Spencer Tracy spends a “Bad Day at Black Rock”

Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan in 'Bad Day at Black Rock'While reading the names that make up the cast of “Bad Day at Black Rock,” one thought comes to mind…it would take a very bad director to screw this movie  up. Fortunately, John Sturges was always a fine director, and “Bad Day at Black  Rock” is a very good motion picture. Released in 1955, “Bad Day at Black Rock” airs Saturday, July 31st at 5 pm on Turner Classic Movies. Produced by Dore  Schary, the film’s incredible cast includes Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Dean  Jagger, Walter Brennan, Anne Francis, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.

A handicapped war veteran, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by train  in the remote desert town of Black Rock, during the final days of World War II.  Macreedy is seeking a man named Komoko, but has no luck in locating him, as the  residents of Black Rock are uncooperative, and hostile. The town’s unofficial  authority figure, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) tells Macreedy that Komoko, being of  Japanese descent, was interred shortly after the start of the war, and no longer  resides in Black Rock. Sensing that something is wrong, Macreedy seeks help from  the sheriff (Dean Jagger), who proves to be an alcoholic who is intimidated by  Smith. Investigating on his own, Macreedy concludes that Komoko is dead, and  that Smith, who has revealed himself to be an anti-Japanese racist, probably had  something to do with it. Unfortunately for Macreedy, Smith controls all  communication and transportation available in Black Rock, and Macreedy must deal  with Smith and his hooligans with no outside assistance.

It would be difficult to find a motion picture with a higher total of career  Academy Awards among its cast and crew than “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Including  the multi-Oscar wins by Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan and music composer Andre  Previn, along with one time winners Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Dore Schary,  the total Oscar count is 12. “Bad Day at Black” itself received no Academy  Awards despite three nominations. Interestingly, Spencer Tracy originally turned  down the role of Macreedy, prompting producer Schary to make the character a  one-armed man. Schary guessed correctly that Tracy could not resist the  challenge of playing a man with such a handicap.

Note: After playing a heavy in “Bad Day at Black Rock,” Ernest Borgnine’s  career took off in another direction, as he was cast as the loveable butcher in  the film “Marty.” Released three months after “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Marty” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Borgnine took home the Oscar for  Best Actor, beating out, among others, Spencer Tracy, who was nominated for his  work in “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Although Tracy’s Macreedy beats the heck out of  Borgnine’s character in “Black Rock,” Ernie got the last laugh.

Trivia: Ernest Borgnine (93) is the oldest living recipient of the Academy  Award for Best Actor.


Ronald Reagan and Doris Day form “The Winning Team”

How could there be a more all-American movie than one that stars Ronald  Reagan and Doris Day and is about baseball? Tuesday, July 27th at 7 pm, Turner  Classic Movies will present “The Winning Team,” featuring our 40th President as  Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Miss Day as Alexander’s  wife Aimee. Released in 1952, “The Winning Team” is a good sports biography, and  while the film does take poetic license with some of the historic facts  surrounding Grover Cleveland Alexander, it does manage to credibly recreate the  Major League Baseball landscape of the 1910’s and 1920’s. Reagan turns in a  solid performance as Alexander, especially when portraying the great  right-hander during the latter part of his career, while Doris Day, as usual, is  great as Aimee Alexander.

“The Winning Team” chronicles the career of Grover Cleveland Alexander,  starting with his days as a telephone company lineman, whose  hobby of  pitching for an amateur team leads  to major-league stardom. As a rookie  with the Philadelphia Nationals in 1911, Alexander won 28 games, and was soon  considered the best right-hander in the National League. Unfortunately,  Alexander was plagued by occasional dizzy spells, dating back to being hit in  the head by a line-drive while still in the minors. His condition worsens while  serving in World War I, and when he resumes his career, Alexander, now playing  for the Cubs, collapses on the field. Rumors start to spread that Alexander’s  physical problems are due to alcohol, and by 1926, Grover Cleveland Alexander is  out of baseball. Through the encouragement of his wife Aimee, Alexander attempts  a comeback, as Rogers Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy) the manager and second baseman for  the St Louis Cardinals decides to gamble on the aging pitcher. Hornsby’s hunch  pays off, as the Cardinals and Alexander find themselves in the 1926 World  Series, facing the New York Yankees.

Although “The Winning Team” is a fairly accurate depiction of baseball  history, the film does trend to stray from some of the actual facts regarding  the career of Grover Cleveland Alexander, particularly during the movie’s  dramatic climax, which takes place in Yankee Stadium during game seven of the  1926 World Series. “The Winning Team” depicts Alexander as unexpectedly being  put into the game in the later innings, and struggling with the fact that Aimee  is not there to lend support. Mrs. Alexander is back at the hotel packing, but,  hearing on the radio that her husband is now on the mound, she races to the  stadium, and finds a seat. Spotting Aimee in the stands, Alexander is able to  pitch the Cardinals to a World Series victory. The real story is actually more  compelling. It seems that Alexander, after winning game six, was in a  celebrating mood . Convinced that he wouldn’t be used in game seven, Alexander  hit the booze very hard, and was nursing quite a hangover when manager Hornsby  called on him to preserve a 3-2 lead. Facing a bases loaded situation in the  seventh, Alexander managed to strikeout Tony Lazzeri, but not before Lazzeri  narrowly missed a home run when his long fly down the left-field line twisted  foul. Although “The Winning Team” suggests that the final out of the game was a  strikeout, the 1926 World Series ended when Babe Ruth was thrown out trying to  steal second base.


Abbott and Costello featured on Turner Classic Movies

Bud Abbott and Lou CostelloCelebrating the 70th anniversary of Abbott and Costello’s film debut, Turner  Classic Movies will play tribute to the great comedy team on Sunday, July 25th  by airing three of the duo’s classic films. “Buck Privates” (1941) will be  presented at 5 pm, followed by “Ride “Em Cowboy” (1942) at 6:30 pm and “Noose  Hangs High” at 8 pm.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were a pair of burlesque comics who first met on  the circuit in 1935. Other performers could not help but notice the chemistry  between Abbott’s conniving straight man persona and Costello’s dim-witted,  man-child routine, and advised the two to form a team. By the late 1930’s,  Abbott and Costello had gained a spot on radio, as part of the “Kate Smith  Hour.” In 1940, Universal Pictures produced an ensemble musical comedy called “One Night in the Tropics.” Although given only a supporting role, Abbott and  Costello walked away with the picture, largely because of their performance of  their signature bit, “Who’s On First.”

Abbott and Costello’s success in “One Night in the Tropics” won them a long  term movie contract with Universal, and their first starring vehicle, “Buck  Privates” was a box office smash. In 1942, Abbott and Costello were  the nation’s number one box office draw, and they remained in the top  ten through 1952. In addition to their 36 films, the pair continued to star on  radio and in night clubs. Clearly, Abbott and Costello were the number one  comedy team in America.

By the 1950’s, as the team began to appear frequently on television, Abbott  and Costello’s popularity began to fade. While over exposure contributed to  their decline, they were also becoming overshadowed by another, younger comedy  team, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Personal differences between Bud Abbott and  Lou Costello had also hampered the pair for many years,  and the partnership was over by 1956.

Notes: During their stage careers, Abbott and Costello had similar voices,  but working in radio made it necessary for Costello to develop his trademark  high pitched tone. The team’s most famous bit, “Who’s On First” has roots dating  back to late 19th century vaudeville. “The Baker Scene” was a skit which  centered around a shop that was located on Watt Street, owned by a man named Who  Dyed. Comedian Will Hay performed a sketch in the early 1930’s where a teacher  interviewed a student named Howe, who lived in Ware, located in the county of  Wye. Abbott and Costello are credited in giving the routine a baseball angle,  first including it in their act in 1936, and bringing it to radio in March of  1938. They copyrighted it in 1944.

Trivia: In “Who’s On First,” the right fielder is never  mentioned.


1960: Year of transition in sports

1960 NFL Championship game official programIf ever there was a time when the world of athletics served as a reflection  of the rest of our culture, 1960 would be that perfect example. Looking back 50  years later, its almost as if someone flipped a switch on December 31, 1959,  touching off a series of events that would signal the end of the line for many  iconic sports figures of the 1950’s, while introducing us to those who would  shape the sports landscape for years to come. The parallels between what was  happening in the world at large and the sporting life are amazing. Ponder the  fact that the eight year presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower came to an end about  three months after Casey Stengel was let go from his position as manager of the  New York Yankees. Both Eisenhower and Stengel held the top job in their  respected fields throughout most of the 1950’s. Both were three months past  their 70th birthdays.

As several major sports figures were stepping down in 1960, others were just  getting started. Ted Williams played in his final Major League Baseball game in  1960, while Juan Marichal pitched in his first. The NFL Championship, played on  December 26, 1960, saw the Philadelphia Eagles defeat the Green Bay Packers  17-13. Both the winning quarterback, Norm Van Brocklin, and coach, Buck Shaw,  retired after the game. The losing coach, Vince Lombardi, went on to become the  most celebrated NFL head coach of all time. But two men, who would define their  professions for many years to come, were virtually unknown on January 1,  1960.

One of the most significant moments in pro-football history happened nowhere  near a field. On January 26, 1960, all 12 NFL franchise owners met to select a  new commissioner. After 23 ballots, Pete Rozelle, an executive with the Los  Angeles Rams organization, was chosen as a compromise candidate. Before long  Rozelle would be among the most powerful men in all of sports, as he negotiated  record TV contracts, established the model for the revenue sharing and helped  engineer a merger with the rival American Football League. Rozelle remained  commissioner for nearly 30 years.

The 1960 Rome Summer Olympics were a grand showcase for several great  American athletes, including woman’s sprinter Wilma Rudolph and decathlon star  Rafer Johnson. But it was a light-heavyweight boxer named Cassius Clay who  demanded much of the attention, as his skill for talking seemed to match  anything he could do in the ring. Winning the gold medal on September 5, 1960,  Clay then turned pro, and became heavyweight champion of the world in February  of 1964. By then, he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and the 1950’s seemed  light years away.


“Support Your Local Sheriff” on AMC

James Garner , Bruce Dern and Jack Elam in 'Support Your Local Sheriff'Going back to his days as TV’s “Maverick,” James Garner never shied away  from spoofing Hollywood westerns. “Support Your Local Sheriff” is probably  Garner’s best effort in this regard, and, as always, he makes it look easy.  Released in 1969, “Support Your Local Sheriff” airs Saturday, July 17th at 10:30  am on AMC. Directed by Burt Kennedy, Garner is joined by a superb cast which  includes Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Walter Brennan and Bruce Dern.

Jason McCullough (Garner) drifts into a frontier community that has recently  become an overnight boomtown, due to a gold strike. With the price of food and  lodging rising by the hour, McCullough figures he’ll be broke by noon.  Fortunately, the town is desperately in need of a sheriff, a job that Jason  easily acquires after demonstrating to the town council his freakish ability  with firearms. The job appears to have its steep challenges, as the town is  overrun with lawlessness, and the city jail has yet to install bars. Making  matters worse, the new sheriff’s first act is to arrest Joe Danby (Dern) for a  saloon shooting. Joe’s family, a group of ruthless ranchers led by Pa Danby  (Brennan), will not sit by and allow Joe to sit in a cell without them trying  something to set him free. The sheriff, assisted only by a slightly willing  deputy (Elam) and the mayor’s daughter (Hackett), proves to be more than capable  to handle all of it.

“Support Your Local Sheriff” is an humorous send-up of many conventional  westerns, with “Rio Bravo” and “High Noon” being the most obvious candidates for  parody. The twist is that James Garner’s character, equipped with a modern day  sensibility and a 20th century grasp of psychology, has little problem dealing  with the same kinds of situations a Gary Cooper or a John Wayne would spend an  entire motion picture agonizing over. Sheriff McCullough hardly breaks a sweat  as he almost toys with the evil doers. “Support Your Local Sheriff” also  effectively casts a few actors against their usual type. Walter Brennan is given  a rare chance to portray a villain, while long time western heavy Jack Elam  shines as the town character turned deputy. Even Bruce Dern manages to play the  murderous Joe to a comic effect.

Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” airs on IFC

After writing and appearing in a series of irreverent, off the wall  comedies, comedian turned filmmaker Woody Allen wanted to create something that  audiences would find funny, but also have a deeper meaning. The result, “Annie  Hall,” has proven to be Allen’s best remembered and most celebrated movie to  date. The 1977 film airs Thursday, July 15th at 3: 25 pm on IFC (Independent  Film Channel). Directed by Allen, “Annie Hall” pairs Woody with Diane Keaton,  also featuring Tony Roberts, Carol Kane and Paul Simon.

“Annie Hall” chronicles the saga of an on-again off-again romantic  relationship between neurotic comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and a slightly ditzy  young woman named Annie Hall (Keaton). Their story is told mostly through the  eyes of Alvy, who gives an obviously distorted account of his time with Annie,  constantly offering the audience his analysis of what is happening on the  screen. Although a comedy, “Annie Hall” effectively examines the complicated and  painful nature of relationships. As Woody Allen put it, “ I think I will try to  make some deeper film, and not be as funny in the same way. And maybe there will  be some other values that will emerge that will be interesting or nourishing for  the audience. And it worked out very well.”

The success of “Annie Hall” put Woody Allen squarely among Hollywood’s “A” list of filmmakers. Nominated for five Academy Awards, “Annie Hall” took home  four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Allen) and Best Performance  by an Actress (Keaton). “Annie Hall” is found on seven of The American Film  Institute’s (AFI) top 100, including “100 Years…100 Movies(#31) and “100  Years…100 Laughs(#4).

Notes: Some parts of “Annie Hall” were improvised, most notably the scene  where Allen’s character sneezes into the mound of cocaine. The sneeze was  accidental, but kept in the film when the entire set broke into laughter over  it. “Annie Hall” had several working titles, one of which was “Anhedonia” ( a  psychoanalytic term for the inability to experience pleasure from normally  pleasurable events) but it was considered unmarketable. Although there are  similarities between Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer and Woody himself,  Allen denies that “Annie Hall” is in any way  autobiographical.


Back to back Cary Grant on KQED

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby"Fans of Cary Grant, which includes most people over the age of 50, can  receive a double dose of the great star on Saturday, July 10th when KQED channel  9 presents two of Grant’s classic comedies. “Bringing Up Baby” (1938),  co-staring Katharine Hepburn will be broadcast at 8 pm, followed by “Arsenic and  Old Lace” (1944) at 9:45 pm. Born Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, Cary  Grant (1904-1986) was always the handsome, charming and charismatic leading man,  whose career is studded with great motion pictures, ranging from romantic  comedies and adventure films to suspenseful and thrilling dramas. The American  Film Institute (AFI) places Grant at #2 in its list of the Greatest Male Stars  of All Time (Humphrey Bogart is #1).

Directed by Howard Hawks, “Bringing Up Baby” casts Grant as mild-mannered  paleontologist David Huxley, who, after a four year effort, is one bone short of  assembling the skeleton of a Brontosaurus, when he has a chance meeting on a  golf course with Susan Vance (Hepburn). Vance is a high spirited woman who  proceeds to bring chaos into his life, in the form of, among other things, a pet  leopard named “Baby.” “Arsenic and Old Lace” tells the story of Mortimer  Brewster (Grant) who visits his old family home where his two maiden aunts still  live with his slightly delusional uncle. Mortimer is shocked to find a corpse  hidden in a window seat, and is even more shocked to learn that the elderly  Aunts Abby and Martha are responsible for the man being dead. It seems they’ve  developed a “very bad habit” of poisoning lonely old bachelors, thinking they”re  relieving the men from their suffering. The situation worsens when Mortimer’s  brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) arrives, on the run from the police. Jonathan  is a psychotic killer, who has come home hoping to dispose of the body of his  latest victim. As Mortimer says, “insanity runs in my family…it practically  gallops.”

It’s interesting to note that “Bringing Up Baby” was not considered a  successful film in its day, in fact, RKO was so displeased with the end product  that director Howard Hawks was removed from his next assignment, “Gunga Din,” which also starred Cary Grant. Katharine Hepburn’s career was also, temporarily,  damaged by the movie, as she was forced to buy out the remainder of her  contract. Time has been kind to “Bringing Up Baby” as it eventually became  considered a classic screwball comedy, ranking #97 in AFI’s 100 Years…100  Movies.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” was based on a popular play that ran on Broadway  during the early 1940’s. The movie version was filmed in 1941, but was not  released until 1944, after the play had finished its run. The Broadway  production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” included Boris Karloff playing the role of  the despicable Jonathan, who throughout the play,  is reminded of his  resemblance to…Boris Karloff. Karloff was unable to reprise the role on the  screen, as he still doing the play at the time.

Note: A line from “Bringing Up Baby” is, to this day, subject to  debate. In one scene, Cary Grant’s character is caught wearing a negligee, and  when asked why, he answers, “because I went gay all of a sudden.” Its never been  determined if the term “gay” was meant as a homosexual reference, or the  original definition, which just meant happy.


KQED looks at early days of late night television

Johnny CarsonAlthough most TV genres have roots that pre-date the television era, the  late night talk show is an entertainment venue that was invented almost on the  spot in the 1950’s, having virtually no previous origin. KQED channel 9 will  examine the emergence and evolution of this significant part of television  history on Thursday night, July 8th at 10 pm when it presents the Late Night  segment of the “Pioneers of Television” series. Produced in 2008, “Pioneers of  Television” is a four part documentary that traces the early days of television,  focusing on the shows and personalities that shaped the development of the small  screen. Other chapters of “Pioneers of Television” include “Sitcoms,” “Variety,” and “Game Shows.”

“Late Night” tells the story of how after hours television went from bad  movies and test patterns to quality programming containing comedy, stimulating  discussion and vintage musical performances. Included on “Late Night” are rare  clips from the early days of such programs as the “Tonight Show” as well as  interviews from various talk show hosts, guests and producers. Among those  sharing their insights are Dick Cavett, Regis Philbin, Arsenio Hall and Merv  Griffin. Special attention should be given to an appearance by Sigourney Weaver,  who discusses her father Pat, the NBC executive credited for creating the “Tonight Show” back in 1954, thereby inventing the late night talk show.  Broadcast live, the “Tonight Show” gave viewers a level of daring and  spontaneity not found anywhere else on television.

As the first host of the “Tonight Show,” Steve Allen became America’s first  late night television star. While Allen and his successor Jack Paar gained  tremendous followings, it’s Johnny Carson who will remain, for all time, the  undisputed king of late night broadcasting. Taking over the show in 1962, Carson  developed a style that made him a bigger star than almost any of the  entertainment figures that appeared on his show. Carson’s success and the profit  NBC earned from the “Tonight Show” spawned many imitators. Joey Bishop, Dick  Cavett, Les Crane, and Merv Griffin all tried and failed to compete with Carson,  who remained at the top until his retirement in 1992. One of the special treats  offered by “Late Night” is footage from Johnny Carson’s first ever TV venture, “Carson’s Cellar,” that ran locally in the Los Angeles area from 1951 to 1953.  Although “Carson’s Cellar” was a simple little sketch comedy show with almost no  budget, the nearly 60 year old film reveals that Johnny, still in his 20’s, was  already demonstrating a mastery of the medium that would make him a  legend.


Johnson-Jeffries fight celebrates centennial

Jack Johnson stands over a beaten Jim Jeffries near the end of their Reno contest.Twenty months after the election of our nation’s first African American  president, it’s difficult for us to comprehend the climate that existed when  Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries met in a Reno boxing ring 100 years ago this  week. The attention given to the July 4th, 1910 prizefight was much  less about an athletic contest, and more about the country’s obsession with  race and social traditions. Although history tells us that the bout pitted  boxing’s first African American champion (Johnson) against a former champion  returning to the ring after a six-year absence (Jeffries), the fact is, the  contest never would have taken place had events unfolded the way they were meant  to. Instead, circumstances made the fight not only possible, but necessary.

The roots of the Johnson-Jeffries fight go back to the 1880’s, and the first  boxing heavyweight champion of the modern era, John L Sullivan. While  proclaiming himself willing to take on all comers, Sullivan added a  disclaimer…he would not fight a black man, saying simply, “I never have, and I  never will.” John L’s attitude was not unusual in its day, as Major League  Baseball also unofficially barred African Americans, while in horse racing black  jockeys were banned from the Kentucky Derby  in 1903 despite, or maybe  because of the fact that 15 out of the first 28 Derby winners were  ridden by African Americans. Sullivan’s successors, Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons  and James J Jeffries all followed the tradition of ignoring challenges from  black fighters. Jeffries, who won the title in 1899, was the most impressive  fighter of his day. Standing six feet, two inches and weighing 220 pounds, “Jeff’ seemed as strong as a grizzly bear, and almost impossible to hurt. By  1904, Jeffries had beaten just about every leading contender, except for a  certain heavyweight from Galveston Texas named Jack Johnson. But since Johnson  was a black man, Jeffries simply retired undefeated.

By 1908, the championship had fallen into the hands of Tommy  Burns, a small (5’7) heavyweight from Canada, who, thanks to a $30,000 offer  from an Australian promoter, was willing to set aside tradition, and give Jack  Johnson a shot at the title in Sydney. Johnson manhandled Burns, and was awarded  the championship in the 14th round, when police stepped into the ring and  ordered the fight stopped. Sitting at ringside was famed novelist Jack London,  who began the campaign that would bring about the “Fight of the Century.” It was  London who wrote that Jim Jeffries must return and “wipe that golden smile off  from Johnson’s face…Jeff, it’s up to you..” Jeffries had become the “great white  hope.”

For the majority of White America, any black man being champion would have  been unacceptable, but Johnson’s flamboyant personality made the situation  unbearable. Jeffries was reluctant to make a comeback, as he was enjoying his  retirement, and had become woefully out of shape. But public pressure, plus the  promise of a $100,000 purse, was finally enough to lure Jeffries away from his  alfalfa farm. Promoter Tex Rickard signed Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries to meet  on July 4th, 1910 in San Francisco. Political factors at the 11th hour caused  the site to be switched to Nevada, and as the day arrived, the eyes of the  entire world were on Reno.

If the Johnson-Jeffries contest had been an election, “Jeff” would have won  with 90% of the vote. But it was a prizefight, and Johnson, a 10-4 betting  underdog, gave Jeffries a severe beating. Scheduled for 45 rounds, Johnson  dominated from the start, with Jeffries finally falling in the 15th. News of  Johnson’s victory did not sit very well, as riots broke out around the nation,  providing a tragic aftermath to what was supposed to be the “Fight of the  Century.” Coming 37 years before Jackie Robinson became a Dodger, and 98 years  before Barack Obama’s successful candidacy, the Johnson-Jeffries fight probably  took place years before the country was ready for  it.