August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand Debuts on PBS

August Wilson, circa 2004.  Photo:  David Cooper.

August Wilson, circa 2004. Photo: David Cooper.

“He wrote about the frustration and the glory of being black.”  This curtain-raising assessment of playwright August Wilson by his friend and colleague, actor/writer/director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, pretty much sets the tone for August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.

The latest installment in the PBS American Masters series, August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, is a no-nonsense celebration of the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth (1945), the 10th anniversary of his untimely death (2005) and a timely programming choice for Black History month.  If you love the theater, be sure not to miss the debut of this informative, 90-minute documentary on PBS tonight, February 20, 2015, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region.) The film will also be available for streaming after the broadcast at  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters and on DVD on February 24.

August Wilson's childhood home (then without running water) in Pittsburgh's Hill district  is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  Photo courtesy WQED Pittsburgh.

August Wilson’s childhood home (then without running water) in Pittsburgh’s Hill district is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy WQED Pittsburgh.

Although he breaks no new creative ground with this film, Emmy Award-winning director Sam Pollard provides something much more valuable.  Not only do we see and hear Wilson in vintage interviews, but we are privy to stirring performance excerpts, as staged readings or clips from filmed footage of his original Broadway productions and the 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Piano Lesson.  While I clearly remember having seen and loved the latter, I confess with some shame that I’ve never experienced a live performance of one of August Wilson’s plays. Hopefully, Pollard’s documentary will propel you, as it has me, to seek out Wilson’s work, on the page and on stage.

Wilson grew up poor in Pittsburgh, one of seven children of a black mother and an immigrant white father.  Unable to surmount the racial bullying that he faced in school and without the support of a stable father figure (the German baker spent most of his time drunk, unemployed and absent), Wilson quit school in his teens and educated himself in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library.  His passion for poetry opened his eyes and ears to the faces and voices he found on Pittsburgh’s street corners and in local hang-outs, like coffee shops and barber shops, where he scribbled notes for his poems and met locals who eventually inspired characters in his plays.

August Wilson (right) and his mentor Lloyd Richards (left).  Richards' directed Wilson's first six Broadway plays.  Photo:  The Yale Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson (right) and his mentor, Lloyd Richards (left), who directed Wilson’s first six Broadway plays. Photo courtesy The Yale Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson ascended the Broadway boards via his collaboration with mentor Lloyd Richards, the legendary African-American director whom Wilson met and impressed while attending the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Wilson’s greatest achievement as an American playwright and his enduring legacy within African-American culture is his monumental 10-play cycle:  Each play centers on a different decade of the 20th century, beginning with 1900 (Gem of the Ocean) and ending with 1990 (Radio Golf).  Not surprisingly, all but one of the plays — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920)—are set in Pittsburgh.

Photo:  Photofest, Inc.

Photo: Photofest, Inc.

Wilson’s journey from Pittsburgh and poetry to playwriting and Pulitzers through the ranks of the burgeoning black awareness creative community sparked by the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties is crisply detailed here in extensive interview footage.  In addition to the clips featuring Wilson himself, the articulate, spot-on recollections from noted critics, actors, scholars and his widow, costume designer Constanza Romero, are key assets in this film. Now major film and TV performers, Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson all drew early critical acclaim in August Wilson’s plays and are authoritative voices here, whether in interviews or performance footage.

Although the subtitle of this film mirrors the title of an essay written by Wilson regarding “the need for black cultural separatism,” I encourage you to watch August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, not only for an understanding and appreciation of Wilson’s cultural importance to the African-American community in the 20th century, but as a universal voice that transcends skin color and speaks to the challenges and joys we all face as members of American families and immigrant cultures.

Photo:  Photofest, Inc.

Photo: Photofest, Inc.

If you didn’t come to this film knowing that August Wilson was one of the greatest American playwrights on par with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, watching the breathtaking footage of Viola Davis’ jaw-dropping performance in Wilson’s King Hedley II (2001) will surely send you running to the nearest library, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com to grab a copy of this play and tickets to every Wilson revival on the horizon.

American Masters–August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand will be an important addition to programs in libraries, high schools, universities and religious venues dealing with African-American culture, American Drama and Dramatists, and Performance Studies.  Educational resources are available from PBS Learning Media. The performance clips are especially relevant to Women’s Studies as well.  After its debut tonight on PBS (February 20, 2015, 9:00-10:30 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere and repeat air times in your region), the film will also be available for streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters and on DVD beginning on February 24 from PBS Distribution. –Judith Trojan  

 

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Men, Boyhood and Oscar

© AMPAS

© AMPAS

It’s hard to recall a richer, more creatively satisfying year for men and boys than 2014.  Of course, I’m referring to the fascinating male characters and performances that flooded the cinema, circa 2014: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Judge, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Mr. Turner, Nightcrawler, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash.  No matter how the Oscar race plays out on February 22, these films, all contenders in one or more categories this year, are winners, as performance pieces and/or creative achievements.

Richard Linklater's engaging, semi-autobiographical film, BOYHOOD, follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through a period of 12 circuitous years of childhood and adolescence.

Richard Linklater’s engaging, Oscar-nominated film, BOYHOOD, follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through 12 years of childhood and adolescence. Photo:  IFC Films.

While I’m especially partial to the outstanding ensemble performances and dizzying originality manifested in Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’m equally impressed with Boyhood’s back story, substance and quietude. Its universal theme speaks to the journey we all take in some form or another and, for that especially, it deserves a long shelf life.

Turning 40 has never been easy.  But we apparently have that pivotal milestone to thank for director Richard Linklater’s Oscar front-runner, Boyhood.  By the time he reached his 40th birthday in late July 2000, Linklater had built a promising career dotted with critical and cult favorites; time and its passing seemed to be a conceit that drove his more popular work.

Mason (and the actor who played him, Ellar Coltrane) at 7. Photo:  Matt Lankes. Courtesy  IFC Films.

Mason (and the actor who played him, Ellar Coltrane) at 7. Photo: Matt Lankes. Courtesy IFC Films.

At 40, Linklater was ready to take a risk and step outside his comfort zone.  He decided to film a subject that not only was personally important to him, as a husband and a father, but, if viable, would enable him to incorporate the passing of 12 years of real time believably.

Richard Linklater’s fascination lay with childhood, especially the K-12 years when we process a range of formative life experiences and emotions. It would be a tough sell and huge undertaking for anyone to capture those years on camera in a two to three-hour dramatic narrative unless he narrowed the playing field (i.e., focused on one child); employed willing actors (to play the same roles over a period of 12 years); and tweaked the traditional production timeline to acquire sufficient funding (to cover more than a decade of rising production costs, to ensure site logistics and employ the same actors and crew for scenes to be filmed each year in snippets for 12 years as his characters aged).

56up_posterMore than a half-a-century ago, British director Michael Apted stepped into this uncharted minefield when he began documenting the lives of a handful of British youngsters every seven years, following them as they grew up and older in what has become known as the UP series. (See my review of Apted’s most recent installment, 56 UP @ http://judithtrojan.com/2013/10/14/).  Also well-known for his dramatic features, Apted opted to continue to use the documentary format to chronicle his subjects’ progression through the years, while Linklater aimed to film actors within a fictional, scripted (albeit semi-autobiographical), dramatic storyline.  Although he owes much to Apted’s groundbreaking work, Linklater faced a different set of industry obstacles.

“It was like taking a great leap of faith into the future,” says Boyhood director Richard Linklater.  Filmed over 12 years in 35mm with the same dedicated and talented cast and crew, Boyhood seamlessly flows through 12 years in the fictional life of Mason, a young Texan played by Ellar Coltrane, who aged from six through 18 during the 12-year film shoot.  Mason shares his life with older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, an adorable, nine-year-old scene stealer when the project began).

Photo:  IFC Films.

Single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) shares a memorable moment with her kids, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar Coltrane), in BOYHOOD. Photo: IFC Films.

The kids are raised by single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette, who is prime to win her long overdue Oscar in this role). Olivia provides her kids with structure and, by example, the tools they’ll need to weather the myriad changes in their residences, schools and finances. Olivia is the one constant in her kids’ lives, and she never forgets the importance of that role.

This is a rare three-dimensional and, more importantly, unsentimental portrait of a single mom who struggles to make a safe, secure life for her kids without losing sight of her own goals. She works doggedly to acquire the education and career she missed as a young wife and mother, while extricating herself from two bad marriages and building a better relationship with her first husband, her kids’ dad Mason, Sr.

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Madcap dad Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) makes up for lost time with his kids, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), in BOYHOOD. Photo: IFC Films.

Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke in a delightful Oscar-nominated performance) reenters their lives after a vagabond stint in Alaska and marginal career as a musician.  As the film progresses, Mason, Sr., sidelines his irresponsible life of pipe dreams and empty pockets to provide for his kids, if not financially, then as a loving sounding board and whimsical link to art and nature.  That he finally makes a good match with a sweet, like-minded woman adds to his viability as a positive role model for his kids.

It’s clear that Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood is a labor of love and enormous dedication by his creative team of actors, producers and crew.  They managed to evoke a quiet, realistic, moving depiction of childhood and family life in 21st century America that segues through a 12-year-period unhampered by obtrusive timelines. It is engrossing for almost three hours without resorting to overt sentimentality, melodrama or heavy-handedness … no 3-D aliens, explosions or walking dead.

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Mason’s high school graduation party in BOYHOOD celebrates his family’s strong bond and an important rite of passage. Photo: IFC Films.

There are the requisite birthday and graduation parties, hiking and biking, barbecues and bowling, peer pressure, booze and broken promises, first love and heartbreak. There are lessons to be learned, successes to be celebrated and disappointments to be weathered as Mason matures physically and emotionally and navigates the upheavals in his homes, schools and friendships and the pressures in his parents’ lives.  That his mom and dad mature effectively as parents and productive adults over a period of 12 years is an asset here.

In the end, as Mason moves into his college dorm and bonds with yet another new group of friends, we understand along with him that maybe it’s not so important to be focused on the future and to second guess where you’ll be in five, 10 or 12 years.  It’s much better to appreciate, in the moment, everyday life and the journey you share with family and friends.

BoyoodStill4

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at 9 must make due with an unwanted haircut in BOYHOOD. Photo: Matt Lankes. Courtesy IFC Films.

Nominated for six Academy Awards, Boyhood is definitely a journey worth taking. It’s a highly recommended, evergreen choice for film appreciation, family life, parenting and women’s programming in high schools, universities, libraries and religious venues.  Rated R, Boyhood is now available on DVD, OnDemand, et al.          –Judith Trojan

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The Big Burn Lights a Fire on PBS

THEBIGBURN_FinalPoster-RGB-sm“The question of forest fires, like the question of slavery … sooner or later, it must be faced.”  So said Gifford Pinchot, the zealous conservationist who founded the U.S. Forest Service in 1905.

The back story and legacy of the U.S. Forest Service as it secured its footing and grappled with the fury and capriciousness of Mother Nature during the early 20th century makes for a surprisingly riveting hour in The Big Burn.  Written and directed by Emmy Award-winner Stephen Ives, The Big Burn premieres tonight on American Experience  (Tuesday, February 3, 2015, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS.  Check local listings for air times in your region). The film will also be available on DVD and for online streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/

The idealism that compelled men like Gifford Pinchot to protect and conserve the American wilderness in the early 1900s, while courageous and important to the survival of our planet, was also fraught with the tunnel vision and hubris that idealism tends to engender. Wealthy eccentric Pinchot was a close ally of Teddy Roosevelt and shared Roosevelt’s passion for conservation, including the scientific management of forests, controlled logging in national forests and controlled grazing rights for farmers and ranchers.  Pinchot and Roosevelt’s drive to protect America’s pristine forest land before it was decimated by the logging and mining industries, ranches and farmlands, and the detritus of encroaching towns, railroads and factories challenged the ranks of the initial Forest Service recruits.

Early forest management was left little to the imagination. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

Early forest management was primitive and haphazard at best. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service.

Fresh out of Yale’s Forestry School, these young men ambled into the national forests with promise and purpose but little else.  It soon became clear that they were ill-equipped to deal with the roustabouts and bawdy denizens of the shanty towns popping up in Montana, Idaho and South Dakota or for the unpredictability of Mother Nature.

Too limited in number to handle the massive lands under their jurisdiction, they were, as a result, unable to manage and control the fires that spread during the drought that fried the Northern Rockies in 1908 and 1909. By the summer of 1910, when many of these fires melded into one, the firefighters soon faced the challenge of a lifetime–a fire that came to be known as “the Big Burn.”

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What remained of a fire-ravaged valley. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

“Firefighting was a very primitive science. They were learning as they went along,” says Timothy Egan, the author of the best-selling book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, on which the film is based. This horrifying conflagration devoured more than three million acres across the Northern Rockies, a catastrophe that impacted the agency and the nation’s fire containment policy going forward. The “Big Burn” and the limitations of firefighting techniques that led to its spread (its physical residue stretched as far as Boston and Greenland) brought with it death, disfigurement and destruction, much heroism and a steep learning curve.

The fire’s back story is ably told here by author Egan and fellow historians, fascinating archival period footage and photos, and engaging voice over narration by actor Oliver Platt. Filmmaker Stephen Ives‘ long collaboration with Ken Burns shows in the cadence of Platt’s delivery, which seems plucked whole cloth from one of Burns’ films.

Seven companies of Buffalo Soldiers, the first African-Americans  to serve as peacetime soldiers, heroically tackled and helped contain the Big Burn.  Photo courtesy of The Museum of North Idaho.

Seven companies of Buffalo Soldiers, the first African-Americans to serve as peacetime soldiers, heroically tackled and helped contain the Big Burn. Photo courtesy The Museum of North Idaho.

American Experience: The Big Burn is an enlightening and cautionary look at the legacy of early conservationists like Pinchot and Roosevelt, the clear thinking heroics exhibited by the Buffalo Soldiers and frontiersmen like Ed Pulaski, and the problematic philosophy driving firefighting in the American frontier. The long-term effects of the fire containment policies resulting from this historic fire should prove to be quite an eye-opener for those Americans continuing to face seasonal drought and wildfires.

A timely broadcast celebrating the 110th anniversary of the U.S. Forest Service, American Experience–The Big Burn premieres tonight, Tuesday, February 3, 2015, on PBS (9:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET).  Check local listings for premiere and repeat broadcasts in your region.  The film will be available on DVD and for online streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/  –Judith Trojan

 

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Pass the Popcorn! Penguin Post Office Premieres on PBS

Photo © Ruth Peacey.

The colony of Gentoo penguins that reside alongside the British post office on the Antarctic Peninsula at Port Lockroy generate a bundle of mail. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

If you’re a fan of March of the Penguins or have a thing for penguins in general, you won’t want to miss Penguin Post Office, the latest installment in the award-winning PBS series, Nature (Wednesday, January 28, 2015, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.) After its broadcast tonight, the film will be available on DVD and for online streaming at http://pbs.org/nature

For a remote outpost on the Antarctic Peninsula, Port Lockroy boasts a booming tourist season, a full service post office, spectacular vistas and a colony of some 3,000 whimsical locals with short legs and big feet. During four summer months each year (November through early March), a handful of dedicated volunteers from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust do triple duty in the post office/museum/gift shop as shiploads of tourists from around the world descend upon the pristine landscape.  They come specifically to photograph the region’s population of Gentoo penguins in their breeding grounds immediately surrounding this former British research center.

A Gentoo family pose for the camera.  Photo © Ruth Peacey.

A Gentoo family primps for the camera. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Penguin Post Office, filmed and directed by wildlife cinematographer Andrew Graham-Brown and producer Ruth Peacey,  documents four months in the pint-sized Gentoos’ circle of life as they descend from their deep sea fishing grounds, trek up to two miles across sea ice and snow to reconnect and breed with their mates at Port Lockroy. The cameras record the penguins’ methodical nest building, courtship and procreation, as well as the birthing, care and feeding of their chicks.

As we’ve come to expect from penguins, they are adorably camera friendly, and yet their behavior can take a dramatic, aggressive turn.  The rank-and-file team up, sometimes unsuccessfully, to fight off hungry aerial predators ready to feast on unhatched eggs and vulnerable baby chicks.

Gentoo nests, mates and chicks are also the target of marauders from within their ranks. Unattended nests, methodically constructed stone-by-stone, are pillaged by lazy neighbors.  Juveniles that clumsily wander into the wrong turf are bullied, and often killed by Gentoo gangs.  And spouses are seduced away from longtime mates.

But we also witness comic redemption and tenderness, when, for example, one penguin sets her mate straight as she drives off his new lady love, and a juvenile comforts and mourns its maimed and murdered sibling.

Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Gentoo penguins settle down in their remote and ravishing summer breeding grounds. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Four months of the penguins’ lives unfold in this breathtaking, icy blue landscape at the end of the Earth, as tens of thousands of tourists arrive to photograph the penguins, buy penguin-themed souvenirs and send postcards back home as mementos of their brief but unforgettable visits. The penguins seem unperturbed by this human parade.

While the tourists and their cameras are always kept at a safe distance, the birds seem to happily “pose” for photos and stand fearlessly side-by-side with the staff as they wash penguin waste from the rocky cliffs and maintain the exterior of the outpost.

The camera periodically pulls back in extreme long shot to reveal the post office and out-buildings as tiny red and rustic specks engulfed by the overpowering landscape of sparkling white clouds, ethereal mountains and crystal blue water. That there are a handful of humans sharing this little red speck with a hardy colony of penguins for four months out of every year is mind-boggling.

As with the considerably more substantive March of the Penguins (2005), Penguin Post Office shows that by shining a light on wildlife habits and habitats (via film and controlled tourism), we educate and encourage commitment to respect and protect these habitats. Despite its old-school voice-over narration, Penguin Post Office should captivate extreme travelers, armchair travel buffs, birders and animal lovers of all ages with its introduction to an exotic travel destination and the awe-inspiring Gentoo penguins that call it home.

A couple of Gentoo chicks.  Photo © Ruth Peacey.

A couple of Gentoo chicks survive some blows and take their bows. Photo © Ruth Peacey.

Nature– Penguin Post Office debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 28, 2015, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET.  (Check local listings for air times in your region). After its broadcast, it will be available on DVD and for online streaming at http://pbs.org/nature            –Judith Trojan

 

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice Bows on American Masters

Ricky Jay, man of many talents. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Ricky Jay shares the spotlight with 52 of his closest friends in his new AMERICAN MASTERS profile. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of New York.

Lon Chaney may have won fame and fortune as the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” but Ricky Jay has built a successful career on the world stage with his hands… or sleight-of-hand to be more precise. The master magician has also cornered the market as an actor in film, TV and the theater, as well as a performer in comedy and magic clubs and as a best-selling author, historian and leading collector of antiquarian books and artifacts in his field.

Ricky Jay is the focus of a wonderfully entertaining and informative hour-long profile, Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, which launches the 29th season of American Masters on PBS tonight (Friday, January 23, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for air times in your region).  After its debut, the film will be available for streaming at http://pbs.org/americanmasters

In Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, producer/director/editor Molly Bernstein and her co-director/producer Alan Edelstein not only reveal Ricky Jay’s surprising back story; but we are privy to an engrossing history of the sleight-of-hand masters who paved the way for Ricky Jay.  I urge you to throw caution to the wind and watch this captivating documentary profile. I promise that you’ll laugh; you’ll gasp; you may even tear up. And I guarantee you’ll find yourself rewinding scenes featuring some of his and his esteemed predecessors’ amazing routines.

Cardini (1895-1973) was born in the UK but became a great success in high end venues in New York and was, according to Ricky Jay, the greatest act he ever saw.  Photo courtesy Brad Ball.

Cardini (1895-1973), here with his wife Swan, was born in the UK but became a great success in high-end venues in New York City and was, according to Ricky Jay, the greatest act he ever saw. Photo courtesy Brad Ball.

Subtitled The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, the film features Jay as the predominant narrator, who in a running on-camera and voice-over narrative recalls the fascinating lives and milieu of the most influential magicians of  the 19th and 20th centuries, some of whom, like the great Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, impacted Jay directly.

Original vintage black and white (silent and sound) and color performance film footage, photos, program books, posters and artwork, much from Jay’s personal collection, open a window on the master magicians’ sleight-of-hand routines and the surprising venues where they showcased their talents. They became mentors to those lucky enough to be drawn into their circle.

One lucky lad was young Ricky Jay (then Ricky Potash), who, at four years old, became an apprentice to his grandfather, the noted amateur magician, Max Katz.  Katz’s circle of friends and colleagues were a veritable who’s who in the sleight-of-hand biz.  Imagine Ricky’s thrill when Al Flosso, the Coney Island Fakir, showed up to entertain at his bar mitzvah!

Ricky Jay's grandfather, Max Katz, was a well-known amateur magician and president of  the Society of American Magicians.  Photo courtesy of the Society of American Magicians.

Ricky Jay’s grandfather, Max Katz, was a well-known amateur magician and president of the Society of American Magicians. Photo courtesy the Society of American Magicians.

Young Ricky Jay is seen polishing his craft in marvelous photos and film footage from the 1950s, as well as in clips from entertaining stints on TV shows during his young adult years. Highlights also include vignettes from his later stage and film performances directed by playwright David Mamet, who recalls here how he tried to outwit the master to no avail.

Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants; Ricky Jay: On the Stem; and Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery — all directed by Mamet — were award-winning critical and commercial theatrical events.  As a film actor, Jay has been seen in David Mamet’s House of Games, Homicide,Things Change, The Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and Heist, and in many other movies and TV/cable series.

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Photo courtesy Hopscotch Films.

While Ricky Jay’s signature sleight-of-hand routines and comic patter play an entertaining role in Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, the film never loses sight of the drama and mystery behind Jay’s appeal.  A wonderfully evocative music score adds weight to the levity.  British journalist Suzie Mackenzie caps a long-winded reminiscence with a spectacular revelation about her meeting with Jay that to this day reduces her to tears. And when, during the film’s grand finale, Ricky Jay faces the camera and recites a poem, “The  Game in the Windowless Room,” written for him by Shel Silverstein, only one word comes to mind: Wow!!

American Masters–Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice debuts tonight on PBS (Friday, January 23, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.  Check local listings for premiere and repeat airtimes in your region.)  The film will also be available for streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters  Don’t miss it! – Judith Trojan

 

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Ripley Believe It or Not Is Stranger Than Fiction

As 2014 drew to a close, “believe it or not” seemed to best describe Ripleyfilmposter_DSC6686the mentality of those at Sony who thought that a “frat boy comedy” about the assassination of a sitting head of state was a good idea.  Now, as we look past the regrets and what remains of Sony, I recommend that you make better use of your valuable time by watching Ripley: Believe It or Not, an entertaining documentary debuting tonight on the PBS series American Experience that explores the provenance of the phrase “believe it or not” in the life of the unlikely multimedia visionary who branded it.  (Tuesday, January 6, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for broadcast times in your region.) After its debut, the film will be available for online streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/

He was a buck-toothed, stuttering skinny kid from Santa Rosa, California, who at first glance or second seemed to have nothing going for him.  But LeRoy Robert Ripley, born in 1890 on the cusp of the 20th century, did possess at least three important skill sets that would transform his life and that of popular entertainment in the early to mid-20th century and beyond.

Ripley loved to draw and had an affinity for cartoons, a talent 416RipVitaphoneAdRE (1)he parlayed into a successful career at a young age as a sports cartoonist at The Globe in New York City. He had an insatiable interest in the world around him, especially exotic cultures and offbeat lifestyles.  And he had the remarkable ability, despite his awkward shyness and stiff camera and radio presence, to continually push the envelope and venture into the latest and most lucrative media venues.

“Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” column originated in 1918 during his stint on The Globe, and quickly caught the eye of Richard L. Simon and Max Schuster and publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who grew Ripley’s visibility with book and syndication deals and all-expenses paid world travels during which he expanded his popular sports coverage to include illustrated reports on the unusual habits and habitats of the locals he met on his journeys.

Robert Ripley in his signature pith helmet shows off a Balinese New Year's Festival Lion mask in 1932. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Robert Ripley in his signature pith helmet shows off a Balinese New Year’s Festival Lion mask in 1932. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Ripley introduced his quirky finds and adventures to the American public in print as well as in the movies, at the Chicago World’s Fair and in a permanent “museum” on Broadway in New York City. His phenomenal success in those markets led to a much ballyhooed stint on the radio and the launch of his own TV show in 1949 on NBC, also home to every Baby Boomer’s hero Howdy Doody.

Remarkably, Ripley’s physical appearance and wardrobe (his buck teeth were shaded by the rim of his pith helmet) and fear of flying never dampened his allure as a ladies man and world traveller.  He amassed legions of fans and a fortune. He became a millionaire during the Depression, and his lavish lifestyle assured his status as a front page newsmaker.

In Ripley: Believe It or Not, filmmaker Cathleen O’Connell provides a polished, concise narrative that calls to mind the early, hour-long work of Ken Burns. O’Connell incorporates wonderful black and white and color archival footage and photos documenting Ripley’s milieu, travels and exotica. (However, some of his later stars–the guy who eats a live mouse and others who tempt fate with blowtorches and forks on camera–are a bit hard to watch in living color). The examples of Ripley’s sophisticated cartoons are especially eye-popping.

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Robert Ripley’s first Odditorium was visited by two million people at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago 1933-34, and set the stage for six more such exhibits during his lifetime. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Input from Ripley historians and colleagues is also informative and confirms that the “King of Curiosities” had a heart and social conscience. His fascination with offbeat individuals and locales was born of a need to celebrate the underdog and not by an obsession with the denizens of freak shows or circus sideshows. Ripley’s empathy was driven by his lonely childhood endured as a homely hayseed who was virtually invisible to his peers.

His early newspaper cartoon coverage of amazing feats of sportsmanship and his late-in-life focus on World War II heroics and the post-war Atomic bomb devastation in his beloved Far East shined a light on those (soldiers and civilians) whom he felt deserved not to be forgotten.

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Robert Ripley, circa 1933, with “Atta Boy,” a mummified baby found in Bolivia and believed to have been shrunken by the Shuar Indians of Ecuador. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment Inc.

American Experience–Ripley: Believe It or Not is an entertaining introduction to a surprisingly gutsy guy who made it big without good looks but with a nose for fringe dwellers and new technology. That his quirky sensibility continues to live on today, saturating social media, especially YouTube, and such broadcast TV and cable shows as America’s Got Talent, Duck Dynasty and Extreme Homes, to name but a few, is an indication of Ripley’s legacy as a visionary showman.

American Experience–Ripley: Believe It or Not debuts tonight, January 6, 2015, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times in your region.  It will be available for online streaming at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/

And also be sure to check out my FrontRowCenter review at http://www.judithtrojan.com/2013/10/29  of another entertaining documentary by director Cathleen O’Connell, American Experience–War of the Worlds, in which O’Connell focuses on Orson Welles, another visionary entertainer who marched to the beat of his own drum.  American Experience–War of the Worlds is now available on DVD, iTunes, and for online streaming at the WGBH/American Experience Web site listed above.  –Judith Trojan

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I Love Lucy Christmas Special Sweetens the Pot

Too many chocolates, too little time.  Lucy and Ethel tackle "Job Switching."  Photo courtesy CBS.

Too many chocolates, too little time. Lucy and Ethel aim to prove to their husbands that they can make a living in JOB SWITCHING. Photo courtesy CBS.

Even if you’ve never worked on an assembly line, you’ll empathize with Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, as the two frazzled pals tackle the line in the Job Switching (aka Chocolate Factory) episode of the beloved 1950s’ I Love Lucy CBS-TV series.  This classic episode, now colorized, is paired with the similarly colorized I Love Lucy Christmas Episode, and is set to air on CBS tonight, Sunday, December 7 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET/PT), as part of its annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special.

As an added bonus this year, the I Love Lucy Christmas Special not only piggybacks as holiday fare these two entertaining episodes from the landmark I Love Lucy CBS-TV series, but also includes original, never-before-broadcast footage from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s costume and make-up tests filmed days before the first episode of the series went into production in 1951.

Rare footage  of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez's 1951 costume and makeup tests round out the 2014  I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL. Photo courtey CBS.

Rare footage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s 1951 costume and make-up tests is featured in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, circa 2014. Photo courtesy CBS.

As I discussed more extensively in my review of last year’s CBS-TV I Love Lucy Christmas Special http://judithtrojan.com/2013/12/20 I’ve never been a fan of colorization. But the sensible use of color in this case injects a pleasing, modern-day quality to I Love Lucy‘s original black and white episodes without sacrificing the vintage framing music, titles and commercial breaks.

I highly recommend that even the most stubborn foes of colorization continue to give the I Love Lucy Christmas Special a chance, especially since this year it not only reprises the rarely seen 1956 Christmas Episode but debuts the memorably zany 1952 Job Switching (Chocolate Factory) challenge.

The more the merrier in the Ricardo household. Photo courtesy CBS.

The more the merrier on Christmas Eve in the Ricardo household. Photo courtesy CBS.

Originally aired on CBS in December 1956 and thought to be “lost,” The Christmas Episode is a nostalgic Christmas eve visit to the Ricardos’ Manhattan apartment where Lucy and Ricky trim their tree and prep gifts to surprise Little Ricky, their Santa-obsessed five-year-old.

Fred and Ethel join the fun as Lucy and Ricky wistfully recall Lucy’s unexpected pregnancy announcement at Ricky’s club and Ricky, Fred and Ethel’s subsequent foiled effort, months later, to get Lucy to the delivery room on time.  Original black and white flashbacks are intercut from these classic episodes.  The latter, still hilarious after all these years, continues to serve as the classic benchmark for all the memorable, if derivative, sit-com “birthing” episodes that followed.

Finally, in a musical interlude, Lucy’s attempt to sing “Jingle Bells” reminds Ricky and the Mertzes of the time tone-deaf Lucy crashed their barbershop quartet with disastrous results.  A flashback of their sabotaged performance in original black and white is included.

In Job Switching (also known as the Chocolate Factory episode), Lucy raises Ricky’s hackles when she overdraws her checkbook.  In one of her most uproarious efforts to prove to Ricky that she can make a living, Lucy drags Ethel to an employment agency where they nab a gig at a chocolate factory.  After several failed attempts to master their assignments, they land on the assembly line where they’re faced with a boss and conveyor belt from Hell.

Meanwhile, as Lucy and Ethel corral the chocolates, their husbands, Ricky and Fred, take a stab at the housework. Their disastrous cracks at vacuuming, ironing, baking a cake and preparing a dinner of chicken and rice are similarly side-splitting.

While you may never have the seen Job Switching episode in color, you’ll surely remember this fan favorite in its original black and white. It should come as no surprise to learn that Lucy and Ethel’s futile effort to keep up with that speedy chocolate factory conveyor belt was selected in 2013 by the Paley Center for Media (in their “TV’s Funniest of the Funniest” poll) as the funniest TV moment of all time.

Photo courtesy CBS.

Photo courtesy CBS.

The Job Switching (aka Chocolate Factory) episode originally aired on CBS on September 15, 1952.  Now, 62 years later, Lucy’s hair is red, her crisp factory uniform is pink, the chocolates are brown and the Ricardos’ kitchen is a mid-century modern riot of color; and Lucy, Ethel, Ricky and Fred will still make you laugh out loud.

Do yourself a favor and tune in to the I Love Lucy Christmas Special on CBS tonight, Sunday, December 7 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET/PT).  You’ll never take a box of chocolates for granted again.–Judith Trojan

 

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