Friday, August 28, 2009

Only Yesterday (Book)

by Frederick Lewis Allen (1931)

image "Beyond the limited scope of his political experience, he was 'almost unbelievably ill-informed'.... His mind was vague and fuzzy.  Its quality was revealed in the clogged style of his public addresses, in his choice of turgid and maladroit language . . . . It was revealed even more clearly in his helplessness when confronted by questions of policy to which mere good nature could not find an answer."

If I told you the above paragraph was written about a president, you'd probably know which one. But the words were written in 1931, and spoke about Warren G. Harding.  This is one of the many delights of Frederick Lewis Allen's classic social history, Only Yesterday.

The book was something new when it came out: a social history of a very recent time period (1919-1929, published in 1931). Histories previously had tended toward writing about big events of many years before. This one covered events that were well-known to much of its readers, and managed to become a best seller.

Allen was not a trained historian, but rather an editor for Harper's Magazine who wrote as an amateur.* The writing is clear and easy to read, with a gentle mocking tone that is very entertaining.

Allen didn't just write about big events; he touched on ephemeral items and fads. The chapters of the books are not strictly chronological, but rather thematic, and several chapters begin by going back to 1919 to trace a particular thread.  The politics are there, of course -- Allen's talk of the Teapot Dome scandal is very entertaining -- but he also talks about things like the Great Red Scare (long before McCarthy), the Florida Land Rush, the Scopes Trial, the flapper phenomenon, and the Hall-Mills trial.** He also nicely documents the rise of radio and mass media, and the Great Bull Market and Stock Market Crash.

His section on the Crash is just great writing.  It puts you into the shoes of an investor on Black Thursday -- the first day of the crash -- demonstrating how uncertainty led to fear. How it was impossible for an investor to know what the price of a stock was.  And how you'd realize that the prices you saw were an hour and a half late -- and things had continued to drop!  How you'd hear people in a brokerage trying to sell stock at prices far below what the ticker was saying. Allen makes the panic real, and turns the book from a history lesson into a novel.

The book was a major success and still remains in print. Allen followed it up with Since Yesterday, another successful history covering the 1930s. These are among the most entertaining history books written, and one of the best ways to get the flavor of the roaring twenties.


*There was enough interest in the field those days for several other authors to make a name for themselves writing history despite being from outside academia.

**Probably surpassed only by the O.J. Simpson case in sensationalism. The Pig Woman testifying from a hospital bed in the middle of the courtroom is an unforgettable image.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Space Rangers (TV)

Created by
Pen Desham
Starring Jeff Kaake, Jack McGee, Marjorie Monaghan, Danny Quinn, Gottfried John, Linda Hunt, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Clint Howard
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a TV show has everything going against it. Comparisons to another show.  A network with little commitment to it, and which insists on showing the episodes out of order.  Attempts to be different that aren't accepted by the conservative viewing audience.  And a show like that always fails.

So Space Rangers failed.  But it deserved much better.

CBS has never been a hotbed of science fiction.  Oh, there was The Twilight Zone and The New Twilight Zone, but they were more fantasy than science fiction. In general, though, they stayed away from the genre, especially something that's out-and-out space opera.  But evidently something was in the air in January of 1993.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was coming on the air, and Babylon Five was in development.*  So producer Pen Desham created Space Rangers and got CBS to air it.

Space Rangers The show's premise was also similar:  it follows the adventures of a space police force stationed on the space station Fort Hope.  The crew was led by Captain John Boone (Keff Kaake).  Jojo (Marjorie Monaghan) was his pilot, Zylyn (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) was the token alien, and Mimmer (Clint Howard) was the resident geek. They were led by Commander Chennault** (Linda Hunt) and were sent out on various missions to protect the station and rescue others.

Desham tried to do things a little differently.  There were no ray guns.  Instead, the Space Rangers fired real guns with bullets.  This raised scorn from a lot of sci-fi fans -- the bullets might pierce the hull -- but it really wasn't impossible if they were designed not to.***  He also had the pilot's chair set up so JoJo lay prone on it.  The Rangers were portrayed in a blue-collar world, where they expected hazard pay for risking their lives.

Now the show was no Babylon 5.  And it also hurt it that it premiered the same week as Deep Space 9.  Trekkers heaped scorn on it, mostly because it wasn't Star Trek.  I remember one heated debate that complained that in the first episode, JoJo banged her fist against a piece of malfunctioning equipment to get it to work.  Trekkers derided the show, saying this was impossible and a sign that the writers didn't know science fiction. Until I pointed out that in the Deep Space 9 premiere, Sisko banged his fist against a piece of malfunctioning equipment to get it to work. 

The show as pure space opera, and handled in a bravura manner.  Whereas DS9 took  a season or so to hit its stride, Space Rangers hit it from day run, a mix of action and adventure that was a lot of fun to watch.

Alas, CBS ran the shows in a really messed up order.  Episode three was first, then two, then one, then four, then it was canceled. This wasn't an arc heavy show like Babylon 5, so it wasn't a disaster, but it did confuse some people.***

The cast list is interesting.  The name that pops out is Linda Hunt, who had won an Oscar in The Year of Living Dangerously.  She always was a superb actress, and seemed to be enjoying herself as the station commander.

I liked Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's Zylyn. He looked alien enough and was a violent warrior (and cannibal) with strange blinked out eyes.  Majorie Monaghan was also a standout as the tough-as-nails pilot. There's also Clint Howard, Ron's younger brother. Clint usually plays bit roles; this was one of his few regular roles in a TV show.

After the show, the actors moved on, none becoming major names.  Interestingly, both Tagawa and Monaghan appeared in Babylon 5. Producer Desham was back in TV a few years later with the revival of The Outer Limits that was pretty good and the second revival of The Twilight Zone, which wasn't.

Space Rangers wasn't great SF, but had a lot going for it, a fun, likeable puppy of a TV series that had too many strikes to overcome.


*There was a lot of speculation that Deep Space 9 was created primarily to block Babylon 5 from the air. The show had some strong superficial similarities -- set in a space station -- and J. Michael Straczynsky had pitched the idea to Paramount.  It seems likely to me that DS9 had taken some of B5's elements when they were creating the series.

**A reference to  Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers squadron in World War II.

*** I also was amused at the fact that this implied people thought the only way to do good science fiction was to make sure it had ray guns.

***Actually, I liked one element of this:  instead of starting with an episode that fills in all the backstory, they jumped right into the action and worried about the background later.  I think SF shows should do this more often (it also worked nicely for Firefly).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hey, Landlord (TV)

Created by
: Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall
Starring Will Hutchins, Sandy Baron, Pamela Rogers, Michael Constantine, Miko Miyama, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Kathryn Minner
IMDB Entry

hey landlord Some TV shows seem to really vanish. They don't have a long enough run to go into syndication, and they never got any particular notice. Even in the Internet age, you can find only sketchy information. And in the case of Hey, Landlord, that's a shame.

The show was the first one produced by Garry Marshall.  He and another ex-Dick Van Dyck Show  writer, Jerry Belson, branched off to develop it for NBC.

The premise was certainly a good one.  Ohioan Woody Banner (Will Hutchens) inherits a New York brownstone and goes to live there. He shares his own apartment with aspiring comedian Chuck Hookstratten (Sandy Baron), and has to deal with the foibles of the tenants.  These include photographer Jack Ellenhorn (Michael Constantine), aspiring model Timothy Morgan (Pamela Rogers) and her roommate Kyoko Mitsui (Miko Miyama), plus Mrs. Henderson (Ann Morgan Guilbert), and Mrs. Tecker (Katryn Minner).

Woody was the fish out of water, unused to the quicker pace of the Big Apple, while Chuck tried to guide him away from the worst of the pitfalls.  Jack was always morose about life and of course, Tim (real name Teresa) was there as a potential love interest.

The show succeeded on the charm of Will Hutchens.  Hutchens was attempting something of a comeback: he had been the star of the ABC TV series Sugarfoot for several years and was switching to comedy.* But my favorite was Sandy Baron.  First of all, it was great to see someone on TV named "Chuck." And Baron was a very funny guy -- a standup Borscht Belt comedian moving into sitcoms.

Michael Constantine was also terrific as the morose Jack Ellenhorn.  If you remember him from Room 222, his role in this show was very similar, though far less watered down.  And, of course, Ann Morgan Guilbert was already a TV legend from The Dick Van Dyck Show, and continued on a long TV career.

The show was also a beginning for comedy writer James L. Brooks.

Despite good writing, a great cast, and a theoretically good time slot (between Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza), Hey Landlord couldn't compete against The FBI and Ed Sullivan. It ran against the second half of both shows and thus depended on its viewers to come from the Disney audience, which probably was too young to be interested.  I'd guess that Disney viewers would catch the second half of Sullivan instead of sticking with Hey Landlord.  In any case, it only ran one season.

Hutchens tried again a couple of years later with Blondie, which also flopped, then did various guest shots before dropping out of acting. Baron was never given a chance to display his talents on TV, so returned to standup and also appeared as one of the comedians in Broadway Danny Rose and is the one narrating the movie.  And the producers and writers for the show went on to create many more TV successes.

But despite some great talent, Hey Landlord has been forgotten.



**Not that Sugarfoot was a serious western.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bottle Shock

Directed by
Randall Miller
Screenplay by Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz & Miller; story by Savin, Schwartz, Miller, and Lannette Pabon
Starring  Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Rachel Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina, Eliza Dushku, Bradley Whitford, Miguel Sandoval, and Mary Pat Gleason*
IMDB Entry

You can't go very far wrong with a nice underdog story, and whereas the plot is most common with sports movies, sometimes, there's a different twist on it.  One result was Bottle Shock.

Alan Rickman takes a sip. It's based (loosely) on a true story, the famous "Judgment of Paris" in 1976.  Well, famous in wine circles -- it was the first time an American wine beat French wine in a tasting. The story focuses on Steven Spurrier** (Alan Rickman) a British sommelier and owner of a Paris wine shop, who needs some publicity to get people into his store. He concocts the idea of a blind testing of Napa Valley wines versus the best France has to offer and flies out to California to find candidates.

Meanwhile, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) is working diligently to make great wine and wishing his son Bo (Chris Pine) took a more serious interest in the business.  Bo is more interesting in good times and pot, but starts to take more interest when Sam (Rachel Taylor) shows up at the vineyard as an intern.

Spurrier shows up looking for wine.  Barrett isn't interested, put off by Spurrier's superior attitude.  He's also a man at the end of his rope, for though he's been working at it, he is still working on making the wine to meet his standards.

This isn't a film with surprises; you know from the start how the contest will end up.  What makes it work are the characters and also the trials and tribulations everyone goes through to get the judgment.

The cast seemed to enjoy their roles.  No one does a superior sneer better than Rickman, and Pullman has a nice earnestness that makes you want him to succeed. Chris Pine shows the same devil-may-care attitude that got him cast as James T. Kirk in the Star Trek remake.

Some of the other bigger names -- Dushku, Whitford, and Farina -- are really nothing more than just cameos, lending their names to help out the projects.  They handle their scenes well, but the main story is in the hands of lesser-known actors.

The film did fairly modest business, probably on the art film circuit. But it's an entertaining (if not inspiring) little movie with nice characters and a lot of heart.


*Just a bit part, but Middleman fans will recognize her as Ida.
**No, not that Steven Spurrier, sports fans.