A tribute to Mary Tyler Moore

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Like millions of other TV fans, I was saddened to hear of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, who passed two days ago just a month after her 80th birthday.

Moore’s death spawned a legion of blogs and columns about her legendary 1970-77 CBS sitcom, which paved a small but incisive path for American feminism. Countless women have stated how they were inspired to follow in the steps of Mary Richards and become journalists. (My wife, a newspaper publisher/editor, is among those women.)

Yet, for all of Mary Richards’ quiet assertiveness on the job and in her private life, the episode from the show that has been most cited by pundits is the 1975 gem “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” wherein one of Mary’s co-workers, a TV clown, dies an odd death, inspiring much gallows humor among the survivors. Mary, the voice of reason and good taste, continuously chides her other co-workers for making tasteless remarks at the expense of a dead man. Then at the man’s funeral, the minister cites some of the clown’s career highlights — including his signature line, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants” — and dignified Mary gradually loses her composure for all of the funeral guests to see.

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Don’t get me wrong. The episode is a small master class in comedy and probably one of my top five all-time favorite TV episodes ever. (TV scripter and blogger Ken Levine has written about how he and his partner, David Isaacs, decided to become TV comedy writers in the 1970’s. They decided the first thing they should do was attend the live taping of a TV sitcom. Wouldn’t you know it, the first one they ever saw live was “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” which nearly intimidated them out of a TV career at the thought of ever writing anything approaching that level of quality.)

But it’s worth noting that, besides its sense of superb comedy, one of the best qualities about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was its generosity of spirit. It was indeed often quite hysterical, but never at the expense of its characters, who were provided many grace notes.

Where so many others have seen fit to cite the “Chuckles” episode as a pinnacle of the show, I’d like to mention an episode from Season 3, “Rhoda the Beautiful.”

(WARNING: Major spoilers to follow. If you’d prefer to watch the episode first, I’ve embedded it at the bottom of this blog.)

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Mary’s good friend Rhoda Morgenstern (played wonderfully by Valerie Harper) has been steadily dieting and looks fabulous, but she is still making self-deprecating jokes about her appearance, much to Mary’s consternation. At the same time, the department store where Rhoda works is holding a beauty contest, and after much hemming and hawing, Rhoda enters the contest.

When the contest ends, Rhoda returns to the apartment of Mary, who is talking to the apartment manager Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). Rhoda announces that she won third place in the contest. The women congratulate her on her not-bad showing, and Phyllis leaves, as does Rhoda.

Then comes the (pardon the pun) crowning moment. Rhoda returns and sheepishly tells Mary that she did not come in third — she won the contest.

Mary is so happy for Rhoda that Mary’s facial expressions and body language speak volumes. Mary Tyler Moore has always been justly credited as a good reactor to fellow actors, but mostly as a comic reactor. Watch Mary here — you’d swear she was just being handed Rhoda’s good news for the first time. How many TV shows of any kind, much less sitcoms, would take the time to include grace notes such as this?

Rest in peace, Mary Tyler Moore. You made television a better place, after all.

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Jerry Lewis brings the funny, 1994

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Much was made of a recent interview where Jerry Lewis stubbornly gave one- or two-syllable answers to an interviewer who was doing a documentary about show business legends.

When it comes to this man, there seem to be two Jerry Lewises. There’s the bitter one who constantly mouths off about how his comedic and film genius is unappreciated. But then, if you catch him on a good day, there’s the effusive Jerry that reminds all the fans who grew up with him why they liked him in the first place.

Here’s a very sunny and funny example of the latter, from David Letterman’s CBS talk show in 1994. Letterman is obviously a big fan, and Lewis seems to return the favor, resulting in the kind of fun that people always hope for on talk shows.

A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957) -A very early look at reality TV

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

In 1957, Arkansas radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) has air time to fill. Her radio show, “A Face in the Crowd,” consists of folksy interviews with down-to-earth citizens. One day, Marcia enters a local jailhouse, where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loudmouth who has been arrested on disorderly conduct.

At first, Larry wants nothing to do with Marcia, but then he takes a good look at Marcia (who dubs Larry “‘Lonesome’ Rhodes”)  and softens up. The sheriff sweetens the deal by saying that he’ll let Lonesome loose if he’ll cooperate with Marcia.

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Lonesome pulls out his handy guitar and starts improvising some wild blues, and soon Marcia is satisfied that she got what she was looking for. Later, her boss is even more impressed with Lonesome and insists that Marcia track him down. In record time, Lonesome’s charisma turns him into a radio smash, with the local citizenry utterly charmed by Lonesome’s cracker-barrel wisdom.

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But this success ends up having some unfortunate side effects. Lonesome becomes convinced that every idea that pops out of his mouth is pure gold, and heaven help any broadcast executive who dares to suggest otherwise. And Marcia, at first bemused by this hayseed gone successful, realizes she has unloosed a genie she can’t get back in the bottle.

This movie is simply mesmerizing, not the least in the ways it predicts how Madison Avenue would mount ad campaigns that would congratulate TV viewers for being such geniuses in buying their products. The movie’s extended “Vitajex” sequence, in which Lonesome turns around the unsuccessful sales of an “energy pill,” is like a short lesson in modern advertising. The movie’s other eye-popping lesson comes when Lonesome teaches a U.S. Senator how to come across as more personable so that he can win over his TV viewers (this movie came out three years before the Kennedy/Nixon debates).

All of the movie’s performances are sharpened to a fine point. Tony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Kay Medford, and the rest of the cast are fairly dripping with cynicism but never overplay their hands. Patricia Neal is just as sensuous and winning as she was in The Day The Earth Stood Still and (surprisingly) for similar reasons, as an Everywoman who slowly realizes she’s in over her head.

As for Andy Griffith, he’s as far from likable old Sheriff Taylor as he could get. Lonesome Rhodes is someone with just enough intelligence that, when pushed in the wrong direction, grabs everything he can for himself and leaving unhappiness in his wake. (There might be a reason that Turner Classic Movies broadcast this movie on the same date as President Donald Trump’s inauguration.)

A Face in the Crowd doesn’t quite qualify as film noir — but it’s not for lack of trying.

Requesting help from other WordPress.com users

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There are some recently announced blogathons in which I’d love to participate, but I’m a bit stymied. Here’s why.

You’ll notice that, on the far right column of this blog, I post links to the ‘thons in which I have entered. On WordPress, that used to be easy to do. You’d just click on the top left-hand corner of the blog to bring down the menu; click on “Menus”; click on “Widgets”; and then add the banner and URL of the ‘thon.

But like other webpage sponsors, WordPress recently decided that, since it ain’t broke, they might as well fix the s**t out of it. Now when I click on “Menus,” “Widgets” doesn’t even pop up as an option.

It’s the same for “Comments.” Whenever a reader would leave me a comment about my blog, all I had to do was click on the “Comments” option of the “Menus” section. But again, WordPress has decided to change this in the hope that I will never read another reader comment for as long as I live.

Do any other WordPress users know how to work around these bugaboos? If so, please either leave me a comment in the “Comments” section of this blog entry, or email me directly at socialmediaspecialist61@gmail.com. Thanks for your help!