Monday, November 20, 2017

Star Trek Baddies in Breaking Training

Perhaps only the most avid of Star Trek aficionados would appreciate my delight when seeing two favorite future guests stars appearing together on Route 66, "The Man on the Monkey Board" (28 Oct. 1960 | 1.4). The above photo--my very first attempt at a screencap!--boasts Alfred Ryder (Prof. Robert Crater, "The Man Trap") in the center with Roger C. Carmel (Harcourt Fenton Mudd, "Mudd's Women," "I, Mudd," and "Mudd's Passion"). Bookending the picture are Lew Ayres and series co-star Martin Milner.

While Ryder was prominently featured in the episode, this was the sole scene for Carmel, billed only as "Man in the Shower." It is notable, however, for being Carmel's first credited role. Bright futures were just ahead for both Carmel and Ryder.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie of the Week Blogathon: HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973)


PLEASE NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD!

A film that deftly weaves together those twin 1970’s obsessions--the airplane-in-distress movie and the supernatural thriller. HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is a thoroughly entertaining movie with eminent rewatchability. On Midsummer’s Eve a jet airplane travels from England to America carrying a dozen passengers and ominously the stone chapel of Grove Abbey, site of human sacrifices and home to a Druid sacrificial stone. Adding insult to injury, the decadent architect intends to use the rebuilt abbey as a bar on Long Island. Strange and stranger things immediately begin happening aboard this hellbound flight.

This CBS-produced movie aired on Tuesday, February 13, 1973. Two strengths are its brisk running time of 73 minutes. The action never lags. Second, aside from the opening scene at the Heathrow Airport ticket desk where we meet some key players, the entirety of the movie’s action unfolds aboard the jet.

But what really puts this film over the top is the cast. William Shatner, Roy Thinnes, Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Will Hutchins, Paul Winfield, Tammy Grimes, the Professor and Elaan of Troyius! For fans of 1960’s television it was a treat to see sci-fi series stars Captain Kirk of STAR TREK and David Vincent of THE INVADERS together. Buddy Ebsen, erstwhile Clampett clan chief, had just a month earlier premiered his folksy detective BARNABY JONES. [And interestingly, the second episode of that series broadcast a week before this movie boasted guest stars William Shatner and Darleen Carr!]

Shatner’s brooding defrocked priest Paul Kovalik was the film’s protagonist and bright light. He shined in every scene, with a highlight being his conversation about faith and fear with Jane Merrow in the bar.  His character had the greatest depth and experienced the greatest change over the course of the story. It was also a restrained performance by Shatner (I compare it favorably with Richard Burton's defrocked priest in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA). Wholly unbelievable, however, was the idea that scholarly Paul would ever have thrown it all away for the elfin guitar-plucking hippie Lyn Loring.  Her nagging, shrieking and hysterical panicking made her increasingly loathsome as the story progressed. I suspected their relationship died when Loring masterminded the ill-fated voodoo doll ruse while Shatner simmered with contempt.

Another highlight in a cast of luminaries was Paul Winfield’s refined and British-accented Doctor Enkalla. He was impeccably played and rose to a prominent role early on.  A short six months after this film was broadcast, Winfield was on the big screen headlining the blaxploitation classic GORDON’S WAR. One just has to admire this actor’s range. And of course Winfield would memorably appear alongside Shatner nine years later in STAR TREK II.

I was unfamiliar with Tammy Grimes, but she was enchanting as the druidess Mrs. Pinder secretly relishing her demonic deity’s onslaught upon the passengers. She was perfectly cast and played a formidable foil to Roy Thinnes’ apathetic architect Alan O’Neill (no David Vincent he). Alas, evil knows no loyalty, and learning later that her beloved dog Daemon was flash frozen by the entity appeared to have sent her cascading into a faith crisis.

Speaking of faith, the film has a recurring religious theme that is especially evident in the climactic ending. Paul’s horror at seeing the desperate passengers were about to offer Jane Merrow as a human sacrifice, coupled with the tearful pleading of a child, lead Paul to reembrace his faith (implied by the quick cut to him wearing his priestly collar). Hutchins’ yelling, “I see the sun!” had a striking parallel in Paul seeing the Son through eyes of faith. Paul’s being blasted through the airplane door was not the horrible death it appeared—which would make no sense in light of the victory he just achieved over evil—but rather his being assumed into heaven like Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus himself, a reward for his act of faith and sacrifice. 

Mine is perhaps an eccentric interpretation, but such religiously symbolic endings were not uncommon in this era (cf. the ending of THE OMEGA MAN). And it seems fitting in what was essentially a good vs. evil plot.

But the most important thing about HORROR AT 37,000 FEET is that it's just a lot of fun to watch and watch again. Make it a Midsummer's Eve tradition! And the film is available in a beautiful print on DVD or free on YouTube.

What Else Was Cool:

  • Buddy Ebsen’s businessman dressing down Roy Thinnes for not knowing what he was paying to transport the accursed abbey.
  • Mrs. Pinder referring to “The Old Ones,” which pricked up the ears of this Lovecraft fan.

What Was Fool: 

  • Will Hutchins not receiving an up-front credit. His bombastic Western actor Steve Holcomb was a key player. And a decade earlier Hutchins had his own series, SUGARFOOT, and later played sidekick to Elvis Presley in a couple movies. Creds a’plently for front billing.
  • Underutilized actors Russell Johnson and H.M. Wynant, though Wynant gets one of the movie’s best lines: “You can’t burn the plane to save it!”  France Nuyen was wasted, too.
  • The stewardesses’ outfits. Yeah, a lot of fans love them—hats and go-go boots—but to me they were just ridiculous.  They looked like something from a Gerry Anderson production.

NEXT: MAYDAY AT 40,000 FEET

After rewatching HORROR AT 37,000 FEET in anticipation of this blog post, YouTube kindly recommended to me a 1976 TV movie with a strikingly similar name--MAYDAY AT 40,000 FEET. Once I saw it starred David Janssen, Christopher George, and Dandy Don Meredith I was hopelessly hooked! So please stand by and watch this space for a complementary review of another mid-70's airplane-in-distress movie-of-the-week.

WANT MORE MOVIE-OF-THE-WEEK REVIEWS? YOU KNOW YOU DO!

This review was just one of over twenty TV movie reviews posted today as part of the Classic Film & TV Café Movie of the Week Blogathon. Check out the full roster at Classic Film & TV Cafe.




Sunday, December 20, 2015

"You Don't Have Steinbeck to Kick Around Anymore" (Unless You're the NY Times Book Review).

Today, Sunday, December 20, 2015, marks the 47th anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck (1902-68). And almost a half-century after his death Steinbeck's work is still read and respected by a broad audience. Recalling fondly my own past readings, and eagerly anticipating future re-readings of Steinbeck's work, imagine my dismay at opening this morning's New York Times Book Review and finding its erstwhile editor Sam Tanenhaus throwing Steinbeck under the wayward bus.

Tanenhaus' target is Steinbeck's 1936 novel In Dubious Battle, which fictionalized real-life cotton strikes in the San Joaquin Valley. According to Tanenhaus, Steinbeck "first conceived [of the novel] as an almost documentary record, though he didn't visit the strike camps (instead relying on interviews). In the end he buffed and prettified the material, making it a fable of salt-of-the-earth whites, forerunners of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, when in fact 75 percent to 95 percent of the work force was Mexican."

Has our obsession with race poisoned even our ability to read, enjoy, and appreciate classic literature? Should Steinbeck's work be weighed in Tanenhaus' scales and be found wanting? Since In Dubious Battle is a work of fiction, shouldn't the author have the privilege of casting his narrative with anyone he pleases, regardless of color and gender? Should the exclusion of any demographic be looked upon conspiratorially, as an act of overt exclusion that belies racism or prejudice?

Tanenhaus finds a comrade in political correctness in Kathryn Olmsted, whose book Right Out of California sparked Tanenhaus' take-down of In Dubious Battle. Reviewing Olmsted's book, Tanenhaus says Olmsted, "is doubtless correct that Steinbeck's 'decision to erase brown-skinned people and women of all colors from the story was political.'"

Upending both Tanenhaus' and Olmsted's implications that Steinbeck harbored anti-Mexican prejudices, one need only look at his previous novel, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, which was a celebration of the Mexican paisanos of Monterey, California.

John Steinbeck's work speaks for itself, at least to those who invest the time in reading his books. Doing so will dispel the cloud of criticism left by the likes of Tanenhaus and Olmsted, and prove to be both enlightening and enjoyable.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Reluctance to Reread Favorite Books

I finished reading The Temple of Gold and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yeah, it had its shortcomings and disappointments, but for a first novel by a 26-year author it was a great read. It was one of those books that leave a lot of ideas rolling around in one's mind and had me eager to discuss it with someone. But since I don't know of anyone who read the book, I enjoy the "virtual book club" of reading reviews on Amazon or Good Reads.

Among the comments on Good Reads was one left by Linda Robinson back in February 2010. She awarded The Temple of Gold the full five stars and posted the below comment:

I read this book in 1970, and it had an enormous impact on me. I'm not going to read it again because I don't want it out of time. J. D. Salinger just died, and I won't reread Franny and Zooey either. I'd rather remember them both as the most amazing books I've read in my life and leave the books and their brilliantly timely authors there.

Robinson's reluctance to revisit old favorite books left me vexed. On the other hand, I sympathized with her reluctance. Like most longtime readers, she has undoubtedly been burned by going back to a youthful treasure and finding fool's gold. Such an unhappy experience happened to me a year or so ago when I reread Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse. I first read it around the age of twenty and recalled it as a profound work that deftly contrasted the life of religious faith with the life of secular indulgence. It inspired me and encouraged me along the pilgrim's path. My original copy long gone, I serendipitously chanced upon the same mid-70's Bantam paperback edition at Half Price Books one day and was overcome with nostalgia. It was like meeting an old friend. Of course I snapped it up and looked forward to rereading it, naive fellow that I was. Reading it proved to be a chore, disenchantment growing with every page. "What was so great about this book?" I asked as I plodded along, waiting for the profundidty I was so confident was in there somewhere. I never found it.


Do I regret rereading it? No. Once the initial "bummer" passed, I spun the experience as an indicator of how far I've come--in life and in literary appreciation. It also gave me a sense of urgency to reread my sentimental favorites, to weigh them in the scales and see if they're found wanting.

And that is what brings me to Salinger. Goldman's Temple of Gold is compared right on the front cover blurb to Salinger. And virtually every reviewer feels an obligation to acknowledge the similarities. I was just last Thursday in my Western Lit Survey course bemoaning how few students read or are even aware of J.D. Salinger, a man with whom every English major circa 1990 was well versed. When Salinger died in January 2010 I looked to commisserate with my Creative Writing students, but only one had heard of him and none had read him. What happened? When did young people stop reading Salinger? Or maybe I should ask. when did Salinger stop speaking to young people? Could it be that what spoke to the disaffected youth of earlier generations is irrelevant to the students of today, who as a rule don't read a great deal and when they do tend to read Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight?

All of which is to say that I'm committing to rereading the Salinger canon over the Christmas break. Unlike the Good Reads reviewer, I don't want to cling to romanticized memories when it comes to books. I don't want to be championing false gods to my students. While talking about Salinger to my students, I was startled to realize that the one and only time I read Catcher in the Rye was in the mid-1980s. I did reread Salinger's short story "A Good Day for Bananafish" last year and found it held up over time, so my hopes are high for a happy reunion with Holden Caulfield and the distinguished Glass family.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Playing Hooky, Buying Bookies!

Giving my World Civ I students a work day left me footloose and fancy free this afternoon. Idle time and a crisp $20 bill in my wallet will invariably find me in the stacks at Jackson Street Books. I always intend "just to look," but who am I kidding? After 40 minutes of browsing the paperbacks on the back wall I left thirteen bucks poorer and four books richer:

(1) The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I love Bellow--Mr. Sammler's Planet my favorite thus far--and I buy up any I find that I haven't read (which are many). This is early Bellow from 1953. I found for three bucks a 1965 Crest Book printing that appears to have been unread. Cover blurbs are from  forgotten and fast-fading names like Clifton Fadiman, Robert Penn Warren, and Alfred Kazin. Augie March is now published as a Penguin Classic and is free from such crass commercialism (though I admit I prefer literary classic paperbacks from before they were anointed Literature, such as the 1960's Bantam paperbacks of Steinbeck's works).



(2) The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces by William Golding. Golding, "author of 'Lord of the Flies,'" as the cover reminds readers, is a genre of book I've come to love: the essay and article collection. I've sought out all of John Updike's collections (still need Higher Gossip, however), and from a flip-through Golding looks like a good addition to my groaning shelves. I have Golding's Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin, but--like so many of my books--I haven't read 'em... yet.

(3) The Temple of Gold by William Goldman. A new author find of 2012! This is one of those serendipitous stumblings upon that only happen when one is idly looking over the shelves. My eye caught a paperback of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I thought that might make a good read. I was disappointed to see it was just a screenplay of the film by William Goldman. William Golding I know, Oscar Goldman I know, but not William Goldman. I found this, his first novel from 1957, in a nice condition black-spined 35-cent Bantam paperback (A1834 4) dating to 1958 and for only $4.00.



(4)  The Thing of It Is... by William Goldman. This is Goldman's 1967 novel and I must confess that what provoked me to pull it off the shelf was its provocative cover boasting a rather risque painting by James Bama, whose covers for Bantam's Doc Savage paperbacks I've long adored. The inside cover description sold me on it, especially this line: "The Thing of It Is... Amos McCracken's very precious, very precocious daughter just happens to look like Edward G. Robinson." Yeah, this sounds like a book I'll enjoy. This copy is a little shelf-worn but nonetheless a still nice Bantam paperback (S3706 6) dating to July 1968 when it cost its original reader a mere six bits. I got it for $3.00 and am delighted.

I started reading The Temple of Gold on my hourlong bus ride home and was immediately drawn into it. I'm up to where young Raymond Euripedes Trevitt and his pal Zock run away to Chicago. There they sit and weep through three back-to-back screenings of Gunga Din. Raymond recounts Gunga Din's heroic climb to the top of the temple of gold from where he warns the British soldiers of an impending ambush. And that scene provides the book its title.

Before 3 o'clock today I wasn't aware of this author, so I feel as if I've met a fascinating new friend. Here's hoping this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, to quote another old movie.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

48 Spoons

"I have measured out my life in coffee spoons."

That deceptively simple and seemingly banal observation, as any English undergrad worth a battered Penguin paperback should know, is from T.S. Eliot's celebrated 1915 poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." That line sprang into my undercaffeinated mind a few moments ago as I spooned a mountain of Folgers Crystals into a styrofoam cup of boiling water. And that coffee is so good on a cold, late-November morning. A life measured out in coffee spoons isn't necessarily a bad life.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Collector's Item First Post!

Welcome to the unofficial 'blog of the Humanities Department of Grace University. Like Rod Serling on the Twilight Zone, I will be the front man here, leading you through the fascinating worlds of literature, the arts, religion and philosophy.

This site will also serve to notify students of the many goings on at Grace, especially those masterminded by or stamped with the imprimatur of the Humanities Department.

Finally, this 'blog will serve as a one-stop shop for all your Fall 2011textbooks! The faculty voted to allow each department chair to establish affiliate accounts with Amazon.com that will allow a percentage of your textbook purchases to come back to the department, which in turn will be returned to you in the form of materials we can purchase for our library or for each department's holdings.

You are encouraged to check back regularly. I am eager to host guest 'bloggers from among our students and faculty and to provide an outlet for Grace's many Humanities professors, whether on staff and adjunct.