broadsword, calling danny boy

Turner Classic Movies runs a Memorial Day marathon of war movies – but, given the somber nature of the holiday, they run a sort-of-surprising variety of movies within that genre. Yesterday, the emphasis was on service comedies, including both Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, as well as “No Time For Sergeants.” I wonder if they ever get any complaints.

Tonight in prime time, they’re running “Where Eagles Dare,” one of my all-time favorite movies, but it’s a slam-bang, over-the-top spy thriller.

I am sure most of you have seen it, and I’ve blogged about it before, but in case you’ve somehow missed it, it stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton, of course, is known for heavier dramatic fare, but his son challenged him to do an action movie as a change of pace, and to prove his versatility. “The Guns of Navarone” (which will also be on TCM today) had been a big hit, and so Burton wanted to adapt another Alistair MacLean spy novel. But all of MacLean’s novels were spoken for, and so MacLean agreed to write a new, original screenplay, which he then turned into a novel. Eastwood, who was riding high as the star of Sergio Leone westerns, wasn’t sure about taking second billing, but agreed to it anyway, and the two of them make a fantastic team – the bombastic Brit and the cool, laconic American.

This is one of those movies that you don’t want to spoil, but I can give you the basic setup. An American general, with knowledge of the D-Day plans, has been shot down and captured by the Germans and is being held prisoner in a remote mountain castle. A British commando team, headed by Burton, with Eastwood as a token American member, is dispatched to rescue him.  But events soon make it clear that the situation isn’t what it seems and that no one can be trusted.

Supposedly, Spielberg is a fan of this – when he was asked about it by an interviewer, he immediately started parroting Burton’s radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Once it gets going, the last two-thirds of it have the same sort of slam-bang action-serial pace as Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” There’s a fight on top of a skylift car.

Anyway, I love it. I have it set to record (I also have the DVD around here somewhere), but I’ll probably watch it live if I’m here tonight.

To prompt or not to prompt

I posted last week about a new version of “Match Game” which will air this summer, and in passing I mentioned, and included a YouTube clip of, the mid-1980s “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour,” one of the most notorious flops in game show history.
I actually liked both “Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares,” but despite sharing lots-of-celebrities gimmick they’re actually quite different shows, and I think that’s one reason the attempt to put them together did not work.
One thing that differentiated the original 1970s shows from each other was the matter of whether the celebrities got any advance preparation. On “Match Game,” for better or worse, they did not. Any answers given by the panelists were their own, and any tomfoolery was their own. As I mentioned last week, five shows were taped in a day — that’s the norm for half-hour game shows — and the celebrities had access to Adult Beverages during the lunch break, which is why the Thursday and Friday shows tended to be more, um, free-spirited than the Monday and Tuesday shows.
“Hollywood Squares” was a different matter. If you’ve seen any version of the show (except the “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour”) you know that the normal pattern was that the host (Peter Marshall, John Davidson, Tom Bergeron, and Peter Rosenberg from MTV’s “Hip Hop Squares”) would ask the celebrity a question, and the celebrity’s first answer would normally be some sort of joke, but then the celebrity would give his or her “real” answer. Whether the celebrity’s answer was right or wrong was not the determining factor, of course, because the contestant would then get the chance to either agree or disagree with the celebrity’s answer, and that would determine the outcome of the question. In some ways, the contestant was helped by a too-obviously-wrong answer from the celebrity, and so the producers had an interest in prepping the celebrities to the extent that they could at least give a credible wrong, or “bluff,” answer. In any of the versions, the host would usually read a disclaimer at the top of the show that “the stars were briefed before the show to help them with their bluffs.”
According to most sources, virtually all the joke answers were written in advance, even from some of the stars who have been complimented over the years for their quick wits on the program. In the Tom Bergeron / Whoopi Goldberg version, head writer Bruce Vilanch — who had not really been known as a performer up to that point – was made one of the squares. Vilanch had worked for years with center square Whoopi Goldberg. His placement on the tic-tac-toe board put him right next to Whoopi. Vilanch, who’s written for at least a dozen Oscar ceremonies and numerous other awards shows, has been known for writing jokes on the fly backstage, so that the host could refer to and build on some blooper or running gag from earlier in the show. I’m guessing he probably wrote some on-the-fly jokes for Whoopi on “Hollywood Squares” as well.
I’m not saying there was anything at all wrong with this; it’s entertainment, after all, and some of those scripted “ad libs” were pretty funny, no matter who actually came up with them or when. But it was a different type of humor than “Match Game,” and therein lied one problem with trying to mash the two shows together.
The “Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour” was one of the game shows run by Mark Goodson, the creator of “Match Game,” who simply licensed the “Hollywood Squares” name and format from its original creators or whoever owned it at the time. Goodson had taken pride in the fact that the celebrities on “Match Game” were unscripted and wanted the new show to be unscripted as well.
In order to facilitate this, without all the celebrities looking like idiots in an SNL “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch, the trivia questions on the Hollywood Squares portion of the “Hour” were largely limited to true-false or multiple-choice formats, which limited the chances for the celebrities to look stupid. There were also, of course, no scripted joke answers.
This meant that the “Hollywood Squares” part of the show wasn’t very much like the “Hollywood Squares” people had come to know and love in the late 60s and through the 70s. To make matters worse, it was hosted by Jon Bauman of Sha Na Na, who lacked the kind of polish that Gene Rayburn brought to “Match Game” or Peter Marshall brought to the original “Hollywood Squares.”

Logan’s Run

I see that I already have a blog post tag for “Logan’s Run,” so I must have blogged about it at some point in the past. But I don’t feel like going back and looking.

The 1976 movie “Logan’s Run” is airing right now, as I type this, on Turner Classic Movies. I remember it from my adolescence, although I only saw it edited on network TV, not in the theaters. It was followed in September of 1977 by a TV series, a relatively short turnaround for that sort of thing. It was right in the wake of “Star Wars,” which had come out that summer, and studios and TV networks were snatching up anything science fiction-related.

The original novel by by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, which I’ve never read, was a Vietnam allegory, published in 1967. By 1976, Americans were trying to forget the war – well, except for “M*A*S*H,” which was as much about Vietnam as Korea. So the politics were played down, although the central allegory – young people sent off to die because that’s what the system demands — remains.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic domed city – a seeming paradise, in which you work only a few hours a week and there are a lot of leisure options. There’s just one catch, and it’s a doozy. When you are born, a crystal is implanted in your hand. As you approach your 30th birthday, the crystal changes color and you are summoned to “carousel,” a ceremony in which participants float up into the air and explode. (The TV series substituted the explosions with a less-disturbing effect that looked like the transporter on “Star Trek.”)

The public is told that carousel is simply a first step to reincarnation, but there are some, called “runners,” who doubt the official theology and try to evade their pre-ordained fate. There’s virtually no other type of crime, so there’s no regular police force, but there’s a special squad called the “sandmen” who track down such runners.

Our central character, Logan 5, starts the movie as a sandman and is sent undercover to infiltrate a sort of Underground Railroad for runners. He, too, begins to doubt the line about reincarnation, ultimately pitting him against his former partner, who considers him a cop-gone-bad and is obsessed with tracking him down, even outside the protection of the dome.

Logan was played by British Michael York in the movie, and then by all-American Gregory Harrison (of “Trapper John, M.D.”) in the TV series. Jenny Agutter was the female lead — a runner who befriends Logan — in the movie, followed by Heather Menzies in the TV show.

The movie features a very brief cameo by Farrah Fawcett, but by the time it was released she was starting to explode from “Charlie’s Angels” and that poster, and so some theaters even advertised “Farrah Fawcett-Majors in ‘Logan’s Run'” or what have you.

IMDb still lists a remake as being bounced around. At one time, it was supposed to star Ryan Gosling; now, it seems to be limbo.

Let’s go to the races

I don’t know what made me think of “Let’s Go To The Races” this morning – I guess it was all this week’s Powerball talk, combined with the fact that I was headed to the grocery store at the time.

“Let’s Go To The Races” was a grocery store promotion from, if I remember correctly, the early 1970s. Our family moved to Bedford County in 1972, and I think I remember seeing LGTTR in one of our previous cities, connected to a different supermarket chain, and then seeing it again once we’d moved here. Or maybe I remembered seeing it in another city when we traveled to visit friends or family. Here in Middle Tennessee, the game was sponsored by Cooper & Martin grocery stores, which had a location in the Big Springs Shopping Center in Shelbyville.

The game worked like this: You would pick up a free card at the checkout when shopping at the sponsoring grocery store. The card would change color each week, to make it easy to identify that you had the right card for that week. Once you tore the card open, you would see five different horse races, with a different a different entry number horse listed for each race.

On Saturday afternoon or Saturday night, there was a half-hour TV show on one of the local stations. The show featured five different horse races. You would look to see if the horse listed on your card for a given race won that race; if your horse won, you were entitled to a cash prize. The prize money would increase with each race.

The horse races were real, but they were on film and were from months earlier, maybe years earlier, in any case long before the game tickets had been printed. The organizers of the game knew in advance which horse would win, and so they could announce that you had a 1 in 500 chance (or whatever) of winning, because they knew that exactly 1 in 500 game tickets had a winning horse.

The horse racing segments were the same nationwide, and the tickets looked pretty much the same except for the sponsor logo, but the host segments were locally produced so that they could be customized for each grocery store chain. The YouTube video I found and embedded below is for Hy-Vee stores, in the midwest:

If you happened to miss the TV show, you could always check the week’s winning numbers at the grocery store, where they would be on a little poster hung on the wall somewhere near the checkout.

It’s strange the things that stick in your mind after so many years.

the spoils of babylon

I have been binge-watching “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils of Babylon’” tonight on Netflix, for the first time since it first aired on IFC a few years ago. It’s just as funny as I remembered it being.

This is a parody of the type of potboiler miniseries that aired on network TV in the 70s and 80s – think “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds,” and “The Winds of War,” among many others. The conceit is that novelist Eric Jonrosh adapted his novel for television back in the 1970s, but it never aired, and now it’s being seen for the first time, with Jonrosh introducing each episode.

Of course, there is no such person– Will Ferrell (a partner in Funny Or Die, which produced the show) plays the part in a fat suit and huge beard, as an impression of latter-day, wine-commercial Orson Welles.

In keeping with the conceit, there are fake opening credits featuring the names of the (completely made-up) actors who starred in the production back in the 1970s, and about whom Jonrosh reminisces in his introductions.

The ensemble cast is great – Tobey Maguire, Kristin Wiig and Tim Robbins are the actual leads, but also appearing are Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, David Spade, Molly Shannon and more.

The story, quite intentionally, jumps around in time and narrative styles. It begins during the depression, as struggling oil man Jonas Morehouse (Robbins) encounters and adopts a homeless boy, who fights against his forbidden attraction to his adopted sister. The story zips along, in six half hours, through the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, mocking stereotypes and cliches at every turn.

If you missed this when it first aired, it’s a great thing to add to your Netflix queue. Netflix has also just added the followup, “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils Before Dying,’” which is not a sequel and has no characters in common except for Jonrosh himself. “Dying” is a parody of the film noir genre, and it’s also quite funny.

viewers like you

Anyone who thinks about it reasonably understands the value of public television, and right now, local public television stations have to rely on some form of local fund-raising to make their budgets. You’ll get no argument from me on either of those points.

But the current system of on-air pledge drives seems more and more broken each year. Here are a couple of the things that really annoy me about it:

Bait and switch: The type of programming that turns up during pledge drives is so different in style and approach from regular programming that Pledge Drive Public TV seems like an entirely different station from Regular Public TV. And I don’t mean that they save their best shows for pledge drive season – that would be understandable. I mean that the target audience for their regular schedule sometimes seems like an entirely different demographic than the target audience for pledge week.

Frankly, it’s a little disturbing sometimes that so many of the pledge drive shows are geared towards seniors – it’s almost like PBS has decided to target a demographic with low sales resistance. Sometimes, I halfway expect them to segue into selling reverse mortgages and medic-alert pendants.

No longer local: I remember when the pledge breaks used to originate with the local station. They would feature staff members from the local station, and occasionally other local radio or TV personalities. I think it sent a great message to occasionally see a news or weather personality from one of the commercial TV stations appearing on the public TV station asking for funds.

Now, all or most of the pledge breaks are packaged with the programs, and they are national and generic. The announcers, whom you’ve never seen before, ask you to support “this public television station” or “your public television station” but they never say its name, channel or call letters, because they’re airing on hundreds of stations across the country. I understand that it’s easier and cheaper to do it that way, but I think it gives up part of the connection the stations should be trying to build with their viewers. How can I think of it as “my public television station” if they won’t talk to me directly?

That’s enough ranting for now. Public TV is a good thing, and we should all support it. Apparently, not enough of us can or do, and so they have to ask for money. I just wish they’d find some different way of doing it.

broken record, I know

Turner Classic Movies: TCM keeps running an (excellent) interstitial with Laura Dern talking about her admiration for Barbara Stanwyck, but when it ends they use it to promote an upcoming showing of Meet John Doe. Fine, fine. It’s just that the Stanwyck movie I *really* want to see this time of year is Christmas in Connecticut.

I just checked, and TCM will be showing it 11 a.m. (Central) on Sunday, Dec. 13. Go ahead and set your DVRs now; I certainly have.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever takes my classic movie suggestions. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard back, “Hey, John, I watched Topkapi on your recommendation and loved it.” But I guess I’m enough of a narcissist to keep putting myself out there anyway. I’m relatively harmless, in any case.

Although I have blogged about “Christmas In Connecticut” on multiple prior occasions, I guess I will go back and talk about it again. Narcissist, and all that. It was a bad day at work, and so I need to get my mind off things.

“Christmas In Connecticut,” despite its title, is really a straight romantic comedy which just happens to have a holiday setting. Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart – the ultimate cook and hostess, whose monthly column in “Smart Housekeeping” magazine is closely read by much of America. She vividly describes her idyllic life on her Connecticut farm with her husband and infant son, and includes her mouth-watering recipes.

There’s just one problem: It’s all a lie. She’s single, lives in a Manhattan apartment, and can’t cook. The recipes come from her restaurateur friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall, whom you know from “Casablanca” and who is billed in some movies as “Cuddles” Sakall), and everything else comes from her imagination and her talent as a writer. Her immediate supervisor knows the truth, but the publisher of the magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet, speaking of “Casablanca”) does not – and would be horrified at the deception.

Yardley receives a letter about a war hero (Dennis Morgan), who has no family and nowhere to spend the holidays. Yardley summons Elizabeth Lane and tells her that she and her husband should invite Jefferson Jones to their Connecticut farm for the holidays – and that he, Yardley, would love to join them for Christmas dinner and sample some of Elizabeth Lane’s famous cooking. It would be patriotic! It would be good publicity for the magazine! It would be in the spirit of the holiday!

Elizabeth Lane, who has just bought a very expensive mink coat on credit, can’t afford to lose her job and can’t bring herself to stand up to the forceful Yardley and refuse his plan. So she has to come up with a farm, a husband and a baby, all on short notice.

If you know anything at all about romantic comedies, you know that once she has all of these things in place, she’ll begin falling head over heels in love with the veteran. Oh, what a tangled web we weave ….

Seriously, this is just a fun, funny movie, with great performances all around.

There’s also a TV movie from the 1980s with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, directed by …. Arnold Schwarzenegger (because when you think “romantic comedy,” you immediately think “Arnold Schwarzenegger”). I’ve only seen bits and pieces, but there’s no way it could measure up to the original.

Why haven’t you set your DVR yet?

going deep with david rees

The best show you’re not watching started its second season tonight, and has moved from National Geographic Channel to the Esquire channel. If tonight is any indication, they’re running a new episode followed by a rerun of one of the first season episodes – perfect if you’re just discovering the series and catching up. Fortunately, I was in on this gem from the very first episode.

Going Deep with David Rees is devilishly hard to explain. Host David Rees starts by telling you that he’s going to teach you how to do something you already know how to do – make ice, for example, or swat a fly. But then, as he explores the topic, he reveals details and nuances and background that you would never have expected. It ends up being remarkably informative, but it’s presented in such a unique and humorous voice that it’s remarkably entertaining.

Tonight’s episode, “How To Pet A Dog,” addresses Rees’ fear of dogs (which I assume is real and not just something he put on for the show), talks about how dogs were domesticated. Rees talks to the very funny author and comedienne Amy Sedaris about how to pet rabbits to see if any of that knowledge will transfer to dogs. He talks to astronaut Chris Hadfield – the one who made all those great educational videos, as well as a David Bowie cover, while on board the International Space Station – about how Hadfield overcame a fear of heights.

Eventually, he gives you some actual practical tips about approaching and petting a dog with which you’re unfamiliar.

Watch this show.

And now, since I mentioned the Chris Hadfield music video, here’s the Chris Hadfield music video:

people say they monkey around

My sister got me a DVD of Head (1968) for my birthday. I’d seen bits and pieces of it once, but I’d never watched the whole thing until tonight.

“Head,” of course, stars The Monkees — Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith. It came out right after the cancellation of their TV series. It was directed by Bob Rafaelson and co-written by Rafaelson and Jack Nicholson – yes, that Jack Nicholson – right before the two of them went on to make “Easy Rider.” (Rafaelson, in fact, had been an executive producer of the Monkees’ TV show, and directed some of its episodes.)

The Monkees were, of course, not the type of organic band that comes together in high school or college. They were cast, by TV and music executives, as characters on a TV show, to be TV’s answer to the Beatles. But the Monkees weren’t satisfied with just being TV characters. They were discouraged at first that they had no control over their music, but they pushed for and eventually got that kind of control. You can’t blame the Monkees for having been cast; they at least had musical talent, and the ambition of being something more than an assembly line product. Even John Lennon defended them in an interview:

“They’ve got their own scene, and I won’t send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!”

The TV show “The Monkees” is family-friendly – so much so that reruns of it ran several times on Saturday morning TV back when the networks put children’s programming on Saturday mornings. (Kids, ask your parents.) The TV show owes a lot to the Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” with a little bit of the rebellion toned down and a little bit of slapstick thrown in. The musical numbers from both “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Monkees” set a template that would be followed by music videos a dozen years later, and Michael Nesmith, working as a director in the period around 1980, is considered one of the innovators of the music video format. It was a proof-of-concept show he produced for Time-Warner Cable which led to the creation of MTV.

“Head,” which came out about the time that the Monkees’ TV show had been cancelled, and at a time when conventional wisdom cast doubt on the band’s future, is more psychedelic than “The Monkees.” There’s no real story – just a series of bits and pieces, jumping here and there, to and fro, with musical numbers mixed in.

It was a failure at the time, but I found it to be a lot of fun – and there’s some fun meta-commentary about the Monkees’ own struggles to break out of the box in which they’d been put. Toward the end of the movie, they’re literally trapped in a box. They’re also battling a Jolly Green Giant-sized version of actor Victor Mature, and at least one critic has pointed out that this is probably a not-so-subtle jab at RCA Victor, the Monkees’ record label. (RCA had also been their TV employer, since it was the parent company of NBC.)

If anything, “Head” reminds me less of a Beatles movie than it does of two other bits of psychedelia I’ve seen from that same time frame: Skidoo (1968) and Good Times (1967). “Skidoo” is Otto Preminger’s attempt to make a drug culture movie, and it has a bizarre cast including Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero. Skidoo attempts a plot, but just barely.

“Good Times,” not to be confused with the 1970s sitcom starring Jimmie Walker, John Amos and Esther Rolle, stars Sonny and Cher. It’s not very good as a movie but it’s a lot of fun if you think of it as a variety show – or maybe just a series of music videos. The plot, which is really just a framing device, is that Sonny has signed himself and Cher, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, to a movie contract with a powerful and vaguely-sinister studio executive (George Sanders). Cher is skeptical about the idea, but Sonny tries to convince her by brainstorming possible ideas for a movie, which turn into fantasy sequences built around musical numbers. There’s a western, a Tarzan movie, and so on.

“Skidoo” is one of those things you have to see once just for the novelty of it, but it’s not really a very good movie per se. “Good Times” isn’t a very good movie either, but I’ve watched it more than once just because the musical numbers are so great, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Head” seems like it’s in the same vein as “Skidoo” and “Good Times,” but it ends up being quite a bit better than either of them – maybe because it was trying, not just to pander to what producers imagined the youth demographic wanted, but to make a statement. The Monkees may or may not have hoped that it would be taken seriously as a work of art, but in any case it was a statement of defiance, an attempt to show that they were something more than sitcom characters.

for a few daleks more

A week from tonight, on Thursday the 28th, Turner Classic Movies will broadcast “Dr. Who and the Daleks.”

As you know, I’m a big fan of the TV show “Doctor Who.” I was first introduced to the classic version of the show in the early 1980s, when I was in college and Oklahoma Public Television ran Tom Baker or Peter Davison episodes every night.

I’m a big enough fan to know a couple of things:

  • “Doctor” is always spelled out in the title of the TV show
  • The primary character of the TV show “Doctor Who” is not called “Doctor Who.” That’s a rookie mistake. The character is “The Doctor”; the show is “Doctor Who.”

I have gone on at length in other blog posts explaining what “Doctor Who” is for those unfamiliar. I will, however, explain that the original version of the show (which ran from 1963 to 1989), a mid-90s TV movie, and the current version of the show (which started in 2005) are all part of the same continuity – one long storyline, if you will. The new version isn’t a remake or reboot of the original; it’s a continuation.

Anyway, “Dr. Who and the Daleks” is not an episode of the TV show. It’s one of two movies from the 1960s which attempted to launch a theatrical movie franchise. Both movies were adapted from stories that had already been done on the British TV show, but they made changes to the show’s basic premise and so the two movies are NOT considered part of that continuity I just spoke of. In the movies, “Dr. Who” is not an alien, he’s a human who just happens to be a brilliant inventor, the creator of a time machine (the TARDIS).

The Daleks, by the way, are the Doctor’s most-famous adversaries. They are like evil versions of R2D2 – not robots, actually, but cyborgs: living brains, bent on galactic dominance, in robotic, salt-shaker-shaped bodies.

The movies don’t hold up to the TV show, but fans may want to see them just out of curiosity. Peter Cushing stars as “Dr. Who.” The second movie, “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.”, features a very young Bernard Cribbins, who would turn up decades later as one of the most-beloved guest characters on the new version of “Doctor Who,” Donna Noble’s grandfather Wilf. I have seen “Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.,” but I have never seen “Dr. Who and the Daleks,” so I have set to tape it next week on TCM. I don’t expect it to be very good, based on what I’ve read, but it could be fun just as a novelty.