My Life Among The Mad Men

My Life Among The Mad Men

We open on an expensive company Christmas party at a swank Manhattan restaurant. From wall to wall: booze, food, and boisterous people. The president of the company strolls up, surveys the crowd, and says with a smile: “You can smell the sex!”

This wasn’t said by Roger Sterling of Sterling Cooper in 1962. It was said by my boss, the president of a well-known media company, in 2000. I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond — what did sex smell like to him, anyway? — and I don’t recall what comeback I settled on. His remark was typical of an era and a mindset that has lasted in the ad and media businesses longer than you might think — extending even to today.

It’s the Mad Men era, the Mad Men mindset, that is captured with obsessive accuracy in the TV series concluding on Sunday night.

I never worked at an ad agency, and I’ll be 59 years old next month, so during the time in which the show is set I was only smoking chocolate cigarettes and my drink of choice was soda. But I have sold advertising for media companies — including a major ad industry trade magazine, one of the biggest popular magazine publishers, and currently at The National Memo — since 1983. Especially during my early years I knew the Dons and Rogers and Petes and Peggys, and their next-generation heirs. They drank, they smoked, they screwed. It was Scott Fitzgerald’s (and Mad Men showrunner Matt Weiner’s) “great gaudy spree.”

Next scene: an advertising trade magazine company meeting at Lake George, circa 1993. The company’s only top female executive has announced she is leaving after a surprisingly short stint. One of the magazine’s founders, an éminence grise of great WASP vintage, says in his plummy basso: “You know, back at Time and Life in the 50s, we didn’t have so many gals around [emphasis his].” Those of us under 40 cringe.

A few years later, when I was leading a sales team, the same magazine founder said of one of my Jewish employees, “You know, Rob is very Bronx!” I knew what that meant, of course. I’m Jewish and from the Bronx, but I had gone to Harvard, so I was sort of all right. In fact, the éminence grise even gave me a neck massage once.

In the 80s and 90s, the three-martini lunch was still the norm, and the martini count could escalate so much that the lunch lasted through dinner. One of my employers put on an all-day 100th-anniversary bacchanal that took over the Park Avenue Armory and included a vice president riding in on an elephant. A real elephant. I began drinking at 9:30 that morning and stopped… who knows when?

Another time, I was in our L.A. office. A top editor from New York saw me, yelled “What the f*ck are you doin’ here?” and then for the next eight hours he and a Hollywood trade paper reporter gave me the drinking sybarite’s tour of Hollywood. (Movie fans: That editor was the guy who served as the basis for the credit card expense account story in American Beauty. Screenwriter Alan Ball worked for us.)

As late as the early 80s women at work were still called “toots,” “dear,” and “sweetie.” (I soon stopped doing that, except among close female friends who are in on the irony.) Extramarital affairs were common and generally, if quietly, known about. Yes, men were a**holes then. They still can be. Back then I knew a few McCann-Erickson men who were. I’m sure everyone there is lovely now.

I liked the drinking and camaraderie, and was complicit in the attitude that ad and media guys (I still slip and say “guys”) were the most fun people in the world, and that nothing could ever stop the spree. Well, a couple of recessions did, and so did the digital revolution.

Like Don Draper, some of us got divorced, were humbled in employment, and even stopped drinking (for a time). And as the business got younger thanks to digital, we got older, and places in it were harder to find. Eventually, even most of the mad men became sane.

But I know that out there in American media and advertising, women still have it tough, booze still flows in mighty rivers, cigarettes are once again fashionable, and for the young the new spree, their spree, seems as if it will never end. The madness, like the landmark series that captured it, will always be out there.

The final episode of Mad Men airs May 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time on AMC. Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Harold Itzkowitz is VP of advertising for The National Memo.

The Oscars’ Best Of The Best

The Oscars’ Best Of The Best

For people who take films seriously, the Oscars are like professional wrestling: loud, entertaining, and artistically insignificant. Consider this: Of the top 10 greatest films listed by the British Film Institute’s worldwide poll of critics in 2012, not one that would have been eligible for Best Picture won the top Oscar (although there is a kinda, sorta winner — see below). So over the past 85 years, the Best Picture winners have earned reputations ranging from okay to appalling choices. Things have gotten better in recent years (see: 12 Years A Slave), but stinkers still sneak in (Crash, anyone?).

But don’t be too snobbish: Many of the Best Pictures, if not actually the height of the art form, are still good, even great, and well worth your time. Here is a handful that you may not be aware of, all of which you can find on disc or streaming.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

This is the kinda sorta winner. In the first year of the Oscars, Best Picture was split into two awards: Outstanding Production, and Best Unique and Artistic Production. Wings won the former, while Sunrise won the latter — and it deserved both honors. Directed in Hollywood by German émigré F. W. Murnau, it is a gorgeous opium dream of a film, an expressionistic tale of a country bumpkin husband disastrously tempted into adultery by a woman from the city. (The characters are simply called The Man, The Wife, The Woman From the City.) Sunrise is a consummate example of the sumptuous, surreal storytelling pinnacle reached by silent film, a style that studio talkies eschewed within a year. And the Best Unique and Artistic Production Oscar was never given again.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

It creaks now, with its stiff style and rough sound, but director Lewis Milestone’s version of the Erich Maria Remarque novel about young German solders disillusioned by the Great War still packs a pacifist punch. Death hangs over everything, and without a strong production code to muffle things, the film is remarkably adult and graphic about the physical and emotional toll of battle. It’s not for nothing that for decades after its release All Quiet was routinely banned by warmongering nations. Lew Ayres, the film’s young star, went on to play Dr. Kildare in the movie series and was a conscientious objector in World War Two; he served as a medic.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Greta Garbo. John and Lionel Barrymore. Joan Crawford. Wallace Beery. Jean Hersholt (the Academy’s Humanitarian Award is named for him). This is the first all-star story film, and only M-G-M, the studio that bragged it had “more stars than there are in the heavens,” could be so profligate in casting. At the Grand Hotel in Berlin the classes meet and mix, the highborn are brought low, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold is redeemed, love blooms, a lover dies, and the Depression and the Great War darken Fate. The melodrama gets a bit thick but camp and star power make it fun, especially when you have to believe that the gangly Swede Garbo is a great Russian ballerina. Bonus: this is the one where she says, “I vant to be alone!”

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Okay, you have to get past Clark Gable — complete with an Ohio accent — as an 18th-century British naval officer. You have to accept that much of the movie was shot near Catalina (though a second unit was dispatched to the South Seas). And you have to ignore that the commonly believed story of this famed mutiny is pretty much hogwash historically. What you are left with is a ripping adventure of men and ships, a great love letter to the British Empire, and a legendary performance by Charles Laughton as the sadistic Captain Bligh. (So famous were Laughton’s rants in this that the actor complained he couldn’t go to a restaurant “without getting an imitation of Captain Bligh with my soup.”) Bonus: the American actress Movita Castaneda, a Latina who plays a Tahitian woman in this film, later married Marlon Brando, who starred in the bloated 1962 Bounty remake.  She died at 98 on February 12.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Of course Citizen Kane should have won that year. But Orson Welles broke rules, stepped on toes, and his movie wasn’t a box-office success, so Hollywood punished him: Welles’ name was booed at the Oscars ceremony, and the only award he took home was for the screenplay — one given by the voters to reward his well-liked writing partner, Herman J. Mankiewicz. But the film that did win is a lovely, touching drama of life among Welsh coal miners, ably directed by John Ford (who beat Welles for Best Director). It’s not Ford’s best, and it’s certainly not better than Kane, but it’s not an embarrassing choice by the vindictive Academy.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

This Technicolor Cecil B. DeMille spectacular about circus life is perhaps the most reviled of all the Best Picture winners: It’s big and crude, with unbelievable characters and hilariously bad dialogue. And it unforgivably snatched the Oscar from Singin’ in the Rain, which was not even nominated. But this two-and-a-half-hour white circus elephant is loaded with guilty pleasures: a young Charlton Heston’s wooden circus manager hero; Cornel Wilde’s highly variable French accent; Jimmy Stewart as an on-the-lam medical doctor and murderer hiding out behind clown makeup (he plays the whole film in white face); a breathtaking train wreck; movie star cameos; and legendary performers from Ringling Bros. DeMille makes the story of the circus a Biblical epic, and it’s more fun than any circus you will see in real life.

The Apartment (1960)

Comedies rarely win Best Picture Oscars, but this Billy Wilder film — a report from the corporate America battlefield of the sexes in the Mad Men era — is a dark and daring exception: It equates American business with pimping, and that’s just for starters. Jack Lemmon is the young insurance executive on the make who gets ahead by lending his apartment to senior executives who cheat on their wives; Fred MacMurray — yes, of My Three Sons — is Lemmon’s sleaziest superior; Shirley MacLaine is the used and abused elevator operator for whom Lemmon falls. Adultery, prostitution, a suicide attempt, a joyless Christmas — what else do you want for laughs? The Apartment is a rich, deserving film — one that is better, more corrosive, and more relevant on every viewing.

Photo: Davidlohr Bueso via Flickr

This post has been updated for clarity.

Film Review: When There Was No Vaccine

Film Review: When There Was No Vaccine

Within the living memory of the oldest Baby Boomers is a terrifying specter that haunted childhood in America. It was a disease, a disease that could have no symptoms, or could begin with a chill and then cripple or kill the victim. It could spring up at school, at a birthday party, at a summertime swimming pool. It mostly affected children, but it also paralyzed a future president, Franklin Roosevelt, who surmounted it but never recovered from it. It infected tens of thousands of new victims a year in the decade after World War II. There was no cure and there was no vaccine. The disease is polio.

With the anti-vaxxers holding sway among today’s stupid set, Nina Gilden Seavey’s 1998 documentary A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio In America, now streaming on Amazon and Snag Films, is a timely and urgent reminder of the heartbreaking effects of an unchecked, brutal virus.

For most of those infected, polio was no problem: they might never feel it, or it could seem like a cold or a bum knee, and they would get over it. But for 5 percent of victims (and that meant thousands in the worst years) it brought paralysis — slight, moderate, or complete — or even death. As A Paralyzing Fear shows in detail, from America’s first large outbreak in 1916 through the early 1950’s, crutches, leg braces, and even constant confinement in full-body iron-lung breathing machines (think of an MRI scanner you cannot leave) were a part of childhood in this country as people struggled to deal with shriveled muscles and failing, withered limbs. There were treatments, like painful exercises and barely tolerable heat packs, but none were very good. The victims in hospitals were often isolated from their parents for fear of infection, and even medical staff avoided them. Afflicted children longed for human contact. Relatives avoided the funerals of the dead.

Polio’s most famous victim was of course Franklin D. Roosevelt, who fell ill in 1921 at the age of 39. He was paralyzed from the waist down but overcame his handicap while minimizing it to the public. He founded a rehabilitation spa in Warm Springs, Georgia for himself and other “polios.” (The spa was segregated; black polios in the south went to the Tuskegee Institute.) The documentary has rare and surprising footage of FDR frolicking in the pool at Warm Springs with his withered legs, utterly at home alongside the children and adults.

A Paralyzing Fear does a splendid job of telling the story of the survivors in their own moving words: you can’t shake the image of a middle-aged woman who at the time of the filming has been in an iron-lung, confined from the neck down, for over 40 years, or the adult man recalling the mockery and rejection he suffered in high school because of his disability. The film also palpably conveys our parents’ and grandparents’ justified fear of polio, and the excitement and urgency of the national effort — all privately funded via The March of Dimes charity — to find therapies and, ultimately, a vaccine. In that era, Jonas Salk — whose vaccine was created in 1951 and widely dispensed four years later — was considered Superman, Babe Ruth, and Christ rolled into one bespectacled man. Salk never patented his vaccine, and because of the jealousy of his peers, he never won the Nobel Prize or admission into the National Academy of Sciences. But he achieved something greater: Thanks to Salk and Alfred Sabin, the developer of an improved vaccine, polio has been eradicated from the U.S. and much of the world.

But the threat is growing again. Pockets of polio exist in impoverished parts of the world, places that are accessible by airplane. And thanks to superstitious, ill-informed, selfish anti-vaxxers and the craven U.S. state governments that permit them to opt out of mandatory vaccinations, a traveler could, within half a day, bring that scourge back to America. The terrifying potential consequences  are on view in the history captured in A Paralyzing Fear. That history must be seen, and its repetition must be prevented. As one of the interviewed victims says of the vaccine, “For me, it was too little, too late. But I was glad that nobody else would have to go through this.”

See the film, and vaccinate your kids.

Photo: Amber Case via Flickr

The Best Thanksgiving TV Show Ever Is Not What You Expect

The Best Thanksgiving TV Show Ever Is Not What You Expect

In May, 1961, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow referred to television as “a vast wasteland” full of vapid sitcoms, game shows, private eye melodramas, cartoons, and loads of westerns. But just six months earlier there appeared an oasis: a serious network news documentary, perhaps the most powerful ever aired.

On the night after Thanksgiving 1960, millions of viewers who tuned in to CBS in prime time didn’t see an entertainment program. Instead, they saw a bleak cold opening: black and white images of black men in shabby clothing milling about a hot, crummy-looking parking lot as slightly-better-dressed black men shouted out job offers. Lots of quick cuts from one part of the crowd to another, from one shouter to another. Then the solemn voiceover:

This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.’

The voice was Edward R. Murrow’s, the TV series was CBS Reports, and the documentary was Harvest of Shame, a stunning exposé that revealed the appalling conditions endured by the men and women who picked the fruits and vegetables enjoyed by Thanksgiving-stuffed Americans. Produced by Fred W. Friendly and David Lowe and written and narrated by the iconic Murrow, in the decades since its debut, the film has lost none of its power to inform, sadden, and horrify.

Following the trail of migrant laborers as they traveled from Florida to New York during the harvest season, the film showed in raw detail the dangerous buses and trucks they were jammed in, the filthy and crumbling housing camps they lived in on farms along the circuit, the minuscule wages they were paid, and the pitiful amounts of food they ate.  At one point Murrow refers to the situation as “a modern Grapes of Wrath;” these were people who worked in the fields all their lives, from early childhood until death, and for whom the Great Depression was eternal.

Particularly moving are the interviews conducted by the driving force behind the program, producer David Lowe, a child of immigrants who himself grew up poor. None of the interviewees smile except in embarrassment about having to go to the bathroom in a tin pot or in the woods. To a man, to a woman, when asked if they have any hope for a brighter future, every one of the migrants says a despairing “no.” They have no minimum wage, no health insurance, no sick leave, no unemployment insurance, and, for the most part, no school for their children. Where there is a school, the children express hope to be a dentist, a teacher. But their own teacher tells Lowe that their poverty, their large families, and the necessary traveling mean that those dreams cannot be realized.

In an interview with Murrow, the head of a farmers’ lobbying group opposes any kind of federal regulation of the migrants’ working conditions because that would be too expensive for consumers and would deprive the migrants of choice — a familiar conservative argument half a century later. An individual farmer questioned by Lowe says the migrants actually enjoy the freedom of the vagabond life, but admits that they make “a poor living.”  That poor living then was $900 a year — $7,200 in today’s dollars.

To modern viewers, the most surprising interview is with James P. Mitchell, the secretary of labor in the Eisenhower administration. He was called “the social conscience of the Republican Party,” and he proves it. Talking with Murrow, he advocates federal regulation of migrant labor and the unionization of the workers based on the model of garment workers. Republicans were different then.

Harvest of Shame was a sensation in its time.  Middle-class Americans had never before confronted such poverty right in their living rooms. Most of the migrants shown were black, but some were white (one man whose family lived in the woods was a World War II veteran), and almost all were U.S. citizens. This not only could happen here, it was happening here.

And mostly, it still is. While some reforms have been made in the wake of the show — migrants must be paid a minimum wage (but only if the employer is large enough), their transportation and housing conditions must meet federal and state safety standards, and there must be rest and shaded areas in the fields — the farm lobby effectively railed against the program and blocked major federal regulation. So even over half a century later the conditions are still squalid. Unlike the European-American and African-American workers in the show, most migrants today are Latinos, and many, because they are undocumented, are ineligible to receive benefits or afraid to claim them. One of the children interviewed in the show was still a migrant laborer when a newspaper visited him in 2003. The current annual income for a migrant today is just $14,000.

Unusually for a network TV news program of its era, and even for today, Harvest of Shame makes no pretense of being objective about the people who make our Thanksgiving possible. Murrow concludes the show by looking straight into the camera and making a strong and urgent call for the audience to take action. On this Thanksgiving, we still must.

You can watch Harvest of Shame in full here. And you can see a 2010 update from CBS here.

Screenshot: CBS/YouTube

10 Films To Make You Feel Better After The Elections

10 Films To Make You Feel Better After The Elections

Groucho in Monkey Business

For progressives, it’s been a depressing week.  Of course, we will rise to fight harder and win bigger. But for now, slip on your Slanket, dig into a tub of mint chocolate chip, curl up on the couch, and enjoy these films and TV shows that will warm your heart, comfort you, show you how others triumph over troubles, and even make you laugh.  All are available on disc, streaming, or YouTube.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr 1924

If you’re wowed by today’s 3D, computer-generated motion picture prestidigitation, look at what Buster Keaton was able to accomplish 90 years ago with just sets, celluloid, and the finest comedy mind in silent film. Buster is a poor movie theater projectionist in love with a girl who prefers the attention of a handsome cad. While running a picture, Buster daydreams: His dream-self leaves the booth, walks down the theater aisle and climbs up into the action on screen. Suddenly the movie’s original actors are replaced with Buster, the girl he wants, and other characters from his life, and the scenes behind the onscreen Buster shift wildly and dangerously from one locale to another. The special effects are seamless and astonishing, Keaton’s physical grace in stunts is ethereal, and the laughs are huge.  This inspired Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Monkey Business (1931)

Monkey Business 1931

In their first film made in Hollywood, The Four Marx Brothers are stowaways on a ship —and from the beginning, logic takes a back seat to laughs. S.J. Perelman co-wrote the script, and Groucho’s dialogue is filled with his sophisticated wordplay (“Look at me: I’ve worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty”).

Don’t worry about the plot: It has something to do with gangsters. Just enjoy the boys getting past U.S. Customs by pretending to be Maurice Chevalier and performing one of his songs (wait till you see how the silent Harpo solves that problem), the references to Boris Thomashefsky and the House of David semi-pro baseball team, and Chico’s barrage of excruciating puns that make Groucho address the audience in exasperation.

It Happened One Night (1934)


Movie firsts are always tough to pinpoint, but historians agree this is where screwball comedy begins: highly attractive romantic stars doing nutty things for laughs. In screwball there is often an heiress and a reporter; here the runaway heiress is Claudette Colbert, fleeing her family to marry a weaselly aviator. Trying to remain anonymous, she takes a Greyhound bus from Florida to New York; her seatmate is newspaperman Clark Gable. She’s snooty, he’s down to Earth, and together they have a perilous, comic, and erotic trip on and off the bus.

In one famous scene, Gable and a reluctant Colbert are sharing a motel cabin. When Gable undressed, America saw that he didn’t wear an undershirt and sales of that garment plummeted.  Then there’s the hitchhiking scene, wherein Colbert shows Gable how a smart woman brings a male motorist to a screeching halt (she doesn’t use her thumb). The film was directed by Frank Capra.

I Love To Singa (1936)

I Love To Singa

Stipulated: Warner Bros. cartoons are funnier, sassier, and more inventive than Disney’s; this one directed by the genius Tex Avery is on any list of the most beloved Merrie Melodies. The star is a young owl in a dapper red jacket and a bowtie who defies his music-teacher father by singing pop songs on an animal version of an amateur-hour radio show.  Yes, it’s a parody of The Jazz Singer and yes, the little owl is named Owl Jolson, and yes, you will have the real Al Jolson hit song I Love to Singa playing in your brain for the next week.  You will also smile.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips

Schooldays nostalgia, rampant Anglophilia, and a performance by Robert Donat that beat out Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler for the Oscar combine for a schmaltzy, genuinely moving package. This fond look at the life of a shy teacher at a British public school between the 1870s and the 1930s is about the resilience of the British through changing times and war. Sure, it softens all the nasty class stuff, but what makes this work is the sincere affection for the better aspects of the British system and character, and Donat’s beautifully-modulated performance as an awkward young master who blooms first because of the love of a spirited woman, and then because of the love of his students. You will cry at least twice during this film, but it’s the good kind of crying.

Sullivan’s Travels (1942)

Sullivans Travels 1941

Sunset Blvd. aside, this is the greatest, truest movie about Hollywood. Written and directed by Preston Sturges, the era’s madcap genius, it stars Joel McCrea as a self-serious Hollywood director tired of making fluff hits; he wants to make an adaptation of the “deep-dish” novel about poverty, Sinclair Beckstein’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (This is where the Coen brothers got the title.) To experience poverty firsthand, he sets out from his Beverly Hills mansion dressed as a hobo — with a luxurious tour bus trailing him at the studio’s insistence.

Sturges’ lightning-fast dialogue goes into hilarious verbal curlicues, the satirical spears at mainstream moviemaking remain sharp, and the film’s biggest innovation — its sudden turn in the last half-hour from goofy comedy to very black drama — still surprises audiences.

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Meet Me In St. Louis 1944

Family. Technicolor. Simpler times — specifically, St. Louis in 1904, a wartime look back at peacetime. Judy Garland. “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And not wanting to leave home. This HAS to make you feel good.

Based on Sally Benson’s autobiographical sketches in The New Yorker, Meet Me In St. Louis is full of charm, music, gentle laughs, romance, and the warm embrace of loved ones. It also has a star-making performance by the child actor Margaret O’Brien as a talkative, rambunctious little girl who enjoys burying dolls; critic James Agee was so taken with O’Brien that his review in The Nation doesn’t mention Garland. Directed by Garland’s husband-to-be Vincente Minnelli; this is how they met.

Panic In The Sky (1953)

Panic In The Sky

This was the 12th episode of season two of TV’s Adventures of Superman. It features George Reeves, the only real Superman for those who grew up at a certain time. A B-movie actor who trained at the Pasadena Playhouse, he has presence, nobility, a rich voice, and humor. He is genuinely heroic. Unusually, he doesn’t play Clark Kent as a nebbish: The message is that ordinary guys can be pretty heroic, too.

In this episode, the Man of Steel has to save the world from a collision with an asteroid.  His first try is only partially successful, but the effort gravely injures him.  Will Earth — and Superman — survive?  The special effects range from nice try to pretty darn good, and the script has real suspense.  This is Superman super-fan Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite episode.

The Nairobi Trio (c. 1956 to 1961)

The Nairobi Trio

This recurring sketch from comedian Ernie Kovacs’ many series divides people: they either get the joke of The Nairobi Trio or they don’t, and if you do and they don’t, relationships may crumble. You cannot explain why it’s funny.

In a brief vignette, three figures in rubber gorilla masks, wigs, overcoats, and bowler hats robotically mime playing the novelty tune “Solfreggio” we hear on the soundtrack. A cigar-smoking gorilla conducts with a banana or a cigar, a female gorilla plays the piano, and a third gorilla raises and lowers timpani mallets. Throughout the number, the timpani player uses his mallets to do drumrolls on the conductor’s head; at the end, the conductor tries to exact revenge — that’s the punchline. That’s it. It’s funny.

The conductor is always Kovacs; over the years the other gorillas were secretly played by Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Loden, Jolene Brand, and Kovacs’ wife Edie Adams, among others.

You can watch the famous clip here:

Lost In America (1985)

Lost In America

Albert Brooks writes and directs too few movies, but this is one of his best: a snide road-movie satire of yuppies in Reagan’s America. Brooks is the creative director of an LA ad agency who doesn’t get the promotion he wants. The big baby throws a tantrum at the office, gets fired, and cons his wife, Julie Hagerty, into quitting her job, selling their home and setting out to see America and “touch Indians.” His model is Easy Rider — except that the couple travel in a fully-equipped Winnebago.

The classic scenes are numerous: Hagerty losing their financial “nest egg” in Vegas; Brooks’ crazed lecture about the “nest egg”; his attempt to get a job in a small Arizona town where the guy at the local employment agency has no idea what a creative director is.  This nearly-30-year-old film about marital and career dissatisfaction and selfishness holds up impeccably.

10 Scary Films You Haven’t Seen 10 Times Already

10 Scary Films You Haven’t Seen 10 Times Already

Arsenic and Old Lace 1944

Frankenstein, Dracula, Jason, Freddy, zombies — we all know them, we all love them, we’ve all been jolted by them, and we’ve all seen them dozens of times. But real terror comes from the unexpected, from being surprised.  So here are 10 eerie, chilling, horrifying, and sometimes even amusing pictures you probably haven’t watched for Halloween.  All are available on disc or streaming.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown 1927

Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” was famous for his macabre makeup and his painful body contortions to play deformed characters. Here he’s Alonzo the Armless, a killer on the lam as a circus performer who only pretends to be armless. His act: He uses his feet to throw knives at his assistant, a young Joan Crawford. Alonzo is in love with her, but since she can’t bear to be touched by a man, Alonzo has his arms amputated. Then she falls for the circus strongman.

The film features murder, a psycho with two thumbs on one hand, a criminal midget, and an excruciatingly terrifying climax where the strongman is about to be torn limb from limb by galloping horses. The unforgettable film was directed by Tod Browning (Dracula).

Freaks (1932)

Freaks Poster 1932

Johnny Eck, The Half Boy. Prince Randian, The Living Torso. Daisy and Violet Hilton, The Siamese Twins. Elizabeth Green, The Stork Woman. That’s some of the cast, and they are real; “Freaks” comes by its blunt title honestly.

Far from being cruel, the film is a sympathetic look at their circus lives. But when a “normal” woman tries to marry and murder a midget so she can get his money, the gang attack on her by the freaks is so awful that the film was banned in the U.S. and the U.K. for 30 years. Also directed by Tod Browning, the film — now considered a sui generis horror classic — destroyed his career with its initial failure.

Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

Shadow Of A Doubt 1943

Murder hits home in this film that director Alfred Hitchcock said was his favorite. Hitchcock loved to expose the cracks beneath the placid surface of ordinary life; here, working with Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, we see what happens when a suave, wealthy serial killer — “The Merry Widow Murderer” — hides out with small-town relatives who think he is just a charming and admirable sophisticate. But then his worshipful niece finds out the truth, her innocent world is overturned, and he tries to kill her. Joseph Cotten is one of the most alluring Hitchcock villains — as usual with Hitchcock, you see the humanity beneath the worst villainy — and Teresa Wright is wonderfully nuanced as the niece who regrets the visit she yearned for.

Arsenic And Old Lace (1944)

Arsenic and Old Lace 1944

This film version of a huge Broadway hit features three serial killers, half a dozen bodies (including one in a window seat), and a madman who buries the bodies in a cellar. Oh, and it’s a comedy.

Jean Adair and Josephine Hull reprise their famed stage roles as kindly old ladies who murder vagrants to put them out of their misery (elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide is their preferred method); their brother, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, disposes of the dead as Yellow Fever victims. Cary Grant is the normal nephew who goes berserk when he discovers their doings; Raymond Massey, another nephew, is a fugitive homicidal maniac who arrives at his aunt’s house not knowing that they’re as bad he is.  The very dark, extravagantly funny farce was directed by Frank Capra.

The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

The Night Of the Hunter

When a film begins with the floating head of Lillian Gish telling a Bible story to kids against a starry night sky, you know things will get weird. Robert Mitchum is a serial killer posing as a blood and thunder preacher whom women can’t resist. (His LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoos inspired The Blues Brothers.)  He murders rural widow Shelley Winters and then pursues her young children across a Grimm-like countryside with unstoppable ferocity.  The only movie directed by Charles Laughton, with a script that James Agee worked on, this is a stylized gem, beautifully photographed and with the feel and logic of a nightmare.

Of course, it badly flopped.

Breakdown (1955)


Breakdown was the seventh episode of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents — and was one of the handful of TV episodes that Hitchcock directed himself over the show’s long run. Joseph Cotten is a steely business mogul who unceremoniously fires a longtime employee and mocks the man when he cries. On the drive home, Cotten has a terrible car crash that leaves him completely paralyzed; unfortunately, the police and medical personnel think he’s dead.  He isn’t, as he tells us in a voiceover narration filled with slowly mounting hysteria while the emergency doctors get ready to consign him to the morgue. If the idea of being buried alive doesn’t scare you, then nothing does.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion Of the Body Snatchers

Alien space pods grow into physical duplicates of the residents of a small California town and replace the original people. But the pod people are emotionally flat, without the wide and deep feelings that make humans human. A simple plot, really, but the themes are arguably complex: is it about soulless Communism? The white-bread conformity of American life in the 1950s? The insidious effects of McCarthyism? The arguments have been going on for nearly 60 years.

What’s indisputable is that the film grabs you and you never forget it. Kevin McCarthy, as the local doctor who discovers the truth, gives one of the definitive horror film performances: no camp, just utter conviction about what is happening and a palpable fear of losing one’s self.

The Invaders (1961)

The Invaders

The 15th episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone, The Invaders is one of the best examples of the legendary series’ distinctive blend of imagination, horror, and heart. Richard Matheson’s script, with minimal dialogue, is about a lone old woman in a primitive country cabin who is menaced by tiny lethal creatures from a spaceship. Agnes Moorehead’s mounting fear and amazing resourcefulness in a seemingly hopeless struggle will make you bite your nails until the provocative conclusion. There is subtext here about how humans behave in space and on Earth, but mainly this is hell of a he-knows-you’re-alone story with a great actress at the center.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby

Ground zero for the modern evil child/satanic incubus movies, the film was tautly directed by Roman Polanski.  A post-Peyton place, pre-Woody-Allen Mia Farrow is a young Manhattan wife who comes to believe that the old couple next door are witches, that her husband has fallen in with them, and that, through them, she has been raped and impregnated by Satan. The New York City setting — Farrow lives in the famous Dakota Apartments — the great location work, and the emotional claustrophobia when Farrow thinks she has no one to help her, give the film a precise and plausible terror you can’t shake off.

Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood

Tim Burton’s labor of love that nearly nobody saw is a grand tribute to Hollywood’s real-life cross-dressing bad-movie auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man who enriched us with Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Ed (Johnny Depp) is the embodiment of the American Dream, a chipper optimist who believes that with the right breaks and a lot of determination, he can be the next Orson Welles — despite not having a scintilla of talent.  He gets his movies made by recruiting a coterie of showbiz Z-listers as actors, finagling small-time moneymen, and genuinely befriending a “star,” the has-been, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi.

This is a fond, fun look at a grungy 1950s Hollywood, shot in gorgeous horror-style black and white.  It features Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, wrestler George “The Animal” Steele, and, unforgettably, Martin Landau, who is the reincarnation of Lugosi.

Top 10 Political Films For Progressives

Top 10 Political Films For Progressives

Robert Redford in The Candidate

For political junkies, even a midterm election is like Christmas every day: You turn on cable news, you read The National Memo, the newspapers, and the political websites, and there are always new gifts. But sometimes, even political junkies need a break. So when the daily presents have been unwrapped and played with, take a moment and enjoy these movies — about politics. All of them are entertaining, thoughtful, and sometimes even fun. All illuminate corners of our process; what we are and how we got here. And all are available on disc or streaming services.

Gabriel Over The White House (1933)


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The most startling Hollywood political film ever, Gabriel Over The White House is a fantasy about dictatorial liberalism at the nadir of the Depression. Walter Huston is newly inaugurated President Judson Hammond, a glad-handing, mildly corrupt party hack wholly unequal to the national crisis. But a near-death experience changes him; he becomes a mystical progressive tyrant who circumvents Congress to solve unemployment, militarizes the police to end gangsterism, and threatens to blow up the weapons of other nations to achieve world peace. Produced by William Randolph Hearst’s company for conservative MGM, the film is a jaw dropper. It was made before the 1932 election, but the release was delayed for months — and you’ll figure out why. (Did I mention there is also a love story?)

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Mr Smith Goes To Washington

Photo via Academy of Achievement/Museum of Living History

Yes, yes, that one — and if you haven’t seen it, you must. Frank Capra makes its two-hours-plus running time fly by with comedy, drama, sentiment, patriotism, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and a gaggle of every character who ever appeared in a movie in the ’30s. A naïve young scout leader is appointed to fill a suddenly vacant Senate seat, and upends the Capitol by exposing corruption in the system.

Stewart’s climactic filibuster is legendary (his throat was injected with mercury to coarsen his voice), but the quiet and touching scene between him and Arthur at the Lincoln Memorial is likewise memorable.

Columbia premiered the film in Washington; politicians were so angered at its depiction of a Congress in thrall to the 1 percent that they threatened to regulate the movie industry.

State Of The Union (1948)


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Capra’s less-remembered political film is an adaptation of a hit Broadway comedy and stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He’s a noble business titan persuaded to enter the presidential race, she is the wife who fears he will be corrupted. And indeed, corruption abounds — no interest group is without sin. Tracy is that extinct species, a liberal Republican: Wait for the scene where he comes out in favor of a world government.

The film was shot while congressional red baiters were investigating Hollywood. Politics in real life spilled over onto the movie set: Adolphe Menjou had a major role in this film and in the investigations as a friendly witness for the right-wingers. He and the progressive Hepburn detested each other.

The Best Man (1964)


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Gore Vidal’s scary-funny take on how we choose presidential candidates pits Henry Fonda’s combination of JFK and Adlai Stevenson’s principled intellectualism against Cliff Robertson’s Nixonism (the Nixon character claims that the Mafia is in cahoots with the Commies). At the party convention these characters vie for the nomination. Deals with the Devil are considered and made; marital infidelity, a nervous breakdown, and homosexuality are spotlighted; and Lee Tracy as a Trumanesque ex-president and kingmaker neatly steals every scene he is in.

Conventions have foregone outcomes today, but the destructive compromises forced upon candidates are still very much with us. Fun fact: John Henry Faulk, who plays a cheerful Southern segregationist, was in life a liberal broadcaster who spent a decade on the blacklist.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Manchurian Candidate Movie Poster

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Cold War paranoia, McCarthyism, political assassination, and family drama are all wrapped up in one package starring Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh. Laurence Harvey is Raymond, a chillingly unlikeable Korean War Army officer whose unit, including Sinatra, is captured by the North Koreans. The men are brainwashed by the Chinese and returned to the United States; Raymond is programmed to be an assassin. His control agent: his Wicked Witch mother (Angela Lansbury), the wife of an idiot senator whom the Communists are setting up as a presidential contender. Sinatra, his mind still blurred by the brainwashing, smells a rat and tries to save Raymond and America from the fiendish plot. The crazy fear is thick, the twists are thrilling and unpredictable, and director John Frankenheimer, a TV veteran, deftly shows the power of the new medium.

Seven Days In May (1964)

Seven Days In May

Image via BogSciFi

“You’re not a weak sister, Mr. President. You’re a criminally weak sister.” No, that’s not John McCain speaking to Barack Obama. That is Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. James Mattoon Scott addressing President Jordan Lyman in this taut, frightening tale about a coup by right-wingers in the American military.  When the liberal president (Fredric March) makes a missile-reduction treaty with the Soviets, a group of hawkish senior Pentagon officers led by Scott (Burt Lancaster) secretly plots to kidnap the president and take over the government; only Kirk Douglas, Lancaster’s right-hand man, stands in the way.

Rod Serling’s script, from a bestseller by Fletcher Knebel, has flavorful Odets-meets-Sorkin dialogue, and once again director John Frankenheimer has TV front and center everywhere (including proto-Skype teleconferences). Watch for the screen debut of John Houseman in a pivotal role as an admiral.

A Face In The Crowd (1957)

A Face In The Crowd

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See Andy Griffith as you’ve never seen him before: evil. Just three years before he became the beloved sheriff of Mayberry, Griffith scared the hell out of audiences as a gross, alcoholic, womanizing ex-con country singer who is built by the media into a dangerously powerful TV populist who can swing elections—for a price. Griffith’s character, Lonesome Rhodes, would be at home on Fox News. He’s a monster born of the electronic media age and allegedly based on Arthur Godfrey.

Budd Schulberg scripted it, Elia Kazan directed, Patricia Neal plays the radio executive who discovers Lonesome and comes to regret it,  and Walter Matthau is the writer who catches on early to the horror.

The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford The Candidate

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See the modern political campaign in Ur-form: Robert Redford is Bill McKay, an idealistic liberal activist recruited to run a supposedly hopeless Democratic campaign against a popular Republican incumbent for a Senate seat from California. At first McKay is allowed to speak his mind and favor progressive values, but when the party sees he will be trounced, his handlers convince him to flatten out his message. The scheming amoral campaign manager, the vulture-like mass media, the canned debates—they are all here in comedy-drama form.

The film was inspired by the John Tunney campaign in California and directed by Michael Ritchie  from a script by Jeremy Larner, who had been a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy. Its last line will haunt you on every election night.

Reds (1980)

The Reds

Warren Beatty got Gulf & Western, the then-owners of Paramount, to make a $30 million film about real-life American communists (that’s almost $90 million in today’s money). Beatty stars as John Reed, a Harvard-educated journalist who becomes infatuated with the American left of the early 20th century; he travels to Russia to see Communist ideals fulfilled in the Russian revolution of 1917.

Reds may be the only mainstream Hollywood depiction of the internecine struggles of our political bohemians, the rise of labor in politics, and the infusion of progressivism into the arts.  There is a lot of speechmaking and Greenwich Village late-night bull sessions but Beatty, who also directed, keeps it all moving entertainingly and edifyingly. Diane Keaton is his lover and political partner Louise Bryant, Jack Nicholson is Beatty’s romantic rival Eugene O’Neill, and Maureen Stapleton won a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Emma Goldman

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln Movie

Out of scores of actors who have played Abraham Lincoln, three stand out: Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln In Illinois (playwright George S. Kaufman quipped, “Massey won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated”), and now Daniel Day-Lewis, a Lincoln for our time and all-time in Steven Spielberg’s inspiring political drama about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, with a script based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals, build suspense in a story whose ending we know. We see the political machinations, the deals, the bribes, the schmoozing, the greasing of the wheels, all done nobly and ignobly, in service of higher causes: the preservation of the Union and the end of its most malevolent institution. This is an old-fashioned great-man-of-history biography and filmmaking. The message to our current president is clear: work with Congress, don’t be afraid to get dirty in politics, stick to your guns, and do what you have to do to get the right thing done.

The Movie Memo: Veteran Folk Music Stars Are Still Blowin’ In the Wind In New Film

The Movie Memo: Veteran Folk Music Stars Are Still Blowin’ In the Wind In New Film

A few things can be anticipated about any film documentary on the folk, protest, and folk/rock music of the 1960’s:

-No one under 55 will ever voluntarily see it.  (I’m 56.)
-Some of the performers you remember fondly who survived will have aged in silly or ghastly ways.
-Some of the performers you remember fondly will have died unsurprisingly young.
-The performance clips will be the best part.
-Old Peter Yarrow will be interviewed.  A lot.
-It will be aired on — or should be aired on – PBS.

All of these things are true about director Laura Archibald’s Greenwich Village: Music That Defined A Generation, a pleasant, meandering love letter that manages to hit the high points of the genres and the era without ever quite getting under the skin of its subject.  Unlike the best protest songs, it’s too gentle.  He’s not in it, but this is the Burl Ives of folk music documentaries.

Almost all of the surviving big, medium-sized and cult names are here with new interviews:  Yarrow of course, Pete Seeger as a cheerful reedy oracle, Judy Collins looking disturbingly like Cruella de Vil, Carly and Lucy Simon, Tom Paxton, John Sebastian, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Arlo Guthrie, and Richie Havens too.  They happily, nostalgically, solipsitically, but charmingly reminisce about the musical and political ferment in Greenwich Village a half-century ago, when most of them were young and struggling and carrying around their guitars without guitar cases (because a case just wasn’t cool).

Missing from these interviews, however, is the giant:  Bob Dylan, who never shows. Naturally the others tell awestruck stories about him that will be familiar to fans, and he is present in old clips and a sweet early radio interview.  José Feliciano does a wickedly funny singing impression of the young Dylan, a voice full of nose, and old Dylan, a voice full of scraping gears. And “Bobby” spiritually suffuses the film because it is stitched together with Susan Sarandon’s narration from A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village by Suze Rotolo, a Dylan ex-girlfriend from that era.

All the stories are lovely, but more than twice-told; one amusing surprise is an anecdote from the Simon Sisters about the Smothers Brothers, later stars of the small screen, that is too good to spoil.  And there is a fascinating account of a forgotten folk music “riot” in Washington Square Park in 1961, when city officials suddenly and inexplicably forbade any more impromptu performances at the fountain on weekends.  The musicians and assorted hipsters showed up to protest and sing; the cops ordered them to stop; the protesters resisted in loud but fairly tame ways (many of the men wearing jackets and ties); and the cops arrested a number of protesters.  Tom Paxton offers a brisk recollection of his own conduct: “(The cops) were taking people downtown.  I didn’t want to go downtown.  So I left.”  While some evidently believed that this very orderly demonstration presaged the more famous (and more disorderly) protest gatherings of the decade to come, the folk riot seems too parochial in a very hipster way.

Archibald pleads for the social relevance of the folk and protest songbook, but her film never focuses on any subject long enough to connect the musical dots—one minute we’re hearing about the arrival of The Mamas and the Papas in New York, the next minute we’re learning about The Weavers (and a sign of the movie’s attention deficit is that although The Weavers are properly lauded, only Seeger is identified by name).  Lofty claims are made for music and musicians’ roles in the civil rights and anti-war movements  — and they are plausible — but how their importance is simply asserted without ever proving or even narrating it.  Says Judy Collins, “That happened. We changed the world.”  And that’s that.

But the performance clips are indeed golden: There are a lot of them, chosen well, and often rare.  Of course there is Peter, Paul, and Mary with “Blowin’ In the Wind,” but then there is Seeger and an achingly young and Ivory-Girl pretty Judy Collins singing “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Odetta ignites the joint with “Muleskinner Blues,” a gamine Joni Mitchell does a crystalline “Night In the City,” and a boyish Phil Ochs burns through “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”  Sadly, not a single clip is allowed to play all the way through, and all too abruptly the film cuts back to interviews.  Do the producers expect us to buy a soundtrack album?

Still, it is touching to see so many of these music veterans soldiering on — with footage of Seeger at Occupy Wall Street — despite age and changing tastes, the decline of their old nightclubs, and a soulless entertainment industry that has long since discarded them. Greenwich Village is far from an ideal tribute, but seeing it is a fine way to honor the unquestioned talent and social idealism of a musical movement.  Snap your fingers to applaud them, get a cup of strong coffee, and contribute during the pledge breaks.

GREENWICH VILLAGE: MUSIC THAT DEFINED A GENERATION.  Written and Directed by Laura Archibald.  Released by Kino Lorber Inc.  92 min.  Now showing at the IFC Center in Manhattan