remedial freed unit

Nashville Public Television is currently running a bizarre little special called “Classic Hollywood Musicals.” You might think that a special with that title would be about the breadth and scope of Hollywood musicals, but this is basically about five of them: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and (so help me) “Viva Las Vegas.” The special jumps around, presenting a clip and a few little details about one of the musicals, and then another, and then another. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, no attempt to connect any of the movies to each other, and it’s written at a really simplistic and elementary level — many of the little details presented as fascinating revelations are actually old news to any classic movie fan. Is there anyone left who doesn’t know that the studio bosses tried to cut “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz”?

What makes matters even worse is that it’s pledge drive season, and the woman co-hosting the pledge breaks keeps gushing about how she hasn’t seen, for example, “Singin’ In The Rain” in decades. She literally said that – decades!

Now, I realize the pledge break is intended to plug public TV stations and their programming. I wouldn’t expect them to mention or acknowledge Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel. But it sounds just bizarre to imply that these movies have been hidden away in a vault somewhere. “Singin’ In The Rain” probably gets shown an average of once a month on TCM. A good three-quarters of the people interested enough in classic movies to sit through this pablum-based documentary in hopes it will eventually become interesting is either a TCM viewer, or has a shelf full of classic movie DVDs, or both.

Yes, I guess there are probably a few elderly technophobes, receiving their public TV station by antenna, without DVD players, for whom catching a glimpse of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a rare and special treat. But that seems like a niche, not an audience.

peace pipe

Many of the previews and reviews of last night’s “Peter Pan Live!” noted that the lyrics to one of the songs were changed, with the participation of a Native American consultant, to eliminate negative stereotypes. (Some commentators applauded this, but others still found the scenes with Princess Tiger Lily to be dated and offensive.)

I do try to be sensitive to cultural stereotypes, and in fact I have a relative by marriage who has Native American heritage; connections like that sort of personalize the issue.

Then I noticed that TCM is showing “Good News” tonight. “Good News” is an MGM musical from the late 1940s, starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford, based on a much-older (and supposedly less-sanitized) stage musical. It’s full of all sort of hoary old clichés about college life. I don’t find the story particularly compelling. And yet, I’m going to sit here and watch it for one reason – Joan McCracken, a fascinating musical comedy talent who died tragically young and whom I know mostly from her work in “Good News.”

In fact – and, for reasons mentioned above, I’m ashamed to admit this – I mainly know her from, and am fascinated by, one particular musical number: “Pass That Peace Pipe.” The actual number doesn’t involve any Native Americans – it’s set in a malt shop – but it uses the imagery of the peace pipe and a sort of rhythmic recitation of the names of Indian tribes as if they were nonsense syllables. I know I should find it offensive.

But I can’t look away from McCracken’s performance. She sells that song in a way I’ve seen few musical performers do, staring straight ahead dead into the camera for several long stretches as if she owns the studio and Louis B. Mayer answers to her:

According to Wikipedia, McCracken helped promote Shirley MacLaine, encouraged her then-husband Bob Fosse to take up choreography, and was one of Truman Capote’s inspirations for Holly Golightly. But she had health problems related to diabetes and died when only 42.

I guess I’ll have to take the advice that my friends Brenden and Michael often put out on their podcast and try to be “a filter, not a sponge.”

sullivan’s travels

This is one of those cases where I’ve blogged about a movie multiple times in the past, and should probably just look up the old post and link to it on Facebook rather than reinvent the wheel.

But I think it’s been a while since I’ve actually devoted a whole blog post to “Sullivan’s Travels,” airing at 8:45 p.m. Central tonight on Turner Classic Movies, and so I figured, what the hey, I’d blog about it again.

This is a movie that is funny, first and foremost, by one of the best comedy directors of the golden age, the wonderful Preston Sturges. I love Sturges’ other work, especially “The Lady Eve” and “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

But “Sullivan’s Travels” also has a little hidden message – sort of an irony, since the message has to do with the fact that not every movie has to have a message.

Anyway, the central character is John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea. He’s a movie director, perhaps a standin for Sturges himself, who has spent the 1930s making silly little movies with titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants In Your Pants of 1939.” But he’s decided that these musical comedies aren’t significant enough. He has been duly impressed by a “Grapes of Wrath”-style novel which he wants to adapt for the screen. (If you look closely at the cover, the author is Sinclair Beckstein, a wonderful melange of John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis).

Remember, this novel, and “Sinclair Beckstein,” didn’t exist – they were made up by Sturges to be a plot point for the movie. I tell you that because the the title of the novel is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a title which was appropriated a half-century later by the Coen Brothers and made into an actual movie, although the Coen Brothers movie is a lot more fun to watch than John L. Sullivan’s social-problem drama would have been.

The title, of course, was an obvious play on words back in 1940, when “Oh, brother!” was a much more common expression of annoyance.

Anyway, Sullivan tells the head of the studio he’s tired of comedy and wants to make a film of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: [reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical? (From IMDb)

The studio mogul, who’s been making good money off Sullivan’s comedies, tries to discourage him without offending him. He tells Sullivan, at one point, that he’s not the right person to make a movie about poverty because he, Sullivan, grew up in an upper-class family and has never known hardship himself.

Sullivan takes that criticism to heart – but not in the way the studio head was hoping. Sullivan decides to take a leave of absence from the studio and wander the countryside dressed as a hobo. It’s a fallacy that you can truly understand poverty from this kind of gimmicky stunt, of course, and eventually Sullivan will realize that – but not before some twists and turns. Along the way, he encounters a frustrated actress (the mesmerizing Veronica Lake) who is preparing to give up her dream and move back to the midwest. He tries to encourage her aspirations without revealing his real identity.

It’s a lot of fun, and yet there’s a great moment of realization at the end of it. Please, if you haven’t seen this one yet, set the DVR or enjoy it with the family tonight.

that is the question

One of my all-time favorite comedies will be on Turner Classic Movies: TCM? at 7 p.m. Central tonight. I have blogged about “To Be or Not To Be” before, but just in case you’ve never seen it, please watch it or DVR it.

The movie, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the leads in a troupe of Polish actors during World War II. Carole has a little bit of a backstage dalliance with a Polish pilot – played by an impossibly-young Robert Stack – that ends up getting her, and thus the acting company, mixed up in some spy chicanery and requires Benny to impersonate a traitorous Polish professor.

The movie was a huge flop on its original release – it was at a time in the war when people weren’t in the mood to laugh at the Nazis, and it was released just after Lombard’s death in an airplane crash. But in the years since, it’s been recognized as a classic. It was remade in the 1980s by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and that’s not bad either, but the original is still the best. Be sure and see or record it tonight if you haven’t yet seen it.

‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’

“Network” is on TCM right now.

I did not see, and would not have been old enough to appreciate, “Network” when it was still in the theaters. But I saw it on TV when it was still shocking. My younger friends have no way of appreciating this movie; if they watch it, it will come off completely different in their eyes.

When “Network” came out in 1976, there were three broadcast TV networks. Cable TV was a very minor business which primarily provided distant broadcast signals to rural areas too far away to receive them, as well as a few added bonuses like Ted Turner’s superstation (then still known as WTCG, later WTBS, now just TBS). Big cities didn’t even have cable TV.

The three broadcast networks were, make no doubt about it, profit-making businesses. But they at least wanted to maintain the illusion of public service, and the Federal Communications Commission required local TV stations to do that as well. The networks’ news operations weren’t necessarily loss leaders, but they were about prestige and respectability as well as profits.

So Paddy Chayefsky’s script in 1976 about a network dropping all pretense of public service, putting a ranting and raving lunatic on the air and surrounding him with astrologers and found-footage terrorists seemed like outlandish black comedy when it came out, and even a few years later when I first saw it. Paddy Chayefsky, a leading light of the “golden age” of live television in the 1950s, was accused of biting the hand that had fed him with this ridiculously over-the-top satire.

Now, of course, we have Kardashians and raving pundits (at both ends of the political spectrum). Howard Beale seems pretty tame compared to the reality of television, and popular culture, in 2014.

I am Groot

Well, I went to see “Guardians of the Galaxy” today. I’d been mildly curious about this movie since seeing the first publicity for it many months ago, but sadly, “mildly curious” doesn’t get me to the theater that often. (The last movie I saw in the theater was “The Monuments Men,” and you probably have to go back a year or two before that.)

But several friends, and several reviewers, were so effusive about it last weekend, stressing how much fun it was, that I decided to go see it. I had the time and the money the same weekend, and I even walked to the theater, getting in my daily exercise. I was warned by the box office that they were having air conditioning problems upstairs, but I took the chance anyway. It wasn’t that bad, and they had ceiling fans running. Once the movie got started, I never had a chance to think about the temperature.

“Fun” is exactly the right word for this movie – the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in ages. Equal parts wise-cracking humor, breakneck action and eye-popping production design, this is the very definition of a popcorn movie. And it has a heart, to boot.

Except for the pre-credits prologue, which documents how young Peter Quill was abducted by aliens after running away from his mother’s deathbed in (IIRC) 1987, the movie is set far, far away from Earth.

I’m echoing several reviewers when I say this has the fun and humor of the initial Star Wars movies, without the ponderous self-seriousness of the prequels.  It also has the fast pace of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are times when it’s hard to follow certain nuances of the story, but it hardly seems to matter.

The two CGI characters – Rocket the Raccoon and Groot, a tree-like creature with a one-phrase vocabulary – work surprisingly well and you find yourself surprisingly invested in their fate. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are all terrific, as are all of the various supporting players. (Wish they’d given John C. Reilly more to do.)

One thing many reviewers have mentioned, and justifiably so, is the movie’s soundtrack – a soundtrack so wonderful, and so of my generation, that I immediately had to come home and buy it from Amazon. Young Peter Quill’s only possession when he’s abducted – his only link to home, and his mother – is a Sony Walkman with a mixtape his mother made for him. That becomes a plot point in the movie, and it includes some of my favorite songs. One reviewer referred to them as “80s songs,” I guess because the opening scene is supposed to be set in the mid 80s, but they’re mostly 70s songs – songs the mother would no doubt have listened to in the 1970s when she was an adolescent, songs she would have treasured and wanted to pass along.

Here’s the list from the soundtrack album, which should give you an idea:

1. Hooked on a Feeling, Blue Swede

2. Go All the Way, The Raspberries

3. Spirit in the Sky, Norman Greenbaum

4. Moonage Daydream, David Bowie

5. Fooled Around And Fell In Love, Elvin Bishop

6. I’m Not in Love, 10cc

7. I Want You Back, Jackson 5

8. Come and Get Your Love, Redbone

9. Cherry Bomb, The Runaways

10. Escape (The Piña Colada Song), Rupert Holmes

11. O-O-H Child, The Five Stairsteps

12. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Tammi Terrell

“Hooked on a Feeling” and “Fooled Around And Fell in Love” are among my all-time favorites, and I have great memories of most of the others as well. Yes, they’re sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek manner within the movie, but they’re still great songs – and the movie knows it. No wonder Peter Quill is so protective of that Walkman!

This is a Marvel Studios movie, so be sure not to leave the theater just because the end credits are rolling. Stay until after the credits and you’ll be rewarded. (Remember that Marvel and Lucasfilm are now both owned by Disney, and think back to 1986. That’s all I’m saying.)

cinematic ramblings

The other day, when posting (as I often do) a Facebook update about some movie coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I made a passive-aggressive comment about not knowing if anyone paid attention to my classic movie recommendations. What I meant was that I can’t recall anyone ever posting “Hey, John, I watched ‘Miracle of Morgan’s Creek’ on your recommendation, and I never laughed so hard in my life.”

Several people were kind enough to comment on my post, saying that they enjoyed my movie recommendations.

I enjoy introducing people to great movies they’ve never seen before. The high point of my adult life was the 2 1/2 years at Famous Televangelist University when I was in charge of the campus movies, and got to introduce my fellow students – some of whom had grown up in Christian-media-only bubbles – to things like “Casablanca.”

Anyway, later that night, in the middle of the night, I woke up and got to thinking. I’ve been wanting to do some sort of podcast but didn’t think I had a marketable idea. (I also don’t have the infrastructure to do a really professional-sounding, properly-distributed podcast right now.) Maybe I could turn my blithering about movies into some sort of podcast – I would scan the TV listings, in advance, and then do a little five-minute audio, once a week, calling people’s attention to some sort of classic movie, either on TCM or some other station or streaming service.

For a five-minute podcast, I could start by just uploading it to Soundcloud for a few months. If it worked out, and if anyone listened to it, I could eventually figure out some way to turn it into a real, properly-produced, properly-hosted podcast.

I can’t start it right now – I’m going to be pretty busy for the next month or two, between the horse show and the play I’m in – but I’m going to keep giving it some thought.

Lives up to the name ‘essential’

Saturday night, at 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central, TCM will air “Metropolis” as this week’s episode of “The Essentials,” hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. TCM shows the latest restoration of the movie, released in 2010, and made possible by footage found in 2008 in Argentina. My brother and sister-in-law gave me this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

If you have never seen “Metropolis,” or if you’ve only seen the butchered print that existed before 2010, you really need to watch this, or set your VCR.

Even if you don’t like silent movies – and I have to admit, I rarely have the attention span to sit and watch a silent feature film here at home – this is the one to see. It laid the groundwork for so many other things, from “Star Trek” to “Blade Runner.”

The German expressionist classic, released in 1927, just a year or two before talkies became the norm, tells the story of a future civilization deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. The ruling class lives in a beautiful city of art-deco skyscrapers and flying cars. (Many, many movie and TV art directors, for things like the Tim Burton-era “Batman” movies, have cited “Metropolis” as an influence on their futuristic urban landscapes.) The working class works underground.

Freder Fredersen is the privileged son of Joh Fredersen, the mayor of this futuristic city. Maria is one of the workers, and has become the leader of a non-violent resistance movement, hoping for a “mediator” who can bring together the city’s two classes. When she breaks into the city’s pleasure gardens, Freder sees her and is smitten. He ventures into the city’s subterranean world looking for her and is shocked at what  he finds there.

Joh Fredersen, disturbed by his son’s newfound interest in the workers and worried because some workers have been found in possession of suspicious maps, turns to his old friend and bitter enemy, a mad scientist named Rotwang, who has invented a lifelike android that can be used to disrupt the workers’ resistance movement. But Rotwang has his own priorities ….

Seriously, if you’ve enjoyed any modern science fiction movies or TV shows, you need to see this movie, which laid the groundwork for so many of them. These weren’t cliches in 1927 ….

for those of you with kids

I was neglectful, earlier in the summer, in giving my usual shout-out to “Essentials Jr.,” Turner Classic Movies’ wonderful – but horribly-named – summer showcase of family-friendly films, hosted again this year by Bill Hader, formerly of SNL.

Anyway, tonight, instead of showing one movie, they’re going to show short subjects from the legends of silent comedy – Chaplin, Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, and so on. Depending on your kids’ ages and how open they are to new things, this might be a fun evening ….

lisa

I just watched a sensational movie I’d never seen or even heard of before: “Lisa,” with Dolores Hart and Stephen Boyd. Dolores Hart – who is now a Benedictine nun – is co-hosting an evening of movies on Turner Classic Movies, and this apparently seldom-seen gem was one she requested they show.

Dolores Hart, before entering the convent, was best known for appearing in a couple of movies with Elvis (“Loving You” and “King Creole”) as well as “Where The Boys Are.” While they aren’t showing either of the Elvis movies tonight, Robert Osborne had to ask her about Elvis, and she remarked on what a gentleman he was to her, calling her “Miss Dolores” – the same thing she would later be called as a postulant!

Stephen Boyd is best known, to me, anyhow, as the bad guy in “Ben-Hur,” but he’s the good guy in “Lisa.”  He plays a Dutch policeman in 1946, guilt-ridden because he could not save his wife from the Nazis, who encounters an emotionally-scarred survivor of the concentration camps and Nazi expermentation. Lisa (Hart) wants to travel to Palestine (the movie is set two years before the state of Israel was created) and become a nurse. Seeking redemption, Boyd vows that he will help her get there. Her experiences have left her with trust issues, and she’s not sure how to take his offer.

A highlight of the film early on is an appearance by one of my favorites, Leo McKern (of “Rumpole of the Bailey” and “The Prisoner”) as a curmudgeonly barge captain who helps the pair get out of Amsterdam.

A terrific movie, with great performances by both of the stars.