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.

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 ….


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.

A big finish

I doubt many of you watched “Strike Me Pink,” the 1936 Eddie Cantor comedy that just ended on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t really either – I was busy with other stuff after getting home from Relay meeting. But if you did watch, you saw a character named Parkyakarkus. I’ve blogged about him before, but it seems like a good opportunity to repeat myself, something to which I’m seldom averse.

Parkyakarkus, a sort of malaprop-spouting Greek stereotype, was the creation of a character actor named Harry Einstein. He created the character on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, and it became so popular that Einstein (who sometimes used the stage name Harry Parke) was eventually billed as just Parkyakarkus, the same way that Paul Reubens is sometimes billed as just Pee-Wee Herman, with no mention of his real name anywhere.

Parkyakarkus is not well-remembered today, except for two trivia facts.

Trivia fact #1: Parkyakarkus, in character, was on the dais for a Friar’s Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958. He had just finished his routine, which was very well-received, prompting emcee Art Linkletter to wonder aloud why Parkyakarkus wasn’t currently employed on a TV or radio program. Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, sat down, and immediately slumped into the lap of Milton Berle, seated next to him. Berle asked if there was a doctor in the house, and the audience – assuming this was just some sort of bit, a crazy capper to Parkyakarkus’ routine – erupted in laughter yet again.

Berle wasn’t kidding. Harry Einstein had just suffered a fatal heart attack. While he was moved backstage, where doctors would work in vain to save his life, Linkletter called on Tony Martin to go ahead and sing a song he’d planned to perform later in the evening.

The song was “There’s No Tomorrow.” There was no tomorrow for Harry Einstein, who was pronounced dead a few hours later.

Trivia fact #2: Harry Einstein had two Two of Harry Einstein’s sons, Albert and Bob, both of whom followed him into show business. Albert Einstein wasn’t about to go into show business with the same name as the famous physicist, so he became actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks. Bob Einstein became a comedy writer, working on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and appearing on that show as Officer Judy.

It was in the 1970s, however, that Bob Einstein would discover his signature character – and, like his father, he’s usually billed by his character name, not by his professional name. Bob Einstein is familiar to people of my generation as hapless-but-arrogant stuntman “Super Dave” Osborne.

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.

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.