Sunday, July 19, 2020

Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Selma, 1965

See that man in the overcoat in the lower right of the above picture? He's clearly run afoul of the law, and is now about to receive his punishment in the form of an Alabama State Trooper's billy club. Well, you know what they say, crime does not pay. Except...exactly what was his crime? Did he try to rob that Haisten's in the background, the only company I know of that specializes in both mattresses AND awnings? No, that wasn't his crime. Maybe he tried to mug that man in the middle of the picture, that big dude carrying what looks like a bag (I've blown up the picture to size of the computer screen and still can't tell you what it is.) But no, that's not his crime either. Maybe he tried to rape that kneeling woman in the lower left of the picture. Except then why isn't any of those cops helping her back up on her feet? Blow up the picture, and she looks a little afraid to get up, and it ain't the guy in the lower right of the picture nor that big dude with the bag that she's afraid of. I think we can rule out rape. Lessee, what other crimes are there? Did he rob a bank, steal a car, kick a dog, spit on the sidewalk, or remove a tag from a pillow? No, none of those things. His only crime was exercising a First Amendment right, as he and others had peaceably assembled on a bridge to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. At least it was peaceable until the cops showed up, thus greatly increasing the grievances that needed redressing.

Now, this wasn't the man in the overcoat's first run-in with the law, and maybe not even the first time he got his skull cracked. When he was still in high school he had closely followed the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and made it a point to meet both Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, which he did before he had even reached the age of 20. When he was in college, he became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, seven whites and six blacks who rode several buses from Washington D.C. to New Orleans as a way of testing a Supreme Court ruling that proclaimed segregated interstate bus travel to be unconstitutional. At a stop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, the young man walked into  a whites-only waiting room and got kicked in the ribs by a couple of those whites. Nevertheless, he continued with that Freedom Ride and several others throughout the early 1960s, one of which got him a 40-day stay in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. All this might seem a difficult way to spend one's young adulthood, but he had now earned the respect of many of his peers, and was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In that role he became one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, where he made a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial--at 23 he was the youngest speaker that day--and, along with a bunch of other Civil Rights leaders, got invited to the White House  (that's him in the above photo, fourth from the left, and to the immediate right of the aforementioned King.) All well and good. Then, two years later, came that Bloody Sunday in Selma, but even that didn't stop him. By the late 1970s, he had become a member of the Carter Administration. In 1981, he ran for and won a seat on the Atlanta City Council. In 1986 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, serving Georgia's 5th congressional district for 17 consecutive terms, right up until the day he died. Before that day arrived, however, he had lived long enough to see a black man elected President. He also lived long enough to see that black man succeeded in the same office by a racist, and witness yet another round of racial violence. Live long enough and you get to see the good and the bad, played out in what seems like an endless loop.

John Lewis 1940-2020


In the July 20 issue of The New Yorker, the always-readable academic Jill Lepore has an article about the history of policing titled "The Long Blue Line". Y'all should check it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Quips and Quotations (Social Systems of Yore Edition)

As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.

--Henry David Thoreau

Friday, July 10, 2020

Once Upon a Time in a Western

That's film composer Ennio Morricone four years ago when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He deserved it though I should point out that he was never a permanent resident of Hollywood, nor Los Angeles, nor Los Angeles County, nor California, nor the United States, nor even the North American continent. He lived his entire life in Italy, though I'm sure he left it occasionally to do things like go to Oscar ceremonies, and, well, see his star unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now,  I said he composed films, as in feature films, movies. And we here in the U.S. tend to equate movies with Hollywood, but Morricone's most well-known film score was for a picture made in his native Italy, and directed by a fellow Italian, though it did star three Americans who had done their fair share of work in Hollywood: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. Moreover, it was a movie that took place in America, in the Old West, a period of history that seems to interest Europeans as much as it once did Americans themselves. And it interested an old schoolmate of Morricone's, that Italian director I mentioned, Sergio Leone. The versatile Morricone, at home with both classical and jazz, was already an up-and-coming composer, of movies but also radio, TV,  and music performed by Italian pop stars of the day, when in 1964 Leone hired him to write the score for a Western starring the aforementioned Eastwood titled A Fistful of Dollars. The next year there was a sequel (unless Eastwood was just playing a different but very similar character with a very similar fashion sense--no one's ever known for sure) called For a Few Dollars More. A year after that a third movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, turned the whole thing into a trilogy. All three films were released in the USA in 1967, giving rise to the USA-coined term "Spaghetti Western". Such Westerns--Leone's anyway--were violent, darkly humorous, and morally ambiguous (I suspect that's because Europeans tend to see the United States as a whole as violent, darkly humorous, and morally ambiguous, but let's not go there.) And Morricone's moodily evocative melodies provided the perfect background music for a gunslinger wandering the desert looking for that special somebody to kill. Leone was about to quit directing Westerns altogether when Paramount Pictures of Hollywood, USA, threw a bunch of money at him to come up with another one. The result was 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and an uncharacteristically homicidal Henry Fonda. From my point of view it wasn't all that different from the earlier films, but whether because Eastwood, now a big star who no longer needed a Spaghetti Western to boost his profile, had begged off this one, or that nobody could appreciate the novelty of Fonda blowing away an Opie Taylor lookalike, it flopped at the US box office (but did quite all right elsewhere.) No one blamed Ennio Morricone for any loss of film revenue, as he had produced another classic score, and he in fact now was greatly in demand, particularly in Hollywood.

Morricone did several more Westerns (including Duck, You Sucker, again for Leone) and then took a 42 year hiatus from the genre. In the meantime other esteemed Italian directors kept him busy, including Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), and Guiseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso.) And when it wasn't the Italians, it was the French (Édouard Molinaro, La Cage aux Folles) and the British (Roland Joffé , The Mission.) But the biggest calls for Morricone's services outside of Italy came from Hollywood directors. There were three films for Brian de Palma (including The Untouchables), and two for Barry Levinson (one of which was Bugsy.) Other Hollywood directors he worked with include Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven), John Carpenter (The Thing, 1982 version), Mike Nichols (Wolf), Oliver Stone (U-Turn), Warren Beatty (Bullworth), John Boorman (British but working within the Hollywood system--The Exorcist II: The Heretic), Wolfgang Peterson (German but working within the Hollywood system--In the Line of Fire), Roman Polanski (Polish, as well as a fugitive from U.S. justice, but somehow still working within the Hollywood system--Frantic), Franco Zeffirelli (Italian but working within the Hollywood system--Hamlet, 1990 version), and one other Italian who ended up working within the Hollywood system, the aforementioned Sergio Leone, who finished his career with Once Upon a Time in America, a movie about Jewish gangsters (perhaps Leone saw it as a blow against the ethnic stereotyping of organized crime figures.)

Then there's the American-born director with the Italian-sounding last name, Quentin Tarantino. A longtime fan, Tarantino has often referenced the films of Sergio Leone in his own movies, even when the movies themselves were of an entirely different genre (thus Inglorious Basterds, a Spaghetti Western version of World War II.) Now, Tarantino had long resisted the traditional single-composer-doing-the-whole-score in his films, preferring the alternative method, a soundtrack made up of a bunch of different songs by a bunch of different artists. Yet when it came time for Tarantino to make a Western that actually took place in the Old West, 2015's The Hateful Eight, he asked the 87-year-old Morricone to do the score, which ended up being nominated for an Academy Award. Morricone had been nominated several times before, but, for as in demand as he was as a composer, he had always lost out to someone else. However, now he was back in his old stomping ground (in terms of public recognition) the Western, and finally took home an Oscar. Call it frontier justice.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

In Memoriam: Carl Reiner 1922-2020

Unlike so many comedy icons who rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, particularly those born to Jewish immigrants and raised somewhere in New York City, Carl Reiner never played the Catskills. In fact, he was never really a stand-up comedian at all except when maybe after he already had become famous he was asked to emcee various show biz functions. The facts are murky, but Reiner seems to have started out as a straight actor. Somewhere along the way a now-forgotten Broadway casting director thought he might make a good straight actor in comedies--that is, a straight man, the guy who feeds the lines to some clownish character who then turns the whole thing into a joke. The more successful of these comedies were "revues", collections of skits and musical numbers, including Call Me Mister, which dealt with returning World War II vets (Reiner himself happened to be one in real life.) Television came along about this time, and the revue format made the transition to the new medium, where it soon became known as the "variety show". Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, was one early example. Another was Your Show of Shows.

Your Show of Shows had evolved out of the Admiral Broadway Revue (and later evolved into Caesar's Hour.) Ninety minutes long, it featured elaborate musical numbers, and, what it soon became best known for, comedy sketches. These sketches were enacted by host Sid Caesar, and costars Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner. Caesar, Coca, and Morris were three classic rubber-faced comedians who could changes their voices, talk with exaggerated foreign accents, and basically disappear into extreme comic characterizations. Mildly handsome back in the day, Reiner was anything but rubber-faced. Nevertheless, given half the chance, he could change his voice, exaggerate a foreign accent, and disappear into an extreme comic characterization with the best of them. But more often he maintained a normal, vaguely mock-dramatic presence that the other three could play of of. In particular as a reporter in an overcoat and fedora interviewing, and feeding lines to, Caesar's flaky German professor (Reiner: Professor, what keeps birds in the air? Caesar: Courage!) But if feeding lines was considered Reiner's chief asset onscreen, offscreen he soon proved to have a knack for inventing lines.

Sid Caesar wasn't just content to act in these sketches but also wanted some say in how they came to be written. And he thought, or hoped, his costars might want some say also. To that end the entire cast had an open invitation to the writer's room. Reiner took this invitation very seriously, so much so that, long before this week's obits appeared, he was regularly described as having been a member of the Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour's writing staffs, alongside such future comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. Yet he never received any onscreen credit. His contribution would have been hard to pin down anyway. Caesar's sketches were room written. A single person may have come up with a central concept (often Caesar himself), but then a dozen or so writers added jokes. That is, if they could be heard above the din as this highly competitive bunch weren't known to politely take turns (a young, introverted Woody Allen, who worked on specials Caesar did toward the end of the 1950s, hated the atmosphere, preferring to write a ton of jokes at home and then see if he could fit them in somewhere.) Watching the old kinescopes on YouTube, it's fun to speculate that "This joke could only have come from Brooks" or "That gag has Simon written all over it" but they were just as likely to have been written by Head Writer Mel Tolkin, well-respected in his field though never a household name. And even once the sketch was put down on paper, Caesar wasn't above ad libbing. Getting back to Reiner, since he wasn't listed in the credits, and there were enough writers already, could his be contribution have been exaggerated? I would say yes if it weren't for the fact that onscreen proof of his writing talents in a non-Caesar project was right around the corner.

Ironically, Reiner the non-writer writer was the first of Caesar's crew to write a book, an autobiographical novel titled Enter Laughing, which fellow Your Show of Shows writer (and future Fiddler on the Roof librettist) Joseph Stein turned into a hit Broadway play that Reiner himself adapted for the big screen. But Reiner hadn't yet given up playing straight man. In fact, he was primed to play straight man in one of the most celebrated, if intermittent, comedy teams of the postwar era.

One of the many friends the likable Reiner had made in Caesar's writing room was the aforementioned Mel Brooks. The two had cooked up a parody of TV news shows that had some eyewitness to history as an interview subject, which in the 1950s could have been a far back as the Spanish-American War. Reiner and Brooks wanted to go back further, all the way to ancient Mesopotamia if necessary. For whatever reason, such a sketch never made it onto Your Show of Shows or Caesar's Hour. But Reiner and Brooks kept the idea alive as a comedy routine they performed in front of friends at social gatherings (it certainly beats watching someone dance with a lampshade on their head.) Another TV comedy star of the day, Steve Allen, thought they should put the act down on record and even provided them the studio to do so, resulting in the comedy album 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. The 2000 year old man was just one character among many Brooks played, which included a Yiddish-accented astronaut and a Yiddish-accented rock and roll teen idol (!), but the twenty-centuries old Yiddish-accented geezer is what caught on, getting the two of them on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, and other variety shows. The success of the album raised Brooks profile considerably, as he was until then unknown outside of comedy writing circles. Reiner was again the straight man but as the act seems to have been a combination of previously-agreed upon exchanges and improvisation, he would often challenge Brooks one-liners, forcing the latter to come up with even funnier one-liners. While both men would soon (very soon, in the case of Reiner) move on to separate projects, they would revive the bit whenever asked to do so, even doing an animated version in the 1970s.

In fact, Carl Reiner had a much more ambitious project in mind. He would write, produce (along with former tough guy actor Sheldon Leonard) and star in a situation comedy called Head of the Family. Reiner played a New York-based TV comedy writer named Rob Petrie, who had young, pretty wife named Laura, a young son named Richie, and two co-workers named Buddy and Sally. If you recognized all those just named, then you know that no such TV series with Carl Reiner in the lead ever aired with any regularity. Ah, but the pilot does exist today on YouTube, where comparisons can be made with a later, more famous version. Head of the Family is funny enough, and Reiner is funny enough in it,  so why didn't CBS purchase the pilot? Reiner's Rob Petrie had a certain brashness about him, as well as a slight New York accent, which could be interpreted as "Jewish". At least, that is the prevailing theory. Now, it's not like a brash New York City Jew couldn't star in his own sitcom--Phil Silvers is a famous example--but as a suburban father? Not in that WASPish era. Reiner believed in the possibilities of his proposed sitcom more than he did in the possibilities of his own stardom, and so swallowed some pride and set about finding himself a new Rob Petrie.

He found one in the Midwestern born-and-raised, John Alden-descended, Tony Award-winning star of the hit Broadway show Bye, Bye, Birdie: Dick Van Dyke. The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on October 3, 1961, and ran for five years, only leaving the airways when Reiner decided it should go out on top. It very nearly went out on bottom, as CBS decided to cancel it after the first season. The network only changed its mind after sponsor Proctor & Gamble, which obviously believed in the show, threatened to pull all its afternoon soap operas, unless the sitcom was allowed to find an audience. Ironically, it found its audience when it was rescheduled right after the highly-rated The Beverly Hillbillies. I say ironically because TDVDS is often held up as the most sophisticated television that the 1960s has to offer, whereas the country bumpkins-turned-oil barons sitcom is seen (perhaps unfairly) as among the least sophisticated. To that end I wonder if there was some strategic decision behind Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at the beginning of the second season (the first season's opening credits just showed photographs of the stars), a way of assuring the yahoos watching Hillbillies that nothing too hifalutin was about to follow. Actually, compared to later sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, MASH, Cheers, and Seinfeld, The Dick Van Dyke Show may not seem as sophisticated as it once did. But it remains quite funny, a mélange of workplace comedy, domestic comedy, physical comedy, and musical comedy, along with being a show biz satire (but then satire is merely a hifalutin form of comedy, isn't it?) In this revamped version of Reiner's original concept, Van Dyke's Rob Petrie is a smart, decent, but accident-prone family man whom, it's suggested, derives comic inspiration from his own klutziness. In fact, I sometimes think the slapstick may have been the most truly sophisticated aspect of the series, a reminder that no matter how good a joke a Rob Petrie can come up with on a typewriter, God, Fate, or Chance will come up with an even better one, that you can sidestep the ottoman, but stumble on the carpet anyway (as happens in later seasons.) Van Dyke was assisted by a terrific acting ensemble (none of whom were in the Head of the Family pilot.) The aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore as the pretty, now downright sexy capris pants-clad wife, Borsht Belt comic Morey Amsterdam as Borsht Belt comedy writer Buddy Sorrell (reportedly based on Mel Brooks), gravel-voiced Rose-Marie as the wise-cracking comedy writer Sally Rogers (reportedly based on Selma Diamond, who wrote for Caesar), Richard Deacon as the stuffy, sycophantic producer Mel Cooley (reportedly based on Mitch McConnell--no, just joking, that would be impossible), Ann Guilbert as the excitable next-door-neighbor Millie Helper, Jerry Paris as Jerry Helper, Millie's more laid-back husband (he has to be, he's a dentist), and Larry Mathews as Rob and Laura's son, who showed up every now and then to remind everyone that Rob was indeed a family man. Carl Reiner wrote over 50 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, including such classics as "Never Bathe on Saturday" (in which Laura gets stuck in a bathtub--you had to be there), and "It May Look Like a Walnut" (an Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody in which a zombified Buddy Sorrell asks "Did you hear the one about the nearsighted turtle who fell in live with an army helmet?") Eventually, Reiner handed over the writing to others, including writing teams Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson (who later co-created the 1970s TV version of The Odd Couple, and, separately, the former created Happy Days and the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1970s feature film Smile, a beauty pageant satire), and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (who later co-created That Girl.) Reiner stayed on as a producer. And made one other, in my opinion, huge contribution to the series.

There's a character I haven't told you about yet, the guy Rob, Buddy, and Sally works for. Technically, I suppose that would be producer Mel Cooley, except Cooley has no real power over that bunch and is in fact regularly insulted by Buddy--who shows no fear of getting fired--whenever he enters the room. Besides, Mel himself takes his orders from the star of the fictional variety/sketch comedy show, Alan Brady. I'm going by memory as the Internet is no help whatsoever here, but I don't believe we see Alan at all during the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Even in an episode ("The Sick Boy and the Sitter") that takes place in Alan's home, we don't see him. And he never visits the writers room. This, of course, isn't the way Sid Caesar did things (but it may be the way another 1950s TV comedy legend, Jackie Gleason, did things. According to Mel Brooks, Gleason had his writers slip his scripts under his dressing room door.) I'm not absolutely certain of this, but I think Alan Brady makes his first appearance in a second-season episode titled "When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen", but only the back of head. Now, it's easy to imagine what the front of his head looks like, because Alan Brady was played by none other than Carl Reiner. So why the modesty? Knowing that he had been only a "second banana" on Sid Caesar's various shows, and that CBS didn't think he should star in a sitcom based on his own life, Reiner felt nobody would accept him as a longtime TV comedy star (according to one 1961 episode, The Alan Brady Show already had been on the air about ten years.) And so for the next two seasons, when we saw Alan Brady at all, it was just the back of his bald or toupee'd head. Then, in season 4, in an episode titled "Three Letters from One Wife" Reiner was finally prevailed upon to show his face, and from that point on, he never looked back. Vain, egotistical, self-involved, insensitive, and motor-mouthed, Alan Brady is a bull in a china shop, with Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, Mel, and, in one story ("A Day in the Life of Alan Brady"), even Millie and Jerry, as the plates, cups, and saucers. Brady is the focal point of several episodes in the last two seasons, and in these episodes, The Dick Van Dyke Show becomes a wickedly funny satire of television and show biz, which it hadn't quite been up to then. And if the situation comedy itself had proven Reiner's skill as a writer, then the Alan Brady-centered episodes showed just what a great comedian he could be, his talents as a comic performer most likely wasted in his years as a second banana or straight man. In fact, in the scenes they appear in together, it's Van Dyke who comes off as the straight man!

After The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966, there were a few more stabs at producing and writing for TV, most notably The New Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran for three years in the early 1970s. As far as acting goes, Reiner got to star in what turned out to be a box office hit, the Cold War satire, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). But mostly, Reiner settled into a long, relatively successful career as a feature film director. In 1977, he had a huge hit with Oh, God! starring George Burns and John Denver, with a screenplay by old Caesar's Hour cohort Larry Gelbart. He then gave Steve Martin a big boost by directing him in three films in which they both worked on the screenplays, The Jerk (1979), the film nor parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), and my personal favorite, the mad scientist spoof The Man with Two Brains (1983). There was a fourth film that Reiner directed and Martin starred but which neither one wrote the screenplay, All of Me (1984), that has the latter possessed by a prim and proper Lily Tomlin. Reiner's final film was 1997's That Old Feeling with Bette Midler. I have a vague memory of once seeing an ad for it, and that's all. After the filmmaking career ended, he did many, many, many guest appearances on TV shows, and maintained his comic timing right up to the end.