A Review of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’ll confess outright that I love Ken Burns documentaries.  I’ve wallowed in Burns’ mammoth definitive overviews of the American Civil War, jazz music, the Old West, the national parks, WWII, and I came very close to the final innings of his mammoth definitive overview of baseball (I started yawning and felt a strong urge for a hot dog and beer, so I missed the last few pitches).

Last year, I read with relish the transcript of his slow-roast of Donald Trump during his commencement address at Stanford University. It was a grand gesture by someone who has strong feelings about America, and it’s not Burns’ fault that the petulant child was elected president. Nobody heeded my  words, either.

Burns has been criticized in some quarters for too frequently spotlighting race and racism. While “The Civil War” and “Baseball” can be excluded from these charges, I feel there is also some validity to them, although Burns would argue the spotlight is necessary.

Nevertheless, he’s been called “America’s storyteller,” meaning he has many great stories to tell about America, glorifying this country and its citizens, whether they be black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

Most recently, Burns applied his wizardry (along with co-producer Lynn Novick) to a mammoth definitive overview of the Vietnam War. Considering that this war is still fraught with controversy, this latest documentary series is maybe his most courageous undertaking.

However… like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg… this time he was unable to secure the high ground.

Why? Unlike the American Civil War, many people from the Vietnam War era are still alive, and some remember things differently. And unlike WWII, America didn’t win, and we weren’t even the good guys. Some American patriots have trouble with that reality, but it’s reality. Burns is at his best when America is at its most noble. But there was little American nobility with Vietnam.

***

Before I discuss why the patented Ken Burns treatment doesn’t work this time, though, I’ll imitate certain mainstream publications (like Rolling Stone, Time, and Cleveland.com) that treat critical American history as if it’s a Steven Spielberg movie:

“Stunning visual achievement!” “Never-before-seen-footage!” “It will make you weep!” “America’s storyteller has done it again!” “A mammoth, definitive overview that will be discussed for years to come!” “Riveting entertainment!” “America is ready to heal, and Ken Burns is the healer!” “A sexy, action-packed adventure!”

(The last two may  not be valid).

On surface, I will admit, “The Vietnam War” is breathtaking. Burns and Novick unearthed hundreds of striking images and film bits to pull things along.  They present revealing audio of taped conversations from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses that are agonizing to listen to.  We know full well the many lies of Richard M. Nixon.  But these tapes drive home what a devious, worm-like man he was.

Burns and Novick are also masters at taking a person or persons and creating suspense by slowly fashioning a story for them. One of the most memorable is that of the Crocker family. Each time we see the middle-class house with the front porch and American flag, and hear the peaceful music, we know how the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker will play out, but we’re addicted to the narrative. We’re voyeurs into how the impressionable Mogie, raised on John Wayne movies and Cold War jingoism, becomes a symbol of young patriotic males everywhere, then ends up dying a grisly death on an anonymous hill in a distant land… for nothing.

Then there’s the horrific Nick Ut photo of the naked South Vietnamese girl (her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running down the road after being napalmed by a South Vietnamese bomber. Burns takes it a step further and provides a wider landscape. He includes color video footage of the bombing, then people emerging from the fireball, fleeing in terror, with several minutes devoted to the girl, her arms stretched out, the flesh on her back seared.

(Nick Ut/Associated Press)

This rare footage is one of the things Burns is so good at. He stretches the camera frame. He taps our emotions, and we feel the full horror of war through the heart-tugging image of a scarred innocent.

The problem is this: we don’t  see the pilot who pressed the buttons that released the napalm bomb. He’s off-camera. Protected.

***

Burns opens his series with his favorite narrator, compelling counterculture statesman Peter Coyote, intoning that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

“Decent people” is a subjective term that probably doesn’t belong in a historical documentary, especially when the “people” are surreptitiously leading a nation down the road to war. But no matter.

“Good faith…fateful misunderstandings.” This editorial, at the commencement of the 18-hour presentation, raises significant questions:

Is it good faith that the U.S. funded a French war effort to colonize Vietnam? Then, later, is it good faith that President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and the U.S. Navy created the fiction of a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide a legal basis for Johnson’s escalation of open warfare in North Vietnam?

The only “fateful misunderstanding” was U.S. obsession with a fallacious domino theory of Communism. The rest of our early blunders were the direct consequence of Western arrogance. After France’s hundred-year colonization attempt came to a screeching halt at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America thought it would be easy to slip in and resume the colonization program. But we didn’t call it colonization, we called it “nation-building” and “winning hearts and minds.” We figured the mighty United States of America could easily subdue a backwater jungle country whose ideological leader was a skinny, sickly Asian.

Ho Chi Minh, speaking in Paris in 1920

The misunderstandings came later. We misunderstood our ability to act as puppeteer to a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government. And we misunderstood the resolve of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  This time, they were the patriots and we were the redcoats.

Behind the shiny narrative, here’s the hard reality that Burns and Novick were too coy to discuss:

The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U.S. was willing to allow it to have.  To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians.  That is the number from the government of Vietnam.  The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed.  The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time.  To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined. 

The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange.  It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world.  When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history.  The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country.  Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it.  All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.   

(from www.commondreams.org)

Instead of “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” substitute the above, or similar, as an introduction, and you lay the groundwork for an entirely different documentary. Keep an eye on the reaction of sponsor David H. Koch.

In “The Vietnam War,” Burns presents the micro, but not the macro. He offers numerous anecdotes that imply the war was wrong (big surprise). But we never see just how  wrong it was. In the blur of images, interviews, and stories of valor and personal conflict, Burns doesn’t pull his camera back to offer the big picture. There’s sadness and regret, but only a modicum of rage and disgust. We don’t once hear the phrase “war crime.” He plays it safe, struggling to maintain balance and be all things to everyone, left, right, and center. Unless it’s a dead politician, he’s afraid to offend anyone. Including, perhaps, his hefty financial backers.

Burns had ample opportunity (ten years) to make this more than a standard, albeit glittery documentary on a war, and he could’ve lifted it above a stock reiteration of “hate the war, love the warrior.” For example, he profiles Pascal Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian, who fought in WWII, Korea, and died in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War” totally misses the irony of a Native American waging war on indigenous people for a racist, invading nation that, a hundred years earlier, killed and conquered Poolaw’s ancestors in the name of manifest destiny. Instead, we get a brief and awkward puff piece on a minority who earned a lot of medals and died for his country.

There’s an uncomfortable attempt at equivalency, too. “We called them ‘dinks,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘mamasans,’” Coyote ticks off. Then, as if to, again, provide balance, he continues. “They called us ‘invaders,’ and ‘imperialists.’” The first terms are racist and dehumanizing. The last terms are accurate. There’s no equivalency here.

L to R: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara

And there’s no equivalency between anti-war activists and the so-called “silent majority.” At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who breaks into tears and apologizes to vets who were (supposedly) spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet there is not one bit of video or audio in “The Vietnam War” to substantiate this claim. There hasn’t been any evidence anywhere else, at least, that I’m aware of.

However, there is relentless footage of pro-war Americans screaming at protesters, attacking them, beating them, and berating them as being Commies and traitors… behavior that had its apotheosis in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James A. Rhodes of (my home state of) Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Where in “The Vietnam War” is the apology from these  people?

***

Maybe the biggest question raised by “The Vietnam War” is this: How do Americans want to remember their history? Do we want it to consist of stories of heroism and hubris, triumph and tragedy? Or merely be a series of episodes, a narrative of people, places, dates and events?

Or do we want our history to also inform our present and help determine the course of our future?

Since Vietnam, we’ve continued to send military “advisers” to third world countries, secretly funnel money and arms, initiate coups, topple regimes we dislike, pursue dead-end policies of nation-building, attempt to “win hearts and minds,” wage war under false pretenses, tax Americans to fund war, alienate civilian populations, and label dissenters as being unpatriotic. The only thing we haven’t done is institute a draft.

But there’s no mention of any of the above in “The Vietnam War.” I guess Burns feels it’s OK to offer a static history, as long as it’s dramatic. He’s America’s storyteller, with many great stories to tell.

***

Here are some links related to this article:

The Nation (a liberal publication)

The American Conservative (a conservative publication)

Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real Vietnam”)

Christopher Koch (the first American reporter to visit Vietnam)

 

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Come Ride the Little Train: In Praise of “Petticoat Junction”

Forget about your cares

It is time to relax

At the Junction…

My most frequent babysitter as a kid was the television set.  Now, I know I’m strange, but I don’t think that’s atypical for baby boomers.  I probably saw most episodes of the more popular cartoons, Westerns, and sitcoms made during the 1960s. Back then, though, I didn’t know which shows were good and which were bad. I just watched what the networks fed me. I hadn’t yet developed any critical thinking skills.

Today, thanks to various cable TV stations that specialize in nostalgia, I get to indulge in many of these shows again. And I sometimes wonder “Why did I ever watch this dopey thing?”

One of them is the half-hour CBS show, Petticoat Junction. This is a situation comedy with a rural theme that aired between 1963 and 1970. Petticoat Junction had two sister shows, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.” These two shows were funny. Petticoat Junction was… well… “charming.” But there were no truly wacko characters, so the show relied more on situations, and the laughs were sparse.

So why am I praising it? Maybe because I’m now popping Centrum® senior multivitamins, but I don’t require laughs like I once did. Just smiles. These days, old-fashioned settings and cornball humor, which Petticoat Junction had in spades, are (pardon the colloquialism)… fine and dandy.

Granny and Jethro Clampett are TV classics, and I love the crazed bumpkins in “Green Acres,” who lived in a strange, alternative universe. But Petticoat Junction, for me, is less frenzied.

Heavens to Betsy, I don’t want frenzy these days! What do I want? I’ll tell you: I want to recline in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Shady Rest Hotel, ogle the beautiful Bradley sisters, then mosey inside with Uncle Joe to sample Kate Bradley’s fried chicken, dumplings, and gravy.

Bradley sisters, first lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Pat Woodell, Jeannine Riley

Petticoat Junction (henceforth “PJ”) was one of three situation comedies (including the earlier “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the later “Green Acres”) created by a man named Paul Henning. Henning was a prolific writer of radio, television, and film. In 1962, he concocted an idea for a television show about a bunch of hillbillies who strike it rich, then move to swanky Beverly Hills, California. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was so successful, Henning was asked to invent another show. This would be PJ.

Henning came up with the show’s premise from stories his wife told of being a child in Eldon, Missouri, where her grandparents ran a hotel near some railroad tracks. She entertained Henning with anecdotes about the simple local folk, and the city slickers who checked into the hotel. Henning liked the contrast, which was sort of a reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

He called his fictional hotel the “Shady Rest,” situating it midway between the farm towns of Hooterville and Pixley. A three-car passenger train named the “Hooterville Cannonball” connected the two boroughs, but apparently went nowhere else (if you like trains, the “Cannonball” might be worthy of research). The town of Hooterville had a small grocery store run by a man named Sam Drucker (Frank Cady). Nearby lived various farmers, such as Fred, Doris, and Arnold Ziffle (the last-named a near-genius pig), Newt Kiley, catty Selma Plout, deaf Grandpappy Miller, ex-New Yorkers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas, and others. But most of the action occurred in and around the Shady Rest Hotel.

Here, a widow named Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) managed the Shady Rest, along with her three luscious daughters: Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, and Betty Jo. They were assisted… or unassisted… by Kate’s uncle, Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan). There was also a frisky terrier with no name who was always upstaging Uncle Joe whenever Joe tried to concoct some new, failed business enterprise.

Additional characters included Cannonball engineers Charlie Pratt (Smiley Burnette), conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis), and bad guy Homer Bedloe (prolific character actor Charles Lane), who was forever trying to shut down the Cannonball. Later seasons featured cropduster Steve Elliott (Mike Minor), who eventually married Betty Jo, both in the show and in real life; engineer Wendell Gibbs (Byron Foulger); game warden Orrin Pike (Jonathan Daly); and Dr. Janet Craig (June Lockhart of “Lassie” and “Lost in Space”).

Bradley sisters, second lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Gunilla Hutton

PJ ran for seven seasons. The cast frequently changed, which helped keep the show fresh. Three different actresses played blonde Billie Jo: Jeannine Riley, then Gunilla Hutton, then Meredith MacRae. Two actresses played brunette Bobbie Jo: Pat Woodell, then Lori Saunders. Redheaded Betty Jo was played throughout by Linda Kaye Henning, daughter of Paul (billed as “Linda Kaye” early on).

Edgar Buchanan, as Uncle Joe, was the only other principal actor besides Henning and Frank Cady to last the entire run. He was the closest thing to a wacko and provided many of the best laughs. He just wasn’t as good-looking as his nieces.

Along with its instantly recognizable theme song, music played a big part in PJ, both inside and outside the show. Actress Pat Woodell was a professional singer, and Meredith MacRae was the daughter of singer/actors Sheila (“The Honeymooners”) and Gordon MacRae (OKLAHOMA). During the 1963-64 season, the three Bradley girls and a friend (played by Sheila James from “Dobie Gillis”) formed a mop-top pop group called The Ladybugs, in response to the Beatles’ recent success (the actresses recorded a single as The Ladybugs and, like the Beatles, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”). In 1968-69, MacRae, Saunders, and Henning released two singles as The Girls from Petticoat Junction. And many episodes, particularly the later ones, featured group singalongs around the piano.

_________

Of the seven seasons that PJ aired, my favorites are seasons four and five. These featured Meredith MacRae, probably the most popular Billie Jo. By this time, the sisters’ personas had solidified: Billie Jo was smart and career-minded; Bobbie Jo was a cute airhead; and Betty Jo was the tomboy turned wife and mother.

Also, seasons four and five still featured Bea Benaderet as the mom, Kate Bradley. Benaderet was the most skilled actor in PJ. She’d had a long career in radio and television (she provided the voice for Betty Rubble in “The Flintstones”). She was so talented, that Paul Henning is on record saying that PJ existed only because he wanted to get Benaderet in a starring role.

Bea Benaderet

Sadly, Benaderet contracted lung cancer, and she missed much of season five. She died in 1968. Her place was taken by June Lockhart, who portrayed a doctor who takes up residence at the Shady Rest. Lockhart tried, but she couldn’t replace Benaderet. The show’s ratings declined.

PJ was canceled in 1970 at the beginning of an infamous “rural purge” by CBS. A lot had happened in America in the late 1960s, and CBS executives felt that comedies with rural themes were out of touch. Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on “Green Acres,” famously said “(they) canceled everything with a tree.” Shows like PJ, “Green Acres,” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” were replaced by more urbane and topical sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “M.A.S.H.,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Those shows, and others from the 1970s, are comedic wonders, loaded with clever writing, characters, and trend-setting humor. But it’s a heterogenous world, and I feel there’s also a place for simpler, throwback shows like PJ. I’m grateful to MeTV for resurrecting this special show, which for some reason has been neglected by the suits at other cable stations.

If you like homespun simplicity, check out PJ, if not on MeTV, then on DVD. It won’t have you howling with laughter. But it has a simple grace that is especially welcomed in these graceless times.

Bradley sisters, third lineup. L to R: Linda Kaye Henning, Lori Saunders, Meredith MacRae (copyright Gene Howard)

Some interesting facts about PJ:

  • There were actually four Billie Jo’s. The original actress selected was Sharon Tate. She’s pictured in several early promo photos, but she resigned before taping because her agent felt she wasn’t ready for a major television role (some say it was because she had posed nude). She later popped up as a recurring guest character on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
  • Pat Woodell, the original Bobbie Jo, left the show to become a singer. That didn’t work out well, and she returned to acting, appearing in several sexploitation flicks, including THE BIG DOLL HOUSE from 1971. She passed away in 2015.
  • The bright little terrier named “Dog” had the real name of “Higgins” and later was the star of the popular movie BENJIE, which also featured Edgar Buchanan.
  • Jeannine Riley and Gunilla Hutton, who both played Billie Jo, later jumped into the hay lofts of the variety show “Hee Haw” (another victim of CBS’s rural purge).
  • Before her one season in PJ, Gunilla Hutton was a chorus girl who toured with Nat King Cole. Cole became infatuated with Hutton, who was 19 years younger, and almost left his wife. He abandoned the fling after developing smoking-related lung cancer.
  • Mike Minor, who played handsome pilot Steve Elliott, was the son of Don Fedderson, creator of “My Three Sons.” He and Linda Kaye Henning were married five years, then divorced. Minor died in 2016.
  • Before PJ, Meredith MacRae played the girlfriend of the eldest Douglas boy in “My Three Sons.” (Shucks, why couldn’t the Bradley girls and Douglas boys ever hook up??). MacRae succumbed to brain cancer in 2000.
  • Lori Saunders’ real name is “Linda,” but she changed it to avoid confusion with Linda Kaye Henning. Saunders and Jeannine Riley later acted together in a failed sitcom called “Dusty’s Trail,” a clone of “Gilligan’s Isle” set in the West, starring Bob Denver and Forrest Tucker.
  • Frank Cady is the only actor to ever appear in three concurrent television shows (PJ, “Green Acres,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”). He was in his 40s-50s when he played Sam Drucker. Cady lived to age 96, passing away in 2012.

(Wikipedia provided much of the information for this article. If you want to read an exhaustive analysis of the fictional town of Hooterville, click here. Someone devoted a lot of time to this subject. This person sounds even stranger than me.)

A Chimerical Study of Contemporary Bullshit

WARNING: Some people are sensitive to pessimism. I understand completely. I appreciate people reading my stuff, but if you’re sensitive to pessimism, you may wish to visit somewhere else. But check back later, when I’ll be writing about “Petticoat Junction.”

Preface:

I think I’m usually polite here. Despite outward appearances, I was raised to be a gentleman. Therefore, I try to keep my language free of the little nasties.

So forgive me for using the word “bullshit.” But I can’t think of an appropriate synonym, or another word that has the right zing. “Egocentric duplicity” doesn’t cut it. “Bullshit” has a tart and lively consonant structure, and when properly voiced, the sound of the word effectively mirrors the emotional intent. So here goes:

The older I get, the more impatient I become with what I view as being pure, unadulterated bullshit. When I was younger, much bullshit went over my head. I just accepted things. I smiled while I drank my Kool-Aid® and Funny Face®. Adults were physically larger and knew more than me, so they must be right (right?).

Time flies. Recently, I learned I’m going to be a grandparent. After almost 60 years on this beautiful but increasingly scarred planet, age has driven home the reality that children are bullshit-free. It’s their parents and grandparents who are full of it. Children are untainted, until infected by their elders. As the great Indian actor and philosopher Hrundi V. Bakshi once said, “Wisdom is the province of the aged, but the heart of a child is pure.”

Children are so often lied to, tricked, and bombarded with sarcasm, hypocrisy, and false information, that it’s only natural they evolve into adults who either “sling,” or are easily susceptible to being slung at. Since I’m an adult, I’m vulnerable to bullshit as much as anyone else. It’s a two-pronged effort. While I’m oiling my detectors to defend against the bullshit in others, I try to be on guard for the BS in myself.

Muammar Gaddafi was a vicious tyrant, and it’s good that he’s gone. But he had admirable taste in national flags. From 1977 to 2011, the Libyan flag was the color green, the only national flag ever to be just one color. No bullshit.

Background:

History has seen a few great bullshit warriors. Philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians seem particularly adept at identifying bullshit. They have a talent for seeing through things to get to the crux of the matter. The Greeks, then the Romans, along with Eastern guys like Confucius, got the ball rolling. Then we had a rough patch called the Dark Ages, with lots of tribal warfare, land grabs, and religious crusading.

Then the sun came out and we had the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, and rock ‘n’ roll. Shakespeare, Swift, Melville, Dostoevsky, Sitting Bull, Twain, Wilde, Kafka, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Vonnegut, Guthrie, younger Dylan, Lennon, Zappa, Johnny Rotten… all battled the armies of bullshit with originality and grace (well, Zappa and Rotten weren’t always graceful).

Interestingly, a lot of these warriors also battled depression.

On the opposing side are those who have PhDs in BS. You know who I’m referring to. I’m sounding like a disgruntled peasant belaboring the obvious here, but the data I’ve assimilated reveals that the biggest bullshitters are not cab drivers or small farmers. The greatest offenders reside in high places, like government, large business, and the plush corner office just past the water cooler. The higher up the economic ladder someone climbs, the more proficient they become in hurling the sticky stuff ($$ x h/c = BS³, where c is a constant). In advertising, bullshit-slinging is the name of the game (proof: the number of people who dislike American football yet who sit through the Super Bowl).

With few exceptions, these lofty figures don’t have to battle depression. On the contrary, they’re usually laughing on their way to the bank. At least, that’s what my strictly monitored scientific method has shown.

You’re probably anxious to see a few examples of whom I view – rather, what my analytical data has shown – as being the most flagrant purveyors of bullshit. Or, maybe you’re not anxious. Well, I’m anxious, at least. I’ll skirt around politicians, because BS is mother’s milk to them, and I’d be writing about their bullshit until the cows (or bulls) come home. And since I’m an American and unfamiliar with the bullshit in other countries, I’ll stick with local bullshit.

Breaking Broken News: When a major news outlet feels compelled to assure viewers its news coverage is “Fair and Balanced”… you can bet it isn’t.

Analysis:

The American news press. If you’re a young person, you may not understand what I’m about to say: there once was a time when there was intelligent news, and only three TV stations. Scout’s honor! And America had talented news anchors with names like Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, Chancellor, and Jennings. Most news then was reported with a degree of honesty and integrity.

Then, imperceptibly, a drift occurred. Maybe it was the success of “gotcha” journalism, initiated by the Watergate investigation in the 1970s (Specimen A: the offspring of Woodward and Bernstein). Coulda been the rise of trash TV in the 1980s (Specimen B: Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rivera). Possibly harsh and one-sided conservative chatter that erupted in the 1990s (Specimen C: Rush Limbaugh and FOX News). Probably all of the above. But, today, journalism that’s responsible and relevant is the exception rather than the norm.

I’m not sure many Americans even recognize the difference between news and propaganda anymore. Or if younger people even know there’s a difference, or what the word “propaganda” even means. We regularly bathe in our tilted information of choice, then cackle what we just heard on our social medium of choice with our ubiquitous handheld computers.

I earned a bullshit (B.S.) degree in journalism, so I know a little about this stuff. And my recent and highly empirical studies show that – right, left, or indifferent – most news today is info-tainment that’s beholden to advertisers and, therefore, scrubbed or manipulated to appeal to a specific demographic. Loads of bullshit information conveyed… scant knowledge obtained.

American entertainment is also bullshit. Lynn and I occasionally watch those strange British shows on PBS (high-quality programming – check it out, before the Republicans destroy it). We’ve both noticed how physically ugly many British actors are. And if they’re not ugly, they’re very old. In other words: they’re real people.

Why can’t the U.S. have more ugly entertainers? The only ugly American entertainers I can think of are criminally untalented: bigots like Phil “Duck Dynasty” Robertson and congenital liars like President Tweety Bird. Not surprisingly, Robertson was the biggest celeb at Tweety’s convention last summer (I don’t consider long-forgotten sitcom actors like Scott Baio to be celebrities).

Religion. This is dangerous territory, I realize. But I’m feeling emboldened, so I’ll put my head on the block. And, let’s be honest, religion has, for centuries, vied with politics for the coveted crown of Emperor Bullshit.

U.S. politicians love to extol their religious (Christian) faith, and the popular tagline to speeches is “…and God bless the United States of America!!” Rhetorical bullshit, folks. Assuming there is a God… He or She or It probably doesn’t recognize geographic borders, and certainly doesn’t bless America for its treatment of the original inhabitants.

I believe anyone who believes his or her belief system, god or godless, is the only valid  belief system, is full of bullshit. As my philosopher friend Cecil responded when I saw him in the break room and innocently said “What’s happenin’, Cecil?”:

“Nobody knows! Many think they do, but they really don’t. It’s all a big guessing game!”

So, Tweety, kick those conservative, fundamentalist mock-Christians out of our house. Yes, the White House is our house, the people’s house. You’re just a temporary tenant the janitor let in. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll soon be permanently privatized.

Conclusion:

My study findings probably make me sound like a cheap imitation of late comedian George Carlin. I definitely lack the eloquence of the individuals (except Johnny Rotten) that I listed at the top of this diatribe… I mean, study. My words are base and simplistic. But, gosh darnit folks, these bullshitters aren’t that smart, either! In fact, most are pretty thickheaded. They attain powerful positions because they’re specialists in one area, or were born into privilege, or have silver tongues and greasy palms.

“Make America Great Again”? More Bullshit (spelled with a capital ‘B’). “Hope and Change”? The change is being unraveled, and we’re looking more and more hopeless. Here’s my bumper sticker:

“Make America Bullshit-Free… For a Change.”

Turning to Gray: Cam Ne, South Vietnam, 1965

50 years

safer in vietnam

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”

At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.

vietnam_war_mapThose Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.

WATERS TURNED TO BLOOD

In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.

Marine private near Da nang

Marine private, merely a boy, near Da Nang in 1965. He may have been present at Cam Ne

Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.

The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.

During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”

Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.

When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.

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Marine using lighter on thatched roof at Cam Ne

One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”

Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.

THE NEWS TODAY

When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.

When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:

I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)

After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”

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Morley Safer and elderly man at Cam Ne

The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.

TURNING TO GRAY

But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only a few years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.

Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”

Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.

(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.

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Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/safer/camne.html

http://www.historynet.com/what-really-happened-at-cam-ne.htm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNYZZi25Ttg

Da Nang 1965

Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

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The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

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Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

One of the Magnificent Seven

Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma

The Oscars

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather film quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

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Actor George C. Scott

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I don’t know much about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

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Actress Bette Davis

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial (although he did give a beautiful acceptance speech).

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The Red Carpet Ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

(Note: next time I’ll be honoring a true movie “star,” in honor of (what would be) his 85th birthday… the King of Cool, Steve McQueen… (the actor, not the director).

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Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

“A Christmas Carol” on Film

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“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Of all the tales and morality plays associated with Christmas throughout the years, few are as enduring as Charles Dickens’s immortal “A Christmas Carol,” published on this day in 1843. We love this simple, uplifting story because it offers hope for everyone. No matter how empty or greedy we have lived our lives, there’s always the opportunity for transformation. It’s a story rife with the Christian concepts of kindness, charity, forgiveness, redemption.

Last year at this time I offered a short list of some of the best Christmas movies and television specials [Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)]. I included a way-too-brief homage to various film versions of “A Christmas Carol” (often entitled “Scrooge”). For this blog post, I’d like to expand and offer reviews of some of the more notable versions. And at the end, I’ll confess my favorite.

Scrooge (1935), starring Sir Seymour Hicks. Born in 1871, Hicks practically owned the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the early years of the 20th century. He portrayed Scrooge thousands of times on the British stage, was in a silent film version in 1913, and reprised it for this talkie in 1935.

A young Seymour Hicks

A young Seymour Hicks

This film is very smoky and atmospheric. The ghost sequence is downplayed, and there’s a long buildup to emphasize Scrooge’s miserliness. Noteworthy: in addition to his association with the Scrooge part, Hicks produced and wrote his own films, and is famous for hiring a young Alfred Hitchcock to make his directing debut in 1923.

A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen. OwenThe first popular talkie version, and it ranks with the best, although this U.S. film took liberties with the Dickens story (e.g. Scrooge’s fiancé is entirely removed). Scrooge was originally to be played by the great Lionel Barrymore, who did it annually on radio, but he was replaced by the lesser-known Owen. Character actor Gene Lockhart portrays Bob Cratchit, and one of the Cratchit children is his daughter June, who later starred in Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction, and hosted many “Miss U.S.A.” and “Miss Universe” beauty pageants. Noteworthy: the ghost of Jacob Marley was played by Leo G. Carroll, famous to American TV viewers for his title role in Topper, and as Mr. Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alistair Sim. alistairA number of film critics consider this the all-time best adaptation. For one thing, it’s British rather than American. Also, Sim is a more convincing Scrooge than Owen was. It was very popular in England when released, but didn’t really take off in the U.S. until about 1970. Since then it has been regularly shown on television. Noteworthy: Patrick Macnee, who has a bit part as a young Jacob Marley, later became famous as courtly John Steed in The Avengers English TV show.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). This was the first-ever animated holiday special. For a lot of baby boomers (like me), it was also their first exposure to the Dickens story. MagooPrevious to this animated musical, “Mr. Magoo” was a popular cartoon series about a man blissfully unaware he’s legally blind, and who faces recurring disasters but always comes out on top. By today’s standards, the Magoo series was very un-PC, but this animated Christmas musical was well-received, and even today is many people’s favorite version of “A Christmas Carol.” The music by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, composed on the heels of their score for Funny Girl, was top-caliber. Noteworthy: the voiceover for Mr. Magoo was done by Jim Backus, who later became stranded, as Mr. Howell, on Gilligan’s Isle (he’d earlier played James Dean’s father in the classic movie Rebel Without a Cause).

SerlingA Carol for Another Christmas (1964) starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Definitely one of the strangest versions, this American TV movie was written by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame during the height of the Cold War. It was loaded with socio-political messages and good intentions, but it came off heavy-handed and depressing. It was broadcast only once, on December 28, 1964, then shelved until Turner Classic Movies (TCM) dusted it off in 2012. Noteworthy: Hayden and Sellers had starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove earlier in the year. Other actors included Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) and an awkward Steve Lawrence (of “Steve and Eydie” fame).

Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney. FinneyAnother musical, although this one’s non-animated. This is arguably the most colorful and glittery version of the Christmas classic, with gorgeous cinematography, graphics, special effects, and original songs. It’s great in every way, impeccably produced and directed (by Ronald Neame), with music in classic English music hall tradition (the song “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for an Academy Award). My only criticism is Albert Finney’s acting. Finney’s a great actor, one of the greatest of his generation, but I feel he overacts the part of Scrooge. Nonetheless, this 1970 film is not to be missed. Noteworthy: Sir Alec Guinness, who played Marley’s ghost, had starred in David Lean’s film adaptations of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” in the 1940s.

ScottA Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott. Speaking of greatest actors of their generation, here we have Academy Award winner Scott (The Hustler and Patton) taking a turn as everyone’s favorite miser, in a TV adaptation, and earning an Emmy Award in the process. Scott’s acting is, unlike earlier attempts, refreshingly low-key. He’s the “thinking man’s Scrooge,” apt to sneak in a twisted smile here or there for effect. The film is remarkably well-done for a television production. Filmed on location in England, with primarily English actors, it was released theatrically in Great Britain but debuted on CBS in America. Noteworthy: director Clive Donner had been an editor on the 1951 film version.

Other versions, which I haven’t seen so can’t comment on: Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, which is a trendy, U.S. modernization of the tale and received mixed reviews; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a live-action musical featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge; and A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart, who was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for his performance.

My personal favorite: a tie between the Albert Finney and George C. Scott versions. In my opinion, Scott’s acting trumps anyone else who portrayed Scrooge, but the Albert Finney version is just so visually and aurally sumptuous.

Now tell me your favorite version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”!

(Note: thanks to Wikipedia for most images and some info)

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Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by William Powell

Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Appeal of Lawrence Welk

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My obsession started innocently enough. It was a quiet Saturday night at home. Lynn and I had nothing planned. No social engagement, no movie, no weekend junket out of town. It was “stay-at-home” night, a frosty January evening with a burning log in the fireplace, a wine cooler for her, and a couple Yuenglings for me (ok, maybe three Yuenglings).

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The maestro himself: Lawrence Welk

At 7:10 PM EST we turned on one of our favorite TV stations: PBS. There, on the screen, were three men tap dancing in perfect synchronicity. They wore matching suits – er, costumes: shiny black shoes, tight purple slacks with bells at the bottom, lavender satin shirts with puffy lapels the size of small pillows, and shirtsleeve cuffs almost as large. The best dancer – I later discovered his name was Arthur – was black. The most eye-catching dancer was a tall white guy with stiffly erect posture, perfectly sculpted hair, and a huge, frozen grin straight out of a toothpaste commercial.

I’m not sure if it was me or Lynn who laughed first. I’m sure I laughed the loudest (remember, I was nursing several beers). We ended up watching the entire show, smiling and wisecracking the entire time. Occasionally Lynn would Google one of the cast members to learn about his or her scandalous private life.

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Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 knows about “The Lawrence Welk Show.” This American television program ran from 1951 to 1982. Its host was a big band conductor who had a distinctive accent. The accent was sort of German-sounding, but it had gotten hijacked somewhere by Russia and North Dakota (!). Welk was famous for his catchphrase “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” and his song introduction of “Ah one, and ah two, and ah…” The music on the show ranged from polka tunes to novelty songs to big band standards. Colorfully costumed skits with low-budget props were liberally sprinkled into the program.

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Sometime during the show’s long run, the music acquired the descriptor “champagne music.” Welk even selected one of his singers as the “Champagne Lady,” one Norma Zimmer, who had a pure, high-range soprano voice. Other notable regulars, which Welk called his “Musical Family,” included tap dancer Arthur (Duncan), who was the first African-American regular on a variety TV show; accordionist Myron Floren; legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; the four Lennon Sisters, who were as sweet and homey as apple pie; frenetic honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle; and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess – the guy with the frozen grin.

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

Welk deliberately aimed his show toward a specific (and loyal) audience: white, Midwestern conservative, Christian, and definitely older. So it’s not surprising some of the principal show sponsors included Geritol (a dietary supplement marketed to elderly people), Sominex (a sleep aid), and Polident (a denture cleanser).

But Welk himself could be a harsh taskmaster. He fired his original “Champagne Lady” because he thought she showed too much leg. Pete Fountain quit after he was chastised by Welk for trying to jazz up a Christmas number. Fountain was later quoted as saying “Champagne doesn’t mix with bourbon.”fountain

I guess at this point I should elaborate on the “appeal” of Welk for me. Why do I like the show, which is now in syndication on PBS? Well, there’s the nostalgia aspect. This show was part of my childhood DNA. If my folks weren’t playing bridge or at a dinner party on Saturday night, Welk was usually on – at least for a few minutes. My dad loved good big band jazz (e.g. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie). And even though he referred to Welk’s style of music as “schmaltz” – and my mom still calls it “fruity” – it was probably the closest they could get to their halcyon youth in the 1930s and ’40s… at least on television.

The other reason I like Welk is that, no matter how staid or cheesy the entertainment might be, it has a high “feel good” factor. For an hour, “The Lawrence Welk Show” is a great way to forget the stresses in life. I recently discovered that, of all people, the writer and infamous hermit J.D. Salinger (“Catcher in the Rye”) used to dance along with the Welk program. Maybe he found some joy here to leaven some of the darkness in his life.

You see, Welk’s music and skits are always upbeat. They may be corny, but they’re never sardonic or snide, like so much post-“Saturday Night Live” entertainment today. The performers are always smiling and really seem to be having fun. And the champagne bubbles are always floating. Right along with my beer suds.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, THE BEATLES! Let’s Bring ‘em Out!

50 years

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U.S. Press: Are you embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?

John: No, it’s great.

Paul: No.

Ringo: Marvelous.

George: (giggling) We love it.

John: We like lunatics.

Thus started the first of many U.S. press conferences for the Beatles.  John’s witty remark “We like lunatics” was typical of the cheeky humor the band used to win over so many Americans, both young and old.  But the humor wasn’t necessarily strategic.  Although different personalities, all four really were fun-loving and outgoing, and excited as can be to be in the home country of their rock ‘n’ roll idols.  And throughout their career, they never let success get to their heads (just a few illicit drugs, that’s all).

The stamp of approval in middle America came when Ed Sullivan introduced them on Sunday night to a then-record setting 73 million television viewers.  Sullivan was respected and admired around the country.  If someone of his age and stature could showcase four long-haired English musicians with their amps cranked… well, they must be alright!beatles6

Before Sullivan could even finish his introduction, he was drowned out by the screams of the New York studio audience (their biggest fans, at least in the beginning, were 94.3 percent young and female).  Those of us watching on TV at home were transfixed.  Finally, we get to see them.  And they’re more exciting than we’d anticipated.  Dressed in tight-fitting, matching suits.  Paul beaming and bobbing.  George a little nervous, but harmonizing with Paul (he was actually recovering from the flu).  John stoic and in command.  And Ringo sitting high in the back, tossing his mop of hair to the beat.

The first song was “All My Loving.”  Next came “Till There Was You,” a tune from “The Music Man,” and which further endeared them to parents.  Then “She Loves You.”  Later in the show they did “I Saw Her Standing There,” and closed with their No. 1 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles’ first live appearance in America was an unequivocal smash.  A week later they did a second show in Miami Beach, where they posed with another cultural icon,  Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali), who was training for a fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.  A third show was aired on February 23 (though it was actually taped early in the day of their February 9 show).

***

A lot of people, primarily of the World War II generation, considered the Beatles a fad.  How could four kids from Liverpool with a fan base of fainting girls sustain any kind of artistic credibility?  The naysayers can’t be faulted too much, though.  Musical fads were around going back to the 1920’s and the Charlston, and they happen today every few years.

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But the Beatles had sustainability because they wrote their own music, it was pioneering, ever-changing and had popular appeal, and they wrote a lot of it.  And, they had a visionary leader in John Lennon (and producer in George Martin).  Their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sent a shock wave throughout music and popular culture that continues to this day.  Folkies like Bob Dylan and the Byrds suddenly bought electric guitars.  Leonard Bernstein started dissecting their musical structures.  And thousands of kids across America started garage bands to emulate the British musicians that, after February 9, 1963, U.S. record companies were signing to contracts right and left.  Here are just a few of the musicians who followed the Beatles to American shores in the “First British Invasion”:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Kinks
  • The Who
  • Petula Clark
  • Gerry and the Pacemakers
  • Herman’s Hermits
  • The Yardbirds
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Peter and Gordon
  • The Small Faces
  • The Troggs
  • The Zombies
  • Tom Jones
  • Chad and Jeremy
  • The Moody Blues
  • The Spencer Davis Group
  • Van Morrison and Them
  • The Animals
  • Lulu
  • Dave Clark Five
  • Donovan
  • Georgie Fame
  • The Hollies

***

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it (and reliving my childhood).  If you don’t have any Beatles records (hard to believe, but I guess it’s  possible), I urge you to treat yourself to some great music.  The Beatles are one of only a few artists whose music can be said to be “timeless.”  They appeal to all genders, ages, cultures, socio-economic classes.  The one message they stressed over and over was Love.  That’s really what it’s all about.

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love you make.

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How a Teenage Girl from Maryland Helped Launch the Beatles in America

50 years

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The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released).  They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.).  They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe).  They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.

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Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles

On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour.  He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls.  Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis.  He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.

The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963.  First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band.  Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan).  Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S.  It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”

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WWDC-AM disc jockey Carroll James, with fan Marsha Albert (later photo)

But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz.  She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?”  James was impressed by the letter.  He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.

Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley.  It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll.  Well, the same thing happened now.  Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C.  Then other U.S. stations took the cue.  Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow.  They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule.  The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country.  The freight train was now out of control.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell.  After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears.  Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)

And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before.  After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion.  The Beatles provided it.  All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top.  And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”

with the beatles