1920 Bombing of Wall Street Revisited on American Experience

A horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded at the start of noontime lunch hour in front of the Morgan Bank on Wall Street, NYC, on September 16, 1920. From AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE BOMBING OF WALL STREET. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The parallels are unsettling.  Immigrant profiling and deportation.  American workers embittered by a profiteering moneyed class. Homegrown terrorists schooled in bomb-making and rhetoric by foreign-born anarchists. Russia vs. the F.B.I.

As revisited in the fascinating new documentary, The Bombing of Wall Street, debuting on the PBS series American Experience tonight, Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET (online February 14 @ www.pbs.org ), it’s clear that the “hot topics” currently inciting angry debate and stalemate in D.C. are hardly new.  In the years following World War I, wealthy American capitalists grew their coffers on the backs of those who fought and returned home from The Great War in Europe only to face grueling conditions and low wages in factories and coal mines.

Anarchists (reportedly in dark hats) gathered in Union Square, New York City, May 1, 1914. Note Baker and Taylor Company Booksellers in the background. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution (November 1917) in Russia inspired workers of the world to challenge capitalism, unite and strike.  Some took more violent means to get their message across.

In April and May of 1919, 30 bombs targeting U.S. bankers and government officials were mailed to arrive on May Day.  Attorney General and Presidential hopeful A. Mitchell Palmer ordered the Bureau of Investigation to draw up a list of possible suspects.  Shortly thereafter, a bomb was delivered and exploded prematurely on Palmer’s front doorstep, scattering the bomb and the bomber’s remains hither and yon and generating fear for Palmer’s future well-being.  Similar attacks occurred in six other cities.

J. Edgar Hoover. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Palmer retaliated by targeting anyone purportedly connected to revolutionary groups. He created “The Radical Division” of the Bureau and appointed a 24-year-old lawyer to manage it. Thus began the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, whose affinity for files had been fine-tuned during an early stint at the Library of Congress.

With Hoover on board at the Bureau, more than 200,000 files on radical activities were swiftly compiled and, on the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (November 7, 1919), Palmer ordered a raid that led to the deportation of 249 Russian immigrants, a group that included anarchist Emma Goldman. More “Palmer Raids” were staged nationwide and suspected radicals were locked up en masse in deplorable makeshift detention centers. Many detainees were innocent, law-abiding hyphenate-American citizens.

The culmination of this tragic period in U.S. history came on September 16, 1920, when a horse-drawn cart packed with dynamite exploded on Wall Street during lunch hour in front of the Morgan Bank–the world’s most powerful, family run banking institution.  Thirty-eight innocent Wall Street employees and passersby were killed and hundreds more were injured. The bombs during that period were not unsophisticated: They ejected deadly shrapnel that shattered human organs. Other financial institutions across the country rightfully feared similar retaliation.

A blown out car and dead horse are collateral damage as the police hold back curious post-bombing crowds in lower Manhattan, on September 16, 1920. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“During this period, America was grappling with some of the same difficult quandaries in which we find ourselves now,” said PBS American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels.”How do we protect ourselves from violent extremists who wish to  harm us without violating the civil liberties of those who may have different political beliefs? There was no easy answer in 1920 and no easy answer now.”

Writer/director  Susan Bellows managed to acquire and weave a remarkable collection of period film footage throughout her 52-minute documentary.  The century-old footage is riveting as it captures and contrasts life on Wall Street before and after the September 16, 1920 bombing and documents the nationwide workers’ strikes and immigrant raids, roundups and deportations that preceded the bombing.  The scope of the terrorist threats on American soil and the challenges to capitalism, immigration and the U.S. Constitution almost 100 years ago are eye-opening and chilling in light of similar debilitating challenges facing our country today.

The September 16, 1920 Wall Street "bomb wagon" as reconstructed from recovered fragments. No suspected perpetrators were ever tried and convicted. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The September 16, 1920 Wall Street “bomb wagon” as reconstructed from recovered fragments. No suspected perpetrators were ever tried and convicted. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The Bombing of Wall Street, based in part on Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror (Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009), should serve as timely re-education and a wake-up call for all Americans. It’s a must-see for those who need “reminding” in the highest echelons of all three branches of the U.S. government.

The Bombing of Wall Street debuts on the PBS series American Experience tonight, Tuesday, February 13, 2018, at 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, its availability on DVD and   http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ for online viewing beginning on February 14, 2018.–Judith Trojan

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A Time for Burning Revisited at the Film Forum in NYC

Bill Jersey

Just a quick heads-up…encouraging my FrontRowCenter readers living in the New York metropolitan area to attend a highly anticipated screening and Q&A at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, in New York City tonight, Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

The landmark documentary, A Time for Burning–filmed in 1965 by my friend, mega-Award-winning documentarian, Bill Jersey–will be screened beginning at 6:20 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Bill.

Now 91 and still thriving as a filmmaker and painter in the bucolic Delaware River town of Lambertville, NJ, Bill has been the focus of several of my filmmaker interviews and FrontRowCenter profiles in the past.

If you are at all interested in learning about the roots of the cinema vérité movement and revisiting the then incendiary 1965 Civil Rights’ film, A Time for Burning, with one of the movement’s masters, do yourself a favor and head over to the Film Forum.

Bill Jersey shared the back story of A Time for Burning with me for FrontRowCenter: 

Bill Jersey: “In 1965 an unusual event occurred in the history of documentary filmmaking. A film was made that criticized its funder. The Lutheran Church hired me to make a film for them on the church’s response to racial tension.  The church fathers had hoped to show their organization responding effectively to the tension embroiling the country over this issue, but it was not turning out that way.

A TIME FOR BURNING explores a Lutheran minister's (right) attempt to integrate his congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Bill Jersey.

A TIME FOR BURNING explores a Lutheran minister’s (right) failed attempt to integrate his congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, circa 1965. Photo courtesy Bill Jersey.

A Time for Burning tells the story of a white Lutheran minister forced to resign over his commitment to Civil Rights as he attempted to integrate his all-white congregation in Omaha, Nebraska.

“One Omaha church member said of the potential African-American congregants: ‘I want God to bless them as much as he blesses me… I just can’t be in the same room with them.’ Another said, ‘I don’t see the problem… I had a Negro in my gym class.’ An African-American barber commented on the white churchgoers:  ‘Your Jesus is contaminated–just like everything else you do!’

“I realized the film I was making was not what the Lutheran Church had in mind, so I offered them the chance to terminate my contract and the project. But the church bravely said: ‘Finish it and offer it for broadcast.’

“All three networks turned it down because–as an early example of the cinema vérité style–it had no host, no narrator and no identifying subtitles. But the film received rave reviews from TV critics and magazine and newspaper reviewers in every major city. Fred Friendly, then President of CBS News, said it was the finest Civil Rights’ film ever made.

A Time for Burning subsequently received an Oscar nomination, was selected by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection and, in 2012, was blown up to 35mm from the original 16mm film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”Ω

Although it was filmed in 1965, A Time for Burning continues to resonate and spark heated discussion, given the racially divisive climate being ignited nationwide by POTUS. A featured selection of Film Forum’s “60’s VÉRITÉ Special Events” series, A Time for Burning begins screening at 6:20 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Bill Jersey, at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10014. –Judith Trojan

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Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes Feeling Heart Debuts on PBS

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) at home in Greenwich Village with her ever-present typewriter, April 1959. Photo courtesy David Attie.

“We had her voice for as long as we really needed it, if we were wise enough to listen.”

Actress/activist Ruby Dee makes that startlingly prophetic statement (Dee died in June 2014) about her lifelong friend and colleague at the close of Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a timely new American Masters profile celebrating the short but prolific life of writer/activist Lorraine Hansberry.

The two-hour documentary written and directed by Tracy Heather Strain and featuring the voice of Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose as Hansberry launches Season 32 of American Masters on PBS tonight, Friday, January 19, 2018, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing and additional resources immediately after its broadcast premiere.

The youngest child of a successful Chicago real estate broker and a school teacher, Lorraine Hansberry was driven to write and, with her writing, empower African-American, feminist, and lesbian communities to rise up against discrimination.

Lorraine Hansberry holds hands with singer Nina Simone and other activists at a pre-benefit gathering for the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1963. Photo courtesy Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust.

Her father, Carl Hansberry, a respected civic leader and supporter of the NAACP and Urban League, brokered housing for African-Americans migrating mid-century to Chicago from the South. But despite his respected niche in the community, Carl Hansberry couldn’t surmount the racism that threatened his own upwardly mobile family when they moved into a  restricted white neighborhood.

Influenced by her father’s fight for racial harmony and justice, Lorraine Hansberry interacted with families in her dad’s housing projects and faced her own challenges with the ongoing racist verbal and physical threats that clouded the promise of a better day for her family and all African-Americans.

The lessons learned from her parents and their neighbors in Chicago’s African-American community would resurface on the page in Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun, written when she was only 26. The story of a hard-working African-American family living in the projects on Chicago’s South Side, whose matriarch hopes to use her deceased husband’s life insurance payout to buy a new home for the family in a better Chicago suburb, A Raisin in the Sun was published and performed for the first time in 1959.

With the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry became the  first female African-American playwright to have her work performed on Broadway. The play went on to win the coveted New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best American Play in 1959. But it’s made clear in Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart that the play’s evolution from page to stage was a tough mountain to climb.

The roadblocks facing Raisin’s predominantly all-black cast, its direction by an African-American (Lloyd Richards), its dicey out-of-town tryouts with white audiences, its struggle to secure funding and a house on Broadway, and its landmark opening night on March 11, 1959 are detailed at length in the film, as is the play’s transition onto movie screens in 1961.

Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain richly illustrates Hansberry’s tumultuous life story with vintage photos and home movies, grainy clips from Hansberry’s TV interviews with the likes of David Susskind and Mike Wallace, and numerous clips from the black and white film version of Raisin in the Sun (1961). Reminiscences from friends, family and colleagues, including actors from the original Raisin cast–Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Lou Gossett, Jr. and Glynn Turman–and director Lloyd Richards, as well as African-American singer/activist Harry Belafonte, playwright Lynn Nottage and scholars underscore the “firsts” sustaining Lorraine Hansberry’s remarkable legacy. Passages from Hansberry’s writings, voiced by Anika Noni Rose–Tony Award-nominated for her performance as Beneatha Younger in Broadway’s 2014 Raisin revival–thread gently throughout the film.

A scene from the first Broadway production of A RAISIN IN THE SON. From left: Ruby Dee (Ruth Younger); Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil); Glynn Turman (Travis Younger); Sidney Poitier (Walter Younger); and John Fielder (Karl Lindner). All except Turman reprised their roles in the 1961 film version.

The film’s title derives from Hansberry’s dictum that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict the world.” Had she lived longer, Lorraine Hansberry would have been a powerful voice of change throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. She no doubt would have been enraged by the degree of right-wing extremism, racism and sexism upending America today.

American Masters–Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart reminds us to revisit and embrace Hansberry’s work as we approach Black History month (February 2018). And going forward, the film will be an especially timely and evergreen program choice in African-American and women’s studies in schools, libraries and universities. It’s part of American Masters’ year-long #InspiringWomanPBS online campaign, which includes podcasts and a Web series now streaming on pbs.org/inspiringwoman, YouTube and Facebook where people can share stories of inspirational women in their own lives.

American Masters–Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart debuts on PBS tonight, Friday, January 19, 2018, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and   http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing and additional resources immediately after its broadcast.–Judith Trojan

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Teddy Roosevelt and Director John Maggio Travel Into the Amazon on PBS

In 1914, after suffering a stinging defeat two years before in the Presidential election of 1912, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt gave up his dream to serve an unprecedented third term in office and focused his wanderlust on the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.  It almost killed him.

The legendary Rough Rider, big game hunter and naturalist was determined to add “explorer” to his resumé when he set his sights on the River of Doubt, a mysterious and uncharted tributary of the Amazon River, where he hoped to map and collect exotic specimens. Teaming up with his 25-year-old son, Kermit, a handful of American friends and colleagues, like-minded Brazilians and indigenous natives, Roosevelt led the joint American/Brazilian expedition with renowned Brazilian explorer Colonel Cândido Mariano Da Silva Rondon. The plan to team up with Col. Rondon, who had indigenous roots and previous professional engagement in the region, would prove to be Roosevelt’s wisest decision.

Roosevelt was 55 in 1914– overweight, out of shape and no match for the remote, unforgiving Amazon River terrain and its exotic habitués. Overloaded with inefficient supplies and pack animals (110 mules and 70 oxen); incessantly under attack by ravenous insects and vampire bats; sickened by dysentery and malaria exacerbated by the excessive heat and humidity; diverted off course by unrelenting rapids and waterfalls; and unnerved by the lurking presence of piranha, anaconda, and potentially cannibalistic natives, the expedition was a hellish eight-week journey that quickly decimated the livestock and food supplies, incited madness and murder, and led Roosevelt to feverishly beg to be left in the jungle to die.

Theodore Roosevelt and Candido Rondon holding up a bush deer, circa 1914.

Into the Amazon, award-winning filmmaker John Maggio’s latest film for the PBS series, American Experience, opens a window onto  Roosevelt’s tortuous Amazon expedition.  The riveting two-hour documentary pairs fascinating vintage period footage and photos with reenactments shot on-location. The on-location footage illuminates the daunting scope of the twisty terrain that surrounded and nearly swallowed up Roosevelt and his team.

The film also features informative commentary from articulate historians, anthropologists, present-day explorers and Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt, as well as the voices of actors Alec Baldwin, Wagner Moura and Jack Lacy who read, respectively, from Teddy Roosevelt, Cândido Rondon and Kermit Roosevelt’s diary entries, letters and data reports documenting the expedition.

Into the Amazon premieres tonight, Tuesday, January 9, 2018, ushering in  the 30th Anniversary season of the PBS series American Experience, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, its availability on DVD and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ for online viewing  immediately after its broadcast.

John Maggio, wrote, directed and produced AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: INTO THE AMAZON for PBS. Photo courtesy Ark Media.

Since I was especially fascinated by Ken Burns’ coverage of Teddy Roosevelt in his outstanding 2014 miniseries, The Roosevelts, (see my review @ September 14, 2014), I was anxious to connect with filmmaker John Maggio to discuss the dynamics and mindset that inspired and imploded Theodore Roosevelt’s dangerous sojourn in Brazil, as well as Maggio’s decision to revisit and film Roosevelt’s final chapter in close proximity to the site of the original expedition.  My Q&A with John Maggio (conducted via email) is reprinted below.

Judith Trojan:  You seem to be drawn to subjects who are, more often than not, mavericks within their culture or milieu…most recently Bonnie and Clyde, Ben Bradlee and now Teddy Roosevelt.  What attracts you to subjects who, for better or worse, are drawn to lifestyles or choices that defy the norm?

John Maggio:  I would include the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and the inventor of the pre-frontal lobotomy, Walter Freeman, on that list.  I find these types of individuals endlessly fascinating because they have chosen to push boundaries and almost always push a little too far because most have the fatal flaw that often comes with success – hubris – that ultimately becomes their undoing.

Theodore Roosevelt with a walking ice axe, circa 1881, was always testing his endurance. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

When I looked at Roosevelt, I discovered a man who had come to believe that the he could control nature – and sought a kind of personal mastery of nature.  He was intrepid. A big game hunter, he collected thousands of specimens for the Natural History Museum and went on a year-long African safari in 1908.  As a sickly child, he learned to test himself against nature as a way to live what he called ‘the strenuous life.’

So when he decided to go into the Amazon, he was quite certain he would be fine and could handle anything.  But he really did meet his match there.  The Amazon was still an untamed frontier; and, in 1914, when Roosevelt was traveling through it, the jungle practically ate him alive.

Trojan:  Given TR’s other extraordinary personal and political accomplishments, adventures and challenges, why do you think the time is right to focus an entire two-hour film on his eight-week, near fatal 1914 adventure in the Brazilian Amazon?

Maggio:   It’s just such a great yarn. I think everyone loves a good story. I can’t imagine any American President in recent history who would decide to throw themselves into such a perilous adventure upon leaving office, but Roosevelt is truly unique in that regard.  I do hope that people come away with a sense that it is important to preserve the Amazon basin – we need the rainforest, and we need some places to remain wild.

Trojan:  Why did you choose to incorporate live-action footage shot on-location in the Amazon rainforest?  It must have been a logistical nightmare to film there. Most documentarians would have relied solely on less costly vintage footage and photos.  Your beautifully shot, often aerial footage, works well to establish and sustain, respectively, the remote terrain and menace experienced by Roosevelt’s team…and reminds us of nature’s unforgiving brutality despite its enticing beauty.  I admit to being reminded of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo as I watched your film.

Theodore Roosevelt (right foreground), Candido Rondon and camaradas encamped during their joint American/Brazilian Amazonian expedition in 1914. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt (right foreground), Candido Rondon and camaradas encamped during their joint American/Brazilian Amazonian expedition in 1914. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Maggio:  Yes, we had our own Herzogian adventure shooting this film in the Brazilian Amazon. But after scouting various places to shoot, I quickly realized that there was no re-creating the Amazon rainforest.  I wanted to capture just how vast the jungle is there and how small the expedition appears at the center of it. At times, they look like tiny ants making their way – and I think you feel how powerful and daunting the wilderness can be.  So the only way to achieve that feeling was being there.  We had to endure incredible heat and torrential downpours; and it was harrowing at times dragging very expensive camera equipment and a very large crew through that environment.  It brought me closer to what TR and his team went through.

Trojan:  How long did you film in Brazil, how close were you to the River of Doubt, and what were its similarities to the terrain in 1914?  Your crew also included descendants of local indigenous people as well. Were any of them descendants of the native crew supporting Roosevelt’s expedition?

John Maggio (left) and crew filmed INTO THE AMAZON on-location in Brazil. Photo courtesy AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Maggio:  We shot on a tributary of the Rio Negro about three hours up river from Manaus [Roosevelt’s safe harbor and destination].  Shooting on the Rio Roosevelt with the amount of crew and equipment was prohibitive because of access issues with the Cinta Larga tribe, the logistics of chartering flights in and out, and also there was no real base camp.  The area around the Rio Roosevelt is still largely undeveloped and the challenges were too great to overcome.

That said, we found a remarkable location on the Ariau River which shared many of the same characteristics of the Rio Roosevelt – the water is black, it’s very serpentine and runs through the flooded forest.  We were still very remote, but there was a base camp we could establish with generators for camera equipment and food.

We worked with about 20 locals to the area – many of whom were indigenous – who were invaluable to the success of the shoot. They expertly guided us through the rainforest, hand-carved six 16-foot dugout canoes we used in the shooting, acted as extras and animal wranglers, and provided us with food and local remedies for infections and scrapes.  We spent a couple of weeks shooting in the Brazilian Amazon. Then we spent two weeks shooting overland, rapids and the gorge shots in the Dominican Republic.

Trojan:  Where did you acquire the remarkable period footage and photos documenting Roosevelt’s expedition? Did TR’s great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, help guide your focus and contribute key source material, since he reportedly spent his 50th birthday in 1992 rafting the 1,000 mile Rio Roosevelt?

Filmmaker John Maggio (left) and crew members on-location during production of INTO THE AMAZON for PBS. Photo courtesy AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

Maggio:  Much of the footage of their journey comes from a film made for the Library of Congress which combines footage TR and his team took in 1914 (before they lost their film and equipment) with footage taken by another expedition headed by the explorer, George Dyott, in 1927.  Dyott undertook the expedition down the River of Doubt to verify TR’s claims of discovery of the river.  He took footage to prove it.

Also, at the Brazilian National Archives in Rio, we discovered some beautiful films of Cândido Rondon’s expeditions through the Amazon, and cut those in as well.  In those Archives, we came across much of the footage photos of Indians he encountered.  Tweed Roosevelt was a great resource because he had taken the trip most recently, so he helped us understand the physical experience.

Trojan:  How long did this project take you to complete?

Maggio:  It was about an 18-month production schedule.

Trojan:  The film returns again and again to the impact on this journey of the Roosevelt father-son bond. It seems to me that this relationship is an especially relevant and timely aspect of the story, given the current administration’s father-son dynamic.  How would you compare TR and Kermit’s relationship at the outset of the journey with their bond at river’s end?  Do you see a lesson here in light of the ‘example’ being played out in D.C. today?

Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, hunted buffalo and other game while on African safari in 1908. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, hunted buffalo and other game while on African safari in 1908. Photo courtesy Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.

Maggio:  TR was always worried about Kermit.  At first, it was because as a child Kermit seemed too timid.  TR was always trying to toughen him up.  But later, after their trip to Africa together in 1908, TR began to worry that maybe Kermit was taking too many risks; and he was.

Kermit was always in the shadow of his great intrepid father, and so he was always trying to push the envelope.  He was building bridges in Brazil right before the River of Doubt expedition, which was very dangerous work; and he had already injured himself falling from a great height.  In Africa, Kermit would stand in front of charging elephants and stare them down before shooting.

And on the River of Doubt expedition, his antics cost the life of one of the Brazilian paddlers.  But in the end, he seemed to mature and, as you see in the film, he became his father’s keeper.  He helped TR out of the jungle – and essentially saved his life.  I can’t imagine there is any comparison to President Trump and his son, Don, Jr.  I can’t imagine there would ever be a circumstance that would test these men in quite the same way.  But you can’t help but see a similar dynamic at play – with Don Trump, Jr., wanting to impress his father.

Trojan:  To your mind, is there a timely take-away or lesson to be learned from revisiting TR’s accomplishments and mindset driving this 104-year-old expedition?

Maggio:  That nature is very powerful – despite all of our attempts to deny or ignore it.  With global warming and the extreme weather events that come with it, I think it’s more important than ever to respect nature.  That was a hard lesson for TR to learn and nearly cost him his life.

Trojan:  Any subjects on your ‘wish list’ going forward?

Maggio:  Think – George Orwell. Ω

Into the Amazon premieres tonight, Tuesday, January 9, 2018, ushering in the 30th Anniversary season of the PBS series American Experience, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region, its availability on DVD and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ for online viewing  immediately after its broadcast.

You can read my review of John Maggio’s (American Experience: Bonnie & Clyde) in FrontRowCenter at judithtrojan.com/2016/01/19. And I encourage you not to miss his timely documentary profile of Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee, that debuted on HBO on December 4, 2017. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.) I especially recommend watching the Bradlee documentary prior to catching Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed feature film, The Post, opening in theatres nationwide on January 12, 2018.–Judith Trojan 

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Carol Burnett Celebrates a Golden Jubilee on CBS

Carol Burnett celebrates, on its original soundstage, the 50th anniversary of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, her landmark comedy/variety series. Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS ©2017 Broadcasting, Inc.

“There is a place for good fun that the whole family can watch.”– Carol Burnett.

If, like me, you’ve been held hostage this year by the psychodrama playing out in our nation’s Capitol and the devastation left behind by horrific hurricanes and home-grown terrorists, you can’t afford to miss The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special. The two-hour laughfest, celebrating the golden anniversary of Carol Burnett’s iconic weekly variety series, premieres tonight, Sunday, December 3, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. After its debut, you can watch it  at http://www.cbs.com/shows/carol-burnett-50th-anniversary-special/video/

National treasure  and doyenne of family friendly entertainment, comedienne Carol Burnett has actually made our nation laugh… guilt and partisan free …for more than 50 years.  Her personal trophy shelf is host to a boatload of Emmys, People’s Choice Awards and Golden Globes, as well as the Horatio Alger Award, Peabody and Ace Awards, a Kennedy Center honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. An endless stream of personal tributes and guest appearances continue to attest to her legacy in broadcast history as a pioneer of sketch comedy.

Although she has excelled on stage, film and TV, in both musical comedy and drama, her most unforgettable contribution to television and the entertainment industry as a whole is, of course, The Carol Burnett Show.

THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW featured the collaborative genius of (clockwise from left) Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett. Photo: ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

An hour-long comedy variety show, The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS on September 11, 1967, ran for 11 years, amassed 276 episodes, originated eight or nine individual comedy sketches per episode, averaged 30 million viewers per week and received 25 Emmy Awards.  It was named by Time Magazine as one of the “100 Best Television Shows of All Time,” and continues to be a hit in reruns on MeTV and, in boxed sets, on DVD.

TV audiences first became acquainted with Carol Burnett as a wildly inventive cast member of  The Gary Moore Show on CBS.  Although the concept of a woman hosting and driving her own TV variety series was inconceivable at the time, her savvy agent somehow orchestrated a clause in her contract that gave her the opportunity to host her own variety show.  When she decided to test the waters and request her own variety show, Ms. Burnett was initially shot down by skeptical CBS brass. But thanks to that ironclad contract, CBS had no choice but to acquiesce.  A star was born, and The Carol Burnett Show became must-see TV for generations of viewers and a ratings bonanza for CBS.

The Carol Burnett Show was a comedy showcase that was years ahead of its time,” recalls Leslie Moonves, CBS Chairman and CEO. “We are very proud of the show’s significant place in CBS’s legacy as well as in television history.”

Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett go for the laughs in a classic "Mama's Family" sketch on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett go for the laughs in a classic “Mama’s Family” sketch on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. Photo: CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

It’s clear from the clips featured on The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special that her comic and collaborative genius made shows like “Saturday Night Live” possible.  SNL alums Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short and Amy Poehler join Jay Leno, Bernadette Peters, Steve Martin, Steve Lawrence, Stephen Colbert, Kristen Chenoweth and Jane Lynch to pay homage to Carol Burnett’s trailblazing show. Anecdotes from Ms. Burnett and original cast members Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner drive the conversation and introduce memorable characters and clips from the show.

Also featured is costume designer Bob Mackie, who was a pivotal player behind the scenes on The Carol Burnett Show. Starlet O’Hara, Nora Desmond, Mama, Eunice, Mrs. Wiggins and the rest of Carol, Vicki, Lyle, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman’s beloved characters found their footing (or lack of it) in Mackie’s brilliant costumes, some of which are now housed at The Smithsonian.

If you’re long overdue for laughs, be sure to tune in to The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special on CBS tonight, Sunday, December 3, 2017, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  After its debut, you can watch it at  http://www.cbs.com/shows/carol-burnett-50th-anniversary-special/video/

And if you’re searching for a holiday gift with Carol Burnett’s name on it, grab a copy of her most recent memoir and New York Times Best Seller In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox (Crown Archetype, June 2016). Now available in paperback and audio formats (Random House), the book details the collaborative process that gave birth to the comedy sketches that are as fresh and hilarious today as they were 40 or 50 years ago. Judith Trojan

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Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive Debuts on American Masters

Prolific stage, film and TV actor Denis O’Hare adds dramatic resonance to the AMERICAN MASTERS’ documentary, EDGAR ALLAN POE: BURIED ALIVE, on PBS. Photo courtesy Liane Brandon.

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before”… from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

All Hallows’ Eve will soon be upon us, so what better time to become reacquainted with Edgar Allan Poe…the 19th-century American writer, editor and book critic whose Gothic narrative poems, short stories and prescient detective protagonist C. Auguste Dupin (he preceded Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot!) still chill and thrill readers 168 years after Poe’s death on October 7, 1849.

It’s clear from filmmaker Eric Stange’s new documentary, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, that Poe’s work clearly reflected his lifelong struggles with personal loss and grief triggered by his father’s abandonment and his 24-year-old mother’s death when Poe was only two years old.  Those early life-shattering experiences precipitated his separation from his two siblings and his introduction into an unyielding foster home.

The 90-minute documentary, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, narrated by actress Kathleen Turner and featuring dramatic reenactments by Tony-Award-winning actor Denis O’Hare as Poe, premieres tonight, Monday, October 30, 2017, on the PBS series American Masters, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://pbs.org/americanmasters  and PBS OTT apps for streaming beginning on Halloween, Tuesday, October 31, 2017.)

A daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1848. Photo courtesy The Library of Congress.

Although the themes of death and dying permeate this profile–it opens and closes with the mysterious and still unresolved circumstances of Poe’s death in 1849–the film jumps beyond the deaths of Poe’s mother and her successors to link his conflicted career as a writer and editor and his subject matter to the stark realities of living and dying in 19th-century America.

The socio-economic landscape in pre-Civil War America was precarious at best. Poverty weakened resolve. Slaves were bought and sold within Poe’s Southern milieu. And the ravages of consumption (tuberculosis) and the collateral damage suffered by women and their newborns during childbirth fueled a burgeoning mortality rate that was so unrelenting that some unfortunates ran the risk of internment before they actually took their last  breaths.  To prevent victims from being buried alive, coffins were outfitted with gizmos that enabled the living “dead” to alert those above ground that a mistake had been made. It’s not much of a stretch to connect the dots to Poe’s eventual literary focus.

Writer/director Eric Stange paints his portrait of Poe with a broad stroke. Mr. Stange ably juxtaposes actor Denis O’Hare’s moody evocation of the poet with visuals of Poe’s distinctive handwritten letters and text; staged readings by actors Chris Sarandon and Ben Schnetzer; and factoids from a host of articulate Poe scholars, biographers, and filmmaker Roger Corman. The latter’s film adaptations of Poe’s work did much to breathe new life into actor Vincent Price’s career.

Edgar Allan Poe (Denis O'Hare) takes pen to hand on AMERICAN MASTERS. Photo: Liane Brandon.

Edgar Allan Poe (Denis O’Hare) takes pen to hand on AMERICAN MASTERS. Photo: Liane Brandon.

Edgar Allan Poe’s fifth generation cousin, Harry Lee Poe, who has made his own mark as a Poe family foundation helmer, museum trustee and an Award-winning Poe scholar in his own right, contributes fascinating bits of family lore as well. Edgar Allan Poe was saddled with his family’s predisposition to alcoholism; an orphan’s unresolved longing for a stable, loving family; and the final insult of a much ballyhooed obituary written and riddled with lies by his literary rival, Rufus W. Griswold.  But, in death, Poe found sustained literary acclaim and a family tree to call his own (no doubt via his siblings’ offspring).

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive premieres tonight, Monday, October 30, 2017, on the PBS series American Masters, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://pbs.org/americanmasters  and PBS OTT apps for streaming beginning on Halloween, Tuesday, October 31, 2017.)  As an introduction to the man behind the myth and mystery, the film will serve as an evergreen addition to American Literature classes and Halloween-themed programs, concurrent with the reading of Poe’s work, in high schools, colleges and libraries. Until then…Happy Halloween!–Judith Trojan

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Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounter of the First Kind on HBO

Steven Spielberg’s film career takes center stage in SPIELBERG, Susan Lacy’s new feature-length documentary. Photo courtesy HBO.

If you’re a fan of Steven Spielberg’s films …  and who isn’t? … grab a bowl of popcorn, kick back on your sofa and spend some quality time watching Spielberg, the new feature-length documentary profile of the Academy Award®-winning producer/director premiering on HBO tonight, Saturday, October 7, 2017, 8:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)

Directed and produced by Emmy and Peabody Award-winner Susan Lacy, Spielberg traces the filmmaker’s evolution from pre-pubescent movie geek to wunderkind industry insider.  Lacy has a big story to tell, and she’s clearly up to the task.  She makes good use of all the bells and whistles she fine-tuned during her decades-long stint as creator/producer of the long-running American Masters series on PBS.

Steven Spielberg was in his early 20’s when he had the audacity to direct movie queen Joan Crawford in an episode of TV’s Night Gallery (1969). He hit the jackpot with the now-classic Made-for-TV thriller, Duel (1971).

Drew Barrymore and her new best friend, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).

There soon followed a dizzying array of feature film epics (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and various spin-offs), as well as literary and history-based dramas (The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies).  You’ll relish revisiting these gems and others via the profuse film and TV clips that thread throughout Spielberg, as the director ruminates about his transition from popcorn people pleasers to thought-provoking dramas, and the influence of his lifelong obsession with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which is also clipped here.

Steven Spielberg directing several actors playing concentration camp prisoners in SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993). Photo courtesy HBO.

Steven Spielberg is an ever-present player in this film bio, as are his sisters, parents and film colleagues. We are privy to Spielberg’s childhood peccadilloes and special talents; the timeline and enduring impact of his two marriages and children; and the provenance of common themes in his work.

Director Susan Lacy peppers the film with commentary from a dazzling array of Hollywood A-listers: actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, producers and, of course, his longtime composer John Williams. Informative sequences focus on his peeps … guys with names like Scorcese, Coppola, De Palma and Lucas … who piggyback the launch of Spielberg’s career with their own in the 1970’s and ’80s.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the set of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). Photo courtesy HBO.

Spielberg returns repeatedly to the upheaval caused by his parents’ separation and divorce and his lengthy alienation from his father. His heartfelt reflections and those of his sisters and parents, who touchingly reconciled late in life, link his family trauma to themes in his work, as well as the ambiance fostered with longtime colleagues on his film sets. Spielberg’s films clearly map his efforts to address and resolve painful family issues via his very large and public canvas, apparently enabling him to bypass traditional therapy. We should all be so lucky.

Spielberg tracks his career up through and including Bridge of Spies (2015).  It is an exhaustive and respectful film bio that secures Spielberg’s name in the pantheon of great American director/producers. As such, it will have evergreen value in programs focusing on film directors, film history and appreciation, and American cultural studies in high schools, universities, libraries and museums.

Spielberg debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, October 7, 2017, 8:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.) –Judith Trojan

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