Tag Archives: TCM

Roger Ebert, 2011

Santa arrived ten days early.

Wednesday, following up on past announcements, came the word that Roger Ebert Presents At The Movies is set to debut next month. While the balcony remains, its occupants will be different, as will the participation of the namesake. The new show, produced by Roger’s wife, looks to maintain the focus of the original show while updating the set and turning the reins (mostly) over to others, since Ebert has been unable to speak for close to three years.

From the announcement:

“The show will return to WTTW, Chicago Public Television, where Gene Siskel and I first taped “Sneak Previews” in 1975. The station still has our original seats, but we are constructing an all new set. Our critics of course will be back in the iconic balcony, and will be using the famous “thumbs up / thumbs down” rating system. Next week, executive producer Chaz Ebert will make an announcement regarding the co-hosts and contributing critics for the new show. She will also describe our website, with new and original content.

For me, this is the continuation of a journey that began 35 years ago with a local WTTW program at first titled “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.” My wife Chaz and I have been working for two years with many others to bring the format back to television. I believe we will present critics in the show’s long tradition. Chaz is taking the leadership responsibilities as Executive Producer. I will be involved in all aspects, and will contribute regular segments of my own.”

VIDEO: A teaser with Christy Lemiere and Elvis Mitchell as the hosts.

Supposedly Mitchell is already off the program; not certain whether Lemiere will survive. But after viewing the clip I could see what they meant about the Mitchell/Lemiere dynamic – there was no apparent connection between the two. I’ve never found Mitchell to be a presence; even on his own interview program he seemed detached and out-of-place. Some people are better off behind the camera; Mitchell might be one of them. When the Ebert/Roeper show was initially cancelled, Ebert and Richard Roeper announced that they would move on to another project together. Why not Roeper in that other chair?  

My personal choice would be Ben Makiewicz, although both he and Ebert might be thinking once bitten twice shy. The colossal failure of the “Two Bens” version of the show had everything to do with the initial gimmick-laden format and the preening superficiality of Ben Lyons; Mankiewicz looked like the lone adult trying to take the high road. Lyons has since found a perfect role at the star-sucking E Entertainment network; Mank has settled back in to Turner Classic Movies where he and Robert Osborne are a constant gift to viewers.

The most disturbing part of that clip is the horrific digitized voice in Roger’s segment. We’ve all heard about the dynamic project to assemble a database of Roger’s own voice from his decades of sound clips; like many I assumed that meant Roger would type an essay and the computer would “read” it using those assigned clips of Roger’s voice like an audio ransom note. Lets hope this generic Stephen Hawking-like clipped speech is merely a placeholder until the real thing is ready. If not, I would rather they hire an impressionist to fake it. Or use five minutes of the show to revisit an older title using the actual voice and image of a younger Roger Ebert.

So Santa – there’s still work to do. But thank you for Ebert in 2011.

Here is the list of stations carrying the show.

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Remembering James Cagney

Simply the best.

James Cagney died twenty-four years ago today. 

When I was a kid my Dad and I would watch a lot of movies together, and that’s where I first saw this pugnacious little punk light up the screen. It didn’t seem to matter what film he was in; when he was on camera he attracted your attention with laser-like intensity. I guess that’s what they call a movie star

The Fighting 69th

Dad loved war movies – still does – and I have vivid memories of watching The Fighting 69th several times (as Irishmen, that’s almost a requirement). Later I discovered What Price Glory and 13 Rue Madeline, which I guess weren’t in rotation on the three or four New York stations available at the time. And his performance in Mr. Roberts was also a classic, although that was a comedy. 

Angels With Dirty Faces

But it was the gangster films that were seared into my memory. Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces were the two we watched most often; stone-cold classics that I still enjoy today. The latter also featured The Dead End Kids, who I would later follow through their comedic incarnation as The Bowery Boys. Two others that rank alongside them in his canon are The Roaring Twenties and the iconic White Heat; how Cagney did not win the Academy Award for the latter is still a mystery. (He eventually won for his performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and deservedly so.) 

I learned a bit later that Cagney was constantly battling the studio system – and Harry Warner in particular –  to be able to have more control over his career. The studios treated actors like indentured servants back then, although that also meant that you were used in a lot of movies and even loaned out to other studios on occasion as a favor between moguls. If you had the magic, as they say, soon enough you’d get a chance to prove it. But Cagney was getting typecast and didn’t like it. 

Man of a Thousand Faces

As I was growing up I caught up with several that I had missed, including other genres like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Time of Your Life (which was perhaps my own favorite moment on a college stage). His fierce performance in Love Me Or Leave Me was thrilling; he had played many bad men before but his gangsters always had some charm; Martin Snyder was an unlikeable character. And I got to see Man of a Thousand Faces again and understand what a magnificent performance it was; Cagney as Lon Chaney being other characters. There’s a wordless scene where Cagney re-enacts a brutally deformed cripple being healed and given the ability to walk; it is a master class in acting

I respected Cagney the man almost as much as I admired Cagney the actor. He fought for better working conditions for actors in general (his own behavior inspired others to stand up for themselves) and was president of the Screen Actors Guild. He was a patriot and generously devoted his time and services in support of the troops long before it became fashionable (or a savvy career move). His marriage at 22 lasted sixty-four years until his death at 86. And he avoided the hoopla of Hollywood, buying a farm first in Martha’s Vineyard and later another north of New York City. He approached life on his own terms, supported causes and people without fanfare or fear and set the bar early for the transition to a new style of acting. 

Ragtime

When Cagney died in 1986 it wasn’t a shock, as he had been in poor health for many years. He all but retired from movies twenty-five years earlier, but did return to the big screen in 1981 to play a supporting role in Ragtime as the cantankerous Police Commissioner. But thanks to my Dad and those many nights enjoying his work together, he always seemed vividly alive to me. If I’m flipping channels today and come across a Cagney movie, I automatically lock in and watch it even though the odds are I can recite every line of dialogue from memory. 

I was thrilled when Warners finally started releasing classic Cagney films on DVD (perhaps in an upcoming TGIF  I will rank my ten favorites). But one of my great thrills was being able to record the many unreleased Cagney films that TCM aired during a month-long tribute to Cagney and sharing them with my Dad. He had no idea that these had even aired, and some of them (Taxi, The Strawberry Blonde) he hadn’t seen since we watched them together all those years ago. Sometimes payback isn’t a bitch. 


March 1986 was a tough month. I lost my Mom to cancer; she had never really been sick a day in her life and was not a drinker or smoker. She felt some discomfort that January and it was determined that she needed minor surgery which was supposed to be routine. When under the knife in early February it was discovered that she had cancer. The pre-operative scans missed because it was too small, but it was scattered throughout her liver like buckshot, which meant her bloodstream, which meant it was now invasive everywhere. She never left the hospital. Every time I think of her I’m amazed that twenty-four years seems both like a long time ago and also like yesterday. 

When I think back to my childhood I remember her sitting nearby as my Dad and I watched Cagney’s movies. She probably enjoyed some of them herself, but knew that Dads and sons need to bond over certain things, and she gave us that space. (That was my Mom in a nutshell – unselfish.) So as I warmly remember the man who is still my favorite actor of all time, I do the same for the two people who always supported me unconditionally. March is a little easier to take these days. 

Thanks, Mom & Dad.

James Cagney on IMDB and Wikipedia

James Cagney Online – UK site with info and trailers

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