Thursday, October 30, 2014

News of the recursive

Google’s New Computer With Human-Like Learning Abilities Will Program Itself

Big deal. I've been doing this for decades.

Now, when Brin and what's his name sell their controlling shares to a computer, I'll be impressed.

Jimmy, We Hardly Knew Ye

I'm a big fan of Jimmy Stewart so when I saw a new biography of him at the library--Michael Munn's Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind The Legend--I checked it out.

It's quite a career.  After appearing on Broadway in a number of shows, he signed a contract with MGM in the mid-30s.  He learned his craft doing supporting work in a fair number of films--often interesting ones like Wife vs. Secretary, Born To Dance and After The Thin Man. But from the start you could see he had something.  He wasn't shockingly handsome, like Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, or impossibly masculine, like Clark Gable, but he managed to be both an average guy and someone special at the same time.  A pretty good trick.

In a few years he was a lead, doing fine work in titles like Vivacious Lady, The Shopworn Angel, You Can't Take It With You, Made For Each Other and It's A Wonderful World.  By the late 30s he was a major star, and I think in this period he made his greatest films--Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Destry Rides Again, the unsurpassable The Shop Around The Corner and The Philadelphia Story (for which he won an Oscar).

The came the war and, like so many Stewart men before him, he enlisted, even as Louis B. Mayer begged him to stick around.  He flew many mission and rose high in the ranks.  When he returned to movies four years later there were plenty of new stars and it wasn't clear if there was still a place for him. Yet somehow he managed to do more challenging work than any other big name from the pre-war era. (He also, with the help of agent Lew Wasserman, became the first actor to demand a percentage of his films, changing Hollywood forever.)

To begin with, there was It's A Wonderful Life.  Done with his early favorite director Frank Capra, it's probably his best performance.  But though it's now a classic, it flopped in 1946. For a few years he had trouble finding his footing--he even went back to Broadway to take over the lead in the hit comedy Harvey.  There was also his first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock--the experimental Rope--which didn't work.  Still, this was a new Stewart, and he was starting to show a darker side on screen than we'd seen before.

Then with Winchester '73 he started his famous series of Westerns with director Anthony Mann.  The films revolutionized the genre and revitalized his career.  Others in the series include Bend Of The RiverThe Naked Spur and The Far Country. Mann also directed him in other movies, such as The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command. Unfortunately they had a falling out and never worked again after The Man From Laramie in 1955. (On the other hand, he became good friends with Henry Fonda again around this time after falling out during the HUAC era--Stewart was Right, Fonda was Left.)

Stewart also worked with other major directors, above all Hitchcock.  Though Rope had been an unpleasant experience, the next film--equally experimental--was Rear Window, much more satisfying and a hit.  Then they made The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo, the latter a flop but today well-regarded (or I'd say insanely well-regarded, since it's recently been voted the greatest film of all time and I don't even think it's that good).

There was also Call Northside 777 with Henry Hathaway, The Greatest Show On Earth (winner of the Best Picture Oscar for some reason) with Cecil B. DeMille, The Spirit Of St. Louis (a huge flop about Lindbergh that some now like) with Billy Wilder, Anatomy Of A Murder with Otto Preminger and The Flight Of The Phoenix with Robert Aldrich.  Then there were three films he made with John Ford, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In addition, he made hits like The Stratton Story, Broken Arrow and Harvey.  But starting around the 60s, Stewart was getting older and found himself passed over for top roles.  Some of the films he made then did alright, and it's always nice to see him on screen, but he wasn't quite the star he'd been.  By the 70s he started working regularly in TV and in the 80s and 90s was mostly retired from show business.

That's the story, and Munn gets it across, and that's about the best you can say for the book.  He puts the basic facts out there, and has some inside information, but the book is poorly written--or should I say compiled, since he relies on so many lengthy quotes that it's closer to an oral history.

Munn is a British writer who's done quite a few actors' biographies, though his reputation is not of the highest order--he allegedly fills his books with rumors, though I couldn't say.  At least it's true as a young man on the entertainment beat he got to know Stewart and his wife Gloria in the 70s, so he had many lengthy interviews to refer to.

This book came out in America recently but it was released over there in 2006.  You might think the British angle wouldn't matter, but it shows up every now and then in odd ways.  For instance, Munn mentions more than once that Stewart was sort of racist.  He doesn't actually prove it so much as have people suggest it, but his discussion seems lacking.  Perhaps the charge of racism doesn't sting so much in Britain, so he can bring it up casually, rather than doing the proper research to say something more definitive.

And then you get those different spellings.  You may not think it would make much difference, but when a great flier like Jimmy Stewart is taking his first trip in an "aeroplane" it feels weird. And when someone is talking about how African-Americans used to be referred to as "coloureds" it's weird squared.  Then there's Munn quoting Stewart saying that John Ford lost interest in movies and instead "liked to talk about his days in the navy, or about sport." I guess I should be lucky that when Munn talks about Stewart's weaknesses as a schoolboy he doesn't quote Stewart as saying "I was never good at maths."

There are other potentially British-flavored moments, such as when Munn feels it necessary to note that Stewart's college Princeton is highly prestigious.  And sometimes there are mistakes, such as when Ed Sullivan is spelled "Sullavan"--an error an American entertainment writer probably wouldn't make.  Though in general there's poor editing--at one point Stewart's character in Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd, is given the first name "Howard."

Munn starts with a bit of family history, and Stewart's early days, which are interesting (and I assume correct).  Turns out Jimmy was a lady killer even before he was famous.  There was just something that drew them in--almost seemed like he couldn't help it.  In his early acting days, he worked closely with best friend Henry Fonda, Joshua Logan and Margaret Sullavan.  He fell in love with Sullavan and she with him, but they never married.  Munn theorizes she put her career first and knew a marriage wouldn't work out (and it didn't with future husbands).  She was the great love of his life (with the possible exception of his wife Gloria), and she haunts the book, all the way up to her death--a likely suicide, in 1960.  She would go on to marry Fonda, and soon after divorce him.  Munn believes Stewart wouldn't her after that because it would have hurt their friendship.  In any case, Sullavan was the first of the group to make it in Hollywood, and she'd go on to star in four films with Stewart, helping him out in his early days.

Stewart never thought much about acting as a career in his early days. He studied to be an architect.  But he was an entertaining sort of guy--who could play the accordion, which somehow helped--and he backed into it. Even back then, in his smallest roles, he had a presence.  He and Fonda roomed together in New York trying to make it on Broadway. Once again, the women were all over them.  And then when Stewart became a star, he had affairs with several of his leading ladies, including Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich.  He didn't settle down until he was in his forties, marrying beautiful socialite Gloria Hatrick.  She had two boys from a previous marriage whom he helped raise (one died in Vietnam) and she bore him two daughters as well.

Munn's "truth behind the legend" is often the least interesting part of the book--much of it deals with Jimmy's secret work with the FBI.  Stewart hated gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, wanting them run out of Hollywood, and as a patriotic American who'd fought bravely in the war, he was happy to work with J. Edgar Hoover a vice versa.  But Hoover was fighting against communists, and left organized crime alone. Munn's theory (presented as fact) was that the mafia had proof of Hoover's homosexuality, so the FBI left them alone.  Perhaps this is true, but then Munn also implies that the mob was involved in the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, so I'm not sure if he can be trusted.

Another "truth" behind the legend is that Stewart could get tremendously angry.  Usually he was good-natured, but when pushed too far he could go volcanic.  I believe this, since anyone who's seen his post-War movies knows the dark and bitter side he could show. Yet another "truth" I already knew was that Stewart worked hard at making his character seem artless.  He believed acting to be a craft, something one should always be working on.  Many called him a natural actor, and believed he was just playing himself.  He had natural talent, yes, and rarely played outside a certain zone (didn't do accents, for example), but that "natural" style was developed through years of hard work.

If I had read other books on Stewart, I'd tell you which ones to check out.  But my advice, if you want to know about him, is to try someone else before you try Michael Munn's book.  It's not terrible, but I have to believe there's something better out there.

Somebody To Love

Grace Slick turns 75 today.  She was a voice that, once heard, you couldn't forget.  (She also went to the same finishing school as Tricia Nixon and was invited to tea at the White House.  She planned to attend with Abbie Hoffman and spike the tea with acid, but the security wouldn't let them in.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Safety first

Sleeping with more than 20 women protects men against prostate cancer, a study has suggested

Do I have to do it all at once?

Dead Or Lame?

Something just occurred to me and I don't think I've seen anyone write about it.  Some Senate races will have runoffs if no one gets a majority.  Imagine if the Senate is hanging in the balance, and we've got to wait till December to find out who wins in Louisiana, and January to see who wins in Georgia.

Okay, people are talking about that, but are they talking about how it might affect a lame-duck session?  There's talk that the White House and Congress might try to pass (perhaps with the help of outgoing Republicans in the House) all sorts of otherwise unpalatable deals, especially on immigration, when they see this is their last chance to get their licks in.  There are also rumors of the President planning on trying out some unpopular executive orders.

But what happens if it's not clear who'll take back the Senate, and the Dems need to win a late race or two to hold on.  Will President Obama and Harry Reid hold back so as not to damage their party's candidates?  It'll be interesting to see if we're put in this situation.

Not To Be Confused With Penny

Denny Laine, the only Wing not named McCartney anyone has heard of, turns 70 today.  He actually wrote some decent tunes in that band--it wasn't all Paul--and, of course, had a significant career outside the band.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mend It To End It

Every now and then I see a piece about how Obamacare has become inevitable as more and more (have no choice but to) sign up.  This is nonsense.

True, it's hard in general to get rid of big legislation, but we've rarely passed a huge law like this along partisan lines, and I don't think we've ever had a huge law like this passed against the will of the American public.  If this country can repeal a Constitutional Amendment that was in place over a decade, it can certainly repeal Obamacare.  It's still unpopular, and with the President holding off a lot of the worst parts till after the election--looks like businesses may be kicking millions off their plans--it's likely to remain unpopular for some time to come.

The main question (which I answer in the negative) is can the Republicans take over Congress and the Presidency.  The former is actually more important*, since Harry Reid has refused to consider any bills which might cause the President to worry.  If Congress could start sending popular laws to the President's desk, eventually even a Democratic White House might have to cave (or perhaps be overridden).

In other words, if the GOP can control the agenda, all it takes is a little political will to end Obamacare.  That's because the essence of Obamacare is a government takeover of health care insurance (and I'm not sure if I need that qualifying "insurance"), and the plan can't work without denying freedom of choice. Sooner or later everyone will have to go on plans the government has approved--and if they're in certain categories, they'll be required to overpay, while in other categories, they'll be heavily subsidized.

So you don't have to officially "repeal" the law to repeal it.  You simply free yourself from it. Offer an opt out.  And that would be the end of it. If people are free to choose, and go into some other market outside the government's control (and force the government itself to compete), they'll abandon Obamacare in large enough numbers that the program would implode.

And how would politicians fight against that?  "We're not destroying health care for anyone, we're giving people more choice.  I thought you were pro-choice."

So ignore all the babble about how Obamacare can't be gotten rid of.  If it isn't, it'll be because the Republicans failed, not because the Democrats succeeded.

*Though there is an argument, with the White House determining what the law actually means, that the President alone could stop it.

In A Melle Tone

Composer Gil Melle died exactly ten years ago.  For years I knew him best as the man who composed the odd theme song for Night Gallery, but he did a lot more than that, both in jazz and soundtracks.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Proper usage

John Kasich is showing up every so often as a presidential contender, inevitably. It's important that reporters know the proper way to refer to him:

"Unlike Ohio Gov. John Kasich —who is cruising to re-election after betraying his own collective-bargaining reforms and caving to liberal pressure to expand Medicaid—Mr. Brownback has stuck to his conservative principles. . . . If Mr. Brownback loses, it will be because he’s not a charlatan or crank."

Done Raging

It's the centennial of Dylan Thomas.  I would have guessed he was born earlier, but he died fairly young--at 39--so perhaps that's why he seems a figure from long ago.

He did have very memorable last words:  "I've had 18 straight whiskies......I think that's the record."

White Noise

Lester Lanin died ten years ago today, but while alive he represented a type of music that you were surprised was still around. He was a bandleader famous for his medleys of pre-rock standards, played in strict time so white people could cut a rug.

He had such a standard sound that Frank Zappa had a signal to his band if he wanted them to play a la Lanin.  I liked the sound.  These are good tunes, why mess with them?  I once was at a wedding where his band played and I was honored to see him live.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Let's say goodbye to Jack Bruce, bassist of Cream.  When you've only got three instruments, you've got to do a lot.  He was a pretty good singer and songwriter, too.

Keith Time

Happy birthday, Keith Strickland. He's The B-52s utility player, starting on drums, moving to guitar, and occasionally playing bass, keyboards and even singing.

The Girl With The Giggle In Her Voice

Singer Alma Cogan never meant anything in America, but she was a huge star in Britain.  Alas, she died tragically young, age 34 on October 26, 1966.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Now We're Cooking

Happy birthday, Barbara Cook, the great Broadway musical star.

Sorry, CB

I can't believe I forgot Chuck Berry's birthday a week ago.  It should be a national holiday.

Friday, October 24, 2014

It's been a rough year--but things are looking up!

So LAGuy's recent musings led me to wonder how Christopher Lloyd was doing,
and I was shocked to find out how much money he's made. I'm happy for him.

Then today I wondered how Timothy Hutton was doing, and that led me to Timothy Olyphant, another favorite, and come to find out he's doing pretty well, too.

All I can say is, I'm looking forward to the election. I get the feeling we're all going to be happy. (If you can't read the text, both have been selected as People's 2014 Highest Paid Actor, both have had a rough year, both can take comfort in their millions, and both of them seemed to have careers that were dead until a surprise turn around. And their closest competitor is tens of millions behind them in income. What I most want to know is, is the cover picture automated?)

Mama, Look, A Boo Boo

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo may not be renewed by TLC as June Shannon, the mother in the reality show, is allegedly involved with a convicted child molester.

I was taken aback.  I've never watched the show, but, as it's become part of our culture, I'm vaguely familiar with it.  If I'm not mistaken, it's about the adventures of a trashy southern family.  And the trashier it gets, the more TLC likes it.  (TLC stands for The Learning Channel--it's come a long way.)

So what's the problem?  Can't the mom date who she wants?  And if he's got a checkered past, doesn't that fit the concept even better?  What's more, the guy's done his time.  Will he and everyone who associates with him continue to be punished?

I won't be watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in any case, but my guess is after several seasons the ratings are on a downward slope, and this is either a negotiating tactic or a way of easing the show off the air.

PS  It's official, the show has been canceled.


Happy 70th, Ted Templeman, who started as a musician and singer and then become one of the top record producers around.

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