Monday, September 30, 2019

A Dental Appointment from Preston Sturges

"It was the night of September 30th. I was in excruciating pain." Every time the character played by William Demarest declares that fact about his life in 1846, it tickles the heck out of me. It's a line from a movie written and directed by Preston Sturges. If you're a classic film fan, you know that Preston Sturges was the golden boy of writer/directors at Paramount Pictures in the 1940s. That's when he directed his own screenplays and hit homeruns with effervescent comedies that were both daft and wise, "but with a little sex" as a character in his 1941 comedy classic SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS says. In the middle of his written and directed by winners for Paramount was a curiosity that was meant as a historical drama. However, it makes me laugh. Just like SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, it has drama, conflict, greed, physical pain, a shapely blonde -- and Joel McCrea. This 1944 release is THE GREAT MOMENT, the biography of Dr. William T.G. Morton. He was a married Boston dentist who discovered the use of ether for general anesthesia and, in the movie, successfully used it on a patient with a toothache on September 30th, 1846.
Again, let me refer to SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. On the face of it, the subject matter of THE GREAT MOMENT sounds like it could be the kind of "deep dish" movie drama that The Girl (Veronica Lake) in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS complains about to the hobo, not knowing he's really a wealthy Hollywood producer traveling incognito. She lights up talking about the silly comedies that made her laugh. It's documented that THE GREAT MOMENT was finished in 1942. By that time, Sturges had entertained audiences with these Paramount releases he wrote and directed: THE GREAT McGINTY (1940), CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940), THE LADY EVE (1941), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941) and THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942).

However, there were problems. The studio didn't like the dental biopic. Reportedly, Sturges meant the film to be serious. Preview audiences were confused. A studio exec had it re-edited so it could be pitched as a comedy. THE GREAT MOMENT was released in 1944 after the 1943 classic Sturges comedy, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK.

When you read accounts of Paramount execs being dissatisfied with the dramatic dental story highlighting rivalry between two fields of the health profession -- dental and medical -- it seems as though Preston Sturges himself was like the successful young Hollywood producer in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. The studio wants "Sully" (Joel McCrea) to make another comedy. But he wants to make an adaptation of the severe, social issues novel called O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

I can see how audiences would've been confused. THE GREAT MOMENT features the Preston Sturges stock company supporting players, the recognizable faces you see in his screwball comedies. The movie opens and the first two familiar faces seen are on Joel McCrea and William Demarest. Esther Howard, seen as the wife of The Wienie King in THE PALM BEACH STORY, is all gussied up in 1846 Boston attire and walks into the dental office sad-faced and saying "I'm in terrible pain, dearie." Porter Hall, seen as one of Sullivan's Hollywood studio staff members in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, plays U.S. President Franklin Pierce. In the Massachusetts General Hospital scenes, there's fussbudget Franklin Pangborn sporting muttonchops as a hospital executive.
Demarest plays Dr. W.T.G. Morton's first patient to go under the ether and have a tooth removed without pain. There was previous try on him with the wrong kind of ether. Instead of putting the patient in a sleep-like state, it energized him like he was leading a cavalry charge in battle. This makes for a funny scene with Demarest and McCrea engaging in some broad, fast-paced physical comedy that leaves the entire dental office in a shambles. How could Sturges have thought audiences would've taken that madcap scene seriously?

To me, THE GREAT MOMENT works viewed as a parody of those assembly-line biopics that came out of Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Think of those biographical dramas that took themselves so seriously, like the ones starring Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola and Benito Juarez. One of the first elements to give me that parody feeling is Betty Field as Dr. Morton's loving and fluttery wife. Field makes Lizzie a funny Preston Sturges supporting character.
THE GREAT MOMENT opens with celebration. Dr. W.T.G. Morton is being hailed with a little parade. People hold and display signs praising his discovery. He called his ether discovery Letheon. Signs read "Letheon Ends Pain" and "Pain Is No More." Dr. Morton waves at his lovely wife during the festivities.

Then we jump ahead 20 years. William Demarest's character sees a prize medal in a pawn shop and buys it. He tells the clerk he knows the man who hocked it … "only he's dead now." He visits and returns the medal to Dr. Morton's widow. 20 years later and the only thing that's changed about her is her hairdo. She has the same small waist and the same attractive bustline. There's not one age wrinkle on her face as she sits in a form-fitting dress and launches into a melancholy monologue about her late husband, a man who was "forgotten before he was remembered."

Morton's wife, Lizzie, tells of when he was a simple farmer with their three little kids. He loved that farm and his animals. Lizzie smiles tenderly as she recalls that he won a prize for "Best Sow." Her grown daughter enters the room to announce that dinner's ready. Lizzie invites Eben (Demarest) to stay for dinner. The daughter made pie. Lizzie says wistfully, "My, how your father loved pie."

Then we flashback to see how Lizzie and William met and started courting.  They married. She doesn't really seem to understand his work but she supports it. He hates that people are always screaming in the dental chair. William remarks, "There ought to be a way to de-sensitive a nerve." He works tirelessly to find a way. His discovery makes his family financially comfortable. Lizzie can afford maids, a butler and a large dining room table so she can host lavish dinner parties.  One night, there were so many complications with William's work that he didn't make it home in time for dinner with guests. Lizzie has a little bit of a snit because the dinner didn't go as smoothly as she'd planned. Says Lizzie "...and then the sherbet came in ahead of the fish!"

I love that line. I don't see how any Sturges fan could've taken this film to be a drama.

The drama, the conflict, comes when Dr. Morton tries to coax the medical field to utilize his anesthesia when performing surgery. He wanted people to be free of pain. The men in the medical field wanted profit, they were jealous of his discovery, and they regarded dentistry as a lower-class profession. That corporate greed, if you will, drained Dr. Morton of the wealth acquired from his discovery and he was overlooked in medical history. That is some high drama. But when you have Franklin Pangborn in muttonchops arguing with Joel McCrea as William Demarest pipes in with "It was the night of September 30th. I was in excruciating pain," you can't help but giggle if you're a fan of the Sturges classics.
THE GREAT MOMENT was a flop when it opened. Nevertheless, it has moments of that distinctive Sturges style, it has Joel McCrea and it runs only about 80 minutes. Even if "the sherbet came in ahead of the fish," it's not all bad.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

About Olivia Newton-John

I love Olivia Newton-John. I bet you do too. I have loved her and her optimistic, sunny singing voice for a long time. I worked on an FM rock radio station when the 1978 movie version of GREASE was released. I'd seen it onstage and was eager to see how the Sandy role would be restyled and suited to fit her Australian accent. Our radio station got the soundtrack. Since we played contemporary rock music, GREASE cuts wouldn't be added to our on-air playlist. So I tucked the LP into my bag, took it home and broke out into a broad smile with every Olivia Newton-John vocal I heard on the soundtrack. That was in Milwaukee during my first full-time professional radio job after I graduated from Marquette University. When I was in high school back in Los Angeles, I had my first contact with Olivia Newton-John.
A few friends who attended a different high school, located in Long Beach, were headed to Disneyland one night for its graduating high school seniors' night of festivities. I wasn't yet a senior like they were. I was an undergraduate. But I got in anyway. We were seated at a table outdoors, just grabbing a bite and chatting. A lively blonde singer was performing onstage near us. An unknown singer. As you could expect, most of the kids were just milling around and she was not a star attraction. However, I could not take my eyes off her. She was pretty, perky and even though a large crowd had not assembled at the foot of the stage where she was performing, she gave each number her all like she was doing a big number in a Broadway show.

I figured she was another Southern California aspiring singer who booked a good gig at Disneyland. When she thanked the crowd, I could tell her accent that she was not from Southern California. That other thing that stood out, besides her terrific pop voice and personality, was the fact that she had three names.

Later, our little high school group was walking through Disneyland and I spotted the singer walking near us. I dashed over and had to tell how much I loved her set on that stage. Her face lit up, she shook my hand and her heartfelt, enthusiastic gratitude is one of my best memories of that night.

As the years went on, and she became tops on the pop charts, I'd always wonder if Olivia Newton-John was the same girl I'd heard sing at Disneyland when I was in high school in 1970.
Press the fast forward button to the late 1980s. Olivia Newton-John is booked to come into our VH1 studios in New York City for an interview. I have my own talk show. She and I meet and I ask, "When you were just starting out, did you sing at Disneyland for a high school seniors' night?"

Her eyes got the size of dinner plates and she beamed, "Were you there?"

What a lovely person she is. Onstage, onscreen, and off. She had that same enthusiastic gratitude at VH1, when she was a recording and film star, that she had that night as an unknown singer when I went out of my way to compliment her at Disneyland.

There are people in this life who radiate being in a state of grace. When they leave the room, you find yourself smiling and wishing they could've stayed longer because of the light they put in your heart. Olivia Newton-John is such a person. I just thought I'd share that with you.

Gayle King visited the singer/actress at her California ranch where she lives with her husband. King conducted a very warm and smart interview that aired on CBS SUNDAY MORNING.
To see the Sept. 29th "Olivia Newton-John on finding joy in a life with cancer" segment from Gayle King on CBS SUNDAY MORNING, log onto this link:

cbsnews.com/sunday-morning/.

To see Olivia Newton-John dance with screen legend Gene Kelly in the 1980 musical, XANADU, watch this clip:


Like Rita Hayworth in 1944's COVER GIRL, Olivia Newton-John danced with Gene Kelly as he played a character named Danny McGuire.


Saturday, September 28, 2019

We Need a Muriel Box Set

I have written about British film director Muriel Box before in my blog posts. I'm writing about her again because her name does not get mentioned in the conversation about trailblazing female filmmakers. It should be. In the 1950s when Hollywood star Ida Lupino, an actress who combined glamour with some serious acting chops, had made the groundbreaking transition to actress and director, Muriel Box was an Oscar-winning screenwriter who made the transition to director overseas in England. In her films, Box directed such respected talents as Shelley Winters, Glynis Johns, Sir Ralph Richardson, Julie Harris, Laurence Harvey, Peggy Cummins, Thomas Mitchell, Van Johnson, Peter Finch and Kay Kendall. Muriel Box directed about 10 films released in the 1950s.
Muriel Box and her husband, Sydney Box, wrote the screenplay to the psychological British melodrama, 1945's THE SEVENTH VEIL. Today, that film can be viewed as female independence building in strength to rip and shred the veil of sexist male dominance wrapped around her. James Mason starred as the debonair yet brutal guardian and music teacher to an aspiring pianist. She's played by Ann Todd. The guardian is jealous of her talent. Their co-dependent relationship is at the root of her breakdown. THE SEVENTH VEIL is one of those British dramas that positioned James Mason for 1950s Hollywood stardom. It opened in the U.S. in 1946 and got an Oscar nomination. In 1947, Muriel Box and Sydney Box were the Oscar winners for Best Original Screenplay.

From what I've read, director Muriel Box loved highlighting the female experience. She directed the 1953 British drama, STREET CORNER. Here in the U.S., it was titled BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW. The film took on a documentary style and showed three different angles of the daily routine in the lives of police women. It starred Peggy Cummins, loved by American classic film fans for her work as the trigger happy blonde bad girl in 1950's GUN CRAZY.
Box's 1954 comedy, TO DOROTHY a SON, followed an American woman who heads to Britain. In order to acquire a large inheritance, she has to prevent her ex-husband from having any more children. It starred Shelley Winters, John Gregson and Peggy Cummins. The U.S. title for the film was CASH ON DELIVERY. Here's writer/director Muriel Box (left) with Shelley Winters.
Thomas Mitchell played a judge in Box's 1960 drama, TOO YOUNG TO LOVE. A 15-year old female winds up in juvenile court. She tells her story to the judge. We see in flashbacks that her young life was one of parental neglect and a lack of direction. She becomes a wayward teen who seeks an abortion and later gets busted for prostitution.
Muriel Box directed 1955's SIMON AND LAURA, a British comedy that makes for fun Christmas season viewing. Not only is it a comedy, it's also a rare Peter Finch moustache movie. He has a moustache and the chance to play for laughs in this feature. His most famous performance is as the delusional news anchor, Howard Beale, in the satire on the TV news corporate jungle, 1976's NETWORK. Muriel Box's 1955 comedy focuses on a live TV reality show during the holiday season. Two celebrities, a bickering married couple, are offered a project. They go on TV as themselves, an onscreen happily married couple bringing viewers into their real lives. The two celebrities don't like the idea but they need the money. Hilarity ensues. Keep in mind, this is 1955 when BBC TV was new. SIMON AND LAURA gives us the sublime Kay Kendall in a starring role. She died way too soon, stricken with leukemia. Watch this trailer for SIMON AND LAURA.
The last film Muriel Box directed was the screen adaptation of a hit comedy play theater-goers saw in London and on Broadway. Her 1964 film, RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN, is the sweet story of a 39-year-old sports fan who travels with buddies to see a game. The shy guy is a 39-year-old virgin. The buddies have a night out on the town and he winds up with a prostitute named Cyrenne. Diane Cilento starred as Cyrenne. That night, the two talk. He falls in love. Her heart is touched. The sports fan was played by Harry H. Corbett. He was not a big star here in the U.S but he was in the U.K. From 1962 to 1974, Corbett starred as the son on the British sitcom STEPTOE AND SON. It's the British sitcom that inspired our classic American sitcom, SANFORD AND SON.
Before director Judd Apatow gave us Steve Carell as THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN in 2005, director Muriel Box gave us a 39-year-old male virgin in 1964's RATTLE OF A SIMPLE MAN.

Actress/director Ida Lupino has finally received the recognition she deserved as a breakthrough female filmmaker. Four films Lupino directed are in a boxed set available on  klstudioclassics.com.

I think it's high time filmmaker Muriel Box got some recognition too here in the U.S.



Thursday, September 26, 2019

Kim Cattrall's Best Work

A couple of years passed quickly. I'd watched the first three episodes of this show's first season so I could write about it. The show is called SENSITIVE SKIN and stars Kim Cattrall, formerly of the ultra-fabulous SEX AND THE CITY on HBO.  At the time I watched those episodes, Cattrall was in the entertainment news because, reportedly, she was not longing to do another SEX AND THE CITY movie. I think a lot of her gay male fans were miffed at that news. As I eagerly made it through all of Season 1 of SENSITIVE SKIN, I could understand Cattrall's position.
This week, I re-watched Season 1 and started Season 2. I loved it even more. This show aired on HBO Canada. Not here in the U.S. That's a shame, especially for Cattrall fans. Kim Cattrall does some of the best acting of her long career with some of the best material she's ever been given to play. SENSITIVE SKIN is currently on Netflix. I am positive that, had it aired on American TV, she would have been in the Emmy and Golden Globes running for Best Actress in a TV Drama Series.

Before I describe the show, let me write this about the reported Kim Cattrall reluctance to return to SEX AND THE CITY adventures. This may be a stretch, but here goes: Asking Kim Cattrall to do her sexually adventurous SEX AND THE CITY character again would be like asking Sally Field if she's be interested in a reboot of GIDGET … with Gidget now as an adult.

No disrespect to the TV character, but the actress has moved on and shown greater range with excellent work in more mature, more challenging material. The actresses on SEX AND THE CITY were good. I, however, was not one of those gay men in Manhattan who squealed with delight at every episode. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) was a columnist. Did she ever wrote a second draft? Did she ever do research interviews and take notes? Was she ever pressed to meet a deadline? I had women friends in New York City who were columnists. There were times when we had plans to grab a bite until I got call and heard, "Can we reschedule? I'm doing a rewrite and trying to meet a deadline." That was just one thing. The other thing? The four women were not very dimensional to me. Did they have parents? Aunts and uncles? Siblings? When I watched, I knew nothing about their family backgrounds. Those family ties give texture to the fabric of your life, shape why you are the way you are and they often fuel the drive many of us had to leave home, head for the big city called New York and recreate ourselves. That certainly was the case with me.
On SENSITIVE SKIN, Kim Cattrall plays Davina Jackson, a wife and mother in her 50s. When first we see her, she's in a drugstore and looks like a dwarf in a land of pharmaceuticals. Davina wants something for her hormones. She has a rather bookish and loving husband. They live in Toronto and they've been married for 30 years. The husband is a columnist. She's a former model who acted occasionally. Cattrall shines in this role of a woman determined to find a new meaningful path in her life as she navigates through menopause. The humor is smart and insightful. Fran Lebowitz, Anna Quindlen and Oscar Levant would love the writing on this series. That gives you idea of its quality. There's also a touch of James Thurber in the scripts. Davina has a conversation with herself in the first episode. She's at a function and...sees her self. The two Davinas engage in a conversation that no one else can hear. Or see. This Canadian TV adaptation is based on a British TV series.
At first sight, Davina and her husband seem like an odd couple. An owl and a pussycat. But as the episodes progress, we see how they do complement and love each other. We see how they deal when approached by outside sexual temptation. Marriage, parenthood, love, infidelity, fear, loneliness, loss and ageing are topics touched on in this show. SENSITIVE SKIN is a blessing for middle-aged and senior-aged actresses. It gives them employment and meaty material to play. Joanna Gleason plays Davina's jealous married sister. On Broadway, actress/singer Gleason won a Tony Award for playing The Baker's Wife in the original Broadway cast of Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS. On screen, you saw her in Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Also, she played Dirk Digger's angry and bitter mother in BOOGIE NIGHTS. Each SENSITIVE SKIN scene with Joanna Gleason and Kim Cattrall together is pure gold. Click onto this link to see a trailer:

https://youtu.be/1sPW1JD03yU.

In between the time I watched episode of SENSITIVE SKIN for the first time and now, I've experienced some loss, disappointment, sibling friction and occasional feelings of fear as I try to walk that tightrope called "ageing." The episodes have more resonance to me now. I have nothing but high praise and appreciation for Kim Cattrall's performance of depth, grace and wit. She was good in SEX AND THE CITY. She's even better here.

If you can, see SENSITIVE SKIN on Netflix.


Monday, September 23, 2019

They Saw Us! THE EMMYS

There were moments of the Emmy Awards show that gave me that wonderful Easter feeling. That feeling of a restored and refreshed spirit. A feeling of new hope. Tears welled up in eyes when Billy Porter won the Emmy for his dynamic performance on POSE. To see him on that stage accept his award, an openly gay Black man, and then to quote James Baldwin in his acceptance speech, well...my heart took wing. Back in New York City, Billy and I are acquaintances. We've stopped on the street and chatted a few times. There is a grace and humor about him that this world needs. His victory kicked a door wide open. Especially for us gay men of color. The playing field was not level for us. The entertainment industry had one certain way it wanted to present us in images. That one way was never in the lead role, always in a supporting role, and often as the big queen sidekick cheering on the white male or white female lead character. Our stories were not told. Off-camera, our truth could keep us from being employed. When I was approached to work on a top local New York City news program in the early 1990s, gay employees pulled me aside with this warning: "Do not tell management that you're gay. Do not tell management your partner has AIDS. If you tell them, they may find a way to not need you on the show anymore."  I won't go into details now, but there was wisdom in their warning.
I know I'm older than Billy Porter. Hell, sometimes nowadays I feel older than the Sphinx. But his Emmy win recharged my spirit. I do want to work again and if an agent, producer, manager or whatever cannot deal with me as I am, I don't need them.

When the five Black/Latino youths were called "The Central Park Five" in the press and wrongfully convicted of a brutal crime back in the 80s, Donald Trump spent big money taking out full page newspaper ad calling for their execution. He has never apologized. Today, those men are The Exonerated Five. Young Afro-Latino actor Jharrel Jerome was stunning as unjustly imprisoned Korey Wise in WHEN THEY SEE US, the story of the five and the disgusting miscarriage of justice. It was directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay. It's a moving, blistering work that I watched on Netflix. Jerome won for Lead Actor. Before WHEN THEY SEE US, he played a key character in the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2016 ... LA LA LAND MOONLIGHT.
Director Ava DuVernay said this about Jharrel Jerome"  "The world is his oyster. But he lives in a world that doesn't see him in the same way it see Ansel Elgort or Timothee Chalamet. My highest hope is that the industry rushes to his talent."

Bravo, Jharrel Jerome! They saw us! We are so very, very proud of you.

As for Michelle Williams, winner for her extraordinary work as Gwen Verdon in FOSSE/VERDON, she should be nominated next year for her acceptance speech. She not only politely called out the industry for its inequality in pay for women, she went one step further and called them out on the extra inequality when paying women of color. She said, "So the next time a woman, especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white male counterpart, tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her, believe her."

Preach it, Michelle Williams!

Do you mind if I add a personal story to give more perspective to the pay inequality that women of color endure?

Los Angeles is my hometown. I graduated from college in Milwaukee. I started my professional TV career in Milwaukee on the ABC affiliate. I was the city 's first African American film critic seen on weekly Milwaukee TV. This was in the 80s. On an independent TV station in Milwaukee, I also had a weekend half-hour film review show. I was half of a couple and we were a mighty fine pair.
When Siskel & Ebert departed Chicago PBS to do their film review show for Disney syndication, Chicago PBS contacted me to audition to be half of its new film review team.  I auditioned and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity. I was especially grateful that they considered a Black person to be its new film critic.

In 1985, I landed my first New York City job and eventually get my own celebrity talk show on VH1. I had national credits. I got excellent write-ups in TV Guide, US Magazine, People and The New York Times. Fast forward to 2000. A noted TV columnist, and a friend of mine, hears from an ABC News producer that it's launching a live weekday magazine show and wants a weekly film reviewer. She mentioned me. The producer said, "Does he know anything about movies?" This was a middle-aged producer who'd been around for a while. The columnist told me that she replied, "Are you kidding?"

I pushed to get the audition. I got the job. Later, the producer admitted to me that she'd never looked at my resume or bio and was not aware of my history. The job utilized my new and classic film knowledge. I wrote the reviews, reviewed new DVDs, gave Women's History in Films every week, wrote for the show's website and did my weekly 8-minute segment without use of a TelePrompTer. I didn't need it. All the info was in my head. I produced my segments and I was given a title: Entertainment Editor.  I was represented by a Broadcast/TV agent that year and notified him I got myself the job. I gave him all those details and added that it paid $500 a week. He said, "A spot like that on a national live show should pay $1500 a week."  I told him who to call and negotiate.

The ABC News answer to him was "$500 -- and not a penny more."

My wonderful, longtime TV/Radio commercial agent got me auditions on a regular basis to do commercials and voiceover work, much of which aired in other parts of the country. If I ever booked something and the pay was $600 or less, Linda would never take a 10%. I would've gladly given it to her because she was terrific. But she wouldn't. She'd reply, "I"ll take my 10% when you make more money."

That Broadcast/TV agent was not my then-retired commercial agent. He could not get me a penny more. But because he'd done the work of trying to get me more money, he was contractually subject to a 10% of my $500 a week salary. He took that 10%.

There I was every Friday on live national TV in an ABC News production, doing the kind of work that was denied Black people when I watched network and local TV as a kid in South Central Los Angeles -- and my weekly take home pay after deductions that included an ex-agent's 10% came to $330. If I'd worked behind the counter at a Burger King, I would've made more money.

But I loved the job. Yet, I did think "It wouldn't be like this if I was a white guy on national TV."

So, if that's what I experienced as a Black man with network credits on my resume, think of how women of color are treated in the pay department.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Desi Arnaz Never Got An Emmy

Not only was he the lead actor on a hugely successful CBS sitcom -- so successful that it would be dubbed in several languages and air internationally in reruns -- he was the show's executive producer. In each episode's closing credits, we saw that fact and we saw that the Desi Arnaz Orchestra played the full-of-ethnic flavor music. The famous sitcom is … I LOVE LUCY starring Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, as the longtime married couple in Manhattan, Mr. & Mrs. Ricky Ricardo. Ricky, like Desi, was a Cuban immigrant. Ricky was an entertainer/bandleader in a New York City nightclub. Lucy was his wife who longed to be an entertainer herself, and they had a nice working class life in their midtown apartment with Fred and Ethel Mertz, the older couple landlords, as their best friends. Ethel would join Lucy in her zany ideas and misadventures. America loved I LOVE LUCY. The hit sitcom made Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Hollywood's hot power couple.
Desi Arnaz was a Broadway sensation in a musical comedy called TOO MANY GIRLS. He just about set a drum on fire with his conga number that clicked with audiences. He went to Hollywood to shoot the movie version of the show and repeat his conga number. The 1940 movie release starred a new RKO leading lady named Lucille Ball. As soon as their eyes met on the set, it truly was I LOVE LUCY. They married.  Lucille Ball went to MGM in the 1940s. She never became a big star like Greer Garson or Lana Turner, but she slammed across some solid performances -- especially with comedy material. Desi acted, was drafted during WW2 and he had his orchestra. Desi was a recording star.

The two pitched their I LOVE LUCY project to CBS. A major gamble for them. Execs were a bit nervous because, in their Caucasian male minds, they viewed the couple's marriage as interracial. Remember, this was the 1950s. Desi and Lucille held to their vision and would not culturally neuter the Ricky Ricardo marriage. Ricky -- and Desi -- were proud of their accents.
No other classic TV sitcom of that era opened with such a fabulous ethnic vibe. The Cuban flavor of the I LOVE LUCY theme was delicious. Desi Arnaz, as executive producer, introduced the 3-camera shoot for a sitcom performed before a live studio audience. That went on to became a standard way of shooting sitcoms. He oversaw the scripts and the hiring. He and Lucy made millions with their new hit show and, with their millions, purchased soundstages of RKO where they met for TOO MANY GIRLS. They started Desilu Productions. Desilu Productions gave us racially diverse and inclusive TV shows such as MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, STAR TREK and MANNIX.

I LOVE LUCY was shot on film. Lucille Ball had just hit 40 when they started the sitcom. To make her look her best, Arnaz hired veteran cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund was a master of black and white cinematography. His film credits included DRACULA (1931), THE GOOD EARTH, GOLDEN BOY, KEY LARGO and the silent film sci-fi classic, METROPOLIS (1927).
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley were the four main stars of I LOVE LUCY. Of that quartet, Ball and Vance were Emmy winners for I LOVE LUCY. Frawley got 5 Emmy nominations.
Successful, innovative, groundbreaking and trailblazing actor/producer Desi Arnaz was never, ever even nominated for an Emmy. Not only should he have been nominated, Desi Arnaz should have received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy.
Watching reruns of I LOVE LUCY on KTTV/Channel 11 was a habit for me when I got home from school during my youth in South Central L.A. In those years, it was said in TV Academy specials that I LOVE LUCY was so popular, it aired every hour of every day somewhere in the world.  Today, that might apply to reruns of FRIENDS.

To me, I LOVE LUCY of the 1950s was way more diverse and inclusive than FRIENDS in the 1990s. Even though I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, I LOVE LUCY reflected a world that I knew. The Ricardos had a bilingual household. Ricky frequently would start speaking Spanish. The two kids next door to us were Mexican American. Just like many of my classmates and teachers. Our next door neighbors had a bilingual household. Ricky was a fine entertainer, serious about his work and a very responsible businessman. He was also a devoted father and a loving husband, I loved that image of an ethnic family man on TV.  I know the hijinks of Lucy Ricardo were goofy, but the cultural/racial images of the Ricardo Family were significant to me. An ethnic man was an upscale big city professional. As for The Mertzes, look at the age inclusion. An older couple became the best friends to The Ricardos and the godparents to their little boy. In the 1990s such an older couple would've been the punchline or just tolerated for a few minutes. FRIENDS was about young adults living, as I did, in the New York City below West 23rd Street.

FRIENDS was not bilingual. There was no ethnic friend. There was no older couple welcomed into the action in every episode. FRIENDS was all about being young and white in New York City. The actors were good and the lines were funny. But, in no way, did it reflect the South Central L.A. or the New York City worlds that I knew.

The Emmy Awards will be handed out tonight, Sunday, during a telecast on Fox. This year, no Governors Award was bestowed upon anyone. The Governors Award honors "an individual, company, organization or project for outstanding achievement in the arts and sciences and management of television..."
I would have suggested a posthumous honor to Cuban immigrant/successful American TV actor/producer Desi Arnaz. I would've presented the award to actress Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Oprah's First Book Club Star

It happened this week in history. September 17th should be a Holy Day of Obligation in America's publishing business. On that day, top publishing houses should require its agents and other representatives to light candles and give thanks and reverence to Oprah Winfrey. For, on September 17th in 1996, Oprah launched "Oprah's Book Club" on her worldwide daytime TV show. An unknown or little-known author could become a literary star overnight if Oprah the Great announced your name and your book's title. An established author could gain millions of new readers. Getting the Oprah Book Club seal of approval could be a wondrous thing for your writing career and your book sales -- if you didn't mind a seal of approval coming from a woman with a huge national audience of females. In New York City, I heard buzz from three buddies of mine about a new novel called THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. They called it a "must-read." Later, Oprah felt the same way about Jonathan Franzen's novel. Hallelujah! Unfortunately, Franzen felt her book club was female fluff and didn't need her attention. She politely nixed him and picked another book by another author. The heads of Franzen's agent and editor must have exploded like the heads of the angry space creatures who suddenly hear Slim Whitman singing in the movie MARS ATTACKS! Franzen came to his senses a few years later and appeared on her massively influential daytime show. Oprah's Book Club got women and men of all ages, colors, shapes and sexual preferences reading and buying books. And discussing them.
Oprah first book club selection was THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN by Jacquelyn Mitchard. It was adapted into a 1999 movie of the same name starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Whoopi Goldberg and Treat Williams.
In 1998, Jacquelyn Mitchard was promoting her second novel, THE MOST WANTED.  When I heard she was available to be on our Fox5 weekday morning TV news program, GOOD DAY NEW YORK, I enthusiastically pushed to do the interview. I'd read her novel. I loved that one of the characters in her book had a fondness for the 1963 comedy/drama movie, SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, starring Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason and Tuesday Weld.
I have a fondness for writers. I loved interviewing Jackie Mitchard and I want to share that live TV segment with you. Here I am with the author who kicked off Oprah's Book Club.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Laughs from THE BREAKER UPPERERS

I read a brief item about this 2018 comedy on Twitter. The tweet read that THE BREAKER UPPERERS was ultimately a comedy valentine to independent women and it was a very funny New Zealand film that clocks in at only about 1 hour and 20 minutes on Netflix. Well, I found it and decided to give it a try. THE BREAKER UPPERERS broke me up laughing in the opening scene. Off-camera, we hear a woman sobbing like Doris Day when she realized she'd been romantically scammed in PILLOW TALK. We're looking at two female cops watch the sobbing woman who has learned from the officers that her relationship is over. The man in her life is gone.
The female cops leave and get into their car. Once in, we discover they are not really police officers at all. Jen and Mel are best friends who run a break-up business. People who want out of their relationships, but don't have the guts to do it themselves, hire Jen and Mel to concoct a devious but effective way to do it for them. Sure, what they do seems mean. But Jen sees it as removing a tree that's blocking out the sun -- and doing it without physical harm. Jen is straight. Mel is bi-sexual. Neither is in a relationship. Neither is really happy with her life as it is. Something feels missing. Jen hooks up with a guy she met on Tinder. They're having sex. It seems to be one of the rare times he's felt confident enough to remove his undershirt during sex. She frankly tells him she's imagining he's someone else.

In the first scene, when we see a montage of the clients who want to end their relationships, that background music is Vivaldi -- just like in the divorce classic KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Jen and Mel are like private eyes in reverse. Instead of trying to track someone down, they don different outfits and identities to chase disappointing sweethearts away.
Things are going pretty well with the business until Mel's conscience starts to get the better of her and one hunky young client finds her attractive.

Remember the British sitcom ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS with those two irresponsible best friends who lived for cocktails and designer clothing? There's an ounce of that in THE BREAKER UPPERERS with a splash of NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE. Here's a trailer.

For American viewers, the only recognizable face in that cast is the actor who played the Tinder guy with body issues. If you get HBO and watched the daffy sitcom, FLIGHT OFTHE CONCHORDS, you'll recognize the tall and bespectacled Jemaine Clement.

If this was an American comedy with two males in the lead roles, like a comedy produced by Judd Apatow, a bunch of the laughs would be broader and ad libbed scenes that would've been better as DVD extras would've been put into the movie adding an unnecessary 20 minutes to push towards a 2 hour and 10 minutes running time. This New Zealand feature runs on dry wit and keeps the story trim. It may not be a great comedy like a SOME LIKE IT HOT, TOOTSIE, DR. STRANGELOVE or THE LADY EVE, but this tale of deception, duplicity, true feelings and friendship is good entertainment. I laughed a lot and, even though each one is a hot mess, I loved the two lead characters. It was fun watching those two women move on from cynicism. I plan to watch it again on Netflix.

Madeleine Sami plays Mel. Jackie van Beek plays Jen. Both actresses wrote the screenplay. Both women directed THE BREAKER UPPERERS.




Sunday, September 15, 2019

Thank you, AMERICAN MASTERS PBS

My previous blog post urged you watch the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary on the late, great actor Raúl Juliá. It was RAUL JULIA: THE WORLD'S A STAGE and it premiered that Friday night, September 13th. I wrote about how seeing his work moved me to my very soul. Not only moved it, set it on fire. In 1988, when I had my own celebrity talk show on VH1, I was humbled and honored to set close to him in the studio and have him as a guest on my prime time show. He was terrific. Classy, witty, interesting, sexy and thankful. Just like other Latino and Black artists who were guests on my show -- Ricardo Montalban, Whoopi Goldberg, Smokey Robinson, Gregory Hines, Carlos Santana -- he knew that for me to have such a national TV show was a giant step that many people may not have realized. I was getting the same quality of guests that you saw the white male hosts on national TV get. Hosts such as Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose, Johnny Carson and David Letterman. I had a great reverence for artists such as Raúl Juliá. He passionately punched a wide hole in the race/color wall in the entertainment industry. He did it with his talent. He, and those other artists of color I mentioned, made it wider so that others, like myself, could follow.  Raúl Juliá was an actor and humanitarian who was definitely ahead of his time. He died way too soon.
At the end of my blog post, I added a demo reel of my VH1 talk show because there was a clip of Raúl Juliá in it and I am very proud of that.
I was watching the premiere of the AMERICAN MASTERS special on Friday night while visiting my sister in the Minneapolis area. All of a sudden, I gasped. I heard a quote that sounded familiar. Then I heard my voice.

That clip of Raúl Juliá from my VH1 talk show had been included in the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary. I did not expect that. My skin tingled, my heart glowed, my eyes filled with tears of pride. I still have a deep reverence for him.
I wrote of my grateful surprise on Twitter. I got a sweet response from one of the show's producers. Producer/Director Ben DeJesus wrote that my clip "was a very important moment in the story we told. Thank you!"

To see someone attach the word "important" to work that I've done … wow. Just … wow.  He gave this Black Catholic dude from South Central L.A. a very early Christmas gift.  Thank you, Ben.

Check out my previous blog post.

See the AMERICAN MASTER PBS documentary on the remarkable Raúl Juliá.  Click onto this link:  pbs.org/rauljulia.











Friday, September 13, 2019

Raúl Juliá Remembered Tonight on PBS

I have a longtime dear friend who can confirm this. I relocated to accept a TV job in New York City in 1985. That year, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN opened at a movie theater in midtown. I saw it one afternoon. That was my first viewing. KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, especially the unforgettable performance by Raúl Juliá, just about made my soul experience an axial shift towards a new light. Something in me was illuminated. I am not ashamed to admit that I paid to see it again about five more times. A friend from my college years in the Midwest who became my roommate for a year in Brooklyn was my guest for a sixth viewing. He had to know what I found so fascinating about the film. He saw it -- and then he knew. Raúl moved him too.
It's Friday, September 13th, and AMERICAN MASTERS on PBS puts the late, great actor in the spotlight tonight at 9:00/8:00 Central.  You need to see it. Cancer stole Raúl Juliá away from us but, Lord, Raúl did leave some brilliant work behind for us to see.
This very week is an anniversary week for me. In 1988, the was the week my prime time VH1 talk show, WATCH BOBBY RIVERS, premiered. It was a half-hour program. My sole guest for the premiere show was Kirk Douglas. Raúl Juliá was also a guest during my show's run. I'd been in his presence before when I worked at another TV station in New York City and he came in for an interview. He had a charisma and a presence that was like an invigorating force field. As my guest on VH1, he was warm, gracious, appealing, playful and grateful. I was honored, humbled and proud to have him as a guest. He'd blasted a big hole through barriers of race and color.  I know many of you have seen this demo reel of mine already. But I want to share it again because Raúl Juliá is in it -- and I want you to see the PBS documentary about him tonight. On my show, I asked him about KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.
In the story of two cellmates in a Latin American prison, William Hurt (above) played the jailed drag queen who is fascinated with old movies and top female movie stars. Raúl Juliá played the very macho political dissident. Hurt won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance. The film got Oscar nominations for Best Picture of 1985 and Best Director.

Here is a short preview of tonight's PBS presentation about the artist. He was extraordinary.




Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Lorraine Hansberry and Hollywood

Recently, I watched the 1961 film adaptation of A RAISIN IN THE SUN on cable's TCM (Turner Classic Movies). Members of the original Broadway cast repeated their roles for the Columbia Pictures release. Actors from the 1959 Broadway production were Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, Louis Gossett Jr., Ivan Dixon and John Fielder.
This modern-day drama, focused on an extended family on the South Side of Chicago, was the first play from an African American female playwright to be produced on Broadway. The playwright was Lorraine Hansberry, a gifted writer and social activist who succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 34 in 1965.
This is something that is rarely mentioned and rarely highlighted but it is another extremely huge achievement for Lorraine Hansberry. She not only wrote the Broadway play, she also wrote the Hollywood studio screenplay adaptation. Think about it. How many Black women in the 1960s saw their names in big bold letter on a movie screen under the word "Screen Play" during the opening credits? At that time, it was unusual for a Black woman to get the lead female role in a notable Hollywood production. Hansberry got a screenwriter credit when that field in American film was dominated by white men followed by a few white women. With that, she wrote a whole new chapter in Hollywood and Black History.

To put this accomplishment into some perspective, consider this: The late, great Dorothy Dandridge was the first Black person to be an Oscar nominee for a lead role performance. She was an Oscar nominee for Best Actress of 1954 thanks to her sensational work in the Fox musical drama, CARMEN JONES. The ignorance of Hollywood racism crippled her career. After that stunning performance, Dandridge would not get another Hollywood opportunity for a lead role until 1959's PORGY AND BESS in which she'd star opposite Sidney Poitier. Her lack of opportunities were because, although glamorous and a very good actress, she was Black. PORGY AND BESS would be her last major Hollywood film. Like Lorraine Hansberry, Dandridge's untimely death would come in 1965. She was in need of employment and only 42.

Hansberry created strong, substantial lead and supporting roles for Black actresses onstage and adapted them for a film version. I believe the Columbia Pictures production marked Ruby Dee's first lead role in a top Hollywood studio release.


When I see Ruby Dee's performance in 1961's A RAISIN IN THE SUN, it is hard to believe that her first and only Oscar nomination came for 2007's AMERICAN GANGSTER. Her role and all the other roles in that fine film came from the young, gifted and Black Lorraine Hansberry -- history-making playwright and screenwriter.  She definitely had Black Girl Magic.

Hansberry was a social activist and she was a member of the LGBTQ community. Here's a trailer for a documentary that premiered on PBS. It's essential viewing if you want to learn more about this American artist.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Look at MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

He was a new director at MGM, the renowned Tiffany of Hollywood studios for movie musicals. She was a young star of MGM musicals. Under his direction, her stardom would skyrocket from popular Hollywood princess to queen of MGM musicals in the 1940s. While making their first film together, they would fall in love and later marry. She was in her early 20s, he in his early 40s. They were Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland.  
Their first film project was an original screen musical that became the studio's biggest box office hit since 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. The original musical was MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. It's a poignant and humorous tale of family love that endures through the seasons, even when a season could bring heartache and disappointment. Despite what happens, the Smith Family will be together. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is a true classic with rich performances and memorable songs. I'd seen it many, many times on TV and even in revival theaters. However, it's greatest impact on my heart came when I saw it the first December following the Sept. 11th attacks in 2001. I watched it on DVD and sobbed throughout the entire "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" number tenderly done by Garland. That number at that time in our national history made me long for a holiday family reunion where we could bring all our imperfect selves together for a perfect Christmastime embrace, a hug that would say "I am so glad you're here, I am so glad you're a part of my life." There's extraordinary love in this ordinary American family.
Way back in the late 1980s, I was a veejay on VH1. The network was different then. Music videos were the main fare. When I introduced some of then, I noted that a number of music videos took visual inspiration from classic Hollywood musicals. Whitney Huston's videos had bits of business borrowed by an Audrey Hepburn number in FUNNY FACE and a Fred Astaire number in THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY. Paula Abdul referenced Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ in one of her videos and, in another, she danced with a cartoon character like Gene Kelly had done in ANCHORS AWEIGH. Madonna copied Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in her "Material Girl" video.

A buddy of mine back then said that MTV and VH1 music videos had replaced movie musicals. As a former VH1 veejay, and as a lover of movie musicals, I say that music videos took inspiration from movie musicals but they did not replace them. Marketing is a main force that drives the music video. With the quick shots and edits that seem to come every :03 to :06 seconds, with the several changes of wardrobe and location or background, the main purpose is to sell the artist, present an image and sell records. When chameleon Madonna wanted to show a new image, she did it in a music video. In a movie musical, one can extend and/or present a new maturity in a star's image. The musical numbers, however, are "reveals." They are present to reveal more about the character and the character's emotions which will be important as the story progresses. In the number, a creative and skilled director -- like Vincente Minnelli -- can highlight the star's look and the star's strength as an artist.
Early in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, we see that Esther Smith has a crush on the boy next door. On a trolley ride with friends, she hopes to see him. As the ride begins, she notices he's running to jump on. She's so filled with joy that simple spoken words are not enough. She sings her feelings. Near the end of the movie, he will propose to Esther on Christmas Eve. But a major relocation for the Smith Family could separate them for a long time and dissolve the romantic relationship. On the trolley, though, all is jubilant. Notice that Minnelli frames Garland's character like she's the center of a picture postcard. Esther wears a darker jacket. The other women all wear brighter colors. Esther is the only female not wearing a hat. The large decorative hats the other ladies wear almost serve as presenting lovely Esther in the center of a colorful floral display.

Musicals are festive and fun on the big screen. In production, they are hard work. Notice Judy Garland's strength as an actress and a singer. There are no MTV-like quick cuts and edits from Minnelli. Judy sings in one continuous take for about 2 minutes before there's a cut for a different angle. Basically, she nailed a couple of hours of studio work in one continuous take. Her emotions as Esther Smith are fluid, spontaneous and, acting-wise, spot on for a girl who's thrilled she may be near the boy who makes her heartstrings go "Zing!" This is excellent singing and acting.

Here's "The Trolley Song" in Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, thanks to Warner Archive:

Movie musicals are an art form. Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli were masters in the art.

She Made A RAISIN IN THE SUN History

Let us praise the late, legendary Lorraine Hansberry. She made history in three areas -- three big areas -- that do not get the attention th...