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.

Godspeed, Obama

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I can only re-post it.

Travalanche

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Today is the last day in office of the best President I will probably ever see in my lifetime — certainly the finest man to serve as President.

The Right has a weird tendency to speak disparagingly of Obama’s inspirational rhetoric as if that were somehow nothing, as though trying to connect profoundly disconnected people back to whatever meaning still remains in what has become a cold, materialistic, violent nation was some kind of fool’s errand. But a leader needs to get people on board before he can take them anywhere. Obama tried very hard to do that. He tried to include people. He had no shady agenda of  trying to enrich his cronies like, well, just about every other President of my lifetime. It’s hard for me to think of the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, or Johnson without sense memories of corruption; the Oval Office as pig sty…

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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!

Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – A holiday experience

 

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Most Judy Garland fans know at least one song in her catalog that will reduce them to a blubbering mess. For me, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is not a Christmas song, it’s a Christmas experience, and my holiday season does not officially begin until I’ve cried over it at least once.

The song was written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin for Garland’s 1944 M-G-M musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and it’s probably the song version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in terms of the number of times and ways it’s been re-done. If you’re familiar with the tune, you’ll know that there are two versions of it. The more optimistic version has the lines “From now on, our troubles will be out of sight” and “Through the years, we all will be together.”

But for me, the only version that counts — and even that one doesn’t count unless it’s sung by Garland — goes, “Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight” and “Some day soon, we all will be together.” Why does this version count?

The song’s premise, for one. In the movie, Esther (Garland) is singing the song to comfort her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), who is upset that their family will soon be uprooting to New York. Listening to Garland sing the song, you quickly realize that (a) Esther is singing the song to uplift herself as much as her sister, and (b) she doesn’t believe a single word of it.

Even the song’s orchestration is bittersweet. The first four bars have typical twinkling imagery in the background, but the song’s string section subtly leads us, one step after the other, into a bitter descent that paves the way for Garland’s tearful voice.

And this is as it should be. People often pooh-pooh the holiday naysayers and want to remember only the happy times and joyous reunions, and there’s certainly a place for that.

But for me, the song evokes all those Christmases before I was lucky enough to have a wife and family of my own — those times when I looked at happy couples and twinkling lights and wondered why I felt so alone. It’s a hell from which I’m selfishly happy to have escaped, knowing that the same scene still plays out annually for others.

By all means, don’t deny yourself the joy that the holiday season brings. But when all the Christmas chores are done, sit down, look at the starry sky, and listen to Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with everything that’s in her.

And remember that the greatest Being who ever walked on this earth, whose birth we are celebrating, was born in a stable, surrounded by cattle. And if you pray, preface the greeting “God, our Heavenly Father,” with “There, but for the grace of…”

 

 

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944) – Preston Sturges’ Christmas gift to the world

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Small-town girl Trudy Kockenlocker (reflect on that name for a moment) is torn. Trudy (Betty Hutton) wants to give a good time to the soldiers who are having a farewell party before leaving to fight in the war. But the small-town part of her regrets once again turning down a date with well-meaning 4-F-er Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), who has longed for Trudy ever since they were kids.

(And Trudy’s brusque father, Constable Edmund Kockenlocker [William Demarest], would prefer to see Trudy and her younger sibling Emmy [Diana Lynn] locked up in chastity belts until their honeymoons.)

Trudy takes the worldly way out and wishes the soldiers well all night long. This results in a bump on the head, a quickie marriage to some soldier whose name she can’t quite place (“Ratzkywatzky? I know there’s a ‘Z’ in it somewhere”), and yet another bump — the kind that’s the outcome of a marriage you can’t quite remember. All of this quite rattles the good citizens of Morgan’s Creek — particularly Norval, who usually has a bad case of the nerves on his good days.

All of this results in risque, just-this-side-of-bad-taste comedy that left many contemporary censors, critics, and moviegoers in (often delightful) shock (it’s stated that the movie often played to SRO houses in its day) and still leaves you wide-eyed and laughing with its refreshing frankness. This movie looks as though it was filmed for about 50 cents, and it really doesn’t matter — because, as with the best movie comedies, all you really want is a camera to follow the characters around and watch as they get deeper and deeper into their mess. And that’s pretty much what writer-director Preston Sturges does; you can almost see him behind the camera, licking his chops as his actors make the most out of every situation and pratfall.

As for those actors, what’s not to like? Hutton and Lynn are thoroughly winning as they hatch their schemes under the lurking eye of their assertive father. Bracken takes a character who’s potentially grating and gives him an undercurrent of naive charm. Demarest is superbly blustery (and who knew he could take such falls over and over?). There’s always one scene in each of Sturges’ movies that ensures it for posterity. Here, it’s the one where the constable/father gives a very threatening speech to his potential son-in-law, who is already near hysterics from all of the movie’s goings-on.

Sturges brings the story to a head right on Christmas Eve. That’s enough for me to qualify it as my favorite Christmas movie ever. It’s a miracle, all right — a miracle of comedy.

(If this review has enticed you, join me at Twitter.com as I Live Tweet the movie on Mon. and Wed., Dec. 19 and 21, 2016 at, respectively, #MondayActionMovie and #WTFWed.)

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Don’t like Spike Lee? Go on and swear, see if I care

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Spike Lee’s amazing School Daze has the liberating feeling of something loose and cool breaking through on the screen. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, Lee makes no apologies about showing no white people in the movie — and more power to him. Lee’s loosely plotted depiction of life at an all-black college is refreshing in its — if you will — “segregation.” A viewer can perfectly well see that Lee wants to show a black milieu, free of the condescending whites of many lesser movies.

The majority of the story involves the college’s fraternity and sorority. Half-Pint (Spike Lee) is quite happy to sacrifice his individuality if it’ll get him into Gamma Phi Gamma, despite the best efforts of his cousin Dap (Laurence Fishburne, billed here as “Larry”) to radicalize his sibling. And sorority leader Jane (Tisha Campbell, who later had to suffer as Martin Lawrence’s wife in the sitcom “Martin”) has an intense relationship with lead Gamma man Julian (Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad”), which eventually has some beyond-unfortunate consequences for Jane.

The movie goes all over the place, but if it’s a mess, it’s an invigorating one. It goes from Half-Pint’s frat hi-jinks, to Dap’s getting humbled (somewhat) by a local man (Samuel L. Jackson!) who couldn’t care less about getting radicalized, to Julian’s unbelievably callous kiss-off to Jane. In between, there’s a great speech by Ossie Davis, as a coach who psychs up the college football team as though he’s giving a Sunday sermon, and an appropriately named dance number, “Da Butt” — placed in the film because Lee wanted to see what it was like to start a national trend.

And about a half-hour into the movie is what I consider its greatest moment (embedded below): An all-out musical number (written by Lee’s father Bill) called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the “wannabe” sorority girls, with their contact lenses and fancy hair, duke it out with the “jigaboos,” who let their hair go natural as a matter of pride. The number goes far beyond its reason for existence and just turns into a marvel to watch. You can just about touch the joy in the performances of the women, who seem to marvel at the chance to show their stuff. (Look at those happy faces at number’s end.) For me, it was 1988’s best movie scene, and it made me wish the entire movie had been a full-fledged musical (though it squeezes in a couple of other numbers, one by Stevie Wonder).

I met Spike Lee at a book signing shortly after this movie came out. At that point, I was so thrilled with his movies and to see him in the flesh, I burst out at him, “I hope the studios let you make movies forever!” Lee looked up at me wordlessly, and you could see his thoughts in his eyes: Who is this crazy white man? Well, what I am is a movie enthusiast who loves great movies that have an individual point of view, rather than looking like they were steered by committee. And how many committees would approve a musical number called “Straight and Nappy”?

School Daze is one of Spike Lee’s loosest movies, and still one of his best.