GARY COOPER

So anyway, I didn’t want to get up yesterday morning, and Turner Classics was playing “High Noon.” I had seen it only about three dozen times, so I decided to watch. It never gets old. Its reputation has grown with the years, and deservedly so. The idea of telling a story in real time when there is virtually no action until the last couple of minutes was a master stroke — although there seems to be some dispute over whose stroke it was.

Unlike most westerns of that period – 1952 – this film is deeply cynical. It seeks to confirm my father-in-law’s frequent pronouncement that “people are no damned good,” as an entire town folds under the threat of the returning reprobate, Frank Miller, and leaves Marshal Will Kane to face Miller and his gang alone – or so they think.

Gary Cooper played the marshal – a good choice for the cerebral lawman, although there were some doubters because Cooper was so much older than his love interest in the film, Grace Kelly.

GARY COOPER and GRACE KELLY

This film was controversial in a way that illustrates the philosophical polarization of  American society at the time. Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay and was a co-producer with Stanley Kramer, but when Foreman refused to cooperate with the House Unamerican Activities Committee, Kramer basically forced him out of the project and took away his credit as a producer.

John Wayne publicly denounced this film as an allegory about those who failed to support actors and other creative artists who were being badgered by the House committee. Ostensibly, he made “Rio Bravo” as a right-wing response to “High Noon.”  On the other hand, Ronald Reagan took the story at face value and said he liked the portrayal of the marshal as dedicated to law and order and more concerned about the well being of the town than about his own life. Dwight Eisenhower was a fan of “High Noon,” and Bill Clinton had it screened 17 times while he was president.

TEX RITTER

Besides the concept itself, the cinematography, and the performances by Cooper and the rest of a strong cast — including Lloyd Bridges and Thomas Mitchell — this film owes its status to the title song with words by Ned Washington and music by Dmitri Tiomkin. The song, performed by the great western singer Tex Ritter, drifts into the background again and again, adding to the tension. Frankie Laine’s recording of this song sold a million copies, and I like his performance, but listening to someone other than Ritter sing “High Noon” is like listening to someone other than Johnny Mathis sing “Misty.”

The title song won an Academy Award that year. British film writer Deborah Allison maintains that the film played a pivotal role in movie-movie history. Her interesting article as at THIS LINK.

Michael Cera as Jesse Wade Thompson and Kelsey Keel as Tiger Ann Parker in "My Louisiana Sky"

We watched a 2001 children’s movie from Showtime, “My Louisiana Sky,” and we weren’t surprised afterward to learn that it had won numerous awards — including the Andrew Carnegie Award and three daytime Emmys — and had been  nominated for more.

JULIETTE LEWIS

Based on a novel by Kimberly Willis Holt, the story concerns Tiger, a 12-year-old girl, who lives on a farm in Louisiana with her mentally handicapped parents — Corinna and Lonnie Parker — and her maternal grandmother, Jewel Ramsey. Corinna (Amelia Campbell) is childlike, less mature now than her own daughter, and Lonnie (Chris Owens) is barely literate but is savvy enough to not only hold down a job on a nearby farm but to win the trust and respect of the owner. Jewel (Shirley Knight) keeps the house, maintains order, and does per-diem farm work — sometimes with the help of Tiger (Kelsey Keel), to earn some cash.

AMELIA CAMPBELL

There is one prodigal family member — Jewel’s other daughter, Dorie, played by the redoubtable Juliette Lewis — who has left rural life behind for a career in Baton Rouge.

Tiger experiences isolation and rejection because  of the way other children regard her parents. The only child who pursues a friendship with her is Jesse Wade Thompson (Michael Cera), and Tiger has trouble accepting his exuberance. When life at home deteriorates, she considers but does not leap at the prospect offered by Dorie of a comfortable and exciting life in the city.

KELSEY KEEL

While adults may find it simplistic, the portrayal of a girl deciding where her true happiness lies can be a valuable object lesson for children.

Under the direction of Adam Arkin — whose brother Anthony is married to Amelia Campbell — every cast member delivers a strong performance. Arkin and Kelsey Keel won two of the Emmys.

My homily for Christmas 2009

December 24, 2009

"The Manger" by American photographer Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934).

The following is my homily for Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 2009. The theme was prompted by Tania Mann’s article, “A Heart of Flesh,” in her on-line journal “This Very Life.”

The other night I watched an episode of the TV series “Dragnet” that was originally broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1953.

“Dragnet” was one of the first police shows on television, and it based all of its stories on cases in the files of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In this episode, two detectives investigate the disappearance of a statue of the infant Jesus from the manger scene in a church in a largely Mexican neighborhood.

The pastor of the church tells the detectives that the statue had almost no monetary value, and that he could replace it.

But it had been in the manger every Christmas for decades, and the people of this poor parish would find a new figure hard to accept.

The statue was returned in time for Christmas Day, and many Christians probably appreciate how important that was to the congregation.

Many families, like those parishioners, consider their manger scene a part of their tradition, and no matter how chipped or faded the figures may become, they are unpacked every year and put in their accustomed place.

Tradition plays a part in many Christmas observances, but this desire for continuity in the portrayal of the nativity is especially fitting.

Because the practice of erecting a manger scene as we know it, is itself 786 years old.

It was introduced by Francis of Assisi for a mass to be celebrated in Greccio, a hill town in Central Italy, at midnight on Christmas of the year 1223.

Francis used living figures, including animals, but his tableaux was the model from which the manger scenes of today have evolved.

He got permission from Pope Honorius III to create that display because he wanted to focus attention – including his own, he said – on the circumstances in which God entered the world in the form of the infant Jesus.

He wanted to be able to visualize – and help other people visualize – the humility with which God, in the person of Jesus, began the journey that would lead to the salvation of the world.

As a matter of faith, Francis and other Christians knew that God had put aside his divine nature – had covered it up, so to speak – and had taken on not only the appearance but the nature of a human being.

Francis and other Christians knew intellectually that that was an astounding act of love.

But Francis wanted to see for himself, and to show others, the full depth of that love that God had for his people – God, who did not come to save his people by overwhelming them or terrifying them, but by embracing them.

Francis wanted to experience that love – wanted others to experience that love – on more than the level of theology and philosophy.

And so he wanted to contemplate that improbable scene in which the Creator of the Universe, the source and cause of all that is, makes himself present not only in the form of a human being, but in the form of a poor, helpless infant – no wealthier, no stronger than the least of his own creatures.

That child, when he had grown to manhood, would say that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends, and Francis knew that act of love began in the manger where God first gave himself – literally – to mankind.

Pope Benedict recently blessed hundreds of images of the infant Jesus that were brought to St. Peter’s Square by families preparing for Christmas.

And as he gave the blessing, the pope recalled the inspiration of St. Francis.

“The crib is a school of life,’’ the holy father said, “where we can learn the secret of true joy. This does not consist in having so many things, but in feeling loved by the Lord, (and ourselves) becoming a gift for others ….”

It is said that a teacher never knows where his influence ends, and St Francis, more than 700 years ago, cannot have known what he started.

But he taught his lesson well. It reverberates in our own time, as it did in the words of the late Cardinal Basil Hume:

“The birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered.

“If I want to look on the face of utter love – if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved – I … look on the image of the child lying in the manger.”

Say, who is that guy, anyway?

December 23, 2009

HERB VIGRAN

When we were watching the “Dragnet” Christmas episode the other night, a familiar face appeared. It was the clerk at a fleabag hotel. And as we do every time we see him, we said, “Wow, that guy must have made a thousand movies and TV shows.”

This time for a change, I decided to find out who he was, and he turned out to be character actor Herb Vigran. According to the International Movie Database, he appeared in 314 TV episodes and movies between 1934 and 1987. His last film, “Amazon Women on the Moon,” was released the year after his death.

HERB VIGRAN

Vigran held a law degree, but he never practiced law because he was in love with acting. Besides all the TV and movies, he did some stage work, including the 1936 Broadway classic “Having a Wonderful Time” with John Garfield and Eve Arden. He also worked in radio and was a regular on “The Jack Benny Program” before doing three years of military service during World War II.

His hundreds of TV jobs included multiple appearances on “The Adventures of Superman,” the original “Dragnet” and the later revival, “The Jack Benny Show,” “I Love Lucy,” and “Gunsmoke.”

He was so successful as a character actor that he had one of the most familiar faces in America — he looked like your Uncle Ed — but he rarely played the same part twice and was known to most of his audience as “Wotzisname.”

Herb Vigran in an episode of "The Adventures of Superman"

JAMES McDANIEL

We watched a 2003 Showtime movie, “Edge of America,” which concerns a black man who takes a job teaching English at a high school on an American Indian reservation. This was directed by Chris Eyre, the Cheyenne/Arapaho who was also responsible for “Smoke Signals,” and there are many similarities in mood and detail, including the wise-cracking radio personality.

Kenny Williams, McDaniels’ character, is maneuvered into taking over coaching duties for the school’s girls basketball team which, in a word, stinks. The short version is that he takes the team to the state championship finals, but not via the shortest distance. There are many obstacles, most of them born of Williams’ inability to quickly grasp the nuances of Indian culture and the realities of life for these impoverished and isolated people. He finds his way, however, with some prodding and shoving at the hands of the native people, and the movie becomes “To Sir With Love on the Rez.”

GERALDINE KEAMS

The story line and the outcome seem obvious, but there are excellent performances, including McDaniels’, which won him an Emmy. The Navajo actress Geraldine Keams is inspiring in the role of a tribal elder who is the skeptical mother of one of the team members, and Wes Studi, a Cherokee, is both credible and amusing as an auto mechanic who deftly helps the coach figure out his role in his unfamiliar surroundings. Irene Bedard, an Inuit/Metis actress, does a strong turn as a teacher who is forced to play conscience for the bungling Williams. An ensemble of young actors add a lot of guts to this film in their roles as players and students at the school.

“Edge of America” is based on the experience of Jerry Richardson, who died in an auto accident while he was head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of Central Florida. This is how Richardson’s career was described on Humanities and Social Sciences Net Online:

Jerry Richardson, age 40, has been at UCF through four seasons and in that time has become a strong and quiet force on campus and in the community. He inherited a troubled program and last season took his team to a conference tournament championship and the NCAA tournament, a first for the UCF women’s program. Not only was he building a program, but more importantly he was having a significant impact on the lives of young women in Central Florida.

This of course is not surprising. Jerry Richardson came to UCF from the Navajo Nation Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico, where he transformed a struggling high school women’s team into four-time State Champions. From 1982 to 1993 Jerry Richardson made the Lady Chieftans of Shiprock into a story of mythic dimensions. More importantly he changed the lives of the young women he coached. Eighty percent of them went on to college, mostly as non-athletes; this at a school with a fifty percent dropout rate in a population beset with poverty and alcoholism.

Richardson believed, and made his players believe, that there was nothing you could not do as long as you had two things: opportunity and a positive attitude. Jerry Richardson brought both to Shiprock and to UCF.

He was above all a teacher, not a coach. He understood the ephemeral character of victory on the courts, and the significance of preparing his women for life after basketball. “The trophies gather dust, the kids don’t, they keep moving,” he said. Jerry Richardson’s players moved on, well prepared for the world after basketball.

JAMES McDANIEL, WES STUDI, and IRENE BEDARD in "Edge of America"


Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge and Brian Worth as his nephew, Frederick

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Michael Hordern as the ghost of Jacob Marley and Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world–oh, woe is me!–and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

***

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

***

“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

Francis de Wolff as the Spirit of Christmas Present and Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

***

Glyn Desarman as Tiny Tim Cratchit

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.”

***

Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim Cratchit and Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

There are two things I still have to dig out in order to observe Christmas properly. One is the heirloom manger figures; the other is the DVD of the “Dragnet” episode in which the statue of the infant Jesus  is stolen from a creche in a Los Angeles mission church. That’s the original 1953 version with Ben Alexander playing Frank Smith.

JACK WEBB and BEN ALEXANDER

For the benefit of the uninitiated, LA detectives Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Frank Smith are called to a church in a Latino neighborhood by Father Rojas because the statue has gone missing as the Christmas morning Masses are approaching. The poker-faced cops mechanically set about looking for the culprit, but have to return to the church on Christmas Eve to tell the priest that they have come up dry. While they’re standing with him near the sanctuary, they hear a racket coming from the direction of the front doors, and a little boy, Paco Mendoza, comes up the center aisle pulling the statue in a wagon. When the priest questions him in Spanish, the boy explains that he had promised that if he got a wagon for Christmas, Jesus would get the first ride. Frank Smith wonders aloud that the boy has the wagon already, before Christmas arrives. In one of the great exchanges in television history, the priest explains that the wagon didn’t come from the usual source; it was one of the toys refurbished by members of the fire department. “Paco’s family,” he tells the detectives, “they’re poor.” To which Friday, glancing at the Christ child back in its crib, says in his monotone: “Are they, Father?”

Our manger scene consists of white plaster figures, made in France, that belonged to my mother. She told me that she received the set from a Syrian priest when she was a child, and it wasn’t new then. Most of the figures have been broken and repaired one or more times, and one of the animals mysteriously disappeared about ten years ago. The set has a classic look to it, so we wouldn’t consider replacing it. It’s a few cuts above those translucent, illuminated plastic ones that have appeared on various lawns in the past week or so.

The tradition of assembling a manger scene — living or otherwise — originated in the 13th century with Francis of Assisi. The “Dragnet” crowd apparently wasn’t familiar with the tradition in which the image of the child is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve, in time for the midnight Mass. A church like the one depicted in that episode would almost certainly have adhered to that custom. I have noticed that the child hasn’t been placed even in many of the lawn scenes that are out there now.

The child, of course, is the centerpiece of the feast, the vulnerable, innocent child who is both God and man in the belief of hundreds of millions of Christians. Why would God appear in human form — and as a newborn child? There is a learned and lovely reflection on this question on the blog “This Very Life,” written by Tania Mann in Rome. Those who are going to celebrate this holy day — and are very busy getting ready for whatever it implies for them — might want to spend a few minutes contemplating the reason for it all. If so, click HERE.

“OK, partner. Draw!”

December 17, 2009

NICOLE FRANKS

Something that always interests me when I attend a live television or radio broadcast is that the people who work in that environment have frame of reference for the passage of time that is very different from mine. I recall, for instance, a stage manager during a break in a broadcast of “The View” telling two stage hands, “I want a potted plant there, and there …. You have twenty seconds.” And the two men calmly fetched the plants, put them in place, and stepped out of camera range just before the show resumed. If anyone told me to do that or pretty much anything else and added, “You have twenty seconds,” I’d be frozen to the spot. I just don’t think or function in those terms.

QUICK DRAW McGRAW

Well, it turns out that’s nothing compared to Nicole Franks, who thinks in terms of getting a job done in two tenths of a second. Nicole is a fast-draw champion, and judging from a video produced by the Globe & Mail in Toronto, Quick Draw McGraw would have been up against it with Nicole around. It’s literally true that if you blink, you won’t see her move. You can barely see her with your eyes open. You can watch the British Columbian shoot and hear her explain how she does it by clicking on THIS LINK.

You can also read about Bob Munden, who is not only a fast-draw artist but can shoot an aspirin off the head of a nail without hitting the nail. His web site is HERE.

HARRY BELAFONTE

One of the songs we listen to every year while we’re decorating our Christmas tree is “Mary’s Boy Child,” sung by Harry Belafonte, who first recorded it for an album in 1956. When it was reissued as a single, it reached No. 1 on the charts in Britain the following year. It was the first song to sell a million copies in England. Mahalia Jackson also recorded it in 1956. It has been covered by dozens of other artists ranging from the Maori soprano Kiri Te Kanawa to the disco group Boney M, which took it back to No. 1 in the UK in 1978.

JESTER HAIRSTON

It isn’t widely known, but this song was written by Jester Hairston — an unusually talented and versatile figure in American music and entertainment. Hairston (1901-2000) was a composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. The grandson of slaves, he was born in North Carolina but lived from an early age outside of Pittsburgh. He graduated with honors from Tufts University and studied music at the Julliard School. His lifelong passion was for choral singing, and he conducted ensembles on Broadway and all over the world. In 1985, when such events were rare, he took the Jester Hairston Chorale, a multi-ethnic group, to sing in China.

SIDNEY POITIER

Hairston did a lot of musical work for films. His most familiar work is probably the song “Amen” from the 1973 movie “Lilies of the Field” in which Sidney Poitier plays a young handyman who gets bamboozled into doing a lot of heavy labor for an order of German nuns in Arizona. Poitier won an Oscar for that performance, the first best-actor award to a black man. Poitier didn’t do any singing in that film, however. He lip-synched “Amen”; the voice was Jester Hairston’s.

Hairston had a lot of small roles in films — some of them demeaning, some without credit. He also appeared in the radio and television versions of “Amos ‘n Andy” — notably as Henry Van Porter, a high-end member of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge, which was the epicenter of much the action on the television series in particular. He also played Leroy, the brother-in-law of George “Kingfish” Stevens. More recent television audiences might remember Hairston for his role as Rollie Forbes in the series “Amen” that ran from 1986 to 1991.

You can hear Belafonte’s version of “Mary’s Little Boy” by clicking HERE. You can watch an amusing video HERE of Jester Hairston conducting a large choir in Odense in 1981 as they learn to sing the Christmas song in Danish.

There are interesting biographical notes about Jester Hairston HERE and HERE.

Jester Hairston, as Henry Van Porter, is front and center in this "Amos 'n Andy" publicity shot with -- clockwise from left -- Nick Stewart, Alvin Childress, Johnny Lee, Tim Moore, Spencer Williams Jr. and Ernestine Wade.

TIGER WOODS

I was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike on my way to Manhattan a couple of weeks ago when I had an almost irresistible urge to buy an expensive watch. In fact, the urge was more specific than that; I wanted to buy an expensive watch from Fords Jewelers. This was an odd sensation for me because I haven’t worn a watch since 1956.

It turned out that this passing compulsion had been brought on by a billboard that promoted Fords Jewelers with an image of Tiger Woods showing a classy watch on his wrist. Woods hadn’t taken his plunge from Paradise yet, so naturally the message from this sign bored into my brain and made me want to be like Tiger — the cost be damned.

Fortunately, I was on my way to Carnegie Hall, so I had to continue on my way. After two and a half hours of Arlo Guthrie and his family, the urge had subsided and I continued telling time by the sun.

JERRY STILLER

Now we read that advertisers that have been using Tiger Woods as their shill might be re-thinking the wisdom of it. Earlier this year, USA Today ran a story about companies having similar misgivings about continuing their relationships with Michael Phelps and Chris Brown.

Something about this doesn’t make sense to me. Do advertisers believe — or do they have evidence to show — that consumers actually buy products because of the celebrities who endorse them? Or, do advertisers rely on celebrities principally to call attention to the brands? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it make sense to continue with a Tiger Woods, who is now the focal point of many people who — not being golf fans — normally would pay him no mind? “Hey, that guy is a schlemiel — but isn’t that a great-looking watch?”

Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara told me in an interview many years ago that they were circumspect about what they would endorse. They wouldn’t want their names connected with anything that could be construed as unsavory or embarrassing, and they would have to have at least some confidence in the quality of the product. Funny thing is, if Stiller and Meara suggested I buy something, I actually might listen.