The Norman Lear Effect’s effect on Norman Lear’s ego

YouTube has created a channel with the misleading name of “The Norman Lear Effect.”

For those not in the know: After toiling in TV and movie writing for decades, in 1971 Lear created “All in the Family,” a CBS sitcom that was groundbreaking in its use of topicality (particularly about race) and frank dialogue. It was a major hit that spawned several spin-offs, leading to further TV hits created by Lear. In the 1970’s, Lear was the auteur equivalent of Lucille Ball — it seemed as though any TV channel you turned into, you coul find one of Lear’s shows being broadcast.

Lear was my hero when I was a kid. Even though I was only 10 years old when “All in the Family” premiered, I greatly appreciated its depiction of working-class life. I could never relate to “The Brady Bunch” with its cutesy kids and fluffy dog. I could easily relate to “AITF” with its sounds of toilets flushing and loudly arguing family members.

In 1978, Lear left his perch as producer of “AITF” and his other hits, and he went on to pursue other interests. The shows of his that were still running were folded into a production company named Embassy Communications, which went on to produce hits of their own.

The trouble was, the Embassy productions were bland shows that followed the same formula: One-note characters bleating out one-liners in “harmless” situations were the exact opposite of “AITF’s”
confrontational plots. If you’ve ever seen “Silver Spoons” or “Who’s the Boss?”, you’d never mistake them for Norman Lear productions.

(Johnny Carson perfectly summed up the situation in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview where he praised the writing on Lear’s “AITF” and “Maude” while comparing it to the cutesiness of other sitcoms:

“In some of the stuff I see, the kids are funny, the housekeeper is funny, the garbage man comes on and he’s funny. Everybody is throwing funny things around, but there are no convincing relationships between the characters. Well, in the first place, you don’t really give a s**t. You don’t know these people, so you don’t care. Writers have just written jokes for them.”

Unfortunately, that’s a perfect description of “Diff’rent Strokes,” an Embassy production that premiered shortly after Lear left TV.)

(Another test I would use against these shows is memorability. TV fans still talk about, “Remember the episode where Archie Bunker… [fill in the blank — met Sammy Davis Jr., got locked in the basement, etc.].” I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could fondly recall any plotline of “Silver Spoons.”)

The reason I’m ranting about this is because YouTube’s “The Norman Lear Effect” is mixing the good with the bad. They’re posting complete episodes of “AITF,” “One Day at a Time,” and other Lear hits, which is fine with me. (If only they’d post eps of Lear’s short-lived but bawdy and funny “Hot L Baltimore” (1975), featuring ensemble work from future stars Conchata Ferrell and James Cromwell.)

But YouTube is also posting episodes from Embassy productions that I don’t want to hear about again, much less watch. (I don’t ever want to be forced to watch another episode of “Archie Bunker’s Place,” the Lear-less “All in the Family” spin-off in which Carroll O’Connor took an iconic TV character and ran him into the ground.)

You would think that Lear, who is now 98 (!!) years old, would have a big enough body of work that he wouldn’t try to take credit for anyone else’s. But no, if it came from his production company, apparently he’s glad to say that he had his fingerprints in it somewhere. It’s rather like tracing the lineage of the guy who created the limerick to the guy who wrote, “There once was a man from Nantucket…”

If you need a guide to try and sort this out, go to Wikipedia’s entry on Norman Lear. It has a chart that lists only the shows with which Lear was directly involved. “Silver Spoons” and its ilk are not on that chart. If we’re going to remember Lear (as well we should), let’s remember the stuff that he did best.

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Reading and retiring

For a blog that’s supposed to be movie-themed, I admit that most of my recent blog entries have had more to do with my personal life than with pop culture. (And part of today’s blog will, as well.) So I thought I’d give a plug to a movie biography that is due out in mid-June.

The lengthy title of this modest epic is Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend. The book’s author is Christina Rice, whose other bios I haven’t read, and the book will not be coming out until June 15. But the subject matter itself was enough to make me pre-order a copy.

From the book’s title, I’m guessing that its slant will be how Russell became famous more from publicizing her glorious physical assets than from her talent. And I probably can’t disagree with that. I first came across Ms. Russell when I was 15 years old. I was perusing a coffee-table book about the movies when I came across an eye-popping publicity photo of Jane from her movie The French Line, and that alone was enough to instill my lust for her ever since.

I’ve since watched several of her movies and have noted that she was indeed quite a talented singer and actress. But let’s face it — the first time you look at Russell, are you thinking about her thespian gifts or her physical ones?

I read Jane’s autobiography years ago, and she seemed to be two-faced about her appeal. Throughout the book, Jane seems ashamed when people gawk over her figure, and she apologizes to any woman who ever had to exploit her looks in order to gain fame. Yet the book has no shortage of photos that proudly display Jane’s fulsome physique (including a pic of her in a bikini, which was quite shocking in 1955). So she always seemed to want it both ways — acting shocked, shocked that anyone would only want to look at her body, while displaying said body in some quite compromising poses. My main interest in Rice’s book — other than the obvious — will be to see if she addresses Jane’s hypocrisy and her helping to usher in the “look but don’t touch” era of femininity.

(Click here to go to Amazon.com to learn more about the book or to pre-order it.)

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Now that that’s out of the way, here’s my really important news…I’M RETIRED!

I never, ever thought retirement was even a consideration in my life plan. I used to joke that my idea of retirement would be a dignified cremation.

But shortly after my wife died last year, I was informed that when I turned 60 years old, I would be entitled to 71.5% of my late wife’s Social Security benefits. At the time, I shrugged this off as a pipe dream. But the closer my 60th birthday came, the more I thought of this as a tangible possibility. I figured up my ostensible Social Security payment and discovered that it would pay all my monthly bills and would still leave me a comfortable amount to live on. Naturally, this made me even more anxious that the plan wouldn’t go through properly.

I turned 60 on April 27, at which time I called the Social Security office. When I told them the purpose of my call, they asked me to gather some personal data about me and my wife (birth dates, her death date, etc.), and then they would call me back on May 18 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Now, we all know the frustration of having to deal with any federal bureaucracy, and the closer May 18 came, the more I feared that I would have to suffer the same fate. I hadn’t even gotten the name of the person I spoke with at the Social Security office. I forgot if I’d even given them my phone number. And what if they just jotted it down and then let it get lost in the paperwork?

Well, if there was ever one time when I hoped my experience with the Government would be positive, this is the time my hope became true. To remind me about the phone call, they sent me two voicemails and one text message prior to May 18. When the date came, they called right on time, discerned the information they needed, and told me that they’d process my request ASAP, although they said it might take up to 30 days to process.

Two days later, my first monthly Social Security payment had been Direct Deposited into my checking account. Two days after that, I quit one of the most thankless jobs I’ve ever had.

I’ve that, once you tell everyone that you’re going to retire, everyone has an opinion about it. My daughter still isn’t convinced that I can survive on my monthly payments, and she keeps hounding me to find some on-line or part-time job to supplement my income. One of my long-retired roommates, who now plays the stock market for a living, insisted that I’ll become bored stiff after 60 days.

All of this might be true, or none of it might be. Right now, I’m still in shock — a pleasant shock, to be sure — that I can eat, drink, drive around aimlessly, and walk around the house in my skivvies without having to answer to everyone. I went grocery shopping yesterday, and even that was a gratifying experience — being able to buy a steak or other “real” food, rather than getting by on junk from The Dollar Store.

I’m really not trying to rub my retirement in the faces of those who still have to toil for a living. And of course, I definitely don’t want to belittle my loving wife’s death, which made this whole thing possible. But after decades of working with condescending people (co-workers and customers) and grin and bear the whole thing, it is so relaxing to wake up in the morning, breathe, and know that breathing is the only thing I’m actually required to do at this point in my life.

I hope all of you will eventually reach this same happy fate. Now, excuse me while I go sip some wine out on the patio.

My 60th-birthday request

On April 27, I will turn 60 years old. I still haven’t figured out how someone kidnapped my teenage body and stuck it into the body of a middle-aged man, but there you have it.

For this solemn occasion, I’d like to promote my cause, and that cause is…me. I am not asking for monetary donations, just a great deal of sympathy. As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, my wife of 30 years died last year on March 9. (I prefer using the term “died.” She didn’t “pass on” or else I’d be able to find her on my GPS, and I didn’t “lose her” because that would imply she could be found somewhere.) Every time I think I’ve gotten over this sad event, something stupid happens and I spend most of the day crying for no reason.

I’m coping better than I thought I would, but it’s been a real up-and-down year for me and my two grown children. So I’m not asking for a birthday card or anything tangible — just good old-fashioned good wishes. Thank you.

(Of course, if you really do want to send me money, there’s always PayPal.)

Buster Keaton in COPS (1922) – “Get some cops to protect these policemen”

The following is my contribution to The Seventh Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Lea at her blog Silent-ology. Clock on the above image, and read bloggers’ essays about the career and life of silent-movie comedian Buster Keaton!

Nothing ever came easy for Buster Keaton – the person and the stone-faced persona – and Cops is nothing less than a deconstruction of The American Dream. It begins with Buster behind (symbolic) bars and ends with him preparing to get put behind the real thing. In between is a hilarious disintegration of the Horatio Alger story and – for once – a storyline that thoroughly justifies Buster’s eventually chased by the majority of L.A.’s Finest.

Naturally, the root cause of this havoc is Buster’s pining for a girl, who tells him, “I won’t marry you until you become a big businessman!” Like all good Americans, Buster expects this to be handed to him on a silver platter – and in its own skewed way, it does. Buster tries to assist a rich man getting into his car, is thoroughly rebuffed, happens upon the rich man’s wallet (accidentally dropped), and rewards his own good intentions with a wad of cash from the rich man’s wallet.

A con man sees Buster with the wad of money, notices a nearby man loading his family’s possessions into a horse-and-buggy for moving, and launches into a sob story for Buster: He has been kicked out of his house and must sell his furniture, or his family will starve. To prove he is truly a “big business man,” Buster “buys” the furniture at an immodest price (determined by the con man, who peels off the requisite amount of dollar bills he thinks Buster should pay him).

When the furniture’s actual owner comes out to finish loading the cart, Buster tries to help the man; but the man thinks Buster is only a delivery boy and is not expected to help load the cart. Buster, in turn, decides he’s quite happy to let this total stranger load his stuff up for him; he pulls up a seat and waits patiently for the man to finish.

A cynical title tells us, “Once a year, everyone in town knows where they can find a policeman.” Cut to a huge city parade with thousands of policemen on the self-promoting march. Into this milieu wanders Buster with his buggy; not realizing he’s raining on someone else’s parade, he politely and continuously tips his hat to the admiring crowd. An anarchist (played by co-director Eddie Cline) throws a lit bomb into the parade; it lands next to Buster, who unthinkingly lights a cigarette with it and then discards it.

CopsPhoto

When things go boom for Buster, they really go boom. The ensuing chase, a marvel of endless invention and variation, contains at least two of Keaton’s most iconic images: Buster rounding a corner, eventually followed by the members of every nearby police precinct; and Buster evading the cops by casually thrusting his hand out, latching onto a passing car, and flying out of sight like a banner. (There’s also a priceless intertitle, as one officer commands another to “Get some cops to protect these policemen.”)

Miraculously, Buster pulls off his greatest dream: He gets every one of the pursuing cops locked up in their own jail and throws away the key. But when Buster’s love walks by and shuns him (she’s the mayor’s daughter and got a full view of Buster’s parade disruption), he fetches the key, opens the jail door, and falls into a sea of vengeful hands. An ominous “The End” title depicts Buster’s porkpie hat atop a tombstone.

How can one make a success of oneself, Keaton seems to be asking, in a world where con men sell you furniture you don’t own, a cigarette lighter can destroy a crowd, and policemen celebrate their lack of policing? Like the Marx Brothers’ later sound feature Duck SoupCops depicted a nightmare mirror world that has come to resemble the real world more and more with each passing year. For this and other not-so-small reasons, this movie was selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry 75 years after its making. It will continue to prove as timeless as any of Keaton’s best work.

Palm Beach Story Alert

What were you doing on Sept. 26, 1987? I was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, seeing for the first time The Palm Beach Story. (By an odd coincidence, the movie’s supporting actress, Mary Astor, had died the night before.) It was my introduction to the genius of film writer/director Preston Sturges, and I have taken it upon myself to be the movie’s cheerleader ever since.

This gift from God will next be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies on Thurs., Feb. 25 at 8:00 Eastern time. Below is a link to my YouTube review of the movie. Treat yourself to this once-in-a-lifetime movie gem. I beg of you.

ANNOUNCING: The Seventh Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon!

From my good online friend Lea at the blog named “Silent-ology.” If you’re a Buster Keaton buff, make this blogathon one of the highlights of your social season!

Silent-ology

IT HAS RETURNED!! (In spite of everything, I might add. *wink*) Yes, my friends, at long last this is the official announcement of the 7th Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon!

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When:Monday, March 22 and Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

Where:Right here on Silent-ology!

How:To join in, please leave me a comment on this post and let me know which Buster film or Buster-related topic you want to cover! (Or feel free tosend me a message). Please help spread the word about the event by adding one of my vintage poster-inspired banners to your blog (aren’t those illustrations fun?). During the blogathon itself, when you publish your post leave me a comment with the post’s link (or again, you can send me a message). Please mention my blog and the name of the event too (such as “This post is part of Seventh Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted…

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