Saturday, October 25, 2014


A Warner Brothers movie star from Hollywood's golden era paved the way for big laughs from a beloved local TV news crew in Minneapolis.

When millions of us baby boomers were kids,  there was one woman who really took a velvet hammer to the Hollywood glass ceiling.  If we were told that a woman directed an episode of a TV western, detective series, a mystery, medical drama or sitcom, we knew that woman was as acclaimed Hollywood actress-turned-film and TV director, Ida Lupino.
In the 1930s and 40s, Ida knocked out some solid movie performances holding her own opposite some of the top male stars of the day.  While she was making movies, the star watched and learned from what  the men were doing in the director's chairs.   She effectively went from being behind the wheel with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra... being behind the camera as director of some good low-budget, independent, money-making features in the 1950s.  She added screenwriter and producer to her list of credits.  Her credits as a TV director were quite extensive.  Ida was directing films by 1950.  She soon went over to TV, directing in that same decade while continuing to act.  She was a respected, popular TV director up to 1968.  Lovely Ms. Lupino strutted her way into the Hollywood boys club of TV directors and opened the door for other women to enter.  This actress/director was a generous groundbreaker and a trailblazer.

In the 1970s, another woman came along.  Like Ida, she was an actress who became a TV director.  Joan Darling acted in episodes of hit TV shows such as Marcus Welby, M.D., The Six Million Dollar Man and Police Woman.  On the Saturday night of October 25th in 1975, Joan Darling made millions of us TV viewers howl with laughter while watching a show on CBS.  That was the night the now-classic "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode aired on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The TV station employee known on local television as Chuckles the Clown was accidentally killed in a parade.  He was dressed as another one of his kiddie show characters, Peter Peanut.  Tragically, a hungry elephant in the parade mistook him for a real peanut.  Fellow station employees attended the funeral.  They made wisecracks about the accident but got severely reprimanded by Mary Richards, the only one who seemed to take the clown tragedy seriously.

That is...until the actual funeral service.
This month, I saw premiere episodes of two ABC network sitcoms -- Selfie and Manhattan Love Story.  They attempted to be hip and edgy, putting heavy emphasis on sex, but they were nowhere near as funny as "Chuckles Bites the Dust."  I watched that classic episode again a few months ago.  It still holds up.  That Mary Tyler Moore character-driven sitcom with middle-aged characters seems hipper and edgier than some of today's new youth-driven sitcoms.  Its comedy came from how we deal with real-life drama -- death, divorce, workplace loyalty, sexual equality and equal opportunities, and unemployment to name a few.  The writing and the acting -- and the directing -- were excellent.

A perfect example of that is "Chuckles Bites the Dust" -- directed by Joan Darling.
Ida Lupino got three primetime Emmy nominations in her career.  Two were for sitcom acting.  (She also starred in a 1950s TV sitcom with Howard Duff, her real life husband.)  Her third came for dramatic acting.  She never received an Emmy nomination for her groundbreaking TV director work nor was she ever bestowed an Honorary Emmy.

Joan Darling went on to direct episodes of two spin-offs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  She directed episodes of Rhoda and Phyllis.  She directed an episode of M*A*S*H and directed Neil Patrick Harris in episodes of Doogie Howser, M.D.

Joan Darling's prime Emmy nominations came for directing M*A*S*H and that classic sitcom episode starring Mary Tyler Moore and cast.  "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is now hailed as one of the funniest sitcom episodes in TV history and Darling directed it when very few women were directing primetime episodic television.

Ida Lupino should have received a Lifetime Emmy Award.  I think Joan Darling deserves an Honorary Emmy too.

Friday, October 24, 2014


If I'm asked to list my picks for the Top Ten Best Films of 2014, you'll see Edward Norton in two of them. There's the fast, funny, furious and poignant Wes Anderson comedy, The Grand Bupadest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes as the flamboyant concierge on the run.  Anderson takes us on a colorful madcap journey.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Norton plays the meticulous Inspector Henckels.

And there's Birdman in which the versatile, exceptional actor plays an obnoxious and vain but talented Broadway actor opposite Michael Keaton.  Keaton plays the former action hero movie star determined to reinvent himself in a challenging, dramatic Broadway play that's been having some rocky rehearsals.

I still think that, in voice and mannerisms, Norton is doing a slight take-off on actor William Hurt, his co-star when he played The Incredible Hulk in 2008.  Keaton and Norton are Oscar nomination-worthy  for their work in this surreal comedy/drama.  Birdman is a cool jazz dance on self-respect and validation, self-delusion and truth.

The equally versatile and exceptional Naomi Watts co-stars as one of the complicated Broadway play's stressed out, insecure and nervous cast members.
Birdman reteams Naomi Watts with Edward Norton.  His actor character wants sex.
They once played a British couple whose marriage has been infected.  Their remake of The Painted Veil was one of the best films I saw the year it was released.  If my ticket had been double the price, I would've felt it was a bargain and worth every penny.  Ed Norton and Naomi Watts were outstanding as this troubled husband and wife.

From 2011, here is my short podcast review of some Edward Norton and Naomi Watts excellence that you may have missed:

Not getting an Oscar nomination does not mean that a film or an actor lacks quality.  Joel McCrea, Ida Lupino, Anton Walbrook, Giulietta Masina, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow, Richard Gere and Dennis Quaid are actors who gave marvelous screen performances and don't have Oscar nominations in their credits.  But I am surprised that The Painted Veil didn't get one single Oscar nomination at all.  This picture works on several levels -- the direction, adapted screenplay, costumes, cinematography, art direction, editing and original music score were stunning.  They were the stuff of big screen classic films.
And there was the intelligent, memorable acting.
Diana Rigg would've had my vote as an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress.  Rent the film.  It's fine, mature entertainment.  I think you'll like it.  I kid you not -- I've rented the DVD several times.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On MIDNIGHT (1939)

For those with a passion for classic films, 1939 is a famous year.  The number of quality films Hollywood released that year is stunning even by today's standards.  In those days, there were ten nominees for Best Picture.  For 1939, there could have been fifteen or twenty.  The big Oscar winner for that year was Gone With The Wind.  Other Best Picture nominees were The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Love Affair, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Dark Victory and Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

One of my favorite classic film comedies stars Claudette Colbert as a down-on-her-luck New York chorus girl stranded in Paris.  Future Oscar winner Don Ameche stars as the temperamental cab driver who helps her out.  In this modern day, lively twist on Cinderella, the broke chorus girl from Manhattan is determined to marry a millionaire.
We know that this Depression era dame will fall for the working class cabbie.

John Barrymore is terrifically loopy as sort of a fairy godmother to the Cinderella chorus girl.  He's got a scheme that can make her financial dreams come true.
But trouble ensues at the big ball when she's just about to seal the deal.
This comedy shines.  It's better and wittier than some modern romantic comedies I've seen -- most of them starring Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston or Jason Segel.

From 2011, here's my short podcast piece on 1939's Midnight directed by Mitchell Leisen:

Midnight was remade as a 1945 comedy called Masquerade in Mexico.  Dorothy Lamour took on the Cinderella role.  Mitchell Leisen also directed the remake.  Midnight is worth renting.  It's one of those 1939 films that wasn't nominated for Best Picture but sure was good enough to be in the race.
Don Ameche was a most versatile Hollywood actor.  He did comedy, musical comedy, drama, biopics...he was a talented man who knew how to keep reinventing himself.  After 1950, when movie lead roles weren't as plentiful, he displayed his comedy chops on record albums as half of the always squabbling and very funny married couple, "The Bickersons."  He starred on Broadway in Cole Porter's musical comedy, Silk Stockings, a musical version of the 1939 Greta Garbo comedy classic, Ninotchka.  He had a rich singing voice.  Fred Astaire did Ameche's part in the movie version of Silk Stockings.  

Don Ameche did a lot of TV work as an actor and a host.  In the 80s, film roles came back to him.  He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1985's Cocoon.
His last film was 1994's Corrina, Corrina starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta.  Don Ameche was a classy guest on my VH1 talk show in the late 1980s.  I loved interviewing him.  He told me that Claudette Colbert knew good lighting like a master technician.

By the way, some other fine films that did not get nominated for Best Picture of 1939 were Drums Along the Mohawk starring Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda, The Women, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Rains Came, Destry Rides Again, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Intermezzo introducing American audiences to Ingrid Bergman and The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Renee Zellweger's Face

When Jerry Maguire fell in love with her, so did I.  Renée Zellweger had that special something that makes an actress a movie star.  I loved her as the killer babe in Chicago, a musical that brought the talented screen star one of her three Oscar nominations.
Just like Roxie Hart, her infamous Chicago character, she made headlines.  Yesterday, folks on Twitter and Facebook were talking about her so much that she made Ebola seem like rival Velma Kelly in Chicago.  Renée topped the disease in popularity the way Roxie topped fellow jailbird, Velma, with her crime and courtroom trial hijinks.

We haven't heard a lot about Renée Zellweger in a couple of years, but yesterday she was a media sensation.
OK.  She does look different.  And still good.  Just like Elizabeth Taylor said on Turner Classic Movies about actor Montgomery Clift after he survived serious auto accident injuries, the face was still beautiful -- just some its delicacy was gone.  That's my opinion about Renée.  Also, whatever Ms. Zellweger decided to do to herself is her business.
This blog post is about the story itself.  Not about her face.  The story hit yesterday.  Newspaper, TV programs and social media were abuzz with Renée's new look.  She was a hot topic today on ABC's The View.

Had this all been planned for weeks in advance with the actress' publicity team?  Here's why I ask:  The story broke yesterday morning.  Last night on ABC's new sitcom, Selfie, these two characters had a comedy moment discussing that Renée Zellweger doesn't look recognizable anymore in her current photographs.
That network sitcom episode was not shot yesterday morning and then aired last night.  It was taped well over a week ago.  We heard that gag in the show the same day the Zellweger "new face" story broke.  That could not have been a coincidence.  How would the writers have known about Renée's new appearance if the story just broke yesterday morning?  I think there may have been insider info from a publicity team.  If that timely gag was in an ABC sitcom episode that aired last night, I wonder if Renée Zellweger will grant her first "new face" interview to an ABC news program.  Just a hunch from this former entertainment news reporter.  When I watched Selfie, I got a feeing that Zellweger's "new face revelation" was more a coordinated press event than a breaking news story.

What do you think?  Leave me some comments and let me know what you think.  By the way, you look fabulous.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On TV: Those Twisty Teeth

Have you seen Twisty the Clown on this season's American Horror Story?  If you saw him, you'd remember him.  He's got a set of choppers that you just can't forget.
Look at those teeth.  Aren't they scary?  That's not a clown you book for a children's birthday party.  Not unless the kids are in The Addams Family.
It's obvious that folks in the American Horror Story production team appreciate classic films.  One classic silent film provided the inspiration for Twisty the Clown.

Actor Conrad Veidt is famous to millions of classic film fans as the Nazi villain, Major Strasser in 1942's Casablanca.  Veidt starred in a number of silent films that were quite influential.  In one of them, he played a young noble whose face was surgically disfigured by order of a despotic king.  Years later and because of his disfigurement, he joins a traveling circus troupe and becomes a top act.  In 1928, Conrad Veidt starred as Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs.  Veidt's make-up made his screen character memorable.  There was an elegant horror to his disfigured face.  His face gave circus audiences a start when it popped through the curtain.  The noble is now a circus freak.
He is conflicted about his looks when true love comes into his tortured life.  He will discover that love is blind.
Veidt's face as The Man Who Laughs reportedly inspired illustrators such as Bob Kane when creating The Joker for the original Batman comic books.
In 2005, the film and Veidt's silent screen look continued to be referenced by illustrators.
In a way, Twisty the Clown's teeth have stood the cinematic test of time considering that they were inspired by a deformed smile first seen in 1928.

By the way, if you want to see a compelling performance, watch and study Conrad Veidt as The Man Who Laughs.  It's a silent film.  Today's young actors can learn a lot from Veidt's physicality in the lead role.  He poetically evokes all the feelings of this mistreated, grotesque, human man.  It is truly a film classic anchored by a great lead performance.

For another lesson in excellent physicality during a film performance, watch John Carroll Lynch in 2007's Zodiac.  Based on a true serial killer murder mystery that made national headlines, Zodiac was directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, 1999).  He gave us this year's hit, Gone Girl.  The scene you need to see is Lynch's police interrogation scene.  He plays a big, brawny, bad-tempered single man.  He knows that the police suspect that San Francisco's  Zodiac serial killer may be a gay man.  He's extremely self-conscious about his movements and mannerisms during the interrogation.  He doesn't want to move in a way that will make him appear gay.  He doesn't want his temper to get him in trouble.  He's at odds with the cops.  He's at odds with himself.

John Carroll Lynch is brilliant in that scene.  On American Horror Story, the actor plays Twisty the Clown.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

NETWORK Predicted It

I noticed a big billboard in the cineplex lobby on my way out from having seen (and loved) Birdman.  I was in the big cineplex across from Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Remember the 1976 classic, Network, the satire with its award-winning original and prophetic screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky?  Peter Finch played aging, avuncular network news anchor, Howard Beale.  Beale's newscast is traditional and low-rated.
He has an emotional breakdown and he becomes delusional.  His delusional state gives way to rants, angry rants that are televised live on the air.  Faye Dunaway plays the soulless network executive who manipulates Beale's madness into big ratings for the company.

She introduces the change of the set and the new format for the newscast headed by Howard Beale, now the "mad prophet" of the airwaves.  Beale's new format has a studio audience.

A studio audience that laughs and applauds and cheers during the news.  Diana (Dunaway's character) has erased the line between news and programming.

I saw Network in its theatrical release.  I saw it several times, it was that good.  Movie audiences always howled with laughter at the sight of a national newscast with an applauding studio audience.  We TV viewers were still in the Walter Cronkite era then.  We still had a line between news and programming. It was slimmer than before, but it was still present.

I used to hear people talk about the news features done by Cronkite or Peter Jennings -- or the editorials by Eric Severeid and the investigative reports by journalist pitbull Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.  It's different now.  Today millions of TV viewers talk about and are devoted fans of satirical newscasts with studio audiences that laugh, applaud and cheer.  Actor/comedians are asking harder, more probing questions than some TV journalists are.  These hugely popular actor/comedians who give us the news are...Jon Stewart, the most popular host of The Daily Show...
...and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.
I bet that, if either one of them guest anchored the CBS Evenings News for one week during November sweeps, its ratings would increase big time.  The ratings would top what CBS anchor, Scott Pelley, gets.  Just my opinion.
We look to fake newsmen to get more fulfilling news reports.  They rant in a way that touches our wounded hearts and minds in the same way Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell" declaration connected with his national TV viewers.  And I can understand why.  Stewart and Colbert do incisive, intelligent, provocative, bold and compassionate work.  They make you think.  They make you laugh.  And they make you cheer.  Theirs are the reports folks talk about the next day.  Theirs are the reports that get posted on Facebook and Twitter.  Just like in Network, viewers turn to a news show with a studio audience and an untraditional format.  Life has imitated art.

I thought of all that when I saw this billboard in the cineplex lobby.  It was full of rave reviews for a new political drama, directed and written by Jon Stewart.  Notice the words "the world's leading fake newscaster."

Stewart's film is called Rosewater.  It stars the wonderful Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) and Shohreh Aghdashloo, of NBC's Grimm and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2003's House of Sand and Fog.

I wish Paddy Chayefsky had lived long enough to be a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the state of TV journalism today.  That interview would rock and folks would definitely talk about the following day.