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History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
1982's "My Favorite Year" is a movie I can gush over
"Miss America" aired for the first time on national TV in 1954. It was the year before I was born. The pageant drew 27 million TV watchers. Lee Ann Meriwether got the crown. TV was fully in color by the time she starred with Buddy Ebsen in "Barnaby Jones" in the disco '70s.
A lot of dreck appeared on television in the 1970s. It made us pine for the so-called "golden age" of television. No wonder, then, that a comedy writer might look back on 1954 as "my favorite year."
I would argue it's impossible not to like the movie "My Favorite Year." We don't typically think of it as a Mel Brooks movie. But Brooks was executive producer of the film. He knew of what he was presenting. The young comedy writer character in the movie might have been Brooks himself. That character guides us into the story.
Mark Linn-Baker plays the narrator, "Benjy Stone." He might as well have been Brooks who was a writer for the Sid Caesar variety program "Your Show of Shows." Whenever we see a retrospective on "Your Show of Shows," it seems the same highlight clip is pulled from the archives: the characters playing roles on that giant decorative clock. It's a little frustrating for me because 1) it gets old, and 2) I think they did a lot funnier stuff than that.
Performers then didn't have to degrade themselves to try to be funny. No potty mouth needed. Censors were on the alert anyway. The entertainment was classy in a way we can only dream about today. I'm going to sound awfully snooty here, but I think TV in those seminal times was more classy because TV was still limited to the more affluent segment of our population. By the time of "Barnaby Jones" in the '70s, that problem had sure been solved. The '70s brought what Newton Minow referred to as that "vast wasteland." The problem was that TV entertainment had to try to cater to everyone.
This isn't to say creativity was snuffed out. I recently wrote a post saying we should take a fresh look at "Gilligan's Island." I suggested that those seven performers might join the pantheon of classic comedy. On the whole, though, we cannot ascribe a lot of high art in connection with stuff like "Laverne and Shirley." That stuff was crafted to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
In the 1950s, TV comedy was impulsive and slapstick. The 1982 movie "My Favorite Year" is a marvelous and authentic lens into a world that was still fresh and beloved in Mel Brooks' memory. How can we not love those memories?
I have a DVD of a Jack Benny New Year's Eve TV special from the mid-1950s. I watch it every New Year's Eve. Don Wilson plays the tuba for a little sketch promoting the show's sponsor, State Farm Insurance. Oh, and Dennis Day sings! The men were mature and classy, wearing suits.
Obvious inspiration for character
Peter O'Toole was nominated for Best Actor for his role in "My Favorite Year." His character was based totally on the real-life Errol Flynn, who was the embodiment of the "big screen" prime of Hollywood entertainment. The terms "big screen" and "small screen" were tossed around a lot, as if the distinction was important. "Big screen" suggested higher status, still.
In the back of everyone's mind, though, the power of TV was obvious. I had a book about Shirley Temple once with a caption that suggested we should be fascinated, sort of, by the "big screen" Shirley appearing with the "small screen" Red Skelton on TV. The author noted Shirley seemed a little stiff in this appearance. She never really did cut it as an adult actress, did she.
Shirley Temple and Errol Flynn impressed themselves as "movie stars" when that term suggested an awe that was almost other-worldly. A movie star!
"Benjy Stone" in "My Favorite Year" befriends "Alan Swann," the Errol Flynn clone. Benjy is a junior comedy writer for a variety show starring Stan "King" Kaiser, played by Joseph Bologna. Swann seems past his prime but still exudes fame. Kaiser's show is called "Comedy Cavalcade" which is the perfect name for a comedy show of the era. Such shows were live. This absolutely shocks Mr. Swann, accustomed to multiple "takes" for a scene. We get the impression his movies consisted almost entirely of swordfighting! His movies were set in exotic places. Is there really a "Tortuga?"
The Errol Flynn movie I remember best is "They Died With Their Boots On." It's a highly fictionalized account of George Armstrong Custer's life. Imagine embellishing the life of a war figure! In fact, Custer and his Confederate foe George Pickett both ascended to post-Civil War fame largely because of the efforts of their widows. Custer was sympathetic as a Union officer. He was pugnacious, a quality usually associated with the South. We all know the kind of infamy that came his way later, out West.
Olivia de Havilland starred with Flynn in "They Died With Their Boots On." The golden age of Hollywood, to be sure. Is de Havilland really about to turn age 98? Our best wishes to the actress.
The plot develops
Peter O'Toole as Swann shows up as a roaring drunk for his 1954 TV appearance. Benjy Stone is a long-time admirer of the man. Kaiser wants to dump Swann but Benjy intervenes. Benjy will do what he can to keep Swann stable, sober and capable of performing.
But, Swann is simply aghast at the thought of "going on live." This veteran entertainer has the kind of panic attack that might befall an amateur. Meanwhile, Kaiser is threatened by a corrupt union boss who doesn't like being parodied on the show. The "Boss Hijack" sketches are the bone of contention.
Swann becomes reluctant and consumes alcohol. He's in a mood to simply bolt but he's "rescued" by an exasperated Benjy Stone who in effect gives him a pep talk. Stone doesn't want to be let down by the iconic "big screen" Swann. Stone implores Swann to realize he really does have the heroic qualities of the swashbuckling character we saw in the movies. A poignant line is "Nobody's that good an actor," meaning that Swann deep down is the true hero.
The TV cameras go on. The studio audience enthusiastically pours in, and they're in the mood for comedy. The glorious spontaneous quality of 1950s television unfolds. Mel Brooks must have been consumed with nostalgia. We don't blame him. We drift back as if in some sort of time machine. Television was like an infant with the same charming qualities. Everyone was learning.
King Kaiser gives the thumbs-up for the "Boss Hijack" gag. That doesn't sit well with certain shady parties. The gangster minions of the corrupt union boss show up backstage. They're thugs and behave accordingly. A fight starts and spills onto the stage, perceived as part of the act. The audience laughs thigh-slappingly.
Alan Swann and Benjy Stone are up in a balcony. The audience becomes aware of Swann and erupts in vocal acclamation. They're unaware that everything is developing unscripted.
Swann, at first frozen and panicked by the "live TV" demands imposed on him, has his instincts take over, proving Benjy right with that pronouncement that he's a genuine hero. Swann grabs a rope or fire hose. (Earlier in the movie he used a hose to go from one apartment to another outside a building.)
Dressed as a musketeer for a later sketch, Swann looks every bit the Errol Flynn-type character. The audience is captivated and loves it. Swann swings heroically from the balcony, arriving on stage to save the day for the "good guys." He saves King Kaiser!
There are sub-plots about family challenges facing both the Swann and Stone characters. Benjy narrates the epilogue, explaining that Swann, his confidence bolstered by his marvelous improvised performance on the "Cavalcade," works up the courage to get to know his daughter better - a girl who lives separate from him with one of his several ex-wives.
Meanwhile Benjy overcomes his own inhibitions. Is this biographical, relating to Mel Brooks? Benjy has a "thing" for the TV show's assistant producer, "K.C. Downing." He "can't get to first base." Swann gives encouragement based on his romantic insights, never mind that his marriages don't stick. He uses the fire hose to try to make a dramatic entrance to the Downing apartment. It's probably set up as a precursor scene, just like "Happy Gilmore" playing miniature golf as a precursor to his final dramatic putt in the movie "Happy Gilmore" (Adam Sandler).
Stone takes Swann to his Jewish mom's Brooklyn apartment where awkwardness prevails. The mom fawns over the star while uncouth "Uncle Morty" crudely asks Swann about a paternity suit. Didn't Errol Flynn have to deal with some messy personal details like this?
The "odd couple" friendship of Swann and Stone brings dividends for both - they overcome their inhibitions. The ending seems triumphant for all. The nostalgia is thus enhanced. We have overwhelmingly warm feelings at movie's end.
Swann acknowledges the admiring audience at the show's conclusion. He's right at home on TV after all! His instincts took over just like Benjy Stone said they would. A signature line from the movie is Swann saying "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" We realize he's a flawed human being who can be dauntless when prompted.
Richard Benjamin: Wasn't he "Quark?"
"My Favorite Year" was the directorial debut of Richard Benjamin. Immediately I think of the late-1970s TV show "Quark" starring Benjamin. It's not a well-remembered show. Its lifespan was short. A shame, because the show had great potential as a sci-fi parody. It was created by Buck Henry who gave us "Get Smart" with Don Adams.
"Quark" is set on a United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol Cruiser. Three of the episodes were direct satires of "Star Trek" episodes. Satire can be a delicate thing. It's sophisticated. The watered-down nature of 1970s television made it largely impractical. You had to hit people on the head with what you were doing.
Buddy Ebsen as "Barnaby Jones" was an old geezer out chasing crooks. Ridiculous. "McCloud" was a western guy on his horse doing good in the big city. Implausible. Hollywood can be a "dream factory." It would also give us that "vast wasteland" (Newton Minow).
Today, TV is incredibly fragmented. There's something for everyone. We are tremendously spoiled. We are spared the likes of "Laverne and Shirley." Or at least, we can turn away from it.
That intriguing "Quark" show had navigator characters: "the Bettys," cute young women one of whom was a clone (although they both denied being the clone). Benjamin's "Adam Quark" says he's in love with Betty but isn't sure which one. The likes of "Star Trek" were ripe for satire. "Quark" just didn't break through.
Predicting success was very difficult. Remember, Jerry Van Dyke passed on the role of "Gilligan" because he saw more potential in "My Mother the Car." Didn't Dennis Weaver leave "Gunsmoke" for a short-lived comedy? But he re-appeared as "McCloud."
How we all wasted time watching TV. We vicariously attached ourselves to the characters, I guess. I read that psychological depression resulted from this. In 1954 the TV universe was fresh and unpretentious, in comparison to the '70s contrived dreck. One negative was the unabashed cigarette commercials.
"Seeing" the big news
In '54 television gave us, live, the broadcast of the Army/McCarthy hearings. And, Lee Ann Meriwether getting the crown of Miss America. We would be "subjected to" years of Miss America being hosted by Burt Parks. Mad Magazine had a satire where you could buy "Having to watch Burt Parks on TV insurance," and there was an illustration of a guy who had tried to change channels but the knob came off the TV. Ah, comedy!
All hail "My Favorite Year"
"My Favorite Year" is my favorite movie. It has sentiment without being maudlin. It balances a serious side with the madcap comedy.
Knowing it's a Mel Brooks movie, you can look for signs of the Brooks sense of humor, and it's there. Like, in the scene where Swann asks Stone to create a diversion at a nightclub so Swann can make a play on a certain young, admiring woman who's present with a dweeb-ish male companion. The tactic works, whereupon the jilted man, prone on the floor, says "somebody took my girl!" The lounge musicians take that as a request and instantly break into the song of that name. I laughed out loud.
I laughed out loud several times before movie's end. It's rare I can kick back and just describe a movie as totally wonderful from beginning to end. "My Favorite Year" is such a gem. The Mel Brooks touch continued with this historical flourish.
The early TV was endearing because it came right into our homes, adding a new dimension there, whereas movies had been a detached experience. (The movies didn't work out too good for John Dillinger.)
The idea of creating a character like Errol Flynn without actually being Errol Flynn, made me try to remember other such characters. Andy Griffith in "A Face in the Crowd" could have been Arthur Godfrey. The movies were trying to warn us about the dangers of TV, i.e. its potentially mesmerizing influence on a too-gullible public. Griffith might also be Glenn Beck, I might suggest!
Joe Don Baker played the best Babe Ruth ever. Except, that he wasn't really Babe Ruth, he was a character called "the Whammer" in Robert Redford's "The Natural."
Tina Louise on "Gilligan's Island" could have been Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield.
Was Orson Welles really William Randolph Hearst in "Citizen Kane?" Hearst didn't like FDR because FDR helped start long, cruel World War II. Hearst for his part only started short, funny wars like the Spanish-American War.
Hollywood is wonderful when it isn't pretentious. "My Favorite Year" pays homage to an earlier time with total sincerity. Congratulations, Mel Brooks - sometimes you make me wish I was Jewish. (I had a first cousin, RIP, who converted to Judaism late in life.)
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - email@example.com