Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mercy!

Roy Orbison gets Hollywood Walk of Fame star

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Late rock 'n' roll pioneer Roy Orbison has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Orbison's widow Barbara accepted the star in front of the Capitol Records building on his behalf on Friday. Orbison died in 1988 at the age of 52, in the midst of a comeback with The Traveling Wilburys, a whimsical supergroup that included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.

Lynne attended the ceremony, as did Eric Idle, Chris Isaak, Joe Walsh and Dwight Yoakam.

Orbison was famous for the wide range of his distinctive and emotional voice, especially in his songs about unrequited love like "Only the Lonely," "Crying," "In Dreams" and "Oh, Pretty Woman."

Actor Dan Aykroyd says Orbison was a great balladeer and a great rock 'n' roller who could be both gentle and vicious.

Just running scared, each place we go.
So afraid that he might show.
Yeah, running scared, what would I do
If he came back, and wanted you?

Just running scared, feeling low.
Running scared. You loved him so.
Just running scared, afraid to lose.
If he came back, which one would you choose?

Then, all at once, he was standing there.
So sure of himself, his head in the air.
My heart was breaking. Which one would it be?
You turned around and walked away with me.

From my mother: “I’ve heard that song close to a million times…and yet, I still get that chill of surprise when the woman chooses Roy at the end.”

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It would have been more fitting if Mortimer Snerd was wearing the "Pols" button...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #51 (“I Was a Communist for the TCM” edition)

As promised, here are my collected thoughts on three of the movies shown during the final night of Turner Classic Movies’ Shadows of Russia festival—all of which I also recorded for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, including the intro to My Son John (1952) where Bobby Osbo does mention the participation of New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick and Self-Styled Siren blogger Farran Smith Nehme even though the channel couldn’t see fit to let them sit in the comfy chairs on television and drink cocktails with their genial host. (Someone told me—and it’s unsubstantiated, of course—that no invite was extended because TCM had to send out the chairs to be steam-cleaned since they allowed Alec Baldwin up on them. Make of this what you will.)

Oh, and I learned that “Nehme” is sounded out like “Mammy”—which allowed me to play around with the lyrics of the old Jolson song (“I’d walk a million miles/For a Siren self-styled/My Neh-eh-ehme-e-e-e”). (It helps visually if I do this on one knee, though it’ll probably take everyone on the blog list to help me up off the floor.) So let’s go to the videotape, and as always…there may be spoilers.

My Son John (1952) – There’s been quite a bit of conversation over at the Siren’s about how this anti-Communist polemic directed by Leo McCarey has good and earnest intentions and is better than its reputation since so few people have actually seen it (the TCM showing was most assuredly a rare occasion). One commenter suggested that the depiction of the family in John is actually superior to that of Jimmy Dean’s clan in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and while I’ve always believed that Cause was a tad overrated in many respects this kind of statement started me to wondering as to what the individual had been smoking and would it be possible for me to procure some.

John Jefferson (Robert Walker) is the son of Dan and Lucille Jefferson (Dean Jagger, Helen Hayes) and has taken time out from his government job to pay them a visit—but his presence in the family home has caused a bit of tension: he seems to shun his family in favor of visiting with one of his old school professors; he makes irreverent jokes at the expense of the priest (Frank McHugh) at the church Mom and Dad regularly attend; and he demonstrates precious little respect for his father’s political beliefs, mocking his campaign to become commander of the local American Legion post (“If you don’t like/Your Uncle Sammy/Then go back to your home o’er the sea/To the land whence you came/No matter what its name/But don’t be ungrateful to me”). Dad Jefferson detects a pinkish tinge to his son’s politics (particularly when Johnny-O asks his old man if he really believes everything that’s in the Bible) and is convinced he’s a Commie (!) but Mrs. J makes John swear on the Good Book in order to reassure herself this is simply not so. (Later in the film, Papa beans him on the noggin with the same hefty Biblical tome when he’s unable to stomach his son’s pinko nonsense.)

A man named Stedman (Van Heflin) keeps making unannounced visits to the Jefferson home—ostensibly because of a fender-bender that he and the senior Jefferson were involved in…but gradually he reveals that he’s actually an FBI agent investigating young John and that Dad—lovable old alcoholic he may be—has nailed it…his son is a Commie! These verbal exchanges between Heflin and Hayes are the highlights in John, particularly with goofy dialogue like the following:

STEDMAN: It’s about John…
LUCILLE: What’s he… (She stops short, correcting herself) What do you think he’s done?
STEDMAN: I’m not sure that he’s done anything…
LUCILLE: Well, you won’t be any more sure talking to me… (After a pause) I don’t see why I should tell you anything…anyway…
STEDMAN: Uh…well, you’re within your rights to refuse…
LUCILLE: Were you within your rights when you wormed your way…that’s right, you wormed your way into my confidence so that I would do a lot of talking…?
STEDMAN: I know that…that, uh, our methods are, uh, very often criticized…uh, by certain sources because we’re after them day and night…but, uh, nobody objects to, uh, a firm that, uh, protects business by, uh, investigating your credit…insurance outfits have to protect themselves by, uh, thorough investigations…

So, you see—when the FBI hassled outfits like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the American Indian Movement…it was only because they had a credit score that fell below 600. A tense confrontation between Mr. Fed, Mom (who’s become physically ill upon learning that Johnny Boy is a Bolshevik), John and his double convinces the misguided youngster that he’s made some serious mistakes in judgment and he plans to double-cross his party bosses shortly after recording a stirring, flag-waving speech for the commencement ceremonies at his alma mater. But the Commies get to him first, shooting at his cab so it crashes on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—where he expires via stock footage from Strangers on a Train (1951). (I’ll explain this a bit more in a sec, along with the "double" joke—but I was amused in thinking what would have happened if they left in the shot where he has Farley Granger’s cigarette lighter in his hand.)

Here is the major lesson I took from My Son John: if you don’t participate in high school football like your no-neck younger brothers (Richard Jaeckel, James R. Young) but instead fritter away your time reading and studying books…you’ll turn out to be an arrogant, effete mama’s boy whose liberalism will take you on a one-way trip to Communism and, subsequently, flaming homosexuality. Star Walker plays John as the road company version of Bruno Anthony, whose Oedipal complex blinds him to the fact that he’s also a snobbish, smart-assed Bolshie bastard and could very well jeopardize his father’s chances to become top dog at the Legion. (Oh, sure—he tells Mama Jefferson that the reason he has a key to the apartment of a girl being investigated for subversive activity is because they’ve been having an assignation—but she’s not fooled in the slightest. He’s a ‘mo, plain and simple…and Communism has made him that way.)

The night before Robert Walker was to finish shooting the climactic scene where he appears before the class at his alma mater to give a rousing speech on why it’s better to be dead than Red, the actor died from an allergic reaction to a sedative (Walker had suffered for a good many years with alcoholism, said to have been brought about after wife Jennifer Jones dumped him for her Svengali, producer David O. Selznick)—and this forced director McCarey into having to do a major rewrite on the film. McCarey lucked out largely because he had the foresight to have Walker record his anti-Communist speech; this allowed him to change the storyline whereupon the John Jefferson character tries to make amends for the evil he’s done but ends up paying the ultimate price. The deception required McCarey to use some extant footage featuring Walker (much of it easily recognizable from Strangers), along with a double and a you-have-to-be-kidding finale in which John’s words are “broadcast” from a podium bathed in light to the visual accompaniment of students riveted to his every utterance (though, personally, they looked like they were counting the minutes until the bitchin’ kegger was scheduled to start). As the choir-like music swells, we see Dan and Lucille exiting the building:

DAN: There was…a lot of good in what he said…some of those…
LUCILLE: Yes…let’s hope they forget what he did…and pray they remember what he said…today…

Because I have a feeling Dan’s gonna get creamed in the American Legion election. The seams start to show around the one-hour-four-minute mark when Lucille is having an important telephone conversation with Bru…, I mean her son John—and while the movie’s reliance on this patchwork editing won’t escape anyone’s notice, you do have to sort of admire the ingenuity on behalf of the filmmakers.

While I was very appreciative in being afforded the opportunity to see this film, apart from it being an interesting artifact from the fear-crazed fifties there’s really not much here to recommend. I did like Helen Hayes’ performance, however—she’s completely out-of-sync with the rest of the film as she delivers her lines in a sort of stream-of-consciousness manner that reminded me of my grandmother after she succumbed to Alzheimer’s. (“My son John! My son John! My son John!”)

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) – Based on a series of Saturday Evening Post articles written by Matt Cvetic, this laughably absurd film casts TDOY idol Frank Lovejoy as Comrade Matt Cvetic, a Pittsburgh steelworker who’s infiltrated the Party on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who’s employing Cvetic as an undercover agent. Unfortunately for our hero, he’s not allowed to tell anyone (with the exception of the Feds and a priest played by Roy “Captain Huxley” Roberts) what his real mission is, which has earned him the enmity of his family—particularly his brother Joe (Paul Picerni, who would later cross Lovejoy’s path in House of Wax [1953]) and son Dick (Ron Hagerthy). Dick is having a great deal of difficulty dealing with the fact that he’s got a pinko for a father; his schoolteacher, Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), attempts to discuss the issue with Matt…but it’s soon revealed that she, too, is a stinkin’ Red!

The thin plot of Communist involves the Party’s stepped-up attempts to dominate all political activity in Pittsburgh by replacing good-old-fashioned blue-collar Americans in the steel mills with “those loyal to the Party”, all under the dictates of Jim Blandon (James Millican, whose portrayal is so slimy you can practically smell him) and his Bolshie stooges. Meanwhile, Cvetic has written out a letter revealing that he’s not really a Commie and tries to get it to Father Novac (Roberts) for safekeeping—to be delivered to young Dick in the event of his father’s death. He attempts to pass it along to the padre at his mother’s funeral, but there’s a scuffle (brother Joe is outraged that Matt’s fellow Commies showed up to pay their respects) and the letter ends up in Eve’s possession. This provides quite a nifty bit of suspense—will Eve turn Matt over to the Party chiefs or won’t she?—and it’s only when Eve has a change of heart about the Party (those dirty pinkos have convinced some dupes involved with the local union to stage a wildcat strike; things get unnecessarily violent and Matt’s brother Joe is seriously injured) that she reveals she knows Cvetic’s secret. Matt arranges for her to escape from the Red menace, but jeopardizes his cover when he’s forced to kill a pair of the Party’s thugs—fortunately for our hero, he gets the opportunity to clear his name when the House Un-American Activities Committee (presented here as risibly heroic) calls upon him to testify against those traitors, and everything is hunky-dunky with the Cvetic family again.

Despite the success of the Post stories and this film, Matt Cvetic was, in real-life, not the most heroic of figures: he had a notoriously bad pull on the bottle and was so nasty as a result that he once smacked his sister-in-law around to the point she required a stay in the hospital. None of this is featured in the film, of course; the real nasties here are the Commies—who act more like gangsters than radical political activists. (The goings-on in Communist remind me a great deal of The Woman on Pier 13 [1949]—originally known as I Married a Communist—and in fact, both movies would make a swell double-feature.) The movie also strains credibility a tad when it suggests the Pittsburgh Pinkos are also responsible for the agitation that became the civil rights movement, not to mention wielding mighty influence inside the labor unions (I think I was on the floor with laughter about that time). But, hey—who’s to say this wasn’t true? After all, the movie was nominated the following year for an Academy Award…in the category of Best Documentary Feature (one of Oscar’s truly WTF moments).

I was predisposed to like this movie—despite its ridiculousness—because of Lovejoy’s appearance; he has long been a favorite of mine though I think he was far more effective on radio than in television or movies (he had a stiffness to him that he never quite overcame onscreen: he shines in films like In a Lonely Place [1950] and The Sound of Fury [1950], but suffers from a severe case of Jack-Webb-stick-up-my-ass in fare like Wax and Shack Out on 101 [1955; check out Bill Crider’s review on this here]). The popularity of I Was a Communist for the FBI soon led to a radio spin-off starring Dana Andrews, which was a bit more believable than the film (though it’s admittedly a close race). Director Gordon Douglas held the reins on this one (he had a rather eclectic career, helming the likes of Our Gang two-reelers, The Great Gildersleeve movie series, Them! [1954] and Robin and the 7 Hoods [1964]) and Crane Wilbur wrote the script (which might explain the “crime” angle; Wilbur also wrote the screenplays for He Walked by Night [1948] and The Phenix City Story [1955]). You’ll also spot Philip “Captain Parmalee” Carey and Richard “Captain Midnight” Webb as Lovejoy’s “handlers.”

The Bedford Incident (1965) – I recorded this one shortly before I threw in the towel for the night and reran it last night; I’d seen the film before but it’s been a long-time favorite because of the interplay between Richard Widmark (in penultimate rat bastard mode) and Sidney Poitier—two actors who were very close friends in real life (Widmark would often invite Poitier over to his house for dinner at a time when young Sidney was still feeling his way around Hollywood). Widmark is Eric Finlander, a U.S. Naval commander whose impeccable service record has nevertheless kept him from moving up in the Navy’s ranks; Poitier is hot-shot magazine reporter Ben Munceford, who’s taken on the challenge on discovering why. It doesn’t take long for Munceford to learn Finlander’s dirty little secret—he’s a brilliant strategist (assisted by ex-Nazi Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke, nicely underplayed by Eric Portman) but also a bit of a martinet; during maneuvers the Bedford’s crew learns of a Russian sub that’s patrolling illegally in territorial waters and when Finlander’s superiors tell him to stand down he’s unable to suppress his anti-Communist rage at allowing the sub to go scot-free. (“Look, if I catch a man robbing my house and he makes a break for the street, do I let him go just because he made it to the sidewalk?” he asks Schrepke at one point.) Finlander’s fervor begins to permeate that of the Bedford’s crew…particularly an overly tired ensign (James MacArthur), who sets off a chain of events that ultimately results in tragedy.

Incident isn’t a great movie by any means, but it is entertaining—it’s sort of a knockoff of both Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, based on a novel by Marc Rascovich (which allegedly was based on an actual event in 1957) and directed by James B. Harris, a crony of Stanley Kubrick’s. The acting is, of course, first-rate; you’ll spot Wally Cox and Donald Sutherland as members of the crew but I’ve always believed that Incident was a marvelous showcase for Martin Balsam as the new doctor assigned to the vessel…whereupon he receives a frosty reception from Captain Widmark. (I love the moment in the film where the put-upon Balsam finally lashes out at Widmark with a “Who the hell do you think you are?” spiel—it doesn’t last long, but it’s a marvel to see from the always dependable Balsam.) It’s pretty much Widmark’s show all the way, as evidenced in this exchange between he and his XO (Michael Kane), as Widmark rationalizes why he’s been riding MacArthur’s character the entire time:

FINLANDER: Trouble with that kid, he can't forget what a big hero he was…star quarterback... voted Most All-Around, Most Likely, Most Popular... that one he's still bucking for…the only way to cut him down to size is to keep on him…
ALLISON: Yeah, if he survives
FINLANDER: Well, I hammer too hard, you let me know…
ALLISON: I'll try…
FINLANDER: Yeah, it's a lot of work being a mean bastard…
ALLISON: Hmm…sometimes I can't help admiring how effortlessly you do it, captain…almost as if it came naturally

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Better living through blogging #8

Thursday, January 28, 2010

“Next time I bring Sinatra…”

Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings reports that the release date of the brand-spanking-new edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide (From the Silent Era Through 1965) was moved up to yesterday, and since that time I’ve been checking Amazon.com every few hours or so to see if they’ve shipped my copy. I am so looking forward to this book, and of course, thank Laura profusely for tracking its progress. She’s also got a bit of info on the new Maltin Movie Guide app available, so you should really try to get on over there in order to learn the skinny. (Update: Just received notification from Amazon.com at 3:24 p.m. that the Guide is on its way, baby!)

I had every intention of posting a pair of reviews from watching My Son John (1952) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) last night, but I’m going to have to postpone them until tomorrow. Instead, I thought I’d offer a brief heads-up and remind you that The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ is going to take a Road trip this evening—namely, showcasing five of the popular Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour musical comedies beginning at 8:00pm: Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1946) and Road to Bali (1952)

With the exception of Bali—which I’ve seen show up quite a few times on TCM—the rest of this lineup could be considered essential viewing (and recording, particularly if you’re a fan) if only because the Road films aren’t shown too often anymore (especially since AMC has committed itself to seeing how many times they can schedule Unforgiven [1992] in one month). If I had to choose one and only one, I’d go with Utopia simply because it is, hands down, the funniest of them all. (People might argue that Morocco is funnier—and while that would be my second pick, it pales in comparison to the yuks present in Utopia. It could be argued that Morocco is the best-known of the Road films…but certainly not the funniest. Actually, if you want to get technical—Road to Rio [1947] is the second funniest in the series…but since it’s not being scheduled that argument is moot.) With “narration” by Robert Benchley and choice one-liners from Hope (when Crosby’s character first arrives on the scene, Hope turns to the camera and cracks: “And I thought this was going to be an ‘A’ picture…”), Utopia also features great musical numbers like Personality and Put it There, Pal—plus great “menacing” support from Hillary Brooke, Douglass Dumbrille, Jack La Rue, Robert Barrat and Nestor Paiva.

TCM had originally scheduled the final film in the series, The Road to Hong Kong (1962), to follow Bali but have apparently scrapped those plans at the last minute and substituted the Hope-Lamour comedy My Favorite Brunette (1947) in its place. This is not a total loss (Hong Kong is probably the weakest entry, though Bali gives it some tough competition), particularly since I personally feel that Brunette is one of Hope’s all-time best vehicles—maybe his very best; it depends on what day of the week it is. Brunette’s a first-rate noir parody with some of the best villains ever featured in a Hope comedy: Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Jr., John Hoyt and the ever-so-unctuous Charles Dingle. (There’s also a pair of hilarious cameos from Hollywood stars which I’ll keep mum about in case you haven’t seen the film.)

After Brunette, TCM will show one of the Lum ‘n’ Abner films, Two Weeks to Live (1943), which I reviewed a good many years back when I lived in my old Salon Blogs neighborhood. I wouldn’t consider it one of the best showcases for the popular OTR comedy duo but if you’re curious to see “what’s happenin’ down in Pine Ridge” it’s a painless way to kill seventy-six minutes…plus Franklin Pangborn has a small but funny part.

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R.I.P, Howard Zinn and Zelda Rubinstein (and, updated, J.D. Salinger)

Howard Zinn, an author, professor and political activist whose A People’s History of the United States was one of the most influential books in shaping my political attitudes has gone on to his rich reward, having died yesterday at the age of 87 of a heart attack in Santa Monica, CA. His book, first published in 1980, became an unlikely best seller and a favorite of many individuals, including singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen (whose album Nebraska was inspired by Zinn’s tome), film director Oliver Stone and actor Matt Damon (who mentions People’s History in the Academy Award-winning screenplay he co-authored with actor pal Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting [1997]).

People’s History was adopted as an alternative history text for many a high school and college curriculum; many of its controversial views—the “Founding Fathers” violation of human rights by owning slaves, Christopher Columbus’s genocidal actions toward Native Americans, etc.—were championed by the likes of fellow activist Noam Chomsky and disdained by liberal historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who once described Zinn as “a polemicist, not a historian.”

During his years of teaching, Zinn was a lightning rod for controversy. After receiving a doctorate in history from Columbia University, he was offered the position of chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at the all-black women’s school known as Spelman College in 1956. Loved by students (one of his pupils was The Color Purple author Alice Walker), this affection was not returned by Spelman’s Powers That Be, who fired Zinn in 1963 for “insubordination.” He later landed a job at Boston University, but soon earned the enmity of President John Silber for his stance against the Vietnam War and other issues of the day. Howard retired in 1989, and appropriately spent his last day on the picket line in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike.

Zinn’s 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, was later filmed as a award-winning documentary in 2004, and Howard also made appearances in documentaries like The Corporation (2003, reviewed here) One Bright Shining Moment (2005) and An Unreasonable Man (2006, reviewed here). Among his other written works: The Southern Mystique and LaGuardia in Congress.

R.I.P, Howard. You will be sorely missed, but as someone on Facebook remarked yesterday, if you were here you’d say: “Don’t mourn…organize!”

I’ve seen the diminutive actress known as Zelda Rubinstein in too many movies to count: Under the Rainbow (1981—her feature film debut), Frances (1982), Sixteen Candles (1984), Teen Witch (1989), etc. But to me, her best-known showcases remain in Poltergeist (1982), where she played spiritualist Tangina Barrons (a role she reprised in Poltergeist II: The Other Side [1986] and Poltergeist III [1988]), and television’s offbeat dramatic series Picket Fences (1992-96), in which she played Rome, WI police department dispatcher Ginny Weedon (though she left the series after two seasons). Tom at Motion Picture Gems gave me the heads-up on Rubinstein’s passing at the age of 76 though I must confess I had read earlier statements online that they had removed the actress from life support, and it was only a matter of time. (I kicked around the idea of “pre-writing” an obit to post when the inevitable happened—as many news departments do—but decided to wait, considering it bad kharma.)

I revisited Poltergeist on TCM a while back, but I’ll probably remember Zelda more for Picket Fences—one of the most bizarre shows ever to come down the television pike (of course, it was created by David E. Kelley, so that should have tipped me off right there). I followed the series faithfully on Friday nights (this was during a time period when I pretty much didn’t have a life) and marveled constantly at the fact that Fences was renewed each season even though I’d swear I was the only one watching it. (I gave up on Fences in its last season, when Kelley turned the writing over to others to concentrate on different projects.) Populated with a cast of genuine eccentrics, Rubinstein’s character fit right in with the day-to-day activities of a town where popes were witnesses to murder and people spontaneously combust.

“Do y'all mind hanging back? You're jamming my frequencies…” Zelda Rubinstein has made it into the light, but she shall be sorely missed.

Update: This just in (thanks to Eddie Copeland for the heads-up):

'Catcher in the Rye' author J.D. Salinger dies

NEW YORK (AP) — J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose "The Catcher in the Rye" shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.

Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author's son said in a statement from Salinger's literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.

"The Catcher in the Rye," with its immortal teenage protagonist, the twisted, rebellious Holden Caulfield, came out in 1951, a time of anxious, Cold War conformity and the dawn of modern adolescence. The Book-of-the-Month Club, which made "Catcher" a featured selection, advised that for "anyone who has ever brought up a son" the novel will be "a source of wonder and delight — and concern."

Enraged by all the "phonies" who make "me so depressed I go crazy," Holden soon became American literature's most famous anti-hero since Huckleberry Finn. The novel's sales are astonishing — more than 60 million copies worldwide — and its impact incalculable. Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most American of dreams — to never grow up.

As Mr. Copeland so eloquently put it: “The recluse can truly rest in peace now.” R.I.P, J.D.

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Nostalgia isn't what it used to be #4

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cleaning up some paperwork

A few odds and ends that have been cluttering my desk here at Rancho Yesteryear—a notable passing from the world of OTR, good news for Leave It to Beaver fans, and a mini-review of a movie I watched on TCM last night.

Shirley Bell Cole, the child actress who achieved great fame as the voice of radio’s Little Orphan Annie, passed away on January 12th of this year of natural causes in Arizona at the age of 89. I went searching for an old article on the Internets about Bell that I pointed to in May 2004 from my old Salon neighborhood but it has since disappeared; however, this obituary makes very good reading and contains a comment from OTR historian Chuck Schaden (author of the splendid compilation of interviews with stars from Radio’s Golden Age, Speaking of Radio). (I particularly liked the bit where Cole admitted that she didn’t particularly care for Ovaltine.) Many thanks to Laura “Your book has displeased me, and for that you shall die” Wagner who posted the L.A. Times obit on Facebook.

Who's that little chatter box?

The one with pretty auburn locks?

Whom do you see?

It's Little Orphan Annie...

R.I.P, Ms. Bell Cole. You will be missed.

I received notification from Hal Erickson last week (I meant to post this sooner, and kept putting it off so my apologies) that his issue with not being able to record TCM movies on his DVD recorder has been dealt with and fixed. As he suspected, the problem was…well, I’m not at liberty to divulge who was responsible—suffice it to say that Hal knows people who know people, and they agreed to accommodate him. He told me this wasn’t a guarantee that the problem would not resurface, but he’s hoping it doesn’t rear its ugly head until TCM finishes its Saturday morning cycle of showing Bowery Boys films, which starts in March.

Bill Crider, pulp fiction practitioner and professional curmudgeon, has penned two new books for an outfit entitled “Macavity Press International”—the first being Once Again, Texas Leads the Way and the other Will the Persecution Never End? The third title in what can only be called a “Crider trilogy” will be announced tomorrow—and I’ll bet dollars to donuts it will have something to do with getting kids off his lawn.

In the All Good Things Come to Those Who Wait…Eventually department, TVShowsOnDVD.com is reporting that Shout! Factory is picking up where the last Leave It to Beaver collection left off (that would be season 2) and will issue forth on June 15th Leave It to Beaver: Season 3, a collection of all thirty-nine episodes originally telecast during the 1959-60 season. But wait…as they always say…there’s more: on the same day, the Factory will release a honkin’ big thirty-seven disc box set entitled Leave it to Beaver: The Complete Series—which will bundle the first two seasons (which were released in 2005 and 2006 via Universal) along with Seasons Three through Six. And…well…gosh, Wally…since this is a big set, it’ll probably have a lot extras and junk. The bonus material information isn’t available yet, but I’m sure TSOD will keep us posted.

I must also apologize for the spotty movie reviews on the blog of late, the past couple of days I was sidelined with some sort of crud in my lungs and I really didn’t feel like doing a whole lot except dosing up on Tylenol Cold medicine and seeing how long I could sleep without developing severe bedsores. I did tune into TCM last night and watched Man Hunt (1941, which I talked about here) and followed that up with Red, Hot and Blue (1949)—a Betty Hutton vehicle that even Hutton partisan Bobby Osbo admitted was “no great shakes.” That’s a bit of an understatement; I’m usually up for anything featuring “the Hutton-tot” but Blue is disappointing in most departments: Victor Mature is miscast as Betty’s beau (an aspiring stage director obsessed with Shakespeare), William Demarest (I think this may be the biggest crime of them all) has virtually nothing to do and even Hutton started to get on my nerves within the first half-hour (maybe taking large amounts of speed isn’t such a good idea after all). The movie—which casts Bets as a wannabe actress who witnesses the murder of a gangster-turned-producer (William Tallman)—does have a few high points: I liked Betty’s tipsy antics in a nightclub (she gets doused with a bucket of ice water and throws a dessert in some dowager’s face) and her renditions of Hamlet and Now That I Need You. But the movie wraps up with an uncomfortably violent free-for-all that seems better suited for a Three Stooges short. June Havoc (as Hutton’s supportive gal pal), Art Smith, Jack Kruschen and Percy Helton are all seen to good advantage; Blue also features in uncredited roles Julie (Julia) Adams, Bess “Queen of the Dress Extras” Flowers, Noel Neill, Tim Ryan and Douglas “Watch the skies!” Spencer. Plus, tunesmith Frank Loesser appears in a rare acting role as a gangster named “Hairdo Lempke.” (I swear I didn’t make that up.)

Tonight will be a different story on TCM as the cable channel concludes its Shadows of Russia festival with a pair of movies I’ve been waiting all month to see: at 8pm, Leo McCarey’s anti-Communist My Son John (1952), followed at 10:15 by the agitprop noir I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). I must reluctantly admit that I didn’t get around to seeing as many of the movies in this presentation as I wanted—though I did manage to record Spring Madness (1938) and Rasputin and the Empress (1932), I just haven’t been able to squeeze them in for a viewing—but I think the blame needs to be placed squarely on the shoulders of TCM…because I was laboring under the misapprehension that such a venue would feature a television appearance from the two individuals involved in conceiving the project, New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick and the Self-Styled Siren herownself (oh, how it pains me to “out” this blogger of mystery), Farran Smith Nehme. But no. All they got was a chance to do an online video over at the Post (they must have yanked it), and while I wish no ill will towards anyone—being on an Internet video is not the same as being on television. (Any idiot with a video phone and access to YouTube can do the former.) So, this got me to thinking—almost as if it were some lame idea I’d been mulling over the past few days or so—what would a Nehme/Lumenick TCM appearance look like? {{{{{wavy lines}}}}}

The scene opens with TCM’s primetime credits, or what my esteemed blogging colleague The Derelict likes to call “the one where all the digitally-enhanced people stare up at the billboard like a bunch of yuppie zombies.” The credits fade, and then fade up to that oh-so-familiar TCM set, where Robert Osborne, Lou Lumenick and Farran Smith Nehme are seated in those comfy overstuffed chairs. Osborne looks at the camera and smiles:

OSBORNE: Hi, I’m Robert Osborne and welcome to the last night of our special TCM salute, Shadows of Russia. Joining me are the lovely Farran Smith Nehme, who blogs as The Self-Styled Siren…and Lou Limerick, another critic. Great to have you both with us.

SIREN: Thank you, Robert…

LOU: Um, Robert…you’re mispronouncing my name again…it’s…

OSBORNE (interrupting): Limerick, why don’t you be a good sport and get some more ice for the bucket—this champagne is getting a bit tepid…

LOU (after looking around for a moment): Um…okay…but it’s Lumenick…my name is Lumenick

OSBORNE: Like it matters…and no need to hurry back, take your time…

(Lumenick leaves his chair and starts to walk off…until the shadow of a crew member’s hand can be seen pointing in the opposite direction. Osborne continues talking.)

OSBORNE: Geez, I thought he’d never leave…why did you invite him here again?

SIREN: Well, Robert—he did help develop the idea for the festival with me…I thought it only right that…

OSBORNE: Well, I don’t like that guy…I watched him during dinner…he took the last bread roll…

SIREN: Aren’t we kind of straying from the…

OSBORNE (cutting her off): Tell us a little about the film we’re going to be watching, Miss Smith…

SIREN: Oh…okay…and it’s Mrs…not Miss…

OSBORNE: You’re married?

SIREN: Yes, I am…and rather happily, I might add…I also have…

OSBORNE: Oh, bother… (muttering) I should have sent you out for ice…

SIREN: Robert, you’re incorrigible! Our next feature on Shadows of Russia is the 1952 film My Son John, which stars Robert Walker as a son hiding his Communist leanings from his mother, played by Helen Hayes, and his father, played by Dean Jagger. It was directed by…

OSBORNE: You know, it’s a good thing we don’t actually have to sit through these films because this one sounds like a sure cure for insomnia. I do like Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951), though. Have you ever seen that one?

SIREN: Yes, but once again I think we’ve sort of drifted away from…

OSBORNE: I’d much rather watch that again. Would you care to join me?

SIREN: But what about the rest of the introduction?

OSBORNE: Oh, bother the introduction…we’ll get that friend of yours to finish it up…allow me to escort you to my sanctum sanctorum…

SIREN (with a coquettish laugh): Mr. Osborne…this is so forward of you!

(Osborne and Nehme walk over to the far corner of the set, whereupon Osborne presses a button on the wall, and the wall swings back to reveal a secret passage. The two disappear into the passage as the wall swings shut…and at that point, Lumenick returns to the set with his shirt filled with ice…)

LOU: Robert, I couldn’t find anything to put the ice in, so I…Robert? Farran? (Looking around) Where is everybody?

(Fade to black.)

It needs a little work, but you get the general idea. (I’m kicking around the idea of fleshing it out as an homage to Mad Love [1935].)

Finally—in case you haven’t stumbled upon this—I had to make some changes to the comments policy here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. You may not believe this, but the traffic around here has really picked up (I’m not sure how this happened myself, probably a glitch in Blogger) and suffice it to say, I have found myself recently inundated with a number of individuals who, not content to do this on their own websites or blogs, feel the need to ride on the TDOY coattails and attempt to shill products like Viagra, Cialis, etc. Moderating the comments helped a bit in the past, but not a day goes by when I do not have to delete these examples of rampant hucksterism and the only way I could get this to work was to put the smack down on anonymous comments. I’m not happy to have to be doing this—some of the “anonymous” statements are actually germane to the subjects discussed here, and more than one individual has had to post anonymously because he’s a victim of the same malady that I’ve succumbed to whereupon I’m incapable of remembering my password (I believe the medical term is “brain fart.”) If there were any other way of working around this issue, I’d switch to it in a New York minute…and if anyone has any suggestions, feel free to drop me an e-mail.

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“I'm shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on in here!”

From Salon.com:

James O'Keefe, the 25-year-old who became a hero on the right by dressing as a pimp and filming himself and a female partner, Hannah Giles, exposing apparent malfeasance in ACORN offices, has gotten himself back in the news. This time, things aren't going quite so well for him: He and three others have just been hit with federal charges in an alleged plot to wiretap the phones in the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

According to an FBI press release, two of the men who've been charged, 24-year-olds Robert Flanagan and Joseph Basel, posed as telephone repairmen and "requested access to the main telephone at the reception desk ... then manipulated the telephone system." They also "requested access to the telephone closet because they needed to perform work on the main telephone system," the release says. O'Keefe was allegedly "already present in the office, holding a cellular phone so as to record Flanagan and Basel." A fourth man, 24-year-old Stan Dai, is -- like O'Keefe -- charged with having assisted Flanagan and Basel. All four face a maximum of 10 years imprisonment, along with a fine of $250,00 and three years of supervised release.

Though of course this is as yet just an allegation, it's worth noting that O'Keefe's actions in recording the ACORN videos at least skirted the bounds of legality. At least one of the states in which O'Keefe and Giles ran their sting has what's known as a "two-party consent" law -- that is, all those participating in a private conversation must be aware of and agree to any audio recording, including video that captures audio.

Lousiana Democratic Party Chair Michael McHale is quoted in the Salon piece as saying: "This is a Louisiana Watergate. Louisiana families are shocked and outraged that these men would break the law to carry out their political agenda with this Watergate-like break-in and attempted wiretapping."

And now…let’s go to the videotape…Wired.com, February 12, 2008:

The Senate overwhelming voted Tuesday evening to legalize President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and grant amnesty to the phone companies that helped out with the domestic spying..

The 68 to 29 vote is a major step in radically re-configuring 30 year-old limits on how the nation’s spying services operate inside America’s borders. The vote also deals a severe blow to civil liberties groups that are suing companies such as AT&T and Verizon for turning over millions of American’s phone records to the government, and for helping the government wiretap American’s phone and internet communications without a court order.

Wait for it…

Democrats voting for the bill:
Evan Bayh (D-IN), Tom Carper (D-DE), Robert Casey (D-PA), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Joe Lieberman (ID-CT), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Ken Salazar (D-CO), Jim Webb (D-VA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

R.I.P, Pernell Roberts

I saw the notice of Pernell Roberts’ passing on Facebook yesterday, courtesy of Jim Hendrickson at Completeist, and I had originally planned to post an obit last night only to put it off until today. I guess I was either too saddened to hear that Roberts has left us—or if I may be a bit more candid, stunned to hear the news because in the back of my mind I could have sworn he had died many years ago. (Naturally, I’m a little red-faced to admit this—though in my defense, his last credit at the IMDb was a guest shot in 1997 on Diagnosis Murder.) This sort of thing runs in my family; if my father is watching television and happens to see a performer whom he’s not come across in some time, he’ll ask me “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” I then try to explain to him that just because an individual isn’t on the tube every week doesn’t mean they’re digging for sustenance out of the dumpsters ‘round back—some actors/actresses do a lot of stage work, singers perform in Vegas, etc. Roberts has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 81 after a long bout with cancer.

Roberts is perhaps best known for his portrayal of elder brother Adam Cartwright on the long-running television western Bonanza—though his actual stint with the program amounted to only six seasons (the series eventually ran fourteen). Roberts left the hit series at the peak of its popularity, and many of the denizens occupying Hollywood at the time thought he was nuts. Truth be told, he wasn’t at all happy with the character—he once asked a reporter: “Doesn't it seem a bit silly for three adult males to get Father's permission for everything they do?” The series continued on, explaining Adam’s absence as his simply having “moved away”—I guess they left the back door open for him just in case he had a change of heart. (Up until his passing, Roberts was the last surviving member of the original Bonanza cast—Dan “Hoss” Blocker died in 1972, patriarch Lorne Greene in 1987 and Michael “Little Joe” Landon in 1991.)

Free of his Bonanza commitment, Roberts took up quite a bit of work on the stage, appearing in productions of The King and I, Camelot and The Music Man—while continuing to appear in guest roles on series such as The Virginian, Hawaii Five-O, Mission: Impossible, Marcus Welby, M.D., Banacek, Ironside and Mannix. He then established a “comeback” by landing the role of Doctor John Francis Xavier McIntire in a CBS medical drama entitled Trapper John, MD. According to the show’s creators, Roberts’ character was the same “Trapper John” who operated alongside Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce during the Korean War as presented in the long-running sitcom M*A*S*H; the character was played on that series by actor Wayne Rogers for three seasons until Rogers left in a highly publicized contract dispute.

The premise of Trapper was that John had mellowed out considerably over the twenty-eight years since viewers had last seen him and much of the “wild” side of his iconoclastic persona had been toned down to the point where he no longer tilted at windmills but had found ways to get around them working within the system. The show’s creators instead added a young surgeon in Dr. George Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates (Gregory Harrison), a brash, irreverent sort reminiscent of the younger Trapper John (he lives in an RV on the hospital parking lot—wacky!) in those halcyon Korean War days. Trapper John, MD may not have broken any major dramatic ground but it was a solid performer for the Tiffany network, running for seven seasons (mostly on Sunday nights at 10pm) and 151 episodes.

A year ago, I did a write-up on the movie western Ride Lonesome (1959)—one of the Boetticher-Scott-Brown westerns I had recently sat down and watched—and mentioned how much I enjoyed seeing Pernell Roberts in the role of bad guy Sam Boone. I remarked at the time that it was probably the best thing I’d seen Roberts in…and looking back, that seems a little harsh. Roberts was an underrated actor, a man capable of embracing either heroics or villainy in his chosen roles, and while I still don’t think I’ll ever be able to cotton up to Bonanza (a show that I always describe—thanks to that great line in Tin Men [1987]—as a series about a fifty-year-old father and his three forty-seven-year old sons) Roberts’ work in Lonseome and Trapper John, MD will remind future generations that the man’s talent was a force to be reckoned with.

R.I.P, Pernell. You will be sorely missed.

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When worlds collide #84

Monday, January 25, 2010

To everything (turn turn turn) there’s a split-season (turn turn turn)

TVShowsOnDVD.com has a few classic television-on-disc announcements up, the first being that CBS-Paramount in soldiering on with Season 5 of the venerable legal drama Perry Mason (David Lambert describes it as “the back-end of the nine-season run”) in one of the company’s exquisite and oh-so-lovely split-season sets (*sigh*). The street date for this collection is April 20th. According to the specs, Perry Mason: Season Five, Volume 1 will contain 12 hours and 44 minutes an episode…which rounds out to about sixteen episodes (and this is admittedly confusing; the show featured thirty episodes that season so my hunch is that it’s probably closer to fifteen). If they continue at this lightning-quick speed, Mason fans should have all 271 episodes…by 2015.

Back in October 2007, CBS-Paramount decided to reward those loyal customers who collected the season-by-season releases of I Love Lucy by bringing out a 34-disc “heart-shaped” collection entitled I Love Lucy: The Complete Series. The set contained all 194 episodes (the studio’s count, which also included The Luci-Desi Hour) and a fistful of bonus extras designed to induce those individuals who had already purchased all the damn sets in the first place. Now, CBS-Paramount yanks out another rug with an April 27th release entitled I Love Lucy: The Movie and Other Great Rarities, which—yes, you guessed it—are the bonus extras from The Complete Series collection.

A title like I Love Lucy: The Movie would seem to suggest that some Hollywood studio ran amuck and put together a film based on the classic sitcom because they convinced themselves that no one remembers the TV show (and with its overexposure on TVLand, that’s not too bloody likely) and they saw an opportunity to make a fast buck by casting today’s big stars (Nicole Kidman as Lucy! Antonio Banderas as Ricky!) in what would almost certainly be a major-league train wreck. No, this happened over fifty years ago; they assembled three Lucy episodes—“The Benefit,” “Breaking the Lease” and “The Ballet”—shot some footage to connect the segments, and premiered the film at a small theater in Bakersfield in 1953. M-G-M, who had at this point just signed the Arnazes to film The Long, Long Trailer, insisted the studio shelve the film to insure there’d be no competition…and that was that. The movie was found in a mislabeled film can squirreled away in a Paramount studio vault by Dann Cahn in 2001.

The set will also contain must-haves like a colorized version of “Lucy Goes to Scotland”—and I’d love to meet the brain trust that thought that one up. (“Hey! Lucy’s hair is red in this one!”) If you’re a die-hard ILL fan, here’s your chance to snap up these extras…assuming you decided (like I did) that it wasn’t worth all the hoopla to sell your old Lucy sets on eBay in order to get the new one. (For those of you who did, you have my sympathies and reassurance that these people are just plain weasels.)

From the folks down at the Shout! Factory comes word that they have inked a deal that will allow them to release the first four seasons of Marcus Welby. MD—the classic dramatic series starring Robert Young as the titular medico, James Brolin as Dr. Steven Kiley, the young doc who shared his practice and Elena “Meet Millie” Verdugo as Nurse Consuelo Lopez. The first season will be released on May 4th in a seven-disc set that will include not only the first twenty-six episodes of Welby’s freshman year but the 1969 telefilm A Matter of Humanities (1969), which served as the TV’s pilot. (Confession time: I’d be a bit more ecstatic if this were Medical Center being released; Marcus Welby, MD is shown weekday afternoons on our RTV affiliate WSB-TV DT in Atlanta and it’s just as bland and white-bread as I remembered it.)

TSOD (as well as TDOY) reported some time ago that the Timeless Media Group releases of The Virginian: Season One, Volume One and The Virginian: Season One, Volume Two were scheduled for a street date of March 9th…but it would now appear that TMG has walked that back, now admitting that they’re not sure when the collections will be available for general release. Those of you who frequent Sam’s Club or Costco, however, will be thrilled to learn that Timeless will make the two Virginian collections available as exclusives to the two club stores “around” the March 9 date. (I saw what these two sets were priced at over at Amazon.com, and now I’m certain I can wait on these.)

In Britcom news, BBC/Warner Home Video will release the fifth and final series of Waiting For God on a two-disc set containing eight episodes of the popular comedy about an elderly couple (Graham Crowden, Stephanie Cole) and their misadventures in a retirement home run by an unscrupulous manager (Daniel Hill) and his loyal lackey (Janine Duvitski), who’s carrying a torch for her boss. BBC/Warner will also release Waiting For God: The Complete Series on that same date (May 25th), which will compile all of the episodes presented over five series—including the 1992 and 1993 Christmas specials. This comedy is a big favorite of my father’s (who normally avoids sitcoms like bubonic plague) and it’s a shame that GPTV has yanked it off the schedule (though they replaced with it another showing of As Time Goes By, another one of his favorites) because it’s one of the few programs he watches that doesn’t feature the boys in blue responding to domestic violence calls. Oddly enough, it’s one of my least favorite Britcoms—I prefer the surrealism of One Foot in the Grave (which also featured Duvitski) and the eccentric charms of Last of the Summer Wine.

Finally, I’d thought I’d address this since I’ve the seen the subject come up on a few classic film blogs (notably KC’s Classic Movies); Universal has teamed up with Amazon.com to create a MOD service similar to that of the Warner Archive (while at the same releasing titles through TCM’s Vault Collection). A list of their offerings can be found here, and I was intrigued to see the 1954 film version of Dragnet among the DVDs, which kinda sorta ties this to the whole TV thing. (David Lambert also singles out The Brass Bottle [1964], saying that it served as the inspiration for I Dream of Jeannie—but I’ve always questioned as to whether that information was accurate.) I’ve got a DVD-R copy of Dragnet here at Rancho Yesteryear, and I bought The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and Blue Collar (1978) on Region 2 sometime back…but if I ever see the old financial coffers looking rosy again I could be persuaded to invest in a copy of Resurrection (1980), a lovely and quite underrated film starring Ellen Burstyn.

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The wonderful world of Facebook #36

Saturday, January 23, 2010

“The smartest and the stubbornest…the fattest and the laziest…the cleverest and the craziest…the most extravagant detective in the world…”

Old-time radio fans will no doubt recognize those words of tribute as the introduction to The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe—an underrated radio detective series that utilized truly inspired casting by assigning the role of mystery author Rex Stout’s fastidious gourmet and orchid fancier to the great character actor Sydney Greenstreet. (By Gadfrey, sir!) Twenty episodes from the series’ short-lived 1950-51 run are now being offered at Radio Archives in celebration of FGRA’s tenth anniversary—and I must confess that I had a ball writing the liner notes for this project because of my love for both the detective and the actor. (You simply haven’t lived until you’ve heard my and Elisson’s rendition of What a Wonderful World, sung in a Greenstreet-like manner. On second thought…maybe you have.) This 10-CD set would be the perfect gift for a mystery fan; Stout himself thought Greenstreet a perfect fit for the role (though he wasn't too fond of the show's writing).

Radio Archives is also releasing a new title in their popular pulp fiction reprints: The Whisperer, published by Street & Smith in the mid 1930s and created by journalist Lawrence L. Donovan (writing under the nom de pulp as “Clifford Goodrich”). “The Whisperer” was the secret identity of Police Commissioner James “Wildcat” Gordon, who used the super-crook altar-ego in a never-ending pursuit for justice. “The Whisperer” made his debut in a tale entitled The Dead Who Talked in the fall of 1936, and this tale—along with a second, The Red Hatchets—is included in the first volume of reprints published by Sanctum Books (with many more to come) under the editorial eye of OTR’s one-and-only Anthony Tollin. That first volume is also available now at the Archives, and if you’re interested in reading the history of this crime fighter, click here for the full skinny.

On a personal note, I just want to mention that I am truly ga-ga over the new packaging being offered by the Archives for their CD collections…if you’ll allow me to shift into old fogey mode for just a few seconds, I remember when their sets came in simple white CD envelopes secured with a rubber band—and we were damn lucky to have them! (Okay, back away from the abyss.) Radio Archives’ latest newsletter touts some of their musically-oriented selections—particularly this first-rate set (that’s it on the left) of The Kraft Music Hall with Al Jolson, a copy of which I own here at Rancho Yesteryear and because I didn’t write the liner notes can vouch that it is truly a set you’ll want to add to your OTR collection. Five CDs containing ten half-hour broadcasts starring Jolie and sidekick Oscar Levant, the guest list includes Ed “Archie the Manager” Gardner, Edward G. Robinson, Judy Garland, Dennis Day, Groucho Marx and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans. At $14.95 for the set, it’s awfully hard to beat.

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