Wednesday, November 27, 2013


"Because we do not face virginity in the drawing room after a Thanksgiving dinner."  ~Ronald Colman in The Late George Apley.
He's not dead but he's not exactly the life of the party either.  The Late George Apley is a 1947 satire, set in 1912 upper class Boston, that begins on Thanksgiving Day.  There's a stuffed turkey about to be eaten by some stuffed shirts, as rich folks used to be called.  Assorted relatives gather.  George is excited because he spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker outdoors that late in November.  Prim, proper and rather sturdy-looking Aunt Amelia enters with the holiday greeting, "How are your teeth, Margaret?"  Aunt Amelia has a face that would've worked quite effectively on a "Do Not Enter" sign.
She seems obsessed with dental care, exposed bosoms and cuckoo clocks.  Another Apley relative remarks, "We've sat in these same seats for 18 Thanksgivings."  That's the way George Apley feels it should be.  Always the same.  Dear Mrs. Apley wonders if things really must always be like that -- always the same.

Young Eleanor has other ideas.  Fresh ideas.  Lively ideas.  Eleanor's also a major babe with a modern brain.  She's like a touch of spring in the winter.  She's in love with a working class guy who could not afford to attend Harvard like her father did.  She'd like to break out of the Apley Boston groove on snobby Beacon Street.  George, her father, says "Boston's not just a city, it's a state of mind."  Ellie longs for a new state.

On Thanksgiving, when supportive Ellie asks sweet and plain Agnes about her "coming out" into society party plans, she learns that Agnes is afraid.  Ellie tells Agnes not to be afraid because that high society ritual is an archaic, dull custom.  Ellie declares to Agnes, "We suffer from ancestor worship.  Thanksgiving is a typical tribal feast.  And 'coming out' is nothing but an old idea of introducing the virgin to the rest of the tribe."

Ellie likes to face things that exist.  She reads Freud.  Her mother, Mrs. Apley, gets curious about Freud.  Father tells vivacious Ellie to pipe down with the virgin talk on Thanksgiving.  And he tells her why.

Ronald Colman hits all the right notes in this breezy satire about "environment, points of views, one's approach to life."  George means well, he's a loving father and a good husband.  He's charming.  He just needs to loosen up, to embrace change so he doesn't break hearts the way his was once broken.  He disrupts Ellie's romantic relationship in a way that could turn her into another Aunt Amelia.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed this 20th Century Fox production.  Colman's other release that year was George Cukor's excellent theatrical suspense drama, A Double Life.  With a screenplay co-written by Ruth Gordon (Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude), Colman played an aging actor whose mental breakdown as he plays Othello leads him to accidentally commit a murder.  The script gives us a clever thriller with a look at what could happen when the actor becomes the character and gives the performance of his life.  Colman deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar for A Double Life.  The shy and dowdy Agnes is played by Vanessa Brown, the actress who played Mariah the maid William Wyler's The Heiress.  On Broadway, Brown originated the role of The Girl played famously by Marilyn Monroe on 20th Century Fox's film version of The Seven Year Itch.  Vanessa Brown is quite good as Agnes, the virgin wallflower who eventually learns to fight for her right to bloom.
The Late George Apley is not a top shelf Joseph L. Mankiewicz classic like his A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve but it's a very enjoyable movie to see on Thanksgiving.  It's 90 minutes of warmth and amusement, well-played at a smooth pace.  I think I'll be adding it to my two Thanksgiving must-see movies -- Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I absolutely, totally loved Mildred Natwick as conservative Cousin Amelia in The Late George Apley.  You thoroughly understand why her husband needs a good stiff drink every once in a while.  Natwick is a hoot in that role and steals every scene she's in, whether she has dialogue or not.  Just look at her facial reaction to "We've sat in these same seats for 18 Thanksgivings."  Also, Peggy Cummins is yummy and radiant as Eleanor, the outspoken yet loving daughter.  Cummins is quite popular with classic film fans today as the lovely and lethal blonde in the 1950 film noir indie classic, Gun Crazy.

The Late George Apley shows off her sophisticated comedy talents.
At the heart of this light comedy is the message for George Apley to get to know his children, to help them be happy and to let them lead their own lives.  That's a pretty nice message for today's parents too.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK: 50 Years Ago This Weekend

I am old to recall exactly where I was that tragic Friday afternoon in 1963.  I was a student at George Washington Carver Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles.  The school still stands on East 120th Street.  We had a substitute teacher that day.  She broke the news to us.  There was stunned silence.  And then fear.  I was afraid.  I was just a kid, but President John F. Kennedy was one of my favorite people. He was like a movie or TV star to me.  I loved seeing him on television.  I loved seeing him in photos in the newspapers and magazines that my parents brought home.  His face, voice and energy comforted me.  He gave me a feeling of hope and security.  He was like the country's new young dad to me.  President and Mrs. Kennedy represented a new frontier.
He inspired us to help others by promoting the Peace Corps.  He inspired us to take care of ourselves with physical fitness.  He inspired us to embrace the fine arts.  Because of him, I asked my mother to read me a poem by Robert Frost.  And, because of President Kennedy's vision, years after his death, we landed a man on the moon.

By the time I transferred to George Washington Carver Elementary, a shorter walking distance from home than my previous school, I had already experienced a physical act of bigotry.  A bigotry towards religion, not race, as one might expect.  I had been a little Catholic boy at a parochial school called St. Leo's.  Our playground for recess was a big, flat dirt field next door to a house that looked built on a foundation of misery.  The grass needed water and trimming.  Plants grew wild.  Branches stuck out like long skeleton fingers.  The house had an uninviting, creepy atmosphere.  The nuns told us never to walk onto its front yard.  Always stay on the sidewalk.  The little boy who lived in the house seemed to be a troublemaker and a truant.  He was.  One afternoon, I was standing at our playground entrance during recess.  The boy next door was walking by, then he suddenly dashed over to me and spit in my face.  He shouted "G*ddamned Catholics!" and ran into his miserable house, slamming to door shut.  Classmates shouted to our 2nd grade teacher, "Sister!  Look!"  I was humiliated, shaken and crying.  Sister Mary Benigna, a nun of infinite kindness, herself charged over to me.  She took tissues out of the pocket in her habit.  I heard the rustle of her rosary beads as she reached into the pocket.  She wiped the spit off my face and then enveloped me in a tight hug like an angel with black wings.

President John F. Kennedy was a hero in Catholic schools and to Catholic kids -- like me.  In American's history, there had been great prejudice towards Catholics.  He was America's first Catholic president.  And he listened to the concerns of black people at a time when we were still fighting for the right to vote in America.  President Kennedy was significant to me, as a youngster.  He was significant to my black Catholic parents.
One of the customs that our wonderful teacher at Carver Elementary started was the selection of a new weekly Bulletin Board monitor.  As monitor, you could pin up articles from newspapers or magazines that you liked.  This was how Mr. Boze, our teacher, got us students interested in publications and current events.  I was monitor one week and posted a photograph I loved.  I'd cut it out of The Los Angeles Times.  A photo of our president and his little boy.  "John-John" was playing in the Oval Office.
My seat was right next to the bulletin board.  When the substitute teacher broke the dark news to us, I turned and looked at the photograph I'd recently pinned onto the board.  I looked at little John Junior.  I thought "Someone killed your daddy."  Someone did something even more evil than just spit in face of President Kennedy.  He'd been shot.

Yes.  I remember where I was when I heard the news on November 22nd, 1963.

Students were sent out for an unscheduled recess.  No one played.  We just stood around.  The sky was clear blue.  Maybe a wisp of a cloud.  I was with two classmates, Gerald and Rosalind.  A jet roared overhead.  We looked up at it.  Gerard said, "Maybe it's a Communist."  We didn't even really know what a Communist was.  Then he said, "I'm scared."  I was too.  Was President Kennedy killed because he was Catholic?  Because he listened to black people?  What would become of us?  The world got frightening.  Grown-ups were scary giants.  I couldn't wait to be home with my parents and my little sister.

There was no playing at home those four days in November.  Mom, Dad, my little sister and I watched the live news coverage with the sort of reverence we usually saved for Sunday mass.  Back then, there was less technology but we Americans seemed to pay more attention and communicate with more substance.  We had only the three main networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS -- and local independent stations.  No cable.  Only lucky families that could afford it had color TV.  That long, sorrowful weekend, TV became surreal and it fascinated me in a serious way.  Until then, TV was mainly for entertainment.  It was a source of amusement.  It was in its infancy.  That weekend, television -- especially television news -- was slapped into a sudden and solemn young adulthood.  We were paralyzed with a national grief -- a grief that wouldn't be equaled until September 11th early in the next century.  While grieving the untimely death of our youngest president, we'd be shocked by something never seen before on live TV.

A man was shot and he'd die from his wounds.  That man was Kennedy's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.  We got the news bulletin of President Kennedy's assassination but we did not see the shooting.  NBC had the live coverage of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby.  To me, that world got even scarier with that killing.  The unbelievable was happening.

As a youngster, it was eerie to me that all three networks had the same thing, the same somber black and white images, and that there were no TV commercials at all.  When news coverage concluded for a time, symphony orchestras played classical music. I asked my parents the meaning of terms and words that were new to me -- like "lying in state" and "rotunda."  I asked Mom why there were no commercials, no TV shows and she replied, "Out of respect for the First Family."

That's how television was then.  It was respectful.
There was no school that Monday.  No mail service. The nation was in mourning.  Our emotions were raw.  At home, we watched the live coverage of President Kennedy's funeral together.  One of the most riveting experiences I will ever witness on live television was Mrs. Kennedy, the president's young widow, leading the national in grief that day.  My mother wept as Jackie Kennedy chose to walk behind her husband's casket in the procession.  Mom told me that, one day when I got older, I'd understand the power of what I was seeing.  She was right.  It was a heartbreaking, majestic and unforgettable event of mythic proportions and feel.  That shared national grief will never leave my soul.

Live television captured it all.  With respect.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ben Hecht: The Write Stuff

Last Sunday morning, I was listening to a radio show on KALW out of San Francisco.  The conversation was good and the topic was screenwriting.  The focus was on the book, The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman.  
The host and the guest discussed the spiritual texture and social significance of Kaufman's screenplays.  They also discussed why audiences have connected to his work.  And they called his screenplays some of the most innovative of modern American cinema.  Charlie Kaufman wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Oscar-winning Adaptation and the screamingly funny Being John Malkovich.

He's got a book out about his screenplays and he's called innovate. More power to him.  I thought about that in contrast to a writer from Old Hollywood, the Hollywood of the studio days and power.  Those were the days when writers got more work and more chances to work, it seems.  They also were blessed in being able to be original and not have to write screenplays based on computer games or comic book heroes.  They could also write screenplays that seemed inspired by comic books.  They could exercise more writing muscles in a profession that, I'm sure, has never been easy.

I saw a movie recently and found myself saying "He wrote that too?!?"  The writer is Ben Hecht.  What ever vitamins he was taking, I wish I could get some.  Charlie Kaufman would probably say the same thing.  I mentioned the three Kaufman screenplays discussed on the radio show.  Hecht wrote the screenplays to 1939's Wuthering Heights directed by William Wyler, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Hecht wrote the screenplays to two Hollywood classics with bold feminist images of women in extremely entertaining movies.  There was Rosalind Russell as the ace newspaper reporter in His Girl Friday.  She's the only gal in the boys' club of journalists and she's the best man for the job.
Russell was terrific in one of the best roles of her film career.  The same goes for Cary Grant as her boss and ex-husband.  This is one fast and funny screwball comedy.
Hecht gave Cary Grant another of the best roles of his long film career in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.

That same goes for Ingrid Bergman as the notorious party girl, Alicia, recruited by the U.S. government to help smoke out a nest of villains in Rio.  She basically goes to bed with a Nazi to help Uncle Sam in this espionage thriller.

This Ben Hecht screenplay has great, innovate and subtle social comments on how America ties a woman's worth and social respectability to her virginity and "lady-like" behavior.  In this story, she is doing the most active and dangerous work in the mission she accepted.  She used her charms to marry into the Nazi household and acquire secret information.  The big bosses, all males, making snide remakes about her character because she has a history and men and cocktails in her past are all in a nice, safe office giving orders.  Her life is in jeopardy.

Alicia's the one who has to memorize names, get information and bang a middle-aged Nazi  who has a she-wolf mother.  This is a thriller, a love story (Cary Grant's the hero who falls for her) and a bold statement on how women are treated like second class citizens while being asked to be first class patriots.

Cary Grant as the cold, insulting U.S. agent who admits he loves Alicia and calls himself "a fat-headed guy, full of pain.."  I love that line.

There you have it -- three strong screenplay from Charlie Kaufman, three strong screenplays from Ben Hecht.  But, wait!  There's more!  Hecht also wrote the following screenplays:  The Front Page (1931 and later remade as the gender bender comedy, His Girl Friday), Scarface (1931 and later remade with Al Pacino in the lead role), Design for Living (1933), Nothing Sacred (1937, one of the best Carole Lombard screwball comedies), Gunga Din (1939) and Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945).  He did not get screen credit but made contributions to the scripts of Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, The Shop Around the Corner, Gilda, Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, Rope, Strangers on a Train and Lifeboat, Kiss of Death starring Victor Mature and Richard Widmark and the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty remake starring Marlon Brando.  Those are just some of his credits.

Not all his scripts were hits.  He wrote the Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn comedy, The Iron Petticoat.  She's a Russian Soviet pilot (with her The Philadelphia Story accent) and kicks Communism and military attire to the curb-ski when she falls for an American soldier played by Hope.  If this movie was any more of a dog, it would bark.
Hecht's The Specter of the Rose could become a camp classic like Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest if it was available on DVD.  The dialogue is brilliantly bad and the movie has a cheesy but cool vibe to it.  An extraordinary male ballet dancer is on his toes but off his rocker.  He killed his first wife.  He may kill again.  He's fascinated with a woman but, in one scene, they can't touch.  He says to her, "Hug me with your eyes."  She answers, "I am."  He says, "Harder."  I did the DTST (Danny Thomas Spit Take) with my beverage as I howled laughing at that one.  Lionel Stander, the character actor with the gravelly voice, has the role of the cynical onlooker in this ballet thriller.  When describing the reputation of one ballerina, he said "She did a pirouette into an ashcan."  Good dancing.  Good actors.  Bad dialogue.  Big fun.  That's The Specter of the Rose.

What was the movie that made me say, "He wrote that too"?  It also had feminist images and it looked like it could've been inspired by comic books.  Now available on DVD, a movie I had not seen in years since it delighted me on local TV several times when I was a youngster, Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor stars as the Queen of Outer Space.

In this 1958 science-fiction fantasy, Ben Hecht let us join a crew of middle-aged male astronauts as they land on the planet Venus.  It's a planet populated solely with shapely women dressed like cocktail waitresses.  Not only that, it's got squabbling factions of women because two rival space-dames are competing to rule the planet.

The rivalry between the two leaders is so fierce that it forces angry Zsa Zsa Gabor to say my favorite line in the whole movie:  "I hate her!  I hate that qveen!"

Queen of Outer Space followed by Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich ... now that's a fun double feature.

Ben Hecht  What an amazing body of work.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

This Bill Got the Vote

Big congratulations to New York City's Mayor-Elect, Bill de Blasio.  He and his diverse family made the cover of New York Magazine.  I truly love this cover.

As I wrote on Twitter a couple of days ago, there are more black people in the new first family of New York City than there are in the current cast of Saturday Night Live on NBC.

SNL can't spoof NYC's new first family with its cast of regulars...because there's no black woman in the cast.  I guess they'll have to bring back Kerry Washington as a guest host.

I wish huge golden blessings to Bill de Blasio and his beautiful family.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lady Gaga, Browning 'N Serve

I've worked with local TV news executives who didn't think young people cared about classic films.  Films made before the 1980s.  Films in black and white.  I argued with those execs and told them I didn't agree.  I saw photos this morning of  Lady Gaga, nominee and headliner at the YouTube Music Awards over the weekend.

Gaga reminded me that classic films and their stars still draw attention.  And can inspire.

Look at Madonna.  She recreated the Marilyn Monroe look, fashion and choreography of Monroe's jazzy "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number in 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in her 1980s "Material Girl" music video.  Her "Express Yourself" video borrowed heavily from the 1927 silent film classic, Metropolis.  TV's Glee has copied Judy Garland from her MGM superstar years, Bob Fosse-directed movie musicals and William Wyler's screen version of Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand.

Enter Lady Gaga.  Just like Madonna, she looks to the past to get attention in the present.  This morning online, I noticed that Lady Gaga got red carpet press with her odd teeth.

It was strange and new to young entertainment correspondents, but it looked familiar to me.  Lon Chaney, a brilliant silent screen character actor known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," starred in a thriller called London After Midnight.  It was directed by Tod Browning, the man who also directed Freaks.  Look at Lon in London After Midnight.

Look at Lady Gaga at the YouTube Music Awards in New York City.

Lon Chaney should've been her date.

I think Gaga took a gander at images from that 1927 Tod Browning classic before she served up her strange fashion statement on the red carpet.  What do you think?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Kerry Washington on SNL

Love me some Kerry Washington.  I have for years.  I am so glad my friends on the East Coast messaged me to stay up on the West Coast and, at least, see her opening sketch on Saturday Night Live.  Kerry Washington has got the comedy gift.  She was a terrific host.  I laughed at every single sketch she did.  SNL needs to bring her back for more.

On Facebook, one of my former network TV reporter friends is unfamiliar with Kerry Washington and the hit ABC political drama series, Scandal.  Kerry stars on that show.  She's the first African-American actress in nearly 40 years to have the lead on a network drama series.  Another friend was surprised to learn Kerry's an American.  Kerry grew up in the Bronx.  She's a native New Yorker.  Her work last night on NBC showed that she's got even more range than we realized.

I was first dazzled by her when I saw Ray (2004) at a movie theater on the corner of 19th and Broadway back in downtown New York City.  Kerry Washington starred opposite the amazing Jamie Foxx in his Oscar winning performance as the late, great Ray Charles.

Kerry played one of the women in Ray's life.  She  lit up the screen as Della Bea.  You know how you see an actor and there's just a little something extra about him or her that connects with you as a moviegoer?  That star quality thing?

I got that feeling watching Kerry Washington in Ray -- the feeling that she had star quality.
The next time I saw her on the big screen, she was opposite another black man who, like Jamie Foxx, would make Hollywood history as one of the few black men to with the Oscar for Best Actor.  Kerry Washington worked opposite Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (2006).  He starred as Idi Amin.  She played one of the African women in the life of the jealous and murderous Ugandan dictator.  James McAvoy co-starred.

Kerry was "Meryl Streep good" in The Last King of Scotland.  It took me a few minutes to realize she was the same actress from Ray.  You really could've thought she was an African actress hired overseas for the part of Amin's wife who has to run for her life.

Then I had an up close and personal encounter with Kerry.  During a year when I was working on Whoopi Goldberg's syndicated weekday morning radio show (yes, Whoopi Goldberg had a morning radio show), I was contacted by a casting director.  She offered me one day of local SAG work as a background actor.  It would be for late morning to mid-afternoon shoot.  It was in midtown Manhattan.  I'd be a businessman carrying a newspaper and a briefcase walking behind the two stars of the film -- Chris Rock and Kerry Washington.  I had a job on national radio with Whoopi Goldberg but this shoot would be on a day off for me.  Being an extra doesn't pay a lot of money, but I eagerly took the offer for the learning experience.  Plus, it was a chance to do some acting.

The movie was a remake of a 1972 French classic.  A morality tale about a married Frenchman who develops an outside interest, shall we say.  Honestly, it was the kind of movie they do better in France.  Chris Rock was the director and he co-wrote his remake with Louis C.K.  From 1970s France, we were relocated to modern-day New York with a suburban commuter.

He gets himself into funny situations when he's offered a little "somethin'-somethin'" on the side and works to fend off temptation.

The original was Chloe in the Afternoon, a film by Eric Rohmer.

Chris Rock's comedy remake/update was called I Think I Love My Wife (2007).

Kerry Washington starred as the lovely, intelligent but rather bothersome temptation.  The actress did the best she could with an awkwardly written role.
My scene was an exterior, in front of Manhattan office building.  When the assistant director yelled "Cut!,"  after Kerry's character walks up to the businessman Rock played, Kerry shouted "Hey!" and walked over to me with a big smile and her arms stretched out for a hug.  She'd recognized me from my TV work.  There I was blending in as a background actor.  She treated me like a co-star.

Because of an enthusiastic review from Roger Ebert, I rented  Mother and Child starring Annette Bening, Samuel L. Jackson, Naomi Watts, Jimmy Smits and Kerry Washington.
Ebert had high praise for Samuel L. Jackson's performance, one that showed how subdued and sophisticated he can be.  It reminds us of how strong and versatile an actor he is.  He's not the only one in the cast who delivers a strong, smart performance in Mother and Child.  At the heart of the film, is motherhood and adoption in the lives of some Southern Californians.  We also see the difficulties and the hungers people have in establishing connections with others.  Mother and Child is a very good movie.  The writing, the direction and the acting are mature and touching.  This was a Southern California that I knew.  These were people that I felt I knew.  Roger Ebert was so right about Samuel L. Jackson in this film.  He and Naomi Watts were excellent together.
Kerry Washington is a frustrated suburban L.A. wife who desperately wants a child.
After my second time watching 2009's Mother and Child, I recommended it to a friend and told her that I was waiting for that one project that would make Kerry Washington pop and bring the actress the national attention she deserves.

And then came the sexy political prime time thriller, Scandal, on ABC.  Pop!

In addition in to TV's Scandal, she reunited with Jamie Foxx for the controversial Oscar-winning hit from director Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained.
Tarantino's film also reunited her with Mother and Child co-star, Samuel L. Jackson.
Last night, Kerry Washington as Oprah Winfrey with President Obama when SNL mocked its own lack of racial diversity in its new cast made me do the DTST with my beverage (Danny Thomas Spit Take).  I laughed that hard.  The lady's got comedy skills.
Again, Kerry was "Meryl Streep good."  She nailed Oprah's vocal inflections and her movements, especially the way Oprah walks in high heels.  Brilliant attention to detail.  This actress is so talented.  Yes, Saturday Night Live needs to have Kerry Washington back.  And, hopefully, last night's show will make NBC realize that SNL really needs to add black women to its cast if the show continues.  Or have black talent host a late night NBC talk show.  Or review movies on a network morning news show.  Or be named anchor of NBC's weeknight evening news.

Oscar Buzz for TILL

 I'm on Twitter and, in the last three weeks, there's been Oscar buzz from a few established movie critics. The buzz was that Cate B...