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There's a very interesting story present in this week's issue, dealing with the aftermath of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It's not an article, but a collage comprised of editorials, letters to the editor, programming schedules, and a note to the readers that tells you what you're not seeing. All of these disparate pieces form a tableau that tells a story about how we disseminate the news, not just then but all the way to our present day.
I started writing about it here, but quickly realized it was big enough for its own piece - and even that won't be large enough to dig deeply enough into the topic; ultimately, it should make up a chapter in the TV book I'm hoping to publish in the next couple of years. Sorry to do this to you, but you'll have to wait for Wednesday's feature to find out what I'm talking about.
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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..
Sullivan: Singers Jimmy Dean,and Nancy Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Spanky and Our Gang; singer-composer Lee Hazlewood; comedians George Carlin and Lewis and Christy; magician Dominique; and Charlie Cairoll, clown act.
Palace: Host Bing Crosby welcomes Don Ameche, Frances Langford, Louis Nye, singer Barbara McNair, the King Family, comic pianist Yonely and the Pollack Brothers' trained-elephant act.
It's been a while, hasn't it? Both of this week's shows are reruns, meaning we're certain about the lineups; no last-minute substitutions this week. And it's an easy choice, truth be told. Palace has an automatic edge by virtue of Bing Crosby hosting, plus Don Ameche and Frances Langford recreate their roles on the OTR show "The Bickersons," while Louis Nye is on hand as "a Hollywood hippie putting the bite on a staid banker (Bing)."
While Ed offers Jimmy Dean and George Carlin, I'm afraid Diana Ross and Spanky are no favorites of mine, and the rest of the supporting cast falls short. No question; this week The Palace reigns supreme.
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As far as our other weekly feature is concerned, Cleveland Amory is off for the summer, so we won't be reading any of his reviews for a few months. He'll be back, though - and so will we. In the meantime, there's plenty more to look at, starting with a famous name in sports.
That name is Pelé, and he's not only the most famous soccer player in the world, he's also the highest-paid athlete anywhere, making an exorbitant $400,000 a year. To put that in perspective, the average major league baseball salary in 1968 was a little over $20,600; its highest paid player, Willie Mays, made $125,000.
In 1970 Pelé will become even more well-known in America as he leads Brazil to their record third World Cup, The clip of the exuberant star leaping into the arms of his teammate Jairzinho after scoring the first goal in Brazil's 4-1 victory over Italy (left) was a feature of Wide World of Sports' opening montage for several years afterward.
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Judith Crist, TV Guide's movie critic, is on hand with some of her famously acerbic reviews this week, so if Pelé wasn't enough to help you get over missing Cleveland Amory, maybe this will help you out. The TL:DR version: the best you can say is most of them are harmless
Take A Girl Named Tamiko. for instance, starring Laurence Harvey, which "proves that all Japanese are kind, courteous and charming, and all Americans are simply stupid when they're not downright nasty." Small consolation that the real heavy, Harvey, "is a Chinese-Russian photographer who plays fast and loose with the ladies of both nations."
Then there's the Yul Brynner/Richard Widmark feature Flight from Ashiya, "one of those almost-perfectly-awful adventure films," in which the ultimate rescue of shipwrecked sailors "becomes an eternity because each of the three Air Rescue Service members heading for the survivors over the China seas takes time to flash-back his life story to us. At least the shipwrecked sailors are spared the details, and only Widmark watchers can win."
Gregory Peck's Captain Newman, M.D. is a "relatively sincere film," in which "corn and cliches are rampant and its major embarrassments are Tony Curtis and Angie Dickinson as Peck's prime aides. Curtis has a hideous dialect but pretty teeth; Miss Dickinson has pretty legs." And The Secret Invasion, a wartime adventure movie directed by Roger Corman (!)*, "boasts some of the loveliest views of Yugoslavia on film, as well as some strictly-from-muscle chases involving messy Nazis and a passel of pretty partisans."
*MST3K, where are you?
The two best bets of the week are It Started in Naples, with Sophia Loren and Clark Gable*, "masters of the comedy craft [who] provide some passable fun," and the third version of The Phantom of the Opera, this time starring Herbert Lom as The Phantom, which features "an unpretty hero, a pretty heroine [Heather Sears], nice old-fashioned scares and some dreadful operatic interludes. It won't beat the heat but it's good for a shudder or two." Oh well, as it says in the Hippocratic Oath, "Primum non nocere" - do no harm.
*The last of Gable's movies to be released while he was alive; the infamous The Misfits is yet to come.
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|Wagner and his TV father, Fred Astaire|
*Wagner's an old man by now, all of 38.
Wagner's matured over the years; more confident, more sure of his talent, a man who "knows now where he's going and what he wants to do in the business." Some credit his second wife, Marion Marshall, with giving him this new sense of contentment, after the failure of his first marriage to Natalie Wood (they'd give it another go later on). Wagner himself is ready to burst out from the "restrictions" that have kept him from being "free to be myself." Whatever the reason, It Takes a Thief is just what he needs - a success, as will be two later series, Switch and Hart to Hart, and his later appearances in the Austin Powers movies will give his career a boost for yet another generation.
Also in the national section, educator Rosalyn L. Switzen tells parents not to get so uptight about using television as a babysitter; says Switzen, "We are going to have to call an educational spade a shovel and admit that formal education owes much to the informal medium of television," and offers the reassurance that "Once we are able to throw away our out-of-date prejudices about television, and harness that awesome power, we may yet usher in a new era of automatic education through entertainment."
Meanwhile, Jack Lescoulie, the former number-two man on Today, speaks about his firing from the show, the result of a fight with a crew member*, and how he's desperately looking for a way back into the business, whether through acting in movies, working on news programs, or appearing in the legitimate theater. "I'll be back," he promises grimly, but the comeback he hopes for never materializes.
*Unfortunately for Lescoulie, Amazon.com didn't exist then; Jeremy Clarkson can testify to how helpful that is.
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Finally, although you'll have to wait until Wednesday to find out more about the RFK feature, you can see much the same spirit in this story. Xerox, which in the early '60s sponsored the series of movies supporting the United Nations and earlier this year presented a commercial-free running of the antiwar classic Paths of Glory, is back this week as sponsor of another of the socially conscious programs of which they're so fond. This time it's the CBS documentary "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed," airing Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m., one of seven "Xerox Special Events" under the umbrella title Of Black America. It's hosted by Bill Cosby and CBS newsman George Foster, and it focuses on how American history, primarily written by whites, ignores most aspects of black history, and the contributions by blacks in science and agriculture. Some of the examples shown will likely induce a head-shake or two; even taking into consideration the hermeneutics of television - the need to view things contextually, rather than through a constant evolution - there's a lot here that is clearly wrong. On the other hand, some of the political commentary may well make your blood boil.
As you know, I'm loathe to dip into partisan politics on this blog. After all, as the name suggests, it's about TV, and it should be a place that's safe for anyone to visit without being too ticked off by the cacophony of caterwauling that takes place in the real world. I bring this up because it's another example of how similar things are today to how they were in 1968.
Yes, it's true that Of Black America can look and sound dated; a similar documentary made today would be different - slicker, quicker, featuring people like Al Sharpton. The content would be similar, though, as would the accusatory tone. Whereas the emphasis in 1968 was on the struggle for equal rights and the sanitizing of American history, set against the backdrop of Martin Luther King's assassination, today we couch the discussion in terms such as "Diversity Training" and "Unearned White Privilege," and create a virtual cottage industry around them. Yesterday's Black Panthers have given way to today's Black Lives Matter. Listening to the rhetoric, one wouldn't be blamed for wondering if anything at all had changed in the intervening 50 years. Whether it has or not, whether today's arguments consist of substance or bluster, motivated by a wish for equality or ideological derangement, probably depends on your political point of view. What can't be doubted is that it's another of the issues that we can't seem to stop debating.
As you'll read (hopefuly) on Wednesday, our reaction to such headlines hasn't changed much over the decades. Yes, in the land of Oprah we've gotten more into sharing our feelings, searching for closure, and all the other new-age buzzwords she's championed, but our unwillingness to deal with the cause of tragedy, to look for other, more politically palatable rationales, remains. You'll see this even more clearly after reading the Wednesday essay, how society struggles to assess the blame for RFK's death while - in my opinion - an obvious motive stares back, unblinkingly.
As you look at this era on television, consider the issues covered by news programs: race relations, gun control, violence on the streets, unemployment, war. In other words, the very same issues we struggle with today. (And they weren't new in the 1960s, either.) And the questions are asked each and every time: what can we do, how can we do it, do we have the will and determination to do it. We ask them over and over again every few years, almost in willful ignorance of the last time we posed them. Do we, I wonder, ever think why these problems continue, why there is no cure? Might it be that original sin and human nature have rendered them, like the common cold, incurable?