Monday, December 31, 2012

O Tannen-bomb!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
I can't believe your apogee!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Say hello to Mars for me!

Because you lit the cold dark night,

I'll send you out with rockets' flight
A brief instant before you fall,
you'll be the tallest tree of all

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
I can't believe your apogee!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Say hello to Mars for me!

Not for you some frozen curb,
or buried 'neath the landfill earth
Let the skies be your last sight,
If I can get this fuse to light

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
I can't believe your apogee!

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Say hello to Mars for me!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Paging Dr. McCoy, Dr. Leonard McCoy...

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the chief surgeon of the Enterprise was aghast at the medieval tactics planned by 1984 doctors to repair an injury to a man's brain. They were going to...cut his head open! The enlightened Starfleet doctor used his 22nd century technology to non-invasively heal the brain injury.

Scientists at the University of Michigan many have gone several steps down that road with an invisible "scalpel" made of sound waves. Sound is already used to deal with things like kidney stones, but the new technology allows for even more tightly focused beams -- narrow enough to perform actual surgery or even to manipulate single cells one at a time. The beam can be focused to a point inside the body, meaning that the surgeon would not have to break the patient's skin to perform the needed operation, let alone remove tissue, bones or other organs that might be in the way.

The UMich team hasn't said anything yet about transporters or warp drive, but maybe they're just being cagey.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Guess Who's Getting a Raise!

If you said I am, you're wrong. If you said you are, you might also be wrong, but since I don't know where you work I can't say for sure.

But if you said the federal officials who haven't passed a budget in three years and are currently about to let a combination of expiring tax cuts and drunken sailor spending put a serious damper on a sluggish and anemic recovery, possibly creating another recession?

You'd be right.

You might say that the actual increases are small. But so what? The presence of any increase whatsoever, following such across-the-board dismal performances, is proof that among the many words one may use to describe Washington politcians, "logical" does not appear.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Installment Plan?

A gentleman named Scott Soucy would like every American to pitch in and help pay down our immense national debt.

Mr. Soucy suggests that everyone donate a dollar from every paycheck to the cause. His heart is obviously in the right place, but his head is nowhere near one.  If every American was working (and in addition to infants, children and stay-at-home parents there are more than 20 million of us who are not), then we could raise about $15 or $16 billion dollars in a year. At that rate, we would pay off our current national debt by the early 31st century.

That assumes we wouldn't add any more debt to it, and that's an unwarranted assumption as long as Congress and the President are among those employed. In fact, our deficit grows by $4 billion every day, which means the dollar-a-check donation thing would at maximum impact gather up in a year enough money to keep the government from borrowing anything through Jan. 4. Come the 5th, though, we're out of luck. The project has raised $7 million in the last two years, which the column notes is about three minutes worth of government. About two minutes more than most folks need, in fact, unless we're dealing with a disaster or national emergency.

Again, this is well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective. Beginning in October of 2011, our total debt exceeded our total Gross Domestic Product (the GDP is the market value of all goods and services produced during a certain time. Most often this is measured on an annual basis). That means that if we took every dollar that we made in the U.S. during the year and gave it to the government to pay off the debt, we'd still be short. And plenty hungry, too, since we wouldn't have money to buy food. Then the government would have to put us all on food assistance and balloon the debt again.

A part of what Mr. Soucy suggests is on target. More of us probably need to understand that the government has no money except what it takes from its citizens -- preferably through taxes and fees, although where the rule of law is iffy sometimes it resorts to more direct methods. Pretending that the money the feds spend comes from an inexhaustible source, be it the printing press or the Forbes 500 or whatever else so long as it's not us, is about the only system around even less likely to solve the debt problem than Mr. Soucy's

Thursday, December 27, 2012


According to a man named Samuel Arbesman, half of what you and I know is probably wrong.

This does not mean we are just stupid dunderheads, unless our name is Harry Reid, Michael Moore or Will Ferrell. It means that as science progresses, many of the things we learned when we were studying it in school have been found to be incorrect. New evidence trumps old evidence, new data corrects old data, new discoveries put old understandings in a different light, and suddenly dinosaurs are not cold-blooded ancient lizards but warm-blooded ancient birds and Pluto isn't a planet.

This doesn't necessarily apply to all facts. Arbesman's book, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, doesn't mean to suggest that the change in designation somehow affected Pluto, for example. It's just that our definition of "planet" changed, and thus the "fact" that there were nine planets in our solar system is now wrong. Since that fact was manufactured, so to speak, as a by-product of a way we defined planets, then a change in the definition created a different fact. The number of planets is a different kind of fact than, say the speed of light in a vacuum. The first depends on definition, but the second depends on observation. The first can change on a vote, but the second only by new experiments that show old experiments were wrong.

Arbesman suggests that we stop trying to memorize these kinds of facts, since we can look up the most recent data if we need to know the information and not be at the mercy of outdated knowledge. We can, he suggests, outsource our memories to "the cloud," the name given to all of the data available online. Although his examination of the half-life of "facts" is interesting, the idea that holding knowledge for yourself should be replaced by relying on the internet is a suggestion that is probably best forgotten. Michael Moore would be more reliable, as one could simply take the position 180 degrees opposite from him and be reassured of being right a good 90 percent of the time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Have a Shot of This

A fellow in England was suffering from a particular kind of irregular heartbeat that nothing could fix. So the doctors induced a miniature heart attack designed to kill some of the muscle tissue that was causing the irregularity. Their method? An injection of pure ethanol.

Some doctors expect a rise in reported cases of this kind of arrythmia, as well as a significant rise in home cures: "Honest, officer, this is for medicinal purposes!"

This could also give a new meaning to the phrase, "stout-hearted fellow."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Cut a Little Swath

Of all the hundreds of roles character actor Charles Durning played during his career, it's probably telling that one of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations came for his role as the Governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Durning died Monday at the age of 89.

The fittingness of the nomination comes not from any association between Durning and brothels, but because of his role in the 1982 movie musical, mostly a performance of "The Sidestep," a song in which the Governor details his strategy for staying out of trouble with the press and the voters: "Dance a little sidestep...cut a little swath, and lead the people on." Durning's three minutes and forty-three seconds of song and dance are by far the best of the movie and provide more energy than the other 111 minutes of running time.

It's interesting -- movie co-star Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas" probably gets more airplay than most songs from that soundtrack, unless you count the Whitney Houston version of "I Will Always Love You" released 12 years later. "Hard Candy" gets spun quite a bit by country stations during the Christmas season, maybe because the title -- a phrase poor families used to describe Christmases during hard times when the only gifts children might receive would be hard candies bought from the store -- makes it seem appropriate to the time. But since it's really Parton as the brothel madam and her employees singing about how hard it's going to be now that they won't be sleeping with strange men for money, that propriety seems tenuous at best.

Far more on target to the daily and weekly blather of elected officials about this or that issue or crisis is Durning's ode to political doubletalk. But I guess if radio stations played "Sidestep" every time it was appropriate, we'd get sick of it. There's only so many times a day you want to hear the same song.

See ya round, Governor.

Monday, December 24, 2012


This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Boson Resolutions

As we approach a new year, many folks will make New Year's resolutions about how to make their lives and the lives of people around them better. According to Yale physicist Sarah Demers, the Higgs Boson is no different. Now out of hiding after experiments have more or less identified it, the boson has made some promises for 2013 and beyond.

My favorite is No. 1, because I kind of like the little dig at the idea that finding one particle can explain the entire universe to anyone, let alone the remedial physics masses (as in mass of people, not particles) such as myself.

But at this time of year, No. 5 might be more relevant. Although physicists believe that the Higgs Boson, which creates the Higgs field, gives mass to all subatomic particles, it has said it will not take credit for any mass people gain through overeating. Physicists will be partnering with the Food Network to locate the particle which provides such mass, which has been given the name Bonbon Boson. That name is still up in the air, though, as other physicists are lobbying for the name Chocolate-Covered Quark.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


At our little burg's Wal-Mart the other day, I overheard a couple of gentlemen whose country of origin was very probably India. They were conversing about their golf game, and discussing swing mechanics. In small-town southern Oklahoma, in a Wal-Mart.

I love this country.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Job Switch

So the bill to provide funds to areas hit by Hurricane Sandy is on the Senate's agenda this week.

It includes $150 million for fisheries. In Alaska.

I've changed my mind about the Strategic Helium Reserve. It's exactly the kind of thing I want these clowns running, and keep them away from the important stuff. All of it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Just in time for Christmas, a guide on how to avoid spontaneous combustion can be found at Real Clear Science's Newton Blog.

Although most cases that are thought to be sponaneous combustion -- where a human being just suddenly bursts into flames for no apparent reason -- turn out to be something else, various medical records stretching out over some 2000 years show 150 or so cases in which no other explanation can be found. In other words, those people somehow just blew up.

The problem is that a large percentage of the human body is water, and water doesn't burn well. So for a human body to burst into flame without any help, you need to work out a way around the presence of all that water. Some theories held that another liquid replaced the water, and that liquid was much more flammable. If the right conditions prevailed, then the alcohol could be the source of the burning.

But in 1851, a German scientist pointed out that bodily tissue specimens were usually preserved in solutions that were about 70% alcohol and they didn't catch fire on their own. This is good news for Daytona Beach during Spring Break and Ireland at just about any time of the year.

In a more recent experiment, microbiologist Brian Ford soaked pig tissue in acetone (pig parts are considered to be pretty close to human parts for many purposes, as any fan of Mythbusters can tell you). Acetone is also flammable and these tissues did in fact burn quite nicely. Acetone also mixes with the body's chemicals and can replace water if a person's diet or activities mess with their body chemistry through ketosis, a process that raises our level of ketones, which are acetone substances.

Unfortunately for those Spring Breakers and me auld Irish cousins, excessive alcohol consumption is one activity that can lead to ketosis. So they'd probably better pay attention to those "No Smoking" signs."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Might You Be...Our Neighbor?

We may remember from science class that Alpha Centauri, at four light-years away, is the closest star to the Earth (other than that big one we see during the daytime). The spate of exoplanet discoveries in the last 20 years or so has yet to find a habitable planet circling that star, but recently a potentially habitable world was found orbiting a near neighbor, the star Tau Ceti. It's only 12 light-years away.

A "light-year," in case you've forgotten, is how far light travels in a year. Given that light ambles along at 186,000 miles per second, you can see that's quite a distance. We actually see these stars not as they are today, but as they were when the light we're looking at started. In other words, we see the way Alpha Centauri looked in 2008, and we see the way Tau Ceti looked in 2000. If anybody lives there, they see us in the same time frames. Such presumed inhabitants remain blissfully unaware of Justin Bieber, and the Tau Cetians enjoy the double good fortune to be unaware of Lady Gaga.

And there's some more weight to the possibility that there might be Tau Cetians, as a planet that's not too different from Earth has been found within the star's "Goldilocks Zone." Planets within such a zone have conditions that could support life like ours -- it's not too hot or too cold, but "just right," hence the name.

If there's such a planet, recent events might make me consider moving there. I don't mean the Newtown school shootings themselves. They are awful and heartbreaking, but we have unfortunately seen evil before and we will see it again.

No, I mean the folks who opine on the shootings, paying attention to them primarily because everybody is paying attention to the shootings and talking about them is a way to get people to pay attention to you. Bread for the World estimates more than 15,000 children die from hunger every day and I can't seem to find much commentary on that from either the "arm the schoolmarms" crowd or the "give up your guns or we'll have the police shoot you" brigade.

Piers Morgan didn't call anyone "unbelievably stupid" over it. Michael Bloomberg didn't demand the president act. John Lott didn't call to arm anyone. Neither did Newt Gingrich. The president didn't say their deaths put the fiscal cliff debate in perspective. And so on.

If there's a place that's twelve years away from any of these jackasses and their commenting kin who can't even wait until the last of the poor dead are buried before preaching from atop their headstones, I can't get there fast enough. I might even find a way to break that 186,000 miles per second mark.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

At the Home Office...

...of the Mayans, those folks whose "Long Count" calendar reaches its end this Friday, folks aren't all that particularly exercised by the possibility.

The people who think something big and bad may happen on Dec. 21, 2012 can't count the Mayan Indians who live in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula among their number. Villagers aren't paying much attention and, as the story notes, most Mayans probably never bothered much with the Long Count calendar. It was mostly the province of priests and astrologers.

The story notes a resort which is issuing million-dollar certificates that can be cashed if the world indeed does end, if you show up at the resort following said end. If you buy one and should have the chance to collect, I would suggest small denominations. You'll probably need the kindling, and the idea that money would be worth anything after civilization collapses is kind of a silly one.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Letter Perfect

As we all learned a long time ago, there are 26 letters in the alphabet. But there might not have been. Here at Mental Floss, they examined a dozen letters that might have made the list but didn't for one reason or another.

It's kind of interesting that the ampersand might have made it as an actual letter, instead of a symbol. Of course, as I remember from reading Beetle Bailey, sometimes the ampersand serves as a letter, appearing in place of the curse words that Sarge speaks as he is stomping Beetle into the ground. But I bet at night, when all the real letters are asleep, the ampersand dreams of an alternate universe in which it takes its rightful place in the pantheon of the 27 letters of the English alphabet.

Keep dreamin' li'l curlicue. You never know what might happen someday.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Forecast is Cloudy

The National Weather Service is going to solicit folks' opinions about how to make their weather alerts more easily understood. No word about whether or not the options include "Getting someone other than the current blow-dried newsmuppets to read them."

(H/T Dustbury)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What You Want Me to Do?

Seen Heard at the gym today: There's a CD player in the weight room area where you can play some of your own music while you work out, if you like (and if it meets fitness center guidelines). The folks pumping some iron today were accompanied by the late Jimmy Reed, which is probably the first time I've ever heard a workout aided by "Take Out Some Insurance," as well as the track referenced in the post title.

Well-played, sir.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Silly Senate?

The retirement of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint has prompted speculation about whom SC Gov. Nikki Haley will appoint to fill his seat until a special election next year.

Among those requesting consideration is comedian Stephen Colbert (pronounced "Col-bear" now, but "Col-burt" when he was an undergraduate at the Beacon of Truth and Enlightenment of the Known Universe, Northwestern University in Evanston, IL).

Now the initial response might be to dismiss Colbert's request out of hand. His qualifications for the office seem at this point to be that he has created a character mocking loudmouth talk show host Bill O'Reilly, a man whose picture is next to the definition of "self-parody" in the dictionary and who also defines, in this case, the phrase "easy target." When Colbert wanted to testify before Congress about immigration, he did so in character and embarrassed the committee that had invited him. Actually handing over the resources of a Senate office to a fellow who might, just might be tempted to use them in unserious ways is not the best of ideas.

On the other hand, it's not like there aren't already a lot of clowns in the U.S. Senate whom no one takes seriously. And if Colbert were selected, that would be the end of his boring television show, because Comedy Central would have to report it as an in-kind campaign contribution and South Carolinians might expect their Senator to be somewhere near the Capitol building instead of in makeup getting ready to go on set.

That's a temptation that could get out of hand, though. Governors everywhere might decide to help out the television viewing public by appointing the members of the all-heat, no-light brigade to serve out unfinished legislative terms. Senator O'Reilly. Representative Matthews. Representative Sharpton. Senator O'Donnell. Senator Hannity. Lieutenant Governor Olbermann (because seriously, there are some folks even the U.S. Senate shouldn't take). Commissioner of Waste Disposal Behar (a lifetime appointment!) Insurance Commissioner Penn (because I think Spicoli was less of an act than he'd like us to believe and because it would be fun watching the numbers make his widdle eyes scrunch up in confusion).

There are hundreds of offices that could be filled by people whom we would then never have to listen to again. You may say that this would create chaos in state and federal government as all of these underqualified dunderheads were put in positions for which they are in no way qualified and in which they are unlikely to succeed. To which I say, how would we notice?

(For those who might wonder why such a post on a day where we have seen evil made real in Connecticut, I have found the internet to be full of ignorant opinions on that subject and do not believe it needs mine).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cerebral Harmonizing

Although musicians playing duets might play different instruments and different notes, they do have to synchronize the time in which the tune is performed.

Which, apparently, means they also synchronize brain waves. A study measuring the brain activity of 32 guitarists performing together on a piece showed that their brain waves began to sybchronize as they played. The researcher thinks that people who perform activities in groups will probably all display this tendency, which means it might also show up on sports teams.

Researchers have announced no plans to study the brain patterns of legislators during a session, or of the cast of The Jersey Shore or the audience of the latest horror movie, even though those are all group activities. This makes sense -- they already know that all zeros are, after all, alike.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

C'mon Ring That Bell!

Some observations that occur in connection with a recent shift ringing the bell at our community's Salvation Army Kettle at Wal-Mart:

1) Gone are the days of the red metal bowl with a wire top. In is a plastic cover with an X-shaped opening in the center and a locked cover. Also in is a lockdown bar to prevent someone from just grabbing the kettle and running away. Ah, brave new world!

2) This Wal-Mart too is equipped with the special magnetic parking signs that keep carts from careening about the lot, as well as the magic paint which won't let carts go outside its lines. This is fortunate, as the cart corrals are an Odyssean fifteen feet from most of the parking spaces.

3) There is an upper age limit for wearing red Christmas leggings under your sweater. And madam, it is lower than you think.

4) I am standing six feet from the exit door; by entering it to avoid the kettle and averting your eyes you are not really "sneaking" past me.

5) I really only said "Hello" to you because greeting people is a part of the role and I'm kind of friendly like that. It's not a guilt trip to make you donate. Go ahead, make eye contact and enter to do your shopping free of the feeling that I am condemning you for not giving. Really, I'm not. There are times when I don't have anything for the bucket either.

6) Heaven between me and being a part of the bell choir; I'd go nuts.

7) Our community has a number of generous people. The top, I think, was the fellow who dug his change out of his pocket and said he was giving because when he had stayed at a shelter he had helped ring the bell once and he figured he should give back.

8) Watching little kids give is cool. And they alone have fingers the right size to actually stuff money through that little opening in the kettle; the Salvation Army should look into that next year.

9) Don't forget to carry some ones with you as you do your Christmas shopping. Knowing that you have given something to help other folks can soothe some of the worst retail nightmare experiences.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shocked at the Gambling

Michael Moore, who makes movies he calls documentaries and who is a former resident of Michigan, is pretty upset that the Michigan legislature and governor are passing a series of "right to work" statutes, the name given to legislation that forbids people from being required to join a union at their workplace.

Moore, in a rant on Twitter (a platform whose 140-character limit leaves him plenty of room to express his thoughts), complained about the laws and declared that anyone who works for him on any movie he makes will have to belong to a union. Otherwise, he will not hire them.

Unlike his movie, Capitalism: A Love Story. Or his show, TV Nation. Of course, he may just find someone else's work and "borrow" it, negating the need to hire anybody.

Preach on, big guy!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hit Your Peak

To the gentleman who, though no longer a high school student, achieved his lifetime high water mark by not behaving well enough to be allowed to stay for an entire high school basketball game. It's when you took a bow on the way out that I realized that I very very very much wanted to be you.


(Some might wonder if I might be worried that this person might read this and learn who I am and take exception to these remarks. I believe the danger is slight.)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Look Up!

One of the most interesting things about this obituary of Sir Patrick Moore, a British astronomer and host of the BBC program The Sky at Night, is the length of time the show has been on the air: 55 years!

Every month since 1957, Sir Patrick would take a half hour to explore an astronomical topic or event. Food poisoning kept him from the July 2004 episode, but other than that one, he hosted every single broadcast.

I guess if television can spend a half an hour every month exploring astronomy it's not as worthless as the success of Chelsea Handler would lead me to believe.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Western Philosophy, Pilgrim

The Philosophy of the Western is a misleading title on an interesting book. For one, it's more like several philosophies instead of just one, as it consists of essays by a variety of authors that reflect on Western movies in light of different philosophical concepts. For another, although there are several characteristics that many Western movies share, they have enough differences that it's tough to pin down "the" philosophy that they rest on.

That being said, the book, edited by Jennifer L.McMahon and B. Steve Csaki and part of "The Philosophy of Popular Culture" series, still provides a lot of food for thought. The best art is about the human condition, and philosophy has as one of its primary tasks reflection upon just that subject. The different authors use some of the better and better-known Westerns as the touchpoints for their work and focus on movies. Television Westerns and books are, with one exception, left out.

Chances are pretty good that the moviemakers involved with these particular titles didn't necessarily think in terms of philosophical schools of thought. But that doesn't mean that some of what they did doesn't fall within those schools. One essay examining the essence of the Western hero uses the way that the two different versions of 3:10 to Yuma describe masculinity and in so doing, show the influence of John Locke on American thought up until the middle of the 20th century. Another uses three iconic John Wayne movies to discuss pragmatism, and others explore the idea of how a society orders itself using the TV series Deadwood and the Sam Peckinpah classic The Wild Bunch.

Not every essay's a hit. Some consume themselves with identity politics and drown in silly deconstructionist verbiage. Western depictions of women and of Native Americans offer a lot of room for reflection, but none of the essays covering those areas actually bothers to reflect. Or if they do, they've thrown in so much postmodern jargon that it's a very dull reflection indeed. An essay about revisionist Westerns by Deborah Knight and George McKnight isn't much more than a name-check of Westerns and philosophical writers.

But enough of the book is interesting to make it worth the read for people who like to 1) Watch movies, especially Westerns and 2) Think about the stuff that they watch.

Friday, December 7, 2012

One of THOSE Days...

Today's date is one you should know -- if you are a U.S. resident, that is. If you are, and you don't, you're kind of missing out on something important.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Don't Look, Ethel!

A headline in today's edition of the local weekly:

"Current Deer Rut Activity at a Glance"

Because more than a glance is, you know, rude to the deer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It's Supply and Demand, Mr. Bond...

There's an interesting discussion here about which James Bond villain has a scheme that makes the most economic sense. It's interesting because not every scheme has to do with making money. Kurt Stromburg in The Spy Who Loved Me wants a nuclear war to destroy the world so he can move humanity to living undersea. Hugo Drax of Moonraker also wants to destroy the world so it can be repopulated with genetically superior people. Economics are not high on their list of priorities.

Some folks say that Auric Goldfinger of Goldfinger, who wants to render the U.S. gold supply radioactive and worthless so his own supply of gold will be worth more, has the most economically sound evil scheme. But the author points out a number of flawed assumptions that would make irradiating the gold supply not nearly the catastrophe Goldfinger thinks it would be.

In the comments, discussion continues about the various evil plots and which one is the most viable. All, however leave out the one factor that makes every such plot an economic loser: You're going up against James Bond. You're doomed, and that just doesn't pass the cost-benefit analysis.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


A very unusual thing happened to me today. After I had my oil changed at a large megastore in a nearby community, I drove home. When I arrived at home and touched my door handle, it fell off in my hand! That's right! Just from touching it! I am checking to see if I have some kind of adverse reaction to green glowing rocks (just in case), but in the meantime I wrote the store's online feedback page to tell them about this mysterious occurrence. We'll see what happens.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Just a Suggestion

To the gentleman who occupied the other elliptical machine tonight at the gym:

It is true that listening to music via headphones makes it difficult to hear other sounds in the room where you are exercising. It does not, however, mean that those sounds go away. That includes the self-encouraging shouts and exclamations you make to get through your workout, which were made at a level that overrode both the television in the room and the headphones used by others.

Your prompt attention to this matter is appreciated.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Melting Pot

So this morning, I picked up my usual Sunday morning breakfast at the doughnut shop. While I was there, an Hispanic woman and her young daughters, apparently on their way to church in a little bit, stopped in to buy their doughnuts. From the nice Vietnamese man whose family owns the shop; they communicated in differently-accented English that was not the first language of either.

In a tiny little burg in southern Oklahoma. I love this country.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

From the Rental Vault: Book-ended Duke

Nearly 30 years separate the John Wayne movies Tall in the Saddle and The Train Robbers -- and the man who made the second is not exactly the same guy who made the first, even though they go by the same stage name and both movies are from Wayne's bread-and-butter ouerve, the Western.

Tall in the Saddle was the second movie of six that RKO Pictures signed Wayne too after his success in Stagecoach put him in the leading man category. RKO's aim was to get as many Wayne vehicles into theaters as fast as possible on the chance that his stardom would be brief, and so they didn't always wait on the most fitting vehicle or the best-written script. Wayne had nothing like the control he would later on, but he had enough clout to pick a story, get it developed and pitch it to RKO, who bit. And he had developed enough understanding of his own strengths as a performer to find a story that brought those out. So Saddle hits a winning combo of cast, crew and script to make one of Wayne's better movies from early in his leading man era (my own personal division of Wayne's career is into cast member, leading man, and icon periods. Stagecoach marks the beginning of that middle period).

Wayne is Rocklin, a stranger who hits town in a stagecoach with a letter from a ranch owner promising him work. But the ranch owner is dead, and the relatives that are taking over the outfit are the naïve young Clara Cardell and her spiteful scheming aunt, Elisabeth Martin. The old woman will have nothing to do with Rocklin -- and he has no fondness for her -- so he takes on a job at another ranch, owned by businessman Harolday but run by his stepdaughter Arly (Ella Raines) who has taken quite the liking to Rocklin. Clara seeks Rocklin's help when it seems her aunt and her lawyer, Robert Garvey (Ward Bond) are conspiring to take the ranch away. Rocklin and his friend Dave ("Gabby" Hayes) have to help Clara and figure out who killed the ranch owner before she loses the ranch and he loses even more.

Since he's not an icon by this point, Wayne actually has a little more freedom with his character than he will have in some later roles. Arly's pinpoint pistol shooting unnerves Rocklin enough to admit he needed the drink he took afterwards, something the later Wayne wouldn't do. Rocklin's charge-ahead tendencies muddy the waters as often as not, and his own stubbornness brings about more trouble than needed to solve everything. He unfortunately never worked with Ella Raines again, robbing audiences of more chances to see the pair work together. The couple provides plenty of spark, but it doesn't all come from the Duke, as Raines is probably one of the best non-Maureen O'Hara leading ladies of his career.

It may have been thrown together for as little as possible as quick as possible, but Tall in the Saddle turned out to be a little gem and probably a good reason Wayne's career kept heading upward.
By contrast, the John Wayne of 1973 had pretty much complete control over what he appeared in and how it looked. He had his own production company and could afford to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. Whether they garnered good reviews or bad, his fans turned out to see the low-profanity, no-nudity old-fashioned-good-guy-wins Westerns that Wayne preferred to make. He played the same character in all of them -- a version of himself, since that was more or less what his public wanted to see.

So there's not much to distinguish the John Wayne of The Train Robbers from the John Wayne of Cahill, U.S. Marshall, or really even from the John Wayne of True Grit or Rooster Cogburn. In Robbers, he's Lane, a kind of wandering adventurer who's agreed to help a woman, Mrs. Lowe, (Ann-Margret) recover the railroad gold her late husband stole and hid. Recovery of the gold will allow her to claim the reward money and put right her husband's reputation for the sake of her young son.

Lane's helped by two old comrades, Jesse (Ben Johnson) and Grady (Rod Taylor), and three younger men who will, by the time the movie's over, get a good schoolin' in what it means to be a man according to the Duke's way of thinking. The party will travel to Mexico, pursued both by the thieves who helped Mrs. Lowe's husband rob the train and by a mysterious loner played by Ricardo Montalban.

There's a little suspense in wondering how the group will survive or if all of them will and how things will all end up, but not much. Audiences didn't pay money to watch John Wayne lose. The movie wisely eschews the idea of a Duke-Ann-Margret romance, with Lane making the obvious remark at one point: "I've got a saddle that's older than you."

Wayne knew his audience and made the movies he wanted to make and the ones they wanted to see, but in so doing he rarely stretched himself as he did earlier in his career. Even though The Alamo was a big-budget flop, it was at least something that came from a creative vision, which Robbers lacks. The disappointment it brings is not that it's a standard John Wayne picture. It's that with all of the creative control at Wayne's command, it should have been that plus something more.