke” is one of a number of examples of how dramatic network radio became much better, much less hokey just as TV killed off big-time radio.

So far I’ve watched five episodes of the first season of the TV version of “Gunsmoke.” They all hold up.

I had known that John Wayne introduced the first episode – he’d worked with James Arness and liked him – but I’d never seen the intro, which is cute, with Wayne in full Charming, Self-Deprecating Mode.

The first few episodes begin with Matt walking around Boot Hill and speaking to us in a philosophical voiceover. Mad magazine kidded the pants off this in its satire of the show. (“This here is Boot Hill. Many men are buried here. Some ’cause they were good, some ’cause they were bad. But all, ’cause they were dead, by George!”)

A couple of things I noticed right off on these early shows:

1. Doc, especially in the first episode, looks as if great (if somewhat obvious) pains have been taken to make him look old, which isn’t surprising, considering that Milburn Stone, who played him, was a little past 50 years old at the time. (The comedic corollary might be Andy Clyde, who played an older guy in Mack Sennett talking shorts while Clyde was still quite young – he also was Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick – but needed less and less old-guy makeup as time went by and he became a semi-regular on “Lassie” and “The Real McCoys.”)

2. In addition to being a fine performer, Amanda Blake, as Kitty, was really really cute, not quite as seemingly hard-bitten as the Kitty of the later shows. (I don’t blame her for being hard-bitten – all those years, and she still hadn’t lassoed Matt.)

Of course there’s also Dennis Weaver, doing a fine job as Chester, though I’m not surprised he eventually left the show so he could play characters whose IQs had at least two digits.

The original producer-director of the TV show was a guy named Charles Marquis Warren. I’ve heard that he was fired because he was apparently something of a martinet and the cast hated him. He wasn’t banished from the TV prairie for long, though: A few years later, he was running “Rawhide.” (I don’t know what Clint “Rowdy Yates” Eastwood thought of him.)

And if that name seems familiar, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful 8” is Major Marquis Warren. From what I know about Tarantino, I doubt this is a coincidence.

Four of the five episodes I’ve watched feature the kind of journeyman character actors who seem in short supply these days.

In the first episode, Paul Richards plays a psychopath who likes to goad guys into drawing first so he can kill them. At one point he wounds Matt pretty badly. If you wanted a psychopath back in the 1950s and 1960s, Richards was one of the go-to guys, though he differed from some of the others because he sometimes showed at least a hint of vulnerability.

Another episode featured the incomparable John Dehner. If you watched television for any length of time back then, Dehner was hard to miss. He could be a psychopath or an executive or an amiable con man or, hell, just plain anything you wanted.

Also appearing in separate episodes: two of the big bad guys of early TV, and I mean that literally: the heavy-set (to put it mildly) James Westerfield and Robert Middleton.

Westerfield wasn’t the psycho type; he was more apt to be the town’s chief mover and shaker, a guy who could afford to hire psycho types to work for him. His characters probably had file drawers full of resumes of especially dangerous desperadoes.

Middleton could go either way – he could play a businessman (he was even a judge accused of murder once on “Perry Mason”) or one of the scariest son-of-a-bitches you could ever meet. (I’m thinking of his role in the movie “The Desperate Hours,” in which he breaks out of prison with Humphrey Bogart.)

The last actor on this list was a true one-of-a-kind: Royal Dano. He was tall, dark and often poignant. He plays the title character in “Obie Tater,” a good-natured but touchingly na├»ve and pathetic guy who might or might not have a lot of gold hidden away.

I know what you might be thinking: Why doesn’t this lousy so-and-so post pictures of these guys so I can find out whether I’ve seen them?

That’s a good point, and in years past I used to post such pictures. Then the company that’s behind this blog “improved” things, which made it more difficult for me to do that. (And I’m not the most technologically gifted person around anyway.)

So I apologize and just ask that if you’re really interested, Google these guys, and chances are you’ll find a picture and say, “Hey, now I know who that lousy so-and-so was talking about! But he’s still a lousy so-and-so!”

I’d like to mention one last name, and don’t waste your time looking for his picture because he wasn’t a performer but a writer:

John Meston.

He was the guy behind most of the radio scripts, and at least many of those scripts were adapted for episodes of the TV show. I don’t know what if anything John Meston did before and after “Gunsmoke,” but given the superlative quality of his work, I’m not sure he ever needed to write anything else to prove that when it came to this kind of material, his aim was truest.