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I’m not a big fan of “faith-based movies,” although my full-time work is in religion, but we did watch a movie in that category, because the star was John Ratzenberger. Like most folks, we know Ratzenberger from his eleven-year run as Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman and barfly on the television series Cheers. Ratzenberger has had an extensive career; among other things, he has made a specialty of providing voices for Pixar films — all Pixar films. He has also been active in Republican politics, and he is a published author, a business entrepreneur, an advocate for training in skilled trades, and a member of the boards of directors at two universities.

DAKOTA DAULBY

DAKOTA DAULBY

Ratzenberger plays the title role in The Woodcarver, a Canadian film that concerns Matthew Stevenson (Dakota Daulby), a teenager who is troubled because his parents, Jack and Rita (Woody Jeffreys and Nicole Oliver) are involved in an acrimonious breakup. The fallout, especially in the form of Jack’s angry outbursts, often lands on Matthew. The boy acts out his frustration by vandalizing the Baptist church that his family attends. In the process, he destroys ornamental work that was done by Ernest Otto, a local craftsman who has been reclusive since the death of his wife.

The pastor of the church reaches an accommodation with the Stevensons in which Matthew won’t be prosecuted if he helps repair the damage he did. The pastor also prevails on a reluctant Ernest to replace the hand-carved planks that had decorated the church. This job puts Ernest in direct competition with Jack’s boss and potential partner, who is in the lumber supply business.

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Matthew does some repairs at the church, but he eventually takes an interest in Ernest and starts working in Ernest’s shop, learning the woodcarving trade. Although Jack objects to this arrangement, it continues and even goes a step further as Matthew leaves home and temporarily moves in with Ernest. In their conversations, Ernest teaches Matthew to judge his actions by asking himself, “WWJD – What would Jesus do?” It’s not so much a religious lesson as it is an ethical one; in fact, Ernest doesn’t discuss religion at all. The boy may not know his theology, but he knows the broad outlines of the kind of life Jesus led, so he has no trouble understanding Ernest’s meaning.

There’s much more to the plot than that and, “faith-based” or not, the movie held our interest to the end. Besides the story line, that’s attributable to good acting on the part of all the principles, including Ratzenberger in a much more understated role than his signature character.
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In a crossword puzzle I did recently, one of the answers was: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” This was a reference to what must have been one of the most successful series of television commercials ever produced. The centerpiece of these spots was the fictional supermarket manager Mr. Whipple, played by Dick Wilson, who was portrayed as catching customers squeezing the Charmin bathroom tissue because, of course, it was so soft. When he had a chance, Mr. Whipple, too, squeezed the rolls of paper. Who can resist that softness?

Dick Wilson played Mr. Whipple more than 500 times, beginning in 1964, and research showed that the commercials made the actor one of the most recognized people in the United States. And the expression itself, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” could be heard echoing throughout the land. As marketing home runs go, this was a grand slam.

Obit Wilson
Although he was vigilant about the manhandling of Charmin, Mr. Whipple was presented as a mild-mannered fellow, but that’s a credit to Dick Wilson’s acting. He was no shrinking violet. He performed in more than 80 properties, including television series in which he appeared multiple times, including Get Smart, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, M Squad, and The Lawless Years.

Wilson was born in Lancashire, England, to an Italian father and a British mother; his given name was Ricardo DiGuglielmo. Both of his parents were performers. The family moved to Canada where Wilson graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design and began working in radio and vaudeville. During World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. That seemingly bashful grocery man was among the fighter pilots who went head-to-head with the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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After the war, Wilson became an American citizen and, after working as a dancer in New York, moved to California and launched what turned out to be a long career. According to a story published in the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Wilson earned $300,000 annually for about twelve days of work on the Charmin commercials. Considering the impact he made, the bunch at Charmin no doubt considered it money well spent. But Wilson said the job was no snap. According to the same article, Wilson said doing commercials was “the hardest thing to do in the entire acting realm. You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something nice about it and get off gracefully.”

Dick Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91. Click HERE to see him in a Charmin commercial in which he catches Teri Garr in flagrante.

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During the movie Same Time, Next Year, which was the topic of my last post, Alan Alda’s character sits down at a piano a few times, and one of the songs he plays is “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone perform that song in decades, but I do remember when it was a big hit. That was in 1950, and in that era, novelty songs, as they were called, often made it to the charts and sometimes in a big way.

The one Alda played was written by a committee: Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts (a pseudonym for bandleader Al Trace). Like many popular songs, it was an expansion of an expression, the title, that already existed in popular culture. The lyric went, in part:

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
baked a cake, baked a cake
If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
Grandest band in the land
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
And spread the welcome mat for you

Oh, I don’t know where you came from
’cause I don’t know where you’ve been
But it really doesn’t matter
Grab a chair and fill your platter
And dig, dig, dig right in.

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The first and iconic recording of this song was made by Eileen Barton. The tune arrived on the Billboard magazine chart in March 1950 and stayed for 16 weeks, peaking at No. 1. A recording made that same year by Georgia Gibbs was on the Billboard chart for six weeks. The best-known performance of the song, with good reason, was by Ernie in an encounter with the Cookie Monster in 1969 during the first season of Sesame Street. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.

Another of Al Hoffman’s collaborations, this one with Jerry Livingston and Milton Drake, was the nonsense song “Mairzy Doats,” which the trio composed in 1943. The song has been recorded, and has charted, many times. The Merry Macs, a popular harmony group, took it to Number 1 in March 1944. According to Drake, the inspiration for the song was an English verse he heard his young daughter singing: “Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters.” (Cows eat wheat and sows eat wheat and little sharks eat oysters.)

You can hear the Merry Macs’ hit recording by clicking HERE. This song was a particularly good fit for the wack-a-doodle bandleader Spike Jones, and you can hear his recording by clicking HERE.

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Although its premise and denouement seem cynical to me, I found Same Time, Next Year (1978) to be an engaging and entertaining film, and an especially apt showcase for the talents of Ellen Burstyn and Allen Alda. The romantic comedy is so apropos for Burstyn, in fact, that she starred on Broadway with Charles Grodin in the stage version in 1975 and won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for her performance.

The principal characters in this story are Doris and George, two married people who meet by chance in 1951 at an inn in California, wind up in bed together, and decide to repeat the encounter on the same weekend every year — and they do so for 26 years. Doris, who lives in the San Francisco area, is at the inn because she is supposed to attend a religious retreat nearby; George, who is from New Jersey, is an accountant in town to see a client. In the play by Bernard Slade, Doris and George are the only two characters; in the film, there are other actors, but their roles are only incidental. It’s not an easy thing for two actors to carry a film by themselves, but Burstyn and Alda succeed utterly.

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At each meeting, they express and act on their passion for each other, but they also discuss their lives at home, what’s best and worst about their spouses, what’s going on with their children, of whom there are a total of six. Unlike the folks who usually turn up in this kind movie situation, neither Doris nor George claims to be in a failed marriage; in fact, both seem to genuinely like their partners. As the meetings go on — separated in this film by black-and-white images of the historical and cultural events that shaped life in those decades — Doris and George both evolve in their appearance, their mode of dress, and their outlook, and these changes don’t always blend harmoniously. But still they go on meeting, until tragic changes in George’s life force a decision — an “up or down vote,” to use the parlance of the Beltway — by both of them. As I suggested at the beginning of this post, I am repelled by the way this story line glibly accepts the deceit that was necessary for this relationship to continue. Still, I can’t help but applaud the skill with which both actors kept the story compelling and made the transitions in these characters believable.

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MILTON BERLE

MILTON BERLE

As I continue my recent reminiscences about the theme songs of entertainers, I’m struck by the contrast between the outrageous comic persona of Milton Berle and the sentimental character of his signature tune, “Near You.” Berle, largely forgotten by later generations, was the first major television star and one of the most popular figures in the United States. He started performing in silent movies when he was a child and later was a success in musical theater, vaudeville, and radio. After he brought his slapstick routines and outlandish costumes to television in 1949, he dominated the medium for several years and is generally credited with doubling the sales of TV sets.

FRANCIS CRAIG

FRANCIS CRAIG

The song Berle chose as his closing theme had music by Francis Craig and lyrics by Kermit Goell. Craig, who had his own dance band, also wrote the hit song “Beg Your Pardon” and a tune called “Dynamite” which is the fight song of his alma mater, Vanderbilt University. The lyricist, Kermit Goell, had an interesting background including a degree in agriculture from Cornell and experience excavating historic sites in Turkey with his sister, Theresa, who was an archaeologist. Goell was also an Army Air Force veteran of World War II.

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“Huggin’ and Chalkin'”, which Goell wrote with Clancy Hayes, was recorded by Kay Kyser, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, and his “One Finger Melody” was a hit for Frank Sinatra.

The lyric of “Near You,” which was published in 1947, begins like this: There’s just one place for me, near you / It’s like heaven to be near you . . . .” As I recall, Berle would appear on stage at the end of his show and sing, “There’s just one place for me, near you / Only one place for me, and that’s near you ….” and then say his good-night while the music continued.

Craig’s own recording of “Near You,” spent 21 weeks on the Billboard Best Sellers chart, hitting number one. The record was number one on the “Most Played By Jockeys” chart for 17 consecutive weeks, which was the record for both a song and for an artist on any chart. The Black-Eyed Peas broke the record for an artist in 2009, but with two songs — “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.”

“Near Me” has been recorded by Andy Williams, Roger Williams, Nat King Cole, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. You can hear the Andrews Sisters’ recording by clicking HERE.

ANDREW JOHNSON
The standoff between President Obama and the Republican majority in the House calls to my mind the struggle between President Andrew Johnson and the Republican majority after the Civil War and the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson was a fine man in many respects, but if ever there was a wrong man at the wrong time in the presidency it was he. Johnson, who was from Tennessee, was the only U.S. senator who remained in his seat when his state seceded from the Union. He was elected vice president in 1864 on a fusion ticket with Lincoln and was vaulted into the presidency by Lincoln’s death. The Republicans were the progressive party at the time and the Democrats were not only conservative but identified with the slave-holding South. Johnson himself owned a few household slaves, although one of his daughters remarked that it was difficult sometimes to tell who was slave and who was master. Millions of words have been written about this, but suffice it to say that Johnson and the Republicans disagreed about how the former Confederates states and the former slaves should be treated by the federal government. As that dispute was boiling over, Congress passed a routine bill to fund the Army but attached an unrelated rider — which came to be known as the Tenure of Office Act — which provided that once the president had appointed a federal official with the consent of the Senate, he could not remove the official from office without the consent of the Senate.

EDWIN M. STANTON
Johnson believed that the Tenure of Office Act was an unconstitutional incursion on the powers of the president, but he wasn’t prepared to squelch it by vetoing the army appropriations bill. So he signed it, but afterward he deliberately violated it by removing from office Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, who had served in the Lincoln administration in that role and as attorney-general. Because of vague wording in the law, it’s an open question whether Johnson had violated it at all. However, Stanton refused to leave, which led to a chain of events, including Stanton barricading himself in his office, that descended to the level of comic opera. Johnson’s presumed violation of the Tenure of Office Act was the centerpiece of the impeachment proceedings the Republicans brought against him. Johnson was acquitted and completed his term, but the balance of power between the executive and Congress had been disrupted. Congress repealed the Tenure of Office Act in 1887, and the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on a similar law in 1926, said in an opinion written by Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft, that the Tenure of Office act had been invalid.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

Now that I’m 71 and nearly a senior citizen myself, I find that I’m drawn to these movies about seniors who show that they are by no means through. A case in point is Never Too Late, a 1996 Canadian comedy with a cast that includes Olympia Dukakis, Cloris Leachman, Jean Lapointe, Jan Rubes, Cory Haim, and Matt Craven. The story line is that Woody (Lapointe) is a resident of a rest home and part of a card-playing quartet with three outsiders: Rose (Dukakis), an actress; Olive (Leachman), a radio host; and Joseph (Rubes), a cranky and tight-fisted Slav.

Woody has an acrimonious relationship with Carl (Craven), the owner/manager of the home, who has Woody’s power of attorney and uses it to keep Woody from getting access to his cash. When Carl prevents Woody from chipping in to pay for the burial of a friend, Rose, Olive, and Joseph begin to suspect that something is amiss in the management of the home. With the help of Joseph’s grandson, Max (Haim), they launch an investigation that at times skirts the law of the land in an effort to figure out how Carl is handling the residents’ assets. While one might jump to an accurate conclusion about how their probe turns out, one might not anticipate the plot twist at the end.

CLORIS LEACHMAN

CLORIS LEACHMAN

Although this is a comedy, it looks squarely at some grim implications of old age. On the other hand, the movie includes a touching romantic relationship between Rose and Joseph — something not often portrayed by an industry that usually associates sexuality only with youth. The story line is not impossible, but some aspects of it are improbable, at least as they are portrayed in this film. There are also two scenes that seem to be cut in mid sentence. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining little farce, and the actors all turn in sound performances. American audiences are familiar with Olympia Dukakis and Cloris Leachman, but maybe not so much with Rubes and Lapointe, two fascinating characters.

JAN RUBES

JAN RUBES

Rubes, who died in 2009, started his professional career as an operatic basso in his native Czechoslovakia and sang with the Canadian Opera Company before he switched to film and television acting. He appeared in at least 39 films, including the 1985 thriller Witness, in which he portrayed the Amish patriarch Eli Lapp. Rubes also appeared in 15 TV movies and 15 series. Lapointe, a native of Canada, is known mostly, in his entertainment career, as a singer and comedian. He was also a member of the Canadian Senate, representing Quebec from 2001 to 2010.

JEAN LAPOINTE

JEAN LAPOINTE

Sally - 1Watching silent movies always gives me a melancholy feeling. I think the sensation comes from a wistful and naive attraction to the era in which those films were made — an era that was gone long before I was born. The mood comes over me almost regardless of the film I’m watching, whether  it is drama or comedy.

And so it was with a mixed response that I watched D.W. Griffith’s 1925 comedy Sally of the Sawdust, in which the leading players were W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster, and Alfred Lunt. This film, which is based on Poppy, a 1923 stage musical, is lighter fare than usually comes to mind when Griffith’s name is mentioned, but it has dark undertones as well.

Fields plays “Professor” Eustace McGargle, a circus juggler and con man who befriends a single mother and her daughter, Sally (Dempster). After the mother dies, McGargle briefly considers returning Sally to her grandparents in the fictional New York suburb of Green Meadows, but he has a genuine affection for the child and decides to keep her with him.

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As Sally grows, McGargle also uses her as a dancing warm-up to his own act. When their fortunes are at a low ebb, the pair wind up in Green Meadow where they work at a charity carnival while McGargle prepares to finally restore the girl to her family, who have have benefitted financially from a real estate boom in the area. Although the handsome son (Lunt) of a local tycoon falls in love with Sally, his father is repelled by the idea of such a match and does what he can to prevent it by having McGargle and Sally arrested on the basis of the professor’s three-card monte operation. There are parallel frenetic scenes as Sally attempts to escape from custody and McGargle purloins a tin lizzy and leads a gang of bootleggers on a wild chase as he attempts to reach town and his distressed ward. To make a long story short, they all live happily ever after.

CAROL DEMPSTER

CAROL DEMPSTER

One impression I couldn’t shake is that this film, which appeared toward the end of Griffith’s career, was longer than it had to be. The story is thin and obvious, and the twin sequences of Sally’s escape and McGargle’s chase, go on too long by about a third.

Still, it was interesting to watch Fields, who in his later career made so much of verbal comedy, perform for an hour and a half in silence. Also, McGargle foreshadows other roles Fields would play but, except for Wilkins Macawber in David Copperfield, his characters didn’t face situations quite as grave as the one McGargle wrestled with. Fields would get to reprise this role in Poppy, a 1936 sound version of the same story.

I found Carol Dempster to be very appealing as Sally. She was one of Griffith’s discoveries and appeared in many of his films, and she was also for a time his lover. While I was watching Sally in the Sawdust, my wife came into the room and remarked that Dempster was kind of forlorn-looking. That struck me, too, and I read that Dempster attracted critical remarks on that account at the time she was making these movies. But I found that slightly hangdog quality both suitable and, in its own way, attractive. Evidently, at least some film critics now feel the same way.

A significant factor in my enjoyment of this film was the score that was written and performed, on a digital piano, by Donald Sosin.

I’m going to watch this film again and use the pause button several times. As with most silent films that were shot on locations, I often found myself transfixed by the background, by the storefronts and the signs and the cars and the structures that were serving their purpose on a long-ago day when Griffith’s camera happened to capture them.

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