Monday, May 31, 2010

Mayberry Mondays #3: “The Race Horse” (10/07/68, prod. no. 0110)


In keeping with the equestrian theme of this episode, Sam Jones (Ken Berry) and his son Mike (Buddy Foster) are “strapping on the old feedbag,” finishing yet another delicious dinner prepared by their housekeeper, Beatrice “Aunt Bee” Taylor (Francis Bavier). (It’s a gourmet dish that Aunt Bee has difficulty pronouncing and I wasn’t even about to tackle spelling…so you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it’s funny.) Dinner is interrupted by the ringing of the telephone, and upon answering it Sam learns that it’s his cousin Vince (OTR vet Jack Grimes) on the line, who announces his intention to pay them a visit since he’s passing through.
SAM: Oh…you know, I didn’t tell him how to get here…I’ll bet he’s forgotten after all these years…
AUNT BEE: Well, he just has to ask somebody
SAM: Yeah… (With a chuckle) Hunh…
MIKE: Have I ever met your cousin Vince, Pa?
SAM: Well, yeah—just once, when you were about…oh, two years old…he put you up on a horse with him…he rode you all around the track…
MIKE: I don’t remember…what track?
SAM: A racetrack…this one was up in Maryland
So Vincent is a racetrack tout? He hardly seems a proper role model for the impressionable young Mike. No, I’m kidding about that—Sam tells Mike that Vince is a former jockey, prompting Aunt Bee to remark: “You know, it always amazes me how those little men manage to steer those great big horses.” Sam patiently explains to her that horses are reigned, not steered—and besides, Vince is now a horse trainer. Aunt Bee then announces that she’ll have to get the guest room ready, and asks Mike if he’ll donate a picture of horses romping in the meadow that’s in his room to make Vince feel more at home. (Hell, why not just make him sleep in the barn?)

Cousin Vince drives up to Rancho Jones in a station wagon with a horse trailer in tow, as Mike excitedly announces to his father and Aunt Bee of Vince’s cargo. After the perfunctory meet-and-greet (Vince observes that Mike is “almost as tall as I am”), Sam’s relative asks if his passenger—who’s named Gingersnap—can get out and “stretch his legs a bit.” Sam, acting the proper country squire, assigns this task to a hired hand who answers to “Hank”—giving the audience the much-needed information that his farm is being looked after when he’s in town, mucking around Emmett Clark’s fix-it shop. (Unfortunately, Hank doesn’t get a screen credit…despite the fact that he has three lines. I wonder if SAG came down on the show like a ton of bricks.)

Sam is treating Vince to a cup of coffee when his cuz fills him in on the reason for his visit—he’s on his way to Baltimore, where a friend of his owns a restaurant that he wants Vince to partner in. As for the horse, Vince obtained the yearling when his former boss was unable to pay his back wages. He explains to Sam and Aunt Bee that Gingersnap isn’t a bad horse—he’s just never won a race, despite being the scion of Fairmont the Second (a horse that nearly won the Triple Crown) and Princess Wassein, an imported brood mare. (“Oooh…Gingersnap’s practically royalty,” coos Aunt Bee. “Yeah—almost calls for a curtsey,” returns Sam.) Vince asks Sam if he’ll keep the steed and if he’ll ask around to see if anyone needs a good saddle horse—the asking price being 300 clams. “Well,” observes Aunt Bee, sounding somewhat distraught, “a mother who’s a princess and a father who almost won the crown…and soon to be a saddle horse. Doesn’t seem fair.”
Well, we’re six minutes into this thing and Sam hasn’t been seen neglecting his orchards by jawing with Emmett (Paul Hartman), so the scene shifts to Mr. Clark’s bidness—where Mayberry’s fix-it savant is making a key and informing Sam that he may have located a buyer for the horse:
EMMETT: You know that fella that runs the stable over at that fancy girls’ boarding school in Walnut Hills?
SAM: Yeah…?
EMMETT: Well, he was in here this morning…he said he might be interested…
SAM: Oh, gee…that’s…that’s great, Emmett—I was beginning to give up hope of selling him…thanks, I appreciate it...
EMMETT: Oh, I always figure one hand washes the other… (Pointing to a repaired radio) If you happen to know anybody that’s interested in a Stromberg-Carlson radio…perfect condition…send ‘em around…
For those of you not up on your Mayberry arcana, “Walnut Hills” is the tonier section of television’s most famous small town—so why this guy is hanging out at Emmett’s is a question left unanswered. Fortunately for Sam, Emmett got the guy’s phone number and the gentleman—known as Mr. Bowers (Byron Morrow)—goes out to Sam’s farm to give the horse the once-over. Aunt Bee, it would seem, has other plans:
SAM: Uh, as I was saying, Mr. Bowers, he’s got a nice easy walk—and I know that’s very important with a saddle horse…especially at a girls’ school…nice, easy walk…
AUNT BEE: And he runs a lot, too…
(Sam looks surprised at this remark)
BOWERS: You did say he was gentle
SAM: Gentle? Oh, gosh yes…why he…I’ve seen a lot of horses in my day, Mr. Bowers, but…this animal is without a doubt the gentlest horse I’ve ever seen…
AUNT BEE: Except when he gets charged up…
(Sam stares at Aunt Bee a second time)
BOWERS: When, uh…he gets charged up?
AUNT BEE: Oh, yes—he’s a very spirited animal…and when the mood strikes him, he likes to kick up his heels and buck and paw…
SAM (interrupting): Aunt Bee…
AUNT BEE: You know, those horses at the rodeo…
BOWERS: Yeah…yeah…Mr. Jones, I tell you what—I’d better sleep on this a couple of days…
SAM: Oh, now look, Mr. Bowers…
BOWERS (getting into his car): I’ll see you…
SAM: Yeah…well…he’s…really…

If this were real life, Sam would be having Aunt Bee committed right now. But because this is a wacky situation comedy, Sam resists the urge to give his housekeeper a necklace of fingers—in fact, he hands her the sports page of the paper later that evening when she asks to see it…because she wants to race Gingersnap at Morgan Downs, the local racetrack. (Maybe he should have her committed.) Sam tries to dissuade Aunt Bee by telling her of the prohibitive expense (it’s going to run her anywhere from fifty to a hundred simolians, and she is on a fixed income) but she dismisses this as a mere bag of shells and the next day, she and bakery doyenne Millie Swanson (Arlene Golonka) show up at the racing commissioner’s (Judson Pratt) office:
AUNT BEE: Yes, I have a very nice horse…and I’m wondering if you have any other horses he could run against…
BRICE: You have a horse?
MILLIE: Oh yes—four legs and everything
AUNT BEE: Would Saturday be convenient? I imagine there’d be quite a crowd who’d like to come from Mayberry to see Gingersnap run…don’t you think so, Millie?
MILLIE: I do…
AUNT BEE: Hmm…Saturday, then…how much do I owe you?
BRICE: Well, just a minute, ma’am—are you the registered owner of the horse?
AUNT BEE: No…but Sam’s cousin is—Vincent Jones…and Sam said you might want to look over these papers…
(An incredulous Brice takes a sheath of papers offered to him by Aunt Bee and gives them a quick glance…)
BRICE: Gingersnap…two-year-old…well…everything’s in order here…now just what kind of a race did you want him to run in?
AUNT BEE: Well, I’m not particular…uh…maybe one of those seven furloughs you mentioned?
BRICE: No, that’s just for four-year-olds and up…
AUNT BEE: Oh…well, don’t you have something for horses around Gingersnap’s age on Saturday?
BRICE: Uh… (He looks over a piece of paper on his desk) Well, uh…how about the Blue Ridge Stakes for two-year-olds? Third race…
AUNT BEE: What time is that?
BRICE (after giving her another puzzled look): Three o’clock?
AUNT BEE: Oh, that will work out wonderfully…we’re going to have turkey for dinner…we can put the turkey in just before we leave and when we come back it’ll be all ready… (To Millie) I hope you’ll join us, Millie…
MILLIE: I’d love to…
AUNT BEE: Got to have a victory dinner, you know…
Aunt Bee coughs up the thirty-five dollars for the entry fee and Brice, though still unconvinced that Bee hasn’t escaped from the state cracker factory, agrees to find her a suitable jockey—“I think the smaller the better,” adds Millie helpfully. Brice also asks Aunt Bee about the name of the stable and the racing colors (for the program); she in turn informs him that she will call him later on with this information because she’s going to convene a meeting of the Mayberry think tank. (Well, that’s not precisely what she tells him—I embellished a tad.)

Wired on punch and cookies, Mayberry’s best and brightest are all in attendance at Sam’s home that evening…and they even allowed Goober Pyle (George Lindsey) in, too—who asks “Isn’t Andy coming to the meeting?” Rather than tell his pump jockey friend that Andy doesn’t live there anymore and he’s left everyone to fend for themselves on this sorry show, Sam makes up some fable about him being at a sheriff’s convention in Raleigh. (And the idiot buys it. Oddly enough, Howard Sprague is missing from this episode as well—which means he’s smarter than I previously gave him credit.) When the discussion turns to what name should be assigned to the “stables,” it’s out of the mouths of babes—young Mike suggests “Mayberry Stables,” and the adult react as if the little mook just split the atom. (That kid should already be in bed.) But what colors should be assigned to the horse?

“I got an idea,” Goober pipes up. “Red, yellow, pink, purple, orange and blue—them’s my favorites.” Realizing that the town should have put Goober to sleep a long time ago, Emmett counters: “You’ll never get all those colors on one jockey.” But when Millie lets slip that the Pom-Pom Girls from Mayberry High are coming along on the bus to watch the race (yowsah!), Aunt Bee suggests that the stallion be cloaked in red and green…and it’s passed with unanimous consent. “Hey, how ‘bout makin’ up a special victory cheer like…uh…clippety clop/clippety clop/don’t you stop/Gingersnop,” suggests Goober. (I wonder if that hot Dorothy girl he dated from last week’s episode has dumped him yet.)
It’s Race Day at Morgan Downs, and our Mayberry contingent is seated in the stands (I found it hard to stifle a chuckle when I saw Emmett chatting up a couple of the Pom-Pom Girls—he’s such a hound…). Goober spots Aunt Bee with Sam’s binoculars; she is giving Gingersnap’s jockey (Lou Wagner) a last minute set of instructions. When the jockey asks Bee how she wants him to ride the horse she replies: “Well, anyway you’re comfortable—just as long as you don’t fall off.” But she imparts to the confused jockey two specific requests: he is not to use “the whip” during the race (even if the horse has fallen behind) and he needs to give Gingersnap a lump of sugar just before the start (provided by Aunt Bee).

Back in the stands, Emmett reads in his program that the winner of the race will receive a $3000 purse—“That horse could be worth more than you and me put together,” he informs Goober. (Brother…you don’t know the half of it.) And…they’re off! Gingersnap is slow getting out of the gate, and Sam is certain that the horse is going to end up dead last. But Aunt Bee’s faith in the horse never falters, and as the race continues Gingersnap begins to pick up speed and catch up to his equine brethren and sistren. (There’s a nice bit of physical comedy as Goober grabs for Sam’s binoculars…and Sam ends up being pulled toward the Goob, since the binocs are around his neck. It made me misty for the bygone days of F Troop.) I don’t have to tell you experienced sitcom students that Gingersnap emerges victorious, and when Sam phones Vince to let him know he’s richer by three large (well, before the entry, barn and jockey fees) he decides that the restaurant business isn’t for him.
In the coda to this episode, Aunt Bee is approached by a neighbor—a Mr. Stebbins, another poor schmoe who doesn’t rate a mention during the closing credits—who wants to know if she can do the same thing for his horse, Smokey Dan, that she did for Gingersnap. Bee gives the filly the once-over and sadly tells Stebbins that the horse was bred for farming. “Better listen,” imparts Sam sagely. “She knows horse flesh.”

“The Race Horse” is an excellent example of the kind of Mayberry R.F.D. episode that has given the series the bland reputation it maintains to this day—or to use an observation by someone at the TV Party website: “If Mayberry R.F.D. was anything, it was evocative and insular. Even if there was no whip behind the cream, before you realized it, you were soaking in it.” Most of the Aunt Bee-centered episodes rightly deserve that description, but fortunately by this time actress Frances Bavier (sixty-five years old at R.F.D.’s start) had expressed an interest in working less, not more. According to the IMDb, Bavier only appears in twenty-five R.F.D. episodes…but because the information there is notoriously unreliable, I have decided to keep a running tally of Aunt Bee appearances with the state-of-the-art technology that I’d like to call the “Bee-O-Meter.” (Okay, smarty pants—you try inventing something with the math and science background I had.) With “Horse” and “Andy and Helen Get Married,” that adds up to two—which will henceforth be designated with the photo on the left.


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R.I.P, Ali-Ollie Woodson

Temptations singer Ali-Ollie Woodson dies at 58

DETROIT (AP) — Ali-Ollie Woodson, who led the legendary Motown quintet The Temptations in the 1980s and '90s and helped restore them to their hit-making glory with songs including Treat Her Like A Lady, has died, a friend said. He was 58.

Woodson died Sunday in southern California after battling cancer, Motown Alumni Association President Billy Wilson said. Wilson said Woodson's wife, Juanita, told him about the death Sunday.

Woodson was not an original member of the group, which had several lineup changes since it started in the 1960s. But he played an integral part in keeping the Temptations from becoming just nostalgia act.

By the early 1980s, the Temptations were no longer posting hit after hit like they did in the 1960s and '70s with classics such as Papa Was a Rolling Stone, My Girl, and I Wish It Would Rain.

The group had lost original members, and Woodson was charged with replacing Dennis Edwards, whose passionate voice defined the group during the 1970s.

Woodson's voice, though similar to Edwards' with its fiery tone, was distinct in itself, and helped the group notch the R&B hits Treat Her Like A Lady, Sail Away, and Lady Soul, from 1984 to 1986.

R.I.P, Ali. Rest assured, the band will play on and on.

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“Mister Allen…Mister Alllllennnnn…”

As you can tell from the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear banner, today is actor-director Clint Eastwood’s 80th birthday. I toyed with putting up a banner with a scene from Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. (1966, aka The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) before inspiration struck and I went with the Rawhide pic, a nice screencap I rooked from DVD Talk. (I also considered using one from Dirty Harry [1971].)

But I would be remiss if I didn’t also recognize that today is the 116th natal anniversary of the man who has brought me more hours of laughter than any other comedian I can think of off the top of my head. Born John Florence Sullivan on this date, the name of Fred Allen may not come tripping off the tongue in the manner of other mirth makers but his talent lives on here at this tiny scrap of the blogosphere, and as such he deserves a shout-out at the very least.

Normally this space would contain an installment of “Mayberry Mondays”—and while I’ll try my darndest to complete it by this evening, I’ve been asked to come over to the ‘rents for a little cookout action which will eat up a bit of my free time (I plan to take my Stacia present over and watch it if I can remember how my sister Kat’s DVD player works). So if this should turn into a “Mayberry Tuesday” I apologize profusely in advance.


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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chuck Norris Ate My Blog Blogathon: Breaker! Breaker! (1977)

For Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s entry in the Chuck Norris Ate My Blog Blogathon contest, we must step inside the WABAC machine and travel back to 1977—a time of blissful contentment in the movies, because the god-awful disco obsession that would threaten to take over films, television and popular music was still in its nascent stage (though that would, of course, change, with the release in that same year of Saturday Night Fever). No, for the time being audiences were satisfied with the current C.B./trucking movie craze, flocking to the nabes to see such stirring opuses (or is that opi?) as Truckin' Man (1975), White Line Fever (1975), C.B. Hustlers (1976), The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977), Convoy (1978), High-Ballin' (1978)…and the Godfather of trucking movies, Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

And then there’s Breaker! Breaker! (1977), a thick wedge of odious drive-in theater fromage released by our good friends at American International Pictures and starring none other than Walker, Texas Ranger hizzownself—Chuck Norris. Knowing that this film was sired in the AIP stables is an indication that it’s going to feature atrocious acting, a ridiculous plot and random acts of senseless violence—in other words, if you’re expecting something nuanced like Jonathan Demme’s Handle with Care (1977)…get the hell out of the car now. One could also cynically observe that the presence of Norris means bad hoodoo for the moviegoer—but as Chuck has demonstrated throughout his cinematic oeuvre, he can occasionally make good movies like Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) and Code of Silence (1985). Sadly, Breaker! falls woefully short of the high watermarks set by these two Norris masterpieces.

As our film begins, we are transported to a California bauxite mining town that has since seen better days—but as the burg’s resident moron (John DiFusco) pedals his bicycle down the main thoroughfare to the accompaniment of the townspeople’s painful rendition of Bringing in the Sheaves, a figure dressed in white (attire on loan from Boss Hogg Clothiers, Ltd.) addresses the populace and announces that Ghost Town, USA has been granted a city charter. The man who makes this pronouncement is Joshua Trimmings (George Murdock), a besotted magistrate who informs his fellow ghost town denizens that the new city will be named after his late son, Howard “Tex” Trimmings—hence the name, Texas City (“Tex’s City”). The signpost reads “friendliest town in the West”—and that’s only because “We’re all one big happy family…literally” wouldn’t fit.

Our favorite martial arts star enters the picture not too long after as John David “J.D.” Dawes, a gearjammer who stops off at a dirt bike track to watch his younger brother Billy (Michael Augenstein) get his nice clean pants dirty. For reasons I wasn’t quite able to discern, Billy looks as if he’s twelve years old…and yet in a few scenes later he’s seated behind his own big rig, getting ready to make his first run. (He’s hauling TV dinners from a company called Shelly—“If it’s Shelly, it’s good for your belly.”) Big brother J.D. is concerned about his younger sibling…particularly when several truckers—including a veteran driver named Burton, played by Jack “Eraserhead” Nance—warn him about the dangers in the newly established hamlet of Texas City, where a speed trap is operated by the Judge’s two pistol-whipping goons, Sergeant Strode (Don Gentry) and Deputy Boles (Ron Cedllos).

The inexperienced and…well, let’s be honest—the kid’s a schmuck…Billy falls into the town’s speed trap and when he’s brought before Judge Trimmings he’s sentenced to a two hundred dollar fine or two hundred days as a guest in The Grey Bar Hotel. The young man, sensing he didn’t quite get a fair shake, attempts to beat a hasty retreat out of Texas City by jumping out a window…he is then chased down a side street by the thugs in Trimmings’ employ, and from the way they move menacingly towards the young lad, we assume the worst. Meanwhile, brother J.D. is teaching several inquiring minds how to kick ass and take names by stressing the secret of meditation, or as he puts it: “concentration on the third eye.” (Insert your own Firesign Theatre joke here.) He gets word from Burton on Billy’s disappearance and decides to check it out by showing up in Texas City in a badass looking van with an eagle painted on both sides.

But despite what it says on the signpost, the town isn’t exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness—several rednecks minding a moonshine still shoot at J.D. as he arrives in Texas City, necessitating a trip to the scrap yard for a radiator when the one in his van is damaged from his bullet-riddled welcome. He seeks out an audience with the Honorable Judge Trimmings, only to find him trying to seduce a saloon floozy (Miranda Garrison) with a puppet (honestly—you don’t want to know). His attempts to get a little sustenance at the local diner go sour when he’s informed that there are different prices for out-of-towners…which means he’s going to pay extra for the donut he ordered. As he remarks to a waitress—Arlene Trimmings (Terry O’Connor), who’s the widow of “Tex,” the Judge’s late son—when he’s told that the pay phone he wants to use is out of order: “This town is out of order.” (“You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!”)

J.D. really screws up when he interrupts what appears to be a board meeting between the residents of Texas City (they discuss the revenue generated by both the ‘shine sales and the scrap iron obtained from the cars impounded) to inquire about his brother’s whereabouts. The citizens then go after him with blood in their collective eyes, necessitating that Dawes use a little Tae Kwon Do (of course, the way these fight scenes are clumsily shot and choreographed it’s more like Tae Kwon Don’t) on their sorry keisters. (“The guy’s a bad dude—he’s punched out half the town!” Deputy Boles whines later.) One individual even threatens Dawes with a pitchfork, shouting: “I’m gonna stick ya!” With a few more high kicks to the head, Dawes climbs into his van and makes tracks for a friendlier climate but finds himself hunted down by Trimmings’ thugs in a series of car chase scenes that were no doubt lifted from outtakes of The Dukes of Hazzard. J.D. finds temporary refuge by hiding out at the cottage of his new waitress friend and her son (David Bezar).

After some more ass-kicking fights (including a nifty scene where he’s almost flattened by a car crusher, which is one of the highlights of the film), Dawes is finally subdued by John Law and is thrown into Texas City’s pokey, whereupon Judge Trimmings hands down a verdict of guilty (Dawes is accused of murdering one of Trimmings’ relatives) and sentences him to death. His salvation, however, arrives when waitress Arlene is able to find an abandoned cop car (she escaped from town on a motorcycle in an attempt to locate her son, who took off to avoid capture by Trimmings’ goons) with a working C.B. radio (well, that sort of thing happened all the time back then) that allows her to contact a group of J.D.’s fellow gearjammers—who drive their eighteen-wheelers into Texas City and destroy everything in sight. J.D. is reunited with Brother Billy (sure, he’s a little beat up but he’s okay—he’s a tough little monkey) but only after a final ass-kicking showdown with Deputy Boles, presented here for your edification. (Don’t ask me why director Don Hulette chooses to concentrates on the close-up shots of the corralled horse during this flight. It’s all too deep and metaphorical for me.)

Breaker! Breaker! was Chuck Norris’ second starring feature film after his starring debut in Slaughter in San Francisco (1974) and while I’d only recommend it to those individuals who love fine drive-in fodder, it’s a quick way to kill an hour-and-a-half and features a decent performance from the Chuckster…an actor known primarily for booting people in the head rather than any aspirations to thespic brilliance. (I watched the movie—sadly, in a non-letterboxed version—on IFC on Demand as part of the channel’s Grindhouse series.) What I really enjoyed about Breaker!, however, was seeing character great George Murdock help himself to the scenery du jour in this outing as the over-the-top Judge Trimmings; his scenes in which he flirts with the town’s slightly retarded barmaid will make you a little squeamish (at one point he launches into the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet)—particularly since his character has a relatively hot wife in actress Amelia Laurenson—but scenes like this, which play like an ABC Afterschool Special on crack, are worth the price of admission:

ARLENE: You’re not going to turn my house into a courtroom

JUDGE: What? This house belongs to the Trimmings family!

ARLENE: That’s a goddam lie…Howard put every dollar he had into this place…

JUDGE (to his grandson): Oh, well—unfortunately the only money your daddy ever had was the money I loaned him…I got the papers to prove that

ARLENE: Howard wouldn’t borrow any money from you…he knew you too well for that…

JUDGE (after a pause): You know, that’s the vilest thing that anybody ever said to me…

ARLENE: I can do better than that…

(The following dialogue is presented as crosstalk)

JUDGE: Your daddy and I had a love…

ARLENE: He hated your guts!

JUDGE: …and your mama can’t understand…

ARLENE: And he turned that hate on himself…and because of you, he’s dead…

JUDGE: We shared a dream together, boy…

ARLENE: You destroyed him because you couldn’t corrupt him…

(End crosstalk)

JUDGE: You and your incessant complaints and your constant demands caused him to leave this house! Now you answer me, boy—did your mama sleep in that van last night?

(For the record, she did—where Chuck presumably showed her his Force of One, if you get my meaning…and I’m sure that you do.) Murdock, a movie and television veteran who you may remember from recurring roles on television series as varied as It Takes a Thief, Banacek, Barney Miller (he played Lt. Scanlon) and the Yakov Smirnoff laughfest What a Country! is no stranger to motion pictures, with roles in He Rides Tall (1964), Gunn (1967), Blackbeard's Ghost (1968), The Mack (1973), Willie Dynamite (1974), Any Which Way You Can (1980) and Shoot the Moon (1982), to name but a few. In Breaker! I haven’t been quite able to determine whether his frequent over-the-top emotion is all part of his cardboard villainy or just the actor having fun after taking the money and running.

“You’re a little ass kicker, ain’t ya?” one of Texas City’s townsfolk jeers at Norris’ Dawes as he’s being led towards the town’s lockup. But don’t take their word for it—have a look for yourself:

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

R.I.P, Dennis Hopper

You turn off the computer in the hopes of getting something else accomplished today, and WHAM! another show business celebrity goes on to their rich reward. This time it’s actor-director Dennis Hopper, who died today after a long fight with prostate cancer at the age of 74. The director and co-star of the landmark counterculture classic Easy Rider (1969) had only recently been awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in March of this year.

Hopper’s show business career took off in 1955 when he was featured as one of several “juvenile delinquents” in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which starred James Dean. He also worked alongside Dean in Giant (1956), and from that point on appeared in nearly 115 films, notably Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Hang 'Em High (1968) and True Grit (1969).

It was on the set of From Hell to Texas (1958) where Hopper had his legendary run-in with director Henry Hathaway (Hathaway, annoyed with Hopper’s insistence on improvisation, forced him to do eighty takes of a scene that took fifteen hours…and then he warned the young actor he might never “work in this town again”) that led to his temporary career stall in Hollywood—but as fans of classic television know, this ensured that Hopper would become a presence working in the grist mills of television in order to pay the rent. Among the many TV series he guest-starred on: The Rifleman, The Millionaire, Naked City, Surfside 6, The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, The Defenders, Bonanza, Gunsmoke and a now legendary episode of Petticoat Junction in which he played a beatnik (titled, appropriately, “Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik”). Hell to Texas director Hathaway ended up giving Hopper a second chance by agreeing to cast him in Katie Elder and Hopper was well on his way to achieving the fame that would culminate in Easy Rider.

There are already tributes to Hopper popping up on the Internets and I really can’t bring too much to the party—despite the fact that he could at times be annoying in some of his film roles (Rider, Apocalypse Now [1979], Blue Velvet [1986], Speed [1994] and Waterworld [1995] are the ones that immediately come to mind, though admittedly that irritation was often part of the characters he was portraying) he was capable of some breathtakingly sublime performances. The sly, cunning Tom Ripley in Der amerikanische Freund (1977, aka The American Friend). The burned-out dope fiend shocked by the callousness of the school kids in River's Edge (1986). The alcoholic father who sobers up and becomes an assistant to coach Gene Hackman in the audience-pleasing Hoosiers (1986). The titular unrepentant racist in Paris Trout (1991). The unforgettable hit man known as “Lyle from Dallas” in the neo-noir Red Rock West (1993).

Rider was Hopper’s directorial debut, and its success made him the flavor-of-the-month in the industry for a time until the release of the indescribably awful The Last Movie (1971) two years later. Personally, I never thought Hopper received his proper due for his work behind the camera on Colors (1988), an underrated crime drama starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and a remarkably good movie. His other directorial efforts include Out of the Blue (1980), The Hot Spot (1990), Chasers (1994) and Homeless (2000).

If I learned anything from Dennis Hopper, it’s two things: 1) Fifty is the new forty and 2) A lifetime of excess abusing drugs and alcohol will often have unintended side effects…like turning you into a Republican. (Okay, that might have been a little harsh.) For other tributes to this one-of-a-kind performer, I suggest you turn to The Land of Whatever, Edward Copeland on Film, Comet Over Hollywood, Some Came Running and Self-Styled Siren, who links to a wonderful video appreciation from Matt Zoller Seitz.

R.I.P, Dennis. You’ll never know how much you’ll be missed.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

“Something tells me this is going to be one of those ‘I don’t have a post’ posts…”

…and you would be right. Here’s the thing. The time that I usually spend catching a classic movie or two has been occupied instead by reruns of a sitcom showcasing the smartest and wittiest ensemble in television history. That’s right, my box set of NewsRadio: The Complete Series arrived last week and the other day I decided to put a show or two on because I was really in need of a good, healthy chuckle. Unfortunately, when I dabble in this sort of entertainment I don’t have the will power to stop at just an episode or two…I end up going through as many as I can like cocktail peanuts.

What’s worse is: the NewsRadio DVDs feature extensive commentary from many of the cast members, writers and producers—so once I watch the episode I re-watch it to eavesdrop on some insightfully funny conversations. In one of the commentaries—specifically, the one that accommodates the episode “Big Day”—cast member Stephen Root (who played the eccentric billionaire who owned WNYX, Jimmy James) remarks that he had two catchphrases on the show: “I gotta go” and “We’re waaay over budget.” This prompts his former co-star Dave Foley to return: “My catchphrases would be ‘But, Mr. James—these people work hard for you’ and ‘What is it, Matthew…?’”

For those of you not familiar with “Big Day,” it’s one of my all-time favorite NewsRadio episodes. The plot has station owner James deciding that new station manager Dave Nelson (Foley) will be in charge of handing out the employee bonus this year; he stipulates that each employee will receive an extra $400—with the exception of one employee who will net a bonus of $3000 (which he calls “the big bonus”) and one who will get nada (“the shaft”). Matthew Brock (Andy Dick), the station’s resident spaz, just knows he’ll be getting “the shaft” again this year—as do fellow employees Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) and Joe Garelli (Joe Rogan), who engage in this dialogue exchange:

BILL: Joe, who's the black undercover dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks?

JOE: Why, I believe that would be Shaft, Bill…

BILL: Mmm-hmm. And who's the cat who won't cop out when there is danger all about?

JOE: Once again Bill, you are referring to Shaft…

BILL: Damn right…

JOE: You know, they say that Shaft is one bad mutha...

MATTHEW (interrupting Joe): Just shut up, you guys…

JIMMY (entering the room): What're you guys doing?

BILL: We’re just talking about Shaft…

JIMMY (as he walks past): I can dig it…

That bit still cracks me up, fifteen years after the fact. Another amusing facet of the commentaries is that everyone involved is obsessed with talking about everyone’s wardrobe, which is attributed to the fact that NewsRadio won its one and only Emmy for Outstanding Costuming For a Series. (The series was never acknowledged with nominations for either directing, writing…not even Outstanding Comedy Series—though the late Phil Hartman did get one nom in 1998 for supporting actor in a comedy show. Tell me that’s not a tragedy.)

In other TV-on-DVD news, TVShowsOnDVD.com has several of the official press releases up for classic sitcoms like Mister Ed and The Phil Silvers Show…not to mention a confirmation for the June 29th street date for the fourth season of The Real McCoys. There’s also one for Dragnet 1968—I mentioned previously that this set will contain the 1966 TV-movie pilot but there’s also a featurette—Jack Webb: The Man Behind Badge 714—that sounds like must-see TV; among the participants mentioned are OTR vets Peggy Webber and Herb Ellis, both of whom appeared on the radio and TV versions of the seminal cop show.

This article announcing the reopening of the Universal N.Y. Street backlot (which was torched in the studio’s fire in June 2008) has a blurb about über director Steven Spielberg that reads: “Another memory from that morning which resonated with Spielberg was the sight of firefighters hauling out film cans from the Universal vault, preserving negatives of classic films as well as, quipped Spielberg, ‘several titles that should have burned.’” (Oh, this is too easy… Always [1989]… Hook [1991]… Minority Report [2002]…I’ll stop now before I get into serious trouble. Note: Mr. Shreve, as a dedicated cineaste, is not suggesting that any movies be set on fire regardless of how bad they are—so please refrain from questioning his parentage in the comments section.)

Here’s a pair of classic film festivals that sound particularly enticing if you’re in the vicinity of Tucson, Arizona—in July the Fox Tucson theatre will host Mystery and Murder at the Fox! with movies that include Double Indemnity (1944), Gilda (1946) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). August spotlights Classic Couples with fare like The Awful Truth (1937), Holiday (1938) and Road to Rio (1947). Ticket info can be found here.

Mark Evanier at newsfromme reports that we lost another comic strip artist in March—Don Sherwood, creator of the Steve Canyon-like Dan Flagg (1963-67). Flagg may not have been a staple of too many “funny papers” but I have to admit that Sherwood’s history as an artist makes for an interesting read. R.I.P, Mr. Sherwood—you will be missed.

In my never-ending quest to boost some badly-needed esteem here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, I thought that you might be interested to learn that even when I receive junk e-mail about movies or magazines that I’ll more than likely never get around to seeing—I’m always greeted with the utmost respect. One such electronic missive addressed me as “Kindest Ivan G Shreve Jr. of Edward Copeland on Film,” then proceeded to tell me about…well, it’s not really important. I was just impressed with the level in which they did the sucking-up. But wait, there’s more—I had the honor of being “friended” on Facebook by none other than…drum roll please…June Lockhart! You read that right—I am now chummy with Lassie’s mother! (We’ll probably go clubbing later on.)

Okay, here’s the reading list for this weekend—and there just may be a test on this come Monday:

One of my favorite weblogs is The Unsung Joe, which spotlights many of the beloved character actors and actresses often discussed here at TDOY. The latest essay is about a girl who answered to “Julia Graham,” and whose Hollywood aspirations yielded only a few miniscule parts in films…and ended up in tragic circumstances. I found her tale particularly fascinating in that she was a native of West Virginia—from Sisterville (“a prosperous oil town on the banks of the Ohio”), which is located about fifteen miles southeast from New Martinsville.

Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog has a fascinating post about the recently restored silent film classic The Grub Stake (1923; aka The Golden Yukon) starring the amazing Neil Shipman (who also wrote and produced the film). I love reading about movies that have been rescued from the ravages of time and though I haven’t seen this one I’ll be certain to keep an eye peeled should it someday be showcased on TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights.

The blog for Matinee at the Bijou has a good read entitled “Celluloid Superman,” originally penned by the incomparable John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows fame. The essay talks about the various cinematic appearances of the Man of Steel, notably the cartoons cranked out by the Fleischer/Paramount/Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943 and the Columbia serials in 1948 and 1950 (you may recall I tackled the first of these back in the halcyon days of Salon Blogs—the first chapter is here).

TDOY commenter jnpickens (who was nice enough to recommend the 1931 Alfred Hitchcock curio Rich and Strange to me) blogs at Comet Over Hollywood (I like that name) and has a very funny post about Katherine Hepburn. Now, I cannot stress this enough: if you are a major Kate fan—do not go over there to read it; you’ll just be asking for trouble. As for me…well, I’ve built up a bigger tolerance but she had me on the floor when she wrote “…it’s hard for me to choke down a Katharine Hepburn movie. I’d rather watch Mickey Rooney over her, and that says a lot.” (I’m sure I’ve stated previously that child stars give me a rash, but Rooney—we’re talking a major case of prickly heat.) Now I'm curious as to whether she went out and purchased any of the stamps.

Rick29, the administrator for The Classic Movie Blog Association, waxes nostalgic about the best of the “Beach Party” movies, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), at the Classic Film and TV Café. Naturally, I realize that these movies are an acquired taste—but how can you not like a movie that features Marta “Lost in Space” Kristen as a mermaid, Don Rickles insulting everybody (even Annette!), Paul Lynde at the peak of his snideness…and Timothy Carey as “South Dakota Slim”? (“I got ideas... and they're all vile, Bubie…”)

Moira of Skeins of Thought hits a pair of homers with an essay at TCM’s Movie Morlocks on Hondo (1953—so well-written it hurts…even though I’m not a fan of the film) and Movie Fan Fare with the 1947 Douglas Sirk potboiler Lured, featuring Lucille Ball, Self-Styled Siren god George Sanders and TDOY idol Boris Karloff.

In 1960, comedian Woody Woodbury was riding high on the Billboard Album charts with LPs like Woody Woodbury Looks at Love and Life as part of an avalanche of comic talents like Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart and “Brother” Dave Gardner charting big with a golden age of stand-up recordings. Kliph Nesteroff wrote an essay on this seemingly forgotten comedian for WFMU’s Beware of the Blog back in December 2006…and had a chat with him two years earlier which has been transcribed at his Classic Television Showbiz blog. It’s a great discussion of some of his fellow laugh practitioners, and as always Kliph asks the right questions.

Our good friend and part-time derelict Jennifer Baldwin has another one of her Classic Movie Obsession essays up at Libertas Magazine online—this week she dissects the 1941 war classic Sergeant York starring She Blogged by Night bête noire Gary Cooper. On her own stomping grounds—Dereliction Row—she has a nice piece about cult classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)…and while I don’t consider myself a fan of the movie (though I think my sister Kat and Jennifer would bond immediately—it’s one of Kat’s favorites) I enjoyed reading about the midnight movies in the background of her essay. And if I didn’t have a prior engagement that weekend—not to mention a severe deficit in the cash department—I’d make the trek and join her for a screening of The Warriors (1979). (“Warriors…come out to play-i-ay…”)

In closing, I want to thank—in the most profuse manner that I can summon—my good chum Stacia for the wonderful gift she sent me that arrived at the doorstep of Rancho Yesteryear this afternoon. (Surprised the hell out of me—I thought my father had returned, having forgotten something.) It was a most generous gesture, and as soon as I can get this NewsRadio monkey off my back I plan to hie to the nearest DVD player and watch it with plenty of snacks by my side. Thanks, Stacia—you are an absolute treasure.

(Oh, one more thing—I changed the blog banner in a salute to the Memorial Day film festival currently in progress on Turner Classic Movies. I chose Paths of Glory [1957] because it’s a film that shows its audience the utter futility and foolishness of war…it is by no means meant to denigrate those who have fallen and must be remembered, but rather to hope that one day there will come a time when the only wars we’ll experience will be those documented in those films from the thrilling days of yesteryear.)

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Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum…

Just learned from both Toby O’Brien of Inner Toob and Hobbyfan at The Land of Whatever of the passing of former child star Gary Coleman, who died from a brain hemorrhage earlier today. He was 42. Toby muses that the first show on which he remembered seeing Coleman make an appearance was Fernwood 2-Night—for me, it was an episode of Good Times (he appeared on that sitcom twice as a smart-assed character named “Gary James”).

Although I never considered myself a fan of Coleman’s—not that this is his fault; child actors just give me a rash as a rule—it’s impossible not to acknowledge that he was a truly remarkable individual. His television immortality was cemented as the precocious star of the 1978-86 sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, a series in which he played Arnold Jackson, a young black orphan who (along with his older brother Willis, played by Todd Bridges) is adopted by white billionaire Philip Drummond in a scenario that so mirrored real life it’s positively uncanny. (Okay, I apologize for that—Strokes was a sitcom, not a documentary.) Arnold’s constant skepticism would often result in his saying to his brother: “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”—which became a national catchphrase. Coleman’s success led to other television projects capitalizing on his cute-as-a-button status—among these were the TV movies The Kid from Left Field (1979), The Kid with the Broken Halo (1982) and The Kid with the 200 I.Q. (1983).

Coleman attempted to parlay his television fame to the silver screen with vehicles like On the Right Track (1981) and Jimmy the Kid (1982) but his movie career never really took hold—perhaps it was a case of people not wanting to pay for something they could see on their TV sets for free. After Strokes, his post-show business career took a bit of a plunge and although he remained a pop culture icon, his guest appearances on shows like 227, Married With Children, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Children clone Unhappily Ever After weren’t enough to put groceries on the table; among his sidelines were working as a security guard at a shopping mall and running a video arcade. He achieved a brief return to the spotlight in 2003 when he announced his candidacy for governor of California (he finished eighth…out of 135 candidates).

"I want to escape that legacy of Arnold Jackson," Coleman once commented in an interview with The New York Times during his candidacy. “I'm someone more. It would be nice if the world thought of me as something more.” Well, that’s just the way of the world…but the “legacy of Arnold Jackson” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Still…it was a hell of a ride. R.I.P, Gary…you will be missed.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

People are funny? You bet your life…

I don’t have a post to go with the above picture—and please don’t think I’m morphing into another If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… ('cause I certainly don't want to be a dead copycat). But I dearly love that photo. I just happened to stumble across it while reading this Los Angeles Times link to an appreciative article written by Robert Lloyd on the late Mr. Art Linkletter. Well worth checking out.

The individuals pictured are Art, producer John Guedel and the one…the only…Groucho! The snap was taken outside Guedel’s Beverly Boulevard offices in 1953.

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A few items on the agenda

While I was bravely navigating the cut-throat waters of online hotel reservations yesterday, I was also genuinely surprised—and as follows, genuinely pleased—with the amount of submissions I have received of late for the new “Classic Chops” feature that is scheduled to start at The Large Association of Movie Blogs next Wednesday (June 2). Here’s the inaugural post; you may recall that I recently had a bit of a back-and-forth with Dylan “Fletch” Fields (the proprietor of Blog Cabins, and the hardest working man in the movie blog bidness) regarding the presence of classic film blogs at the LAMB, and I just want to say that he has given no less than 110% in helping to make this new feature a reality…even providing the cute logo (I hope the Shari Lewis estate isn’t reading this) to your right (though I believe the logo was donated by Mrs. Cabins). If anyone from the LAMB is reading this (hey, I can dream) I just want to remind them that submissions for posts/essays on classic films (prior to 1965…though that may be subject to change) are due Tuesday, June 1 at 6:00 pm EDT (e-mail links to me at classicchops(at)gmail(dot)com). I have received several e-mails with links to fabulous pieces of writing, and the great thing about it is what I don’t use next Wednesday always has a chance of making the cut in a future “Classic Chops” edition.

Speaking of fabulous writing: if Farran Smith Nehme—better known as that Self-Styled Siren—ever decides to join the LAMB, they might as well just back up a truck filled with LAMMYs to her domicile because she’d win practically everything in a walk. Her latest piece on the classic What Price Hollywood? (1932) is enough to make me hang it up and retire from blogging, raising bees in my declining years (hey—it worked for Sherlock Holmes). I also want to give a shout-out to my fellow vintage Britcom aficionado from across the pond, Matthew Coniam, and alert you to another blog that he’s taken control of entitled Eccentrica Britannica (subtitled “A Website of Strictly Local Appeal”). To be certain, many of the topics Matthew muses on are a bit esoteric…but I fell in love with this wonderful essay on British comedy institution The Crazy Gang (Charlie Naughton, Jimmy Gold, Jimmy Nervo, Teddy Knox, Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen)—so much so that I looked around for some of their classic films on DVD (Alf's Button Afloat [1938], The Frozen Limits [1939])…and I’m “practically skint” at this point.

While I’m on the subject of classic British comedy, here’s an interesting bit that announces an original script for Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) will be auctioned off next month by Sotheby’s at the Great British Comedy Event (the Pythons will be feted, not to mention [Dawn] French & [Jennifer] Saunders and the BBC comedy show Have I Got News For You). And on the subject of comedy shows, the announcement of a fifth series of The IT Crowd will surely make fans happy; I watched a few episodes of this sitcom on IFC while I was enjoying (heavy sarcasm does seem to suit me) my hospital stay and found it positively hysterical.

There’s only one thing better than a classic movie…and that’s a free classic movie. This blurb here announces a series of free movies at the Middletown Township Main Library in Middleton, NJ starting in June—all four movies are the collaborations between actor Cary Grant and director Alfred Hitchcock: Suspicion (1941, June 1), Notorious (1946, June 15), To Catch a Thief (1955, June 22) and my all-time favorite Hitch film, North by Northwest (1959, June 29). If I lived in this area, you can betcha-by-golly-wow I’d capitalize on seeing these classics on the big screen—so if you’re in the neighborhood, why not take in a movie? Shows start at 7:00 pm—the article says coffee and dessert is served at 6:45 (could I eat dessert in 15 minutes? I don’t know).

TVShowsOnDVD.com is announcing that Shout! Factory will release Leave it to Beaver: Season 4 to DVD on September 14th…and I can’t tell you encouraging a thing like that is to hear. Mainly because it looks as if the Factory will release the remaining Beaver seasons in separate sets; you may recall that the company is releasing the whole enchilada on June 29th (Leave it to Beaver: The Complete Series)—and that’s all well-and-good, but for those people (oh…say, me, for example) who dutifully bought seasons one and two when they were originally released by Universal…why, they don’t have to double dip. (I have my fingers crossed for Seasons Five and Six.)

And hey now…I realize this is a bit out of vintage TV’s bailiwick, but I think there may be a few folks (Brent McKee, call your office) who’ll be tickled pink to learn that Shout! Factory is bringing The Larry Sanders Show in its entirety to DVD. The release date on this seventeen-disc set (yowsah!) is September 28th, and the collection will contain (I’m assuming) all eighty-nine episodes of the popular HBO sitcom (1992-98). The SRP on this bad boy is $149.99, so you may have to surf a few online stores in search of the elusive discount.

Derek Tague—the hardest working man in the OTR research bidness—was kind enough to send me an e-mail yesterday jogging my memory that this year will be the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of Radiola, the old-time radio company that for many individuals (I know I was one of them) defined OTR listening through their vinyl record releases (and later cassette and CD). He suggested that I approach Mark Tepper of Radio Spirits (the company that bought out Radiola/Radio Yesteryear) with a proposal to re-release some of those great LPs in CD form and in speaking with Mark yesterday, he has taken Derek’s suggestion under advisement. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Radio Spirits does have a new release that will certainly be of interest to Radiola fans: the company has re-released The Story of The Shadow (originally released in a 4-LP/cassette set in 1985) on compact disc, making this long sought-after collector’s item available to Shadow fans. The great thing about this release is that not only does it feature four vintage Shadow broadcasts—“The Vengeance of Angela Nolan” (06/27/54), “The White Legion” (03/20/38), “Friend of Darkness” (02/19/39, which features a young Richard Widmark) and “They Kill With a Silver Hatchet” (05/26/46)—but it also features audio interviews with many of the individuals who were associated with the classic program: Bret Morrison, Walter Gibson, Grace Matthews, Gertrude Warner, Ken Roberts, André Baruch and the late Rosa Rio, to name a few. Mark is very interested in further releases of this type; he’s kicked around the idea of bringing back past Radiola triumphs like The Jack Benny Story to CD.

With Derek’s e-mail, however, came a little bit of sorrowful rain—it was the first time that I learned of the passing of three individuals who most assuredly made their marks in old-time radio (or “the hobby,” as OTR buffs refer to it). Jim Harmon, the author of such seminal OTR reference books as The Great Radio Heroes and The Great Radio Comedians, has gone on to his rich reward (I have a hardback copy of Jim’s Radio Mystery and Adventure and Its Appearances in Film, Television and Other Media that I don’t plan to part with for the world)…not to mention Ron Lackmann (author of Comic Strips & Comic Books of Radio's Golden Age and The Encyclopedia of American Radio) and Charlie Stumpf, who co-authored Heavenly Days: The Story of Fibber McGee and Molly and Walter Tetley: For Corn's Sake. It was truly devastating to learn this news (particularly Jim, who wrote one of the first books I read on the subject of Radio’s Golden Age) and they will definitely be missed. (I “re-upped” my subscription to The Internet Old-Time Radio Digest to make certain I’m better informed on happenings in “the hobby” in the future.)

Gee, this post ended up being longer than I originally planned—so let’s see if I can wrap this up. Turner Classic Movies will be hosting a salute to Clint Eastwood on May 31, Memorial Day…and while I bow to no one in my respect and admiration for the actor-director, isn’t that kind of why the once-proud-and-great American Movie Classics is still in business?

The Warner Archive is taking pre-orders for a collection that I’d invest in were it not for the fact that I recorded all three movies from TCM in the past—it’s Red Skelton’s “Whistling” series: Whistling in the Dark (1941), Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943). This MOD collection is due out June 1…and if these discs weren’t MOD I might consider a purchase. (The "Whistling" films are my favorite Skelton vehicles…with the possible exception of A Southern Yankee [1948]: “It’s nice to be back among the magnolias again…”)

Finally, in the “I-can’t-believe-this-is-news” department, the Associated Press has issued forth the earth-shaking bulletin that country music great Willie Nelson has…cut his hair. Reports that Nelson’s strength has disappeared, leaving him incapable of lifting even a guitar pick, are unsubstantiated at this time.

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