Saturday, June 30, 2012

Where’s The Bathroom Dick Daring?

Guided by pure greed,  the talented writer Merle Miller in the 1960s thrust himself into the network television meat grinder with gay abandon.  That train wreck is chronicled in his 1964 book “Only You Dick Daring”  which I read in 1965 on the recommendation of Jim McLaughlin when we both were working the copy desk at the Idaho Evening Statesman.  Thank you Jim..

The show that Miller researched and marketed to devious United Artist and CBS executives was called “Calhoun” -- an hour-long drama featuring former child star Jackie Cooper as a county extension agent.  A pilot may have been filmed but the show was DOA.

The cast of evil characters in the drama about the drama is difficult to keep straight but Skippy Jim James Aubrey, CBS president at the time, was the chief gate keeper of American television cultural enhancement.  The premise that CBS would launch a show dealing with social justice and other challenging issues in the age of the Beverly Hillbillies is side splitting funny. 

Having worked eight years in the Agricultural Extension Service, I can testify that it’s all about brucellosis, creep feeding pigs and bloated cows for the agricultural agent.  As for the home economist, it’s how to avoid botulism while canning beans.  Unless the town gets wiped out by poisonous beans every week, I don’t see how you can sustain a series about an extension agent.  But Miller persevered in the face of insurmountable odds.

The jargonized dialogue of the TV executives as reported by Miller is hilarious and sounds like the script of the adults in “The Graduate.”  At one meeting, a United Artist executive observes:  “We’ve got to tell the audience where the bathroom is.”  Behind his back, the executives observed that Miller was having a nervous breakdown and Cooper may have been hiring other writers for the ill-fated show while professing his love of Miller’s script with several “God bless yous.” 

Miller got precious little money for his efforts except his well kept diary allowed him to write a hilarious book that no doubt was a best seller.  Unrelated in this volume are chapters on Miller returning to Iowa for his high school reunion and his writing a script for the TV movie “The American” about Ira Hayes, the Marine who may or may not have raised the flag at Iwo Jima in World War II.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Trouble in River City

MASON CITY, IOWA -- Anvil and trombone salesmen have left River City.  Marion no longer minds the books at the library and cute little Winthrop is a bald movie director now. 

But life goes on in Mason City where at the turn of the century it was such a sweet slice of Americana with lovable Midwest yokels that it inspired Meredith Wilson's "Music Man"  which gave us the song "You Ought to Give Ioway a Try.”

Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright  (FLW) gave Iowa a try and may have struck a discordant note by designing an avant garde building for the city in 1910.  A few years later the locals slapped a plastic sign, “European Hotel,” on the front obscuring Wright’s good intentions.

The structure was designed in the shape of a strong box to house a hotel, bank and law office.  All hell broke loose  soon with the Great Depression.  The bank failed, the lawyers moved and the hotel faltered.  In the '30s, mayhem and anarchy American style were the new tradition .  Long before Mr. Jamie Dimon became banking’s poster boy, one sexy Mr. John Dillinger and his buddy Baby Face Nelson were the country’s recognized banking mavens. 

Heavily armed, Dillinger’s gang arrived in 1936 to make an unauthorized withdrawal from the First National Bank totaling $52,000, across the street from the FLW building.  Lawlessness was in the air and River City was no exception.

In the ‘30s  Iowa gave the FLW Prairie School architecture building an ill advised devastating remodel, knocking huge holes in walls for store front windows and destroying the arch shaped bank vault wall.  No one could recognize this eyesore as the great man’s vision. The bank and hotel were gone so it housed a cigar store, finance company, radio station and a flop house for derelict souls before being abandoned to the pigeons and rodents.  Naturally, this prompted a discussion of leveling the whole mess for a parking lot.

Iowans of stature came to  the rescue of the Wright building in the nick of time by getting state funds and private donations totaling more than $20 million to restore the building to Wright's vision, aided by his sketches.  The exotic boutique Historic Park Inn Hotel was reborn in 2011 and it is part of our architectural heritage. 

Meanwhile, Mason City is now “Music City”  honoring their native Meredith Wilson who is remembered for the “Mom, Apple Pie and Flag Waving” love poem to Midwest America, “The Music Man.”  River City is recreated at Music Man Square with wonderful photos from the Wilson career including the 1962 movie’s premier at Mason City’s Palace Theater.  That theater has been leveled.  You can’t save everything.)  Photos show Wilson’ during his stint on NBC Radio in the early ‘50s on “The Big Show” as Talullah Bankhead’s straight man.  Who can forget that as the love theme, “Till There Was You,”  which rings in my ears.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Skinheads and Indians in Cultural Clashes

There’s more that binds us to other cultures then we realize.  For instance take the plots of “This is England” and “Monsoon Wedding.”  Substitute Yiddish for Hindu and “Monsoon Wedding” becomes “Yonkers Wedding” with similar generational and cultural clashes.  Likewise, substitute Tea Party radicals for angry racist British Skinheads and “This is England” becomes “This is Wisconsin” as the working class struggles with with joblessness, poverty, lack of opportunities and education and  rampant capitalism.  Try this with other movie plots.  It’s fun.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"Barney's Version" is Engaging Cinema

For the past month I have been trolling Blockbuster for the title that would knock me on my ass.  I struck the mother load with “Barney’s Version,” a tour de force made for Paul Giamatti as the hapless Canadian television producer of the usual shlock. And how ironic that Dustin Hoffman is cast as his father but then Hoffman got his start in the iconic black comedy “The Graduate.”   So here’s another black comedy based on a a best seller from Mordecai Richler who gave us “The Apprenticeship of Dudey Kravitz” which I must see again.  Most memorable is the manic Jewish wedding scene with the bride Minnie Driver and the dubious groom Giamatti hoisted in the air on chairs which was done in “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Depp, Thompson: Compatible, Entertaining

The camaraderie and special relationship that existed between Johnny Depp and the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson is developed in documentaries on the DVD with the movie “Rum Diaries.”
This is a good reason to get the DVD from Netflix if you missed it at the theater.  I was a fan of Thompson’s work before Depp made Gonzo and I attended his lecture in St. Paul at St. Catherine’s University.  I only remember him refreshing himself from a bottle of scotch and showing up late.  I believe that Bill Murray was Thompson in  “Where the Buffalo Roam.”

“Rum Diaries” deals with the dark side of American politics and business and although it took many years to make, I feel it was worth the effort.  Depp is great at fleshing out renegade fringe characters and those that enjoyed “Ed Wood” will find “Rum Diaries” rewarding.  Since it’s filmed on the beaches of San Juan, it will could be a favorite winter movie.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

NASCAR Dudes Target In German Movie

Dudes who avoided seeing “The Vow” will want to have a look at the 2008 German high testosterone movie “Fast Track: No Limits.”  The esteemed Lee Goldberg of Diagnosis Murder and Monk is the writer and producer.  (For more, go to

This is not just your basic fast women, loose cars or babes, boobs and BMWs sidebar to a six pack of Grain Belt and Dominoes pizza.  No, it features some creative photography and street racing of the classic variety.  I am well versed in the genre having recently viewed “Trucking on the Track” with Tommy Kirk and “Fireball 500” with Fabian and Frankie Avalon.  In this contemporary version, BMWs that we associate with dotty suburbanites here are the mean machines of the street. 

Those who hope to see Angela Merkle topless on the streets of Berlin will be disappointed.  The lady has front burner issues with the bank mess in Spain.  Cut her some slack.

For maximum FT enjoyment pair it with Lou Arkoff’s “Jailbreaker” with underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr. reminding us of why our hearts went aflutter a few years back.  In a retread of a 60s American International epic, Sabato plays a James Dean high school greaser bad boy who Shannon Doherty can’t resist.  (She never showed good judgment in the Beverly Hills show as well.)

In a somewhat unrelated discovery, “The Bitch in Apt. 23” actually is wonderfully subversive with Dawson Vanderbeek as a has been teen heart throb doing commercials in Vietnam.  This ABC sitcom is worth another view.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Making Lemons Out of Lemonade

Lemons are life and everyone is a prisoner who suffers tremendous losses in the 2008 award-winning Israeli film “Lemon Tree” about contemporary life on the West Bank.

In the closing scene, the Israeli defense minister stares forlornly into the ugly wall that separates him from his Palestinian neighbor with the contested lemon grove.  “LIfe Behind The Wall” would have been a more appropriate title for this provocative film.  The plot is somewhat similar to that of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” where protagonists are asked to  walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes.

Once the defense minister moved next to the lemon grove, the Palestinian woman whose family owned the grove must have known that nothing would be the same, one could conjecture.  Either you feel a sense of immense helplessness over this mess or you see the movie as a hopeful sign.  See the movie and decide for yourself.