Our Beloved Baby-Boomer Saturday Morning Television Mayhem

Snagglepuss. “Exit, stage left!”

Saturday morning our four-year-old granddaughter Aviana (aka “Angel Child”) came to stay for a weekend sleepover.  (Yay, party time!!)  Her parents are very “21st-century” and severely limit Avi and sister Rory’s television viewing.  So Lynn and I do our grand-parental duty by going the opposite direction and letting them indulge in cartoons and children’s movies.  Usually the programs are Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger: two innocuous cartoons about gentle, anthropomorphic mammals and their close-knit families.

But yesterday morning I thought it would be fun to introduce Avi to some of the animated shows that yours truly enjoyed when he was a runt. (Maybe my last essay was still on my mind.)  So before she arrived, I pulled up, on YouTube, Huckleberry Hound, then Woody Woodpecker, then Top Cat, then Tom and Jerry.  Unfortunately, all the selections were only snippets (probably copyright restricted).  But I eventually located full animated shorts of the classic Warner Brothers character Bugs Bunny.

Peppa Pig, our granddaughter’s favorite cartoon character

Halfway through one episode, with Elmer Fudd trying to decapitate Bugs with his 12-gauge, and with Avi mesmerized while perched on my lap, I looked over at Lynn and mouthed the word “violent.”  She nodded.  We decided to switch to Peppa Pig.

***

In the 1940s, Bugs and his Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies pals entertained adult audiences at theatres.  Then, after televisions became fixtures in American households, the entertainment industry learned that kids went gaga over similar animated shows on Saturday mornings.  So starting in the 1950s, we baby-boomer kids were treated to, not only televised airings of “that silly wabbit,” but a whole host of animated shows that were not only equally witty, but also equally, um, “aggressive.”

There were the Hanna-Barbera cartoons The Flintstones, The Yogi Bear Show (which included Snagglepuss), The Quick Draw McGraw Show, Top Cat, The Magilla Gorilla Show, The Peter Potamus Show, Jonny Quest, Atom Ant, Fantastic Four, and the futuristic and brilliant The Jetsons.

Felix the Cat

Before Hanna-Barbera Productions came the Terrytoons cartoons Heckle and Jeckle, Deputy Dawg, and my favorite rodent hero, Mighty Mouse (“Here I come, to save the day!”).  Paramount Cartoon Studios produced Superman, Felix the Cat, and Popeye the Sailor, who managed to pound the hell out of Brutus once every episode.

Total Television offered Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo, the former featuring the voice of Marlon Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, and the latter the voice of Don Adams (Get Smart).

Jay Ward Productions enlightened kids to the Cold War with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, with supporting characters Dudley Do-Right, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Clyde Crashcup and Leonardo

And can’t forget Ross Bagdasarian’s The Alvin Show, with ancillary character Clyde Crashcup and his bald, silent assistant, Leonardo.  (A lifetime supply of Rice Krinkles cereal to anyone who knows the number of times Clyde got blown up by one of his defective inventions.)

All the above shows featured entertaining mayhem in varying degrees, but there were rules to soften the jagged edges.  Somehow the characters miraculously came to life after getting blown to bits, or getting shot in the head, or after skidding over a cliff.  And, thankfully, there were never telltale pools of blood.  These rules are collectively known as “cartoon physics.”  Such physics not only tempered the violence, but also had a humorous component.  Wile E. Coyote always defies gravity after going over the Grand Canyon while chasing the Roadrunner…until he realizes where he is, stares at the viewer with an embarrassed or horrified look, then drops downward (always spread-eagled fashion).

Animated violence back then was nothing like what occurs in some very realistic video games today.  So as a child, I don’t think I was traumatized or negatively affected by any of it.  I’ve only spent a few nights behind bars.

But I wonder if all of the cartoon physics didn’t manage to seep into our collective, post-Vietnam War, baby-boomer subconscious.  If it’s true that, physically, we are what we eat, it’s not a stretch to say, psychologically, we are what we watch.

Remember this cereal? That’s mascot So-Hi on the box.

***

After posting my “Top 20 Desert Isle Television Shows” list, I became curious about my favorite ‘toon, the animated adventure series Jonny Quest.  I located a very good documentary about this show.  It featured interviews with present-day animators and directors who were influenced by it, a history of its development, excellent analysis of the show’s technical aspects and cultural significance, and uncut segments.

One segment that jumped out was a scene where evil Asian mastermind Dr. Zin—probably inspired by the Dr. No character of James Bond 007 fame—is careening downhill toward a steep cliff.  Boy-hero Jonny steps to the side and jokingly shouts “Here comes the Oriental express!”  Dr. Zin then plummets to his death.

The documentary pointedly noted that, on the DVD reissue of Jonny Quest, the “Oriental express” line is censored.  Correctness of a political nature, no doubt.  And probably profit-driven.  However, the docu also astutely observed that, while an ethnically-related joke by a cartoon character was an obvious no-no, it was perfectly acceptable for a man to plunge to his death.  And, unlike other cartoons of its era, when a character died in Jonny Quest, there were no cartoon physics.  The character was dead.

I’m not implying I condone the use of ethnic humor in cartoons.  But one doesn’t have to go too far in America to see just how topsy-turvy its priorities are.

Jonny Quest

Marching for Our Lives

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She was standing alone. A pretty girl, she couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old. I don’t know how she arrived at City Hall, in downtown Cincinnati, on this shivery March day, with wet snow beginning to fall. Maybe her parents dropped her off? Maybe she rode with some older friends?

She was holding a large orange sign with hand-scribbled words and numbers. The numbers signified annual handgun deaths in various countries around the world. The statistic for America was staggering. It dwarfed the others. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the numbers, it is true that the U.S. gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than other high-income nations.

At the bottom of her sign, as a coda, she’d written “God Bless America.” Probably a touch of sarcasm. But she’s young, and she looked like she was from a good family. Personally, I’d have chosen a more scorching coda.

***

It was the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. on March 24, 2018, and “Eliza” was just one of thousands who’d gathered in front of City Hall to protest. There were many other rallies around the country, in addition to the one in the nation’s capital that drew a quarter million people – many of them young – in the wake of the recent mass murders in Parkland, Florida.

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Eliza, with some sobering figures

The rallies are an effort… another effort, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Portland, and other tragedies too numerous to count – to force our intransigent elected officials, many of whom campaign using gun lobby dollars, into addressing America’s shamefully lax gun laws.

At one time, firearm deaths were handgun-related only, guns purchased both legally and illegally. They were primarily restricted to the inner city, the evolutionary endpoint of a welfare society infected by poverty, drugs, racism, and corruption, attributed to punks, criminals, and cops (some of whom, as we’ve seen recently with crystal clarity, enjoy squeezing triggers). And attributed, secondarily, to the gun industry. Most of us got our dose of gun violence via local evening news: “info-tainment,” delivered while we sipped our cocktail of choice. Then, later in the evening, we jumped to fictionalized violence, courtesy of “the All-New (fill in the blank)” television drama.

Slowly and imperceptibly, however, gun violence crept into our suburbs. And now it’s exploded in our educational institutions. Our schools were once places of learning, and also havens of safety. Now, our kids and grandkids are getting blown away by legally purchased AK-47s.

There’s something profoundly sad when children are forced – literally, at gunpoint – into organizing a protest to repair the damage wrought by their parents.

***

I arrived at 801 Plum Street fairly early. The streets around City Hall were cordoned by police, and several cops were stationed at various points. A large television camera was positioned in front of the building near the edge of the street. Several long tables were pushed against the building, with several volunteers manning them. About 50 people milled about the front steps. One of them was adjusting a microphone stand.

Is this all there is? I thought. I’d attended a gun control rally in downtown Columbus back in the ‘90s and was disappointed at the small turnout. I’d hoped for a larger turnout today. Maybe the 32-degree temp and snow forecast discouraged people. I overheard one woman remark “Does the NRA control the weather, too?”

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Some ugly guy with a green sign. If you want change, you’ve got to vote.

Gradually, though, the crowd swelled. It eventually spilled into the street, then the opposite sidewalk, then extended down the street. It was a diverse cross section: young and old, male and female, white and black. Most of them carried signs, many homemade. The signs expressed all different sentiments. Many of them blasted the National Rifle Association (NRA), at one time merely a club, but now a potent right-wing political force. Some singled out individuals, like Trump, or Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R), or Ohio congressman Steve Chabot (R), who have consistently pandered to the NRA.

In fact, some Republican politicians refuse to even use the phrase “gun control” (similar to their avoiding “climate change”). I’ve visited their websites off and on for years, so I know. Their dropdown boxes for issue selection have no options for “Gun Control” or “Firearm Violence.” Instead, it’s “Crime/Violence” or “Second Amendment Rights.” They know who buys their meal tickets.

Eliza’s sign was my favorite: a cold, clinical dose of reality. Another favorite was the one that bragged about the “F” grade the sign holder had received from the NRA.

I didn’t bring a sign, but one of the volunteers asked if I’d like to encourage voter registration, and I agreed. During the speeches and subsequent march, I held my sign high, so the NRA can at least see that its opponents and critics are voters, too.

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All ages showed up.

The speeches began about 11 a.m. The first speaker was Rasleen Krupp, a junior from nearby Wyoming High School. This girl was amazing. Her bullhorn voice seethed anger and power, as she implored the crowd to stand up to opponents of gun control and fight to reform America’s gun laws. She delivered an oratory that would make Cicero proud.

Ethel Guttenberg, from nearby Amberley Village, had a granddaughter killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her speech was courageous and strong, calmly thanking everyone for turning out, and, like Krupp, encouraging everyone to keep fighting, to not give up despite the disappointments ahead. She also noted that some politicians refused to even meet with her.

I wonder if she was referring to Portman, or Chabot, or both.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) spoke, to mild applause and a few boos. He decried gun violence (someone yelled out “from cops!”) and encouraged people to register and vote in November.

A teacher from Mount Healthy school system spoke while hugging his son. He lambasted Trump and others for suggesting teachers be armed, saying that he’s “not trained to use a firearm,” and shouldn’t be required to defend his students just so individuals can legally purchase weapons of death.

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Whole families turned out to peacefully march and protest.

A young boy spoke. I didn’t get his age, but he looked about 9 or 10. He’d earlier addressed City Hall. He explained, haltingly, that his school had held a drill, like a fire drill. The kids were told to huddle together in a corner of the room. He said that he wanted to be in the center of the huddle, so that he might be more protected from gunfire, but that he felt sorry for his friends in the outer circle. I’m not a psychologist. But I would think a drill like this could have lifetime consequences for a child.

***

The march went for about a mile, winding through downtown Cincinnati. Lots of chanting, a few sidewalk spectators and building residents cheering us on. It felt good to be moving with passionate people of similar mind. The march conjured memories of old marathon races I’d run, except this race had much more significance.

After the march, all the signs were dumped on the steps of the local office of Senator Portman. Not surprisingly, he didn’t show his face.

***

Some people are saying that the Parkland massacre is a tipping point. That American citizens are finally getting fed up. I thought this same thing after Sandy Hook, when first-graders were mowed down in cold blood. Yet nothing happened in Washington. Once we verbalized our thoughts, and said our prayers, we shuffled back to reality TV.

Another riveting speaker on Saturday, a woman representing Mom’s Demand Action, noted that this is a “uniquely American problem.” Other nations, including allies and some we’ve defeated in wars, now look at us and shake their heads in disgust. 0324181039-00America is fast losing the global standing and respect it once had. And it’s not just about Donald Trump. It’s about a culture of guns and violence that has permeated our fabric and is ripping us apart from the inside.

If we’re going to remedy this cancer we’ve encouraged for so many years, it’s going to take much more than thoughts, prayers, marches, and speeches. Right now, gun manufacturers and the NRA have a stranglehold on our elected officials. The only way to loosen that grip is to fire the political puppets we currently have and remain single-minded on regularly and consistently electing gun-control candidates in local, state, and national elections, who will raise their middle finger to the NRA, and pass common-sense gun legislation.

At this latest juncture, it’s youth who are leading the charge (and who can blame them, when their lives are on the line?). While their activism is encouraging, young people’s priorities shift, just as my generation’s did after Vietnam and Watergate: we fall in love, start careers, get married, invest in Wall Street… we lose focus, and forget.

A public health crisis on this scale requires the attention of everyone, who will remember never to forget.

Never.

 

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When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

fonda

A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you are a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It is one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood is the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now embedded in popular culture.

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Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It is Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). This gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” much these days, and it is usually in negative way. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit a particular agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and, in my opinion, they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers – if you know what I mean.

Before the 1960s and dating back to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie Westerns and later television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and little in-between. The actors looked like they had just stepped from the fitting room at JCPenney. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had much to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns. (One favorite NOT in this list is HUD, starring Paul Newman, and based on the book Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry. Although revisionist in nature, the setting is the contemporary West.  I feel this brilliant flick deserves a separate category.)

Here they are:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it is the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere. A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

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7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio is nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

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3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western. Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it is (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It is tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

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