For this special edition of 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, we have a panel event, Beyond Words, featuring .WGA Award-nominated (& winning) screenwriters. These include -- Eric Roth (A Star is Born); Kevin Willmott (Blackkklansman); Bryan Woods & Scott Beck (A Quiet Place), Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther); Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly (Green Book); Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?); Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade); Lauren Greenfield (Generation Wealth); Ozzy Inguanzo & Dava Whisenant (the documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway); and Gabe Polsky (In Search of Greatness);
I've posted enough videos here of Jiminy Glick that I figure it's only proper to give some equal time to the fellow underneath. This is from 2016 when Martin Short received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Canadian Screen Awards. While he gives a very nice acceptance speech, and the video montage is a lot of fun, I think the best part may be the presentation speech by Short's close friend and fellow SCTV alum, Eugene Levy.
By the way, they refer to the award as the "Candy." I tracked down the story behind that. The host for the evening is Norm MacDonald, and he quipped at the evening that, being Canada, it only made sense to called the award the Candy, as much a tribute to John Candy as anything -- and throughout the night, other presenters (including Donald Sutherland) picked up on it, and it appears to have stuck.
Though for years, the celebration moved around the calendar a bit more than in the past and was therefore a bit difficult to track down (no pun intended), today is National Train Day. At least it is here at Elisberg Industries, and that's good enough as a starting point. You won't find it on any calendars for any number of reasons, but the most important is that since Amtrak funding got cut back they stopped promoting it after 2016. \
(And the reason for it moving around the calendar is that it was never a set day, but the Saturday closest to May 10. Why May 10, I hear you cry? Because that's the anniversary of the Golden Spike being driven in at Promontory Point, Utah, to complete the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.)
But whether or not it remains an officially promoted holiday by the government, National Train Day (or as was known around these parts in the past -- but no more! -- as "Let's Make Chris Dunn's Head Explode Day") is nonetheless still one of the most joyous holidays of the year. And "in the past" is a very important phrase to keep in mind. More on that coming up.
The observation car aboard the Southwest Chief on my trip last year from Los Angeles to Chicago.
For our part here, we celebrate National Train Day on these pages by posting a list of the greatest train movies. These are films in which trains are absolutely central to the story. Where a train is the driving force of the tale, without which you can’t properly describe the plot.
(Think of it like the classic and beloved Santa Claus song, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Santa Claus isn't actually in the song at all. He hasn't even shown up yet. In most ways, it's about "you" and what you should do -- or better not do. But even though there's not a hint of Santa Claus even appearing in the song, without Santa Claus...there's no song.)
We're strict about this. A friend once recommended The Taking of Pelham-1-2-3, and it was strongly considered, but that was a subway train or light rail. This list is for full-bore trains, the kind that either have sleeping cars and dining cars, or could if they were hitched on. But I've added it to our Honorable Mention list this year.
I should also note that, since the list is fluid, we've added another new movie to the list of Great Train Films, last years movie, The Commuter, with Liam Neeson as a man on his daily trip to work who gets caught up in a conspiracy on board.
There are two other categories: Honorable Mention is for movies which you can tell their stories without using the word "train," but they have some connection to trains -- usually a great, standout train sequence -- that makes them memorable. And last year I added a new category of Special Mention, for works that don't qualify as a train movie or perhaps even as a movie at all, but deserve a place of honor. We include three new entries this year. One is for the aforementioned The Taking of Pelham-1-2-3 -- not about trains but light rail, but deserving of inclusion. The second is Great Railway Journeys of the World, a wonderful TV documentary by the intrepid traveler Michael Palin, And finally, we add The Railrodder, one of the last works that Buster Keaton made. It's a tremendous one-man short about a befuddled fellow on a railroad track cart, traveling across the length of Canada.
And as I noted in the past, though something I think is likely very obvious, I love train movies. Here is the current list of Great Train Movies.
Around the World in 80 Days
Back to the Future 3
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Darjeeling Limited
Emperor of the North
The Great Locomotive Chase
The Great Train Robbery
The Lady Vanishes
Murder on the Orient Express
The Narrow Margin
North by Northwest
Night Train to Munich
Strangers on a Train
Von Ryan’s Express
Throw Momma from the Train
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
The Greatest Show on Earth
At the Circus
Great Railway Journeys of the World (TV documentary)
Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose (book)
The Railrodder (short)
The Taking of Pelham-1-2-3
I've also added another new feature last year -- a scene from one of the Great Train Movies, or another entry on the list. And though I've posted it in the past, this year in honor of its Special Mention inclusion, here is Buster Keaton in the 1965 short, The Railrodder.
The other day, Disney announced its news streaming service Disney Plus which will launch November 12. Pricing will be $7 a month or $70 for an annual subscription, which most news reports commented how it compares favorably to $13 a month for Netflix's most popular tier. The company said that they may eventually bundle Disney Plus with other of their services like Hulu and ESPN Plus. During the first year, they expect to release 25 new series and 10 movies, documentaries and specials. Overall, the Disney Plus library will have over 7,500 TV episodes and 500 movies.
It seems like a fascinating venture, with some plus and minuses. On the plus side, Disney has a huge vault they can draw from, and recently bought the film division of 20th Century Fox, and now have that library, too -- which include the Star Wars franchise, the Avenger franchise and all 30 years of The Simpsons. And among the new productions for the service are a Star Wars spinoff series, The Mandalorian and prequel to Rogue One (for which Diego Luna will reprise his role of Cassian Andor). There will be a series Marvel Studios series Loki, that stars Tom Hiddleston reprising his role,; and a Pixar series Monsters at Work, that takes off after the events of the original Monsters Inc. movie.
On the negative side -- or at least left out of most news stories is that the $7 a month is an "initial" price, most likely to get interest and subscriptions, and it seems probably that that will rise, and the cost-difference with Netflix will narrow. In addition, Netflix has $9 stream plan, as well, which is much closer to Disney's "initial" offering. And a significantly larger catalog -- 1,569 TV shows and 4,010 movies. (Keep in mind that the "7,500" figure for Disney is episodes, not shows. If each Netflix TV series only has two years of 22 episodes each -- and keep in mind that old shows often had around 35 episodes a years and most not only ran for more than just two years, with some like Gunsmoke and Bonanza running for decades -- that works out to 70,000 episodes.
But further, it only compares with Netflix and leaves out Amazon. An Amazon Prime subscription averages out to $10 a month. And that not only includes a very large catalog, including international TV shows -- but most importantly includes free 2-day shipping on Amazon (and free next-day delivery on orders over $35), along with music streaming, cloud photo storage, Prime Now with free grocery and restaurant delivery within range, and more.
And no one should expect immediately competition with Netflix. Disney predicts between 60-90 million subscribers in five years -- while Netflix currently has 140 million subscribers. Disney also says it expect so spend $2 billion a year over most of the next five years, while Netflix spends around $12 billion on content a year.
This is not to say that the Disney Plus service isn't intriguing and won't be a success. In fact, it's very fascinating and seems poised to do well. But as a complimentary service to Netflix and Amazon Prime, rather than one that can knock them out of the box. Mainly, it's to say that most coverage of Disney Plus was pretty sketchy in its description of the landscape.
Besides which, who know how that landscape may be drastically changed in five years.
Last year, Adobe help a contest to create a movie poster using its product Creative Cloud. The payoff would be that Zach Braff would write and direct a short based on the winning the poster. They released the 11-minute film on Wednesday, and here it is, In the Time It Takes to Get There.
Starring Florence Pugh and Alicia Silverstone, it looks at the life of a bored star "product influencer." The twist is that this isn't about someone today on social media, but rather in the 18th century. I like Zach Braff's work a lot -- not just acting, but I think the three films he's directed have shown a lot of talent, and Garden State was especially well-written (getting a Writers Guild nomination). For my taste, I don't find this particular script especially funny, though it's wonderfully directed and is a rich production to watch. And the details spoofing the fame and world of today's influencers are well done. The user comments and online votes for the short are highly positive, so happily the audience who've seen it had an especially good time.
I've been seeing billboards and TV ads for a few weeks now promoting the remake of the movie based on Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary. They've caught my attention more than most remakes since (during my early, dark days when I was a kid and didn't know better and did movie publicity) I was the unit publicist on the original film of Pet Sematary. I'm not quite sure why they feel a remake is needed so soon after the first one -- it's not like it comes from another era, mind you, but 30 years ago in 1989 -- but they do, and so be it.
One notable difference between this new version and the original, which is why I'm glad I worked on that one, is that the original had a screenplay by Stephen King himself. And since we shot the movie in Maine, not far from where he lived -- which was in his contract that we film in the state -- he visited the set periodically. We didn't talk a great deal, but did on occasion. And since I was always wearing my Cubs hat and he's a well-known Boston Red Sox fan, that always served as a good conversation opener.
Our conversations, though not many, actually lead to probably my favorite story. Of any story I've ever told.
My brother John was a bit of a curmudgeon. He hated things that were popular. (Once, when he came to Los Angeles for a visit, I asked if he wanted to go to Disneyland. When he said no, I asked why not, and he said, "Because I'm afraid I might like like it.) On the other hand, his wife loved reading books by Stephen King. She would ask John to read them, but no way in the world would he read a novel by Stephen King. Even if he had the time in the middle of his medical practice, Stephen King wasn't just a popular novelist - he was probably THE most popular current novelist in the world. Stephen King would not be read.
But she didn't let up. And finally, John - the good husband - gave in. Okay, one Stephen King book. He read Firestarter. And he loved it so much that he finished the book in two days. Probably hating every moment that he liked it so much.
Well, as fate would have it, not long after that, I was hired to work on Pet Sematary. As I said, when, Stephen King would visit the set we'd generally talk about baseball or (of course) the movie, since I was also interviewing him for the production noes I was writing on the making of the film. One day, though, I said I had a funny story for him, that I thought he would appreciate.
I told him about my brother. I said he hated anything popular. I explained how my sister-in-law couldn't get my brother to read his books, specifically because they were popular. I went into great detail about who John was, and why the last thing on earth he wanted to do was read a popular Stephen King novel.
And then I explained that John finally broke down, read Firestarter -- and absolutely loved it. Loved it so much that he finished it in two days.
Now, you must understand, this is the Best Possible Reaction that any writer can ever have. It's one thing to be praised by fans - but it's something else entirely to have someone who is so deeply predisposed to hate your books that he's fought off reading them for years finally read one and love it so much that it's devoured.
Stephen thought for a moment after being told all this, trying to figure what to say. It was clear he felt wonderful by John's reaction - which is pretty impressive, considering all the acclaim that Stephen King has had in his renowned career.
And then he leaned over, looked at me and said - "Tell your brother, I apologize. I don't set out to write popular books. It's just that people buy them."
(Not long after, I was back home in the Midwest and visited my brother who lived in Wisconsin. And I told John this story. His face lit up. One of the biggest smiles I've ever seen him make. "Stephen King said that about me???!" he asked. Yes - Stephen King said that about you. He laughed out loud, and said, with much pleasure, and an acknowledgement of his own inexplicable reaction to popularity - "You know, he's probably right." And he kept smiling.)
I didn't take all that many photos of the production -- most of my pictures were of my trips around Maine on my days off, most notably to Arcadia National Park, Baxter State Park (which I particularly wanted to go to because L.L. Bean sells a 'Baxter State Park Parka'), Campabello Island, where FDR lived when he came down with polio, and had his recuperation there -- and was the subject of the classic play and subsequent movie Sunrise at Campabello (both starring Ralph Bellamy, who as whimsy has it went to my high school, New Trier. But I digress...) Interestingly, it's actually located in Canada, but has been made into an "International Park."
I did take a few photos, though. This below is 'Jud Crandall's House,' where the taciturn character played by Fred Gwynne lived. I've previously told the stories of working with him on the film, which you can read here if interested. The short version is that I quite liked him. He was a bit crusty, but personal and direct. He'd done a great deal, was an accomplished artist, hit some highs and lows in his career, and didn't take kindly to fools, but if you were straight with him, he was good to be around. And contrary to what he may have said later in public -- perhaps it was to be diplomatic, perhaps he came to accept things -- at that time, he didn't hold much appreciation for The Munsters. He was grateful for the good it brought him, but it seriously mucked up his career after that, and he didn't want to talk about it.
And this is the house from behind. It's only this rear that the production did additional work on -- the structure existed before we got there, but had to be filled out for the movie's needs.
We filmed in an area known as Hancock Point, which is a bit outside the town of Ellsworth, about 25 miles from Bangor. The town leaders wanted to give the Key to the Town to the movie company, and since the breakfast "ceremony" for that took place at a local restaurant pretty early in the morning, none of the filmmakers wanted to get up that early. And so I -- as unit publicist -- was given the honor. I had to make a little speech, was very gracious (and meant it) and was presented with the key. I figured that since none of the people on the movie cared enough to go themselves to get the key, and it was presented to me...I would keep it. And still have it. I'm not sure what it will open up for me if I ever go back to Ellsworth, but I'm ready, just in case.
I also recall that it was a big enough deal for us to film in the state that the governor showed up one day. (Checking records, since, no, I didn't remember, it was John McKernan, Jr., a Republican.) He told a wonderful story about Hancock Point that I included in the press kit. The short version was --
Back in World War II, the Germans wanted to get spies infiltrated in the U.S. so, Hanock Point being one of the easternmost parts of the country, they got a U-boat close enough to land and dropped two men off. They were dressed as locals and went walking through the point into town -- and almost immediately were spotted and arrested, but everyone knew everyone in that small, taciturn village that any stranger instantly stood out.
One last photo. It has nothing to do with Pet Sematary, but it came during my time there and is one of my favorite pictures, although it's helped by the background. On one of my day's off, I decided to drive through the countryside. At one point, I passed a farm, and saw a large group of cows on the far side of the field. I stopped the car, and got out to look at them. What can I say, I like cows...
And then I soon noticed something unexpected. It turned out that cows are incredibly curious. Because one-by-one, a cow would turn, spot me, and sloooooowwwwllly walk across the field to check me out. And then another. And another. And another. And... Well, I decided to wait to see what would happen. And this was the result.
We all communed there for a while -- it would have been so rude of me to leave right after they had made the notable effort to graciously stop by and visit -- but then eventually it was time for me to head on. From their end, I'm guessing they returned back to the far side of the field. Perhaps discussing the whippersnapper in a Cubs cap.
I have a lot of very good memories of working on the film, and some off-beat one, not just on the set, but traveling around the state. This includes some wonderful country-dining, a lot of blueberries and blueberry pie (Machias in northeast part of the state is the wild blueberry capital of the U.S.), going to a Triple-A minor league baseball game in Old Orchard Beach for the Maine Phillies, several trips to Freeport, the flagship home of L.L. Bean that's open literally 24/7 every day with countless factory outlet stores from other companies built-up around it, eating at "lobster pots" -- seemingly almost as ubiquitous and inexpensive there as McDonalds -- most memorably Bob the Lobster, understanding from the eerieness of parts of the state where Stephen King's stories come from, dismal Mexican food and an absence of a lot of ethnic food, and seeing a concert in town by Noel Paul Stookey -- Paul, of Peter, Paul and Mary -- who lived down the road in Blue Hill.
I wish the remake well. But I'm very glad I worked on the original.
From all the writing I've been doing about my friend Vicki Rskin's wonderful, just-published book A Hollywood Memoir about her parents, actress Fay Wray and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Nigh), I've come across a bunch of interesting videos that I thought I'd post, along with some stories. And given how many articles I've written about it already, I decided not to drag it out further and just put them all together, in one big Fay Fest.
I don’t know what this first video is from, but it has to be within the last year because they mention the Broadway musical of King Kong. It’s a piece on the original movie that uses a lot of an old interview with Fay. I do recognize the announcer, Bill Kurtis who was a very popular TV news anchor in Chicago who then went on to do national work for CBS. And later became a host on several documentary TV series. (Fun note for perspective: I found out only a few years ago that he was close friends with my dad’s cousin -- and my second cousin -- Marion Elisberg Simon, who was sort of a doyenne of Arts, social programs, and Jewish community in Chicago, and he wrote an introduction to her autobiography a few years ago. She only just passed away last year at 99.)
I also came across this fascinating video from 1998, when Fay was 91. She had been invited to come to the Oscars, and host Billy Crystal goes down into the audience to talk to her. What's interesting is that she seems surprised that he's there, which seems unlikely since you wouldn't invite a 91-year old legend to the Oscars, plan to talk to her live, and not tell her. What's also possible, if not likely, is that they did indeed tell her, and at 91 she just got the stories conflated and thought they meant to only have her stand up and wave. The point here, though, is that this is a recipe for something going very, very wrong, live on TV, with a massive worldwide audience -- and yet Fay (although a bit flustered) is sharp, bright and utterly charming. And while every moment you think it's going to go kablooey, it never does. What leaps out too are the looks of joy and awe on the faces of all these major stars in the audience, because that's Fay Wray there, at 91. (By the way, that's her daughter Vicki sitting to her left, with short dark hair and wearing a sort of plaid jacket with black lapels.)
When I noted above that Fay was charming in the video, that shouldn't come as a surprise. From all I've ever heard from Vicki, and stories from others -- including a friend who waited tables years ago and she was a regular-- that she was incredibly charming. I got to meet Fay Wray once, when she was around 92. Her son-in-law David Rintels (who's a good friend of mine) brought her to an event I was at, and he introduced us. It was a very short conversation, but long enough to make me believe every lovely thing David and Vicki and others had told me about her. Incredibly sweet.
She lived to 96, and I remember David once saying that as long as festivals would invite Fay to appear with King Kong that Fay would stick around. What’s fascinating is that she also was a very good writer, and wrote several Broadway plays, including one with Sinclair Lewis who apparently fell in love with her and wanted to marry her, though she wasn’t interested. She did have a relationship though with Clifford Odets.
My favorite story about her is when David told me that the filmmaker Peter Jackson wanted to meet with her before he made his new version of King Kong. To put perspective on the story, Jackson had of course directed, co-written and produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy which together grossed about $3 billion, of which he got a solid royalty. And his absolute favorite film growing up was King Kong. So, he REALLY wanted to meet with Fay, who was 88 at the time. A lunch was set-up between the two, and afterwards David and Vicki asked how it went. “Oh, it was fine,’ she said, “he was a very nice young man. But I really don’t think I’ll be able to invest in his movie.” She’d thought that that was why Peter Jackson – who was SO rich at that point he could have funded the movie himself -- wanted to meet with her, to help finance the film. They explained her, no, he just wanted to meet with her because he was such an admirer.
He actually offered her a role in the movie, to play the lady at the end who says the famous like, “It was beauty that killed the beast,” but she said no. Her reasoning was that “I had made my ‘King Kong,’ and this is his.”
When I went to see the remake, I was wondering if he’d give a sort of thank you to her in the end credits, having met with him. So, I waited through the looooong credits, until they got to the scroll at the end of all the names he thanks. Dozens and dozens in a very long list (including her daughter Vicki) – and then, when the long scroll of names in small print passed by there then came one final credit. In massive letters that literally filled the entire screen –
AND THE INCOMPARABLE
Every time I tell that story, the pure generosity of it by Peter Jackson and his clear affection for her almost (honestly) brings me to tears.
Fay retired from acting after marrying Robert Riskin, but when he passed away much too early from a stroke, she came out of retirement and went back to work, doing a great deal of TV shows among other work. Eventually she retired again.-- but one last time she again came out of retirement in 1980, at the age of 73, to act in one last production. But there was a good reason for it. It was the acclaimed Hallmark Hall of Fame TV film Gideon's Trumpet with Henry Fonda based on the true-life landmark case that brought about the right of a defendant to counsel.whether or not it can be afforded. But that wasn't the reason she did the film -- it was because it was written and produced by David Rintels, her son-in-law, married to Vicki Riskin.
Here's her one scene, as Gideon's landlady. If you want to jump to her brief appearance, it comes at the 4:00 mark. By the way, that's her in the freeze-frame below.
Anyway, the memoir has been getting good reviews, including in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. (The mere fact that any of them -- let alone all -- reviewed it is impressive enough to me, since publishers would kill to get a book reviewed in any such a major publication.) The Post review oddly doesn’t talk about the book much, but more about the lives of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin. But it does end with this, saying: “Researching and writing this book has given Victoria Riskin — and her readers — two related pleasures: getting to know the man who championed the little guy on film and remembering the woman who screamed life into a Fay Wray doll.”
And here's a very nice Q&A that the Los Angeles Times did with Vicki just the other day. You can read it here.
Back in college, my roommate Jim Backstrom and I were big fans of Ernie Kovacs, the wildly creative pioneer of TV comedy both artistically and with technical innovations, seen as the direct inspiration for Laugh-In and a great deal more, perhaps even Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. Jim and I hadn't seen much of his work, since it came pretty early in TV history and not much was available elsewhere. But what we'd seen and read about enthralled us.
It was at that point that we read of a new documentary called Kovacs!, which was a compilation of some of his best work. All we wanted to do was see it, but couldn't figure out how. So, we did the next best thing: we decided to try to get the rights to show it on campus ourselves. Articles on the film talked about who the producer was, so we tracked him down. It had only played once, I believe at a festival, so even though we were a couple of college nobodies calling from their dorm room he was very interested to get attention for the film, most-especially since it would be in the Chicago area and at a school as well-regarded for media as was Northwestern, so he happily gave us rights to show it on campus for free.
Surprisingly, that was the easy part. The two remaining issues were getting the dorm to back us, and then for the college to allow us to do it.
The dorm was a piece of cake. We explained that because we'd charge for the tickets at a screening in the big Tech Auditorium (where all campus Friday Night Movies were held), it would raise money for the dorm. They approved this, no skin off their teeth, and gave us permission to be in charge.
The school was another matter, far more difficult. The NU official responsible for such things, Vice President of Student Affairs, or something like that, had a reputation of being so crusty he only would talk to people with titles. We figured it was a bit of an exaggeration, but turned out bizarrely to be true. When we tried to set up a meeting, he wouldn't even talk with us since, no, we didn't actually have a title, like "Dorm President." So, we had to convince the Dorm President to come with us to a meeting with the official, even though he didn't know anything. It ended up being be like a vaudeville sketch. Seated in his office, the school VP would look across his desk and ask a question, let's say,, "When do you want to hold this?" -- and either Jim or I would say, "Two screenings on Sunday night, April 4." And the guy would literally just sit there, not reacting. That is, until the Dorm President realized that he had to answer. And so, he'd say, "Two screenings on Sunday night, April 4." It went on bizarrely like that for about 5 minutes, with us screwing up by responding to his questions and him waiting silently for the Dorm President to give our reply. Eventually we perfected the technique and learned not to answer first, but instead for the next 15 minutes we'd turn to the Dorm President, give him the answer -- and then he'd repeat it to the VP, who had just heard us seconds earlier.
Finally, after this Abbott and Costelllo sketch ran its limit, we did get the school's permission, but then we had to set up the schedule and hire the projectionist through the student in charge of Friday Night Movies.
(I want to add a slight, though meaningful digression for a moment and say that I had long-felt at the time that the Friday Night Movies, which were losing money, was a poorly-run program with a mediocre selection. Though they didn't charge much, it was a fair price for the day, $2 for students and more for the general public. Keep in mind , after all, that these weren't first-run movies, and the program's costs were minimal. Also, movie tickets in general were a whole lot less than they are now.)
Anyway, when we explained the movie we'd be showing, this guy was ridiculing us for our ineptitude -- a documentary? And it's just old TV clips -- by who?? How in the world are you even going to get the right to show that?? Oh, you do? Does he actually know you're a couple of students. And finally, out of exasperation and no other derision left in his empty tank, "Well, it's your money..." But we didn't care. After all, we not only thought his money-losing track record was inept, and that we'd at least break even since our costs were truly minimal (remember, we were getting the movie for free, so it was just the cost of the projectionist and some ads in the Daily Northwestern paper), but mainly...we didn't care because -- we just wanted to see the movie.
And so the reels for the movie were sent to us, and one of my favorite memories of the experience is that -- even before the official screening -- we were SO anxious to see the film that we got a movie projector and showed the documentary in the dorm room of the Resident Assistant. Maybe one other friend who knew about Ernie Kovacs joined us, as well but that was it.
We were also helped in this project by the fact, as I mentioned, that the producer wanted attention to this showing on campus, so he provided a lot of artwork for the ads, which made our efforts look Really Professional. Not the result of two shlubs. (Though Jim was no shlub -- he went on to head up the Anti-Trust Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Dallas. But while very smart, art wasn't his strength. But better than me, which explains how lucky we were to get the artwork) I think the producer may have also taken out some ads. We listed our dorm room phone number in The Reader classifieds for inquiries. And another of my favorite memories came as a result of that --
We got a bunch of calls -- yes, we explained, it was also open to the general public, yes, there will be two screenings -- and one woman in particular asked how much the tickets were. Now, again, we didn't care that much about a profit, but also because Ernie Kovacs wasn't a Big Name Star we didn't want to scare anyone off by the price, and we also thought that more bodies willing to take a chance at a cheaper price would be better than a two-thirds empty cavernous auditorium. Especially for a comedy. So, we priced tickets for everybody, students and public alike, at only 50-cents. And that's what we told her -- and she burst out laughing. The call ended, and then a minute later the phone rang again -- it was the same woman calling back, just making sure that she heard correctly what we'd told her. It's really 50-cents??? Yes.
Anyway, come the big night, uncertain if this was just a big folly (though happy that we got to see the film), we packed the 800-seat auditorium for both screenings, and got the last laugh on the head of Friday Night Movies by not only making a profit, whereas they had a loss, but after all our expenses (which while comparatively small were not insignificant) we made a profit of $500 -- on tickets being sold for only 50-cents. The dorm was thrilled, too, for their new, huge budget.
It was a fine experience. But mainly because I got to see the film, which was the only reason we did all that.
There's a sort of post script to this. Maybe 15-20 years later I saw that the same Kovacs! documentary was going to be screening at a very good revival movie theater near me in West Los Angeles. So, anxious to see it again, I got a ticket. And the print was dreadful, almost unwatchable (at least to me).. After about 10 minutes I'd had enough and left the theater, and asked for the manager, saying that I was leaving and wanted my money back because the print was so terrible. He tried to talk his way out of the refund by saying, "Well, these are clips of an old TV show, that's why the image is so bad." He used that gambit on the wrong guy, though. As politely as I could, I told him a very short version of the story above. I've run a screening of the movie, saw it three times when it first was released, and the video quality of the film is impeccable. This is just a really bad print. I got my money back -- though I would have preferred to see the movie, it's wonderful.
I did get to see it years later, when it aired on TV. If you get a chance to see it, by all means, take it.
Which brings us to the additional point of this all.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Ernie Kovacs' birth, and there are a bunch of centennial events and DVDs and such. Over on his website, Mark Evanier talks briefly about it, and then embeds a recent Stu Shostak Show with guest Thomas Mills, the son of actress Edie Adams, who had been Kovacs wife and later the protective keeper of his material after his untimely death in a car crash. At the age of 92, she's handed over to Mills the Ernie Kovacs Archives, and hours of never-before-seen material has -- for the temporary time being -- been made available to stream online.
Though the video Mark has embedded on his site lasts four hours, know that all of it is not clips of Kovacs. In fact, nearly the first 90 minutes is an interview. If four hours is too long for you, the video segment of first clips starts a bit past the 1:22 mark and runs for about 12 minutes -- really early material, from the early 1950s when Kovacs had a very low-budget, local daytime show. After more conversation, the next 12-minute segment begins at 1:40 and comes from a summer replacement series he was given a few years later. And then, following some additional conversation starting around 2:00 is a segment from when Kovacs briefly hosted the Tonight show two evenings a week. (The centerpiece here is a big satire of Alan Funt's show Candid Camera, for which the "mark" is played by...Alan Funt. Anyway, you get the point. That's how it goes from then on: about 12-minute segments of video followed by a few minutes of talk, taking us up to his later TV years in color.
You can watch it -- here.
And just to give you a brief, here is Kovacs' Kitchen Symphony. Keep in mind that clever as this is, it was done in the mid-1950s before TV had much technical innovation and little use of videotape,, with which he was always experimenting.
And one other bonus. Ernie Kovacs' trademark was his cigar. And his commercials for Dutch Masters, his cigar of choice, were so fun and integrated into the show itself, that they were as entertaining as the rest of the program.
With the Oscars out of the way, I thought I would nonetheless stick with movies for another day.
Turner Classic Movies is finishing up its annual, glorious "31 Days of Oscar," where each presentation over that period are either Oscar winners, or had a least one nomination. It's always a joyous time of year for just great movie-watching. Movie after movie. And the channel itself does wonderful job throughout the year with presenting and promoting old and classic and even just ordinary movies as its commercial and cultural mission. Which brings me to what I fully acknowledge is nothing more than a Point of Personal Privilege. Which in this case takes its form as a rant.
Tiny details are not especially important in the grand scheme of far-larger landscapes, and much of this is just quibbles. And admittedly, as I said, a personal rant. Though I think in the end it has a larger point because TCM heralds itself as the guardian of movies and the source of record, so such things matter in that context. And for a long while, other than when the late Robert Osborne wasn't on the air, the results at TCM for its commentary are fairly empty. To be clear, Osborne wasn't just a "movie geek" as bios describe some of their new hosts, but an actual movie historian who studied and knew and understood the details. I have no idea how much research TCM's other hosts do about movies, and how much of what they say is written by others. But the holes are too often so massive you could drive the train from the end of Bridge on the River Kwai through it.
Ben Mankiewicz has great movie-family pedigree, but I never get a sense that he has all that much love or even appreciation for movies. And if he does, it doesn't come through. It's not that his bookend commentaries on movies are far too often surface, pointless and tend to miss what is actually important historically and cinematically, but regularly veer off into other movies that have almost zero connection to the movie at hand.
This is more about what has come since, when TCM has brought in some new hosts, though I've only seen their Sunday addition, Australian Alicia Malone -- one of their "movie geeks," who at least has written about movies Again, though, i don't know if she does her own research and on-air commentary, or relies on a staff, or if it's a mix of both, but over the last couple of weeks, when I first saw, her there have been issues that are glaring regardless of who did the writing.
To be clear, what I'm about to mention are just a very few examples and as such will come across as petty. But it's only three because there are only three, but rather because I haven't written down all the others over time -- from her, Mankiewicz and others. I've just gnashed my teeth and moved on. And so these three serve, not as the evidence of what I'm saying, but examples of the larger issue of how uninformative and surface the channel in its commentary has become.
Last week, the channel showed the musical Bye Bye Birdie. In her description, Malone admirably said who wrote the screenplay -- and she gets big points for that, since most people leave out the screenwriter. But she didn't mention Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who wrote the songs! How do you talk about a musical and not mention who wrote the songs?? Even if you didn't write the commentary yourself, you'd think a person reading it would notice that beforehand and ask for the information to be included. And when talking about how Paul Lynde recreated his role from the stage production...she didn't mention that...oh, the movie's star, Dick Van Dyke, one of the most beloved actors in American TV and film history. not only was also recreating his Broadway stage role...but had won a Tony Award for it!! Moreover, it was the Broadway role, in fact, that helped get him hired for his legendary TV series, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Seriously, if you're going to mention Paul Lynde recreating his stage role, how does one leave all that out?? Something a movie geek should know, or that a researcher would easily find out.
The movie was followed on the schedule that day by Oliver! Or as it's actually, officially known -- since he wrote the book, music and lyrics -- "Lionel Bart's Oliver!" And in Ms. Malone's commentary on the movie, nowhere did she once ever even mention the name...Lionel Bart. How on earth do you do a commentary on Oliver! -- sorry, on "Lionel Bart's Oliver!" -- and not even mention Lionel Bart??! Forget for a moment that it's Lionel Bart you're not mentioning in "Lionel Bart's Oliver!"...once again, how do you not mention who wrote the music and lyrics (whoever the person is) for a musical??!!
I let all that slide until the next Sunday, yesterday, when they aired the movie musical High Society. Ms. Malone began by talking about last week they had three movie musicals based on Broadway musicals, and this week they have three more. Except High Society is not based on a Broadway musical, but was an original. (Yes, it's based on a movie which is based on a Broadway play, but that's very different.) She also kept referring to the film as a "remake" of film and stage play, The Philadelphia Story. But it's not -- any more than My Fair Lady is a "remake" of Pygmalion, or West Side Story is a "remake" of Romeo and Juliet. It's a totally different creature, a musical adaptation. That's another animal entirely from a "remake." More to the point was a story she told about the film's Oscar nominations --
She mentioned High Society's two nominations for Best Song and Best Music Scoring. And then told the tale of how there was a mix-up with "Best Story," confusing High Society with a film of the same title the previous year, until the other writers noticed it on the list of eligible movies and informed the Academy. And then she added that the Motion Picture Academy apparently let those earlier writers keep the plaque with their nomination, noting with a smile that "I don't know if that's true, but I hope it is." The problem is that just moments earlier, she said that the movie only got two nominations -- neither of which you'll recall was for Best Story. So, by her own words, just seconds earlier, there is zero possible way that the writers would have kept a "Best Story" nomination plaque. Since, by her own words, it didn't get a Best Story nomination! And it doesn't matter if she did the research about that anecdote or someone else did -- anyone reading the copy could have easily noticed that.
To be fair, the movie that followed High Society on the TCM schedule was The Music Man, and she did a respectable job introducing it. There was much more she could have added, like that the film's director Morton DaCosa (who she mentions) also directed the Broadway production. A small, but valuable item, as long as you're mentioning him. And that several cast members of the movie other than Robert Preston recreated their Broadway roles. Pert Kelton (as Mama Paroo), The Buffalo Bills barbershop quarter, and Harry Hickox (who played the adversarial traveling salesman). But still, it was a solid introduction.
And she also did a reasonable job with the following movie, 1776. Yet even at this it was largely surface. For instance, she mentioned that Peter Hunt directed the film -- but not that he had also directed the stage version. She mentioned, too, that the production used much of the original Broadway cast -- but not that for the other roles, almost everyone else in the movie had also appeared in either a touring production or subsequent Broadway cast of 1776. And while she mentioned that the film only did moderately-well and got mediocre reviews, she importantly left out the reason why! I mean, if you're going to criticize a movie (especially one you're about to present), while that's fair, though odd with no context, it would seem proper to point out the reason for the criticism: that 40 minutes of the movie had been cut out! And left unsaid is that it's only been in recent years after intense research tracking down lost material and meticulous restoration (including footage that very conservative producer Jack L. Warner had ordered destroyed for it being too liberal) that the finally-approved "Director's Cut" movie -- which is now what TCM shows, as the filmmaker intended -- has finally received its share of long-overdue acclaim. Bizarrely, and I personally think unnecessarily, she even doubled-down after the film by quoting from bad reviews, rather than noting that the stage version (which is what this final just shown far-more closely matches) had not only won the Tony Award as Best Musical, but also the Pulitzer Prize..
As I said, I know that this is all niggling. And it's only just a small handful of observations. To be clear, it's actually not meant as a specific singling-out of Alicia Malone -- who does seem to have a knowledge of and love of movies, far more than the channel's main host Ben Mankiewicz -- just that with the luck of the draw she's the person I've most recently seen and can comment on. (And have generally gotten to the point where I skip past what Mankiewicz has to say.) But I repeat. It's the culmination of A LOT of errors and glaring, core omissions I've seen on TCM for quite a while now, none of which I've written down or can remember the details of, and these are only the small handful of examples from just two days the past week to serve as examples of the larger issue. And -- importantly -- because TCM prides and markets itself as the depository of movies as an important part of American culture (something they do a great job of in their presentation and much else, including festivals, seminars and original featurettes), it's not nit-picking to notice when they slide so far off the track so often in their commentary of that history.
There, I got that out of the way. For now.
Last year, on the day of the Oscars, I wrote the following, about a quest I've been on.
A long while back, I was on a mini-mission to get the Motion Picture Academy to open their Oscar broadcast with a particularly wonderful song that, though it had a bit of shelf-life in country music (reaching #10 on the country charts), I figured they wouldn't know. I actually came close -- not to accomplishing my task, but having access to making the suggestion -- when my former boss at Universal Studios, Bob Rehme, was made president of the Academy. Alas, I didn't have the contact information that would have helped and didn't make the effort -- which probably wouldn't have been too difficult, even it was before Google searches -- to track it down (hence never getting beyond being just a "mini-mission").
The idea time has long-since passed, since the group who sang the song, the Statler Brothers, have retired, and also some of the references in the song -- while many are still classic -- aren't all likely as impactful on today's audience. Still, it's a very fun song, and would make an enjoyable number in the middle of the broadcast, sung by a cobbled-together quartet of movie stars singing. Or the Statlers themselves could come out of retirement. They did briefly a couple years ago for an event when elected into a country music Hall of Fame.
But no, that's not going to happen. But it doesn't stop me from at least presenting the song on the day of the Oscar broadcast. So, here it is -- one of the most affectionate and clever songs I've heard about movies. And it fits perfectly into the portfolio of "list" songs that the Statlers were so well-known for.
Indeed, the name of the song is "The Movies."
There's one change from previous years. When I've posted the song in the past, it was a video with Jimmy Fortune who had replaced Lew DeWitt who'd had to retire for health reasons. But I've found a video with all four original Statlers, all the more notable since it was Lew DeWitt (on your far right, with the guitar) who wrote the song.
[Note: Since posting this article, the video below seems to have been removed. However, here's a link to the version with Jimmy Fortune that I've posted in the past.]
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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