Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Guest Review: Warner Bros. Night at the Movies – The Sea Hawk (1940)

By Philip Schweier

A couple of years back I got a Kindle, and I immediately began filling it with books in the public domain (cuz I’m cheap). Among these were some swashbuckling adventures such as Captain Blood, and keeping Errol Flynn in mind, I also added The Sea Hawk, both books by Raphael Sabatini.

However, I recently got a copy of The Sea Hawk (1940) on DVD, and was surprised to learn the story is nothing like the novel. The movie is instead based on Beggars of the Sea by Seton I. Miller. Sabatini or not, it still makes for an interesting film.

In the aftermath of the success of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk attempted to reunite many of the principals. Michael Curtiz returned to direct, as well as actors Flynn and Claude Rains. Erich Wolfgang Korngold provided music once more. Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone, having been featured opposite Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), chose to pass.

Flynn portrays Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, a roguish captain whom Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robinson) employs as one of her Sea Hawks, specialized captains who form an elite group of commanders. As Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Rains) of Spain journeys to England to assume his duties as ambassador, his ship is accosted by Thorpe’s Albatross. Of course the Albatross emerges the victor, and Don José and his niece Dona Maria (Brenda Marshall) are taken aboard to be “escorted” to England. Also taken aboard are a number of English prisoners who had been serving as rowers in the hold of the Spanish ship. Freeing these slaves justifies Thorpe’s attack on a ship flying the flag of a nation with whom England’s relations are tenuous at best.

During the voyage to England, Thorpe schmoozes Dona Maria, but she is inclined to give him the cold shoulder. By the time of their arrival, she has thawed somewhat. Nevertheless, the queen’s advisor, Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell), is eager to see Thorpe removed. It seems Wolfie is conspiring with Don José to undermine the queen, allowing King Phillip of Spain to conquer England.

In a private audience with the queen, Queen Elizabeth and Captain Thorpe hatch a plan to send the Albatross to Panama, the source of Spanish gold, and hijack as much gold as the ship can manage. All this wealth is intended to finance the development of the British Navy, as a means of defense. But Don Jose and Wolfingham have eyes on Thorpe, and are able to suss out from Thorpe’s chart maker his next objective. They manage to lay a trap for Thorpe and his men, which results in them being chained to oars of a Spanish galleon.

In true swashbuckling fashion, Thorpe is able to lead his men to freedom, and return to England to challenge the traitorous Lord Wolfingham. Dona Maria recognizes the treachery of her uncle, and succumbs to Thorpe’s romantic advances. The film ends with a rousing speech by Queen Elizabeth that, in 1940, could easily have been an allegory to the rising tide of war.

By 1940, some of these adventures had become old hat, especially when starring so many of the same actors. Other veterans from Robin Hood included Alan Hale and Una O’Connor, repeating the same types of roles as before.

The DVD I watched featured a “Warner Bros. Night at the Movies,” which included an intro by Leonard Maltin. I have never cared for Maltin, not since he did movie reviews for Entertainment Tonight back in the late 1970s. He’s always come across as a bit pompous to me, so I skipped the intro.

I did watch the newsreel, and the cartoon (a black and white Porky Pig episode). What I really found charming was the short, entitled Alice in Movieland, written by Ed Sullivan (yes, THAT Ed Sullivan). It chronicles the rise of a young contest winner from Nowhere, U.S.A., (played by Joan Leslie) who wins a contest for a trip to Hollywood and the chance to become a star. After bidding good-bye to her town amidst much fanfare, she journeys to Hollywood, where she is met with equal fanfare. She makes the rounds of a number of nightspots before her screen test. The crew is less interested in her, and more in getting another contest winner out the door so they can move onto the next one in time for lunch.

Nothing comes of her screen test, and on the verge of going home, she opens a letter given her by her grandmother (Clara Blandick). “Open it only when you feel you have to come home,” Gramma said. Instead of a train ticket home, Alice finds a letter, encouraging Alice to stick it out despite her frustration. It finishes with the line, “…and if you come home without making it as a star, I’ll wring your neck.” Whoa! Grandma’s showing some tough love.

Alice’s stick-to-it-iveness pays off and she soon lands a role as an extra, only to endure the hazing of her more experienced cast mates. Chief among them is the assistant director (played by Martin Burke, who was also featured in The Sea Hawk). She chews him a new one in front of the entire crew, drawing the attention of the director, who immediately puts her on the fast track to fame and fortune. As she collects her Academy Award®, she hears people shouting her name. But it’s only the porter (Clarence Muse) waking her as the train pulls into Los Angeles.

Yes, kids, like most Hollywood fables, it’s all been a dream, but not without its truth. Hopefully, it made one starry-eyed teenager think twice before journeying to Hollywood, only to become another Elizabeth Short (look her up). As for the star of the short, Joan Leslie, she enjoyed steady work in Hollywood, being featured in such films as Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Eventually she moved into television in the 1950s before leaving the business. In the late ‘70s/early ‘80s she returned to small roles on television shows such as The Incredible Hulk and Murder, She Wrote.

Anyone hoping for the same thrill from The Sea Hawk completes the Errol Flynn hat-trick, but anyone hoping for the same thrills as the Adventures of Robin Hood may be disappointed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Coming distractions: August 2014 on TCM (Summer Under the Stars edition)

Twice a year, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ offers its loyal fans a brief respite from their usual variety of scheduled movies by presenting two deviations:  31 Days of Oscar—in which Academy Award-winning and/or nominated films dominate from February 1 through March 3—and Summer Under the Stars, in which Tee Cee Em dominates each broadcast day with movies devoted to a single performer.  Suffice it to say, I’m not a huge fan of either event…but if I had to choose the lesser of two evils I’d go with SUTS, only because I don’t get as bored as quickly with it as I do 31 Days.

I thought perhaps Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence might serve up another SUTS blogathon like she has the two years previous…but it would appear that it’s all hands on deck on The Black Maria, as she sails off in search of cinematic plunder with co-captain Miss Carley of The Kitty Packard Pictorial and first mate Brandie, who as head of the animation department is probably getting to use the “batten down the hatches” joke more frequently than I.  I took a glance through the August lineup…and asked myself: “If I could sit down with only one of these movies for each day a star is being feted…which one would I choose?”

Here are my answers:

August 1, Friday – Jane Fonda.  I was tempted to go with The China Syndrome (1979; 5:45pm), a movie I loved as a young movie geek*…but I always find myself coming back to Klute (1971; 12:15am), one of my favorite suspense thrillers.

August 2, Saturday – David Niven.  Of the movies scheduled, I’ll go with Dodsworth (1936; 6am).

August 3, Sunday – Walter Pidgeon.  I think Pidgeon gave one of his best screen performances in Advise & Consent (1962; 2:15am)…but I’d be crazy not to go with How Green Was My Valley (1941; 8pm).

August 4, Monday – Judy Garland.  And it’s the movie for which she should have won the Best Actress Oscar, A Star is Born (1954; 12mid).

August 5, Tuesday – Barbara Stanwyck.  There are always so many great choices when Babs is in the spotlight…but my favorite of her movies has always been and will remain Ball of Fire (1941; 8pm).

August 6, Wednesday – Paul Muni.  Tough not going with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; 8pm)…but my favorite Muni film has always been Scarface (1932; 9:30pm).

August 7, Thursday – James Stewart.  The Naked Spur (1953; 8pm.)

August 8, Friday – Jeanne Moreau.  My love of Orson Welles films is trying to convince me to go with The Trial (1962; 8pm)…but even though I’m a fan of that movie I readily admit you need an urn of strong coffee at the ready to keep from dozing off.  So I’ll go with Elevator to the Gallows (1958; 10:15pm) instead.

August 9, Saturday – William Powell.  These are not getting any easier, particularly with The Thin Man (1934; 8pm) and After the Thin Man (1936; 9:45pm) (if they had moved After to Jimmy Stewart day I would have picked it).  Let’s go with Libeled Lady (1936; 1pm), because it’s a great screwball comedy and you get the bonus of Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

August 10, Sunday – Carole Lombard.  Oh, it was awfully hard not giving To Be or Not to Be (1942; 8pm) the nod on this day.  But since I’ve watched it recently, I had no problem selecting what’s probably my favorite Lombard romp, Twentieth Century (1934; 12:30pm).

August 11, Monday – Marlon Brando.  Even though I have multiple problems with Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s apologia for why they ratted out their friends and colleagues, Brando deserved the Best Actor trophy he received for On the Waterfront (1954; 11:45pm).

August 12, Tuesday – Alexis Smith.  I fought off the temptation to pick The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945; 6am)…and instead will pick one of Smith’s most underrated turns in The Constant Nymph (1943; 12mid).

August 13, Wednesday – Cary Grant.  I could have gone with just about any of the movies on tap today—but Grant’s comedic performance in His Girl Friday (1940; 9:30am) not only should have been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but served up to him on a silver tray instead of his The Philadelphia Story (1940; 12:45pm) co-star James Stewart.  (Stewart’s Macaulay Connor would have set a world record for stammering if editor Walter Burns was in the same room.)

August 14, Thursday – Charlie Chaplin.  My heart aches at having to overlook so many classic films from one of cinema’s most beloved filmmakers—but I’m going to pass over both City Lights (1931; 12:30am) and Modern Times (1936; 3pm) for The Gold Rush (1925; 11:45am), the first film featuring The Little Tramp that I ever watched.  (But if it’s the 1942 re-issue, then I reserve the right to change back to City Lights.)

August 15, Friday – Faye Dunaway.  So many wonderful films of Faye’s on the schedule…but with Chinatown (1974) at midnight, it was pretty much a fixed fight.

August 16, Saturday – Herbert Marshall.  Like I need an excuse to watch Foreign Correspondent (1940; 8pm) again.  (And it’s on The Drewssentials Essentials!)

August 17, Sunday – Every once in a while the channel offers up movies by an actor/actress that simply makes me shrug and go “Meh.”  That’s the case with John Hodiak…and under normal circumstances I’d probably go with Lifeboat (1944; 8pm).  But A Bell for Adano (1945) is on the schedule afterward at 10pm, and since I’ve never seen it that is my choice.  So there.  Thbth.

August 18, Monday – Claudette Colbert.  A similar situation has cropped up with Claudette; I’d probably go with It’s a Wonderful World (1939; 4:15pm) because it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies…but I’m kind of curious to check out Remember the Day (1941) at 2am.

August 19, Tuesday – Paul Newman.  Tempted to go with The Prize (1963; 11:15am), because it’s a guilty pleasure…but Dad and I never miss an opportunity to watch Cool Hand Luke (1967; 5:45pm).

August 20, Wednesday – Thelma Ritter.  I have always championed The Mating Season (1951; 8pm) as my favorite movie with Thel, and I don’t plan to stop now.

August 21, Thursday – Lee Tracy.  I got a bit of grief from a commenter on my review of Repeat Performance (1947) back in January when I suggested that Turn Back the Clock (1933; 6:30pm) “covers similar ground.”  So I’m going to watch Clock again because it’s been a while.

August 22, Friday – Audrey Hepburn.  None of my favorite Audrey Hepburn movies made the TCM schedule, so I feel a little guilty about choosing The Lavender Hill Mob (1951; 8am) because Aud has but a mere cameo.  I’ll say a few novenas and feel better later.

August 23, Saturday – Ernest Borgnine.  Marty (1955; 8pm) might have The Essentials spotlight, but I’m going with The Catered Affair (1956; 9:45am) because it’s an underrated gem.

August 24, Sunday – Gladys George.  If I hadn’t watched Flamingo Road (1949; 10am) so recently I probably would have tabbed this as my Gladys pick.  Instead, I’ll go with The Roaring Twenties (1939; 6pm).

August 25, Monday – Dick Powell.  Murder, My Sweet (1944; 9:15pm).  No contest.

August 26, Tuesday – Sophia Loren.  None of the movies on the schedule really reach and shake my hand…but I’ve always had a preference for Two Women (1961; 8pm).

August 27, Wednesday – Edmond O’Brien.  I’m passing up White Heat (1949; 6pm) and D.O.A. (1950; 8pm) because An Act of Murder (1948) is premiering at 9:30pm…and I’ve never seen it.

August 28, Thursday – Arlene Dahl.  Kind of the female John Hodiak, to be honest.  But she’s in The Black Book (a.k.a. Reign of Terror – 1949; 2:30pm), so I’m going with that.

August 29, Friday – Joseph Cotten.  Tough sledding when you not only have Citizen Kane (1941; 2:15am) on the schedule but also The Magnificent Ambersons (1942; 5pm).  Fortunately, I have no qualms about choosing The Third Man (1949; 12:15am).

August 30, Saturday – Betty Grable.  I’m not much of a Grable devotee, so I was tempted to go with The Nitwits (1935; 8am)—because I do love Wheeler & Woolsey.  Since I haven’t seen I Wake Up Screaming (1941; 11:45pm) in a while, I’ll pick that.

August 31, Sunday – The channel closes out SUTS with Alan Ladd, and for me there can be only one choice: The Glass Key (1942; 12:45pm).

I have to confess, I’m a little more stoked about this year’s Summer Under the Stars because of the three movies mentioned above that have been on my must-see list for some time now.  Next month, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will return to the standard presentation of Coming Distractions…but in the meantime, see you at the movies!

*Rich says I qualify as a movie geek…who am I to argue?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Epix picks

I had every intention of getting back into the blogging bidness this weekend…and then got distracted the moment I turned on the AT&T U-Verse Saturday morning.  Onscreen, I received a message to…check my other messages.

The first was a notice that U-Verse is adding that SEC Network of ESPN’s that will debut August 14; Mater and Pater were curious as to whether we would get the channel on our current package, and while normally an upgrade to the U-300 lineup would be necessary to watch SEC-ESPN…if you’re subscribed to U-200 (as we are) and, to quote the U-Verse folks, “reside in an SEC state,” no upgrade is needed.  (I’m pretty sure Georgia qualifies.)  The last time I spoke with Sater, er, sister Debbie on the Ameche she mentioned that she and my bro-in-law were going to get a satellite dish so that they, too, can have access to SEC.  (My brudder-in-law is a Vandy alum, and has vowed to watch their games by hook or by crook.  Snip also mentioned that they will probably throw in and get the MLB network so that she will know the pleasures of seeing an actual Braves game on a regular basis—the closest she gets is when the Bravos play the Cubs or the Cardinals.)

The news about the dish came quite as a surprise to yours truly only because my sister and her husband usually approach such matters with extreme caution—it’s not dissimilar to someone deciding to blow the rent money on lottery tickets or like that.  I think Snip has already broke ground on Project SEC; an e-mail I sent her over the weekend bounced back in that familiar Mailer-Daemon fashion.

But back to our story: the second U-Verse message announced the acquisition of pay movie channel Epix, and since they were nice enough to give us a free weekend (July 25-27) I decided to play hooky and get caught up on some recent movies I had not seen.  (I only wish I knew about this beforehand; I could have planned accordingly.)  The channel must have had some baseball promotion going on because they were spotlighting a number of national pastime-themed films including Major League (1989) and all three of the “Bad News Bears” movies.  I watched the first one—the good one—along with Eight Men Out (1988) and John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997), with the ‘rents.

I had seen Epix one time before; I got a free weekend several years ago when I was still in my bachelor digs and I sat down with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Walk-In Tub Skull (2008) and Star Trek (2009).  It seems fitting, then, that one of the movies I watched was Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).  I don’t consider myself a movie geek (others may have dissenting opinions) but I genuinely love the Star Trek movie franchise; I liked the old TV series (though I might be considered a heretic for refusing to read too much into it) and enjoyed the vehicles made with the original cast…and I even like the ones with the TNG people, even though I probably haven’t watched more than a dozen episodes of that show.  (I went with some of my nerd friends when 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection came out and was nearly hung for expressing my approval of the movie.  Fortunately, I was able to slip away when my chums were preoccupied calculating the equation involving my weight and the necessary dimensions of the gallows.)

In spite of Into Darkness’ excesses—you have the usual explodiations and stunts out the wazoo, which is par for the course with these films—I don’t regret tuning into this one; it’s well-made, has a fairly absorbing plot and the thesps playing the younger versions of the Trek originals are quite good.  (Though I’ll confess I had trouble watching Zachary Quinto in Margin Call since I saw that after Star Trek; I kept expecting his character to remark: “I find this volatility in our mortgage backed securities highly illogical.”)  Into Darkness possesses a sense of tongue-in-cheek fun (there are references to Tribbles and Harcourt Fenton Mudd); its only major stumble is casting actor Benedict Cumberbatch as a young version of Khan Noonien Singh, the Enterprise’s nemesis in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the Star Trek episode “Space Seed.”  (Cumberbatch is a great actor—but I think this is one role he should have taken a pass on, considering the original character—played by Ricardo Montalban—was of Indian descent.)

While Star Trek Into Darkness got a big thumbs-up from me I wasn’t quite as charitable toward The Avengers (2012); everybody and his brother has told me that it’s a great superhero movie…but here’s the problem—the folks who make these movies assume that I’ve seen all the prior films (Hulk, Captain America, etc.), and I have not.  (I think I saw the third Iron Man movie, which came out after The Avengers.)  So forty minutes into the thing I still can’t make heads or tails of the plot; I don’t know why Samuel L. Jackson is wearing an eye patch and I keep thinking a “tesseract” is that device in A Wrinkle in Time.  I gave up on the movie after that.  I don’t mean this as a criticism: it’s possible that I was too tired to watch any more of the film (plus I have sworn off any more superhero movies since I sat through The Dark Knight Rises and found it’s essentially a rehash of Batman Begins) and maybe if I gave it another chance with fresher eyes I might like it.  But not today.  (I stick to the one with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.)

Flight (2012) stars Denzel Washington as pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, who miraculously manages to land a plane that experiences an in-flight mechanical failure with minimal casualties (out of 102 people onboard, four passengers and two crew members perish).   The problem for Whip is that with the death of four passengers, there’s got to be a scapegoat; Whitaker is struggling with some inner demons (he has a substance abuse problem, and relations between his ex-wife and son are strained) and even though no other pilot could have duplicated Whip’s amazing feat, the evidence of his pre-flight drinking will surely send him to the slammer despite the help of a dedicated union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a savvy criminal attorney (Don Cheadle).  There’s a subplot involving a troubled woman (Kelly Reilly) who is helped by Whitaker and who tries to return the favor; Flight’s a good movie (the flying sequence is phenomenal) that’s essentially a cross between Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and Fearless (1993).  (John Goodman provides some lighter moments as Whip’s “connection.”)

I was really disappointed with Friends with Kids (2012); the only thing worse than an indie film that’s all too aware it’s an indie film is an indie film that also wants to be a Woody Allen movie.  Adam Scott (the owner of TV’s funniest deadpan on Parks and Recreation) and Jennifer Westfeldt (who directed, wrote and co-produced) are a platonic couple who decide not to make the same mistakes as their married friends (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd; Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm) and enter into an agreement to start a family (have a kid) without all the messy marriage bidness.  It takes them a running time of one hour and forty minutes to realize that they should be together all along, despite knowing each other for nineteen years.  Westfeldt’s Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) was a real delight (I saw it a month or so back) and I was hoping Friends would be its equal but despite a strong cast it’s shallow and only sporadically funny; I had difficulty relating to any of the characters, to be frank.  (Wiig is particularly wasted—they could have cast her part with anyone.)

I finally wrapped up this free weekend viewing with The Bay (2012), a novel ecological horror film directed by Barry Levinson that’s sort of a wry take on his previous “Baltimore trilogy” (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon).  A small Maryland coastal village experiences an outbreak of parasites identified as Cymothoa exigua (“sea lice”) that have become life-threatening due to the toxic pollution in the Chesapeake Bay (the water has been the recipient of the effluence of a nearby chicken processing plant…chock full of steroids in the feces).  Bay is not for the squeamish; it’s presented in what is called a “found footage” style which translates to a lot of shaky camera work…and that made me more nauseous than the idea of parasites eating people from the inside (though this will certainly put you off your lunch, too).  The Bay tells its cautionary tale in an economical 85 minutes and features a cast of mostly unknowns…but it would make for a great double-bill with The East (2013).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Baby, if you ever wondered…

If you’re a frequent habitué of Facebook, you might be familiar with the social media’s meme Throwback Thursday—in which FB denizens are encouraged to post photos taken of them in the past so that we might equally share in the glee of laughing hysterically at people’s hairstyles and asking: “What the hell were you thinking with that outfit?”  I don’t participate much in the festivities, only because I don’t have a lot of pictures of me from my irresponsible youth days…and what I do have on hand is collecting dust in my Dad’s storage area.

But like the Borg, everyone is assimilated into Throwback Thursday, and resistance is futile…as witnessed by the photo above, which a dear FB chum of mine found in a Marshall University yearbook from 1982.  It features members of the staff of WMUL-FM 88—“the Mighty Mule,” as we called it—and the fellow wearing the hat may look familiar to some of you.  (I showed this to my father, who asked: “Why are you wearing a hat?”  I was stumped for an answer, so I returned: “Somebody had to.”)  I’ve talked about my experiences at the ‘MUL here in the past—once in a post about my paisan Jeff Lane and the other about a pledge drive I worked—and I just have to say that seeing this picture brought back a flood of wonderful memories for me, because hanging out at WMUL was unquestionably one of the best times in my life.  (My parents are not convinced of this, because my time spent at the student station was directly proportionate to the amount of time I didn’t spend in class.)  Another Facebook compadre (he’s the one looking away from the camera) said it so sweetly and succinctly: “No way to get people to understand just how much fun that place was…just very glad to have been there.”  Amen to that.

Once again, my eBay auctions have been taking up a good deal of my copious free time but the response has been truly phenomenal…and I’d like to thank some of the members of the TDOY faithful for finding things they like and taking them home: longtime friend of the blog Matt Hinrichs (of Scrubbles fame), The Lady Eve (positively the same dame!), my lowcountry paisan (and personal Ron Jeremy friend) B. Goode at Gonna Put Me in the Movies, and comedy writer-critic Stephen Winer (Late Night with David Letterman), a frequent contributor at and author of an essay included in that company’s The Freshman release…which I swear I’m going to open up once the eBay furor dies down.  (I promise.)  But a major shout-out is reserved for my Savannah homegirl Faustina, who was nice enough to drop a mention of my eBay auctioning into casual conversation on Facebook.  (Sales skyrocketed as a result.)

With the eBay stuff reaching its peak, I’ll be able to climb back into the ol’ blogging saddle this weekend with an edition of Serial Saturdays (and Doris Day(s) this Monday), but in the meantime I invite you to check out my latest “Where’s That Been?” column at ClassicFlix, A Life in the Balance (1955), and the latest installment of the Boston Blackie movie roundup, One Mysterious Night (1944), is up at the Radio Spirits blog.  I now leave you with a scene of a boy and his dog (namely, nephew Davis and Willie the Wonder Dachshund).

Friday, July 18, 2014

While I was out…

I’ll say this much for eBay: though they may be a wretched hive of scum and villainy, they occasionally redeem themselves by offering the occasional “free listing fees” promotion, and that’s why things have been so quiet here on the blog of late.  I worked like a fiend to get listings prepared for over 300 items that I am hawking right this very minute (click here if you’re curious and/or interested), which I don’t mind telling you decimated the holdings in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.  I told the matriarch in the Shreve household that this is it—any further requests for money and she’s going to have to do that “dancing for change” thing I mentioned in this previous post.  (This will not be easy, as her partner is notoriously tone-deaf and has to count out the steps when they’re tripping the light fantastic.)

The response to the auctions has been encouragingly positive: if on the off-chance that you bought something from me and I didn’t recognize you allow me to thank you here on the blog.  (Longtime friend of the blog Mike Galbreath procured a couple of discs for his collection, and I can share with you the knowledge that you not only tossed a few coins in my guitar case but the tin can of my BBFF Stacia, who was in dire need of extra funds herownself.  (Something cat-related—I didn’t get the full details.)  The painstakingly painful paperwork (dig the alliteration) involved in putting together the auctions has left me lazy and in need of a bit of R&R; I’ve got enough energy to complete a couple of outside assignments but it looks as if I’ll have to pre-empt Serial Saturdays for another week.  (If I’m able to complete my other work in time there might be a visit with Doris on Monday…but I make no promises.)

In the meantime, I thank you profusely for putting up with the dearth of witty, scintillating TDOY material and hopefully I’ll get things back on track soon.  If you’ve got a free moment, you can check out my birthday tribute to radio and TV’s “supermom” Harriet Hilliard Nelson at the Radio Spirits blog…and double feature reviews of The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) and Two of a Kind (1951) at ClassicFlix.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The John Ford Blogathon, currently underway from July 7-13 and hosted by Vulnavia at Krell Laboratories and Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed.  For a complete list of participating blogs and the films/topics discussed, click here.  And here.  (And herehereherehere…and here.)

A famous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) from a reporter (Carlton Young) who’s listened with rapt attention at how tenderfoot-lawyer-now-Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) accomplished the titular task in that film sums up the oeuvre of director John Ford better than a thousand essays on his works: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Take, for instance, the 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine—the epic tale of lawman Wyatt Earp.  If you took your cues from a cherished Leave It to Beaver rerun—whereupon Beav writes a book report on Dumas’ The Three Musketeers merely by watching the 1939 Ritz Brothers romp—and used Clementine as your main source…chances are your history teacher would flunk you after s/he had gotten up off the floor from laughing.  Clementine is inaccurate as all get-out…and yet it’s far more entertaining than, say, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)—which does pay a bit more attention to the historical record (even though Corral, too, fudges a few facts).

Such is the story of The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), John Ford’s biopic on Dr. Samuel A. Mudd—history’s best-known victim of circumstance.  In the Ford film, the good doctor receives a visit one night from two strangers in need of medical treatment—one of the men has a badly broken leg.  Unfortunately for Mudd, that night just happens to be April 14, 1965…and the man with the busted limb is John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald), who’s about to achieve his fifteen minutes of fame after popping a cap in President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) in Ford’s Theater, not even allowing him the courtesy of seeing the end of the play.  The next day, as soldiers are engaged in a manhunt for Booth, two of them stop by Casa del Mudd…and discover the doc’s young daughter Martha (Joyce Kay) playing with the boot that Mudd had to cut off of JWB to attend to his leg.  Mudd is arrested for conspiracy in the assassination of Lincoln, and though convicted, escapes the execution sentence afforded the other conspirators—he is instead sentenced to life imprisonment at the East Coast “Devil’s Island”: Fort Jefferson, located in the Dry Tortugas Islands off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Fort Jeff is nicknamed “Shark Island” in the film’s title because the 75-foot wide, 35-foot deep moat surrounding the military prison is teeming with the critters—as described in a tutorial by one of the prison officials, a sadistic little piece of work known as Sergeant Rankin (John Carradine).  Meanwhile, Mudd’s wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart) and her father, Colonel Jeremiah Milford Dyer (Claude Gillingwater), learn from a judge (J.M. Kerrigan) that the doc’s conviction would never stand up in a civil court; if Peg and the Colonel can get Sam to Key West, a writ of habeas corpus could facilitate a new trial and win the medico his release.  So Peggy and Colonel Dyer wait by boat as Mudd and Buck (Ernest Whitman), a former slave working at the prison, attempt an escape.  Mudd manages to make it to the ship, but Rankin and his men quickly recapture the prisoner…killing Peggy’s pa in the process.

Redemption for Mudd arrives when he’s asked by the commandant (Harry Carey) to assume the duties of the prison doctor (O.P. Heggie), who succumbs to a bout of yellow fever courtesy of a colony of mosquitoes that have taken up residence at Fort Jefferson.  Mudd himself contracts the malady, but manages in his delirious state to command the fort’s gun crew to fire upon offshore boats carrying the medicine and doctors needed to cure the “Yellow Jack.”  For his actions in stamping out the prison’s epidemic, a recommendation of executive clemency is sent to the President on Mudd’s behalf, and the film ends with Mudd and Buck reunited with their respective families.

One of my favorite bits in The Prisoner of Shark Island: Our Ganger Matthew "Stymie" Beard plays one of Buck's (Ernest Whitman) dozen rugrats.

It’s true that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and it’s true that Booth sought medical treatment from Dr. Samuel Mudd while the actor was on the run.  It’s even true that Mudd was tried before a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Dry Tortugas after being found guilty of aiding and abetting Lincoln’s assassin, and that Mudd was eventually pardoned (though not exonerated) by President Andrew Johnson for his part in stemming the tide of the prison’s yellow fever epidemic.  Everything else in Shark Island…well, it would appear that director Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson started “printing the legend” with a roll of the opening credits (the notice that the film is “based on the life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd” should have a “loosely” inserted in there somewhere).

For example, Mudd’s wife Peggy and her Colonel dad never concocted a plan to provide the boat that intercepts Mudd once he breaks out of the prison (Mudd did make an escape attempt a couple of months after being sentenced to “Shark Island” by hiding aboard a visiting ship, but was quickly discovered before he got away).  Mudd’s father-in-law was already dead at the time of the film’s events, and his wife was named Sarah Frances, not Peggy.  Three of Mudd’s children disappear from the movie’s narrative (he had four at the time of his trial) and none of his actual offspring looked like the Cute Moppet from Central Casting in this flick.  Furthermore, Mudd was not thrown into an underground pit after being recaptured…and certainly not with his loyal retainer Buck, because none of his slaves were there at the prison to help him to escape.  And on and on and on.

Ford and Johnson argue the case for Mudd’s innocence by having the doctor challenge his accusers: “Does an assassin confide his plans to anyone?  Was I, a physician, in the plot because it was part of John Wilkes Booth’s plan to break his leg and need me?  Does a man, whose first devotion is no longer to a lost cause or to any flag that flies but to his wife and child, risk any act that could cause only misery and heartbreak on their innocent lives?”  Historians have been debating for decades as to whether or not there really was a conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination, and a strong argument could be made that following the event, enough hysteria was whipped up to ensnare Mudd in its web—a simple case of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But like any good defense attorney, Ford and Johnson omit from the narrative that the assassination was originally planned as a kidnapping (which suggests he could have participated in the plot)…and that Mudd and Booth were more than just casual acquaintances (the two men had a meet-and-greet during Booth’s visit to Bryantown, MD in the latter part of 1864, with the actor becoming the doc’s overnight houseguest on at least one occasion).  Mudd’s failure to report this friendship cast a storm cloud of doubt over his innocence at the time.

I guess the reason why most of these fellows are in uniform is that their kangaroo suits didn't come back from the cleaners.

Knowledge of these events, however, shouldn’t detract from the viewing enjoyment of The Prisoner of Shark Island; the biopic is made quite interesting as a result of Ford’s skillful filmmaking, featuring common Fordian themes of community (the movie commences with a parade that ends outside the White House, where Lincoln makes a few remarks) and one-man-can-make-a-difference sacrifice.  What makes Shark Island so interesting to me is that Mudd’s devotion to the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”) is responsible for both his downfall (helping the fugitive Booth) and vindication (eliminating the prison’s yellow fever epidemic).  The acting is also first-rate; Oscar winner Warner Baxter has one of his truly outstanding roles as the anguished Mudd—I kind of chuckled, knowing that the thespian would return to the medical profession in the 1940s as the star of the Crime Doctor franchise.  Gloria Stuart takes what is unquestionably an underwritten part and transforms it into something luminous; her Peggy Mudd never wavers in both her devotion to her husband and belief in his innocence, and her scenes with kiddie actress Kay are positively enchanting (particularly when she struggles to explain the death of the child’s grandfather).

There are also a lot of familiar faces from the Ford stock company (brother Frances plays one of the prison guards, once again demonstrating there’s no place like Hollywood for nepotism), most notably TDOY fave John Carradine—who gives one of his most memorable performances as the heartless Rankin.  The smoke rings constantly blown by the sergeant suggest a Satanic essence to the man, and Carradine isn’t afraid to pull out the stops with that maniacally wicked gleam in his eye.   Rankin eventually falls prey to the yellow fever, and must depend on his nemesis to save his life…and fittingly receives salvation for insisting that he be the first to sign the doctor’s clemency recommendation while he shakes Mudd’s hand in sincere gratitude after doing so.  Harry Carey, an actor who worked with John Ford in scads of westerns during the Silent Era, had gone the character route at this time in his career and performs most admirably as the tough but fair prison commandant.

I won’t lie—I do find a few elements of The Prisoner of Shark Island disturbing: it’s one of several films in the Ford mythology (Judge Priest, The Sun Shines Bright) that presents the post-antebellum South as an idyllic paradise oblivious to Jim Crow and those devoted to the Confederate cause are venerated even if they did lose the freaking war in the first place (Gillingwater’s Colonel Dyer prattles on about “the woah of Nawthun Aggreshun” being about states’ rights, which caused my eyeballs to do a triple lutz).  The depiction of both black soldiers and slaves is troubling, presented in that casual racism so prevalent in cinema at that time; I’m surprised Ford didn’t ask Stepin Fetchit to play the role essayed by Ernie Whitman, to be honest.  But despite all this and the discordant note sounded in the film’s “comic” ending, Shark Island is a most intriguing entry on the movie resume of John Ford, who famously introduced himself by intoning “I make Westerns.”  Fans of the director know this simply wasn’t so, and if you’re up to the challenge of watching one of Ford’s most underrated works without nitpicking like a historical scholar (guilty as charged), I recommend it highly.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Montego eBay

It pains me to have to relay this bad news…but our weekly Serial Saturdays foray will have to be postponed this week, and it looks as if we’ll lose Doris Day(s), too.  When I explained that the one-day delay in Doris’ misadventures was due to that puzzling dresser drawer incident on Facebook, many of you used the occasion to demonstrate that while 10,000 comedians might be looking for work you were more than willing to do it for free.  So I hope what I’m about to transcribe here releases your inner Henny Youngman, good people.

We’re in the middle of a dodgy financial patch here at Rancho Yesteryear—well, it’s really not as dire as it sounds, though…I mean…we’re not having to eat out of garbage cans yet.  But Mater has suggested to me that it might be prudent if we had a little extra spending money to alleviate the pain of a couple of looming expenses crises…and if you’ve been reading the blog a while, you know what that means.  Yes, it’s back to the environs of eBay with my tin cup in hand, selling off bits and pieces of the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.  I’m not wild about doing this, seeing as how my DVD library has really taken a hit in the past few years…but I’m also not crazy about watching my parents stand outside of Publix and dance for change.  So I’ve spent the past few days familiarizing myself with the phrase “Sophie’s choice,” and believe you me—as a dedicated cinephile and DVD collector it is often heartbreakingly tragic parting with movies I’d much rather keep.

I’ll be introducing items to be sold later this evening at 9pm EDT (6pm PDT), and then in the ensuing days adding more and more discs as soon as I’m able to organize a little better.  There’s a lot of used Warner Archive product that you can capitalize on, as far as discounts go…and of course, because I have a bad habit of buying DVDs and then being painfully slow to getting around to look at them, a lot of the discs remain in an unopened state.  (I will put up a “button” on the right side of the blog that will whisk you away to my eBay auctions with winged feet once the first one starts.)

Because I have to do this, it means that the normal blogging will slow to a temporary trickle whilst I juggle my outside assignments (blogathons, RS, CF, etc.) so I hope you will be patient until these storm clouds pass.  In closing, I’d like to wish my sister Debbie the happiest of birthdays and leave you with a selfie of her and my niece, brandishing her new braces.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Doris Day(s) #22: “The Musical” (03/18/69, prod. no #8509)

(This week’s installment features an anecdote from my high school days, but mostly it’s me comin’ at ya with music and fun…and if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done—so let’s get ready, okay?  Hey hey hey…)

In the Mayberry R.F.D. episode “The Church Play,” bakery doyenne Millie Swanson (Arlene Golonka) is asked by the wise old men (snicker) of the town council to assume the responsibility of directing a production whose box office proceeds will benefit the local church.  (Don’t ask which church—I believe Mayberry just had one in that town, and it was most assuredly the only proper one.)  This decision causes some friction between Millicent and the former play director, town busybody and black belt Wiccan Clara Edwards (Hope Summers), who learns that Millie was—before moving to America’s favorite television town—a chorus girl living a shamelessly libertine existence in Raleigh.  (Okay, I may have gotten a few details here wrong…only because I’m too lazy to go back and check.  By the way—the DVD release of the first season of R.F.D. reveals that the footage snipped for “Church Play’s” syndication contains only additional dialogue between Millie and the kids auditioning for parts…so we really didn’t miss too much.)

I couldn’t help but think of this episode after watching this week’s Doris Day(s) installment, “The Musical”—there are enough differences to allow the writer of “Musical,” story editor Sid Morse, plausible denialbility (“I don’t even watch R.F.D.!”)…but the borrowed concept of a simple children’s play stirring up a hornet’s nest o’controversy is still pretty much intact.  Plus, Morse used the exact same idea in a script he wrote for R.F.D.’s pa, The Andy Griffith Show in 1966—“The Senior Play,” with schoolteacher/Sheriff Taylor squeeze Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut) in the unenviable position of having to deal with a fuddy-duddy principal (played in the TAGS episode by Leon Ames).

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  “The Musical” begins at night, as we watch laird and master of Webb Farms, Buckley Webb (Denver Pyle), pulling up outside the homestead in the family station wagon.  Nelson the Stolen Sheepdog (Lord Nelson) greets Buck by clawing at the driver’s side winder (“Take me home to Ridgemont, you wanker!”) and we can see a light on in yonder widder’s bedroom winder.  Doris pokes her head out and asks her father what he’s carrying.  “Stopped by Heiner Hoops and picked up some Rocky Road,” is his reply.  (We learned in last week’s episode, “The Con Man,” that Rocky Road is Dor’s favorite.)

“Groovy,” is Doris’ reaction.  (Far out.)  And so let’s hie ourselves to the kitchen to dish up a little, shall we?

DORIS: Hey, that was a great idea!  I didn’t have much for dinner, I’m hungry…
BUCK: Well, you usually are where ice cream’s concerned…

With the metric tonnage of sweets consumed in that household I’m stunned to learn they didn’t have it for dinner.

DORIS: How was the school board meeting?
BUCK: Oh, pretty good…we voted to have the brakes realigned on the school bus…

Sounds like a practical decision.  Buck interrupts this conversation to ask Doris if she can “eat two,” and she responds “I can eat four.”  (Ice cream scoops, they’re talking about.)  “Start with two,” Buck tells her.

BUCK: And instead of a raise, we agreed to have Elmo Jensen’s title changed from janitor to custodial engineer…
DORIS: How’d he feel about that?
BUCK: He quit…

Way to stick it to The Man, Elmo!  (This is a little premature—Buck explains that “He’ll be back—he always is.”)

BUCK: Oh…uh…incidentally…the elementary school kids are going to put on a stage show…
DORIS: Oh yeah?
BUCK: Big musical…
BUCK: All the proceeds are going for the traveling library…
DORIS: And that’s a good cause…
BUCK: Sure is…
DORIS: I wish I could help out…

*Ping!*  And so you shall!  Doris finds out her wish has been granted when Buck lets her know he “volunteered” her to oversee the production.

DORIS: Now what did you do that for?  I don’t know anything about producing and directing a musical!

Oh, come on, Dodo—surely you must have learned something during Romance on the High Seas.  Or My Dream is Yours.  Or It’s a Great Feeling.  Buck argues that the PTA loved the way Doris took charge of the Christmas pageant, which produces the old-familiar-Doris-side-eye:

So Buck tells Doris to stick a sock in it and just eat her ice cream, prompting her to observe “No wonder you brought it home.”

“You didn’t raise a dummy for a father,” he brags.  And the scene shifts to the hallowed halls of Cotina Elementary and the office of Eric Ekstrom, school principal…played by this week’s special guest…

Give it up for Ray Teal!  One of radio and television’s busy character thesps, Teal is best known on the small screen as Sheriff Roy Coffee on the long-running Bonanza, but his guest appearances and recurring roles also number TV classics as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, Maverick, Cheyenne, Wide Country, 77 Sunset Strip and Lassie.  Members of the TDOY faithful might remember that Ray played a henchman in Don Winslow of the Navy (1942) whose attempt to take over in the last chapter soon set sail on The Great Lake of Fail; he also had a teensy role as Joe Burke in Raiders of Ghost City (1944).  His movie appearances include The Black Arrow (1948), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Wild One (1953), The Desperate Hours (1955), Decision at Sundown (1957), Gunman’s Walk (1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Chisum (1970).

EKSTROM: Doris, I’ve known your dad for more than forty years…

“…and to be completely honest, I never liked that son of a bitch.”

EKSTROM: …and when he tells me that you’re just a little better than Oscar Hammerstein…

“Oscar Hammerstein?  I’m better than Oscar Levant!”

EKSTROM: Well, I’ve got to assume that…uh…you can give an adequate performance of ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano…
DORIS (laughing): That’s about it, too…
EKSTROM: But the important thing is that with you at the helm…I’ll know that the show is in good hands and that it will be done in good taste…
DORIS (getting to her feet and shaking Ekstrom’s hand): Thank you—I’ll do my best…
EKSTROM: I’ll be looking forward to seeing the show…

“You’ll love it—it’s called Oh! Calcutta!  And with that, it’s back to the ranch as Dor and her loyal domestic Juanita (Naomi Stevens) hunt through a trunk in the attic for costumes and props to use in the production.  I’ll skip over most of this, owing to the fact that Juanita’s role—as always—is underwritten and unfunny; there is, however, an interesting exchange between the two women after Juanita locates this cardboard stand-up…

JUANITA: Remember when your father made this?
DORIS: Hawaiian night at the Rotary!  He looked like Hilo Hattie, didn’t he?

…would appear to be a subtle way to suggest that Juanita has always been a fixture around the Webb household—and we know this is simply not true.  Let’s get to the real reason for this attic scene, shall we?

DORIS: …I want to ask you a very important question…
BUCK: Shoot!
DORIS: Do you think that two hundred dollars for the sets for our musical is too much?
BUCK: Two hundred dollars?!!
DORIS: Two hundred dollars…
BUCK: That’s ridiculous!
DORIS (to Juanita): Isn’t that what I said?
BUCK: Who gave you that estimate?
DORIS: Oh…you know…
BUCK (muttering): Two hundred dollars…
DORIS: I think they’re raking me over the coals…look, if you made it—what would it cost?
BUCK: Well, no more than a couple of dollars’ worth of lumber and a little elbow grease…

*Ping!*  Your wish has been granted, Buck Webb!  Yes, the man who stated earlier “You didn’t raise a dummy for a father” has found himself roped into designing the sets for this extravaganza, and Doris asks him if he and ranch hand Leroy B. Semple Simpson (James Hampton) can get started right away.  I’m sort of ashamed that I laughed at this, only because I’m amused by the revelation that Doris is so all-powerful it takes very little effort to manipulate a pliable mind like her dad’s.

So after Doris and Juanita high-five Dor’s cleverness, we venture out to the barn where Buck is mixing up some paint and Leroy entertains the audience by doing this visual comedy bit:

That’s Leroy’s impression of Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, in case you were stumped.  Leroy then begins a soliloquy on his hobby of collecting movie magazines, and schools his employer on the lingo of the movie biz:

BUCK: Don’t get carried away…this ain’t Hollywood, you know…
LEROY: Movie Town
BUCK: What?
LEROY: Movie Town, U.S.A…that’s what the folks who work out there call it…
BUCK: They do?
LEROY: Uh-huh…I read about it in one of my movie magazines…
BUCK: Uh-huh…
LEROY: They give you a lot of inside facts, you know…
BUCK: Uh-huh…
LEROY: Like…uh…you know how Granite Quarry got started?
BUCK: Like who?
LEROY: Granite Quarry…he’s been in lots of pictures…like…uh…”The Friendly Germ from Outer Space”…and…uh…”Lost in the Bottomless Pit Under the Ocean”…

“The Monster That Devoured Cleveland”—you remember Gran.  I transcribed this dialogue because it has an unmistakable Mayberryian rhythm about it; in the TAGS version, “The Senior Play,” it’s Andy and Goober (George Lindsey) who are dragooned into building and decorating the sets, and the two men have a similar movie conversation…only it gives Goob an opportunity to do his patented bad impressions, including Cary Grant (“Judy Judy Judy…”).  The dialogue exchange is also necessary because of an amusing callback joke by Doris which will become apparent in a sec.

BUCK: I don’t guess I saw those
LEROY: Well, he was a small town boy, too…he wanted to see the world, so he took a lot of hard jobs like…uh…a merchant seaman…and…uh…truck driver…and…dress designer…well, anyways, he’s out in Hollywood…
BUCK: Dress designer?
LEROY: Uh-huh…

Leroy goes on further to explain that Mr. Quarry was discovered seated in a drugstore by a talent scout and that’s, as Paul Harvey always said, “the rest of the story.”  “Well, that’s the way things happen out in Magic Town,” he says cheerfully.

“I thought you said it was Movie Town,” returns Buck.  “Oh, well—sometimes we call it Magic Town,” his sidekick offers stupidly.

The scene soon shifts to Buck and Leroy in the hallowed halls of Cotina Elementary, clumsily carrying in the sets that they laboriously worked on when they meet up with Doris.

DORIS: Oh!  You finished the sets!  Hey, that’s great—you didn’t have to bring them down…I could have sent the boys…
BUCK: Well, I had to bring Leroy in for the movie anyway…
DORIS: Oh, yeah?  Well, put ‘em right here—what are you going to see, Leroy?
LEROY: Oh, it’s a cowboy picture…
DORIS: Yeah?
BUCK: With Granite Quarry…
DORIS: Oh, I dig him—he’s a good dress designer…

Hey…on this show, you take laughs wherever you can find them.  “Well, as long as I’m here,” Buck starts as he heads for the auditorium, “I might as well take a look-see…”

DORIS (blocking the entrance): No, you don’t!  Oh no, you don’t—you can’t go in there…it’s a closed rehearsal…
BUCK: But I’m family…and I built the set!
DORIS: Well, I know that…and I thank you for it…but you can’t go in…excuse me…

Doris opens and closes the door quickly, then admonishes Leroy “no peeking!”  “That’s gratitude for ya,” Buck grumbles as the two men walk back down the hall.  On the way, they meet up with Principal Ekstrom, who asks them both “Well, what are you two doing in school?”  (Eric, for all you know Leroy may still be attending Cotina Elem.) 

As Leroy exits, so as not to be late for his moon pitcher, Buck and Ekstrom discuss the show and how it’s coming along.  When Buck informs his pal that he’s persona au gratin as far as watching the rehearsal goes, Ekstrom decides to exercise his principatorial prerogative and supervise the production…so Buck follows him into the auditorium.

The curtain is closed when the two men enter the auditorium, and we can hear a bit of hubbub back stage—Doris acknowledges this when she emerges front and center (“Would you please be quiet—you’re making so much noise!”).  She then notices that Buck and Ekstrom have made themselves to home in a row of seats.

DORIS: What are you two doing here?
BUCK (as he removes his hat): Tell her!
EKSTROM: Well, we didn’t think…that is…Buck didn’t think that you’d mind if we…well, we just watched…

And Principal Ekstrom throws Buck under the bus!  (Good thing they’re at school, where there are buses a-plenty.)

DORIS: Can’t wait, huh?
DORIS (as she joins Ekstrom laughing): Boy…you two are worse than Billy and Toby!

“Now hold on there, daughter…we know how to eat with a knife and fork, for one thing…”  Doris sits down in a seat in front of Buck and Ekstrom and calls out to the kids backstage: “Everybody ready?”  She then directs a “Mrs. Sheldon” to raise the curtain and…a little travelin’ music, Mr. Spear!

The kids start out with a badly written number about the days when couples danced the minuet—writer Morse took the exact same number from TAGS’ “Senior Play” and inserted it here, allowing two of the kids to stand behind these wooden cut-outs.  (I think the reason why they did this is because in “Senior Play,” the two performers reveal rock ‘n’ roll duds under “breakaway” clothing and the tinier tykes in “Musical” may not have been that coordinated to pull them off, literally speaking.)  Yes, just when you think this is going to be a nice, pleasant boring musical number…

…WHAMMO!  It turns into an episode of Hullaballoo, with the kids doing their wild rock ‘n’ roll dances and everything!  (With abbreviated costumes, as Howard Sprague once memorably pointed out.)

Doris and Buck are enjoying the spectacle, while Principal Eric looks as if he regrets having the salmon loaf at lunch.

EKSTROM: Stop this, Doris…at once
DORIS: Stop what?
EKSTROM (pointing at the stage): That…I said stop it…immediately

He was probably expecting something along the lines of The Pajama Game.  Ekstrom is serious—either Doris stops the show or he will.  So Doris tells the kids to take ten, and after they’ve scattered she asks what’s the dealio.

DORIS (following the principal to the auditorium door): Mr. Ekstrom, what’s wrong?
EKSTROM: Doris, I’m very disappointed in you…I could never permit an exhibition like that to go on in any school that I’m principal of…
DORIS: An exhibition like…you mean the dancing?

“Look, I realize those kids have the coordination of drunken rhinoceroses, but…”

BUCK: Are you kiddin’, Eric?
EKSTROM: Now you stay out of this, Buck—this is between your daughter and me…you can call it dancing if you like…I call it disgraceful…with the dress, movements…

“It’s getting me aroused…and that can’t be good!”

DORIS: All children dress and dance that way, Mr. Ekstrom…
EKSTROM: Not in my school, they don’t…not as long as I’m principal…and if that’s your idea of the kind of show you want to put on—forget it!  There will be no show!

Poor Doris!  Quelle disappointment!  Ralston-Purina break, everyone!

Back from commercial, Doris has the unenviable task of telling the kids in the musical that Principal Boogerface has put the hammer down on their hotsy-totsy terpsichorean display, and they are quite disappointed.  A young tyke named Freddie (Gary Dubin) suggests to Doris that if she talks to Mr. Ekstrom again perhaps he will change his mind.  The actor playing young Frederick has an interesting (always reliable) IMDb resume—he began his moppet acting career with recurring roles on Bracken’s World and The Partridge Family…but two of the most recent credits on his CV (sweet baby carrots, I only wish I were making this up) have him essaying the title roles of The Jizzmaster (2012) and The Jizzmaster 2 (2012).  (Perhaps Principal Ekstrom knew something we didn’t at the time.)

Anyway, the kids continue to whine and gripe in such loud, shrill tones that dog owners are wondering why their pets are covering their ears in pain…so Doris finally agrees to talk to Ekstrom about reinstating the Cotina Elementary Revue.  In the meantime, we’re back at Rancho Webb and a clearly cheesed-off Juanita is serving actual food to Buck, Billy (Philip Brown) and Toby (Tod Starke) while swearing in her native tongue.

BUCK: If you’d talk English we’d know what’s upsettin’ you…
JUANITA: Your friend—the principal…
(Outside the house, a car horn honks)
BUCK: Oh…there she is…well, if Ekstrom’s makin’ you mad why take it out on us?
JUANITA: I can’t help it!  I’m furious with that man for stopping the show after Doris and all those kids worked so hard…and you and Leroy, you built all those sets…besides—who else do I have to take it out on?

Doris enters with a cheery “Yoo-hoo!” and carrying some packages—hearing Juanita speak Spanish, she asks “What are you so mad about?”  So Juanita explains the reason for her anger, and Doris can relate—that’s why she went shopping, because she’s pissed.

BUCK: Will you stop it—I feel guilty enough
DORIS: What are you guilty about?
BUCK: This musical…and it’s all my fault…I never should have got you involved
DORIS: Oh, that’s silly…

“But on the other hand…this was your idea, you asshole…”  It’s frustrating for Doris, no doubt.  “What bugs me,” Doris declares as she sits down to grub, “that money would’ve meant so much to the traveling library.”  (Not to mention the Traveling Wilburys.)

BUCK: What Ekstrom needs is a…good boot in the tail…
JUANITA: Well, I wouldn’t go that far…but…
DORIS: I would…
TOBY: What’s a boot in the tail?
BUCK (after Doris shoots him a look): Uh…eat your dinner…
DORIS: Anyway…I just have to have another chance to talk to that man…I really do, because this is ridiculous…
BILLY: What’s ridiculous?
DORIS: Nothing, honey—eat your dinner…
BUCK: The way he feels right now, he wouldn’t trust you to lead the Pledge of Allegiance…
DORIS: Look—I promised these kids that I would try…and I’m not just going to let them down…and you have to help me…
TOBY: Help you do what, Mom?
DORIS: Nothing, honey—eat your dinner…

“Let’s don’t talk about it while we’re eatin’,” finishes Buck, as the scene dissolves to the front yard of Webb Farms—Toby and Billy are badly shooting hoops while Doris looks on; Buck just happens to ride up in Ekstrom’s car.  Now, keep in mind that Doris is in for a bit of work here…because her Jedi mind tricks aren’t going to work as easily on Eric as they do on her idiot father.

BUCK: The pickup quit on me in town, so Eric offered to drive me home…
DORIS: Oh!  That’s nice…thank you…how about a cup of coffee?
EKSTROM: No, thanks…I really have to be getting back to town…

“I’ve got the dreams of a few ambitious seniors to crush, so…”  But you know our Doris—she is a persistent dame, and she finally lures the principal into her home, where the three of them sit around the kitchen dining table for a nosh.

DORIS (offering Ekstrom a cookie): Why don’t you have one?

“Well…isn’t this supposed to be y’all’s dinner?”

EKSTROM (taking one out of the jar): I’ll do that…
DORIS: Aren’t they good?
EKSTROM (passing the jar): Here, Buck…
DORIS (clearing her throat): Um…Mr. Ekstrom…I know that you didn’t just happen to drop in today…but…um…since you are here…do you suppose that we…could discuss the show a little more?
EKSTROM: Doris, I really don’t think there’s anything to discuss…I’m certainly not going to change my values…

“Well…suppose I were to tell you those cookies were laced with hashish?”  No, Dor—your pathetic baked goods bribe is not going to work on Mr. Ekstrom, who—if my past experience with school principals is any indication—is not going to quit being a douchenozzle simply because you plied him with a cup of java.  Despite Doris’ insistence that the times, they are a-changin’, Ekstrom remains resolute.  “I’m a very simple person—I believe in right and wrong,” he pontificates.  He later goes on to say: “That performance you approved of is highly symptomatic of just about everything that’s wrong with this generation.”  It’s true.  People try to put us d-d-down…just because we get around.

EKSTROM: A mocking of the old ideals…a flaunting of their new morality…
DORIS: Mr. Ekstrom, they’re not flaunting a new morality…the kids are flexing their muscles…they’re trying to find out who they are…and where they’re going…
EKSTROM: So we just let them run around loose like savages?

Dude…it’s an elementary school play, not freaking Lord of the Flies.

DORIS: Oh, no…that’s not what I mean at all—what I’m trying to tell you is that…we have to give them freedom to grow…and you’ve got to let them learn to think for themselves…you can’t force them into…pre-packaged molds!

What better way to teach impressionable minds to “think for themselves” and not become “pre-packaged molds” but in elementary school?  I ask without a trace of sarcasm.  (Here’s an oldie but goodie: “I pledge allegiance…to the flag…”)  Sorry, Dor…you fought the good fight on this one—but Ekstrom represents The Man, and no one ever defeats The Man.  (Just ask ex-janitor Elmo Jensen.)  “If there are enough people who think as you do—that I’m stifling their children—they can very easily have me fired,” explains the mealy-mouthed Eric.  “But until that happens, there will be none of what you call freedom to experiment in my school!”  Jawohl, Mein Haupt!

As he’s leaving, Ekstrom remarks that they liked to dance in his generation, too—“but we didn’t feel we had to jump all over the place like a bunch of fools to enjoy it…we did it with dignity.”  (Dignity, always dignity.)

DORIS: He’s a stubborn old goat!
BUCK: You can say that again…and you’re not about to change his mind…
DORIS (slamming her fist on the table): No sir!  We’ve worked too long and too hard…and there’s not one thing wrong with that show and you know it!

“He shall bend to my will—because I’m Doris Freaking Day!”  As he observes Doris stewing in her own juices, Buck makes this offhand comment: “He talks about dignity…he’s forgotten about the time he won the Black Bottom contest at the Blue Moon.”

*Ping!*  Buck, you magnificent bastard—you have set in motion the most diabolical scheme of Doris Martin’s to ever hit Cotina!  There’s a dissolve to the school auditorium, where it is pandemonium backstage.  A little girl named Gloria complains to Doris that her dress is torn, and she’s played by moppet actress Michelle Tobin, who later landed roles on such short-lived series as The Fitzpatricks, Grandpa Goes to Washington and California Fever.  But you are not going to believe the serendipitous item on her show bidness resume…

…she plays the Wicked Witch in the Mayberry R.F.D. episode “The Church Play!”  TV is magic, my chillun!

Another panicky kid is upset because he forgot his lines, and it’s up to Doris to present an ocean of calm.  No, it’s not like this is opening night or anything—she’s conducting a dress rehearsal in the hopes that Principal Ekstrom will have that stick up his ass surgically removed.

DORIS: Thanks for coming, Mr. Ekstrom…
EKSTROM: Doris, the only reason I’m here is because of my longtime friendship with your family…

“Did I mention how much I can’t stand your father?  And those kids of yours—‘I like cheese’—do yourself a favor and enroll them in shop classes as early as possible.”  All Doris asks is that Eric sit through the entire show before making his decision.  Showtime!

Doris calls out to Mrs. Sheldon again, and the woman dutifully raises the curtain—but you just know she has to be getting tired of this nonsense.  (“I’ll curtain you, you sorry little tramp.”)  The musical starts almost exactly the same as the previous time, but this time instead of minueting…

…”Charleston…Charleston…made in Carolina…some dance…some prance…I say…there’s nothin’ finer…”  Yes, Doris has revamped the material to reflect those halcyon days of flappers and sheiks…of Model T’s and bootleg whiskey…and of Black Bottom contests at the Blue Moon.  Ekstrom sits through a few minutes of this charade, and then he’s got things to do, people to see, trash to haul, corn to hoe…

EKSTROM: You can stop them now, Doris…
DORIS (turning around in her seat): Mr. Ekstrom—you promised!
EKSTROM: I’ve seen enough…

Another ten-minute break for the dancing tykes, and Doris takes the intermission to lay into Ekstrom about reneging on his promise to sit through the entire show before making his decision.

EKSTROM: But I already know what you’re trying to tell me…
DORIS: No, you don’t know what I’m trying to tell you!  And I’m very sorry that you’ve taken on such an attitude!

Dodo…cool your jets, cupcake!  All Ekstrom is trying to say is that he’s had a Road to Damascus conversion and he now realizes he was being a big silly about the whole musical.  “I insist that you do the show,” he tells her quietly.  “As is.”  Hooray for Doris!

So the kids come back out and shake their groove thing again as those dirty old men watch from their auditorium seats.  “Buck…tell me something,” observes Ekstrom.  “Did we really look that silly?”

“You can say that again, Buster,” Buck punchlines—though it’s sort of hard to hear him from the collective rolling of eyeballs out there in YesteryearLand.  Here’s why—this is not the way it works in real life.  Principals never admit they’re wrong unless someone’s threatened a lawsuit.  Let’s step back into the WABAC machine and set the dials to 1979—it’s December, and I’m a junior at Ravenswood Penitentiary High.

The Drama and Choral Departments put on some skits/musical numbers as some sort of Christmas pageantry deal, and one of them was a horrible sketch in which two people who looked nothing at all like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy feebly decided to imitate the greatest movie comedy team of all time.  My memory has thankfully forced out most of the sketch’s content, but I remember the Stan-impersonator continually scratched his head as if he needed a dandruff shampoo and the Ollie-impersonator was just horrible.  They didn’t even have the decency to wear derby hats, ferchrissake.  (Full disclosure—I did not like “Ollie” much, because he once tried to shove a match up my nose while I was forced to blow it out while blindfolded…an incident I describe in this blog post.)

They performed the sketch one time for the morning class, but when they were putting on the second show for students in the afternoon the Laurel & Hardy sketch had gone missing.  Now, I’d like to think our principal was appalled at the besmirching of these comedy greats, and censored the routine in protest.  (“Not only are you two expelled, but I don’t even want to hear of you sneaking back for the reunion.”)  As it turned out, it was pulled because our principal thought it in bad taste—but only because one of the characters in the sketch was dressed the same as the kidlets in a previous screen capture, as a flapper.

Our principal—fondly referred to by the student body as “Red Dog” because he was a ginger, and when he became enraged his face matched his hair perfectly—apparently was not familiar with the pop culture of the 1920s because he did not realize the girl was a flapper; he used the other “fl” word, “floozy.”  (To be honest—I think if he could have gotten away with it, he would have used a word that stands for trouble…with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for “prostitute.”)  Red Dog had taken it upon himself to see that our tender psyches were not scarred nor our morals sullied, and he told the drama teacher the L&H tribute was right out!  Again—no total loss because the sketch was for shit…but it did amuse the hell out of me because I knew what a flapper was and the principal didn’t.  (Also, too: I had developed my strong anti-censorship stance by this time.)  If I had to put a happy ending on this, I’d point out that Red Dog was replaced in my senior year by another principal who learned my name rather quickly…but those are stories for another day.

Okay, quick coda wrap-up: the Webb family—even Juanita and Leroy—have returned from the entertaining musicale; several members of the family are carrying paper bags and Doris is holding a bouquet of roses that Principal Ekstrom apparently bought her (and will later have to explain to Mrs. Ekstrom).  I know you think I’m making this up—but in those paper bags are donuts and cookies, and the adults are going to have them with hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.  (You can’t tell me these people have a normal sleep schedule.)

Everyone is most complimentary about Doris and the success of the show, and her father states matter-of-factly: “I bet you wouldn’t mind doin’ another one, would ya?”

“I don’t know,” replies Doris, “I’d have to think about that twice.”  No time, Ms. Director—Buck has volunteered you for the annual show at the lodge! 

Oh, Doris—will you ever win?

Next time, on Doris Day(s)…I know, you’re probably gobsmacked to hear me say this—but “The Baby Sitter” is actually a funny outing.  (Sadly, most of the laughs are visual—so you won’t get to enjoy them.)  Character actors Peggy Rea and Hal Smith make return appearances (as different characters, natch) but the main attraction is a young actress who would later win two Academy Awards…and who we know from previous stints on our beloved Mayberry Mondays.  We urge you to join us!