Thursday, September 29, 2011
“I love you, and...you don't pay me.”
By Jonathan Pacheco
My Own Private Idaho's storylines overlap like a Venn diagram: there's Mike (River Phoenix), a young, gay, narcoleptic street hustler in the Pacific Northwest who keeps having dreams about his mother back in Idaho. He soon embarks on an odyssey to track her down, aided by his best friend and fellow prostitute, Scott (Keanu Reeves). He, a bit like Prince Hal of Henry IV (and complete with his own Falstaff by way of the portly but eloquent Bob Pigeon played by William Richert), comes from a family of wealth, and plans to collect his inheritance and clean up his act when he turns 21, hoping that his dramatic transformation will impress his disillusioned father. Central to Gus Van Sant's 20-year-old film — and where the diagram intersects — is the bond between Mike and Scott, a strong friendship with the potential for something more significant, and this colorful and bold film approaches the topic with a delicate and understanding touch.
Idaho's mixture of styles and influences is fascinating thanks in part to Van Sant's ability to balance it all, preventing it from becoming a clashing jumble of unrelated ideas. Most notable, of course, is how the film takes its Shakespearean influence to literal levels, mimicking the Bard's theatrical style whenever the character of Bob Pigeon shows up. From a shift in storytelling technique, such as the addition of lengthy monologues and character pranks, to even the very language that the characters speak ("Are you not a coward? Answer that, and that goes double!"), these sequences (which occasionally resemble Dickens as well) stick out for sure, but not necessarily negatively. Van Sant integrates them well enough into his surreal narrative, such that it almost makes sense that this gang of street hustlers and trick-turners might abandon contractions and slang in favor of more lyrical words; why not?
But all of this is anchored by a single scene right in the middle of the film, a scene that stops with the cockeyed cinematography and the Shakespearean touches and the narcolepsy, just for a few moments. Scott and Mike, stuck in the fields of Idaho for the night, sit around a campfire. Mike attempts to have a real, personal conversation with Scott, who constantly counters with jokes, prompting Mike to try to break through that barrier, eventually confessing his desire to be "closer" to Scott, closer in a way that even best friends can't be. The quiet scene is so honest because Phoenix is so honest in it. His voice, his fiddling with a pile of nearby sticks, his eye-contact (or lack thereof) — he brings it all together not with showiness or flare, but with such soft sensitivity and delicacy. As the scene progresses, I find myself pulled closer and closer to the screen each time. For all the stylistic and creative touches of the film, this is Idaho's biggest "wow" moment, and it simply involves Van Sant allowing his camera to roll while one character finally opens up to another. While nearly every line, every moment of Phoenix's performance in this scene is worthy of dissection and analysis (when Scott states that two guys can't love each other, I adore Mike's attempt to be tactful and sensitive by initially agreeing, "Yeah…Well, I don't know, I mean…" The scene hits a striking, painful climax when Mike finally and desperately confesses, "I really wanna kiss you, man."
I reckon all of us have experienced this conversation and these moments in some capacity; gay or straight, this is a universally brave and painful confession to make or even to hear. My wife, way before she was my wife, went out on a similar limb as Mike, revealing a love for me while I was still with someone else, conveying feelings I wasn't allowed to reciprocate. The memory almost haunts me. I remember where the sun was shining from, where I was sitting and where she was standing, the way she couldn't stop fiddling with her nails and the way I couldn't look her in the eye. And I remember her "I really wanna kiss you, man" moment as well. It's such a beautiful memory and I love her every day for taking that plunge, but it's also a memory that I can barely stand to think about because I know how vulnerable she allowed herself to be. So when Mike says, "I really wanna kiss you, man," I can't help but gasp — in pain, empathy and admiration.
Just as the first half of My Own Private Idaho seemed to build up to this scene, the second half builds from it. Mike must go through the pain of having Scott's friendship but not his love as their journey takes them through Idaho, then to Italy, but back to America on separate planes and separate paths. Much of the film passes by in a flurry of Shakespearean speeches, home video-style dream reels and faux-freeze-frames of sexual encounters (the actors simply standing very still as the camera rolls). There aren't too many scenes of downtime in Idaho, which is rather impressive considering how well we feel we know these characters. All these little pieces, like torn scraps of paper, are layered on top of each other and held together by the likes of that campfire conversation, or the scene where the boys visit Mike's brother to learn who his real father was. It's this way (with the help of River Phoenix's for-the-ages performance) that Van Sant is able to create his very personal and very moving collage.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011
When Hazel says hello
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Theodore Keyser — recognized under his professional handle, Ted Key — spent most of his 95-year lifespan as a prolific illustrator and cartoonist. He also was talented enough to dabble in many media beyond cartooning — several of the children’s books he wrote and illustrated, for example, were adapted into movies produced by the Walt Disney Studio: The Million Dollar Duck (1971), Gus (1976) and The Cat from Outer Space (1978). He even was responsible for creating one of the famous animated segments of Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show: the time-traveling adventures of canine inventor Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman that we know as “Peabody’s Improbable History.” (Jay Ward, whose studio produced the adventures of Moose and Squirrel and Company, was a good friend of Ted’s brother Leonard.)
But Key’s most lasting creation came to him in the form of a dream: one night in 1943, he woke up and jotted down an idea about a bossy maid on a pad by his bedside…and picking the name “Hazel” out of the air, drew a cartoon the following morning and submitted it to The Saturday Evening Post. The Post started publishing Key’s one-panel cartoons and continued to do so until 1969 when the famed magazine faded out of existence…and then the King Features Syndication took over distribution of the strip, offering it to newspapers until the artist retired in 1993. His invention of the take-charge domestic who called the shots in the Baxter household won him the Newspaper Panel Cartoon Award from the National Cartoonists’ Society in 1977…but he was to receive an even loftier accolade when a television sitcom based on his creation, Hazel, debuted on NBC 50 years ago today.
Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures, had scored a successful boob tube hit in 1959 with another one-panel comic strip in Dennis the Menace…and since Fred Allen once observed that “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” the company decided to try and capture lightning in a bottle a second time two years later with a TV version of Key’s meddlesome maid. Cast in the starring role was no doubt the most unlikely actress to headline a sitcom: Shirley Booth, who was best known for her extensive stage work (Tony Award wins for Goodbye, My Fancy and The Time of the Cuckoo) and occasional appearances in dramatic feature films — notably Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)…in which she duplicated her Tony Award win as tortured wife Lola Delaney with an Oscar statuette as well. With her accomplishments onscreen and her lengthy, distinguished stage career…could she really do a weekly comedy series every week?
The answer to that question was yes…and in fact, she had already done so. Booth was at one time married to writer-comedian Ed Gardner (they tied the knot in 1929), whose half-hour comedy creation Duffy’s Tavern had become a smash on radio…and Gardner had been able to talk his wife into taking on the role of one of Tavern’s characters, the dizzy, man-chasing Miss Duffy (the daughter of the drinking establishment’s owner). Gardner and Booth divorced in 1942 (supposedly he was jealous of her stage career…which seems a little petty since he himself was receiving wealth and fame as a result of Duffy’s) and she continued on the series for a little longer, finally leaving in 1943. Booth took her “homely spinster” and renamed her “Dottie Mahoney,” then began making the rounds of other network comedy shows afterward. She had even been the first choice of producer Harry Ackerman to play the lead role in the radio sitcom Our Miss Brooks — but because Booth had difficulty finding the lighter side of the tart-tongued, love-starved schoolteacher her loss turned out to be Eve Arden’s gain. Since Ackerman later became the vice president of production at Screen Gems from 1958 to 1974, it’s a reasonably safe bet that he recognized Hazel would be the perfect vehicle for Booth’s decision to get into television (although the story also goes that Thelma Ritter had originally been approached to play the part before she took a pass). Burt Lancaster, Booth’s co-star in Sheba, warned her off Hazel, telling her that the experience would “cheapen” her. “Time will tell if it cheapens me,” she told him in response, “and if it does, I hope to be as cheapened as Lucy (Lucille Ball).”
As Hazel Burke, a maid employed by George Baxter and his family, Booth infused the character created by Key with a great deal of warmth and likability. Hazel was a flawed individual — she could be quite pushy and overbearing, and she harbored a stubborn streak…once she had decided she was right there was no detouring her from any course of action on which she’d set her mind. But the actress was able to temper all that with a genuine tenderness that kept Hazel from being too obnoxious; she had a deep and abiding affection for her employers, and really functioned as an extended member of the Baxter clan (sort of a busybody aunt). An episode that beautifully illustrates the sentiment present between Hazel and the Baxters is “Hazel’s Famous Recipes,” in which Hazel’s employer George Baxter (Don DeFore) convinces a publisher to market a cookbook containing Hazel’s mouth-watering gastronomical delights. Both Hazel and the family are crushed when they learn that publication of the book will mean that Hazel will be on the road for six months plugging her tome — but when the publisher discovers that her recipes were culled from an earlier cookbook (still under copyright) she and the Baxters are overjoyed by the news.
George, a successful partner in the law firm of Butterworth, Noll, Hatch & Baxter, had no idea that when he married his wife Dorothy (Whitney Blake) he would get Hazel as the dowry. Hazel had worked for Dorothy’s family since she was 8 (she also doubled as nanny to “Missy,” as Hazel affectionately called her) and now was running things in the Baxter household — doing the cooking, cleaning, etc. and keeping an eye on the Baxter’s son, Harold (Bobby Buntrock), whom she usually referred to as “Sport.” To Hazel, George was “Mr. B” — and though he may have been king of the corporation lawyers once he arrived at his office on weekday mornings, upon his return trip to his castle he had to reconcile himself to the fact that he was now in Hazel’s domain. George and Hazel had a love-hate relationship (she often drove him to thoughts of homicide…and I don’t think a jury would have convicted him) and many of the show’s plots centered round the contest of wills between the Yale-educated attorney and his whip-smart “domestic engineer.”
The unavoidable reality of the matter is that Hazel’s unshakable devotion to the Baxters also made her television’s most famous “buttinsky”; the first episode of the series, “Hazel and the Playground,” details our heroine’s attempts to get a playground built in the neighborhood so that the children (particularly “Sport”) will have a place to play. She suggests that it be built on the site of a botanical garden that was dedicated to the city by the grandfather of one of George’s clients who becomes so incensed at Hazel’s meddling that he threatens to take his business elsewhere (naturally, he comes around by episode’s end). Another outing, “Hazel Plays Nurse,” introduces a semi-regular character in Harvey Griffin (Howard Smith); a client of George’s that Mr. B has nicknamed “The Steamroller” in deference to his no-nonsense iron will. Griffin’s hurricane temper soon becomes merely a pesky squall once he comes into contact with Hazel, who decrees that Mr. B’s health is more important than seeing his client. It wouldn’t be the first nor last time Griffith would lock horns with the maid though he could usually be pacified with one of her wondrous home-cooked meals.
Other supporting characters seen on the series at various times included her best bud Rosie Hammaker (Maudie Prickett) — also a maid and a member in good standing in The Sunshine Girls, a sort of sorority for domestics — and postman Barney Hatfield (Robert Williams), who not only delivered the mail through rain, sleet and snow but could double as Hazel’s escort if she needed a date for a dance. The Baxters also had neighbors in well-to-do Herbert and Harriet Johnson (Donald Foster, Norma Varden), who frequently called upon Hazel to assist them with some complicated task from time to time. George’s snobbish sister Deirdre Thompson (Cathy Lewis) also turned up in a few episodes, forever being put in her place by the down-to-earth Hazel; in “George’s Niece,” Deirdre informs the Baxters that she and her husband will be moving into their neck of the woods and that she and her daughter Nancy (Davey Davison) will be arriving for a visit in order to scope out a house, check on schools, etc. Nancy and Deirdre don’t get along too well, and when Nancy discovers boys she confides not in her mum but in a middle-age housekeeper (yes, you-know-who).
Hazel Burke compensated for her meddlesome manner by being a refreshing, unpretentious soul who didn’t always use proper grammar (“Ain’t he a doozy?” and “You’re darn tootin’” were just two of her pet expressions) but whose life was dictated by old-fashioned values and plain common sense. She was the gal (who was “everybody’s pal,” as the theme song’s lyrics informed us) the kids wanted to play on their football or baseball teams; she spoke her mind and wasn’t bashful about doing so; and she basically treated everyone in the manner that she herself wanted to be treated. An episode entitled “Hazel’s Secret Wish” provides a telling glimpse into Hazel’s character: offered the opportunity to spend a two-week vacation at a ritzy health spa, Hazel meets with disapproval from a pair of bluenoses (one of which is played by veteran radio/voice actress Betty Lou Gerson) and even is asked by the resort’s owner to downplay her housekeeping occupation. When the two snobs start giving Hazel grief about befriending one of the maids at the resort, Hazel lets fly with how she really feels about them and reveals that she herself is a maid in the process. Hazel apologizes to the spa owner for this little indiscretion, but she’s interrupted by a third high-society dame (Kathryn Givney) who demands that she have meals served in her room during the rest of her stay…and that Hazel be her personal guest during those meals.
When Hazel premiered in the fall of 1961, critics weren’t too impressed with the show (calling it “contrived” and “repetitive”) but audiences loved it — it ranked No. 4 among all prime time network programming in its debut season, and Shirley Booth received back-to-back Emmy Awards as outstanding actress for her work (she was nominated a total of three times on the show). Despite being an audience favorite, NBC canceled Hazel after four seasons, but CBS believed enough in Booth’s star power to pick up the show after its Peacock rival had set it outside at the curb. They did not, however, believe in co-stars Don DeFore and Whitney Blake; in seeking a “younger demographic” they asked the producers to ship “Mr. B” and “Missy” off to Saudi Arabia (CBS stated that Blake was unable to commit to the show after NBC’s cancellation; DeFore noted that he found out about the change while reading the newspaper) leaving Harold in Hazel’s charge (something that seriously disturbed me as a rerun-watching kid) as she went to work for George’s younger brother Steve (Ray Fulmer) and his adorable wife Barbara (Lynn Borden, a former Miss Arizona tabbed by Booth personally to play the role because Shirl owned a chunk of the sitcom) and cute daughter Susie (Julia Benjamin). Steve could never figure out just why George let himself be steamrolled by the dominating Hazel, but it didn’t take him too long to learn. The show came to an end in 1966 — not due to declining ratings, but because of Booth’s ill health (she suffered from chronic bursitis).
At the height of Hazel's popularity in 1963, Booth told an AP reporter: “I liked playing Hazel the first time I read one of the scripts, and I could see all the possibilities of the character — the comedy would take care of itself. My job was to give her heart. Hazel never bores me. Besides, she's my insurance policy.” Because Booth was fortunate enough to own a piece of the series it paid off like a slot machine when the program was sold to syndication — I remember watching the show constantly as a kid growing up in West Virginia, where it seemed to run like tap water. Hazel was a staple of TBS’ morning lineup during the early 1980s; it also turned up briefly on WGN and TV Land and currently has found a home at the newest contender for the classic television audience, Antenna TV. Sony Pictures Entertainment released Hazel's inaugural season to DVD in 2006 (the 35 episodes that year included one experimental color outing entitled “What’ll We Watch Tonight?” which amusingly enough, deals with Hazel’s efforts to wangle a color TV out of George) and after a long dry spell (something that I railed about quite a bit at my home base at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) it was announced that Shout! Factory had acquired the DVD distribution rights to the show, with the second season scheduled for release in 2011.
With Hazel making inroads with a new TV generation 50 years later — does the show continue to wear well or has time “cheapened” Hazel, as Burt Lancaster forewarned? I think the comic chemistry between Shirley and Don still works beautifully, though I can’t deny that DeFore’s George Baxter is a bit of a chauvinist (which wasn’t unusual for the times) and an inattentive father on occasion. The producers were smart to cast DeFore (he’d already established his TV bona fides as the Nelson’s jovial next-door neighbor, “Thorny” Thornberry, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) because in the hands of another actor George Baxter wouldn’t have come off too well — DeFore has a goodnaturedness about him that’s endearing to the audience (he even laughs out loud at himself after he’s continually bested by his considerably brainier maid). Psychology students also might be interested in how dysfunctional George’s family can be: a textbook example is “Everybody’s Thankful But Us Turkeys,” in which George’s other sister Phyllis (Beverly Tyler) and her husband Bob (Charles Cooper) are feudin’, fussin’ and a-fightin’ and seem headed on the road to divorce — while George’s ma (Harriet MacGibbon of The Beverly Hillbillies) is depressed because she feels unneeded by her family. Hazel’s solution? She asks Mother Baxter to help out with the Thanksgiving dinner (no Prozac for you!) and when Phyllis comes into the kitchen as well it’s decided that what she needs to hold onto her man is…cooking lessons. (Well, I never denied the show wasn’t chauvinistic.)
George Baxter may also have been the first chunky sitcom husband (in the tradition of the schlubby heads of households on The King of Queens, Still Standing and According to Jim) to have a far more attractive wife in Dorothy; sure, you could argue that we owe Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) of The Honeymooners that debt but I think that depends on whether or not you consider Alice (Audrey Meadows) a “hottie.” As for Hazel…she laid the foundation for future sassier and/or sarcastic domestics (Florida on Maude, Florence on The Jeffersons, Geoffrey on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) who knew they ruled the roost in the households that employed them because despite whoever was the king (or queen) of the castle they’re the ones who cleaned it. Fifty years after we were first invited in for some of Hazel Burke’s homemade cookies…she’s still a “doozy.”
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All We Are Saying Is Give Klaatu a Chance
By Jonathan Pacheco
It's finally happened: intelligent extraterrestrial life has visited Earth in the form of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a slender humanoid from an unnamed planet. Sporting some terribly sparkly clothing and a beefy robotic bodyguard named Gort, the alien brings a message of peace, but with a dire warning that he insists every nation hear at the same time. However, the nations of the planet are a bit preoccupied with politics and war, and have little time for weirdos who travel in flying saucers, so a frustrated Klaatu decides to mingle with the common folk in hopes of finding any way to deliver his urgent message. Under the name Mr. Carpenter, the space man walks among the humans undercover, eventually befriending little Bobby Benson (Billy Gray) and his mother Helen (Patricia Neal), enlisting their aid.
Honestly, The Day the Earth Stood Still isn't a particularly great film on its own, and hasn't aged very well after 60 years. You expect visual effects to date themselves as they do here, but even the film's story and approach seems a bit simple and naive. But thanks particularly to some solid acting, the film's fearful call to peace still manages to hold some weight.
Aside from the occassional fairly seamless matting effect, most of the films showy effects are just plain silly-lookin'. While Gort's entrance is striking to behold, the imposing, statuesque robot standing with intimidation on top of the spaceship, the effect falls apart as soon as he begins moving, his lifeless, rubbery arms wiggling as the pants of his costume bend awkwardly. Plus, with a head that size, Gort begins to resemble Shrek in a RoboCop suit. The effect of his Cyclops-esque laser beam would still be decent if it weren't for the Hanna-Barbera sound effects that accompany it. The unintentional comedy even bleeds over to the nontechnical, my favorite of which involves doctors speaking outside of Klaatu's room at a military hospital. They marvel at the alien's speed of recovery and young looks, considering his age, but they complain that he talks down to them, making them feel like third-class witch-doctors. Of course, as they discuss this, they light up a few cigarettes right there in the hospital hallway.
The film's straight-forward plot and earnest but blatant theme do little to differentiate it from other sci-fi tales of the era (after all, aren't most classic science fiction stories merely metaphors for a specific cause or call to action?), but The Day the Earth Stood Still bests many of them with its acting. Michael Rennie's Klaatu balances an other-worldliness (aided by the actor's sharp physique) with gentleness and wisdom. The actor is able to add some subtlety to some of the film's very direct declarations of theme. As Klaatu explains the tech specs of his flying saucer to little Bobby, he mentions how it harnesses atomic power, to which the boy points out that he thought that was for building bombs. Klaatu can't hold back a wry and somewhat sad smirk when he tells the kid that, no, it's used for other things as well, injecting the moment with much-needed poignancy. Patricia Neal, as Bobby's widow mother Helen, grounds the film with a performance nearly free of flash or histrionics. Her sincerity and calm keeps you in the story during important moments, as when she learns of Mr. Carpenter's true alien identity, or how she reacts when her boyfriend Tom rats out Klaatu for fame.
While the film's message of peace and cooperation is without a doubt admirable, it's presented in a slightly puzzling way. During the film's climax, Klaatu explains to the Earthlings that the planets of the universe have eliminated any need for stupidity, and therefore war and strife, but they have done so by creating a race of merciless super-robots capable of planetary annihilation, and giving them permission to zap any being that gets out of line. So yeah, they've all stopped fighting, but only with the threat of intergalactic police brutality hanging over their heads, which Klaatu now extends to Earth. The "you better behave, or else" approach slightly undermines the call for peace and sensibility, but whatever works, I guess.
Most impressive to me is how the film is able to represent Earth as one entity. Rarely do we view the people of this planet as one; instead, we group by city, state, province, region or nation, not to mention color, race and religion. Whatever it may be, there's always an "us" and there's always a "them" which is why it's difficult for "us" to be the entire planet Earth. Who would be "them" in that case? But from the beginning of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the message has been clear: for the survival of the planet, we absolutely must think of Earth as a whole. And not only is the film clear in this, it's actually convincing and clever in its approach. Pay attention to the language that Klaatu uses. He refers to our nation-to-nation dynamics not as "international affairs" but rather as "internal affairs." He brushes off our wars and issues as "petty squabbles" as if he were a visiting business consultant with no time for our meaningless interoffice politics — and in the grand scheme, perhaps that's all our squabbles really amount to.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Close Friends Get to Call Him T.C.
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In 1957, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer closed its animation department and informed loyal employees William Hanna and Joseph Barbera (the creative team behind MGM’s Oscar-winning cat-and-mouse duo, Tom & Jerry) of their decision with a single phone call, Bill and Joe found themselves at a literal crossroads. They could go back to honest work (Barbera, for example, had been in banking before landing a job in show biz) or they could soldier on in the burgeoning field of television animation — which, because of the medium’s restricted budgets, used fewer drawings than its theatrical brethren (even though this stylized method of cartooning had actually been put in practice earlier by U.P.A.). Hanna and Barbera decided that they loved creating, directing and producing cartoons too much to give it up, so ignoring naysayers who decried the “abomination” of limited animation, launched a successful cartoon conglomerate devoted to entertaining TV audiences…that, to its credit, also engaged many of their former and now unemployed colleagues when the other motion picture studios ceased their animation operations as well.
With Hanna-Barbera’s first success in The Ruff & Reddy Show in 1957, the two men began to create characters recognized as animation icons today: Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw…I could name them all day long. Their most audacious endeavor came in the fall of 1960, when television’s first prime time animated situation comedy, The Flintstones, premiered on ABC and became a monster hit. Of course, in show business you’re only as good as your last success — so to prove that the modern Stone Age family’s series was no flash in the pan, the company premiered its second prime time cartoon project 50 years ago on this date on a Wednesday evening following The Steve Allen Show: the indisputable leader of the gang, Top Cat.
In discussing the history of their famous animated employees, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera eventually became known for…well, hiding a few facts about the inspiration behind their creations — and Top Cat is no exception. Barbera once recalled in an interview that a single drawing of the titular character that was taking up space on his office desk provided the spark of genius. While I’m certainly not going to dispute Joe’s version of Top Cat's genesis, I think he’s holding back a little. Their previous foray into prime time, The Flintstones, was pretty much an animated version of The Honeymooners (and the only reason why Bill and Joe didn’t get a subpoena from Jackie Gleason challenging them on this is because Gleason didn’t want to become known as “the man who killed Fred Flintstone”). Top Cat followed the formula established by Flintstones by taking the main character and premise of The Phil Silvers Show (aka You’ll Never Get Rich and Sgt. Bilko) and transferring them to a fictional area of Manhattan (known as “Hoagy’s Alley”), staffed with a roster of supporting characters who might have answered a casting call for one of the Bowery Boys films had Monogram-Allied Artists still been cranking them out in 1961. T.C., as his chums called him (provided it was with dignity), was the major domo of a group of misfit feline denizens residing in the less tonier section of the Big Apple, and was constantly concocting various ways to earn a fast buck.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a needlepoint framing of “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” hung in a prominent place in the offices of Hanna-Barbera, because so many of their creations featured voices (usually supplied by veteran voice artist Daws Butler) based on famous celebrities: Yogi Bear imitated Art Carney, Snagglepuss channeled Bert Lahr, Wally Gator was Ed Wynn incarnate. In fact, Bill and Joe had previously gone to the Phil Silvers Show well when they added conniving Hokey Wolf to The Huckleberry Hound Show cast (Hokey replaced the departing Yogi Bear, who left for the studio’s first spin-off series). Hanna-Barbera could just as easily prevailed upon Butler to recycle Hokey for Top Cat but instead they went with second banana and character actor Arnold Stang, who was no stranger to voice work (Stang had started out on radio, and was known for “sidekicking” the likes of Henry Morgan and Milton Berle) and whose Phil Silvers-like intonations were right on the money. To add a little authenticity to their Bilko rip-off…er, I mean homage, they also hired Maurice Gosfield to voice Top Cat’s “conscience,” Benny the Ball — Gosfield had been a cast member on Bilko, playing the part of Private Duane Doberman (both Doberman and Benny shared the same rotundity and good-natured, wide-eyed naiveté).
The choices of Stang and Gosfield to provide the voices for the program’s main characters were inspired ones and set Top Cat apart from the usual Hanna-Barbera fare in that more often than not, the studio would usually fall back on the services (talented though they were) on artists like Butler, Don Messick, Paul Frees, Hal Smith, Jean Vander Pyl, etc. These actors did contribute to the series in various guest star capacities, but Top Cat made offbeat and interesting casting decisions for its supporting cast such as tabbing veteran Warner Bros. character thesp Allen Jenkins to voice T.C.’s nemesis, cop-on-the-beat Charlie Dibble (Top Cat liked to avail himself of “Dribble’s” call-in box as his own personal telephone) and Marvin Kaplan (a film, TV and radio veteran best known as “Alfred Printzmetal” on the sitcom Meet Millie and later as the constantly complaining phone repairman Henry Beesmeyer on Alice) as Choo-Choo, the tall pink feline clad in a turtleneck sweater. Actor Leo DeLyon did double duty on the show, providing the speaking tones of the beatnik cat Spook and the stupefyingly dense Brain (whose nickname was most assuredly a misnomer). Stang, Gosfield, Jenkins, Kaplan and DeLyon no doubt landed their respective gigs because the feline characters needed Noo Yawk accents; only John Stephenson, who voiced the feline lothario known as Fancy Fancy (who sounded a great deal like Cary Grant), was a H-B veteran (best known for voicing Fred Flintstone’s boss, Mr. Slate).
The majority of the episode plots on Top Cat all dealt with a similar theme: T.C. and company hitting upon shady (and slightly illegal) ploys to make a little money and Officer Dibble’s attempting to foil Top Cat’s plans before he succeeded. Dibble, whose single-minded pursuit of a promotion often exceeded his grasp (he was a bit inept when it came to policing), would also look for a surefire method to evict Top Cat and his crew from the alley…and if he was stymied in that goal, he could at least insist that the rowdy ragtag bunch clean up their surroundings a little. Top Cat was formulaic, to be sure…but it also differed from some of the other Hanna-Barbera series in that it possessed a certain level of sophistication (no doubt influenced by its urban setting); it didn’t skimp on the sight gags but much more attention was given to characterization and witty dialogue. (The target audience for the show was both kids and adults, or as actor DeLyon humorously joshed in a featurette on the show’s DVD set, “kadults.”) Like The Flintstones, Top Cat often used then-current pop culture trends as fodder for episodes — one of my favorite outings spoofs the TV series Naked City (T.C., Dibble and the gang are duped by a crook into thinking his warehouse robbery is on-location shooting for the cop show “Naked Town”) and another one features the Hoagy’s Alley coterie as a mob known as “The Unscratchables.” (The show wasn’t immune to in-jokes, either: in “Rafeefleas,” Top Cat and his pals are walking through a museum and come across an exhibit entitled “Prehistoric Man” — statues of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. “I seen those two before on television,” observes Choo-Choo.)
Sponsored by Kellogg’s and Bristol-Myers, Top Cat — despite tepid competition from CBS (Checkmate) and NBC (The Joey Bishop Show) — failed to duplicate the longevity of the more popular Flintstones, and so its 30 episodes were exiled to Saturday mornings to be rerun from 1962 to 1969. (Interestingly, Top Cat lasted longer in comic books than on the tube, his adventures being published by Dell, Gold Key and Charlton until 1973.) But despite getting a pink slip from the American Broadcasting Company, Top Cat and his associates would manage to find work in later Hanna-Barbera productions; they were featured among the cast of the 1972 cartoon special Yogi’s Ark Lark (but didn’t make the cut for the subsequent series, Yogi’s Gang) and T.C. himself was in charge (still the leader of the gang!) of handing out the titular assignments on the 1985 series Yogi’s Treasure Hunt. Two years later, the Hanna-Barbera folks produced a feature-length TV movie entitled Top Cat and the Beverly Hills Cats, and in the 1990s characters from the show would turn up in featured bits on Wake, Rattle and Roll and Yo Yogi! and cameos in such series as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and The Powerpuff Girls.
Despite its limited success in the United States, the show later was sold to countries all over the world — in the United Kingdom, however, the series has to be rechristened “Boss Cat” so that the BBC wouldn’t inadvertently endorse a brand of cat food with the same name as the U.S. program. Top Cat was a major phenomenon in Mexico, Peru and Argentina…where Don Gato y su pandilla (translated: Mr. Cat and His Gang) enjoy celebrity fame equal to that of the Flintstones and who was just recently the subject of an animated feature film — released in 3-D, even, as another famous H-B feline might say.
Top Cat might very well be the least-remembered of Hanna-Barbera’s prime time animated series — it didn’t last as long as The Flintstones, and though its one season stint was later duplicated by The Jetsons and The Adventures of Jonny Quest, both of those series were later revisited with new episodes (between 1985 and 1987…with a revival series, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest produced in the 1990s). It’s currently enjoying retirement on the cable channel Boomerang, however, and the program’s entire run was released to DVD in 2004. Personally, it’s my favorite of Bill and Joe’s “kadult” creations: the characterizations are timeless, the dialogue often hilarious and its theme song is one of those ditties that’s almost impossible to get out of your head once it’s in there (hey…Bob Dylan uses it on his radio show…you can’t get much cooler than that). As far as I’m concerned, he’s the boss, he’s the pip, he’s the championship. He’s the most tip top…Top Cat.
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Monday, September 26, 2011
All Things Being Equal
By Josh R
It would be comforting, if more than a little naïve, to imagine that we live in truly equitable society. Certain politicians insist that the existence of what is broadly outlined as “The Welfare State” robs people of the initiative to strive and achieve — an assertion that would only make sense if everyone started out at the same place, with identical advantages and without the kind of obstacles that apply only under given sets of circumstances. That’s a nice way of saying that most people’s futures are predetermined by factors completely beyond their control — for all but a select few, the future is less about choice than the choices that have been made for you.
The Help, based on the controversial best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, is a film that examines the imbalances created by a society that insists on keeping all its members in their “proper place,” and the toll such casual dispensation of injustice can take on the human soul. Specifically, the film is dealing with racial inequality in the American South in the early 1960s — but the mere existence of this film testifies to another, perhaps even more startling imbalance of the type that Hollywood usually pretends not to notice. It isn’t difficult to reel off a list of films which not only feature predominantly male casts, but feature strong, complex roles for multiple cast members; I can think of at least five or six films released in the past year which gave as many male actors the chance to shine. There are certainly female-driven ensemble films being made — this summer alone, the vastly overrated Bridesmaids has seemingly tapped into a new market by proving that women can do lame-brained, frat-boy type humor just as successfully as men do — but how many films can you name that furnish fully realized, challenging and provocative female roles for all but a few of its members? How many films have ever featured not one, nor even two, but an entire gallery of great female performances? A handful of classics stand out — Stage Door and The Women remain the gold standard, more than 70 years after their initial releases — but for the most part, great female ensemble pieces have been few and far between. While there have been notable recent exceptions — the films of Rodrigo Garcia have showcased several of our best contemporary actresses to terrific effect — The Help may be the first big-budget, mass-market film in many a year that has made full and glorious use of a large, diverse and extremely talented collection of female performers. It is due to their efforts that The Help — a good film, if hardly a great one — transcends whatever limitations the material may have and provides an eminently satisfying, emotionally rewarding filmgoing experience.
The Help of the title are African-American women employed as domestic servants in the households of young, pampered white socialites in Jackson, Miss., at the dawning of the Civil Rights era. The mistresses — who seem mostly to regard things such as marriage and parenting as tiresome, unwelcome distractions from the unending cycle of events on the Junior League social calendar — regard their maids with equal measures of indifference and suspicion. Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate and aspiring journalist, returns to her childhood home in Jackson to work at a local newspaper. Returning to one’s roots inevitably entails reverting to old patterns; her social life is quickly commandeered by a circle of former high school friends, presided over with an iron fist by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), an unctuous queen bee who spends the bulk of her time cheerfully campaigning for the installation of separate toilets in households that employ black servants. Uncomfortable with the behaviors and attitudes she encounters, Skeeter decides to write an expose of Jackson society, as told from the point of view of the help. To that end, she persuades two domestic servants — the cautious, reserved Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and feisty, indignant Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) — to share their experiences working in various households, providing a glimpse into what happens behind closed doors, drawn curtains and the pretense of Southern gentility. Although the women are initially reluctant to participate, they eventually find a sense of purpose in revealing both the casual indignities and more harrowing instances of degradation and cruelty they witness and experience as second-class citizens in a segregated culture. When the book is published, it creates shockwaves felt both far and wide; once the truth has been dragged out in the open, no one is entirely prepared to deal with the repercussions.
The Help is directed by Tate Taylor, who also penned its screenplay. While the film represents a competent effort, it inevitably feels like the work of a novice filmmaker; it’s not particularly interesting from a visual standpoint, the tone is uncertain throughout (not all of its scenes seem to belong in the same film) and the pacing is slightly off, with certain scenes feeling oddly truncated while others seem hyper-extended. Many cast members have been coaxed in the direction of caricature — making it all the more remarkable how successfully they avoid the trap of existing on a one-dimensional level. There are exaggerated aspects to all but a handful of the performances, but the exaggeration doesn’t upset the balance of characterization — even when Spencer (a previously unheralded talent who is a delight from start to finish) is dispensing cantankerous sass in a manner which may bring to mind Hattie McDaniel, it doesn’t come across as stereotypical behavior — there’s still the sense of a real person behind the bulging eyes and grumbling retorts.
The well-meaning, conscientious Skeeter is the kind of role that almost never works; the character’s unvarying decency is like a salve for liberal guilt. Fortunately, Emma Stone is a creative, resourceful actress capable of projecting genuine personality even in less-than-ideal circumstances; she has some of Debra Winger’s off-the-cuff spontaneity, and invests the role with enough in the way of quirky intelligence to make you (mostly) forget how narrowly conceived the character is. On the other side of the spectrum, the vile, epithetic-spewing Hilly is writ so large, and in such a poisonous hand, that the easy choice for Bryce Dallas Howard would have been to render her as a vessel of pure, unadulterated evil — whereas Stone has to whip up something from nothing, Howard has to avoid the temptation to oversimplify matters. Thankfully, she doesn’t fall into that trap — her Hilly is suitably detestable, but not a cardboard villainess with a one-dimensional pathology. The audience has to want this Southern-fried witch, with her steely beauty-pageant smile and propensity for making people suffer, to get what’s coming to her; at the same time, Howard clues you in to where Hilly’s rottenness originates (racists are made, not born), and what it has cost her to preserve it. The hatred and fear that have been instilled in Hilly from birth, and that she carries around with her day after grinding day without reprieve or relief, is so corrosive that it’s eating her alive. The character may be rendered in very broad strokes, but she’s recognizably, pitiably human. The same holds true for the insecure blonde bombshell Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a social pariah who forms an unlikely bond with Minny. The ubiquitous Chastain — whose distant, ethereal quality works much more effectively in this context than in the suspense thriller The Debt — has the sweet, slightly dazed manner of Marilyn Monroe in her post-Strasberg years, and delivers a genuinely affecting performance that appeals to the audience’s sympathy without begging for it. Like Howard, she has a fine line to walk — Celia could easily come across as a pathetic dingaling, all curves and nervous giggles — but the performance, while exaggerated, never feels fake or forced.
The efforts of the younger cast members are nicely offset by the contributions of a trio of scene-stealing veterans. The redoubtable Sissy Spacek, who is no stranger to playing Southern eccentrics (but is usually pitch-perfect no matter what she’s doing), delivers a master class in how to play a smallish role for all it’s worth. As Hilly’s dotty mother, she has some choice bits of comic business, and handles the assignment with unflagging aplomb; so well-enshrined is Spacek’s reputation as a dramatic actress, it’s easy to forget how comfortably comedy falls into her wheelhouse. Allison Janney, who is given considerably more screen time, has a qualified success in the role of Skeeter’s evasive, cancer-riddled mother, a woman too image-conscious to act on the courage of her convictions. The performance is a bit more vivid than it needs to be — while all of the actors flirt dangerously with caricature, Janney is the only who takes it past the tipping point — but she handles the quieter moments well, and she and Stone strike up a crackling combative rhythm in their confrontation scenes. Cicely Tyson has a lovely, heart-rending cameo as Skeeter’s beloved childhood nanny, who is nowhere in evidence when her former charge returns to Jackson; her unexplained absence preys on Skeeter’s thoughts even as she trains her gaze on the goings-on in other peoples’ houses.
As strong as the ensemble work is, one performer deserves (at the very least) a paragraph all to herself. As Aibileen, Viola Davis pushes beyond the film’s comfort zone, bringing the hard, cold realities of its subject matter into razor-sharp focus. It isn’t a noisy, flashy performance; you have only to look in Aibileen’s sad, weary eyes to feel the crushing weight of her circumscribed, hardscrabble life of backbreaking labor and heartbreaking compromise, absorbing daily blows to her dignity in soul-killing silence. Without that anchoring presence, The Help would probably exist on the same level as Beaches or Steel Magnolias — a glossy, feel-good product that deals with big emotions in a facile, airbrushed manner, with swelling musical cues to signal when to reach for the Kleenex. The other actresses (all terrific) lend it tartness and sweetness, but Davis is the one who gives it gravity — she delves deep below the surface to unearth a rawness that feels at once both universal and intensely personal; the sense of hurt and suppressed anger she brings to the part cuts right to the bone. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood will afford her the chance to plumb these depths on a consistent basis — as stated previously, it would be foolish to assume that, even in The Age of Obama, the same range of opportunities are available to everyone. On the evidence of The Help, it is clear that Viola Davis is more than willing to go to those places — if she gets more parts like this, the results will be riveting.
On the merits of the performances, there can be little room for doubt; still, it is probably worth questioning whether an African-American author or filmmaker would have placed the character of Skeeter so firmly at the center of the narrative. For the record, The Help is not the story of a courageous, selfless white woman coming to the aid of helpless black people; nor is fair to say that Stockett and Taylor treat their subject matter with any lack of intelligence and sensitivity. Nevertheless, The Help isn’t really as tough-minded as it pretends to be — it cheats on the side of entertainment. I’m not enough of an authority to say whether or not it qualifies as good history; it certainly provides the occasion for some great ensemble acting. The women of The Help are totally invested in their roles, and thoroughly engaged with one another — that, in and of itself, provides cause for celebration.
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Sunday, September 25, 2011
Boardwalk Empire No. 13: 21, Part I
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
The sky above the Atlantic actually wears a hue of blue that's lighter than the ocean itself since daybreak nears and the sun will momentarily break through what remains of the night sky. The darker blue waves that land on the beach carry with them bottles of liquor. A shadowy figure darts by, grabbing the booze as more men in silhouette appear, some carrying rifles, one who even in the dark appears to be Richard Harrow (Jack Huston). As the beachcombing continues, a song begins to play. It's a new version of the Irving Berlin-penned No. 1 1920 hit for Van & Schenk called "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)." A woman who sounds as if she's attempting to sound like Sophie Tucker sings the new cover recorded especially for the second season premiere of Boardwalk Empire. The action moves from the beach to Babette's Supper Club where Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and most of his alderman indulge in their usual round of debauchery of booze and babes. By now, the sun has risen as we see it was indeed Richard and he joins up with Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) as men load a caravan of trucks and Jimmy gives the go sign and they take off down the road. The ladies climb on laps and wiggle at Babette's and all the elected officials look soused. The song goes on as does the montage. Jimmy delivers the liquor to the warehouse of Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), who samples a bottle and nods approvingly. A reinvigorated Commodore (Dabney Coleman) practices attack moves with a long spear-like weapon in his living room. Sheriff Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) looks in the mirror at the scars left from his shooting. Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) arrives at the train station with a bouquet of flowers to give to his wife Rose (Enid Graham) who has come for a visit. Two feet slide off a bed and into slippers as Margaret rises for the day. As Nucky and his men keep going, his faithful manservant Eddie (Anthony Laciura) taps his boss on the shoulder and points to the time on his pocket watch. The music stops.
Chalky's men keep busy unloading the morning's delivery when there is a knock at the door. "Keep your mouths shut and those crates moving," Chalky bellows. When that door opens, the second season of Boardwalk Empire will begin with a start — and, I'm happy to report, beginning with this episode and other new ones I've seen one, a more prominent role for Williams than he had last season. Because this is the premiere, even though it's no longer than a regular episode, I've divided this recap in two so Blogger doesn't knock everything else off the page and because it contains a sequence that's one of the best they've done, so I wanted to make certain I had enough layout room to attempt a visual representation of it.
I've seen several of the new episodes and I have to say I'm quite pleased so far, though Boardwalk Empire has the unenviable position of beginning its new season as the best TV drama, Breaking Bad, has been on a helluva roll in terms of episodes the past few weeks and has three episodes left in its season that promise to provide major developments to hold viewers until whenever its fifth and final season airs. Boardwalk Empire is great but, for the first three weeks at least, it will pale next to the AMC show, which will likely dominate conversations. I can't help but wonder if HBO wouldn't have been better off waiting until Breaking Bad wrapped its season before letting Boardwalk Empire premiere. (On a completely extraneous sidenote, I find it highly offensive that AMC keeps running ads for its Mad Men reruns calling it "the best show on television." It's a great show and it may have won four Emmys in a row, but that doesn't mean it's better than Breaking Bad on the same network. Frasier won five Emmys in a row for comedy while The Larry Sanders Show failed to pick up one in those same five years, so I wouldn't lean on the Emmy as the arbiter of quality.
Creator/executive producer Terence Winter wrote this season's premiere and executive producer and frequent director Tim Van Patten helmed it and both bring their A game to "21." So often it takes returning series a few episodes to get percolating again after time off, but Boardwalk Empire manages to come roaring out of the gate in its second season just as it did in its first. Last year, they had executive producer Martin Scorsese directing the pilot as if it were a mini-feature film, so Van Patten had a hard act to follow but he always provides nice directing touches and does so again on "21," aided by the good material Winter provides Van Patten to work with, writing several solid set pieces for him as well as some juicy monologues for his cast. It's always refreshing to hear a television actor allowed to sink his teeth into worthy words without constant cutting into short segments and bite-size bits streamlined for the ADD generation. The series also requires that you pay attention because you never know if a scene might turn out to be important somewhere down the road.
Back at the warehouse where Chalky runs his operation, one of his men opens the door to the shocking sight of one of the outside guards standing with his throat cut. As he falls away, the space where he stood reveals a group of Klansmen in the bed of a pickup truck with a mounted machine gun which they use to immediately open fire on the man at the door and the building itself as Chalky and the others hit the ground from the barrage of bullets.
Bodies fall, bottles break and after most of the warehouse workers have been hit or taken cover, Chalky continues to crawl stealthily across the floor. Two of the hooded hatemongers carefully enter the building armed with shotguns. One spots Chalky cowering and cornered and places his rifle barrel right in Chalky's face and spouts, "Purity, sobriety and a white Christian Jesus." Before he can fire, a woman pops up on his right and shoots the Klansman in his side. The other armed racist shoots her and helps his wounded colleague back to the truck. Van Patten has directed the entire sequence kinetically with nice use of zooms and immeasurable aid from Kate Sanford's editing. Chalky grabs the abandoned shotgun and goes to the door, but he's deliberate with his aim on the fleeing truck and picks off one of the Klansmen. Chalky's face registers a combination of anger, grief and fear.
After his night of carousing, Nucky comes home to the sound of Margaret yelling at her young son Teddy (Rory and Declan McTigue) to stop misbehaving because he's going to school whether he wants to or not. As the half-tipsy, half-hungover Thompson gets further into the house, he sees that Margaret is leaning under the dining table while daughter Emily (Josie and Lucy Galina) eats her breakfast in silence. Realizing that Teddy has hidden beneath the table, Nucky asks why he is under there. Margaret explains that he doesn't want to go to school. Nucky ducks under the table with the boy's mother. "You want to be a fish monger?" Teddy pauses to consider the question before answering, "Yes." Nucky disagrees with the boy, reminding him that he'd told him before that he'd wanted to be a doctor like Dr. Surran. Margaret shows Nucky the bruises on Teddy's hand that he says one of the nuns gave him. Nucky asks what he did, but Margaret says the boy denies that he did anything, saying the sister just doesn't like him. "When a sister did that to me, I got another beating from my father when I got home," Nucky tells him. Thompson finally rises and gets ready to leave again. Margaret asks where he's going. "To the office — to get some sleep."
Circumstances definitely have taken an upward turn in the life of Jimmy Darmody since we last saw him giving the cold shoulder to his common-law wife Angela (Aleksa Palladino) and living with her and their son Tommy (Connor and Brady Noon) in a cramped apartment. Now, Jimmy and Angela have tied the knot officially and the family resides in a nice home. When Jimmy walks in that morning, he asks Angela if Nucky called, but she says no, asking if he should have. Also at the Darmodys is Jimmy's mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Jimmy mentions he could go for some ham and eggs, but before Angela can make a move, Gillian steps in. "I know how he likes them." Jimmy asks Tommy if he'd like to go shooting at the creek. The boy enthusiastically likes the idea, but Angela objects — insisting Tommy is too young. Jimmy recalls doing the same thing at his age and Gillian blurts that his father took him, but her son corrects her. "He wasn't around then — Nucky did." Tommy jumps on his father's back and the two boys leave. Angela joins Gillian in the kitchen and chastises her for undercutting her, reminding her that she is his wife and Tommy's mother. Gillian says she didn't mean to, but Jimmy is her son and Tommy her grandson as well. "Boys will be boys," Gillian declares.
The sight that Van Alden sees when he squires his wife to his office displeases him, to say the least. The room now has many agents as opposed to when only Van Alden and the late Agent Sebso occupied it. What sets Van Alden off is finding that two agents had moved furniture aside to practice wrestling moves on the floor. Van Alden shouts at them to put the furniture back. The agents leap to their feet and try to adjust their disheveled appearance. The shorter, clean-shaven one tells Van Alden that they were just about to finish some field reports. "I take almost no comfort in 'about to,'" Van Alden tells them, adding that Mrs. Van Alden is visiting for the weekend and wanted to see where he works. He then introduces Rose to the two grapplers as Agent Sawicki (Joseph Aniska) and Agent Clarkson (Joel Brady). Van Alden makes a point of explaining to Rose that the more ethnic-looking Sawicki comes from "Polish stock and joins us from Mount Olivet" which Sawicki informs her is outside of Pittsburgh. "Yes, they have a large Christian community there," Rose says. Clarkson insists there are decent activities to do in Atlantic City and hands Rose a tour guide he picked up titled "If Jesus Ever Came to Atlantic City." She asks if it lists churches and Clarkson assumes it does, but says he hasn't had time to look inside the guide.
At Deuces, Johnny Torrio's cathouse in Chicago, Al Capone (Stephen Graham), still dressed sharply since his decision to get serious, sits down for a meeting with George Remus (Glenn Fleshler), Torrio's ex-lawyer who has found a lucrative life for himself in Cincinnati. Remus confuses Capone by constantly referring to himself in the third person. Johnny (Greg Antonacci) shows up, nursing an earache. Remus proposes that Torrio start getting his booze from him because of the loopholes he's discovered in the Volstead Act. Remus is another real-life figure. The plan he describes to Torrio and Capone matches what Remus really did: He bought distilleries and pharmacies so he could produce alcohol for medicinal purposes and then hijacked his own trucks so he could sell the booze. As he points out to Torrio, Cincinnati sits a lot closer to Chicago than Atlantic City. "And who really likes Nucky Thompson anyway?" Remus adds. They make a deal. Torrio tells Capone that when he heads east on other business soon, he should drop by Atlantic City and tell Nucky in person that they won't be doing business any longer.
Gathered around a table bearing a large map of New Jersey set up in Nucky's office (in a very nice overhead shot by Van Patten) are Nucky, newly elected Mayor Edward Bader (Kevin O'Rourke), Ward Boss James Neary (Robert Clohessy), Ward Boss Damian Flemming (Victor Verhaeghe) and another man to whom Nucky explains the map's meaning. It seems that it all goes back to those roads that Nucky was eager to land last season before he was double-crossed by Senator Edge. You can't keep a good political grifter down. It seems that Nucky and assorted friends bought up plots of land where the roads will be built so now New Jersey will have to buy the land they need from them at a healthy profit. Neary points out to the other man, who turns out to be an Irishman named Ernie Moran (John Keating), that the parts of the map colored blue have been purchased. Then, when it's time to build the roads, they point to their own master builder ready to construct them in Bader. Bader lets Ernie know that he's accepting bids for gravel now. "For 40 miles of road?" Ernie asks quizzically. "You do the math," Nucky answers. Ernie hands Nucky a wad of bills and says to consider it a down payment. As Nucky walks Moran out, Ernie asks if "we're all set for McGarrigle." Nucky assures him that they are set for dinner at his house Monday night. Ernie seems relieved. "Anything for the cause," Nucky says, presumably referring to the troubles back in Ireland. After Moran and his aldermen have departed, Nucky makes his way to his special closet. He lifts the secret panel and removes the moneybag and adds the cash that Ernie just gave him. Thompson then removes his ledger and begins to make his notation of the payoff when Ernie enters and interrupts him with an emergency. Kessler informs him that a reporter just called seeking comment from him on Chalky White shooting a Klansman. Nucky curses under his breath and tells Eddie to get his brother Eli on the phone, but Eddie tells him that's been taken care of and the sheriff is on his way. Nucky finishes his writing in the ledger and puts it back and closes the closet as he prepares to go out.
Van Alden takes his wife on a tour of the Boardwalk by taking a ride in one of the city's push carts. He attempts to tell her about the famous six-story building shaped like an elephant in the nearby town of Margate and to see if Rose might be interested in taking a drive to see it, but the window where a nurse holds a baby behind the words "BABY INCUBATORS We Save the Lives of Babies" distracts the childless woman. When Nelson gains her attention, she expresses little curiosity about the novelty building. The push cart's operator brings the vehicle near the Ritz Carlton and Van Alden exchanges glares with Nucky as Thompson exits the hotel. Rose inquires as to who the man was, but her husband replies, "No one of any consequence." Mrs. Van Alden opens the guide book Agent Clarkson gave her and drops her jaw in shock. "This guide — it lists the taverns and houses of ill repute," she gasps as she hands it to Nelson. He gives it the once over. "The author's attempt at cynicism. I'm sorry you had to see that dear," he tells his wife. "Maybe it's better that we don't have children," Rose says acidly. "This world."
Michael Kenneth Williams' talents went woefully neglected as Chalky White for most of the first season of Boardwalk Empire, but so far that has been more than remedied in what I've seen of season two. You'll have to wait to see some of what I'm referring to since those scenes occur in upcoming episodes, but it starts off well with this scene in the premiere. Nucky and Eli arrive at Chalky's house and sit in the living room. Before any conversation can take place, they politely listen as his teenage son Lester (Justiin [sic] Davis) plays the piano. Chalky stands with his wife Lenore (Natalie Wachen) in the entryway to the room. When the teen finishes and the guests compliment his skills, Lenore tells them that in two years Lester will be attending Morehouse. She asks Nucky and Eli if she can get them anything to drink, but the brothers decline. Chalky tells his wife that the men will be needing some privacy and takes a seat on the sofa. Once Lenore exits, Nucky leans in and whispers, "What the fuck happened?" Chalky responds coolly, "It don't matter now. I took care of it my own self." Eli mentions that the man he shot, Herman Dacus, was a schoolteacher. "I've got four dead boys in my warehouse and another half-dozen wounded — including a woman," Chalky responds. Nucky tells Chalky that he knows that he'll take care of it. "How do I know that? We supposed to be protected," Chalky says, the anger rising in his voice. "I'm done with this shit. I've got my family. I've got my people." Nucky cocks an eyebrow. "Your people?" Chalky spells it out more explicitly for Nucky. "Ten thousand black folk whom make this city home — busboys, trash collectors, porters." Thompson asks Chalky what meaning he's getting at. "Meaning you gonna school these crackers lest you all find out," Chalky warns. "You do understand that I'm the only thing keeping you from a lynch mob?" Nucky asks him. "You ready for what happens here if I turn up on the end of a rope?" Chalky counters. "If things go that way, your people have a lot more to lose than I do," Nucky cautions. Chalky gets up to leave, pausing to ask if they are going to arrest him. Nucky says they aren't, but he better stay in his house. He tells the brothers they can show themselves out. As Nucky gets up to get his coat and hat, he tells Eli that he thought he had a handle on the Klan situation. Eli doesn't really respond except to say in reference to Chalky, "That's one uppity shine."
Margaret pays a visit to Sister Bernice (Marceline Hugot), the nun at Teddy's school who Teddy claims doesn't like him. "My son came home with bruises on his hand," Margaret says. "From where I struck him with a ruler," Sister Bernice openly admits. "Did he tell you why he was punished?" Margaret tells the nun that Teddy didn't say anything, other than he did nothing wrong. "Then you are raising a liar, Mrs. Schroeder," the nun replies as she removes something from her drawer and places it on the desk. "He was caught playing with matches — in a coat closet — in a school — full of children," the sister informs Margaret, who seems more embarrassed that the book of matches comes from Babette's Supper Club. Margaret ducks her head, admitting she doesn't know what to say. "I understand you're a widow," Sister Bernice says which Margaret confirms. "And you live with Teddy's uncle," the nun adds. Now, Margaret's embarrassment has turned to outrage and she asks if Teddy will be expelled. Sister Bernice tells her no because Father Brennan intervened on his behalf. "Apparently he's close with your Mister Thompson," the nun says accusingly. Margaret thanks her for seeing her and leaves. It's another great example of the show reaching to a past event in an unexpected way. I wondered why the season one recap included the shot of Teddy watching Nucky's childhood home burn after Nucky set it ablaze in a fit of rage at his father. Apparently, those little eyes peering out the back of Nucky's Rolls were mesmerized by the sight of flames.
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Boardwalk Empire No. 13: 21, Part II
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
"We agreed we were going to put him out of business, but this is fucking madness," Eli exclaims to the Commodore. The shot begins outside the Commodore's living area before the camera moves in and we see Eli sitting on a loveseat while the Commodore stands to his right and Jimmy sits in a chair to his left. They all have drinks in their hands. "They had to shoot a woman?" Jimmy questions. "Did you mollycoddle the enemy in France, Jimmy?" his father asks him. "He cut off a man's finger — they were chompin' at the bit." It's the first meeting of the three men we saw planning the plot against Nucky in the last episode of the first season and it also contains Dabney Coleman's best scene so far in the series when he gets a monologue. It's the beauty of the shows I love, inevitably on cable, when they let actors expound. The main reason I divided this first recap into two parts though is because of a great sequence which I really wanted to devote space to and because the second half of this episode adds new layers to both the public and private sides of Nucky Thompson and Steve Buscemi, as you'd expect, delivers in both cases. If by chance you missed part one of the recap, click here.
Eli remains unsettled. "Ten thousand coloreds are up in arms now. What am I supposed to tell Nucky?" The Commodore approaches the sheriff, drink in hand, then paces. "Nucky Thompson was weaned on my teat. I know him backward and forward. Governor Edwards — he hates the bastard more than I do." It's good to see Coleman getting to do more this season as well. The Commodore was mostly a mystery last season and, of course, as he was being poisoned and grew sicker and sicker, it's not like he was given much meaty material to chow down on. That has changed in season two. As in this scene, where he's given a nice little monologue that's coming up. "They're ready? His people?" Eli asks, referring to Gov. Edward Edwards who, despite the Commodore and Eli both being part of the Republican machine, was elected New Jersey governor as a Democrat in 1920. "I need to know what's going on, Lou." The Commodore tells the anxious sheriff that the less he knows the better. "Worry about yourself, Eli. I'll take care of Nucky," he tells Eli, who says he has to go and leaves, passing Gillian in the entryway, tending to flowers and pretending not to eavesdrop. "Some men — give them a badge and a gun or a county treasurership, they think have power," the Commodore informs Jimmy. "Pretty soon, you'll know what true power is." Jimmy asks his father how soon. The Commodore wants Jimmy to start cultivating relationships — with the governor as well as people in New York and Philadelphia. "Alcohol is the key," he insists. "What about here?" Jimmy inquires. Having Chalky out of the game is a good start, his father responds, because his warehouse is there for the taking. He recognizes concern in his son's face. "Jimmy, don't worry about Nucky," the Commodore says. "I'm not," Jimmy insists. "Look around boy," the Commodore declares, rising from his chair and pointing to all the animals mounted on the wall. "These animals, beasts — anyone of them could have torn me to pieces, but they didn't. This fucker," he points at the large stuffed grizzly, "this giant — 600 pounds, over seven feet tall. I tracked him for three hours, finally cornered him in a ravine. He smelled me, started coming closer. Son of a bitch got cocky, thought I was scared, reared up on me and puffed up his chest and let out a roar. Blasted him right in the gut. Bled out, looking up at me, like he couldn't believe it." These are the moments that can make great television and almost exclusively reside on cable. Those great David Milch soliloquies for Ian McShane on Deadwood, when David Simon lets it rip on Treme or back on The Wire, just last week with Bryan Cranston's long scene of emotional truth with his son on Breaking Bad or the many in the Mildred Pierce miniseries. The same is true of theatrical films such as Network where Paddy Chayefsky wrote a screenplay that was monologue after monologue. In addition to being such a great looking show, the love of language could end up being Boardwalk Empire's greatest strength — and that's a gift for talented actors and directors and the upcoming sequence shows the power of great collaboration with its fusion of acting, story and direction (or misdirection). Enough with short-attention-span theater. Pop some Ritalin, kids. As the Commodore tells Jimmy to end the scene, "You will be judged by what you succeed at boy, not by what you attempt."
That sequence I referred to follows the Commodore's bear-hunting tale directly and may be the greatest sequence in terms of execution in the short history of Boardwalk Empire. It's a triumph of direction for Tim Van Patten, writing for Terence Winter, editing for Kate Sanford and acting for Steve Buscemi and further delineates the wily skills that Nucky Thompson has with all citizens that has kept him in his powerful position for so long. Nucky sets out to do his best to calm the rising racial tensions in the community that have erupted. He goes with Eli to a church with a large black congregation and takes to the pulpit. Chalky sits in the audience, particularly unmoved unlike his fellow congregants who applaud Nucky's words.
"Last night, four fine young boys were murdered by men claiming to represent the race of white American Christians. I will not speak the name of this so-called organization within this place of God, but I can assure you as treasurer of Atlantic County and, more personally, as someone who has always considered members of our colored community as his friends and his equals that neither I nor Sheriff Thompson nor any of his men will rest until these hooded cowards are brought to justice and the message is sent loud and clear that no one need fear for their safety, the safety of their wives, their children…"
The production team handles the switch so subtly and flawlessly that you might not immediately notice that the setting has changed for it plays as is if Nucky's speech has continued uninterrupted with no indication he's finishing a sermon of a different color, so to speak.
"…or property in the face of the obstreperous negro. These coloreds need to learn a lesson and we are going to teach it with, dare I say it in these sacred confines, an iron fist."
As the much larger white congregation gives Nucky a rousing round of applause, a man comes sprinting down the church's aisle announcing that he has returned from St. Mark's and that Herman Dacus has died from his wound. The crowd erupts in anger. Nucky leans down from the podium and tells Eli to go arrest Chalky immediately — for his own safety — and then returns to the pulpit to try to calm the bloodlust.
The Van Aldens sit to dine at Preston's restaurant. Knowing it is a special occasion, the eatery's manager (John Bolton) actually takes the couple's order himself and asks Nelson what he and his wife are celebrating. Nelson tells him that it is their 13th wedding anniversary. The manager congratulates them and tries to make a joke about Lucky 13 that flies over Nelson's head. Nelson orders lamb chops for Rose and steak for himself with turtle soup as a starter. After he gives the man the food orders, the manager asks if they will be imbibing, saying they can handle most requests. Both Van Aldens know what isn't being spoken out loud, but Nelson simply says that Rose will have coffee and he'll have buttermilk. After the manager has left, Rose tells Nelson that he was offering them alcohol and the agent informs his wife that he was well aware of what the manager was offering. Rose wants to know why he didn't arrest him, since that is Nelson's job. "We're here to have dinner," Nelson responds. Rose says she knows that, but doesn't seem to accept that as a reasonable excuse. Van Alden puts her off, asking her to excuse him a moment — he needs to wash up, "Public places."
Unhappily, Nucky puts in an appearance at the funeral for the dead schoolteacher/Ku Klux Klan member Herman Dacus, who lies in his casket decked out in full hatemonger regalia as are many of the attendees paying their last respects. Nucky tells Mrs. Dacus that her husband was a pillar of the community and he's sorry for her loss then finds himself surprised to see Jimmy coming through the door. He asks him what he's doing there — paying respects is Nucky's job. Jimmy tells him that Dacus was one of his high school teachers. Nucky asks him what happened at Chalky's and grills him about whether he saw anything suspicious, but Jimmy asks to let him get this out of the way first. A few moments later, Darmody joins Nucky on the porch for a smoke. "An awful waste of a lot of good tablecloths," Jimmy says. "And the laundry bills," Nucky adds. Jimmy asks about Chalky. "He's alive — that's the important thing," Nucky replies. Thompson then asks Jimmy about him sneaking away "like a thief in the night" and getting married without telling anyone. "You sound like my mother," Jimmy tells him. "You used to ask my advice on things," Nucky says. Jimmy insists it was time — his son is almost old enough to shave. He shares taking Tommy shooting and fishing at Oyster Creek like they used to do and how much he enjoyed that. "Do you have anything to tell me?" Nucky asks. Jimmy plays dumb and acts like he doesn't know what Nucky means. "Your father is a very duplicitous man," Nucky declares. "You've been told." Jimmy tells him that he promised his mom he'd drop by and then he returns inside to the funeral where he speaks with a new character we know nothing about except his name — Leander Cephas Whitlock — and he's played by Dominic Chianese, better known as Uncle Junior on The Sopranos.
As the Van Aldens finish their dinner, Nelson asks his wife if she might like a dessert, but she insists she's too full. Her husband surprises her by saying he bought something for her. Rose says she thought Nelson opposed gifts, but he tells her he saw this and thought of her and she opens the case to see a cameo, which pleases her greatly. He then calls the manager over and asks him about what he said before and, since this is a special occasion, if they might be able to get some champagne or whiskey. "Nelson!" Rose exclaims as the manager says, "Of course." Van Alden rises and lays out the manager with a punch as other agents come streaming through the restaurant's front door. "This is a raid," Van Alden announces, telling the customers the restaurant is being closed for violating the Volstead Act. He orders all employees on the ground and to have the money seized from the cash register and marked on a receipt. Van Alden sends Sawicki to break down a door. The agent returns to report there must be 200 cases of brandy, wine and whiskey back there. "Mark it, catalog it and destroy it," Nelson shouts. He grabs the manager and asks his name. "Carl Switzer," he gulps. "Mr. Switzer, you are under arrest for violation of the Volstead Act." Rose can't hide the glow from seeing her man in action. The scene leads to one of the series' best sight gags as we see a bed bouncing vigorously, its headboard slamming against the wall. When the shot widens, we see that Nelson is merely testing the bed, finding the springs that have bothered his back. Rose suggests going to his boardinghouse, but he says it's cramped and for men only. Mrs. Van Alden still shows that Nelson's raid has aroused her and soon the husband and wife have gone horizontal on the bed, turning off the lights of course.
Margaret brushes her hair at her bedroom table when Nucky arrives home, but she can tell something is bothering him. "You're being awfully quiet," she says. "I saw Jimmy," he responds, almost mournfully. She asks how the newlyweds are doing. "Fine, I suppose. He was alone," he answers. She tells him they need to send the couple something, but he assures her that's already been handled. "What is it?" she asks him. "He's holding something back. When he was a kid, he used to tell me everything," Nucky sighs. Margaret asks where Jimmy's father was back then. "He was there, but disinterested. The Commodore likes to be in control. Ten-year-old boy — there's no controlling that. Now of course, he's around," he says. "You're jealous," Margaret suggests. "No, I'm angry," Nucky insists. "He's got something up his sleeve. I was father and mother to that kid with Gillian out all hours. I nursed him through malaria, took him on camping trips, gave him the run of that goddamn Boardwalk." Margaret tells him that there is a little boy down the hall who could use some guidance and fills him in on Teddy being caught with matches. "I fear he's developed a fascination with fire," she says. "What's that all about?" Nucky asks.
After her weekend exposure to the sin of Atlantic City, Rose agrees with Van Alden that it's probably best that she not relocate there, but they look forward to her visit next month as he bids her farewell at the train station.
Richard joins the Darmodys for breakfast at their house. Angela tells him that he doesn't have to feel embarrassed to eat in front of them. Jimmy arrives and notices a box on the dining table and asks what it is. Angela informs him it is a wedding gift from Nucky. Jimmy ignores it, though he tells Richard to feel free to take some of the biscuits Angela made for breakfast home with him to have later, which Harrow wraps in a napkin.
Nucky steps into Teddy's room and asks if he can have a talk with the boy. Teddy starts removing his coat and suspenders and Nucky asks him what he is doing. "Getting ready for the belt," the boy replies. Nucky tells the boy to relax. He isn't going to hit him. "You need to mind your mother and the sisters at school," Nucky says. "No more misbehaving or playing with matches." Teddy stays quiet through most of Nucky's talk which is so calm it doesn't remotely resemble a lecture let alone a scolding. It's also clear that it has been a long time since he was serving as "father and mother" to Jimmy, because he really only knows one way to deal with people now, no matter what age they are and pulls a pile of bills out of his pocket. He hands some toward Teddy, who is obviously confused by the gesture until Nucky says, "Take it. Go buy some sweets. And be a good boy." Teddy takes the money and Nucky gives the lad a reassuring pat on the head.
The many bulletholes remain visible on the walls of Chalky's warehouse as a crowbar pries open the doors and man comes in. In the background, we can see Richard standing guard with a shotgun.
Van Alden enters a house and hangs up his coat and hat on a rack by the door. He takes his suitcase down the hall to a bedroom and sets it down. He stands at a dresser and starts counting out $20 bills. In the reflection of the mirror above the dresser, we see Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta) beginning to stir in bed. She asks what time it is. "Nearly 4 p.m. I have your money," Van Alden tells her. She climbs out of bed, the advancement of her pregnancy very much in evidence. "Could you lie with me?" she requests as she rubs on the agent. "You need to sleep in your own room," Nelson replies as he beats a hasty exit out of the bedroom.
Jimmy and Richard lead just part of the bustle happening at Chalky's warehouse as crates move in. Mickey Doyle nee Cusick (Paul Sparks) asks Jimmy, "Should I be concerned that there's blood on some of these crates?" "Not unless it's yours," Jimmy responds, eliciting that unmistakable Mickey giggle.
Nucky reads the paper when the phone rings. It's Eddie on the other end informing his boss that there's a man from the state's attorney office who wants to speak with him immediately. "Well put him on," Nucky says. There's an awkward pause from Eddie who comes back on and says the official insists on speaking to Nucky in person as soon as possible. Nucky tells him that he's on his way. Margaret asks if anything's wrong, but Nucky says no, it's just that he promised Teddy that he would take them all to see the new Chaplin at The Royal. Nucky suggests that Margaret and the kids go along and he'll meet them after he stops by the office.
As the 1915 hit "Is There Still Room for Me 'Neath the Old Apple Tree" recorded by Henry Burr & Albert Campbell and written by Maurice Abrahams, Lew Brown and Edgar Leslie plays on the radio, Dick cuts photos and illustrations out of magazines and books and pastes them into some sort of album he's creating. Harrow seems particularly pleased with a color drawing he's found of a happy family seated around a dinner table.
Nucky marches off the elevator and into his office to the sight of an unfamiliar man and state troopers as well as a worried-looking Eddie. "May I help you gentlemen?" Nucky offers. "Enoch Thompson?" the man in the suit asks. "What the hell is going on?" Nucky demands to know. "I'm Solomon Bishop, a deputy with the state attorney's office," the man (Bill Sage) says. At this point, one of the troopers crosses behind Thompson and places handcuffs on him. "Mister Thompson, you are under arrest for election fraud."
At The Royal, Margaret has Emily sitting in her lap and there's an empty seat saved between her and Teddy as both the boy and his mother occasionally take their eyes off the screen where Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan star in The Kid to look at the theater doors each time they swing open to see if they might be heralding Nucky's arrival.
Jimmy comes home to a darkened house — presumably Angela and Tommy have turned in for the night. He goes to the table where Nucky's unopened gift remains and finally opens it. At the top is an envelope full of cash which Jimmy disdainfully tosses aside. Below that is a sculpture which seems to be of a father and son on a hunting-and-fishing trip. Jimmy examines it a moment before going to a closet, turning on the light and clearing some space. He places the sculpture on the high shelf, turns off the light and shuts the door.
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