The man who came to dinner

I usually try to scan the TCM schedule, but I missed somehow seeing that “The Man Who Came To Dinner” would be on tonight, and I missed the first half-hour. I’m watching the rest of it now, and TCM will be running it again on Christmas Eve morning, and I have just set the DVR.

Critic and radio host Alexander Woollcott, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, turned up unannounced one day at playwright Moss Hart’s house. He stayed a few days, was unspeakably rude to the household staff, and generally behaved badly, even writing a snarky farewell comment in Hart’s guest book. Hart, who was accustomed to Woollcott’s behavior, laughed about it later with his collaborator George S. Kaufman. Hart commented that it could have been worse – Woollcott could have broken his leg and been forced to stay longer. The two playwrights looked at each other for a second and realized that their next project had fallen right into their laps.

“The Man Who Came To Dinner” is the story of Sheridan Whiteside (played in the movie version by Monty Wooley), an arrogant radio commentator and columnist who is – reluctantly – arriving for a speaking engagement in a small town, in the company of his long-suffering secretary (Bette Davis, who wanted to do a comedy as a change of pace). He’s scheduled to have dinner with one of his hosts, and on the way in he slips and falls on the ice, breaking his leg. He is forced to spend the Christmas season in a wheelchair, taking over his hosts’ home and pretty much making their life a living hell. Christmas gifts for Whiteside pour in from various world celebrities, and the gifts include a flock of live penguins.

Meanwhile, the secretary falls in love with the local newspaper editor, who (like many journalists) fancies himself a writer and has written a play. Whiteside, who can’t bear the thought of losing his right hand, schemes to break the couple up by bringing a glamorous leading lady to town to fawn over the journalist and his play. Meanwhile, his wacky friend Banjo (based on another Algonquin Round Table member, Harpo Marx!) shows up to further liven up the proceedings. Banjo is played in the movie by the inimitable Jimmy Durante.

A revival of the play in 2000 starred Nathan Lane in the role of Sheridan Whiteside, and was broadcast by PBS a few days after the close of its official Broadway run. I remember seeing that, and it was pretty funny. I see on Wikipedia that there was also a 1972 “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie with Orson Welles (!) but I’ve never seen that one. From the description, they updated the play to modern times and had Whiteside as a TV personality. It was not well-reviewed, in any case.

If you get a chance, and you’ve never seen this very funny movie before, set your DVR to catch that Christmas Eve airing.

Berry tasty

Yesterday, when I was at United Grocery Outlet, they had bags of cranberries on sale in the produce department. On a whim, I decided to buy a bag, and last night, for the first time ever, I made cranberry sauce. The recipe on the bag just called for sugar and water, but – with a vague recollection of other cranberry sauce recipes I’d seen in the past – I opted for orange juice, the bottom of a plastic bottle of honey and a little stevia.

The resulting sauce didn’t set up as much as I was hoping, but it was quite tasty. I had some with breakfast this morning.

Then, during the day, I tried to figure out something else I could do with the sauce. I ended up baking some chicken thighs in a mixture of my homemade cranberry sauce, soy sauce, grated onion and red pepper flake. (Perhaps too much red pepper flake. Ask me tomorrow.) The sauce itself has berries in it, but for purposes of this glaze I used a stick blender to make the cranberry sauce smooth before adding the other ingredients.

Cranchicken

Friends, this turned out rather good. The extra sauce was wonderful over rice.

cockeyed caravan

Turner Classic Movies will show one of my all-time favorite movies, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) Thursday night at 9:15 p.m. Central (10:15 for you easterners).

It’s directed by one of my favorite comedy directors, Preston Surges, and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (along with a lot of Sturges regulars like William Demarest). It’s a movie that is, in some ways, more relevant now than when it was first made. I’ve blogged about it before, but (as with “Christmas In Connecticut” earlier in the week) I feel like doing so again.

John L. Sullivan (McCrea) is a movie director who spent the 1930s making silly musical comedies like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he yearns to make a Serious Movie about Serious Issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. He’s picked out a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel he wants to adapt for the screen. Sturges, when writing “Sullivan’s Travels,” just made up a title and author for the novel: “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” by Sinclair Beckstein. “Sinclair Beckstein,” of course, is a reference to Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. “O Brother Where Art Thou” is a play on words which would have been funnier as a parody title in 1941, because the phrase “Oh, brother!” was more widely used as an exclamation of shocked annoyance. Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, are big fans of this movie and appropriated Sturges’ made-up title to turn it into an actual movie, released in 2000.

Sullivan pitches his idea for a Serious Movie to the heads of the studio where he’s under contract. They are extremely reluctant to mess with a good thing – Sullivan’s silly comedies have been making them a lot of money. But instead of just saying “no,” and alienating one of their top talents, they try to talk him out of it by pointing out that he came from a well-to-do family and has no first-hand knowledge of poverty.

He agrees with them that he lacks experience – but that only gives him an idea. He’ll go out into the world, dressed as a tramp, with the intention of observing poverty first-hand. Sturges recognizes, and shows us, how absurd that idea truly is, and teaches a very funny lesson about the folly of thinking you know someone else’s pain. But perhaps his primary message is that comedy – like “Sullivan’s Travels” itself – does a greater social good than we sometimes recognize.

But this isn’t a message movie – this is a funny movie, one which only coincidentally has a message or two. McCrea is absolutely perfect, and Veronica Lake is incredibly sexy. What a wonderful way to spend 90 minutes.

A screwball for christmas

Well, I’ve blogged about “Christmas In Connecticut” numerous times in the past, so I figured I would just post a Facebook update about it this year. But I kept adding to it, and so I figured, what the heck, it’s my blog, and if I want to repeat myself, what’s the harm?

Anyway, “Christmas In Connecticut” is well-known and loved by those who’ve seen it, but I often run into people who’ve never seen or even heard of it, and so I like to recommend it when I get the chance. It’s one of the best comedies with a Christmas setting. It will air numerous times this month on Hallmark Movie Channel and will air Dec. 22 on Turner Classic Movies.

I’m referring here to the original 1945 movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall. There’s also a 1980s TV movie version, directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson. The original, as usual, is the best.

Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is a Martha Stewart-like columnist for a leading women’s magazine. Millions of adoring fans look forward to her first-person accounts of life with her husband and new baby on their Connecticut farm. Her recipes are just as eagerly-anticipated.

Elizabeth Lane is a fraud. She’s single, living in a little Manhattan apartment, and can hardly boil water. The recipes come from her restaurateur friend (Sakall, always wonderful), and everything else comes from her vivid imagination. Publisher Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet) has no idea, and is just as caught up in Lane’s mythology as anyone else.

When a war hero (Morgan), who survived for days at sea, has no place to spend the holidays, Yardley thinks it would be patriotic – not to mention good public relations – for Elizabeth Lane and her husband to host the man at their beautiful Connecticut farm. Perhaps Yardley himself could drop by to share in the delicious Christmas dinner:

Lane has just bought a very expensive fur coat on credit and can’t afford to lose her job – as she surely would if Yardley learned the truth about her. So she has to come up with a husband, a baby and a farm, at least for Christmas. If you know anything at all about classic Hollywood movies, you can easily figure out what comes next: once she’s convinced everyone she has a husband, she finds herself falling in love with the war hero. How does she extract herself from the lie without alienating everyone?

It’s a very funny movie, with four very funny stars. See it if you get the chance.

Schedule update

posterOK, I’ve finally gotten with my Times-Gazette co-worker Martin Jones to figure out who’s doing what dates of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

If you’re interested in seeing me in the show, I’ll be doing four of the currently-scheduled dates:

  • Saturday, Dec. 14, at Mel’s (7 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, Dec. 18, at Fair Haven Baptist Church (6:30 p.m.)
  • Thursday, Dec. 19, at Mel’s (7 p.m.)
  • Saturday, Dec. 21, at Community High School (7 p.m.)

Martin will be playing our shared parts at two other performances:

  • Tuesday, Dec. 17, at Fair Haven (6:30 p.m.)
  • Sunday, Dec. 22, at Community High School (2 p.m.)

A few additional performances may be added after the first of the year.

Remember, you don’t need tickets for any performance, and there’s no admission charge, but please come prepared to make a donation to the Friends of Mandy Jean fund.

The first season

For me, sometimes there are two Christmas seasons. I refer, here, not to the sacred observance of Christmas, but to the fun, traditional aspects. Right around this point, just after Thanksgiving, there’s an “Oh, boy, it’s OK to start celebrating Christmas!”, and I listen to a flood of Christmas music. I’m listening tonight:

Then, that wears off and I go back to regular music for a week, week and a half, before returning to Christmas music.

Of course, the schedule is a little different this year, with a shorter interim between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so maybe it will be jingle bells straight through to New Year’s.

I love having Spotify, by the way. I’ve put together a wonderful Christmas playlist, ranging from David Phelps to Mitch Miller to Barenaked Ladies to Tony Bennett to Tennessee Ernie Ford, and everything in between. And I can easily add a song if I hear it or remember it.

The widget only shows David Phelps because his album was the first thing I added. But I listen on shuffle.

Scattered, smothered and capped

Our family Thanksgiving dinner is going to be relatively late in the day – I’m not even headed over to Dad’s until about midday – so I thought I’d have a hearty breakfast to tide me over. Thankfully, Waffle House was there for me.

There’s been a lot of discussion about stores being open on Thanksgiving – and I’m not going to step into that minefield – but I’m sure glad Waffle House is. Every Waffle House has a 24-7-365 schedule. When they opened in Shelbyville, the ribbon-cutting ceremony included something that takes place at virtually every Waffle House opening. They tie a key, representing the key to the front door, to a helium balloon and release it, saying it won’t ever be needed again.

The chain’s disaster planning is said to be without peer in the restaurant industry. The restaurants have generators, and have pre-printed limited menus that that can be used if external factors prevent the restaurant from normal operation.

In fact, the company is so good at staying open that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has what’s called the “Waffle House Index” as one of a number of metrics it examines in the early stages of a disaster. If the Waffle Houses near the disaster scene are open but offering a limited menu, it’s a serious disaster. If the Waffle Houses near the disaster scene are closed, well, it must be a really serious disaster.

So I had a cheesesteak omelet this morning, with hash browns scattered, smothered (onions) and capped (mushrooms). I tipped 30 percent, not knowing if the waitress had volunteered or had been made to work the holiday. If I’m the only one who did that, of course, it’s a pretty feeble gesture, but maybe others will think the same way.

holland high water

While some people may be watching the “Saturday Night Live” Thanksgiving clip special, I’m watching all-new programming featuring a current (but soon to be former) SNL cast member: Esquire Network’s “The Getaway,” with Seth Meyers and his brother Josh in Amsterdam.

“The Getaway,” from Anthony Bourdain’s production company, is sort of like an episode of one of Anthony Bourdain’s travelogue shows but with a celebrity in place of Bourdain. I’ve watched past episodes featuring Joel McHale in Belfast and Aisha Tyler in Paris, both of which were excellent, but I really wanted to see this one – not only because I like Meyers but because Amsterdam is the only European city I’ve actually seen (except for the inside of London’s Heathrow Airport). On my five Kenya trips, we changed planes in Heathrow once and in Amsterdam the other four times. On two of those trips, I was able to take a 90-minute or 2-hour bus tour of Amsterdam that leaves from the airport and is geared towards people with long layovers.

Of course, most people associate Amsterdam with prostitution (which is legal) and drugs (which our tour guide told us were still technically illegal, but there’s virtually no enforcement). The bus tour drives you through the red-light district, and even in broad daylight (and it was broad daylight both times) there are women dancing in the windows of the clubs, like go-go dancers in cages. The tour guide told us not to take photos in the red-light district; the club owners get angry with the tour company when it happens.

But there’s so much more to Amsterdam. Seth Meyers begins the episode by saying he’s spent a great deal of time in Amsterdam, once having an apartment there, and the only prostitute he ever met was in line at the grocery store. Even from the cheesy comfort of a tour bus, you can tell Amsterdam is a beautiful and interesting city.

There are cars in Amsterdam, but gas and parking are prohibitively expensive, both according to my tour guides and the Meyers brothers. Everyone rides bicycles, and Meyers said that’s the only way to go if you get to visit the city.

I haven’t ridden a bicycle since I was a child, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never ridden a 10-speed (or any bicycle with multiple gears). They say you never forget, but I wonder if I’d be the exception that proves the rule. Actually, the rental bikes that Seth and Josh buy don’t necessarily look like they’re 10-speed either. The brothers refer to them as grandmother bikes, especially since they’re missing the crossbar that in America distinguishes a boys’ bike from a girls’ bike.

On our bus tours, we saw downtown multi-level parking garages exclusively for bicycles. Many of the major rental companies have badges on the front of the bicycles that call the locals’ attention to the fact that you’re a tourist; the Meyerses go to one company specifically known for not having such insignia, although they laughingly note that the fact they’re following a camera vehicle at slow speed tends to call attention.

Before one of my trips, a co-worker told me that there was a brothel inside Schiphol airport. There’s not, although one of the major brothel operators in Amsterdam did propose such a thing once. (He was turned down.) There is a casino inside the airport. There’s also a wonderful little branch of the Rijksmuseum, downtown Holland’s art museum. The airport branch has various revolving exhibits; my favorite consisted of a series of paintings the museum purchased thinking they were Rembrandts which were later proven by technology to be forgeries. The very last painting in the exhibit was bought by the museum, then proven to be a forgery, and then later proven by more advanced technology to be genuine after all.

Schiphol is a nice airport, actually, with good shopping. But when you’re on your way back to the U.S. (and only then) each and every passenger is grilled by security. Where have you been? Who are you traveling with? How long have you known them? What were you doing? Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?

Anyway, this show is making me want even more to spend some time in the city someday.

The extra ‘a’ is for ‘achievement’

On Monday, the day I normally would have spent an hour at Reagan Aymett’s second grade class at Learning Way Elementary, they were on a field trip. Reagan asked if I could come today instead.

WP_20131118_001By the way, I feel like an idiot – for the past 11 months, I’ve been spelling her first name “Regan” in this space, and I think even in a couple of places in the newspaper.

Part of what called the mistake to my attention is that we’ve received not one but two news releases about her in the past couple of weeks, and I confirmed some details with her today so that we could get a story into the paper. She received a mini-grant to use for buying books to tie in to the Common Core curriculum, and she’s been chosen as an NEA “Master Teacher,” meaning videos of her will be available for other teachers, throughout the country, to watch and learn from.

Nice to know I’m getting in the way of working for an expert.

Anyway, I had just two students today, and we went through a series of different worksheets.

I am really enjoying “Raise Your Hand” this year – I like the pace of being in one class for an hour instead of two different classes for a half an hour each.