Favorite Film – The 70’s

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I guess I saw this on Facebook some time ago.   Somebody had the idea to post a list of your favorite films.  The list was to consist of your favorites from each year of your life.  So, you start with your birth year and move ahead year by year and list all the films from each year.  I am SURE I have this idea written down in my notebook of “blog ideas”.  A post from the Avocado site came up in my “Reader” list of blogs that had the same principle, but with one exception – you can only pick one movie from each year. You can read that blog here:

https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/73828787/posts/2442817483

I am going to say that narrowing down just one film from each year will be next to impossible for me.  I am going to attempt to do it.  I have a feeling that I will go back in a day, a month, or year from now and think, “No, I should have picked _____ instead!”  At any rate, some of these will be easy to pick, and some I will have to “eenie meanie miney moe” to pick just one.  Maybe this is a topic I revisit each year?  I don’t know.

I am going to break it down by “decade”, so each post will include 10 films.  Deep breath.  Here we go – back to the year I was born:

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Of the 1970 films that made my personal favorite list, many have “war” themes:  M*A*S*H, Kelly’s Heroes, and Tora! Tora! Tora!  Other films include Dean Martin in Airport! and the Mel Brooks comedy The 12 Chairs.  Of all of the films from the year of my birth, if I had to pick my absolute favorite, it would be the classic biopic, Patton.

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George C. Scott is brilliant as Patton!  He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role.  The film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.  It’s an amazing film.

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1971 was the year that George Lucas would release his film THX 1138, Gene Wilder starred in the classic Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Clint Eastwood starred in the film that scares all radio DJs – Play Misty for Me.  But it is another Clint Eastwood film that gets my vote for my favorite film of 1971, Dirty Harry.

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There are so many good Clint Eastwood films!  It doesn’t take long for Eastwood to establish what kind of character Dirty Harry is! Come on, you know the quote:

“I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”

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1972 was the year we saw Burt Reynolds in Deliverance, Charles Bronson in The Mechanic, and the all star cast of the Poseiden Adventure that included Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons and others!  It was also the year that introduced many to two of the best known adult films, Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat.  1972 is probably the easiest year to pick a hands down favorite for me – no doubt about it – Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

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The novel is amazing.  The movie is just as powerful!  The cast (many unknown at the time) is just perfect!  It is hard to imagine anyone else as these characters.  Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Richard Conte, Alex Rocco, and so many others star in this superb film about family and power.  I don’t think a week goes by without me quoting this film!  The film won the Best Picture Oscar and Brando won (and refused) the Oscar for Best Actor.

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While 1973 had some good films, in going through my list, they all are just “ok” to me.  In other words, there is no real “WOW” movie for me.  Charlton Heston is good in Soylent Green, Al Pacino is good in Serpico, The Sting had Paul Newman and Robert Redford (and the tune The Entertainer), Clint Eastwood is back for a Dirty Harry sequel called Magnum Force, and then there was the Exorcist.  I guess if I HAD to pick a favorite, it would be American Graffiti – because of two things (1) the music and (2) Wolfman Jack!

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1974 was a bit more difficult to narrow down to just one film.  The reason for this is that I have some classic favorites that were released in ’74 and “how do I just pick one?”  Two of my favorite Charles Bronson films, Mr. Majestyk and Death Wish, came out this year.  Also, two of my favorite Mel Brooks films were also released – Young Frankenstein (“That’s Frahn-kun-steen”) and Blazing Saddles!  It did, however, become clear that the one film that had to be at the top for 1974 was The Godfather Part II.

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The first time I saw it, I hated it!  I can’t lie about that.  I was confused by the shifts from past to present.  However, it became very clear with a second and third watch that the shifting from past to present is what makes this movie SO amazing.  If you really must see it all in order, you can rent the Godfather DVD and watch it chronologically.  This movie is where you really see the genius of Francis Ford Coppola.  Robert Deniro is just amazing as Vito and Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael is about as perfect as it can get.

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1975 was the year that had us doing the Time Warp, thanks to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The Sunshine Boys was supposed to star Walter Matthau and Jack Benny (there are clips of screen test shots on YouTube somewhere), but when Benny died, George Burns stepped in.  Jack Nicholson is “crazy” good in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Dean Martin starred in a forgotten favorite, Mr. Ricco.  The one movie that really stands out for me from 1975 is based on the Peter Benchley novel – Jaws!

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Like many, I couldn’t swim at the beach for some time after seeing it!  Now, they actually show it on a screen while people float in rafts and tubes on a lake in the summer time!  And who can forget the Jaws theme?

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In 1976, America celebrated it’s bicentennial year.  It was a very patriotic year and there were some good films in theaters.  The Watergate Scandal was the focus of All The President’s Men.  Clint Eastwood returned in another Dirty Harry sequel, The Enforcer and the western The Outlaw Josey Wales.  The wonderful Barbara Harris was featured in both Freaky Friday and Hitchcock’s Family Plot (two very opposite roles!).  Mel Brooks offered up Silent Movie, while an all-star cast (Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, and Cliff Robertson) appeared in the war film, Midway. We were first introduced to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in Rocky and Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were first teamed together in Silver Streak.  There are many reasons I could pick any one of these as a favorite, but I am going to go with one I already featured as my favorite – Murder By Death.  You can read that blog here:

https://wordpress.com/post/nostalgicitalian.com/856

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It’s such a fun film and I revisit it often.

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1977 was a year of great films!  There was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.  Then George Burns first took on the role of God in Oh, God. John Travolta danced to the Bee Gees in Saturday Night Fever. We were introduced to the comedy of the Zucker brothers with Kentucky Fried Movie. Mel Brooks saluted Alfred Hitchcock in High Anxiety.  The “other” space movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, hit theaters, too.  From here, I was able to narrow things down to two faves, but as I said, I can only pick one for the year. While Star Wars could easily be the top pick for 1977, I am going with Smokey and the Bandit.

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Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason took us on a wild ride and this remains my favorite for a number of reasons.  First, it’s just funny.  Second, there are some very cool stunts.  Third, “East Bound and Down”.  Last, there are so many great quotes!

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Smokey JUST beats out Star Wars, probably because it’s a comedy.  Don’t get me wrong, Star Wars is a CLASSIC, and at some point I really need to blog about the influence of that film on me as a 7 year old kid!

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In 1978, we first meet Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween.  Peter Falk appears in the “sorta” sequel to Murder By Death in The Cheap Detective.  Robert Deniro and Christopher Walken star in The Deer Hunter.  Cheech and Chong go Up in Smoke.  Christopher Reeve first donned the cape in Superman.  Burt Reynolds starred as a stuntman in Hooper and tried to kill himself in The End.  We got chills that multiplied as we sang along with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease.  I’m honored to have Eddie Deezen (who plays Eugene in the film) as a friend on Facebook and he often shares cool stories about the film.  Time to pick my favorite from 1978.  It is yet another very quotable movie – a comedy – National Lampoon’s Animal House.

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Kent Dorfman.  Flounder.  Pinto.  Bluto.  D-Day.  Otter.  Animal House remains as funny to me today, as the first time I saw it.  John Belushi is just awesome in this film.  I have said before that Belushi can emote more with just his eyebrows than any other actor.  I also love John Vernon as Dean Wormer – he is such a great actor!  It’s amazing that “Shout” from Otis Day and the Knights is still requested at weddings 40+ years later.  One of my most quoted movies!

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“Zero.  Point.  Zero.”

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Closing out the decade, I see my list of favorites for each year growing more and more.  In 1979, Sigourney Weaver appeared in the first (of many) Alien films.  George Hamilton’s comedic take on Dracula was in Love at First Bite.  Sylvester Stallone appeared for his second “round” as Rocky in Rocky II.  Star Trek became relevant again, as it appeared on the big screen for the first time (with the original cast members) with Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Steve Martin brought The Jerk to life.  Alan Arkin and Peter Falk are great together in The In-Laws.  Robert Stack, Eddie Deezen, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and so many others appeared in 1941 (It didn’t do all that well at the box office, but I still love this silly film). To me, my favorite of 1979 goes to the genius of Jim Henson – The Muppet Movie.  I STILL marvel at this one!

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This was such a breakthrough film.  For the first time we saw Muppets walking!  We saw them riding bikes!  The technological stuff that was achieved in this movie is still awesome to me.  This movie had tons of big cameos (including Edgar Bergan’s last film role) and just wonderful music.  I blogged about the music previously and you can read that here:

https://wordpress.com/post/nostalgicitalian.com/1218

What a “groovy” and “far out” list, huh?  I will have to move on into the 80’s next time.  I can tell you, it will be much more difficult to pick just one for every year in THAT decade!

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The Comedian’s Comedian

Introducing – Jack

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125 years ago, in 1894, a blue-eyed baby named Benjamin Kubelski was born.  He would grow up to be one of the world’s most beloved comedians – Jack Benny.  He was given the gift of a violin at an early age and his parents had hopes that he would grow up to be a concert violinist.  His career, however, took a different turn.

This is one of those blogs that was very difficult for me to write.  I know that many readers may not even know who Jack Benny is.  Because of this fact, I thought maybe I should write a “biography” type blog.  On the other hand, when I think of Jack Benny, I think of the way he broke ground on the way comedy was done.  His shows really were the early blueprints from which modern day sitcoms were based on.  I don’t know that this blog will fit into either one of those formats.

Even after sitting and pondering, I still really don’t know how this is all going to come together.  So let me apologize up front for what may be a very disorganized writing about one of the greatest comedians to ever live.  A man who was loved by so many probably deserves a blog with much more structure.  I hope you can still walk away from this blog with a greater appreciation for an amazing entertainer.

Evolution of his character

If you were to go back and watch an early episode of Seinfeld, Friends, or any sitcom for that matter, you would notice how “different” some of the main characters are.  Their idiosyncrasies, their personality traits, their quirks, mannerisms and what “made” them who they are and who you THINK they are, have not fully developed.  Those things developed over time.  The same is true of Jack’s character.

If you are unfamiliar with Jack’s persona, here is a partial list:

  • He was always 39.  His birthday was always in question.
  • He was cheap.  He did not like to spend money and hoarded it in a vault in his home.
  • He was a terrible violin player.
  • He was a bad actor and made bad movies (The Horn Blows at Midnight)
  • He drove an old Maxwell car.

The aspects of his character were things that developed over time.  He wasn’t always cheap, for example.  Jack once said that they wrote a gag about him being cheap and it got a big laugh, so they wrote another joke the following week.  The more jokes about it, the cheaper he was perceived in real life.  The truth is, in real life, Jack was a very generous man.

Jack understood that “extremes are funny”.  Take something that is grossly exaggerated and it can be a funny bit.  Examples of this are the fact that on the show he had a pet ostrich and polar bear!  One of the great bits about his cheapness, which is considered to be one of the biggest laughs on radio, took his cheapness to the extreme.   Jack is walking down the street at night when he is asked by a stranger for a match.  The stranger then pulls a gun on Jack and says, “This is a stick up.  Your money or your life!”  A master of comedic timing, Jack pauses (the audience begins to chuckle in anticipation), and the crook gets inpatient.  “Look, bud,” the stranger yells, “I said your money or your life.”  Jack simply replies, “I’m thinking it over!”  Comedy brilliance!!!

His violin playing was also always made fun of on the show.  Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny) often played Professor LeBlanc, Jack’s French violin teacher (using a voice that was similar to Pepe LePew).  Many shows consisted of Jack during a violin lesson and playing badly.  He once stated in an interview that it was harder to play bad than to play normal!  While he was no concert violinist, he was a good one.  Over the years, he raised millions of dollars doing benefit orchestra concerts.  However, he’ll always be remembered as a terrible violin player.

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During one lesson, his teacher yells, “Mr. Benny, please!  A violin has a heart and a soul.  You’ve already broken its heart – have pity on its soul!”  Another time, while describing Jack’s playing, he says that the “bow is made of horse hair and catgut.  In order to describe your playing, picture a cat being stepped on by a horse”.

As I said, the traits developed over time.  Jack wasn’t always 39 … until he got there.  Once he got there, he stayed there!  Jokes surrounding his age were plentiful on the show.  They often joked that he was so old, he was friends with famous people from history.  Jokes about the number of times the year had been erased from his birth certificate and his driver’s license were other ways to establish this major part of his character.  In his New York Times obituary in 1974, it was pointed out that “decades of insistence on the air that he was only 39 years old, made the joke better than cornier” calling it one of “show business’s most durable hits.”

His Timing

If there was every anyone who was a master of comedic timing, it was Jack Benny.  It was something that he mastered in his time on the Vaudeville stage.  He knew just how to pace himself.  Timing was effortless for him.  He seemed to know the perfect time to tell a joke and when he should remain silent.  Sometimes, the silence brought more laughs than the joke itself.  As with the “money or your life bit”, in many cases the anticipation of the line …. preceded by silence … made the audience laugh before the joke was even finished!  This was due to great material – and the establishment of Benny’s character.

Jack was a different kind of comedian.  Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Milton Berle often got on the air and told joke after joke after joke.  They would tell three jokes to Jack’s one.  Jack was meticulous in how a show was prepared.  He was involved in the entire process.  He very rarely ever strayed from the script unless there was a flub. He was very serious during the writing and rehearsing.  He was detail oriented and hired very good writers who knew how to write things based on his character or the others on his show.

The Joke’s on Him

One of the most admirable things about Jack is that he was one of the first comedians to let others share the laughs.  So many comedians needed to be the center of attention.  They needed to be the star.  Jack and his writers often gave the best lines to the other people on the show.  His co-stars Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Rochester, and Phil Harris (to name a few) became big stars because of this.  The cast of his show often told jokes that made Jack the butt of the jokes.

As I mentioned before, his show was the predecessor of today’s modern day sitcoms.  Each character had their own persona.  For example, Phil Harris was a playboy bandleader who was often drunk.  Don Wilson was a big man and so his weight and eating habits were poked fun of.  Dennis Day was an adult who was a dimwit.  He was child like and he played it to the hilt.  Rochester was one of the first African American stars on radio (in an era where many African American roles were played by white actors).

It should be noted here that Jack Benny, his cast, and his writers were creating entertainment over half a century ago.  During this time cultural norms were very accepting of great amounts of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia (a dislike or prejudice of people from other countries).  It is important to remember that the show was a product of its time, much like many of the cartoons made during that time.  It should also be noted that while Rochester’s role on the show was that of a butler/valet and stereotypical, Jack was very good friends with him.  While their radio show was on the road, the cast was slated to stay at a certain hotel.  When they refused to give Rochester a room because of his color, Jack took his entire cast to another hotel.

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Television

With the dawn of television, Jack embraced the new medium.  At first, he did a show every six weeks.  Then he did one every four weeks.  As time went on, he did TV more frequently.  Sometimes, the writers would adapt a radio script for a TV show.  One of these is the classic Christmas Shopping episode.  Mel Blanc plays a clerk that Jack buys a wallet from.  At first he has to chose between a cheap wallet or an expensive one.  It is for Don Wilson, who has been with him a long time, so he opts for the more expensive one.  Over the next 25 minutes, he is constantly back bugging the clerk to change the card he wrote for Don, to sign the new card, and eventually, change the wallet.  Blanc’s performance is priceless and even cracks Jack up.

There were some challenges with the move to TV.  On radio, it was “theater of the mind”.  Listeners would hear Jack going down the steps to his vault, with Jack describing his steps (“watch out for the aligators”, etc).  To a listener, the vault was HUGE and had all kinds of booby traps, and such.  How do you show that on TV?  He still was a great success bringing on big stars like Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe.  In many cases, the play on extremes led to some very funny visuals!  After the TV show went off the air, he did many specials.  He did “Farewell Specials”, “Anniversary Specials” and more.  The last special aired shortly before his death.

Jack on Humor

He was called the comedian’s comedian because they could all make him laugh.  His best friend, George Burns, could make him laugh by just looking at him.  George would look at him and say, “Why are you laughing, I didn’t do anything.”  Jack would reply, “Yeah, but you did it on purpose!”  George called him “the greatest audience”.  When he laughed, he was often laughing so hard, he’d fall on the floor.

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In 1968, Jack said, “To become successful your public must have a feeling like, ‘Gee, I like this fella.  I wish he were a good friend of mine.'”  This is one of the great principles that we were taught in radio – “be a friend to your listener.”  There is no doubt that lots of people liked that “fella.”

In reading things for this blog, a great nugget that I found was Jack’s thoughts on comedy.  He believed that comedy is based on 7 principles, and he used every one of them often during his career.  Those principles were:  1) The joke 2) Exaggeration 3) Ridicule 4) Ignorance 5) Surprise 6) The pun and 7) The comic situation.  Jack once said, “Never laugh at the other fellow; let him laugh at you.  I try to make my character encompass about everything that is wrong with everybody.  On the air, I have everybody’s faults.  All listeners know someone or have a relative who is a tightwad, a show-off or something of that sort.  Then in their minds, I become a real character.”  With those principles and attitude – he became a comedy giant!

The following “rules” Jack used could be applicable today in any sitcom or radio show.  Rule 1:  Don’t just rattle off a litany of old jokes.  Instead, create conversations between the speakers and characters on the show.  Real conversations lead to great comedy situations.  Rule 2:  Let your speakers unique personalities and voices shine as individual, quirky characters.  Listeners will get to know them, and hence, build a relationship with them and connect with them.  Rule 3:  Don’t be afraid to turn the humor on yourself.  His character was a self-confident braggart often, and usually made a fool of himself in the process.  Jack said that with a character like that, you laugh at him, but you also pity him a little, too.

One piece I read stated that Jack’s radio character “suffered all the indignities of the powerless patriarch in modern society – fractious workplace family, battles with obnoxious sales clerks, guff from his butler, the withering disrespect of his sponsor, every woman he met, and Hollywood society.  And yet, he was a lovable schlemiel.”  Think of how he can be compared to modern sitcom characters like Jerry Seinfeld, and others!

What others thought of Jack

Comedian Don Knotts said, “My idol was Jack Benny and he was the master of subtlety and timing.”

Comedian Bob Newhart said, “Jack Benny was, without a doubt, the bravest comedian I’ve ever seen work. he wasn’t afraid of silence.  He would take as long as it took to tell a story.”

Bob Hope said at Jack’s funeral, “For a man who is the undisputed master of comedy timing, you’d have to say this was only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon. He was stingy to the end. He only gave us eighty years and it wasn’t enough.”

After Jack passed away, President Gerald Ford said, “If laughter is the music of the soul, Jack and his violin and his good humor have made life better for all men.”

What I think of Jack

Jack passed away when I was 4 years old.  Thanks to my dad, I was introduced to old radio shows early in my childhood.  The Jack Benny Program was one of those shows he played for us.  Growing up there was a show called “When Radio Was” that aired on one of the radio stations at night and we’d listen to old shows every night.  The Benny shows always were a treat.

When we got cable, I don’t recall if it was WGN or WTBS, but one of them aired old Jack Benny TV shows at night.  That was the first I ever saw of them.  They still make me laugh even though I have seen them numerous times.  In high school, as a senior, I took an elective class called “Life in America”.  It had an entire unit on Jack Benny.  We watched one of the tribute specials (which is still available on YouTube) called “A Love Letter to Jack Benny” and another called “Jack Benny: Comedy in Bloom”.  They are two specials that I would highly recommend if you are a fan.  They are loving done and wonderful tributes to a man who brought many laughs to the world while he was alive, and still brings laughs long after he has left us.

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Happy 39th Birthday, Jack!