Monday, April 28, 2008

Toronto Transit Commission Strike of '08

Twelve years ago on a crowded morning bus, passengers noted through the window a woman running toward an empty bus stop. A look passed among us that said "poor fool, what does she think she's doing?". When the driver stopped and waited he not only received her thanks, but a chorus of "that was so nice" and "I don't believe it" from shocked patrons. The driver laughed and said "That's my job to pick up passengers." As a 35 year lifestyle transit user this is an outstanding memory, along with the time I overheard personnel refer to patrons as "losers without cars".

On Friday, April 25th, the Amalgamated Transit Union rejected a contract and, without giving notice, walked off the job at midnight leaving tens of thousands of Torontians stranded. Earlier in negotiations union leader Bob Kinnear had said the public would be given 48 hours notice of a strike. Regarding this situation he said: "We have assessed the situation and decided that we will not expose our members to the dangers of assaults from angry and irrational members of the public." Apparently it's our fault! It is unfortunate that the leader of the union seems unaware of the routine harassment and rudeness to which the public is subjected by TTC personnel. I've seen seniors yelled at, doors slammed as people race for a bus, transfers refused under shakey circumstances and unreasonable behavior of all sorts. Like most patrons I appreciate those pleasant and exceptional service providers I have met through the years because they are so rare. The "no notice" walk out is indicative of the attitude toward the citizens who rely upon and support the TTC.

The Provincial Legislature signed a bill ordering the TTC back to work and the transit situation was back to normal by late Sunday afternoon. What did the strike prove? Was it just because they could? A power trip? I was over my irrational anger and decided against blogging on the matter until I read a newspaper headline wherein Premier McGuinty urged the citizens of Toronto to "Be Nice" to the TTC drivers. What the **#$%!!*&%!!**#? Be Nice?! Where does this attitude of the suits come from? Do they think people who use transit are a bunch of low-life hoodlums? Be Nice! Get out of your limos and take the bus once in a while you ***&^%$*&)!! and I'll show you nice!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Favourite tv shows: Gunsmoke (1955 - 1975)

Writer John Meston and producer Norman MacDonnell created in 1952 a radio drama with a post War noirish heart. "Gunsmoke" told the story of Marshal Matt Dillon and Dodge City. A man and a place of honour and flaws. The rumbly, world weary baritone of William Conrad perfectly captured the character of Dillon. Along with Howard McNear's Doc Adams, Georgia Ellis' Kitty and Parley Baer's Chester Goode, the series ran until 1961. The popularity of the program encouraged CBS to move "Gunsmoke" to television.

Bill Conrad's completely understandable affection for comfort food left him out of the running to represent Matt on screen. It has been said that they role was offered to John Wayne, but it seems odd to me that one of the biggest box office stars of the 50s would consider a half hour television series. Denver Pyle, who would guest many times on the program, was this close to having the role, but John Wayne suggested one of his Batjac contract players - a young fellow named James Arness. In his autobiography Arness says he was happy with his burgeoning film career and didn't think television was for him. Mr. Wayne (thanks, Duke) basically told Jim he was nuts if he didn't take the job. Amanda Blake, following her instinct, knew she was right for Kitty and made a nuisance of herself until producers finally saw things her way. After hundreds of movie roles Milburn Stone settled down to steady work as Doc Adams. Beloved by fans, he would win an Emmy in the 60s. Dennis Weaver came up with a limp at his audition to make his Chester Goode a stand out character.

Charles Marquis Warren would be the first producer as CBS kept MacDonnell with radio. By the second season MacDonnell was on board with the television show. Many of those earlier episodes were adapted from the radio plays. John Meston would write 257 episodes of "Gunsmoke" in his career. Another writer who would be responsible for the show's success was Kathleen Hite, CBS's first female staff writer. Between 1957 - 1965 she wrote over 40 episodes of the program, creating well-rounded and believable characters and plots. Her career would have continued success up to the 70s with "The Waltons" and she was inducted into the Heritage Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1969.

"Gunsmoke" would change to hour long episodes in 1961. New cast members would come and go: Burt Reynolds as Quirt, Roger Ewing as Thad. Dennis Weaver would leave for creatively greener pastures leaving the door open for Ken Curtis to create the popular sidekick of Festus Haggen. The major shake-up would come when CBS replaced Norman MacDonnell in 1964/5. Philip Leacock (director, The Kidnappers) would take over as executive producer bringing the series into its colour years. Toronto born John Mantley would take over the position from Leacock and continue until the series ended. Mantley felt a genuine obligation to the history and quality of the program. Writer Jim Byrnes would come on board in 1968 creating the majority of the episodes for the remainder of the run. Actor Buck Taylor would settle in perfectly as "the young guy", Newly O'Brien.

The most prolific director of the series was Andrew V. McLaglen, but his companions were top-notch as well: Arnold Laven, Arthur Hiller, Mark Rydell, Philip Leacock, Robert Stevenson, Sam Peckinpah, Vincent McEveety, William F. Claxton. These and others brought their individual styles and a consistent level of quality to "Gunsmoke".

Cancellation in 1975 came as a surprise to the creative team. They had slipped below 25 in the ratings for the first time in their history and a new regime at the network wanted to place their own stamp on television. Producer Mantley, writer Byrnes and actor James Arness would go on to create the popular "How the West Was Won" ("The Macahans). Arness would reprise Matt Dillon in five highly rated TV movies: "Return to Dodge" (1987), "The Last Apache" (1990), "To the Last Man" (1992), "The Long Ride" (1993), "One Man's Justice" (1994). This does make one wonder if CBS did jump the gun back in 1975.

The characters, the stories, the presentation - some programs touch us, become our favourites. "Gunsmoke" is such a one for me. The mix of adventure, drama and comedy with the fine cast and marvelous guest stars represent what television can achieve. That old Dodge City gang is a family I look forward to spending time with, sometimes on a comforting, familiar level and sometimes to study and appreciate the so many creative talents who left a fine storytelling legacy.

Recommended DVDs:

GUNSMOKE: 50th Anniversary Collection, 6 discs including 29 episodes from the 50s to 70s, special introductions, commentaries, Emmy footage, etc.

GUNSMOKE: The Directors Collection, 3 discs including 15 episodes with commentaries from Andrew McLaglen, Arthur Hiller, Mark Rydell, John Rich, etc.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby!

George O'Brien
1899 - 1985

Greetings classic movie fans and welcome to this April 19th online birthday card for the late movie star and U.S. Navy hero, George O'Brien.

A lot of George's fans come to him through Sunrise (1927), but I'm a backward gal. I first fell for the tragic and interesting Sam Collingwood in John Ford's Fort Apache (1948). Here was a character portrayed by an appealing and talented actor.

Later I found titles such as The Dude Ranger (1934) and The Marshal of Mesa City (1939) as irresistible as their handsome, athletic star. Here was a fellow as easy with the action, riding, and fisticuffs as with romancing his beautiful leading ladies. I don't think there's ever been an actor who shows more grace in manner and movement and ease in front of the camera.

Within the last year, I finally saw Murnau's legendary Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) in a theatre setting with live musical accompaniment. George is "the Man", driven to the brink of madness and murder then redeemed by love to his true nature. The movie and his performance is an experience. Such unabashed commitment to character and baring of one's soul is uncommon. That George was capable of more than "cowboy pictures" was proven and that he always brought his A game to his 30s westerns was shown by his popularity and his box office power.

George O'Brien was not a typical movie star. As a youngster, he lived through the 1905 San Francisco earthquake. His father, Daniel O'Brien, was the Chief of Police of the City. George enlisted in the Navy in WWI and when WWII blighted the earth he re-enlisted and was highly decorated for his service. Later, he would serve in Korea and Viet Nam. His one marriage was to beautiful screen star Marguerite Churchill (1910 - 2000). They were married for 15 years and had two children - the late writer Darcy O'Brien and New York Philharmonic bassist Orin O'Brien.

George O'Brien is recalled by contemporaries with admiration and loyalty. He garners more fans with the availability of his features on DVD and films airing on TCM. Check out recent releases of The Iron Horse (1924) and 3 Bad Men (1926).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Our loss, Heaven's gain

Rufus from "The Rescuers"
What would Ollie Johnston look like if he were a cat?

Disney's nine old men have been reunited in the great animation studio up yonder with the passing of Ollie Johnston (October 31, 1912 - April 14, 2008). Ollie was an animator, steam locomotive enthusiast, family man married for 62 years to Marie and father of two sons, and mentor and inspiration to today's animators.

Ollie Johnston started working as an apprentice animator for Disney in 1935. "Mickey's Garden" and other shorts started off his career as a master communicator through the art of animation. Generations delight in Ollie's contributions to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Fantasia", "Pinocchio", "Bambi", "Sleeping Beauty", "Cinderella", "Lady and the Tramp", "Peter Pan", "The Rescuers" and other favourite films.

Ollie and his lifelong friend and work partner Frank Thomas (1912 - 2004) not only collaborated on film, but as authors: "Too Funny for Words", "The Disney Villain", Walt Disney's Bambi - the Story and the Film", "Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life".

Frank Thomas (1912 - 2004) had said that it was Ollie who brought warmth and emotion to cartoons. Ollie believed that animated characters should exhibit emotional qualities. That Ollie Johnston was successful in achieving that aim is more than evident when watching Baloo and Mowgli in "The Jungle Book", little Thumper in "Bambi", the jaunty "Johnny Appleseed" or sentimental Mr. Smee in "Peter Pan" among others. When recalling the characters he created Ollie said "They were all good friends whom I remember fondly". They are good friends to us all and we will remember them and Ollie Johnston fondly.

Disney's nine old men: Les Clark (1907 - 1979), Ollie Johnston (1912 - 2008), Frank Thomas (1912 - 2004), Wolfgang Reitherman (1909 - 1985), John Lounsbery (1911 - 1976), Eric Larson (1905 - 1988), Ward Kimball (1914 - 2002), Milt Kahl (1909 - 1987), Marc Davis (1913 - 2000).

Friday, April 11, 2008

Odor of the Day

The lobby of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall has a sign with large friendly letters requesting patrons be considerate of others when choosing to wear perfumes and after-shaves. I like that sign. It makes me feel protected. Yes, your own Caftan Woman is one of many who suffer from a chemical intolerance. I was comfortably ensconsed in my cozy balcony seat in said hall when the lady sitting behind me returned from intermission proclaiming: "And she was giving free samples away in the Ladies Room. I'm going to buy a whole bottle." Apparently signs with large friendly letters don't mean much to some people. Understanding management switched our seats to the roomy orchestra section. You might call it a perfect evening, if it weren't for the swelling tongue, itchy skin and watery eyes.

Many municipalities are reacting to the problem of physical reactions to scents by banning the use of colognes in public and government buildings. Many corporations bear it in mind for those dealing with the public. Unfortunately, the reaction among many aroma addicts is that the rest of us are being hysterical and arbitrary. A reaction similar to that expressed by a former co-worker: "Well, I'm sorry you don't like my perfume, but I have a perfect right to wear it." They don't seem to want to understand that it's not a question of liking, it's a question of breathing.

A little understanding is necessary for both sides. I'll continue to keep my Benedryl handy when I'm out and about, but the perfume purveyors have to be a little more considerate. Only then can the scent obsessed and the scent oppressed co-exist peacefully (because I promise you one of these days...).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston
October 4, 1923 - April 5, 2008

When I think of Charlton Heston I think of Will Penny and Steve Leech, Brad Braden and Barney Benson, Judah Ben-Hur and El Cid, Buffalo Bill Cody and Andrew Jackson, Michelangelo and Moses, Taylor and Det. Thorn, Cardinal Richelieu and Brigham Young, Inspector Vargas and Sir Thomas More.

I think of the lonely child and the shy young man who found a life to live and a wife to love in the theatre. I think of the thoughtful, observant writer who treasured and shared his memories.

I think of his well-loved Shakespeare and the admonishment:

"This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Baseball is a Game

Baseball is a game of statistics
Did the announcer say this was the Blue Jays 32nd home opener? How can that be? I was but a teenager that historic first game in the snow. That means I'll be...51 in a couple of weeks. I've heard it said that statistics are easily manipulated. Manipulate me that one!

Baseball is a game of memories
Our late father with a drawer full of the undated $2 general admission tickets the Blue Jays used to entice fans with in the early years. "Who wants to go to the game today?" Mom with a picture of Ted Williams on her fridge. Paula shouting herself hoarse without realizing it. Maureen studiously keeping score. Little Tracey catching that home run ball with her forehead. Ouch! Courting days with Garry. Say, whatever happened to our disposable income? Whatever happened to $2 tickets.

Baseball is a game of music
Nova Scotia's own Ralph Fraser on the organ at Exhibition Stadium. "Our Day Will Come" accompanying the egress after a loss.

100 years of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"
Composer Albert Von Tilzer (yes, Harry's brother) and lyricist/performer Jack Norworth had yet to attend a major league baseball game when they collaborated in 1908 on the song which will be sung by fans everywhere as long as the game is played. 1908 was a good year for Jack as he married superstar singer Nora Bayes. Nora included "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in her solo act and sheet music sales, as they say, went through the roof. Jack and Nora headlined the Ziegfeld Follies and introduced their own hit "Shine On, Harvest Moon". The popular couple would split after a few years. Theirs was the second of five marriages for each. Those show folk!

Classic movie connections: Jack Norworth, the actor, can be seen in Jean Renoir's "The Southerner" (1945) playing Dr. White. Frances Langford plays Nora Bayes in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942) introducing "Over There" with Cagney's George M. Cohan. The couple were biopiced in "Shine On, Harvest Moon" (1944) starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan. MGM produced a delightful musical in 1949 starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra based on the ever-popular song.


Nellie Kelly loved baseball games
Knew the players, knew all their names
You could see her there every day
Shout Hooray when they'd play.
Her boyfriend by the name of Joe
Said to Coney Isle, dear, let's go
Then Nellie started to fret and pout
And to him I heard her shout

Take me out to the ball game
Take me out with the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack
I don't care if I never get back
Let me root, root, root for the home team
If they don't win it's a shame
For it's one, two, three strikes you're out
At the old ball game

Nellie Kelly was sure some fan
She would root just like any man
Told the umpire he was wrong
All along, good and strong.
When the score was just two to two
Nellie knew what to do
Just to cheer up the boys she knew
She made the game sing this song

Repeat chorus, stretch, head for the concession stand.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Esther Howard

Elmira Sessions, Joel McCrea and Esther Howard in Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Miz Zeffie knows how to hold her man!

Greetings classic movie fans and welcome to this online celebration of one of the silver screen's character actress greats, Esther Howard. Born April 4, 1892 in Helena, Montana (the stamping ground of Myrna Loy and Gary Cooper), I have little more to relate on Esther's early years. It is for certain that by the age of 25 Esther had taken her comic timing, expressive eyes and soprano voice far from Montana to the Great White Way.

For a dozen years from 1917, she appeared in as many Broadway shows - comedies, musical revues and featured roles in hits such as Sunny (Jerome Kern) and The New Moon (Sigmund Romberg). During this time she married Arthur Albertson, a Georgia-born leading man in silent films (1914 - 1917) and stage performer who committed suicide upon the closing of a show in 1926.

Esther Howard and Skeets Gallagher in Merrily We Go To Hell (1932)

Esther left NYC for Hollywood in 1930 and hit the ground a-running. She has 28 movies to her credit before one of my earliest sighting in 1935's Stars Over Broadway where she plays an eager radio talent show contestant. Many of her roles are of the uncredited variety: tenement resident in Wyler's Dead End (1937), streetwalker in Van Dyke's Marie Antoinette (1938), lunch counter lady in Ulmer's Detour (1945) up to inmate in Cromwell's Caged (1950). Columbia used her talent for comedy in 17 films with Scotland's own Andy Clyde over a 20 year period beginning in 1935. Most of these shorts were directed by Jules "Three Stooges" White.

Every once in awhile Esther would hit the jackpot. A variety of good roles in really good films showcasing her extraordinary ability. She was part of Preston Sturges' famed stock company and appeared in seven of his pictures. Esther is unforgettable as Miz Zeffie, so admiring of Joel McCrea's torso in Sullivan's Travels (1941), Mrs. Weenie King in The Palm Beach Story (1942), Madame La Jolla in The Great McGinty (1940, and the mayor's wife in Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944. Perhaps no one else could have played those parts so well.

Esther Howard and Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944) brought only one of the classic noir roles for which Esther Howard is remembered by noir junkies. Here's how Jessie Florian is described by Philip Marlow: "She was a charming middle aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who'd take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle". Quite a build-up and Esther Howard doesn't let the audience down.

Gordon Douglas directed Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) which gives Esther a delightful turn as another denizen of the underworld, Filfthy Flora. Another noir ripe for rediscovery by the public at large is Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947). Esther's role as the loyal and resourceful Mrs. Kraft determined to bring a friend's killer to justice can only be described as sheer noir perfection. Her last role of major note was as the mother of Kirk Douglas and Arthur Kennedy in Mark Robson's Champion (1949) although she can be seen in movies throughout the 50s as a variety of landladies and bystanders with pithy comments.

Esther Howard passed away from a heart attack on March 8, 1965, at the age of 74. Any one of those roles, Jessie Florian or Mrs. Kraft was certainly worthy of a nomination for those awards the Hollywood folks are so keen on handing out and a nomination would have gone a long way to keeping the name of Esther Howard at the forefront of Tinsel Town's great character actors. As it is, the lady with the big eyes and bigger talent left a body of work that is a treasure for classic movie fans.


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...