Posts Tagged ‘film’

Bowling, Tim Matheson, and “Dreamer”

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

“You just dream about something, that’s all it’s ever gonna be.  Just a dream.”

So says Harold Nuttingham in the 1979 film Dreamer, a post-Watergate, feel-good movie with a down-to-earth vibe.

Nottingham dreams of being a bowling champion—hence, his nickname “Dreamer”—but he can’t even get a PBA membership until he storms an executive meeting, proves his credentials, and demands inclusion in bowling’s upper echelon.  His statement about dreams targets father figure Harry White, a former PBA bowler who never quite reached the level of excellence that Dreamer envisions—and is capable of achieving.  Dreamer’s words nudge Harry towards buying an option for them on an 18-lane establishment with a coffee shop and a bar in Peoria.

Dreamer’s car broke down in Alton, Illinois two years before, creating an opportunity for him to work at the Bowl Haven, where he practices his game; Harry runs the pro shop.  Repairing the bowling racks is among Dreamer’s duties.  Tragically, Harry dies of a heart attack late at night, while bowling; he had a heart condition, so the news is not surprising to Dreamer.

Tim Matheson plays Dreamer, Jack Warden plays Harry, and Susan Blakely plays Dreamer’s girlfriend—Karen Lee, who also works at the bowling alley, as a cashier.  “Debra Winger rocked her audition, but the studio decided on Susan,” explains Matheson.

Bowling icon Dick Weber plays Johnny Watkin, Dreamer’s opponent in the film’s climactic match.  Matheson reveals, “Dick Weber was instrumental in helping me with my bowling.  He showed me ways to patch up my thumb until my calluses healed.  We also worked on creating a style that was interesting visually and looked real.

“I was in a bowling league in Burbank.  At the Grand Central Bowl in Glendale, I kept score for bowlers.  You could make 10 bucks a night, which was a decent amount of money.  So, I was very comfortable in that world.  For the movie, we bowled in an old alley in St. Louis.  I averaged around 165-170.  My highest was 199.  One day, we’re shooting a sequence and I’m keeping score consecutively with the takes.  My score was 224.

“Dick told us about the tricks that bowlers used.  They soaked balls in solvent that would soften the ball, so when you went to the tournament, it would react with more torque.  If you threw a ball with spin, it spun more.  Now, there are rules preventing this from happening.

“Jack Warden was one of the great storytellers of all time.  He told us that he auditioned for John Houseman, who was directing King Lear.  He was just beginning acting, but he had a blue-collar job during the day.  He didn’t have time to change for the audition, so he went in his coveralls.  Houseman said, ‘What part do you think you’ll audition for?’  Jack responded, ‘How about this Lear guy?’

“He was full of bravado and always gave advice if you asked about a scene.  He was a great acting coach, just gold.  He was a gem.  Susan was such a pro.  So wonderful to work with.  Sexy and intense and all the good things you’ll hope for in a partner that you play so many scenes with.”

It is convenient to compare Dreamer to Rocky, which premiered during the Christmas season of 1976; the elements are there—underdog taking on the champion, mentor tutoring the underdog, love interest.  This would, however, overlook the density of emotional resonance that Rocky evoked.  Where Rocky Balboa wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed because no fighter had accomplished that seemingly impossible task, Dreamer has unwavering confidence that he belongs in the pantheon of bowling champions, if only he gets the opportunity to prove it.

Typical for Hollywood, Dreamer concludes with the upstart winning in dramatic fashion, dethroning Watkin by one pin in the 10th frame for a final score of 245-244.  Dreamer may not have had the edge of The HustlerRocky, or The Sporting Life, but it follows the template for Hollywood’s sports films.  We want the underdog to win because they remind us of ourselves.  Who wouldn’t rather play for the Miami Sharks rather than the Dallas Knights in Any Given Sunday?  Who wouldn’t rather play with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Roger Dorn on the Cleveland Indians rather than the New York Yankees in Major League?  These types of films fulfill the need to hope, allowing us to live vicariously, whether the hero is a bowler, a rugby player, or a major league pitcher.

To the extent that Dreamer has a villain, it’s the PBA, which looks askance, at least initially, at Dreamer’s qualifications.  Though not explored in depth, the confrontation between Dreamer and the PBA’s powers that be, including Watkin, represents a frustration at bureaucracy that was felt 100 years before Dreamer hit movie theaters and will be evident 100 years hence, in whatever medium audiences use to consume visual entertainment.

After the climactic game between Dreamer and Watkin, the last shot of the film shows Dreamer and Karen Lee packing up their car and listing their itinerary of bowling tournaments.  As they pull away, we see that the building behind them is the Harry White Memorial Bowl.

Taking Matheson’s portrayal of Eric “Otter” Stratton of Animal House as the archetype of a slightly arrogant character brimming with confidence, one can find levels of that personality in several of his subsequent roles, including:

  • Larry Sizemore (Burn Notice)
  • Al Donnelly (Black Sheep)
  • John Hoynes (The West Wing)
  • Harry Stadlin (Just in Time)
  • Alan Stanwyk (Fletch)

Alan Stanwyk is devious when he sets up Fletch to be the dead body in a burning car, thereby allowing him to escape to South America undetected.  John Hoynes is a political manipulator along the lines of LBJ—a Senate Majority Leader from Texas who lost the Democratic nomination to an underdog from New England and settled, uncomfortably, for being Vice President.

And yet, there is an underlying likability to these characters—they do not, in any way, exude nastiness.  Dreamer, neither, though his single-mindedness about pursuing a professional bowling career excludes Karen Lee, whom he considers to be a distraction during competitions.  This, of course, is reconciled after Harry’s death, which prompts Dreamer to realize that Karen Lee is not an appendage to his career, but a necessity to his life.

The Bowl Haven still stands today, a 24-lane escape for Altonians looking to knock down some pins.  Those of a certain age may remember the summer of 1978, when the Bowl Haven closed down for shooting.   Once owned by the Netzhammer family and built in the late 1950s, the Bowl Haven enjoys continuity to the past with Bill Netzhammer, the original owners’ son, managing the lanes that Dreamer once practiced upon.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 4, 2017.

Football and Comedy

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Football, a brutal sport symbolizing man’s primal quest to conquer territory, offers humor as compelling as the viciousness of Dick Butkus, the grace of Lynn Swann, and the agility of Walter Payton.

Necessary Roughness exemplifies the underdog theme, a common focus in sports films.  Film critic Roger Ebert noted, “I fell for it again this time, because it was well done, and because the movie doesn’t try to pump itself up into more than it is, a good-humored entertainment.”

Starting from scratch after a corruption scandal, which includes recruiting violations and steroid abuse, forces the firing of its coaches and the expulsion of its players, except one, the Texas State Fighting Armadillos hires Coach Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero.  A lack of players forces him to rebuild by employing “iron man” football, where the same players take the field on offense and defense.

At the heart of the team is a player who might have ranked with Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Terry Bradshaw as one of the best quarterbacks ever.  Paul Blake, on the verge of entering college, quit football to take care of his family’s farm after his father died—a decade and a half ago.  To pass the time, Blake throws footballs at a scarecrow that he dresses with a football jersey.

Necessary Roughness utilizes the device of gathering misfits coming together to win the game against a superior opponent.  Blake throws the winning touchdown to Charlie Banks, the only player remaining from the corruption-laden squad.

Little Giants, too, relies on the underdog story, pitting the O’Shea brothers—played by Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis—against each other.  Kevin O’Shea is a former Heisman Trophy winner, hence, a football legend in his hometown of Urbania, Ohio.  Now a pee wee football coach, Kevin prides himself on leading the best players Urbania has to offer.  Danny, meanwhile, strives to lead the misfits cast off by Kevin.  During halftime of the climactic game between Kevin’s Little Cowboys and Danny’s Little Giants, Danny tells a story about how he beat Kevin racing their bikes down Cherry Hill, an iconic part of Urbania.  It only happened once, but it proves that you only need “one time” to score a victory.

A trick play called “Annexation of Puerto Rico” helps the Little Giants defeat the Little Cowboys, despite the latter’s superiority.

The Replacements told the story of the fictional Washington Sentinels during a players strike.  Shane Falco finds another shot at football stardom when he replaces Eddie Martel as the Sentinels quarterback.  A college phenom, Falco suffered an ignominious defeat in a bowl game, burned out quickly in the professional ranks, and wonders what might have been.  Jimmy McGinty, the newly hired coach, recruits Falco along with other players who, under other circumstances, would never get a second look.  Or a first one, probably.

Martel crosses the picket line, though the players don’t have the same respect for him that they do for Falco.  McGinty sends in Falco, the Sentinels win, and another underdog football story ends in victory.

Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves, and Brett Cullen played, respectively, McGinty, Falco, and Martel.

On his web site www.brettcullen.com, Cullen revealed his awe at standing on the field at Nextel Stadium—which served as the Sentinels’ home stadium—with the film’s location manager.

“I call him the first night I got into Baltimore and said, ‘Let’s get together.  I’d been there for a day,” Cullen explained.  “So, we had dinner at McCormick and Schmidt’s and after dinner we got in his car and he said, ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’  We drove over to the stadium, which was completely dark.  We went around to the back entrance and he flashed his badge to security and they let us in.  We walked onto the field and out to the 50-yard line in the Ravens stadium, and you look at all those seats being full, and you’re playing football and you’re in a fishbowl and everyone’s screaming at you—it’s a lot like being a gladiator.  I saw it and went, ‘I get it now.’  That was real thrilling for me.  That was one of those moments before we started doing the picture that I went, ‘Wow this is going to be cool.'”

The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynolds, James Hampton, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters, and Eddie Albert.  This 1974 film centers on a game between prisoners and prison guards.  It’s fixed, though—the warden ensures a victory for the guards by threatening Paul Crewe, played by Reynolds.  Crewe, a former pro quarterback, was known to fix football games.  In turn, the prisoners think he’s thwrowing this game for some kind of bribe.  All is going according to the warden’s plan until Crewe decides to turn against the warden.

In his memoir But Enough About Me, Reynolds exposed his method of filming at a real-life prison—Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.  “I’d filmed in prisons before, and I knew it was essential to have the inmates on your side, so in addition to building a football field complete with bleachers, we had six basketball courts installed on the yard.  I also knew from experience that every prison has its inmate leadership, so I went to the top man and made him my stand-in.  His name was Ringo.  He looked like a Brahma bull with glasses and he was serving ninety-nine years for manslaughter and kidnapping.

“Six months later I was in Nashville shooting W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings when who should appear at my trailer door but Ringo.  There were a couple of state troopers guarding me, and I was afraid of bloodshed if they knew who he was, so I sent him to James Hampton’s trailer.  Ringo told Jimmy that he’d decided ‘to take a vacation.’  The next time I saw Ringo, he was leaning against a wall watching us shoot a scene.  A week or so later I heard that he was back at Reidsville, in solitary confinement.

M*A*S*H, based on the novel by Richard Hooker, revolves around the antics of the doctors, nurses, and enlisted men at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 during the Korean War.  A football scene gives real-life NFL player Fred Williamson an opportunity to showcase as Dr. Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones, a neurosurgeon who also played professional football for the 49ers.  Through Jones’s tutelage, the 4077th team creates sufficient confidence to place a bet with the rival team from the 325th Evacuation Hospital—with one catch, however.  Hawkeye devises a scheme to keep Jones out of the game for the first half.  Then, the 4077th will get larger odds from the 325th, bring Jones into the game, and receive a windfall upon victory.

In his review of M*A*S*H for the New York Times, Roger Greenspun wrote, “In one brief night scene, some MASH-men and the chief nurse meet to divide the winnings of the football game.  In the distance, a jeep drives by, carrying a white-shrouded corpse.  The nurse glances at it for a second, and then turns back to her happy friends—and we have a momentary view of the ironic complexities of life that M*A*S*H means to contain.”

Forrest Gump features the title character as an outstanding kick returner for the University of Alabama.  In turn, he becomes an All-American football player.  After college, Forrest becomes a war hero in Vietnam, a ping-pong champ, and a shrimp tycoon.  In his review for the New York Daily News, Dave Kehr commended director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, who played the title character, on creating Forrest’s life journey from the 1950s to the 1980s.  “With Hanks’ graceful and creative performance at the center (his first role since his Oscar for ‘Philadelphia’), Zemecks combines a mastery of wide-screen composition, camera movement and long-term patterns of theme and image to create na original and deeply moving experience,” wrote Kehr.  “The sweetly sentimental and the unbearable grotesque exist side by side, with little to mediate between them.”

An episode of The Odd Couple features Alex Karras as a guest star.  In the episode “That Was No Lady,” Felix engages in a romance with a woman named Melanie, who shares his passion for New York City’s culture.  Unbeknownst to Felix, Melanie is the wife of Jarrin’ Jake Metcalf, a football star, who’s working with Oscar on his autobiography.  When Felix wants to confront Jake because love has made him strong, Oscar responds, “Strength has made him stronger.”  In the end, Melanie returns to Jake leaving Felix with wonderful memories that hopefully dull the pain of heartbreak.

Silent film star Harold Lloyd stars in The Freshman, a comedy about a college football player.  The Turner Classic Movies web site lauds the film’s production qualities, sourced to Lloyd’s attention to detail:  “The Freshman lacks the high stakes of Keaton’s comedies and the pathos of Chaplin’s struggles but it doesn’t lack for comic invention or filmmaking polish.  Longtime Lloyd collaborators Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer direct and his regular writing team (Taylor, Ted Wilde, John Grey, and Tim Whelan) provide the story, gags and titles, but this is Lloyd’s production down the line and lavishes all the time and money necessary to perfect every gag.  The campus backgrounds are filled with students, the big dance has Lloyd maneuvering through throngs of couples while quite literally tearing his suit apart (a hilarious sequence that builds to a predictable yet comically perfect gag finale), and the big game looks like ti was shot at a real championship match.  Throughout it all, every last extra seems to hit their marks and react on cue.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 7, 2016.

Whose Life Story Is It Anyway?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

The life story genre is a staple of baseball films.

Fear Strikes Out depicted the anxieties of Jimmy Piersall.  William Bendix and John Goodman played Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story and The Babe, respectively.  42 spotlighted Jackie Robinson’s story of breaking into the major leagues.  The Pride of the Yankees showcased Lou Gehrig’s personal and professional lives.  It is either a baseball story with a love story as a backdrop, or vice versa.

Jimmy Stewart played Monty Stratton in The Stratton Story.  Ronald Reagan, known throughout his film and political career because of his portrayal as George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All-American, added a baseball role to his roster of credits when he portrayed Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.

Ballplayers are heroes on the diamond, but they are also, nonetheless, human.  Stratton overcame an injury to his leg caused by a gunshot while hunting.  Robinson endured hatred in the form of racial taunts baked into a public attitude about minorities.  His inner strength pushed him to excellence in spite of horrific opposition in discrimination, bigotry, and human indecency.  Gehrig, of course, symbolized courage in the face of a debilitating disease, proclaiming himself to be “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” while his physical ability diminished.

These stories go beyond mere entertainment.  They are inspiring because they are real.  Overcoming a tragedy is a cornerstone of drama.  Writers and producers face a challenge in offering stories with a baseball theme—depicting the tale on film or on television may require sacrificing time for the sport to give more time to the story.  In his review of The Pride of the Yankees for the New York Times, noted film critic Bosley Crowther underscored this point.  “Furthermore, sports fans will protest, with reason on their side, that a picture about a baseball player should have a little more baseball in it,” wrote Crowther.  “Quite true, this one has considerable footage showing stands and diamonds of the American League, with Lou at bat, running bases and playing the initial bag.  What is shown is accurate.  But it is only shown in glimpses or montage sequences, without catching much of the flavor or tingling excitement of a tight baseball game.  Fans like to know what’s the inning, how many are on and how many out.  At least, the score.”

Facts are public domain for a life story.  For example, Lou Gehrig’s estate has no legal recourse for a Gehrig life story indicating that Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games.  But there will need to be agreements regarding Gehrig’s image, Major League Baseball trademarks, photographs, and film footage in a visual representationfilm, television, cartoon, book, comic book, art, merchandising, arcade game, and computer game.  Terms will include limitations on the use and the crediting of the material.

When the producers of a life story seek to incorporate material from a copyrighted work, then a license agreement will be  sought.  Another option is contracting for the right to create a new work based on the original copyrighted work.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 15, 2013.

Lonesome Rhodes, Will Stockade, and Andy Taylor

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

RemingtonCorruption rooted in ego, fame, and power forms the foundation for A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film; Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay based on his short story The Arkansas Traveler.

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Bacon Popularity Sizzles

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a game that can be played anytime and anywhere by anybody.  It is, indeed, light enjoyment perfect for holiday conversation around the dinner table during dessert.  The game’s purpose is to connect an actor or an actress to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less, using movies as the connectors.

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First Thing We Do, Let’s Film All the Lawyers (Part 2 of 2)

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Based on the eponymous play, Inherit the Wind showcases the Scopes Monkey Trial.  This 1960 film stars Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as the fictional counterparts to Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, respectively.

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First Thing We Do, Let’s Film All the Lawyers (Part 1 of 2)

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Lawyers are prominent in films, representing every strata of society from rape victims to Santa Claus.  They are the bastions of justice, their cinematic appearances reinforcing their prevention of order descending into chaos.

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All Aboard the Hooterville Cannonball! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “Petticoat Junction” (Part 5 of 5)

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

A Hollywood urban legend dictates that The Wild Wild West and Petticoat Junction used the same locomotive.  Like most urban legends, this one has a kernel of truth.  Jensen clarifies the issue by explaining the lineage of the trains involved.

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All Aboard the Hooterville Cannonball! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “Petticoat Junction” (Part 2 of 5)

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

The Emma Sweeny played the Hooterville Cannonball in Petticoat Junction studio scenes shot at General Service Studios, now known as Hollywood Center Studios.  Frequently, these scenes featured characters boarding or getting off the Hooterville Cannonball in front of the Shady Rest.

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Lessons of “The Brady Bunch”

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Like most television shows, The Brady Bunch is a fantasy.  How many families have superstar athletes and iconic entertainers visiting their homes?  Unlike most television shows, The Brady Bunch is a tremendous instructor of life lessons.

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