R.I.P., Valerie Harper

So sorry to hear about Valerie Harper, who finally succumbed after years of fighting brain cancer. She had just turned 80 the week before her death.

I was only nine years old when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” debuted on CBS, but even then I could see the difference between that show and more standard sitcoms. The characters were unique and fascinating and spoke like real adults. One of those adults was a self-deprecating Bronx-to-Minneapolis transplant named Rhoda Morgenstern — Harper, of course — who spent most of that debut episode haggling with sweet Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) over a vacant apartment that both of them wanted to rent from landlady Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman).

The brusqueness that solidified Rhoda’s character almost did that character in. Legend has it that the filming of that show seemed a disaster. At the show’s post-mortem meeting, the creators decided that the problem was Rhoda came across as too unlikable.

That could have spelled doom for Rhoda, except that there was another, more unsung character in that episode — Phyllis’ young daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen). The writers decided to add a couple of lines of dialogue wherein Bess declares how much she likes “Aunt Rhoda.” It made the audience realize that if a nice, bright girl could find some good in wisecracking Rhoda, so could we.

And we did, for nine years. Harper won three Emmys and countless raves in her four years on Mary’s show. Then CBS programming exec Fred Silverman, who never met a show he couldn’t spin off, gave Harper a starring showcase (and another Emmy) in “Rhoda.” The show is best remembered for its first-season marriage of Rhoda to Joe (David Groh), after which the show began floundering because Rhoda was no longer a lovable loser (just lovable) and because the writers quickly ran out of plausible marriage plots. But the show was popular enough to last for five years.

Harper’s life post-“Rhoda” wasn’t all chocolates and hearts. One item that Harper’s obit writers are scrupulously avoiding is “Valerie,” an initially successful sitcom on NBC starring Harper as basically a single mother trying to raise her kids without her husband, a mostly errant airline pilot.

After two years of behind-the-scenes drama, Harper demanded a pay raise, which she was refused. She had tried this in 1975 and won with “Rhoda,” but NBC and the show’s producers had other ideas. They cast Sandy Duncan as Valerie’s sister, killed off Valerie’s character, and renamed the show “The Hogan Family.”

Happily, Harper’s career continued to flourish, even after she was diagnosed with cancer. Her own diagnosis summed it all up: “Don’t go to your funeral before the day of the funeral.”

I can think of no better tribute to provide Harper than to post her finest hour on “MTM,” “Rhoda the Beautiful.” Enjoy it, and keep a hanky handy.

Scream for Tom & Jerry

If you’re a fan of “classic” Tom & Jerry — the M-G-M cartoons directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, before they went to “limited animation” for TV — you’ll note that one of their recurring gags was Tom’s crazy scream whenever Jerry did some bodily harm to him.

Ever wonder how they got such a quirky and funny yelp from Tom? The answer is that Bill Hanna provided his finest scream for the movie’s soundtrack, and then the sound editors chopped off the beginning and end of the scream, so that its coming out of and going to nowhere would be funny instead of frightening.

Here is one of the introductions to CBS’ 1965 series of Tom & Jerry broadcasts. There are enough examples of The Hanna Scream here for you to appreciate them.

AN ALAN SMITHEE BLOGATHON is here!

At last, it’s time for our tribute to the movie director who never existed! The bloggers at An Alan Smithee Blogathon take a look at some of the movies credited to Mr. Smithee (not a real person) when a movie’s actual director decided he or she didn’t want his or her name on it.

Below, click on each individual film title to read the blogger’s entry about it.

Movierob‘s double feature takes a look at two vastly different kinds of existential crises — Western (Richard Widmark in Death of a Gunfighter) and sci-fi (Solar Crisis).

The Midnite Drive-In assures us that we’ll have a bloody good time watching Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh.

Nothing like being a woman (Jodie Foster) whose hit man falls in love with her…especially when he’s Dennis Hopper, the “Alan Smithee” of a movie known variously as Catchfire and Backtrack. Realweegiemidget Reviews gives us the lowdown.

Finally, your faithful correspondent chronicles Eric Idle playing a put-upon movie director who is actually named…well, you know, in An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.

And believe it or not, that’s it for this blogathon! My thanks to the talented bloggers who took the time to share their opinions with us. Be sure to read their ‘thon entries as well as other great writing at their blogs.

And if you’d like to join our upcoming blogathon, click on the banner below to learn more about The Unemployment Blogathon!

AN ALAN SMITHEE BLOGATHON un-postponed

Sorry to keep flip-flopping on this issue! Yesterday, I posted at this blog that I would be postponing An Alan Smithee Blogathon for a week, due to Hurricane Dorian. But since posting that message, nearly all of the blogathon’s entrants have written to assure me that their posts either are up now or will be posted this weekend. So let’s have at it! I will list the currently-posted entries later today, so keep us bookmarked.

AN ALAN SMITHEE BLOGATHON postponed for one week

If you want to make God laugh, try to plan a blogathon.

It looks as though one of those pesky hurricanes is rearing its head in Florida’s direction again. In the face of power outages and bloggers preferring to board up their houses instead of writing, I am postponing An Alan Smithee Blogathon until Fri., Sept. 6.

If you hadn’t heard about the blogathon and would like to participate, click here to get all of the details. Also, click on the banner below to find out more about (and enter) our upcoming The Unemployment Blogathon. Stay safe, everyone — I’ll get back with next week!

Announcing THE UNEMPLOYMENT BLOGATHON!

Moviemakers know that getting and keeping a job is always on everyone’s mind, as countless movies dating back to the beginning of film have looked at this subject. Let’s look at the wide variety of angles from which this topic has been explored, as we present

THE UNEMPLOYMENT BLOGATHON!

What We’re Looking For

Your blogathon entry should be about a movie whose main plot, or at least a prominent subplot, concerns unemployment for one or more of the main characters. Please do not write about a character who is simply unemployed for his own sake.

(For example, Charlie Chaplin started out many of his movies with his Tramp character not having a job — but that in itself was not always the focus of his movies. For this blogathon, if you write about Chaplin, we’d prefer you write about one of his movies where his seeking employment furthered the plot, as in City Lights or Modern Times.)

That said, if the movie concerns not having, getting, or keeping a job, you can choose from any genre, from comedy or drama to musical or animated film. Also, no duplicate entries, please. The listing (below) of blogathon entries will be continually updated; check it to be sure your intended entry isn’t already taken.

Instructions

  1. In the “Comments” section at the bottom of this blog, please leave your name, the URL of your blog, and the movie you are choosing to blog about. Below are banners you can use to promote your blog entry. Please choose a banner, display it on your blog, and link it back to this blog.
  2. The blogathon will take place from Fri., Oct. 4, through Sun., Oct. 6, 2019. When the opening date of the blogathon arrives, leave a comment here with a link to your post, and I will display it in the list of entries (which I will continually update to the beginning of the ‘thon, so keep checking back!).
  3. I will not be assigning particular dates to any blog posts. As long as you get your entry in by the end of the day on Oct. 6, I will be satisfied. (That said, the sooner the better!)

Again, be sure to leave a comment below and grab our banner, and have fun with your blog entry! Here’s the line-up so far:

Movie Movie Blog Blog II – Hallelujah I’m a Bum (1933)

The Midnite Drive-In – Falling Down (1993)

The Stop Button – Mondays in the Sun (2002)

Outspoken and Freckled – That Touch of Mink (1962)

Caftan Woman – Gold Diggers of 1933

Movierob – Lost in America (1985), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), and Everything Must Go (2010)

A Shroud of Thoughts – Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Moon in Gemini – Bridesmaids (2011)

Taking Up Room – The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Pure Entertainment Preservation Society – All This, and Heaven Too and The Shop Around the Corner (both 1940)

AN ALAN SMITHEE FILM: BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN (1997) – Soggy satire

The following is my entry in An Alan Smithee Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Aug. 30 through Sept. 1, 2019. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of movies credited to this “prolific” director!

The background story of An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn is more interesting and amusing than anything in the movie. For decades, if a film director felt he had little or no control over how badly his movie came out, the Directors Guild of America could be talked into crediting the film’s director as “Alan Smithee” in order for the real director to save face.

Burn Hollywood Burn was directed by Arthur Hiller, who was so incensed by the final product that the movie ended up being credited to…guess who?

While Hiller has never been known as a top-notch comedy director, it’s easy to see that the blame for this exercise in cinematic torture must be laid at the hands of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who applies the same heavy hand to Hollywood satire that he did to feminism in Basic Instinct and Showgirls. His actors do everything they can to show how funny they think they are. (As a harried movie producer, Ryan O’Neal does so many camera looks, you’d think he was staging his own tribute to Oliver Hardy.) And every time a celebrity is brought on-screen, Eszterhas gives him or her a cutesy title, such as:

The movie’s premise promises more than it eventually delivers. A beleaguered movie director (Eric Idle), whose actual name is Alan Smithee, discovers that he’s the in-name-only director of a big-budget action film whose producers are running roughshod over him. Trouble is, he can’t get his name removed from the film because…well, think about it.

The story is told in quasi- (or maybe I should say queasy-) documentary style, but it never slows down long enough to be believable. The best fake-documentaries, such as This Is Spinal Tap, settle in for long, luxurious takes where we really get to know the characters, satirical though they may be. By contrast, Hiller has his characters spouting their weak jokes straight at the camera, with “Family Guy”-type cuts that end with weak-as-tea punchlines. (At one point, one of the producers declares that his movie is “worse than Showgirls!” — which was, of course, written by guess-who.)

There are plenty of stars here who are happy to poke fun at themselves, but none of them make much of an impact. (As a monotone cop, former movie executive Harvey Weinstein comes off even more terrible than the others, in light of the sexual allegations that killed his career.) The only actors who rate more than a mild chuckle are Coolio and Chuck D as “The Brothers Brothers” (think the Hughes Brothers), who not only direct street-smart action films but are also crackerjack negotiators at Hollywood board meetings.

And finally, a word of pity for Eric Idle, who plays the put-upon Alan Smithee. The saddest thing about seeing a favorite actor or comedian in a sellout role is knowing how funny he once was or can be. All of the Monty Python alumni have done their share of middling solo turns, but I find it maddening to see how many movie parts Idle seems to have done solely for the money. Maybe he should make a comedy about a frustrated comedian who really wants to make better movies, but his famous name always gets in the way.

Adventures with My Wife # 1

They say writing can be a cathartic process, so I’m going to start using this blog, among other purposes, to find out how cathartic it can be with regard to my marriage.

As regular readers know, my wife Kathy and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. She’s quite a remarkable woman, and in more ways than just intelligence and romance. She has the wherewithal to shape her surrounding universe to adjust to her specific needs. I would like to share some of these experiences with you and find out what you think of them.

Kathy and I use the same wonderful family doctor, but usually at different times and for different purposes. I had scheduled a visit with the doctor this morning at 9 a.m. to review a minor health problem. The doctor’s office called me at 8:30 today to tell me that the doctor could not be in his office this morning; could we reschedule for tomorrow at 4:3o p.m.? I said that would be fine.

Unbeknownst to me, Kathy had already been down the road less traveled and had previously made her own appointment for 3:30 p.m. today — and that made all the difference.

At about 3 p.m. today, I was sitting and reading in my man cave, when Kathy suddenly called out, “Steve, I need to work late tomorrow — how about we switch our appointments?” Mind you, she hadn’t even checked with our doctor’s office yet to find out if it could be done. And of course, she really wasn’t asking me whether it was okay with me; she was merely confirming, by way of a question, that this was about to take place.

I told Kathy that I frankly didn’t have the nerve to call the doctor and make such a request — as though this observation of my own feebleness was enough to keep the event from happening.

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, Kathy confirmed that she had called the doctor’s office, and they had approved her request. (A couple of minutes after that, she said to me, “Now, do you know what you have to do?” I said, “Yes. In a few minutes, I need to leave for the doctor’s office, possibly never to come back.”)

This startling paradox between the two of us will forever leave me shaking my head. I can’t even trust a cashier at McDonald’s take-out window to get my order correct. Yet Kathy calls up busy medical offices and makes them bend to her heed.

Kathy is more than just my partner in marriage. She should be the subject of an anthropological study.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – Step into the sun, step into the light

The following is my entry in The Wizard of Oz Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Taking Up Room from Aug. 23-25, 2019. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on a variety of topics related to this classic movie musical!

At first, I felt intimidated at the thought of writing for this blogathon. What is there to say about this delightful movie that hasn’t been said in the past 80 years? But the best aspect of The Wizard of Oz is that it is so stuffed full of goodies big and small, you can look around in its deepest nooks and crannies and find something to write about.

As with most Oz fans, I’ve been watching this movie ever since I was a kid. (Remember CBS’ annual broadcasts of the movie in TV’s pre-cable days?) So by the time I was an adult, I would have imagined that I knew every aspect of the film — including its delightful score — by heart. But until the multi-CD release of the movie’s complete soundtrack by Rhino Records in the mid-1990’s, I was barely aware of one of the movie’s sonic treats.

After the movie’s starring quartet (shown above) recover from the Wicked Witch’s poppy-induced stupor, they’re more eager to reach the magical city of Oz than before. “Let’s run!” says Dorothy — which they do, to a pleasant enough song titled “Optimistic Voices.”

But it’s only when you hear the isolated version of the song that you realize how truly happy the tune makes you. Short as it is (a little over a minute long), it’s as charming an earworm as anything in the movie.

The song’s music is by Herbert Stothart and Harold Arlen, who wrote the lyrics with E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Arlen and Harburg wrote hundreds of songs together, and 1939 was definitely a banner year for them. Besides their winning an Oscar for Judy Garland’s iconic song “Over the Rainbow” (which was saved at the last minute from getting cut from the movie), they also wrote Groucho Marx’s memorable warbler “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” for the Marx Brothers comedy At the Circus.

Legend has it that the song was written to bolster the spirits of moviegoers who were suffering through the Great Depression, much as the tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was intended for Walt Disney’s 1933 cartoon The Three Little Pigs. In any case, the movie has quite a bit of fun with the song. When it begins, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) gives a startled look as he wonders where the music is coming from. Eventually, the quartet skips toward Oz in time to the music.

As with everything else its creators touched, “Optimistic Voices” has become one of the musical gems of The Wizard of Oz that never gets old. Not bad for a minute of marginal music.