Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Sport Parade

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Sport Parade (RKO, 1932) – Director: Dudley Murphy. Writers: Corey Ford, Francis M. Cockrell (s/p), Jerry Horwin (story), Robert Benchley, T.H. Wenning (additional dialogue, uncredited). Cast: Joel McCrea, Marian Marsh, William Gargan, Robert Benchley, Walter Catlett, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Clarence Wilson, & Ivan Linow. B&W, 64 minutes.

The Sport Parade is a child of its times. Although it may seem especially odd to us today to see pro football treated with the same disdain as professional wrestling, we should keep in mind that, with the exception of baseball, pro sports were seen as disreputable as compared to the “pure” sport that was found in amateur competition. Of course, in reality amateur football was just as crooked, if not more so, than what was claimed for the pro side. Back in those days, the NFL was no more than a blip on the sports map, still struggling for existence. Although it got a boost when the great Red Grange signed on in 1925, not many other college greats followed suit; the prevailing ethos at the time being that taking pay for one’s play was sign of questionable character.

Pro wrestling, on the other hand, was always seen as questionable. A child of the carnival, it thrived in the underbelly of American popular culture. By the time this picture opened, wrestling was seen as little more than a comedy act, a good night’s cheap entertainment.

By any standards, though, this film is a queer duck. It has a solid cast and boasts several good performances. The subject is interesting, though the plot, even then, was rather hackneyed. But this is a film that should be directed by Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Irving Pichel, or even Norman Taurog. Instead, the director is Dudley Murphy, best known for avant-garde films like Danse Macabre (1922), Ballet Mecanique (1924, considered his masterpiece), St. Louis Blues, 1929, with Bessie Smith), Black and Tan Fantasy (1929, with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra). A year after directing The Sport Parade, Murphy would direct Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones.

Pretty heady stuff, so for Murphy to do a sports action film is a departure, to say the least. In 1931, he helmed a drama with music, Confessions of a Co-ed, starring Sylvia Sidney as a free-living jazz baby. The film was noted more for the appearance of Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra than the quality of the drama itself. Murphy apparently had the full blessing of studio head David O. Selznick; perhaps Selznick was trying to see if Murphy could stretch his horizons, for Confessions of a Co-ed was a departure from Murphy’s usual work. Being as RKO was the smallest of the majors, outside of Universal, Selznick may have been looking to develop his directing talents to where they could work in different genres. Whatever the reason, this was clearly Hawksian territory, and Murphy failed to scale the bar, instead delivering a run-of-the-mill programmer noted only for some arty camera work.

The film opens at the ivy halls of Dartmouth University, where the combination of Sandy Brown (McCrea) and Johnny Baker (Gargan) is dominating opponents with their talent. Besides being a formidable combination on the field, they are enjoying a full-blown bromance off the field. Something I found interesting in this film was the amount of beefcake, as opposed to the usual cheesecake. In an early shower scene after the game, the boys are snapping each other in the buttocks with towels. And speaking of bare buttocks, there are plenty to be seen in the locker room. The homoerotic theme is quite strong, rather surprising in an era that looked down on and made fun of homosexuality.

But all good things must pass. Sandy and Johnny are to graduate, and this is where we see the basic difference between the two. Johnny is an ant, already having a newspaper job lined up. Sandy, on the other hand, is a grasshopper. He’d rather party.

To that end, Sandy signs with a manager, “Shifty” Morrison (Catlett). He arranges for both Sandy and Johnny to undertake a personal tour for cash. But Johnny turns him down; he already has a good job at the paper. Sandy can’t understand this. Why work when you can have people pay to see you? And Johnny can’t understand why, with all the lucrative offers Sandy has, that he would choose to sign with someone as obviously shady as Shifty.

Needless to say, the personal tour is a bust, for Sandy lacks the personality needed to get himself over. His next stop is pro football, as Morrison happens to own a football team. But once again, Sandy is a failure. Morrison advises him to put a little “showmanship” into his play, spice things up a bit, stand out, even if the team is losing. Soon this turns into an invitation to throw games for the bettors. This is too much for Sandy, who quits in disgust. Returning home, he discovers that all the business offers have dried up.

Unable to find an opportunity, Sandy spends his last dollars on a ticket to the Yale-Dartmouth game, where he runs into Johnny – of course. Johnny has risen over the years and is now the editor of his paper’s sports department. When Johnny asks how Sandy’s doing, Sandy gives him a soft-shoe routine, but Johnny sees through it and tactfully offers Sandy a job as a columnist, suggesting they write a column together called “Baker to Brown.” Sandy accepts, and while writing his half of their first column, meets a winsome young blonde named Irene Stewart (Marsh). They hit it off and soon she’s accompanying him to the various sporting events he’s covering for the column, as we see in a traveling montage. What Sandy doesn’t know, and what Irene isn’t telling him, is that Johnny is head over heels in love with Irene. Irene doesn’t feel the same way about Johnny. Sandy, however, is another story entirely.

One night, Sandy takes Irene to the wrestling matches, which he thinks are great fun, though she doesn’t. Again, who should he happen to run into? Why, Shifty Morrison, of course. Shifty has moved on from fixing football games to promoting professional wrestling, a natural progression of sorts. After the usual how-do-you-dos, Shifty asks Sandy how he enjoyed the matches. Sandy replies that he could easily defeat the wrestlers, given his collegiate wrestling background. A light bulb goes off in Shifty’s head. He hands Sandy a card, telling him he could use him, and a guy with his background could clean up. Sandy politely declines. He’s got a job and a girl.

But all this happiness can’t last for long. While attending the six-day bicycle races with Irene, Johnny spots them in a clinch and slugs Sandy, accusing him of betrayal. Sandy, for his part, swears he knows nothing of any relationship between Johnny and Irene. Miffed at both Johnny and Irene and feeling guilty, Sandy accepts Shifty’s offer to become a wrestler. Morrison concocts a gimmick playing on Sandy’s Dartmouth background, billing him as “the pride of Dartmouth.” With a series of quick victories, Sandy has been built up for a match with the reigning champion, Sailor Muller (Linow). Talk about life imitating art: the idea of Morrison the wrestling promoter also owning a pro football team prefigures Vince McMahon and the XFL by about 60 years

Now it’s Johnny’s turn to be miffed, because Morrison is using Sandy’s Dartmouth background as part of the act. He writes a scathing column about Sandy, questioning the legitimacy of his victories and calling wrestling “a racket.” This, in turn, miffs Irene, who confronts Johnny about the column. She tells him that, contrary to speculation, Sandy will win the championship, and if he doesn’t, she’ll go with Johnny to get that marriage license.

The night of the championship match, Sandy’s fellow alumni visit and warn him not to wear the sacred “D” on the back of his robe. But when Irene enters to see Sandy he tells her that he is to lose this night. Irene declares her love for him telling him she doesn’t love Johnny. She loves him and believes in him. This little corny declaration changes everything for Sandy and he decides he’s now going to wrestle to win, informing Morrison of his change in plans. Morrison, in turn, warns Muller, who decides that he is going to teach the young punk a lesson.

During the introduction, with Sandy in a pair of white tighties that leave little to the imagination, he is billed at 15-pounds less than Muller, though it clearly looks like more. Muller wins the first fall, and Sandy wins the second. Before the third fall, Shifty tells Muller that Sandy has a bad shoulder and to work on it. Things look bad for the boy in white during the third fall as Muller works him over. Johnny, sitting next to Irene, sees the genuine look of pain on Sandy’s face, then sees the look on Irene’s face and has a sudden epiphany – Sandy’s on the level. Johnny stands up and yells to Sandy the buzzword they used during their football days: “Contact!” Sandy hears it and comes to life. He begins to pummel the champ, hitting him with a variety of moves and finally knocking the champ out of the ring with a flying tackle. Muller, knocked silly, can’t get back into the ring. He’s counted out and Sandy is the new champion. Johnny and Irene came into the ring to congratulate Sandy. Sandy kisses Irene as the film fades to the end.

The film moves at a quick pace, much quicker than other movies from RKO; its running time of 64 minutes is more than enough. McCrea dominates most of the film, though Gargan has his share of scenes. But he only seems to come to life when in scenes with McCrea; otherwise he barely noticeable. Young, doll-faced Marian Marsh, loaned out to RKO for the film, played a role far beyond her 19 years of age. It’s a shame she wasn’t given more to do besides function as the girl who comes between the stars. However, it’s Walter Catlett as the agent Morrison, and Robert Benchley as the befuddled radio announcer, who steal the movie. Catlett is delightfully crooked; as long as he can make a profit, no grudges are held, except at the end when he learns of Sandy’s plans to double-cross the champ. Benchley’s turns as the radio announcer following the career of Baker and Brown, but who can’t keep the teams straight and his foot away from his mouth, is hilarious. It also sounds as if he wrote his own material. Also look for ex-vaudevillian Richard “Skeets” Gallagher as a drunken photographer who seems always to miss the photo because he didn’t remove the lens cap, or shoots it out of focus due to his constant inebriation. Somehow he manages to get an award-winning photo when he snaps a photo of a racecar going off the track and crashing.

Although a stuntman was employed for the more elaborate work, McCrea himself learned the art of wrestling before he went before the camera. (He does take a few of the bumps himself.) Below is a terrific tidbit of trivia courtesy of the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

There is a great wrestling match as a climax to the picture, in which Joel gets a lot of rough treatment. Advance notices say he took a lot of wrestling instruction under Creighton Chaney, son of the late Lon Chaney, to fit himself for the part.

Chaney was under contract to RKO at this time, appearing with McCrea in Bird of Paradise earlier that year. He also worked as a stuntman and trainer, though I would like to know when and where he learned the art of wrestling. And here it appears that he also moonlighted as an “uncredited technical adviser."

1932 was a good year for films concerning wrestling. The Sport Parade was released on November 11, 1932, and Flesh, from MGM and directed by none other than John Ford, was released almost a month later, on December 8, 1932. As far as I can determine, The Sport Parade is the second film with wrestling as the subject matter. The first was Sit Tight (1931), a Warner Bros. comedy directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Joe. E. Brown and Winnie Lightner. But The Sport Parade was the first drama to feature pro wrestling. And it does not shine a favorable light on the game, seeing it as a “fixed” sport, which was not outside the prevailing opinion of the day. The movie also looks down on professional football, which was barely out of its infancy when the movie was released. Basically, all professional sports, excepting baseball, were disparaged during this time as in the control of the bettors. Ivan Linow, a real pro wrestler, played the role of wrestling champion Sailor Muller. Born Janus Linaus in Latvia in 1888, he came to America sometime after the turn of the century. When he took up wrestling is unknown, but given his build (about 6’4”, 240 lbs.) he carved out a decent career, beating the scrubs and losing to the stars. He participated in the big wrestling tournament in New York City in 1915, billed as “the Finnish Lion.” He later toured the country using the monikers “The Cossack” and “the Russian Man-Eater.” When his wrestling career declined in the early ‘20s, Linow went into films, playing supporting and bit parts. He retired in 1935 and died of a heart attack in London, England, in 1940 at the age of 52.

The character of Sandy Brown, who plays football at Dartmouth, and later the pros before going into pro wrestling as “the pride of Dartmouth” seems to be based on pro wrestler “Dynamite” Gus Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg was a football hero at Dartmouth who later played with the early NFL on such teams as the Columbus Tigers, Detroit Panthers, and the Providence Steam Rollers. In Providence, he became a close friend of amateur great John Spellman, who won Olympic gold in 1924 in freestyle wrestling. Spellman thought Sonnenberg could be a hit on the pro mat and Sonnenberg in turn saw wrestling as a way to earn off-season money. When Spellman throught his protégé was ready, he introduced him to Boston wrestling promoter Paul Bowser. Bowser liked what he saw, being aware of Sonnenberg’s fame in New England. Bowser had big plans for the ex-Dartmouth athlete and eventually put him over as world champion by defeating Strangler Lewis.

Sonnenberg proved to be a popular champion, not so much for his wrestling as for his finishing maneuver – the flying tackle. He was the first to use it and the move was a hit everywhere he wrestled. He would stand in the ring across from his opponent, then run forward and launch himself in the air like a spear, tackling the rival with all his speed and strength, usually around the chest or waist. It was a devastating finisher, and helped transform the sport by getting it off the mat through the use of aerial tactics.

Although the ardor for Sonnenberg cooled down in areas of the country, there was one area besides his native promotion in Boston where he was especially popular. That was Los Angeles. The matches, held at Hollywood Legion Stadium and the Olympic Auditorium, were a favorite for the denizens of the studios, with movie stars usually seen at ringside. Co-writer Corey Ford claimed to know absolutely nothing about professional wrestling, though the views of the other co-writer, Francis Cockrell, have never been recorded. At any rate, even though wrestling is seen as a crooked sport, McCrea’s character nevertheless wrestles the championship match with Muller straight, for Sandy is a true athlete and no true athlete would take a dive.

Director Murphy does a decent job of keeping the action at a brisk pace and making sure that McCrea is featured in many masculine settings and having the camera look in on his shirtless torso on a few occasions. He also seems to like gimmickry transitions, like a scene where the camera closes in on a picture of Walter Catlett on a wall, and comes to life in the next scene. In the finale, which seems to have been shot inside the Olympic Auditorium, Murphy comes to life, shooting from many angles with fluid camerawork throughout. The film also features a cutaway to a Cotton-Club type of nightspot with a couple of numbers from African-American dancers, making it seem as though Murphy was returning to his musical roots. The Sport Parade is typical of the Pre-Code era, only emphasizing beefcake over the usual cheesecake. There is also the typical racist scenes of rubbing a black man’s head for luck, and a homophobic scene where, during the wrestling matches that Sandy takes Irene to watch, two rather flaming fellows stand up with one crying out “Such brutality! Let’s leave.” That’s a rather odd jab in a film where the two leads are friskily cavorting with each other nude in the post-game shower room, snapping each other with towels and wrestling. Several times in the film, Johnny refers to Sandy as “handsome” and praises Sandy’s ways with the ladies.

In the end, The Sport Parade holds interest as an example of the Pre-Code era and for its subject matter far more than any interest as a film.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Dinner and a Movie

Comedy and Comida

By Steve Herte

Sometimes it takes a mechanical breakdown to launch an inspiration. Our digital converter box failed this week and Dad and I reverted to watching taped movies, which was wonderful. Re-viewing “Dolores Claiborne” made me think about how some films made from Stephen King’s books were excellent and some were “Eh!” So, my next project will be another top 10 – adaptations from books to film. So far I only have the good ones. Give me time.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (Lionsgate, 2015) – Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak. Writers: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak. Based on characters created by Nick Park. Voices: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimat Vyas, Sophie Laughton, & Nia Medi James. Color, PG, 85 minutes.

The laborious process known as stop-action animation goes all the way back to 1898, to a short entitled The Humpty Dumpty Circus when Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton brought a toy carnival to life by shooting the film frame by frame and physically re-arranging the characters in small increments each time. When Willis O’Brien presented his version of The Lost World in 1925 the live action scenes were combined with 49 stop-action dinosaurs fighting and interacting with film’s stars. The style developed further when Ray Harryhausen worked his magic with Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

Continuing to evolve with better technology and finer camera equipment through the years, the art form brought us Wallace and Gromit – The Case of the Were-Rabbit (2005), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014)and now, Shaun the Sheep Movie. How painstakingly difficult is this process? Very. This movie was four years from concept to release. If you stayed through the credits at the end of The Boxtrolls, you saw the blur of movements made by the animator in a visual demonstration, while the characters moved naturally.

Shaun the Sheep (a great play on words) has been a successful TV series since 2007 in England. Made by the producers of Wallace and Gromit (Aardman Animation) we see similarities in character design. In fact, the character Bitzer the farm dog looks remarkably like Gromit, only a different color (Gromit is brown, Bitzer is yellow).

I admit my fascination with this film stemmed from my past experiences viewing stop-action animation and marveling at how clay figurines can be made to appear alive, right down to blinking eyes and waving hair. The animators have gone great lengths to make silly-looking models move, react and entertain like live actors. And…as in the Pink Panther cartoons, this presentation is made without a single word. Granted, each character has someone doing their voice, but no one has anything more than a grunt, bark or baa to say. When I did my research, I was surprised to learn the casts’ names and their associated voices. None are mentioned in the film except Shaun.

The story? When Shaun was a little sheep (you couldn’t call him a lamb – he’s just a smaller version of the other sheep) the Farmer (Sparkes) loved his flock and they loved him. But as time goes on and Shaun grows up, life on the sheep farm has become humdrum and boring. The Farmer is losing his eyesight but still wakes up, knocks the alarms clock on the floor, uses deodorant, shaves, open the front door – slamming it in Bitzer’s (also Sparkes) face, opens the barn, feeds and shears the sheep, and suddenly the day is over and they go to sleep.

One day, Shaun (Fletcher) sees a city bus stop by the farm with a poster touting, “Take a Day Off!” and he formulates a plan. He gathers Shirley (Webber), Timmy (also Fletcher), Meryl, Timmy’s Mom (Harbour), the Twins (Greenall), Hazel (Tate) and Nuts (Nyman) and they lead the farmer to a field gate where, one by one, they leap the gate (as in counting sheep) and thus put the farmer to sleep in a wheelbarrow. They dress him in his pajamas and roll him to his Caravan trailer and put him to bed. Shaun, being accomplished with chalk, draws a night scene on the window of the trailer so that, should the farmer awaken, he’ll go back to sleep thinking it’s still nighttime. They even put a fake alarm clock on the nightstand near the bed. To keep Bitzer from finding out what they’ve done, they pay the duck six slices of bread to tie a bone to a string and keep it just out of Bitzer’s reach.

Then they take over the house, make sheep-style cocktails, watch television, eat snacks and relax. But Blitzer is not fooled long and he walks in on them with the duck under his arm. There’s a scramble and in the confusion, the log blocking the Caravan comes loose and the trailer rolls downhill toward the big city. Torn over his loyalty to his master and his job, Bitzer chases after the Caravan.

The sheep couldn’t be happier. They head back to the house, but it’s locked. The pigs (who laughed when Shaun was shorn, making him look more like a poodle) have now taken over and are making a sty out of the house. What to do? Shaun finds a photo and cuts the farmer out of the picture, prints the word “Missing” on it (I told you he was clever) as a wanted flyer and decides to take the next bus into the city. After eluding the bus driver and all the passengers he gets to the bus depot, only to see Trumper, the Animal Containment Specialist (fancy name for a dog catcher, but this guy’s obsessed with catching anything not human) – voiced by Djalili – snatch Slip (Hands) a poor orphaned, snaggle-toothed dog and pop him into his wagon.

Shaun is trying to keep out of sight when the next bus pulls in and Timmy waves to him from the window, followed by the rest of the flock! He’s horrified. But they elude Trumper by raiding a second-hand store and dressing up as people. The disguises fool Trumper. He even hands Hazel her purse when she drops it (though it’s obvious her flip-style hairdo is a mop).

Bitzer has followed the Caravan to where it became airborne and stopped suddenly, giving the farmer a hard knock on the head and from there, he follows the ambulance to the hospital. But the hospital will not allow pets and he must sit on the bench outside. But, as soon as a laundry bin rolls by, Bitzer stows away in it, and, once in the hospital, he dons scrubs and a facemask and starts searching for the farmer. He finds him, but to escape security, he backs into the operating room and is mistaken for the chief surgeon. It almost gets scary when he’s handed a scalpel; he sees a teaching skeleton and can’t resist the femur bone (well, he’s a dog, right?)

Meanwhile, the flock is getting hungry. One stops at a green market and downs a few red hot peppers until steam comes out his ears and mouth, and he runs for a fountain (with Hazel on his shoulders) and starts sloppily lapping up water. The effect is hilarious. They eventually find a restaurant and, after a difficult time making themselves appear seated, are given menus. What does a sheep do with a menu? One starts eating it, another starts cutting it with a knife and a fork, until Shaun notices the Celebrity (Paulson) at his table. He copies everything the celebrity does, and so do the other sheep – until the Celebrity burps. Despite Shaun’s flailing motions we hear a prolonged burp from the flock, getting the attention of all the other diners. Still, this doesn’t blow their cover. But Timmy, who up to this moment has been disguised as a backpack, and who is under the table, sees the dessert cart and plunges his head into a layer cake. When Shaun manages to extricate him, the yarn of his sweater gets caught on a hook and unravels as he walks back to the table. Cover blown. Trumper is called in, and Shaun is captured and put in the same cell as Slip.

The Farmer gets tired of being in the hospital and reads his chart, which says “Memory Loss.” He crumples the page and tosses it and leaves the hospital. He wanders around and finds himself at a hairstyling salon and is mistaken for a hairdresser. The Celebrity had just come in and imperiously sat in one of the chairs because his hairdo was seriously askew from the melée at the restaurant. The farmer sees the electric clippers and remembers using a pair to shear sheep. Taking him in a headlock, he gives the Celebrity a poodle cut and, instead of being shocked by it, the Celebrity is delighted. The style becomes an overnight sensation and “Mr. X” is in demand, even to getting his picture on a poster.

The flock tries to break Shaun out of jail (essentially) but choose the wrong window. Shaun uses his skill with chalk to convince Trumper they got the right one by drawing a hole in the wall of his cell. Once Trumper is in the cell, Slip and Shaun are out and they lock Trumper in. Using Slip’s city smarts he leads the flock to a safe place. Bitzer joins up with them and they find the poster, complete with directions and a map. Slip leads them to the location of the salon. But the farmer, now Mr. X, doesn’t remember them. The crumpled paper from the hospital eventually makes it to the safe place and now the flock knows what’s wrong. Shaun devises a plan to get the farmer back to Mossy Bottom. And the real hilarity begins.

Shaun the Sheep is not only a tour de force of stop-action animation; it’s a non-stop fun machine and the height of the art form. It’s difficult enough to make a comedy with dialogue but when you depend on gestures, non-syllabic vocalizations and subtleties (without using pantomime), it’s Herculean. There are laughs in every scene, not just for kids but adults was well, action galore, and beautifully orchestrated pathos. Bring the whole family, except that guy who thinks beaning a cheerleader with basketball is funny. Him you can leave home. Anyone else will love it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

La Palapa
77 Saint Mark’s Place (bet. 2nd and 1st avenues), New York

At one time, the East Village was the funkiest place to be in New York City, the hippest corner of the Big Apple, and Saint Mark’s Place was the soul of groove. It’s still crowded, still selling crazy souvenirs, and still has the tattoo and body-piercing parlors and sidewalk cafés, but you can no longer get a contact high from what’s being smoked, the prices are higher and it’s much more cosmopolitan. It’s no longer an adventure. I miss the old days. But I didn’t come for that side of Saint Mark’s Place (between 3rd and 2nd avenues). I came for the gentrified side one block farther along.

Under a neat white awning with a maroon strip is the Mexican restaurant La Palapa. The front is open to the street in a small café. I entered the front door and turned right to be at the Captain’s Station. The young lady gave me a choice of outside (no), near the extremely active bar (no), or near the back (definitely!). She seated me next to a distinguished, well-spoken gentleman who I learned later was the author of two books and was planning trips to Malta and Stockholm (finally, someone interesting I can talk to).

The décor of the restaurant is simple white stucco, simple archways and a white ceiling with avocado green rectangles to dampen the noise. Intricate Mexican paper designs hang like flags and festoon the overhead area. The bar is full of young people and lit by four swags shaped like dunce caps. Occasional spots provide the rest of the lighting (what there is); rather dark, but intimate.

The server known as “Mair” gave me a glass of water and the food menu, with the specials menu/cocktail list. She then attended to the gentleman next to me, apparently fascinated by his exploits. I had hardly the time to peruse one of the two cards when she asked if I wanted a drink. I chose one of the specials, the Verano Cocktail – Endless Summer Tequila 1800, coconut, Grand Marnier, lime juice and chili-lime spiced rum. It was an interesting twist on a margarita. The Grand Marnier added an orange-y accent and the rum made it spicy, but not hot.

Barbara Sibley, the Chef and Owner of La Palapa, was born and raised in Mexico City and for 14 years has been successfully turning out traditional as well as innovative Mexican dishes at this location. She has published a cookbook and is quite a personality. If I didn’t meet her, both menus I held proved this. I love Mexican food and I was hard-pressed to find three courses without ordering everything on the menu. I decided to keep to the unusual and not revert to my all-time favorites.

Though Mair kept referring to the specials, I had seen too many dishes on the main menu that were intriguing enough. I started with the Sopa de la Casa: Pozole Rojo (Red Stew) – hominy corn and chicken in a thick chile guajillo broth accompanied by avocado, radishes, oregano and fresh lime. This is no small dish. It’s a hefty, square bowl full of tomato-y spicy chicken with a good slice of avocado bathing in it as if it were a hot tub. After tasting the red radishes served separately, I added them to the stew and sprinkled the dried oregano on top. It was excellent and went with the Verano cocktail nicely.

Ever since I attended a house party in Westchester, I’ve been touting the flavor of jicama, and, appropriately I ordered the Jicama Picante – market style crisp jicama seasoned with chile piquin (a hot chili pepper) and queso cotija (a dry, firm cheese with a light salty flavor). Jicama is a sweet root vegetable resembling a turnip and often called the Mexican potato. It tastes more like an apple than anything else, but it’s actually in the bean family and the plant that grows from the root produces pods similar to lima beans. I loved it the first time I tasted it and I loved it simply spiced in this dish. It didn’t matter that this dish arrived before I was finished with the soup because it was served cold. I alternated between the two and finished both.

Noting how soon the appetizer followed the soup, I waited until almost finished with both before ordering the main course and side: the Barbacoa de Cordero al Chile Ancho Estilo Catalina – barbequed lamb shank braised with ancho chilies and avocado leaves, guacamole, black beans and red tomato rice. (Before I get comments, I know what I did. I saw a film about sheep and then dined on lamb. Get over it.) It was served with a plate of tortillas for folding the tender, juicy meat, a little guacamole, and some rice and beans into a delightful finger-food burrito. In the tortilla or out, the lamb was fall-off-the-bone consistency, slightly spicy and delicious. Everything was.

I’ve had Nopalitos before as a side dish but the Nopal Asada – Braised Opuntia (prickly pear cactus pads) with lime – astounded me. The cactus pads were sliced into fans on the plate and grilled to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness – like grilled green peppers should be. I ordered a glass of Pinot Noir to go with it all. I nixed Mair’s suggestion of a rosé wine.

By this time, the author had left and a young couple took his place. Two young ladies sat on my left conversing lively but using the word “like” to extreme excess. Five young men (I dubbed them the Frat Boys) occupied the circular table in front of me.

When I was seated, Mair placed three salsas in small black bowls on the table with three spoons to use to add their flavor to the meal. It shocked me to see one of the Frat Boys taste each salsa using the respective spoons (as if they were soups) and replace the spoons in the bowls. “I hope no one at that table wants salsa,” I told Mair. I stopped observing the boys when one spilled his beer on the other.

Several of the desserts attracted me, especially the Copa de Rosa Carmina – rose petal ice cream parfait with Belgian chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream. But then I got to the end of the dessert menu and saw the Parfait Azteca De Oro – sweet harvest corn ice cream parfait with homemade cajeta (a caramel sauce made from goat cheese) and toasted macadamia nuts. Served in a beautiful stemmed glass, glistening with the golden cajeta, it got the attention of the two girls to my left. “What’s that?” I told them. “Ew, is that the one with goat cheese?” I told them they would not be able to tell it was there and that I love macadamia nuts. But they ordered the brownies and chocolate cream. Their loss.

I didn’t have to tell Mair about wanting a double espresso. She knew. And after asking her to retrieve the tequila list, I chose the Sauza Trés Generaciones Tequila Añejo as an appropriate after dinner drink. Lovely.

The couple to my right was now a trio and one girl was dredging the guacamole with a taco chip and then reaching across the whole table to dip it into one of the salsas. I stopped looking that way too.

La Palapa is a restaurant worthy of a return visit, maybe several, because it will always be new – there’s that much variety. I even considered asking a friend who lives in the neighborhood to join me. It’s also only the third Mexican restaurant of my 118 to serve Crepas de Huitlacoche (pronounced “Wit-Lah-Coat-Chay”), a corn mushroom folded into crepes with poblano crema and baked with queso chihuahua. Seeing this dish brought back fond memories of Helene when we dined at the now closed (boo-hoo) Zarela on the Upper East Side.

What’s huitlacoche?” “I don’t know, but I’m ordering it anyway.” “What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. Try it.” Neither of us could identify the tasty fungus that is huitlacoche. I’m going back just for that. Oh, and the manager explained that a “Palapa” is one of those umbrellas you see on the Yucatan coast that are made out of palm fronds. No wonder my Spanish friends couldn’t translate it.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


Now that August is ending, we’re back to having a Star of the Month. And in September the star is Susan Hayward, a solid actor whose steady presence has brightened up many a film. Beginning in the late ‘30s, she remained a durable star until the ‘70s, appearing in everything from drama to costume drama to comedy and even to epics. Two of her films are considered among the worst ever made, and come in the second half of the month as the emphasis is on the early part.

September 3: Two excellent films are on tap. Start with Beau Geste (Paramount, 1939), a scene-by-scene remake of the 1926 silent with Ronald Colman. Gary Cooper stars as one of three brothers (Ray Milland and Robert Preston are the others) who join the French Foreign Legion. Brian Donlevy as their sadistic commander Markov and J. Carroll Naish as his toady Rasinoff threaten to steal the film, but Cooper has presence. Hayward has a small role but makes the most of it.

Then tune in at 3:30 am (or record it) for Tulsa (Eagle-Lion, 1949) with Hayward as a rancher’s daughter out for revenge over his killing. She strikes it rich in the Oklahoma oil boom. Her obsession over money and power alienated her from her closest friends, an oil expert (Robert Preston) and a childhood friend (Pedro Armendariz). Hayward is wonderful in her role, but keep your eye on Armendariz, who turns in a stellar performance.

September 10: The best pick of the night is at 8:00 pm, with Hayward turning in a nifty performance in a tale of a model turned dress-designer, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (Fox, 1951). It’s competently directed with a great script from Abraham Polonsky. I love a well-written film, and Polonsky does a great job in adapting Jerome Weidman’s novel.

Following at 9:45 is a real yawner, as Hayward and Gregory Peck star in the biblical epic David and Bathsheba (Fox, 1951). As with most films in the genre, a combination of the restrictive production code, combined with the studio’s caution in offending anyone, leads to a leaden film highlighted by the uninspired performance of its leads. Both Hayward and Peck give us the impression that they’d rather be anywhere else. Bad, but not bad enough to be a “must see.”

Finally, at the wee hour of 4:00 am comes an excellent film from Nicholas Ray, The Lusty Men (RKO, 1952). Robert Mitchum is great as a faded rodeo star who mentors an up-and-coming Arthur Kennedy, but messes things up by falling for Kennedy’s no-nonsense wife, Hayward. It’s one to catch, or record.


This month’s TCM spotlight focuses on the war years, as in World War II. Using Mark Harris’s wonderful book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War as a guide and front, the network is showing a treasure trove of government shorts and documentaries, plus pertinent films made during the war years. Harris’s book is a cultural history of how the war changed Hollywood and how Hollywood changed the war as seen through the viewpoint of five directors: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens.

September 1: We begin at 8:00 pm with a screening of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (Columbia, 1941), the story of how a reporter (Barbara Stanwyck) turns a tramp (Gary Cooper) into a national hero and a pawn of big businessman Edward Arnold. How this has to do with the war is beyond me, but it’s always worth a look.

Documentaries worth tuning in for include Capra’s Prelude to War (10:15 pm), Anatole Litvak’s The Battle of Russia (11:15 pm), Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier (12:45 am), the Richard Brooks directed short, With the Marines at Tarawa (1:45 am), followed by Capra with Tunisian Victory, the stirring Battle of Britain (3:30 am), the Capra supervised short, Know Your Ally: Britain (4:30 am), and Capra’s War Comes to America, from 1945 (5:15 am).

September 8: The night is devoted to John Huston and begins with Bogart and Astor in Across the Pacific (WB, 1942) at 8:00 pm. At 9:45, it’s Huston’s short about the Aleutians, Report From the Aleutians, and at 10:45 pm, it’s Huston’s documentary on the invasion of Italy, San Pietro. At 11:30, his documentary about solders receiving medical treatment and psychotherapy, Let There Be Light (1946), will air. Huston's – and the government’s – message in the documentary is that employers should not hold a soldier’s psychotherapy against him when applying for a job. And then night ends with Huston’s Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage (MGM, 1951).

September 15: It’s John Ford night, beginning at 8 pm with his 1940 effort for United Artists, The Long Voyage Home, starring John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell. At 10:00 pm, it’s his stirring short, The Battle of Midway, followed at 10:30 by How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines. At 11:45 December 7th, 1945 airs, a disturbing look at the attack on Pearl Harbor. Finally at 1:15 am comes two of his Hollywood efforts: They Were Expendable (MGM, 1945), with John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, followed by Henry Fonda and James Cagney in Mister Roberts (WB, 1955)


A welcome highlight of this month’s Friday Night Spotlight is the inclusion of the Private Snafu cartoons made by Warner Brothers. I remember my father and uncle reminiscing about them, and how funny they were and how the servicemen laughed raucously throughout at the antics of Snafu as he got himself into trouble time and time again. Look for our upcoming article on this unique soldier later this month. For now, we’ll provide the times and titles of the various cartoons.

September 1: 10:10 pm – Coming! Snafu (the cartoon that introduced him to the servicemen); 11:10 pm – Booby Traps; 1:40 am – Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike; 4:25 am – Snafuperman.

September 8: Beginning at 10:40 pm – In the Aleutians; 11:25 pm – The Infantry Blues; and at 12:40 am, The Goldbrick.

September 15: The menu for tonight – Gripes (9:55 pm), A Lecture on Camouflage (10:25 pm), Spies (11:40 pm), and Private Snafu Meets Seaman Tarfu in the Navy(1946).


September 2: At 1:00 pm, it’s one of Joan Crawford’s best films, A Woman’s Face, from MGM in 1941. Directed by George Cukor, it’s a remake of a 1938 Swedish film En Kvinnas Ansikte, starring Ingrid Bergman. Crawford is a facially scarred woman whose life dramatically changes when she goes under the knife of plastic surgeon Melvyn Douglas and regains her beauty. Conrad Veidt is also on hand to provide some of his exquisite villainy. It’s a film to watch, especially for those who haven’t yet seen it.

September 4: Make a note to tune in or record at 4:45 pm for one of the truly great underrated films about Hollywood. From RKO and George Cukor in 1932 it’s What Price Hollywood? Lowell Sherman is right on point as a dipso director who helps waitress Constance Bennett fulfill her ambition to become a star as he falls further and further into the abyss of alcoholism. Under Cukor’s direction, it’s a deft mix of comedy and drama and served as an inspiration for the later A Star is Born.

September 6: An interesting double feature of Japanese films begins at 1:30 am with the 1926 production of Kurutta Ippeiji. Surviving films from Japan’s silent era are rare indeed. It concerns a former sailor who has driven his wife into a mental asylum. Conscience stricken he takes a job as a custodian in the very facility where his wife is being treated. It’s a rare look at the problem of metal illness in Japan.

Following immediately thereafter at 2:45 am is Kurosawa’s 1951 Hakuchi. It, too, concerns mental illness and is the director’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and is one of Kurosawa’s most neglected works.

September 11: Looking for a change of pace? Then tune in at 2:00 am for the brilliant and unsettling Went The Day Well? from Ealing in 1942. A British village welcomes a platoon of troops who will be billeted with them. To their horror they discover the troops are actually German paratroopers sent to prepare the way for an invasion. How they deal with the invaders is what makes this film one of a kind, being released when the threat of a Nazi invasion was still a real possibility.


September 4: TCM is running four films starring the great misanthrope beginning at 8:00 pm with his 1940 masterpiece, The Bank Dick. At 9:30 it’s his magnum opus, It’s a Gift, from 1934. No one played the harried husband better than Fields. At 11:00, it’s his underrated classic from 1938, You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man, with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. And finally, there’s his distinguished performance as Mr. Micawber in MGM’s 1935 David Copperfield. What a night.


Westerns long regarded as the redheaded stepchild of Hollywood, emerged from the jungle of B-dom thanks to a postwar popularity fueled in part by their immense popularity in the new medium of television. This led to Westerns that were more than just mere shoot-‘em-ups adhering to the simple plot of good versus evil. Now they became more complex, more structured, and with bigger stars in the leads. The ‘50s could be said to have been the Golden Age of Hollywood Westerns.

September 9: An evening of six quality Westerns begins at 8:00 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma (Columbia, 1957). At 10:00 pm, it’s Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in The Man From Laramie (Columbia, 1955). Following at midnight is an all-time Western, The Gunfighter (Fox, 1950), starring Gregory Peck as “the fastest gun in the West” and thus as one with a price on his head from wanna-bes. At 1:30 am, it’s Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (Columbia, 1958) starring Randolph Scott as a bounty hunter who must bring in his quarry through distinctly unfriendly territory. Jimmy Stewart, Janet Leigh, and Robert Ryan then take over in The Naked Spur (MGM, 19563), with Stewart trying to capture shifty outlaw Ryan. Lastly, at 4:45 am, Burt Lancaster and Robert Walker star in Vengence Valley (MGM, 1951). All are worth the time invested.


September 2: At 3:15 am, it’s the animated version of The Lord of the Rings from 1978, featuring the voices of Christopher Guard, John Hurt, and Norman Bird among others. Directed by Ralph Bakshi, it covers 1½ books of the trilogy. It’s no great shakes, but is recommended for film buffs as well as Tolkien buffs.

September 5: Following another chapter in the continuing sage of Batman and Robin at 10:00 am, TCM begins a weekly showing of Bulldog Drummond films, beginning at 10:30 with Bulldog Drummond Escapes (Paramount, 1937). Ray Milland stars as Drummond in his only stab at the role, with cutie Heather Angel as his girlfriend Phylis Clavering. Following Milland’s debut as the Captain, Paramount plugged John Howard in as Drummond while it moved Milland to bigger and better things. The Drummond series proved a solid B-series for the studio, though it only lasted until 1939. In the late ‘40s, Columbia revived the series.

At 1:45 pm, it’s producer Val Lewton’s unique take on Jane Eyre – I Walked With a Zombie from RKO in 1943, a definite “must see.”

Beginning at 2:00 am, it’s a motorcycle-powered doubleheader from AIP with Tom Laughlin’s The Born Losers, followed by Dennis Hopper and Jody McCrea in The Glory Stompers, both from 1967.

September 6: Tune in at midnight for one of the granddaddies of all films psychotronic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from 1919.

September 7: Fans of both science fiction and George Lucas should be interested in the director’s big screen adaptation of his USC student film, THX 1138, which airs at midnight. It takes place in the 25th century, where a totalitarian government has imposed a strict and bland rule. Dress is plain, heads are shaved, and everyone is on a regimen of sedatives. Those who don’t use them are prosecuted for “drug evasion.” THX1138 (Robert Duvall) is a worker who helps assemble the policing robots. He slowly becomes aware of his situation because his female roommate (Maggie McOmie) has been diluting his dosage. He discovers love – and sex, which has been outlawed and replaced with artificial insemination. When the couple is found out, THX is sent to a white void. There he meets fellow prisoner SEN (Donald Pleasance). Together with a hologram (Don Pedro Colley) they begin planning an escape.

September 12: It’s Bulldog Drummond at Bay at 10:30 am. Later, at 2:45 am, it’s Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (WB, 1974) about a killer infant on the rampage, followed by Jack Hill’s camp classic, Spider Baby, at 4:30 am.

September 13: An encore performance of the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still airs at 6:15 pm. Later at 10:00 pm, it’s Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland in the gothic horror Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. At 2:00 am, it’s the premiere of director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (Toho, 1967). Tatsuya Nakadai is a wealthy chemist whose face was horribly scarred in an explosion. Until his doctor (Mikjiro Hira) can successfully complete the prosthetic mask that will become his new face, Nakadai lives with his head swathed in bandages with visible openings only for his eyes, nose and mouth. When he gets his new face, the results are not what everyone assumes. Following immediately after (4:15 am) is a repeat performance of the unsettling 1959 shocker Eyes Without a Face (1959). See it once and you’ll remember it forever.

September 15: At the early hour of 7:30 am is a showing of director Rene Clair’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel Ten Little IndiansAnd Then There Were None (Fox, 1945). Ten guests are invited to a lonely island only to find themselves bring knocked off one by one. Dudley Nichols’s brilliant script is combined with some superb visuals from Clair to create one of the all-time great mysteries. It’s rarely shown, so catch it while you can.

Friday, August 28, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for September 1-7

September 1–September 7


THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (September 5, 8:15 am): I'm a huge fan of the British kitchen sink/angry young man film genre, and there are very, very few finer than this one. Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay in his brilliant film debut) is a rebellious teenager in post-World War II England who ends up in a juvenile delinquent institution. While there, he discovers he has a talent for long-distance running. He's able to avoid the hard labor the other boys must endure because of his abilities. But the anger and resentment against a system that chews kids like him up and spits them out when they are no longer of any use is always in the back of his mind. The day of the big race against the nearby public school is an opportunity to shine leave Colin conflicted. In the end, he does what he believes to be the right thing to maintain his integrity and independence despite the consequences.

THE LION IN WINTER (September 7, 6:00 am): I've never shied away from expressing my intense dislike for Katharine Hepburn's acting. I think she had very little talent, and is the most overrated mainstream actress in the history of cinema. But I've got to give the devil her due - she is absolutely brilliant in The Lion in Winter, a 1968 film in which she stars as Eleanor of Aquitaine in the year 1183. She is imprisoned by her husband, Henry II (Peter O'Toole delivering yet another fantastic performance), as the two greatly differ over which of their sons will be next in line to the thrown of England. While not historically accurate, it's a wildly entertaining film with Hepburn and O'Toole trading biting lines with each other. One of my favorites has the two of them walking arm-in-arm smiling at their subjects while Eleanor is giving Henry grief. He says, "Give me a little peace." Without skipping a beat, Eleanor responds: "A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now, that's a thought." A great story, great costumes, great directing and a great cast that also includes Anthony Hopkins in his film debut, Timothy Dalton and Nigel Terry.


THE BANK DICK (September 4, 8:00 pm): W.C. Fields was never funnier than in this film about a no-account who is given a job as a bank guard after he unwittingly foils a robbery. His daughter’s nitwit fiancé works there and Fields soon gets him involved in using the bank’s money to finance a stock scheme that looks as if it will go bust, so they must distract the bank examiner (a wonderfully fussy Franklin Pangborn) until the money can be returned. It all results is a crazy and hilarious car chase when the bank is robbed again.

IT’S A GIFT (September 4, 9:30 pm): This 1934 Paramount production was probably W.C. Fields’ funniest film. He plays a downtrodden, henpecked grocer living in Camden, N.J., who wants desperately to own an orange grove in California, so he buys one sight unseen and moves his family out to California. It’s a beautiful melding of comedy routines and plot, with Charles Sellon as a blind grocery customer and T. Roy Barnes as a salesman who interrupts Fields’ sleep looking for Carl LaFong. It’s Fields at his delightfully cynical best.


ED: C. Elvis films are exercises in mediocrity, mainly because his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, never allowed his client to step outside what was thought to be a winning formula. As a result we never got to see Elvis in anything that wasn’t predictable and heavily telegraphed. But some are more excruciating than others. This film is a case in point. It starts out well with Elvis and Gary Lockwood as bush pilots who lose their plane because of Lockwood’s gambling debts. Trying to earn money to retrieve it they hitch it to Seattle, where the World’s Fair just happens to be. Once there, Danny tries to earn money in a poker game (Hasn’t he ever heard of Las Vegas?) while Elvis takes care of a small girl named Sue Lin (Vicky Tiu) who became separated from her Uncle Walter (Kam Tong). When cute little Sue gets sick from pigging out on junk food, Elvis takes her to the clinic, where he meets attractive nurse Diane Warren (Joan O’Brien) and, of course, is smitten. And if you can’t guess what’s going to happen next, you’ve never seen an Elvis picture. The only interesting things about this cardboard comedy is seeing Kurt Russell as a kid Elvis pays to kick him in the shins to attract the nurse’s attention, and the late, gorgeous, scorching supernova (to quote IMdB reviewer pooch-8) Yvonne Craig. Russell would later go on to play The King himself in the 1979 TV movie Elvis.

DAVID: D+. I'm a huge fan of Elvis Presley films, even many of the bad ones. Elvis had a ton of potential, but opted during a long stretch of time to stick to the "Formula," in which he played the same type of character with a minimal plot, and an over-reliance on his charisma and a pretty co-star. Some of them are absolutely charming like ClambakeSpinout and Kid Galahad. Some of them are horribly stupid with no redeeming qualities such as Harum ScarumThe Trouble With Girls, and this movie. It Happened at the World's Fair (1962) is painfully boring and way too long at 105 minutes with the World's Fair in Seattle theoretically used in an effort to entertain the audience. It fails to do that. You can tell Elvis wishes he was anywhere else but in this film. It's hard to blame him. The effort at creating a plot is embarrassingly bad. For someone like me who loves Elvis and watched this entire movie as I'm a Presley completist, there is nothing to enjoy. You'd think there would be a good song as Elvis sings 10 of them in this movie. But unfortunately there isn't a single catchy one to be found.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 10 Best Episodes


There’s a Signpost Up Ahead

By Steve Herte

Few television shows about the strange and the macabre were as successful or as memorable as The Twilight Zone. Just play the opening theme and people recall their most chilling episode. It took some doing, but I’ve managed to list the 10 that I would rate the highest, those that stayed in my head and were worthy of several viewings. There’s no particular order or ranking because, to me, they are all equally good for one reason or another. See what you think.

Time Enough at Last – (Nov. 20, 1959 - Season 1)

With an hour-and-a-half commute I get a lot of reading done and I enjoy it. I can identify with Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis in that circumstance. The difference is, I read for relaxation and pleasure (and sometimes out of compulsion). For Henry, reading is a passion, a lifestyle, to the exclusion of everything else.

Frankly, if I were married to an unrelenting harpy who constantly reminded me of my worthlessness and complete dependency on her, I don’t think I would be as tractable as Henry (especially when Helen – Jacqueline deWitt – crossed out all the words in a book of poetry and then proceeded to tear out the pages). Hopefully, I wouldn’t have married her in the first place. In a way though, she’s a tongue-in-cheek character. We hear her call “Hen-Ree!” before we meet her. Radiophiles remember that call from the Henry Aldrich comedy series and Warner cartoon fans will have heard it as well in Book Revue.

Mr. Carsville (Vaughn Taylor), Henry’s boss, is definitely not a motivator. He reinforces Henry’s wife opinion that reading is trivial. The only thing important to him is the job – not necessarily the customer. Unfortunately, even his customers are too busy (or just not interested) to hear anything Henry says. But for Henry, it’s a living.

As the story unfolds in this episode it’s perfectly obvious that nobody cares, or wants to know about reading. It’s no wonder that Henry wishes to be left alone.

This tale was told during America’s Cold War with Russia, when both countries were building stockpiles of nuclear weapons. No one knew when some crazy person would “push the button” and global annihilation would surely follow. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and how terrified I was, knowing how easily the end could come. But scientific accuracy doesn’t apply in Time Enough at Last. 

Henry steals off to the bank vault to read when the (supposedly) atom bomb is dropped (we only hear one explosion).

He exits the vault and, strangely enough, though some damage has been done to his bank building, he’s able to climb the stairs and get to the street level. One has to assume that all the people have been vaporized because there are no bodies lying around. The air is miraculously breathable and the food is edible – not a trace of radiation anywhere (this was way before the concept of a neutron bomb).

Still, Meredith does a stellar performance as he weighs the pros and cons. There’s nobody to bother or harass him, but, there’s also nobody to talk to or share in his love of the printed page. Just as the loneliness gets oppressive enough that he considers suicide he discovers the only other building standing, the library.

But inaccuracies aside, The Twilight Zone twist is what makes this episode memorable. When Henry reaches for something, his glasses fall off his head and break. “It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!” You can’t always get what you want and be careful what you wish for could be lessons taught here.

The Eye of The Beholder – (Nov. 11, 1960 - Season 2)

Patient 307, Janet Tyler (Maxine Stuart in the beginning, Donna Douglas after the bandages are removed) is born “horribly disfigured” and checks into a hospital to have her looks corrected to be socially acceptable. Her head is totally swathed in bandages. She can’t tell if it’s day or night. This is her 11th (and final – by law, no more funding will be provided after this) attempt at the “injections.” “When I was a little girl, people turned away when they looked at me…Who makes all the rules? The state is not God!” she laments.

As the bandages are removed, in three dramatic stages, we see the “Leader” is making a speech on television – echoing conspicuously a Hitler tirade – praising “our glorious conformity.” But the operation fails and she’s exiled forever to be with beautiful people like herself. The story pokes at prejudice and segregation for any reason.

The artistry in this episode is in the camera angles. The Doctor (William D. Gordon), Nurse (Jennifer Howard), and other cast members are shot either from the neck down, or in shadow, or from the back. The audience never sees their faces until the end. That’s The Twilight Zone twist.

To Serve Man – (Mar. 2, 1962 - Season 3)

The nine-foot tall Kanamits arrive on Earth and one (Richard Kiel) presents a book (the title is that of the episode) to the United Nations. The Kanamits are bald, bulbous-headed and dressed in floor-length one-piece tunics with a weird collar off-set to one side. They speak only mentally and look bored or dull-witted. The best minds on Earth, Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) and his assistant Patty (Susan Cummings) attempt the translation of the strange symbols.

After passing the lie detector tests (to determine that they are not here to invade or exterminate mankind), the aliens give Earth cures for hunger (a nitrate that makes soil super-productive), war (a protective shield impervious to bombs) and a nuclear power source to supply energy to entire countries. At one point, we hear the line spoken to the military, “I guess that puts us out of business.” But the Earthmen fail to ask the right questions.

People are delighted and eternally grateful, and are eager to visit the aliens’ planet. No one is suspicious except Mr. Chambers. After he’s weighed on an old-fashioned standing scale (even for 1962) under the decidedly hungry watchful eye of a Kanamit (he’s grinning like a wolf) and about to board the spaceship, Chambers hears Patty’s revelation that To Serve Man is a cookbook. It’s as hilarious as it is horrific.

I noticed one strange inaccuracy as I re-viewed and still enjoyed this episode. The story begins and ends with Michael Chambers in a small room on the alien saucer. One of the Kanamits brings a tray of food. My question is why would an intelligent race of people who know they are nine feet tall construct a spaceship with doorways they have to duck under to pass through?

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – (Oct. 11, 1963 - Season 5)

This is one of William Shatner’s best performances. After having been treated for a nervous breakdown and being a fearful flyer (I can identify with that), Bob Wilson (Shatner) boards a plane for home with his wife Julia (Christine White). It doesn’t help calm him when he’s seated by the “auxiliary exit.” Added to that is a violent thunderstorm the entire flight.

Bob’s the only one who sees the “Gremlin” (actually Nick Cravat in a bad gorilla suit wearing a mask from Eye of the Beholder) attacking the engine on the wing his window faces. No one believes him because the creature conveniently flies out of view when anyone else looks. Seriously, I laugh now, but when this episode aired I was terrified.

The suspense mounts until Bob notices a gun in a holster draped carelessly over the arm of a seat in the rear of the plane. (Really?) It’s also almost funny how Shatner nonchalantly (even for him) pretends to drop something so that no one will see him swipe the gun.

Mind you, this plane is not a jet. It’s propeller driven. Still the scene where he pops open the door and is nearly sucked out by the depressurization is exciting as he struggles to shoot the gremlin.

On a gurney being loaded into an ambulance at the end Bob says, “No one will know but me.” Just as the audience wonders whether it was a mirage or whether he saved the day, the camera pans back in a classic Twilight Zone twist to reveal the torn cowling on the plane’s engine. Beautiful.

The Midnight Sun – (Nov. 17, 1961 - Season 3)

Things are heating up as it is discovered that the Earth is slowly getting closer to the sun. Norma (Lois Nettleton) is an artist who is good friends with her landlady, Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde), but even she cannot stand to see anymore paintings featuring the sun. Obligingly, Norma paints a refreshing waterfall. Psychologically, I guess this helps.

Mr. Shuster (Jason Wingreen) and his wife (Juney Ellis) are the last tenants to leave the building for the temporary relief of moving to Canada. Really? Getting off the Earth would be my priority, if it were possible.

Tempers are flaring and social mores break down with the increasing Fahrenheit when an intruder (Tom Reese) forces his way into the apartment, drinks the last of their water and makes threatening gestures, but later breaks down in shame and embarrassment at what he’s become.

This episode has the definitive convoluted ending. Norma awakens from her fever dream and it’s snowing outside. The Earth has actually broken out of its orbit and is heading away from the sun.

I thought the acting in this chapter was especially well done. I was nearly sweating just watching it.

The Invaders – (Jan. 27, 1961 - Season 2)

A tour-de-force performance by Agnes Moorehead as an old woman living alone in a simple farm house in the countryside, no electricity, no neighbors, and no telephone. Suddenly a crash is heard in her attic. It’s a flying saucer and she finds herself beset by toy-like aliens who appear all over her house and fire weapons at her and stab her in the foot with one of her own kitchen knives.

Wordlessly, she gasps, grunts, and groans her way through the episode fighting off her tormentors and ultimately destroying the saucer with an ax. The last thing we, the audience, hear is a distress call (and the only words in the episode) from an American spaceship to mission control about a “race of giants!” 

We are the aliens in this one. It’s an elegant turn-around on who’s invading who, reminding me of a story recently on the news about an new Earth-like planet discovered several light-years away. The news reporter suggested it as a “new home?” Not if Agnes Moorehead is already living there.

The Howling Man – (Nov. 4, 1960 - Season 2)

David Ellington (H.M. Wynant) is on a walking trip in Central Europe and lost, seeks shelter from a violent storm (which conveniently stops for the dialogue and then resumes) at a monastery and he hears a strange howling (much like a dog’s) behind a locked door (Robin Hughes). Brother Jerome (John Carradine) tries to get David to leave, but when David collapses on the floor, he agrees to let him stay for the night.

The inmate convinces David that the monks, especially Brother Jerome are mad and that they imprisoned him for kissing a girl after beating him. Even after Brother Jerome reveals that his prisoner is the Devil himself. David is totally taken in by the howling man and opens the door.

The frightening metamorphosis occurs and once again the Devil is set loose upon the world. It’s now David’s task to recapture him, and he does, until a woman whom he strictly warns about opening the door lifts the bar sealing it anyway. The best line in this episode is from Brother Jerome, “No MAN has ever been imprisoned in the hermitage.” He’s referring of course to the Devil as not being a mere man.

Nowadays, we tend to dismiss the Devil, I guess because he’s not in fashion. Or we dress up in his “costume” at Halloween because it’s a jazzy way to wear red. This episode reveals him as not in the least jazzy, not in the least fashionable and never to be trusted.

A Stop at Willoughby – (May 6, 1960 - Season 1)

James Daly is Gart Williams, a harried man in a job where his boss, Mr. Misrell (Howard Smith), is constantly on his back urging him to “Push, push, push!” His work-a-day life makes him long for a simpler time. It’s November in Connecticut and on his train home (possibly the Metro-North?), he falls asleep and has realistic dreams of Willoughby, a peaceful, small town in a warm July of 1888. He wakes up disappointed back in his seat on his train as the snow is falling outside.

His wife Janie (Patricia Donahue) berates him about it, “You were born too late…I married a man whose big dream is to be Huck Finn!” All Gart wants is a job where he can be himself and not some drone endlessly being pushed and unrecognized. After a second dream (always occurring near Stamford) and return to Willoughby and a subsequent near nervous breakdown at the office, he’s determined to get off the train in Willoughby the next time he stops there.

He accomplishes this and everyone he meets is pleasant, as is the weather in Willoughby, and he’s perfectly happy to be there. But the reality (The Twilight Zone twist) is he’s not in Willoughby. He’s in a snowstorm in Connecticut and freezes to death outside. To add to the sad irony, he’s picked up by the Willoughby & Sons Funeral Home.

I enjoyed this episode because I can relate to someone who would really rather be somewhere pleasant than in a stressful situation. I’ve experienced this many times in my life and was caught more than once daydreaming in school. I identified with Gart, but I wouldn’t want to share his fate.

A Most Unusual Camera – (Dec. 16, 1960 - Season 2)

Chester and Paula Dietrich (Fred Clark and Jean Carson) are two-bit criminals who robbed a curio shop. To their amazement, among the stolen loot is a strange box camera that acts like a Polaroid camera with instant photos. Though they cannot figure out how to put film in it nor open it to do so, and cannot read the French writing on the outside, Chester takes a picture of Paula posing by the window.

Nothing happens for a little while and they figure the camera’s broken when “bing!” the picture pops out. It’s a perfect photo of Paula except that she’s wearing a fur coat. Chester figures it’s one of those carnival things, but when Paula discovers a fur coat in a suitcase from their stash and strikes the same pose by the window, Chester starts to wonder.

Paula pooh-poohs him and takes his picture. But the photo is of her brother Woodward (Adam Williams) coming through the door. Five minutes later, Woodward arrives (newly escaped from jail). Chester thinks it’s voodoo or some demonic thing. None of these three characters are the sharpest crayon in the box, but they figure out that the camera takes pictures of events that will happen five minutes in the future. They decide to take the camera to the racetrack and photograph the winners’ board. Knowing the horse that will win the last six races gets them a huge sum of cash.

They think they’re on Easy Street until Pierre, the hotel waiter (Marcel Hillaire), translates the French for them when he comes up and notices the camera, “Dix à la propriétaire - ten to an owner.” Chester does some quick calculations (which isn’t easy for him) of how many pictures they’ve taken and how many are left and concludes that they have to conserve the last two. Woodward and he argue and in the tussle a picture is taken of Paula screaming.

The two men continue to fight and both fall out the open window. Paula screams. But it doesn’t take her too long before she realizes that all the money is now hers. Her grief is short and she takes the final photo of the two men on the ground below. Cue the nasty Pierre, who takes the cash threatening to call the police. He also notes that there are more than two bodies in the photo.

Paula goes to look, trips and falls out herself. Standing by the window, Pierre counts bodies in the picture, “One, two, three, four?” and, shocked, falls out the window as well. The camera lands on the floor.

This episode has more of a comedic side to it than a moralistic one. Sure, crime doesn’t pay (obviously) but the characters are so bizarrely played that one can laugh at their mishaps. My favorite line is from Chester, “What has humanity ever done for us?”

Living Doll – (Nov. 1, 1963 - Season 5)

Telly Savalas is Erich Streator, stepfather to Christie (Tracy Stratford) and husband to Annabelle (Mary LaRoche). The girls come home with a new doll for Chrissie, a “Talking Tina” doll. “She doesn’t need another doll!” says he. At first, all Tina (voiced by June Foray, famed for the voice of Witch Hazel in Warner Brothers cartoons) says is, “My name is Talking Tina and I love you very much!”

But out of sight and earshot of the wife and child she changes her tune and ranges from “…and I don’t think I like you.” to “I’m beginning to hate you.” to “I’m going to kill you.” Eric tries to dispose of the doll in the garbage and she quotes Daffy Duck, “You wouldn’t dare.” (Chuck Jones, Drip-Along Daffy, 1951)

But when Tina calls him on the phone, it’s the last straw. He tries to cut her head off with a power saw (and fails), puts her head in a vice (she giggles), and tries to burn her with a blow torch (which repeatedly gets blown out – another Daffy Duck reference: Holiday for Drumsticks, 1949). He gives up.

Then one night. Eric hears something and gets out of bed to investigate. As he starts to descend the stairs, Tina is lying on the second step; he trips and falls to the bottom. Annabelle hears the noise and is horrified, not just by his (we assume) fatal fall (though you can see, he’s still breathing), but by the doll’s last line, “My name is Talking Tina and you’d better be nice to me.”

Eric is not really the evil stepfather so much as the inadequate husband. He repeatedly accuses Annabelle and Chrissie of being in league against him because he and Annabelle can’t have any children of their own. Savalas is used to playing a tough guy but nobody wins against a savvy doll (remember Chuckie?).

I found this episode to be one of the creepier ones and worthy, as such, of being one of my favorites.

You may have your own “top 10.” It’s not easy to whittle them down to that amount. Try it, you’ll see. There are so many to choose from, but these are mine. The memories are bittersweet for all the actors who are not with us anymore as well as the marvelous Rod Serling, who passed 40 years ago, and script writers Richard Matheson (2013) and Charles Beaumont (1967) who brought the stories to us and made the unbelievable believable.

What better way to end a top 10 favorite compilation than with a quote from Rod Serling: There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.”