Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alice’s Restaurant

Directed by
Arthur Penn
Written by Arthur Penn and Venable Herndon, from the song by Arlo Guthrie.
Starring Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, William Obanhein
IMDB Entry.

In 1969, Arthur Penn was riding high, having had a critical and popular smash with Bonnie and Clyde.  It became a counterculture phenomenon, and that may be why he chose for his next feature film the anti-establishment protest song, “Alice’s Restaurant.” 

The song, if you don’t know it, is about Arlo Guthrie’s arrest for littering, which kept him out of the army during the Vietnam era.  The original version is over 18 minutes long* and is a dryly humorous song with an antiwar message.  It was a standard on college campuses in the 60s.

The movie follows Arlo Guthrie (Arlo Guthrie) as he meanders from from Montana (where his long hair and hippie looks don’t sit well) to his friends Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray Brock (James Broderick) for Thanksgiving.  Guthrie decides to do them a favor and take their garbage to the dump.  When he finds out it’s closed, he dumps it with another pile of garbage.  The next day, Officer Obie (William Obanhein) arrests him and charges him with littering.

The movie expands on the song by showing more about the relationship of Ray and Alice, and also Arlo with his girlfriends.  It meanders along, buoyed by Arlo’s laid back and sly performance as himself.  

But the find of the film is the actor playing the part of Office Obie.  William Obanhein is uncannily like the real Officer Obie – because he is the real Officer Obie.**  He had spent his life as a cop in Stockbridge and when he heard they were going to make the movie, insisted on playing himself, saying, "If anyone is going to make a fool out of me, it might as well be me!"  After the movie came out, he was critically praised, but he ignored Hollywood and went back to Stockbridge.***

The movie is a mixture of moments than a plot-driven film, incidents rather than story.  But it’s an entertaining artifact of the hippie years.

*About the same length as the gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes.  Hmmmmn.

**The judge who sentenced Guthrie to a $50 fine also plays himself.  Alice and Ray Brock appear as extras.

***I find that admirable. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Woman in White (book)

By Wilkie Collins
Wikipedia Entry
Full book at

Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story with “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” in 1841, and the genre caught rapidly. But it was mostly a short story genre.  It was English author Wilkie Collins who started to create mystery novels, and The Woman in White is often cited as the earliest in the genre.  But the fact it was a pioneer doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still an extremely good book in its own right.

Wilkie CollinsCollins was born in 1826, son of landscape painter William Collins and grew up planning to be a lawyer.  In 1851, he met Charles Dickens. They became close friends and Collins started to write articles and short works. In 1852, his first novel, Basil, was published, and he started making a living at it.  In 1859, he wrote his fifth novel, The Woman in White.

The story centers on William Hartwright,* a drawing master who meets a woman dressed all in white, who is extremely upset and has some disreputable men trying to capture her.  He helps in her escape, but not after she asks him, “Do you know any baronets?” a question that piques his interest, especially when he learns she is an escapee from a mental asylum.  He is then hired to teach drawing at Limmeridge House to two young women: Laura Fairlie (who looks remarkably like the woman in white) and her half sister, Marian Halcombe.

Walter falls for Laura, but she is pledged to marry a baronet:  Sir Perceval Glyde.  There are many disturbing things about Glyde, including the fact that he clearly is marrying Laura for her money, but Laura’s hypochondriac uncle Frederick insists that the marriage must go through.  Due to Marian’s investigation, Laura slowly learns that Glyde – and his ebullient but dangerous friend Count Fosco – is up to no good.

Despite the fact the book is over 105 years old, it turns out to be surprisingly modern in many ways, and the plot never goes where you think it might go.  It revolves on a secret known by the Woman in White, and it turns out that the secret is not what anyone expects.

It’s told in an unusual style:  chunks of the book are told in the first person by different protagonists.  While most of the chapters are told by William Hartwright, others are told by Marian, Count Fosco, Laura’s uncle,  and one of Gylde’s servants, among others. 

The book is filled with wonderful characters.  Walter is a serviceable and resourceful hero, but the three most interesting characters are on the periphery. 

Laura’s uncle Frederick is a selfish and lazy hypochondriac who whines about the slightest change to his routine and it put out by the smallest request.  His section of the testimony is a delight of whining and complaints of how much work it is to remember.

There’s also Marian.  Laura is a pretty bland heroine, but Marian is clever, resourceful, insightful, and every bit a modern female protagonist. She advises Laura and protects her, and is willing to put herself at risk to ferret out Sir Percival’s plans.  If the book were written today, she would be the one that Walter falls in love with.

But the real find is Count Fosco.  He’s charming, but also dangerous, with a personality that dominates every scene he’s in, whether it’s doting on his pet mice and birds, scheming against Laura, or threatening murder.  His ego is a joy to behold, and his honest admiration for Marian – even though she is a threat to his plans – makes him one of the most interesting villains in literature.

The book was a popular success when it came out, even though the critics of the time thought it too melodramatic,** but the book has remained popular even today. 

Collins continued to write.  His book The Moonstone is another landmark in mystery fiction, establishing many important genre tropes and it what he’s best known for today. But he seems to have thought The Woman in White was his best work.  It’s still an wonderful read after all these years.

*With a last name like that, you know he’s going be be a hero.

**Not an unfair claim; the means of resolution of the mystery is pure pulp years before pulp fiction was a thing. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Directed by
Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
Written by Jack H. Harris, Dan E. Weisburd, Jean Yeaworth
Starring Ward Ramsey, Paul Lukather, Kristina Hanson, Alan Roberts. Gregg Martell, Alan Roberts
IMDB Entry
I don’t particular like scary movies.  To me, they are like a practical joker tripping you as you walk by – my main emotion is annoyance, not fright.  There is only one movie that actually scared me when I saw it, and that was Dinosaurus!  It probably was because I was eight at the time, because watching it today makes it only seem silly. 
But fun.
In the movie a group of Americans are working on a Caribbean island, when they stumble across a find:  two dinosaurs and a cave man (Gregg Martell),* all exceptionally well preserved.  During a storm, they are struck by lightning and, as Dr. Henry** Frankenstein proved, lightning brings the dead back to life.  So a giant brontosaurus*** is roaming the island, along with – of course – a tyrannosaurus rex.****
Meanwhile the cave man becomes friends with a boy of the island, Julio (Alan Roberts) and suffers from the culture shock of 20th century civilization.
imageThe cave man scenes are played for broad comedy and are generally effective, while the dinosaur attacks, which may seem frightening when you’re eight, don’t really hold up.  Still, the special effects were well done for the day.
Director Yeaworth had already made his mark on the monster movie genre a couple of years earlier with The Blob.  None of the cast had particularly memorable careers, though a few worked semi-regularly as TV guest stars.
But for several months afterwards, I would look outside to see if a T. Rex was coming.
*Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but for sticklers for scientific accuracy, this is the least of their worries.
**His name in the James Whale/Boris Karloff classic. Smile with tongue out
***That’s what they called it in 1960, and I’m sticking to it. Smile with tongue outSmile with tongue out
****Has there ever been a dinosaur movie without a T. Rex?