History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

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).

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bobby Richardson, exemplary INF hero from my youth

Bobby Richardson was the player who really got me appreciating the skills of the infield positions. He was the masterful second baseman for the New York Yankees. He plied his skills up through the end of the Yankee dynasty of that time. That means he was a fixture up through 1964.
I remember having a packet of black and white photos of the Yankees of the early 1960s. I read about Bobby Richardson on baseball cards. He was a straight-laced and reliable person. No eccentricities to deal with or overcome. And he played infield: a most rigorous challenge where you're dealing with screaming liners and ground balls.
I wish someone had told him to smile for his baseball card photos!
He wore the uniform number "1" for most of his career, up through his rather premature retirement. Could it be that the end of the Yankee dynasty broke his heart? The Yankees lost their glorious luster after 1964. The likes of Mickey Mantle no longer presented that dominating quality. Our Minnesota Twins may have dealt the most decisive blow. A Harmon Killebrew home run just before the All-Star break in 1965 seemed symbolic: a changing of the guard that had the Yankee pinstripes fading and our Midwestern newcomers coming on strong.
Bobby retired at the end of the 1966 season. There were no physical factors holding him back, according to what I've read. He had come into the major league fold in 1955. In 1966 he was only 30 years old. He could have helped our Twins in1965. We had Jerry Kindall in 1965, an all-field, no-hit guy. We did win the American League pennant in '65. We came up just shy in the World Series. Sandy Koufax dashed our dreams. Koufax became a great pitcher when umpires decided to start calling the high fastball a strike.
Koufax could seem suspicious with his dominating nature. How did he do it? He struck out Richardson three times in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series. This was phenomenal: It was the only game in Richardson's career in which he fanned three times. He played 1448 total games. The Dodgers swept the Yankees in the '63 Fall Classic. Koufax had 15 strikeouts in Game 1. Too bad that day wasn't a Jewish holiday (LOL).
The regular season of 1963 saw Richardson strike out just 22 times in 630 at-bats. He didn't strike out more than once in a game, the sole exception being that Game 1 of the World Series.
In 1964 the Yankees achieved their last pennant of that era, and Richardson had mighty impact with his bat in the Series. Their opponent was the St. Louis Cardinals who were destined to win the Series. St. Louis had a young Lou Brock who had come up with a stint in St. Cloud MN. Richardson stroked 13 hits in the '64 World Series. He set a new standard with that stat. Brock equaled it in the '68 Series, and Marty Barrett came along to do it in 1986.
Stellar fielder though he was, he was imperfect in the '64 Series. Game 4 saw him falter on a potential double play ball hit by Dick Groat. A clean play would have kept St. Louis from scoring. As it turned out, the error opened the door for Ken Boyer hitting a grand slam. The final score? St. Louis had four runs, the Yankees three. Then in Game 5, Richardson failed to handle cleanly a potential double play ball hit by Curt Flood. (This post is full of names that should take you down memory lane.) Again, a clean play would have set the Cardinals down with no runs scored. But St. Louis plated two runs, keeping them alive for when Tim McCarver hit a three-run home run in extra innings.
It's sad that the brilliant fielder Richardson broke down under the World Series spotlight. He fashioned a superlative reputation with the glove. I was about nine years old when I got my parents to buy me a paperback bio of Richardson: "The Bobby Richardson Story." I still have it.
Richardson is the only player ever to be chosen World Series MVP from the losing team! I'm not even sure that's proper. The winning team really ought to have that distinction as a matter of course, IMHO. But congrats to Bobby who must have made a heckuva impression in the 1960 World Series. He batted .367 with 12 RBIs in the '60 Fall Classic.
A fabled moment from his career came in the '62 Series when he caught that screaming line drive off the bat of Willie McCovey, ending the Series and thwarting the very good bid the Giants made for victory. Baseball history would have changed if McCovey had hit the liner two or three feet higher. Richardson's best year was probably 1962: He batted .302 with the league-leading 209 hits. Never a power merchant, he hit eight homers that season. He won his second Gold Glove and was No. 2 in MVP voting behind Mickey Mantle.
Bobby struck out only 243 times in his 12-year career. He was a workhorse, compiling 692 at-bats in 1962. He was on three World Series-winning teams: 1958, 1961 and 1962. He played in seven total Fall Classics beginning in 1957.
 
Do you need to look it up?
Many of us can remember the whole Yankee infield from the early '60s. You can get a refresher in Billy Crystal's movie "61*" which focused on Roger Maris' 61-homer campaign of 1961. Tony Kubek was the shortstop. At third was Clete Boyer, and "Moose" Skowron handled the throws at first. Skowron gave way to a character name of Joe Pepitone. Kubek went into the broadcast booth for NBC's Game of the Week which I remember well. Kubek worked beside Curt Gowdy who I thought was overrated.
Richardson plunged back into baseball in 1970, coaching in the college ranks. He was head coach of the Gamecocks of South Carolina from 1970 to '76. The Gamecocks progressed spectacularly. His record there: 221-92-1.
Richardson tried his hand at politics in 1976. A Republican, Richardson was edged by Democratic incumbent Kenneth Holland for a Congressional seat. That was the year of Jimmy Carter's rise. I remember the mid-1970s as a time when the Democratic Party felt its oats, and Republicans seemed largely on the defensive. We listened to disco music. Many of Bobby's former teammates endorsed him but not Kubek, a Democrat.
Richardson coached for Liberty University in the 1980s. He also had a stint for Carolina University in South Carolina.
I learned way back in the '60s that a high-profile Christian belief was part of Richardson's image. He built the profile of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a group that I frankly never felt too enthused about. Why are athletes any more special than anyone else in terms of building up the faith? Athletes are already treated special enough. Anyway, that's my bias but I don't hold this against Richardson who I always admired 100 percent, so steady with his personality compared to some of his Yankee mates. He was never a prima donna. We might describe him as a breath of fresh air. He officiated at Mickey Mantle's funeral.
 
We'd love him as a Twin
I wish he had played longer, if not with the fading Yankees, then with our Twins. We would have welcomed him with open arms. Could he have made a difference in the '65 World Series? Or would Koufax have stymied him again? That cotton pickin' high fastball.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, June 27, 2016

From "Whiz Kid" to original NY Met: Richie Ashburn

Richie Ashburn Field in Tilden, Nebraska
I have never paid much attention to baseball in the 1950s. I hear names like Bobby Avila and Al Rosen and I don't even know what these guys look like.
Richie Ashburn was at the end of his career when I first started paying attention to baseball. This is a name firmly established within the 1950s. However, he did have a little gas left in the tank as he moved into the '60s. The brand new New York Mets were very fortunate to latch onto this fellow for their inaugural season. It would be Richie's last season. His skills could still be very sharp. We readily learn this when looking at his .306 batting average.
It's true, as Bill James has hammered home for years, that batting average is but one thing to look at. Historically it has been overrated, through the years when it was the first stat you'd consult when evaluating a player. But a .306 batter definitely provided value. The New York Mets lacked value in 1962. They were led by the corny manager Casey Stengel. I guess Stengel had been judged too old to stay with the Yankees.
Stengel led a ragtag group of original New York Mets. The team represented the return to New York City of the National League. They played at the Polo Grounds, previously home to the New York Giants. It was a temporary, stop-gap home, as new digs were being constructed: Shea Stadium.
I eventually read that Richie Ashburn had been a member of the "Whiz Kids" Philadelphia Phillies. That was way back in 1950! A decade came and went before Richie would pull on that light blue Mets cap. He must have had an interesting background. He played center field. He had a background that seemed out of a movie: a farm boy from a small Midwestern town. That town was Tilden, Nebraska. I got out my road atlas, dated 1997, and saw that Tilden was a town of 895 population located on Highway 275 west of Norfolk. It's in between Oakdale and Meadow Grove. Quite the far cry from Queens. A pleasant far cry.
One of Richie's nicknames was "The Tilden Flash." He never lost that Midwestern connection. He lived in his hometown of Tilden in the offseason during his playing career. He officiated high school basketball games throughout Nebraska, staying in prime physical shape in the process. His light-blond hair inspired another nickname: "Whitey." He was one of those famous "Whiz Kids" of the N.L. champion Phillies in 1950.
He was the Phillies' center fielder in 12 of his 15 major league seasons: 1948 through 1959. Let's present Richie as an exhibit for 1950s nostalgia, up there with the movie "Angels in the Outfield."
If you are one of those fans who still puts emphasis on batting average, you'll be impressed by Richie's career .308 mark. He didn't hit for power but he had other strengths. He routinely led the N.L. in fielding percentage.
Looking at his career stats, I wouldn't consider him a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame. He was a singles hitter who sprayed the ball to all fields. He was shy of 3000 hits for his career, the type of marker that would have gotten him into the Hall routinely. He did have the most hits of any batter in the 1950s: 1,875. He made a spectacular catch in the 1951 All-Star game in Detroit. He had eight hits, all singles, in a doubleheader in 1951.
Ashburn was in focus for one of the odder baseball stories of all time. The date was August 17, 1957. Ashburn hit a foul ball into the stands that struck Alice Roth, wife of a Philadelphia sports editor. Alice had her hose broken. She was being carried away on a stretcher when Ashburn hit another foul ball that struck Roth! Happily, the two built a friendship in the wake of this stranger-than-fiction episode.
Richie had the misfortune of playing for poor teams toward the end of his career. The Phillies lost steam. He went from the eighth place Phillies to the seventh place Cubs and then those tenth place Mets. The Mets lost 120 games. The last loss saw Ashburn get retired as part of a triple play executed by the ninth place Cubs.
Ashburn's playing career all by itself might not have gotten him in the Hall of Fame. Like our Bert Blyleven, he kept contributing to the game as a radio and TV color commentator. He served the team for which he gained his chief fame: those Philadelphia Phillies. He planned on making a complete retirement after the end of the 1997 season. A heart attack cut him down after he broadcast a Phillies-Mets game at Shea Stadium.
Richie was elected to the Hall by the Veterans Committee in 1995. A long fan campaign had helped build his chances. Seems to me that if Ashburn can be in the Hall, so can our Tony Oliva. Life is often not fair.
Ashburn understood "the power of the press" (or media). When calling late innings, he'd occasionally ask if the staff of Celebre's Pizza might be listening. Presto, pizza would arrive at the radio booth within 20 minutes! The Phillies requested that "Whitey" quit doing this. Because he was allowed to extend birthday greetings on air, he once said "I'd like to send out a special birthday wish to the Celebre's twins: Plain and Pepperoni!"
I'm glad Ashburn extended his career through 1962 and was willing to be part of the futile but historic New York Mets campaign. He retired after sporting that .306 average with "The Amazin' Mets" under Casey Stengel. He is an iconic figure from baseball's mid-20th Century experience, when it still had many of its quaint older qualities but was on the threshold of much bigger things.
A farm boy from Nebraska who stayed true to his roots: Richie Ashburn, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, June 20, 2016

"It Happens Every Spring": essential baseball movie

There is nothing like an old black and white baseball movie to induce a feeling of nostalgia. We see Lloyd Nolan in a movie about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gary Cooper portrayed Lou Gehrig. In a far less impressive portrayal: William Bendix as Babe Ruth.
The best ever Babe Ruth portrayal was probably by Joe Don Baker whose character was not literally Babe Ruth, but "The Whammer," appearing to all the world like Babe Ruth. Baker's performance, in case you've forgotten, was in "The Natural." Only Robert Redford's famous reputation as a political liberal saved "The Natural" from being ridiculed as a movie that glorified an era when there were no African-Americans in the sport.
And, it's not as if things changed overnight with Jackie Robinson. Baseball movies made after Robinson's entry could hardly be expected to show us African-Americans.
I remember one of the narrators in that great retrospective HBO special "When It Was a Game." The narrator, reflecting on his youth, expressed shame that he never "noticed" the game's segregation and that he never "objected." We watch the old black and white baseball movies today and we probably have to remind ourselves, with considerable effort, that we are admiring an abomination: segregated (or at least color-conscious) baseball.
 
The spirit and tone of post-WWII America
There is a charming old baseball movie that I got familiar with on network TV as a child. This is an airy, happy, fun-filled movie: traits associated with that most relieved time in U.S. history, immediately following World War II. I'm talking about "It Happens Every Spring." In case you think the title is suggestive, you're right. We hear the title song accompanied by drawings of animals frolicking amorously in springtime.
Baseball fans in that age had an intimate relationship with their favorite team. So if you were to make a major scientific breakthrough, how might you apply it? Well, you might wonder if it could help your favorite baseball team! The interests of humanity could wait. This premise builds the charm of "It Happens Every Spring."
We meet an absent-minded professor from the days before Fred MacMurray. The professor in this movie seems more genuine than in the absurd Walt Disney productions of the 1960s. The actor is Ray Milland. Del Sarlette of Morris told me once that the actor seemed too old for the role. Milland's love interest in the movie, played by Jean Peters, seems too young for him, if you look at the age of the actors. Oh, suspend credulity. That's what Hollywood expects us to do all the time.
 
Again, understand the war background
There is a defense for the selection of the somewhat up-in-years Milland. His character in the movie has had his life's ambitions delayed by service in WWII. Excuse permitted. Think of what Ted Williams did in WWII.
Jean Peters plays Debbie Greenleaf while Milland's character is named Professor Vernon K. Simpson.
The professor teaches chemistry at a Midwestern college that seems much like our UMM in Morris. This is a Midwestern-centric movie. As such it's a nice contrast to all the New York City-based fare. The moviemakers had no aversion to the Midwestern motif which might be seen as less marketable. Maybe they saw the Midwestern setting as endearing in the context of immediate post-WWII America. Amber waves of grain. From sea to shining sea. War is over.
The professor is determined to finish his doctorate. He needed a good living in order to win the hand of Greenleaf who happens to be the daughter of the college president! The professor is close to his breakthrough accomplishment: a "biophobic" that will keep insects away from wood.
Enter America's pastime. A baseball practice outside the campus building results in a ball coming through the window, shattering the elaborate set of beakers. Various components collect in the lab sink. The ball comes in contact. Simpson retrieves the ball. Hey, the baseball is repelled by wooden objects! Despite the phenomenal possibilities of such a substance, where do Simpson's thoughts gravitate? Of course: trying to win baseball games! This innocent premise gives the movie much of its endearing quality.
Simpson realizes he can be an unhittable big league pitcher. What objective could possibly be more important than this? The masses of (almost exclusively white) baseball fans had practically a symbiotic relationship with their favorite team. They didn't care how much those players got paid. Talk about contracts would have been base and unacceptable. Actually all players back then signed the same three-page contract, and they had no leverage at all until after ten years.
People just loved their favorite team.
Simpson experiments with the help of the college baseball players. A dab of this mysterious solution, hidden in his glove, helps Simpson apply this miraculous attribute. He takes on a new identity: "Kelly" Simpson. His team is the St. Cloud Cardinals. In those days, "a trip west" meant to St. Louis or Chicago. Many of the old baseball movies have train travel scenes and the camaraderie that accompanies them. California had the Pacific Coast League which was technically minor league but had very high-caliber players. Plane travel finally connected the whole country, and not even Lloyd Nolan could keep the Dodgers from leaving Brooklyn and Ebbets Field.
I have an elderly friend in Morris who attended a game at Ebbets Field when he was in the service. He said it was a "dump." Doesn't surprise me. The Polo Grounds were probably likewise. But these were New York City landmarks, worthy of our fascination. The fact that the Dodgers and Giants left NYC indicated it was no bed of roses playing there. The Senators left Washington D.C. to become our Minnesota Twins.
 
Douglas complements Milland
Paul Douglas is an important actor in "It Happens Every Spring." He's the catcher, named Monk Lanigan, and he really nails the role. His character is important because he's assigned to "keep an eye on" this mysterious new player, Simpson.
Despite the far-fetched premise of the movie, the situations really do seem genuine. Milland projects a serious, believable air as professor-turned-pitcher, not like the silly cliche of a character a la Fred MacMurray. MacMurray wasn't to be faulted - he did the role as instructed. Funny thing about the 1960s Disney movies: as I re-watch them as an adult, I find them quite lacking, whereas as a kid I rather enjoyed them.
It's too bad MacMurray had to play a bad guy character in "The Caine Mutiny."
It is important to note that Valentine Davies, who wrote "It Happens Every Spring," also gave us "Miracle on 34th Street." Davies had an innate gift for giving us such soothing "soft" movies. The Christmas "34th" movie is close to reaching the saturation point in holidaytime TV. Other movies flirting with the same kind of problem are "The Karate Kid" and "Happy Gilmore." But it's a testament to their quality.
"It Happens Every Spring" really doesn't appear much anymore on TV. That's a shame. The movie did well at the box office when it was current. The director was Lloyd Bacon.
"Kelly Simpson" is able to pitch the Cardinals to the World Series.
Major League Baseball stayed distant from the movie because it had to do with cheating. Oh my, but just consider the can of worms that came along for baseball with PEDs, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds etc. Baseball could have easily gone along with "It Happens Every Spring," as merely an escapist fantasy.
Simpson has his two goals: to make enough money to wed Deborah, and to help the Cardinals win the pennant. But which is more important? Rimshot.
Simpson has to disappear as a professor to assume his new role with the Cardinals. Deborah is clueless about this. She wonders if he joined the mob.
Paul Douglas as Monk Lanigan gets most of of the funniest lines and best scenes. He tries Vernon's formula as a hair tonic.
 
Context of the times lifts movie
An online reviewer says "much of what occurs is able to happen because it came from a time when there were no multi-million dollar athletes, no wall-to-wall TV coverage on ESPN and no cynical sports analysts to dissect every play."
Amen and hallelujah. Of course, players weren't rewarded very well, and sports medicine hadn't advanced far. No "pitch count" yet. Scores of young pitchers threw out their arms in the old days. Today these teams have too much of an investment in their young pitchers. A pitcher might be removed from a game when he's 5-6 outs from completing a no-hitter.
In the world of today, Vernon would not be able to hide his identity. You can nitpick the movie. Go ahead, but its basic essence, reflecting the euphoric air of post-WWII America, is 100 percent endearing. Hats off to "It Happens Every Spring." Valentine Davies, you hit it out of the park. Maybe it would be best if this movie is never re-made.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, June 13, 2016

The rise and fall of our early Minnesota Twins

Apologies to William Shirer. . .
We don't think much about it today, but the 1965 summer in Minnesota was magical. The Twins were part of the rapidly expanding vista of entertainment and enrichment for my boomer generation. Typical of us, we took it all for granted. We felt entitled to it. We felt insufficient gratitude.
Flashback to 1960: There are no major league sports in Minnesota.
We read histories today of the Millers and Saints, those minor league teams that were really quite impressive fixtures in the Twin Cities. But that was nothing compared to getting ushered into the "big show." The ball got rolling in 1961. You might even go back to 1956 when Metropolitan Stadium opened, a stadium built for the specific purpose of attracting major league baseball. The Millers played at the Met for an excruciatingly long time: five years.
Finally, word came that Calvin Griffith was bringing his Washington Senators to Minnesota. It was part of a trend of some well-established East Coast teams pulling up stakes and heading west. The Dodgers and Giants made the move, then the Senators who came to occupy Met Stadium in 1961. I was enthralled by Met Stadium as a boy. I remember walking up and down those ramps on the side. I remember consuming those Frosty Malts and soft drinks, priced at just a fraction of today.
The Twins did fine commanding our attention in the first four years. We made a run at the Yankees in 1962. Finally along came 1965, our fifth and blessed year, and what would turn out to be the apex of the Met Stadium experience. The All-Star Game was played here. The Beatles came to play their music. Just before the '65 All-Star break, we had the breathtaking thrill of appreciating a Harmon Killebrew home run that was like a virtual knockout punch for the Yankees. The Yankees with their big-time reputation and storied history had succumbed to this new assemblage of players called the Twins.
The Midwest glowed. We got the World Series in the fall. We stretched that Series to seven games, losing in the end to the incredible Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers. These were the old Brooklyn Dodgers with quite the storied history too, having broken the color barrier. Our Twins did fine with players of color. Owner Griffith eventually showed his Neanderthal side in terms of verbiage, making comments for the Waseca Lions Club that were immediately notorious. However, Griffith was a pacesetter, certainly by the standards of the American League, in how he enlisted players of color including several Cubans.
Our Twins won 102 games in 1965. We were seven games up on the second place White Sox. Ironically this was a season when Killebrew was held back by injury. I will not argue with those who say Hammerin' Harmon may have been overrated. Some even wondered if he belonged in the Hall of Fame. I certainly think he belonged in the Hall because of how much his stature as power hitter meant to Minnesota. However, he couldn't do much outside of hitting home runs. I sometimes wondered: Would we have done just as well with a superior-fielding, lefthanded throwing first baseman who had speed and who could hit at least .260?
Well, we had Harmon and we loved him. Just as we loved Tony Oliva. 
 
Sad story of our first shortstop
Zoilo Versalles was a story unto himself. Vic Power called him "crazy." Versalles was 17 years old when he arrived in Key West from Cuba. He didn't speak English. He wasn't sure how to handle our segregated society. But he made it to the Twins when he was age 21, assigned to play the key shortstop spot.
Versalles was the MVP in league when we won the pennant. From that peak he descended sadly. Sportswriter Doug Grow asked Griffith about the cause of the decline. The answer: "drugs." Versalles had taken painkillers for a bad back. He drifted from the correct dosage, often taking too much.
Griffith was not up to date in terms of his philosophy of running an organization. He seemed to know nothing about organizational team building and conflict resolution. I think this was a generational defect. I saw those of his age stripes seem clueless about how to effectively monitor an organization's effectiveness. It's a science today. Back then you just hired "good people" and assumed everything would be fine. What about the back-biting that so often surfaces? So many of the older types had been in military service, I think they mistakenly assumed that younger people would have the same qualities that are instilled with military discipline.
Here's what happened: The Twins of the late 1960s, who broke our heart, got fractured into several cliques. This is reported in a fine SABR post about the Twins.
Ugh. I hate that sort of thing. Many of us have in our background an experience like what I'm alluding to here: dysfunction leading to conflict among individuals, hindering the organization. (IMHO, I worked within the dysfunctional type of model when I was with the Morris Sun Tribune newspaper in the 1980s and '90s.)
 
The fall of the early Twins
I won't review the several specific heartbreaks that us Twins fans experienced in the late '60s. It's too painful. It was a mistake for me to ever develop an emotional bond with this or any other sports team. It was common in the '60s for Minnesota boys to have that bond, to take losses personally.
You set yourself up for nothing but heartbreak when this happens. Why did each league have just one team advance to the post-season? In '67 the heartbreak could have been alleviated if we just could have advanced as some kind of wild card, instead of being edged out at the very end by Boston. Jim Kaat threw his arm out as a result of the desperation we felt trying to surpass the Red Sox.
The heartbreak of '67 stayed with us for a long time.
Baseball instituted its divisional format in 1969. We won the West Division in both '69 and '70 but there was very little optimism both seasons in Minnesota, about whether we could beat Baltimore. Our fatalistic feelings were affirmed when we got swept by Baltimore both seasons. Dave Boswell threw his arm out for good, as a result of the desperation we felt to win a playoff game, a game we lost anyway. It's sickening.
 
Boomers became indifferent
After 1970, the decade to come was anticlimactic compared to the heady days of Met Stadium when the Twins were fresh. My generation no longer felt special excitement about the Twins or the Met. Our parents, when young, had only the Gophers to be excited about, just football really. We had been given so much. Eventually us boomers yawned. We found time for soccer (the "Kicks") but were more interested in the socializing than the game.
If only the Twins could have won the pennant in '67. Maybe there's an alternative dimension where I can watch the Twins win the pennant. Where I can see Ron Kline come through.
Let us never forget the transformational magic the Twins brought in the early 1960s. That Killebrew home run before the All-Star break in 1965 might be the most exciting moment in Minnesota history. The World War II generation was bringing their kids to the ballpark. We had survived the Cold War.
And, those Frosty Malts sure tasted good!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Concussion" movie (2015) understated but still good

Many critics have expressed mixed thoughts about the movie "Concussion." I had the pleasure of watching this well-constructed but sobering movie a few days ago on DVD. At its conclusion, there is an impulse to simply give it an 'A' grade. Will Smith is a natural as an actor. So, I was inclined to place this movie in the pantheon of quite fine ones.
What bothers so many of us? I think in the back of our minds, we remember that the NFL, that monster that has consumed so many of our souls, had review privileges before it was released. That fact is lodged in the back of my mind. The rebuttal to this was that the moviemakers didn't want the NFL to be able to say stuff was made up. The movie was a docu-drama. All such movies take a limited amount of license. You identify a theme and then construct an authentic story that makes the theme powerful.
In the case of "Concussion," the theme was the discovery of unacceptable health risks associated with football. Is there really any debate about this now? The dangers are affirmed at all age levels.
Football players have historically accepted the risk of physical problems like bad knees, as a consequence of playing this sport that has defined manliness. But mental/cognitive problems, constant headaches that in some cases have forced sufferers to feel they must take their own life? Those of us who have never played football can feel oh so thankful. We sit back and watch "Concussion" and are shocked about what so many of our brethren have been subjected to.
I am guilty of having watched football. If there were no "fans" there would be no football. We feed the beast.
How can we possibly stop this process? It begins with each individual, of course. We must take a hard look at how we plan our weekends, and find enriching outlets to replace our football viewing. In theory it would seem easy. Addictions aren't quite so easy to confront.
The movie "Concussion" reminds us of our football obsession. It makes no clear statement that this obsession is ludicrous. It seems to nudge us to make that conclusion. But it leaves us drawing our conclusion in sort of a netherworld of conflicting impulses. Can we break the bond? I cannot say, sitting here in the year 2016. Maybe 50 years from now, we'll look back on "Concussion" as quaint, a movie that allowed us to co-exist with our impulse for wanting to watch this sport, while at least affording us a chance to know the hazardous background.
Will Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, PA, home of the Steelers. Omalu discovers a new and scary brain disorder: CTE. He named it himself. Mike Webster was the poster boy for the horrific effects of CTE. Omalu performs the autopsy. I'm relieved seeing the dead body of Webster because I realize he has gone to a better place. He began losing his mind long before his death at a mere 50 years of age. A teammate with similar health issues visits Webster who is living in his pickup truck. Webster huffs turpentine. Both men seem clueless about what was happening to them.
Omalu is objective, having never been drawn into football's orbit as a fan. Those former players have had their brains shaken up. A protein builds up as a consequence. The sufferers experience hallucinations, memory loss and other trauma. The film was inspired by a 2009 GQ Magazine article. Six years later the movie finally makes the rounds, putting up a huge warning about this sport that is played by boys in every community.
We should have suspected for years that the sport was unreasonably harmful. As for its "manly" quality, society has moved beyond such values related to gender, in case you haven't noticed.
Omalu is naive enough to think the football powers-that-be will welcome scientific insights into the dangers of their sport. He is sadly shocked to find that self-interest prevails in cynical, U.S. free enterprise fashion. That's our credo today, not at all remindful of the brimming idealism that imbued my generation, the boomers, in the 1970s.
Omalu realizes the mindless animosity coming from the other side, but we vividly see that his values remain strong. Perhaps this is the most inspirational quality of "Concussion."
I have had the good fortune of watching several movies in a row that I find wholly satisfying. Prior to "Concussion" I watched (and reviewed online) "Spotlight" and "Truth." Keep it up, Hollywood.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"The Land That Time Forgot" (1975) w/ Doug McClure

Plenty of good dinosaur movies were made before "Jurassic Park." Many of those older movies had wondrously imaginative plots. "Jurassic Park" had big money behind it. CGI enabled superior special effects. As time goes on though, we have become strangely weary of CGI. We have taken it for granted. The "wow" effect is gone.
There is one thing in movies that is certain to get a "wow" effect: a good story. CGI can never substitute for a fascinating story.
The 1970s were largely a stagnant period for movies. Long gone was the "golden age" of movies from the late '30s, when the best movies equated with "class." Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney et. al.
Hollywood began coming on strong by the end of the 1970s. I'm not sure how much "class" there really was, but we got some well-funded, well-hyped movies that got people buying tickets. Prior to that, Hollywood floundered some. In 1975 we got a sci-fi movie that could have had mega status if it got that high priority treatment. Hollywood mined the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs. "The Land That Time Forgot" had potential to be taken real seriously. It might have succeeded on the level of "Jurassic Park." Hollywood just didn't apply enough resources.
 
Western actor on the big screen
I still find the movie more than moderately entertaining. We see an iconic actor from the perspective of the baby boom generation. It's Doug McClure who sprang to stardom from the TV western. He was "Trampas" through the entire run of "the Virginian": 1962 to 1971. It was a 90-minute western, thus requiring some plot sophistication, on NBC. Those were the days of the "Big 3" TV networks.
McClure's resume included much more than that series. In "the Land That Time Forgot," McClure plays Bowen Tyler who with Susan Penhaligon as Lisa Clayton, are on a ship torpedoed by a German U-Boat in World War I. Burroughs' novel came out in 1924. At that time, people spoke of WWI as "The Great War."
Survivors from the ship including our two principals commandeer the sub when it surfaces. McClure hopes to sail to a British port. A belligerent German officer named "Dietz" destroys the sub's radio. Disoriented, the crew finds they've gone off course and are in the South Atlantic, on the verge of death if they can't find a miracle. They observe the cliffs of a fascinating sub-continent. They guide the sub into a subterranean river. The sub surfaces in the lagoon of a prehistoric terrain. Then we're into a thermal inland sea, or crater lake where heat supports a tropical climate.
 
A lens into evolution
The sub goes north along the waterways and we see the climate moderate and wildlife display a fascinating evolutionary progression. The stage is set for unlimited sci-fi exploration now. We see the dinosaurs, volcanoes and lush vegetation. The most fascinating sci-fi element is the multiple levels of evolutionary development revealed on the sub-continent. We see both Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man. The big war in Europe now seems most distant.
Doug McClure
The intrepid McClure character, along with his mates who now feel solidarity (to a reasonable degree) face the menacing big creatures. Life in this place, called Caprona, is constantly evolving, moving forward.
The movie was made at a time when the U.S. was consumed with war fatigue. The mid-1970s saw us in a hangover from the horrific Viet Nam war. That war provided a backdrop for my entire growing-up years. The movie in a subtle sense suggests an anti-war theme. The plot had the diverse characters - British, American and German - putting aside their parochial, war-driven concerns to work together for the common good. The premise worked in 1918 when the classic author wrote the story. And in 1975 the premise had resonance again. I say "hangover" but the U.S. still had some involvement in Viet Nam as late as 1975, believe it or not.
"The Land that Time Forgot" suggests that war belongs in the past with dinosaurs. The point is implicit but nevertheless detectable. Humankind of the WWI era was a mere one evolutionary step beyond those cavemen, it is suggested. We sense potential for far more human evolution.
Re. the making of the movie: The U-boat and ships are models. The dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are rubbery puppets, hand-held or on strings. In those days, the more expensive alternative would have been stop-motion, what we saw in the much earlier "King Kong."
"The Lost world" - remember that flick? - with a teenage Jill St. John was a movie that used contemporary lizards, filmed in a way to make them look large. We might have seen stop-motion for "The Lost World" but there was one problem: the disastrous box office outcome of "Cleopatra" had drained Hollywood!
In "The Land That Time Forgot," the WWI-era humans deal with T-Rex attacks, ambushes by cavemen, quicksand pits and various other threats, before a volcanic eruption destroys the sub and leaves the hero and heroine as the only survivors. The movie ends with the McClure character throwing a bottle into the sea, a bottle including a manuscript detailing the incredible story. At movie's start, we see someone discovering the manuscript.
In box office terms, "The Land That Time Forget" actually did well. So, there was a sequel called "The People That Time Forgot": disappointing. Hollywood was on the verge of a new age of Hollywood sci-fi exploration, dawning with "Star Wars." The new movies had a classy air that shed the qualities that lent themselves to drive-in movies. McClure's movie had touches of the latter, unfortunately.
We can imagine "The Land That Time Forgot" as on the level of the mega successes typified by "Star Wars." But it was not destined for that. It was more in the murky stew of the 1970s flicks that left something to be desired. It's unfortunate. Hindsight is easy, but in the '70s Hollywood wasn't sure if comic book-type movies would connect with the mature adult population. Remember, that was "the silent majority" as christened by Richard Nixon. They liked Lawrence Welk.
 
Movie has allure today
I still sit fascinated watching "The Land That Time Forgot" when it airs on cable TV, as it did recently on the "Comet" network. Thanks Comet, which has a fare of intriguing sci-fi (like "Outer Limits" re-runs).
Actor McClure left us too soon, in 1995 at the age of 59. He was cut down by lung cancer. He had that Hollywood syndrome of falling into multiple marriages. He was married to his fifth wife at the time of his death.
McClure had an extensive acting resume. But the '60s were a time when one solid acting role on a network series made you famous and would push aside everything else you ever did. We forget Lorne Greene's acting as the rather bad guy lawyer in "Peyton Place," or as the cowardly city father of New Orleans in that movie about Andrew Jackson. We remember Greene as "Ben Cartwright."
Doug McClure is similarly "Trampas" in our memory. He disappointed me when he played a real racist bad guy in the "Roots" TV miniseries. His character ended up getting drowned in a bucket of water.
In "The Virginian," McClure famously upstaged the guy who was supposed to be the signature character, James Drury. Ever notice how those western characters always wore the same outfits? "The Virginian" looks very dated today. The western genre of course died off completely. "The Virginian" with its 90-minute length may have had more license for plot subtlety, but it was slow-moving and ponderous in a way that today would be a disaster for attracting an audience. The show ended its run in 1971 when I was 16 years old.
McClure was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for television in 1994. Doug McClure, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com