January 19, 1944: Patriotism and Prosmiscuity

miracleA movie released for national distribution back on January 19, 1944, depicted the predicament of a young woman named Trudy Kockenlocker. It’s seen today as a rather tame screwball comedy — and a good one at that, listed by the American Film Institute as #54 on it’s list of all-time best comedies. Yet it’s a wonder it was ever released.

Miracle at Morgan’s Creek starred Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken and was directed by Preston Sturges. It tells how Trudy wakes up one morning after a farewell party for a group of soldiers to discover that, while drunk, she married one of them whose name she can’t remember. A short time later, she discovers she is pregnant.

Well, didn’t the alarms go off at the Hays Office, that noble outfit charged with protecting Americans from perversion through diligent censorship. The script was sent to the office in 1942, and Paramount quickly received a seven-page catalog of complaints, starting with the fact that Trudy was drunk and working its way up to the possible comparison of Trudy’s dilemma with the virgin birth of Jesus. When the Hays Office had finished its snipping, only ten pages of the script remained in tact. The War Department weighed in about the conduct of the departing soldiers. A pastor in the film who delivers the moral warning against mixing patriotism with promiscuity got the hook as well.

The film was finally released, the Hays Office was bombarded with complaints, including one critic’s suggestion that the office had been “raped in its sleep” for allowing the film to be released, (evidently, Sturges had somehow forgotten to share the film’s ending with the Hays Office). and it became Paramount’s highest-grossing film of the year. It also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

January 19, 1953

A lot of folks would spin the channel to CBS in 1953 to catch  another birth, this one a tad less controversial as Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky (Ricky Ricardo Jr.) – 71.7% of all television sets in the United States were tuned into the I Love Lucy program. On the same day, Lucy gave birth to a nonfictional son, Desi Arnaz Jr.

 

 

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December 31, 1920: Don’t Go Near the Indians

rexallenIt was 1949 and executives at Republic Pictures had a brainstorm – let’s take that nice clean-cut guy hanging around the studio and make him a cowboy – maybe even a singing cowboy – he’ll be a God-fearing American hero of the Wild West, wearing a white Stetson hat; he’ll love his faithful horse (platonic, of course); and maybe he could have a loyal sidekick who shares his adventures. We’ll call him the Arizona Cowboy (Arizona isn’t already taken, is it?)

And so Rex Allen, born December 31, 1920, came to a silver screen near you,  joining such singing cowboys as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. His horse was Koko, and his comic relief sidekick was Buddy Ebsen (later Slim Pickens). He rode out of the West just as the West was losing interest for moviegoers. He did get a quick 19 movies in the can (and a comic book) before the genre played out. And in 1954, he starred in Hollywood’s last singing western. Then, like other cowboy stars, he rode into the sunset and onto TV in a series called Frontier Doctor.

Allen had written and recorded a number of the songs featured in his movies. He continued recording, and in 1961, had a hot country single with a song called “Don’t Go Near The Indians,” featuring the Merry Melody Singers. The song told the story of a young man who disobeys his father’s titular advice and develops a relationship (platonic, of course) with a beautiful Indian maiden named Nova Lee. The father reveals a deep dark secret out of the past: his biological son was killed by an Indian during one of those skirmishes between the white man and a nearby tribe. In retaliation, he kidnapped an Indian baby and raised him as his son who grew up to be you-know-who. And there’s another jaw-dropping secret: Nova Lee is the boy’s biological sister! (But poppa, it’s purely platonic; our kids won’t be imbeciles.) They don’t write them like that anymore.

Rex Allen turned in his spurs in 1999 at the age of 79.

 

 

December 21, 1946: Don’t You Know Me, Bert? Ernie?

Frank Capra said that it was his favorite of the many movies he made throughout a phenomenal career. He screened it for his family every Christmas season. Yet it’s initial 1946 release at the Globe Theatre in New York did not bring about yuletide euphoria and visions wonderfullifed1018of sugar plums. It’s a Wonderful Life premiered to mixed and sometimes dismissive reviews, but it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, garnering a permanent spot in every list of the top films of the last century.

From its very beginning, it did not inspire great expectations. It was based on an original story “The Greatest Gift”written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, Stern made it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in 1943.  In 1944, RKO Pictures ran across the story and bought the rights to it for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Grant made another Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, instead, and the story languished on a shelf until RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights to Capra in 1945.

Capra, along with several other writers, including Dorothy Parker, created the screenplay that Capra would rename It’s a Wonderful Life.

The town of Seneca Falls, New York claims that Capra modeled Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in December, a Hotel Clarence, and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum. The town of Bedford Falls itself, however, was built in Culver City, California, on a 4-acre set originally designed for the western Cimarron. Capra added a working bank and a tree-lined center parkway, planted with 20 full grown oak trees. Pigeons, cats, and dogs roamed at will.

The dance scene where George and Mary end up in the swimming pool was filmed at the Beverly Hills High School. The pool still exists.

 

itsa-wonderfulll

 

 

December 14, 1977: You Are the Dancing King

He was just another juvenile delinquent in a television sit-com, before he became a superstar playing a nobody by day who blossoms at night on the dance floor.  John Travolta strutted his Saturdaystuff as Tony Manero, a paint-store clerk who dons a dashing white suit to ride the disco craze out of his dead-end existence in Saturday Night Fever. The film premiered on December 14, 1977, already guaranteed success thanks to its soundtrack, released months before the movie.

The disco songs recorded by the Bee Gees (including “Stayin’ Alive”) were all over the pop charts, sparking intense interest in the film before its release, with the film then popularizing the entire soundtrack after its release – the first (but certainly not the last) use of cross-media marketing.

Travolta plays Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store clerk who’d give anything to break out of his humdrum life. The movie follows his foray, along with his partner Stephanie, into the Manhattan world of flashing lights and sweaty bodies. Disco and the culture of the disco era also star in the movie – the symphonic orchestration over a steady beat and disciplined choreography, the high style in clothing, and the sexuality of it all.

“Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines,” said movie critic Gene Siskel, who bought Travolta’s famous white suit at a charity auction. “He struts like crazy.”

The film had an R-rating when it was originally released in 1978. Several years later it was edited down to PG with naughty bits removed to make it more “family-friendly” and suitable for television.

Some critics complain that the film was regressive, refashioning disco, which began as an underground social scene for gays, blacks and Latinos, as a vehicle for white masculinity and the heterosexual hunt for a willing partner. Picky, picky, picky.

auden

 

December 8, 1959: Battle of the Smellies

During the 1950s, movie studios were grasping at any gimmick to lure eyeballs away from television and back into theaters. One gimmick that seemed to be a favorite among movie-makers,  judging by the frequent attempts (usually unsuccessful) to use it was the sense of smell.

Individual theater owners had played around with smells off and on aromafor years, using various makeshift techniques such as spraying perfume in front of an electric fan. But the first use of odor as created by the producers of the film itself didn’t come until the December 8, 1959, premiere of Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue featuring the sights, sounds and, yes, odors of China. The odors were provided by a process called AromaRama. On the heels of this movie, came another film cleverly titled the Scent of Murder, touting the wonders of Smell-O-Vision. (We also had Scentovision and Smell-O-Rama.) Variety called the competition “the battle of the smellies.”

In an interview, the inventor of AromaRama gushed: “More than 100 different aromas will be injected into the theater during the film. Among these are the odors of grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches, horses, restaurants, the scent of a trapped tiger and many more. We believe, with Rudyard Kipling, that smells are surer than sounds or sights to make the heartstrings crack.”

Well, maybe. There were a few glitches early on. Faulty timing might give you a picture of a steaming bowl of jasmine rice that smelled like that trapped tiger. And the distraction of a hundred or so members of the audience simultaneously and loudly sniffing. Even though most of the bugs were ironed out, the whole idea never caught on, despite occasional attempts to revive it (including one notable high tech process that provided audiences with scratch and sniff cards along with instructions on when to scratch and sniff).

Those fun-loving folks at BBC jumped on the bandwagon in 1965, airing an April 1 interview with the inventor of a process that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. In a vivid demonstration, he chopped onions and brewed a pot of coffee, then took calls from viewers who had experienced the transmitted smells.

Even BBC couldn’t slow the demise of AromaRama et al, however. In 2000, a Time magazine survey listed it as one of the “Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time.”

 

If you are a dog and your owner suggests that you wear a sweater, suggest that he wear a tail. ~ Fran Lebowitz

December 2, 1941: Here’s Looking at You, Kid *

World War II had engulfed most of Europe and refugees everywhere were searching for the exits. The most popular way out was through Lisbon, Portugal, but getting there was a bit of a do. A long, roundabout refugee trail led desperate refugees from Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Algeria, then by train or auto or even by foot across northern Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.

Once in Casablanca, those with enough cash or influence could scare up exit visas and scurry off to Lisbon, then the Americas. Ah, but those unlucky ones, those without means, would wait in Casablanca “and wait and wait and wait.”

casablanca2Picture yourself in an open-air city market, dripping with intrigue, teeming with black marketeers, smugglers, spies, thieves, double agents, and assorted ne’er-do-wells, all loudly engaged in their business activities. And of course there’s the aforementioned refugees attempting to deal and double-deal their way out. It’s December 2, 1941. The news spreads quickly through the market that two German couriers on their way to casablanca3Casablanca have been murdered. They were carrying “letters of transit” allowing the bearers to travel freely around German-controlled Europe and to neutral Portugal. You better believe these papers are to kill for.

Now walk into a cafe owned by an American expatriate named Rick. It’s the place in Casablanca where everybody and everything eventually show up. And right on cue, the letters of transit do, in the casablanca4possession of Ugarte, the town weasel. And so does everyone else who is anyone else: There’s Czech resistance leader, Victor Lazlo, Norwegian Ilsa Lund (Rick’s former lover), nasty German Major Strasser, Vichy syncophant Louis Renault, rival club owner and black marketeer Senor Ferrari, Sam the piano player, and a cast of, if not thousands, dozens. Of course, all of this is taking place not in Casablanca but on the lot of Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood, California.

The story line is well-known by most movie-goers, and the cast is like one large dysfunctional family. If you haven’t seen Casablanca during its first 75 years, chances are you never will. But if you have, you’ll probably see it again and again. And you probably have your favorite scene. Maybe it was this one:

  • No.5 on the AFI list of top movie quotes

 

November 22, 1247: Time Flies Like an Arrow . . .

Robin Hood has been celebrated through story, song and film as that charming rogue who, along with his merry men, robbed from the 1 percent and gave to the 99 percent, a nobleman cheated out of his birthright by the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham, a patriot in service to Richardrobin hood the Lionhearted, fighting the villainy of that usurper Prince John.

Disney isn’t entirely responsible for this whitewash; the English have long raised Robin Hood to mythic status as well as giving him religion through Friar Tuck and romance through Maid Marian.

Earlier accounts, however, have him born to wealth but squandering his inheritance through carelessness and overindulgence, after which he was forced to adopt the life of an outlaw in the forest. He collected around him a band of thieves – who may indeed have been merry – to assist in his predatory operations. Chances are they robbed mainly the rich because the rich were the ones with something to steal. To the consternation of the authorities, Robin Hood and his gang carried out their trade for a number of years.

As Robin Hood ushered in his 87th year, his arrows began to get a little wobbly and off-target. He increasingly felt the infirmities of his age, and was eventually convinced to seek medical attention at the local nunnery. The prioress evidently took an instant dislike to the merry old man, which she vented by opening up an artery and allowing him to bleed to death. The date of his demise is reckoned to be November 22, 1247.

But before he turned his toes completely up, Robin realized that he was the victim of treachery (flowing blood will do that), and he blew a blast on his bugle (kept handily at his bedside for just such a situation). This summoned his compatriot Little John who forced his way into the chamber in time to hear his chief’s last request. “Give me my bent bow in my hand,” he said. “And an arrow I’ll let free, and where that arrow is taken up, there let my grave digged be.” Rhyming right to the end. Which came just after he shot the arrow through an open window, selecting the spot where he should be buried. Which he was.

. . . fruit flies like a banana. — Groucho Marx

 

November 21, 1945: Humor He Wrote

American humorist Robert Benchley died on November 21, 1945, (born 1889) after a writing career that took him from the Harvard Lampoon to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Although he described himself as not quite a writer and not quite an actor, he enjoyed success as both. His topical and absurdist essays, particularly at The New Yorker gained him both recognition and influence. He was also one of the members of the group that made up the fabled Algonquin Round Table.

His comic performances began as a Harvard undergraduate impersonating a befuddled after-dinner speaker. The act made him a campus celebrity and remained a part of his repertoire for the rest of his life. As a character actor, he appeared in such films as You’ll Never Get Rich, Bedtime Story, the Crosby/Hope Road to Utopia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.

benchley

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at the moment.

A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down.

I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well.

Most of the arguments to which I am party fall somewhat short of being impressive, owing to the fact that neither I nor my opponent knows what we are talking about.

After an author has been dead for some time, it becomes increasingly difficult for his publishers to get a new book out of him each year.

Dachshunds are ideal dogs for small children, as they are already stretched and pulled to such a length that the child cannot do much harm one way or the other.

New York – The city where the people from Oshkosh look at the people from Dubuque in the next theater seats and say “These New Yorkers don’t dress any better than we do.”

November 1, 1944: Man’s Best Friend Is His Rabbit

Elwood P. Dowd first walked onto a Broadway stage at the 48th Street Theatre on November 1, 1944.

Elwood is a good-natured soul who has a friend no one can see – a six-foot, three-harveyand-one-half-inch tall rabbit named Harvey, the titular character in the play by Mary Chase. A film version in 1950 featured James Stewart as Elwood.

Elwood, being outgoing and a perfect gentleman, naturally introduces Harvey to everyone he meets. His sister, Veta, increasingly finds his eccentric behavior embarrassing to her and her daughter Myrtle Mae’s would-be social status. Six foot rabbits are not particularly welcome among the country club set (and since he’s invisible, no telling what color he is). Veta decides to send Elwood packing to a sanitarium to solve the giant rabbit problem, setting in motion a comedy of errors instead.

Actually, according to Elwood, Harvey is a pooka, a deft shapeshifter, able to assume a variety of forms – dog, horse, goat, goblin, and of course rabbit. These forms may be pleasing or terrifying. A good pooka is a benevolent creature with the power of human speech, able to give sound advice and steer you away from evil. The bad pooka, on the other hand, is a blood-thirsty, Donald Trump-like creature who’d just as soon eat you as look at you.  Harvey is presumably the former.

Doctors plan to give Elwood a serum that will stop him from “seeing the rabbit.” As they prepare for the injection, Veta is told by their cab driver about all the other people he has driven to the sanatorium to receive the same medicine, warning her that Elwood will become “just a normal human being.  And you know what bastards they are (stinkers, in the movie).” Veta has a change of heart and halts the procedure after which Veta and Myrtle Mae, Elwood and Harvey all ride off on the bunny trail into the sunset.

A Gallery of Other Notable Rabbits

October 15, 1954: I Have People To Fetch My Sticks

Long before he debuted in his own television show on October 15, 1954, Rin Tin Tin had become an international celebrity. It was as good a rags-to-riches story as Hollywood could churn out. He was rescued rin-tin-tin_from a World War I battlefield by an American soldier who trained him to be an actor upon returning home. He starred in several silent films, becoming an overnight sensation and going on to appear in another two dozen films before his death in 1932.

Rinty (as he was known to his friends) was responsible for a great surge in German Shepherds as pets. The popularity of his films helped make Warner Brothers a major studio and pushed a guy named Darryl F. Zanuck to success as a producer.

During the following years Rin Tin Tin Jr. and Rin Tin Tin III kept the Rin Tin Tin legacy alive in film and on the radio. Rin Tin Tin IV was slated to take the franchise to television in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, but he flunked his screen test and was shamefully replaced by an upstart poseur named Flame.

The TV series featured an orphan named Rusty who was being raised by soldiers at a cavalry post known as Fort Apache.  Rin Tin Tin was the kid’s dog. It was a low budget affair, filmed on sets used for other productions with actors frequently called upon to play several soldiers, Apaches, and desperadoes in a single episode. Although it was children’s programming, you might not guess that by the lofty literary titles of many episodes: Rin Tin Tin Meets Shakespeare, Rin Tin Tin and the Barber of Seville, Rin Tin Tin and the Ancient Mariner, Rin Tin Tin and the Connecticut Yankee.

Meanwhile, IV stayed at home on his ranch, fooling visitors into believing he was actually a TV star (and perhaps contemplating a run for President).

Rated P. G.

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle wodehouseempty.” One line from someone who had a great knack for them, which he displayed in over 300 stories, 90 books, 30 plays and musicals, and 20 film scripts. Comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves the butler, was born on this day in 1881 in Surrey, England.

 

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.’

The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.

Every author really wants to have letters printed in the papers. Unable to make the grade, he drops down a rung of the ladder and writes novels.

It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.

And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.