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Essential: THE MECHANIC (1972)

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TopBilled:

When THE MECHANIC was originally released it really underperformed at the box office. Made on a $10 million budget, it only earned back $80,000. Perhaps this was because of the very strongly implied homosexuality between the two main characters played by Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent. 

Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino– whose resume includes other LGBTQIA2S+ stories like THE FOX and THE BROTHERHOOD– claims his original script for THE MECHANIC spelled things out clearly. The gay angle was watered down during production, but is still noticeable in some of the exchanges that take place on screen. One reviewer in 1972 identified the muted sexual orientation of the characters, as if it were a matter of fact.

In one interview Carlino said Steve (Vincent) was supposed to change from using sex to manipulate Arthur (Bronson) to falling in love with him. Not sure if he had a different ending in mind. The way the film ends now, there is a huge betrayal which results in a deadly climax. 

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Charles Bronson was brave to do the film. Others had passed on it, because they were too afraid of the material. One person that turned down the lead in THE MECHANIC was George C. Scott who would not do it unless all references to the homosexual nature of the characters were eliminated. James Coburn’s name was also attached to the project at one point, though his reasons for backing out are not known.

Maybe Bronson felt a need to stretch himself creatively by doing a different type of role. The most striking thing is how casually Bronson plays it. He has accepted the part knowing full well what the story is about, and he plays it honestly. 

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There’s a great scene where they go out on a range to shoot clay pigeons and a lot can be said about the symbolism of them shooting rifles together, where Arthur is teaching his young companion how to improve and “get better” at it. Later when they are facing adversaries on a European mountain, they both put their skills to use– almost as if they are united as a couple, and will blast anyone who opposes them.

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The age difference between Arthur & Steve works to the story’s advantage– a mentoring process takes place and so does a May-December bromance. They are not shown like a father and son. In addition to the symbolism and the bonding, the seeds for betrayal are sewn. Mixed into this are a few martial arts scenes where Arthur takes Steve to watch two men fighting in a gymnasium. 

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Violent rituals surround them. Both actors are remarkably comfortable in their scenes together. It’s a brutal and sexy film. 

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Jlewis:

In the early scenes, I kept asking: how does Charles Bronson’s Arthur Bishop get into peoples’ apartments? Also why does everybody keep their curtains open? I realize society was far less paranoid back then, less cautious with their lives, but this is a bit extreme.

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Also the characters played by Bronson and Keenan Wynn’s Big Harry McKenna are supposedly a good two decades or more apart in age but the actors don’t look that different in age. (In reality, there is just five years or so between them and the movie does cast Bronson’s character as a full seven years younger than he really is, with Arthur’s date of birth shown on screen.)

Then again, a lot of things in mainstream Hollywood movies make no sense to me.

***

McKenna has a son Steve played by Jan-Michael Vincent, who is so hedonistic that he doesn’t wait long after his dad’s funeral to throw a party. Oh…should I also note that Arthur bumped off Big Harry? Steve, in turn, accepts Arthur teaching him the ropes as a junior apprentice “mechanic” killer.

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Yes, this is one of those weird kind of murder stories with nobody being honest with each other. Although Steve confirms it in the end, we wonder how long it will take for him to realize Arthur is his own father’s killer and that his own life is in equal jeopardy.

The body language between these two is all over the place. Sometimes Bronson looks fondly at Vincent as if he is the son he never had. Maybe both can relate with their intense, if very different, father issues? We never learn exactly how Arthur feels about his daddy but obviously Steve hardly bats an eye over the death of his.

Earlier, Harry mocks Arthur about an incident when he was eight and was too afraid to swim…and his own daddy mocked sonny boy in front of him. In contrast, Steve claims to be a good scuba diver, despite us never seeing him do it. Yet both sons follow in their fathers’ profession as Mafia oriented hit-men.

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Nice use of the color red. Seats on the plane are red. Also, Bronson’s red bathrobe is a prominent wardrobe accessory. The very red wine that is poisoned is another highlight, the third wine drink showcased on screen. 

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The Ford Mustang driven by Steve that explodes in the final reel could not be any more scarlet.

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Lots of car explosions. Also a car falling off an Italian cliff in semi-slow motion to resemble some sort of…ballet?

I do like all of the southern California and, later, Italian scenery. We see the Los Angeles Zoo and Pacific Marineland. Curious close-ups of various animals that may or may not add symbolism to the story. Survival of the fittest? Lots of birds and fish featured, displaying the same blank expressions on their faces as Bronson. In another scene, we see a man paint a portrait of his pet leopard. The painting shows the feline crouching over a dead deer…which does not exist outside the painting.

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Death is very much an illusion to these people. Can happen at any moment. Bodies disappear quickly and without much evidence beyond the accidental for appearance sake. It all reminds me of another movie made in 1995 but set in the 1970s: Martin Scorsese’s CASINO covered the years 1973-79 and featured an ominous desert setting outside of Las Vegas where money was often hidden and bodies often disappeared. (THE MECHANIC was filmed a bit earlier, in the winter of 1971-72, but is a good match to the era that Scorsese recreated.) 

A key early scene has Arthur allowing Steve to take charge of the controls in a small plane. Steve displays a bit of his reckless side, since he had never flown one before. Both men are in the profession of killing people and, of course, are unafraid of death themselves since they know nothing in life is permanent, least of all life itself.

Arthur faints at Marineland and almost ”dies.” Something sinister that is exposed later in the story goes on here. Yet we learn that he has no family anymore, long after daddy’s passing. Also no doctor to check in with. Life must not mean much to him, although he has a nice spread with many interesting antiques that will eventually go to somebody after his passing.

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His girlfriend (played by Jill Ireland)…actually, she’s a hired sex worker whom he has no emotional connection with…has many interesting Hollywood posters on the walls. Not sure if this was her place or Arthur’s secondary paid-for home. Includes vintage Mary Pickford and KING KONG. Odd assortment. Maybe I am trying to read too much into this film, but it is all the fault of cameramen Richard Kline and Robert Paynter, along with director Michael Winner, who keep showcasing all of the Little Things as if they really matter.

Speaking of posters and paintings, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch is also showcased a lot. Steve enjoys his earthly pleasures, but a print of it is owned by pleasure-less Arthur. Does Arthur study the painting in order to find Steve’s one vulnerable Achilles’ heel?

Overall I had mixed feelings about this movie and, to be honest, did not particularly like it all that much. It is nonetheless interesting in its style with a heavy emphasis on facial close-ups. What exactly is Arthur thinking at all times?

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Director Michael Winner made many similar crime dramas in England and would later work on Bronson’s DEATH WISH, the blockbuster that made the star a household name. Yet this movie is rather slow in spots and none of the characters are terribly interesting, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about what happened to them in the end. A lot of early seventies films are rather lopsided in their character development, with too much focus on New Hollywood “artsy” appeal and there is often a certain dullness compared to films made a decade earlier and afterward, when filmmakers were more concerned about viewers actually liking the characters.

Yet I did enjoy the semi-surprising ending, despite sensing it ahead of time. At least it was a better ending than John Huston’s later PRIZZI’S HONOR which lets Jack Nicholson go due to his star power.

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Essential: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)

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TopBilled:

I am not familiar with all of Clint Eastwood’s films of the 1970s. I found THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT a few months ago on Starz streaming. There was no picture for it on the Starz movies page. So I clicked on it thinking it was going to be a western, since it seemed like a good title for a western. Boy was I wrong!

Instead THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is an action/road comedy with crime elements. Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges play the title characters.

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It was made in 1973 and released in 1974 by United Artists (the last film Eastwood ever did for the independent studio). Supposedly the character names and title come from the Universal adventure film CAPTAIN LIGHTFOOT (1955) starring Rock Hudson. (Hudson’s costar Jeff Morrow played Thunderbolt.) It was director Michael Cimino’s favorite film as a kid.

While referencing classic adventures of yesteryear, Cimino likes to connect all his characters with the sky and with the earth. He does this a lot in HEAVEN’S GATE. It’s one of his trademarks as a director.

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Clint Eastwood originally planned to direct THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT but then decided to let Cimino do it. Cimino wrote the script and chose what its subject and themes would be. 

After watching, I read some user reviews on the IMDb. One person, whose father is now deceased, loves the film but says his father hated it because of its homoerotic undercurrent. Another person, in another write-up, called it a precursor to THELMA & LOUISE, which if you recall had a lesbian undercurrent.

Are these buddy movies really movies about LGBT characters? Or are they mostly straight but made to be read in other ways by different audiences?

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Re: the famous scene where Jeff Bridges dresses in drag…the character comes up with the idea all on his own, which leads us to wonder if he’s dressed like this before. It’s part of his “disguise” for the heist.

There’s a scene where he’s just finished dressing and he’s putting lipstick on in front of a mirror. The way he looks at himself is narcissistic. In an interview, Bridges said it was a mind-blowing experience…he claimed it’s like you become your sister in those moments. Supposedly his father Lloyd and brother Beau kidded him endlessly about it.

The on-location on-the-run scenes remind me of THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. The print on Starz was uncut. Some IMDb reviewers have complained that it’s edited for commercials when it airs on TBS or AMC. I think it’s in need of restoration. It has a yellowed look to it, unless that was the intention of the cinematographer? But I don’t think so.

Here’s a more recent photo of Eastwood and Bridges:

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Jlewis:

Only five minutes in, we get two great action set-pieces. Clint Eastwood as Thunderbolt poses as a preacher at a rural church with a congregation deeply focused on his sermon. Then he suddenly becomes a target for invading assassin Red Leary (George Kennedy) as the rest of the church clears out in panic.

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He does not get so much as a bullet haze, probably because Red is such a lousy shot. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges as Lightfoot convinces a used car dealer that he has a wooden leg so he can steal a brand new Pontiac under him. Yup, this film opens like Gangbusters.

Two con artists, a hustler and a bank robber, team up and get a bromance going. Ladies of the evening (Catherine Bach plays one and June Fairchild the other…I think) are involved just so you know that it is strictly…bromance…between the two.

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The constantly smiling Lightfoot somehow manages to keep his trousers white without any Clorox seen on screen. The boy looks like he belongs on a golf course.

A few quirky incidents happen early on before this comedy crime caper gets much more serious. They change cars by high jacking an older couple’s Buick Riviera at a gas station, attended by hilariously grouchy Dub Taylor in a bit role. The two later hitch a ride with a real loony bin with a gun, a raccoon in a cage and a trunk full of Easter bunnies that he wants to make into bunny stew (but I don’t think any bunnies got hurt during filming).

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It is later revealed that Kennedy’s Red is a former gang member with Thunderbolt who felt double crossed but also has an obsession for him that is quite bizarre at times. After he and his comrade Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis playing the part fitting the name) manage to hold the two hostage, we then get the trademark Eastwood fist fight with Kennedy and our bromance now becomes a foursome.

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Not that Red is happy about sharing Thunderbolt with Lightfoot since the two of them ”go way back” to their Korea days. Lightfoot teases Red for his homophobia with a mocking hand-over-mouth kiss and, as they say, payback is a b**ch.

Later Lightfoot must dress in drag as part of their job and Red is not so subtle in his reactions. Oh…should I also add that Red is still a virgin? He watches a couple (heterosexual) having sex with great fascination before roping them up accordingly. Oh yes, Red is worth plenty of psycho-examining and George Kennedy plays it all with great gusto.

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The basic plot revolves around loot that Thunderbolt’s gang previously stole that is hidden in a one room schoolhouse, but a new school has been built where the old one once was, complicating the situation. In order to get Red from killing him, Thunderbolt convinces them to try robbing the same place with a different set-up to gain all new funds.

Beforehand, they all take on odd jobs, which I guess involve desperate employers who have little concern about past criminal records. Thunderbolt even forgets to include his social security number after he has already gotten his welding position. Lightfoot gets to be a landscaper, which suits him well since he favors the great outdoors.

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The Frosty ice cream gig is a clever one for the other two who would have made an amusing Stan and Ollie duo had the character of Red not been written to be so sadistic.

The robbery scenes are well staged, but I didn’t find them any more special than the great many we have seen before in such films like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and RIFIFI. A few highlights involve Thunderbolt posing as a cop bringing ”criminal” Red in to headquarters and I wasn’t clear how he found the uniform.

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Lightfoot does his drag routine to distract and rope up a Western Union guard who spends his boring work hours reading naked girlie mags. The police catch up with them at a movie drive-in and there is that standard chase involving plenty of dented chrome, resembling chases in oh-so-many seventies films (more in that decade than any other, although the much later THELMA & LOUISE would certainly boast one of the biggest).

Regarding the chrome, I should add that Red’s personal car in this movie is a 1951 Mercury coupe, which I reckon is the same one he had when he started his career in crime and, therefore, hadn’t been doing well enough to get a newer model. Older vehicles play interesting roles here along side all of the vintage ’73 ones (i.e. filming ended just before the ’74 crop emerged from Detroit that September).

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Our two leads hitchhike on an old rundown ’33 truck, which symbolizes the Great Depression and their state of mind in that moment. Thanks to the miraculous twist of fate, we see them later in a brand new Cadillac.

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Endings are not always happy ones and, as we all know, crime does not…always…pay for those involved. Eddie suffers a million dollar wound but does not survive like Forrest Gump. Since Red is so downright nasty, his fate is the bloodiest and even involves one of the stars of THE DOBERMAN GANG franchise.

Paul Williams sings as a personal ode to Thunderbolt in closing, ”Where do I go from here?” Earlier his junior buddy tells Mister Ten Years Too Late, ”If you stick with me, kid, you’re gonna live forever.”

Hot from his success in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, Jeff Bridges got Oscar nominated in a supporting role, which is curious since he is top-billed and takes up almost equal screen time as Eastwood.

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He pretty much plays himself, even commenting on the steel head bass when they ride a boat through Rocky Mountain waters. It was if the star was eager for recreation and wildlife viewing once the cameras stop rolling. From what I gathered in reading, the two leads didn’t get along all that great, with Eastwood feeling upstaged.

I think Jeff was perfectly fine with Clint if not the other way around. Apparently the Big Box Office Star was not happy with way United Artists was promoting them all so his Malpaso quickly stopped using United Artists as a distributor and stuck mostly with Warner Brothers and Universal afterward. It is one of Eastwood’s rare semi-comedy roles and he does not look happy in this genre.

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Lots of great Idaho and Montana footage. Director Michael Cimino and cameraman Frank Stanley love their mountain shots. Cimino would show plenty more in THE DEER HUNTER and HEAVEN’S GATE regardless if any mountains were even found in the states they were set.

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Are these buddy movies really movies about LGBT characters? Or are they mostly straight but made to be read in other ways by different audiences?

One can debate this, but this is my take.

This movie reminded me a lot of EASY RIDER with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in that its makers took the "easy" way out by answering that question right away. Early on, we get the two "ladies of the evening" entertaining our fellows, although curiously Thunderbolt doesn't seem as enthusiastic about the one he is presented with as Lightfoot is with his. None-the-less it is implied that, like the soldiers in so many war movies, these two are only "into" women and make due with paid services during times when wives and "sweethearts back home" are not available. (As long as a man is straight, it does not matter how he gets "it" since he is not judged by the same society standards as a woman. Then again, the times were changing in 1970s entertainment and we were beginning to see independent women not suffer punishment for doing things out of wedlock as well, post women's liberation.) In the case of EASY RIDER, you get the impression that the two hippies could be perfectly satisfied with each other and not need any women in their lives, except that we get two prominent scenes: #1.) the only time we see them remove their clothing and actually clean themselves is in a skinny dipping scene involving girls and #2.) Jack Nicholson's George, a lawyer who keeps them out of trouble in other ways, takes them to New Orleans to get... what else?... "ladies of the evening".

In the upcoming THELMA & LOUISE, we get echoes of all of this again with Brad Pitt's character arriving to take care of Thelma's "needs" and Louise's ex-boyfriend visiting to not JUST provide money for them. Therefore, these two men replace the necessary   "ladies of the evening" in EASY RIDER and THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT.

Now... FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, of course, is different in that one of the leads in the flashback story only has sex with one man and his is very abusive of her. His purpose there is to make sure Buddy Junior is born. Otherwise, no men are needed by the two characters in question since the other never showed any interest in men in general.

On another note, so much psychology can be read about George Kennedy's "virginal" and violently homophobic Red. Is he trying to control certain attractions he has for Lightfoot? Why is he so jealous of him being involved with Thunderbolt? Not that it matters in the end. Red suffers the same fate as so many "gay" characters in so many movies prior to BOYS IN THE BAND. He must die! (Ditto: the only same sex kissing scene we get in THELMA & LOUISE happens right before they... well, you know. We won't spoil it further, will we?)

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Essential: THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

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TopBilled:

The previous two weeks we looked at partner-in-crime road pictures that featured male characters. The next two weeks we will look at partner-in-crime road pictures with female characters. In some ways the female versions are reactionary, trying to settle a score with their male counterparts…and that is to their detriment. But these films are still highly entertaining, if not completely satisfying.

With THELMA & LOUISE, the two lady buddies are played by Geena Davis (as Thelma) and Susan Sarandon (as Louise). The actresses canceled each other out that year at the Oscars, but both give extraordinary performances and navigate a tricky script with courage and finesse.

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Davis’ character is the more downtrodden one in the beginning, trapped in a loveless marriage to a salesman; while Sarandon’s character has a bit more independence outside the home, working as a waitress at a local greasy spoon. Sarandon had also played a waitress in WHITE PALACE and specializes in working class women.

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Because Thelma starts as the more timid one, she will perhaps evolve the most. Louise will grow during their adventure, but often she is assigned the protector/mother role and that does get a bit repetitive. The plot is pretty basic: the ladies go off for a little adventure and something happens outside a bar. Thelma is sexually assaulted and the perpetrator is shot, so the women go on the run. They don’t think anyone will believe their story, and a series of contrived escapades take place as they flee down the open road.

I think it is a little too convenient and feminist that rape is what spurs them on their merry way. Again, it is reactionary and a form of sexual politics. Why couldn’t they just have witnessed a murder, or been privy to information about a crime like Whoopi Goldberg in SISTER ACT. Did one of them actually have to be victimized by a man in order for them take off like bats out of hell?

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The outdoor scenery is poetic, which one would expect. And there is an assortment of oddball characters they meet while traveling, which one would also expect. Thelma has a sex-capade with a hunk played by Brad Pitt, which I didn’t find believable since it came too soon after the incident at the bar. Also, the women don’t appear to have much of a plan except to drive and drive until they run out of resources or at least run out of gas.

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Harvey Keitel is in this movie, as one of the cops that chases after the two women. He is presented as considerably more sympathetic than his fellow officers, though I wonder if that is because Keitel was trying to dilute some of the sexist stereotypes in the script. All this hot pursuit leads to a tragic ending without much of a denouement. But to prevent us from feeling too melancholy, there is some upbeat music that plays over the end credits. 

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Jlewis:

Famous quote for the ages by Louise: ”You shoot off a guy’s head with his pants down, believe me, Texas ain’t the place you want to get caught.” Thus, our ladies on the run travel from Arkansas to Mexico by way of Oklahoma, New Mexico and even Arizona.

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This road pic to end all road pics was one of the biggest blockbusters in its day. I remember the atmosphere in the theater when I saw it for the first time with others in the audience cheering along with the lead characters played by Geena Davis (her Thelma a.k.a. ”Look out, ’cause my hair is coming down!” is listed first in the title but she starts out as the passive follower of the duo, then takes charge after robbing a convenience store) and Susan Sarandon (Louise being the rational George Milton role in our Steinbeck-ish setting, but she can only stay that way as long as she has enough cigarettes keeping her calm).

I guess there weren’t enough ladies getting revenge set-pieces prior to this time and this one’s timing was perfectly placed. One particular lady leaving the theater told me she was eager to watch it all again because it relaxed her so much, getting her over so much angst.

Viewers today probably won’t find it nearly as thrilling as many more recent fare since, in some areas, it is a museum piece reflecting its age.

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Filmed in the summer of 1990, you don’t see cell phones about (but phone booths are plentiful as I wish they still were) and it is obvious there is no internet yet. The way the police investigate is downright primitive compared to the many TV investigation dramas we have now. The overall feel is more of a seventies film than a nineties film in spirit, being closer to the immediate post-EASY RIDER era and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. Except that virtually all of these earlier efforts featured men

A key to its success was due to so many elements lifted from past hit movies and these being the very best elements worth repeating. BONNIE & CLYDE is the most obvious inspiration, right down to several key lines practically re-quoted word for word. Intriguingly there are also cute references to Hitchcock’s otherwise unrelated NORTH BY NORTHWEST (joke about too many parking tickets, a crop dusting plane ”viewing” the ladies in their car and a tanker truck blows up, but not by a plane but by the ladies’ gun).

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The Utah footage posing as Arizona brings back memories of several John Ford westerns. A climactic series of police car crashes towards the end even displays the comic touch of Mack Sennett.

Have to bring up the music too, including several oldies of decades past. However Glenn Frey’s “Part of Me, Part of You” is only as old as the movie itself, despite being such a mainstay of car radio stations. The lyrics sum up the plot: ”We can never know about tomorrow / Still we have to choose which way to go / You and I are standing at the crossroads / Darling, there is one thing you should know / You`re a part of me, Im a part of you.”

In a way, this movie is a love story, but strictly of the emotional kind. Although it got fleeting reference in THE CELLULOID CLOSET, everybody behaves heterosexually here just like the forest critters in BAMBI. Heck, Thelma getting assaulted by a man does not stop her from twitterpating with hoodlum Brad Pitt’s J.D. No doubt the famous girl/girl kiss scene at the end startled a few pearl-clutchers in those innocent days leading up to BASIC INSTINCT, but it happens just before the duo drive the ’66 Ford Thunderbird into the canyon!

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Yes, I just spoiled the ending. It is one very iconic ending that has been both honored and parodied in the decades since. Maybe not the most original since Bonnie and Clyde died together as well, among countless others who must learn that crime does not pay regardless of the cause.

Actually the original rough cut ending was more graphic and probably too downbeat for a mainstream release. It featured B.B. King’s appropriately titled ”Don’t Look Down” as we see the car literally smash into the canyon in slow motion, followed by a frustrated Harvey Keitel’s Hal looking upset as if he was somehow personally responsible for their own demise. Instead we get a montage of our heroines enjoying the vacation of their lives as they enter the after life, a key reason why my fellow moviegoer was so eager to watch it all again. At the Oscars in ’92, Geena questioned Susan if they even died in their movie!

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The DVD is worth a watch due to other deleted scenes as extras, although you may find them scattered on YouTube. Another cut sequence shows Harvey’s Hal asking his wife if she would kill a man as their two teenage daughters are carrying on as juvenile Thelmas and Louises. Her response: only in self defense. This convinces him that Louise did the same too. Later Hal learns that she was assaulted when living in Texas and this caused her to shoot Thelma’s assaulter.

One scene I wish they had also kept in the final cut involved a lengthy conversation between Louise and her boy friend James (Michael Madsen), who gives her an engagement ring after he catches up to the ladies with the cash Louise requested. We do get the ring in the final version, but not a lot of explanation covering it. Originally she cross questions him how long he had held on to it, accusing him for waiting until she was drifting away for him to make that last ditch effort to get her back.

With Thelma and her husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald), the problems are more obvious. He is a self-centered workoholic addicted to sports on TV.

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So many men think they are number 1 in this movie, but I feel director Ridley Scott and writer Calie Khoun lay it all too thick at times. Aside from the cruel Harlan (Timothy Carhart) who is the murder victim prompting the plot to move forward, other men morph into cardboard sexist pigs.

Thelma occasionally does her own payback by commenting on Brad Pitt’s behind and, in a cut scene, macho biker boys to compensate for the way men often judge ladies as meat on the rack. Inevitably the police investigators who take over Darryl’s house all joke in boys will be boys locker room banter.

One curious character is Stephen Tobolowsky’s Max whom I suspect is gay coded since he seems to have no interest in women, unlike every other male on screen, but is nonetheless obsessed with reeling in these two particular women.

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The scene of the cop (Jason Beghe) locked up in the patrol car trunk was always one I found to be an overkill here, contrasting with the trucker’s blow-up that feels a bit more justified (but also over the top). Of course, I always laugh over Thelma’s excuse: ”I swear three days ago neither one of us would’ve ever pulled a stunt like this, but if you’d ever meet my husband you’d understand why” and Louise’s constant apologizing.

We learn he has a wife and children as he sobs and, even though he was merely doing his job, he suffers the most agony when some slacker, who is curiously the only African American we see in the whole picture, blows smoke into the holes of the trunk rather than rescuing him right away.

According to Wikipedia, this was the last film to get Oscar nominations in the same category by its lead actresses, each cancelling the other out so that Jodie Foster could win for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. It is hard to believe that Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer were the first picks. During its long pre-production period, Meryl Streep was also considered. Yet the resulting film would have been a very different one indeed.

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Essential: FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (1991)

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I initially watched this film at a theater in Huntington Beach, California with my father. He was particularly affected by the Ninny Threadgoode character, due to Jessica Tandy’s performance. When I was enrolled at the USC School of Cinema-Television (which has since been renamed), I remember a fellow student in one of my film classes talking about the lesbianism in the story, which is muted to some extent but certainly evident.

Another film came out in the early 90s that also featured plenty of cooking scenes, and that was COMO AGUA PARA CHOCOLATE (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE). In these tales, the foods consumed by the main characters are a big deal and often, recipes are provided. Perhaps some readers have tried frying a batch of fresh green tomatoes? Personally, I have never tasted them.

Food and Wine Digital

Back to the movie…This morning I read Roger Ebert’s review, and he did not like the flashback structure. He felt the flashbacks were a gimmick and said the present day scenes were a distraction from the main story which takes places in the 1920s. However, Ebert was willing to praise Tandy and costar Kathy Bates for fleshing out believable characters in the modern-day scenes.

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Fannie Flagg’s book, upon which the movie is based, runs over 400 pages. Flagg had been a fairly out lesbian for years, when she published the book in 1986. The cafe in the book is based on an actual cafe outside Flagg’s hometown in Alabama. The eatery was run by Flagg’s aunt, but I have no idea if the real-life aunt was a lesbian like Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) is suggested to be in the book.

The Whistle Stop Cafe in the book is in Alabama. But for some unknown reason, the cafe in the movie is said to be located in Georgia. Is this because racism, the novel’s other main theme, was more prevalent in Georgia in the 1920s?

One thing Ebert misses when he dismisses the modern-day portion of the story, is that Flagg was not only commenting on relationships between women in the past, but also how they relate and age together in the present.

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Bates’ character Evelyn Couch (strange last name) is undergoing menopause, while Tandy’s character, Ninny (who has the same last name as Idgie, the girl in the 1920s) is experiencing signs of physical deterioration due to old age.

In the book, Ninny dies when Evelyn is away on a trip. But in the movie she does not die and in fact goes to stay at the Couch home in the end, where her last days will be happy.

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Jessica Tandy made this film a short time after DRIVING MISS DAISY (which we will review in September), and she had also been playing lovable old ladies in films like COCOON and BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED. She was typecast at this point of her career. These roles were a far cry from her Broadway triumph as Blanche Dubois in the original staging of Streetcar and her role as the possessive mother in THE BIRDS.

An interesting side note: a television series based on the book and movie is currently in development at Universal. Reba McEntire will be starring and serving as one of the executive producers. I would imagine she’s going to take Bates’ role.

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Jlewis’ review, which follows, goes into more detail about the racism plot that occurs in the story. I find it very routine and predictable that working class white men are the villains, as if they’d be the only prejudiced ones in the south. We get the standard Klux imagery. There is even an element of cannibalism (which also featured in the remake of CAPE FEAR around this time). I think the way they dispose of the evidence re: the murder of Ruth’s husband is inspired by a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where Barbara Bel Geddes served evidence to the police in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter.’

While many aspects of FRIED GREEN TOMATOES are not original, the story does have a certain quaint charm and it’s nice to see how Flagg captures people from two specific eras. Harper Lee was a fan of Flagg’s book and compared Idgie to Huck Finn. I am not sure I’d go that far, but Idgie does have an adventurous nature. Incidentally, Idgie and Ninny are two different people in the book, but in the film, it is suggested they are the same person.

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Jlewis:

The 1990s was a golden decade for story within a story movies, featuring a narrator or storyteller relating his/her past experiences with other characters long gone. These had always been around and I can instantly think of several Bette Davis weepies done in her Warner days fitting the mold perfectly like ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, but apparently moviegoers towards the end of the century were hungrier than usual for this particular type of entertainment.

Two of these, FORREST GUMP and TITANIC, were blockbuster Oscar winners while another, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, became one of the great sleeper hits of TV syndication. In fact, virtually all of them are still frequently aired on small screens today, long after their theatrical runs on the big ones. They are exactly the kind of material that many trapped-at-home viewers love to watch as therapy of sorts. Two other examples, farther down the totem pole in prestige, are THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and THE NOTEBOOK, the latter technically released as a movie in 2004 but written as a book in 1996 and, therefore, still a product of the previous decade.

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FRIED GREEN TOMATOES is probably the archetype example and among the best of the bunch. Universal promoted it with the two consecutive Best Actress Oscar winners in the present day story telling a story part. Kathy Bates, who won hers for MISERY three months before principal photography began, plays shy housewife Evelyn Couch visiting an Alabama nursing home with her husband Ed (Gailard Sartain).

There she has a chance encounter with Ninny Threadgoode, played by the previous winner (for DRIVING MISS DAISY) Jessica Tandy, who is staying there herself for a longer duration (her claim is to look after old Mrs. Otis). The story telling just begins off the cuff, much like Forrest Gump telling his story to anonymous strangers at a bus stop, but Evelyn is far more entranced by it all than Forrest’s ever changing audience. She eagerly comes back many times for ”what happened next?”

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We flash back to 1920 (and movie anachronism buffs will catch ”My Blue Heaven” on the soundtrack seven years before it was recorded…oops!) and little Idgie a.k.a. Imogene Louise the tomboy kid (Nancy Moore Atchison is the child actress here) is having family turmoils at a sister’s marriage, not wanting to wear the fancy dress.

However, brother Buddy (Chris O’Donnell) has a way with her in their strong emotional bond, stronger than what she will ever have with any other male in her life. Buddy is infatuated with Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and the two are engaged. That is, until a horrible fate involving Buddy getting his foot stuck in a train track and the engineer not seeing him in time. Idgie is traumatized for life.

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Jump ahead 12 years and we catch up with her in her twenties (Mary Stuart Masterson) carrying around with the rough necks of town and prim-and-proper Ruth coming to fetch her for her mother’s sake. Continuity freaks may ponder how actress Parker does not age in a dozen years. A tight relationship evolves between the eccentric ”bee tamer” and the more reserved reverend’s daughter (and Ruth’s daddy is delightfully hammed up with great enthusiasm by Richard Riehle).

It is not clear why exactly Ruth agrees to marry the physically abusive Frank Bennett (Nick Searcy) in the first place. Perhaps because it is what all respectable women must do?

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Yet she soon learns of her mistake and it is Idgie who dramatically rescues her like her Knight in Shining Armor. After the two set up the Whistle Stop Café with family money and cater to the residents, even offering free food to a hobo named Smokey (Tim Scott), the evil Frank decides to come back to kidnap his son Buddy Junior, only to…disappear without a trace.

We get a mystery here that later becomes a big courtroom drama resolving nothing in the end, a curious answer that may or may not be true is provided by Ninny later in present time. More intriguingly, this story follows the tradition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, PLACES IN THE HEART and other Depression Era South period pieces in showcasing the race relations back then.

The evil Frank is a seedy member of the Klan, which makes us all the more willing to see him bumped off. The deputy (Gary Basaraba as Grady Kilgore) tries to con Idgie in using her cook Big George (Stan Shaw) as a scapegoat suspect for murder, but George is family to her and she stubbornly stands her ground.

Ninny’s story profoundly impacts Evelyn’s sense of self worth and confidence, highlighted by her memorable ”Towanda” parking lot incident.

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This is another trademark of many story within a story movies of the 1990s. For example, BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY has Meryl Streep’s Francesca at first shocking her grown up children with a posthumous letter detailing a secret affair but they ”find themselves” in the process as she reads it from the grave. TITANIC has Gloria Stuart’s aging Rose getting a relentless shipwreck investigation crew to finally ”get” the full magnitude of the great ship tragedy.

The original book by Fannie Flagg makes it clear that Ninny was a friend and adopted member of the Threadgoode family who married Idgie’s other (only fleetingly seen on screen) brother Cleo. Yet the movie decides to suggest something different: Ninny and Idgie just…might…be the same person. Not that it is spelled out and fans of the book can still view it as semi-faithful to the original.

When Evelyn decides to take Idgie to live at her place after her old house is condemned and torn down, they visit the cemetery where somebody has left a honey jar at Ruth’s marker and Ninny gives a cute little hint that Idgie is ”still alive.”

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It is interesting to note that the author herself co-wrote the screenplay with Carol Sobieski and, therefore, had creative control that most authors don’t have with Hollywood adaptations. However there has been some criticism of Flagg, a proud lesbian herself, and director Jon Avnet for downsizing the relationship between Idgie and Ruth from potential lovers to merely friends in order to please a major movie studio that was unsure of how such material would succeed at the box-office.

The tie between them, therefore, is like that of THELMA & LOUISE, being more of an emotional, sisterly one. Yet we still get the sensual kitchen scene as the two apply food on each other and the one man interrupting the scene, Grady, has no impact on the two. Ruth tried marriage once but Idgie remains a bachelorette. That is, if she and Ninny are not the same character as stated in the original book, since Ninny tells Evelyn that she herself later gave birth to a son who died young.

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Although the four actresses are the ones who provide the main story, the supporting cast is all excellent. This includes the two child performers playing the younger Idgie and Grayson Fricke as Buddy Junior, who survives the dangerous train but his arm does not. In the present day scenes, Constance Shuman provides comic relief as a fellow patron to the women’s marital therapy group who informs ”I can’t even look at my own vagina!” Evelyn at the supermarket what hotsy totsy topic their next session will be all about.

Then we have…eww, eww, eww…Raynor Scheine’s wonderfully despicable performance as the very sleezy Georgia investigator, ever relentless in his search for the missing Frank but is eagerly consuming the evidence he is searching for!

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I especially love-love-love Cicely Tyson, whose quiet but dedicated Sipsey is perhaps the most important component to the overall mystery of what happened to Frank. She has two of the most memorable lines: ”The secret’s in the sauce” and ”You know, Miss Ruth was a lady and a lady always knows when to leave.“

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The sets from this movie are still standing, but not on the Universal lot in California. Although set in Alabama, the location is close to Atlanta in very rural Juliette, Georgia. Both the railroad and the café are still there, the still functioning restaurant is actually a former general store built way back in 1927 and most appropriate for the setting of our story. Robert and Jerie Lynn Williams have maintained it after the success of the movie. Unfortunately I visited one morning before it was open so, no, I did not have any green fried tomatoes there.

More info here: https://www.exploregeorgia.org/juliette/arts-culture/cultural-trails-tours/the-whistle-stop-cafe

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Although the location of the primary buildings used for filming is in rural Georgia, not far from Atlanta, the movie (not the book apparently) is pretty hazy about its own setting. In one brief scene, Grady (Gary Basaraba) makes a derogatory comment about police investigators coming from Georgia, a next-door state. This rules Georgia out, but makes Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and both Carolinas all candidates since they all touch Georgia. Perhaps there was some attempt not to upset modern day citizens of each state of their not-so-racially-accepting history? Granted, we see the modern day settings with a mix of races getting along fine, so all of the triple K scenes and so forth are, of course, stuck in The History and not The Present. All of these states have equally dark pasts. This reminds me of the situation when I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and THEY WON'T FORGET were put out by Warner Bros. so many decades earlier and did not spell out the southern states in question, so as not to rock the boat and hurt business.

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12 hours ago, Jlewis said:

Although the location of the primary buildings used for filming is in rural Georgia, not far from Atlanta, the movie (not the book apparently) is pretty hazy about its own setting. In one brief scene, Grady (Gary Basaraba) makes a derogatory comment about police investigators coming from Georgia, a next-door state. This rules Georgia out, but makes Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and both Carolinas all candidates since they all touch Georgia. Perhaps there was some attempt not to upset modern day citizens of each state of their not-so-racially-accepting history? Granted, we see the modern day settings with a mix of races getting along fine, so all of the triple K scenes and so forth are, of course, stuck in The History and not The Present. All of these states have equally dark pasts. This reminds me of the situation when I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and THEY WON'T FORGET were put out by Warner Bros. so many decades earlier and did not spell out the southern states in question, so as not to rock the boat and hurt business.

Thanks for this comment about where the cafe is set in the movie. Maybe it was cheaper to film in Georgia?

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I have to mention something about the subplot where Evelyn Couch goes on a self-improvement kick. We have scenes where she is exercising and trying to lose weight. When I was in college, my roommate and I went to see a staging of Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theater in downtown Los Angeles. We met another couple, and after the show we went to a steak house in Malibu for a late supper. During the dinner, the guy in the other couple started talking about his job. He was a trainer to the stars. He mentioned that Kathy Bates was one of his clients, because she was trying to get in shape for an upcoming role.

So while working class Evelyn Couch had to exercise on her own, wealthy movie star Kathy Bates had a personal trainer.

***

Another comment I want to make is while the Towanda scene is fun to watch and has inspired a lot of memes, I find it very unrealistic. Why would Evelyn have more insurance just because she's older? Couldn't the younger women have just as much insurance, even if their premiums were higher due to their age? Someone might have better insurance, but would they necessarily have more insurance? Car insurance is car insurance.

Plus if Evelyn goes on acting this way, her insurance premiums would go up and what would her husband say? It's also unrealistic that nobody called the cops on Evelyn for ramming her car into the vehicle owned by the other women. Pure fiction. I always thought that was one of the most illogical scenes in the movie.

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The only reason why I remembered that the story does not take place in Georgia even though it was filmed there was on account of that sly critical comment about the state spoken by a major character on screen. However it is an easy scene to forget and, therefore, you are never sure exactly where this whole story takes place, except "somewhere" in The South. Yet I feel like the critical remark is a bit like biting the hand that feeds you, since the Georgia residents were agreeable to supply the filming locations. As to why it wasn't filmed in Alabama instead, well... that is Hollywood for you. Steven Spielberg favored North Carolina for the filming of THE COLOR PURPLE and was forced to "color" the grounds to match Georgia's distinctive red clay as described in the novel.  Go figure.

I totally agree about the Towanda sequence. Plus it isn't the kind of thing we would expect Evelyn to do: destroying another person's property like that.  Maybe the "hormones" really did impact her brain? I only recall the car insurance companies being more tolerant towards female drivers than male drivers back in the 1980s but that certainly wouldn't help this particular situation. We just have to chuck it as "movie license". Sort of like the whole ridiculous premise of THE STEPFORD WIVES (a.k.a. so many brainy women allowing themselves to become robots with only Katharine Ross and her buddy being concerned) and the fact that Pinocchio successfully breaths underwater along with Jiminy Cricket during their search for Monstro the whale, yet still "drowns"after saving Geppetto, Figaro and Cleo. He had to, of course, in order for the Blue Fairy to revive him and make him a real boy, I guess.

If you re-watch that sequence (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lx0z9FjxP-Y), you may notice how affectionate the two younger ladies in question are as they leave for the grocery. A couple in love? Is the insurance comment in reference to her having a husband helping her pay the bills?

 

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Our theme this month is Small Screen Medical Drama. Our focus will be St. Elsewhere the acclaimed series that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988. It was never a huge ratings hit, but was a darling with critics…though the real reason the show lasted so long is because it did well in the key 18-49 demographics that advertisers covet.

All six season of St. Elsewhere may currently be seen on Hulu. There is a long-running story arc that Jlewis and I will discuss which covers 20 episodes. (Each episode is 44-46 minutes long.) This arc is about the downfall of resident physician Peter White, played by Terence Knox. Of course Jlewis and I will also be mentioning the various subplots that are included in these particular offerings.

There are five weekends in July, and here is our schedule:

July 2: Drama Center / Attack
July 3: After Dark / Equinox
July 9: Cramming / Rough Cut
July 10: Two Balls and a Strike / Strikeout
July 16: Breathless / My Aim Is True
July 17: Fade to White / Sweet Dreams
July 23: Up on the Roof / Any Portrait in a Storm
July 24: Red White Black and Blue / Amazing Face
July 30: Murder She Rote / Cheek to Cheek
July 31: After Life / Women Unchained

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St. Elsewhere Overview

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St. Elsewhere is very addicting. The show has ongoing arcs that resemble a primetime soap opera. Originally, St. Elsewhere was pitched to NBC by the producers responsible for The White Shadow and Hill Street Blues (at MTM Productions) as a medical version of Hill Street Blues. While Hill Street‘s setting was an unnamed American city, St. Elsewhere was decidedly east coast and set in Boston at fictional St. Eligius, a private Catholic hospital founded in the 1930s that had gone public by 1982, when the show debuted.

Hill Street had proven successful as a serialized form of police procedurals, no doubt inspired by the success of Dallas (Who Shot J.R.) in 1980. And while St. Elsewhere may have been pitched as a medical version of Hill Street, it quickly formed its own identity in the pilot and went its own direction.

Bruce Paltrow (husband of Blythe Danner and father of Gwyneth Paltrow) was the main show runner, producing all six seasons and directing key episodes. Tom Fontana, a writer that Blythe had discovered back east, was hired to script episodes of the first season and quickly was promoted to head writer along with John Masius. Fontana and Masius also received producing credits under Paltrow. Though not credited as the program’s creators (that distinction went to Joshua Brand and John Falsey), Paltrow and Fontana were largely responsible for the scope of the show and maintaining its unique identity for those six season on the air.

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As for the cast…in season 1, the show begins with a group of first-year residents. These include Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.), Peter White (Terrence Knox), Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes), Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori), Vijay Kochar (Kavi Raz) and Jack Morrison (David Morse). This group remains in place for season 2, with the addition of Mark Harmon who is brought in as an already established plastic surgeon. 

The core group of residents is expanded when we meet Elliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst). He is added to the show full-time in season 3. Most of these characters remain on screen for the duration. However, Armstrong is killed off, Kochar is seen less frequently but still appears on a recurring basis, and White’s story goes in several unexpected directions…which we will be discussing in the weeks ahead as we look at some of these episodes.

In some ways St. Elsewhere resembles The Paper Chase more than it does Hill Street Blues. It is about a teaching hospital where the lead surgeons (William Daniels, Ed Flanders and Norman Lloyd) train tomorrow’s doctors. There is also a lead nurse (Christina Pickles) who mentors the young nursing staff that work under her. William Daniels’ character, the ultra fussy Dr. Mark Craig, is most like John Houseman’s fussy law professor in The Paper Chase. However, Dr. Craig has a wife, played by Daniels’ real-life wife Bonnie Bartlett.

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I should mention that Bonnie Bartlett has a small supporting role in these early seasons, but in season 4 she earned an Emmy for her work in a very dramatic episode. She would become a main cast member in season 5 and go on to win another Emmy in season 5, as well as earn a nomination in season 6. So her role is greatly expanded as we see more of the Craigs’ home life in the later seasons of the program. 

About the character of Peter White…in season 1, Peter White was established as a ladies man, who happened to be married (to the loveliest woman in the world) and is the father of two kids. Peter developed a drug addiction, stealing drugs from the hospital supply closet. He ended up arrested for drug possession outside the hospital. This event caused his wife to temporarily separate from him but the drug charges were dropped, so he remained at St. Eligius though Dr. Westphall (Flanders) wonders if they shouldn’t have just dropped White from the residency program.

Halfway into season 2, a series of rapes begin to occur at the hospital and White becomes the prime suspect. No particular motive is given. The first rape occurs in ‘Drama Center,’ the 14th episode of season 2, which is the 36th episode of the series overall. Our reviews begin later today with 'Drama Center.'

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Met the sister of one of the co-creators when I temped at Millard Fillmore, the hospital it was based on.  She gave us the scoop on what was to become the Baltimore-based, Homicide, Life on the Street (created by Barry Levinson).  Two great series and, having recently been in a hospital, I was surprised I didn't go the way of Mrs. Hofnagel (squished to death by a hospital bed).  Both series were great; however, still have mixed feelings as to how they ended St. Elsewhere.    Mark Harmon was one of the first heterosexual characters to die of AIDS.  As for Homicide, we recently lost Yaphet Koto (great actor) and I miss Belzer as Detective Munch (he and Jerry Orbach were great together - Briscoe slept with Munch's wife, Glen).

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1 hour ago, chaya bat woof woof said:

Met the sister of one of the co-creators when I temped at Millard Fillmore, the hospital it was based on.  She gave us the scoop on what was to become the Baltimore-based, Homicide, Life on the Street (created by Barry Levinson).  Two great series and, having recently been in a hospital, I was surprised I didn't go the way of Mrs. Hofnagel (squished to death by a hospital bed).  Both series were great; however, still have mixed feelings as to how they ended St. Elsewhere.    Mark Harmon was one of the first heterosexual characters to die of AIDS.  As for Homicide, we recently lost Yaphet Koto (great actor) and I miss Belzer as Detective Munch (he and Jerry Orbach were great together - Briscoe slept with Munch's wife, Glen).

Jlewis and I will be reviewing 'Murder She Rote' later in the month, the one where Mrs. Hufnagel goes to that big comfortable bed up in the sky.

Tonight I will post our commentary on 'Drama Center' and 'Attack.'  And tomorrow you can read our thoughts on 'After Dark' and 'Equinox.'

***

I should mention that the 20 episodes I selected focus on Peter White's descent into hell.

And while this long-running arc does contain some of the show's more memorable and celebrated episodes, these are not exactly my most favorite episodes of the series.

My favorites from each season:

S1 - Down's Syndrome (Tom Fontana's first teleplay.)
S1 - Cora and Arnie (Doris Roberts & James Coco both earned Emmys for this one.)
S2 - Qui Transtulit Sustinet (The death of Jack Morrison's wife, a real tearjerker.)
S2 - Rough Cut (Wendy Armstrong's suicide.)
S3 - My Aim Is True (Peter White is shot.)
S3 - Up on the Roof (Peter's assailant is apprehended.)
S4 - Time Heals (A two-parter that TV Guide ranks as one of the best episodes of all time.)
S4 - Cheek to Cheek (The rape of Jack Morrison.)
S5 - A Room with a View (A poignant re-imagining of Rear Window.)
S5 - After Life (Wayne Fiscus is shot and hovers between life and death.)
S6 - Weigh In Way Out (Definitely Tom Fontana's best script.)
S6 - Their Town (Another Tom Fontana script, inspired by Our Town, this is the only episode that has no scenes taking place inside St. Eligius hospital.)

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Drama Center' & 'Attack' (1984)

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Season 2, Episode 14 — Drama Center; Broadcast on February 15, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by John Tinker

Directed by David Anspaugh

Jlewis:

Lots of still familiar faces in this February 15, 1984 broadcast, although Mark Harmon does not appear in this or the next episode despite his top billing over the main credits. Denzel Washington is the obvious big name here; this series can be credited for ”discovering” him much like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ”discovered” Will Smith and Bosom Buddies “discovered” Tom Hanks (among other examples).

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We also have William Daniels, a veteran of past movie successes like THE GRADUATE, as another key figure, Dr. Mark Craig, along with his wife played by another familiar face, Bonnie Bartlett (familiar to Generation X viewers in some Little House on the Prairie episodes a decade before and as Dorothy’s snobby friend in a classic Golden Girls episode a few years later). Other doctor regulars, who are generally not front and center with the main action but appearing frequently, include David Morse as Jack Morrison, Ed Flanders as Donald Westphall and Eric Laneuville as Luther Hawkins.

Terence Knox as Peter White seems minor in this particular episode but increases in importance during the next. As usual, we just have two primary lady doctors (being that this profession was still male dominated at the time) but notable actresses all over the screen, including Ellen Bry, Christina Pickles, Cynthia Sikes, Nancy Stafford and Kim Miyori.

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I should also spotlight Norman Lloyd, who plays aging-but-still-working Dr. Daniel Auschlander. A veteran of old time Hollywood (i.e. Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR), he only passed away this May at the incredible age of 106. Back in early 1984, he was just 69…which is still an age most average people are expected to be retired at. Not working as diligently at a hospital like him.

Like Dallas, Dynasty and the other primetime soaps dominating the eighties, this series had continuing storylines carried from episode to episode, a contrast to older medical series of decades past like Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby M.D. that featured resolved-in-one-hour stories. Thus, we have detailed in our ”previously on” segments the struggles of an autistic child named Tommy from last week that continues onto this show, along with Dr. Craig regretting his decision to allow his work be documented by a film crew (prompting our title, Drama Center).

The key story arc focused here involves a middle aged woman (Allyn Ann McLerie) who is assaulted in her car late at night by a masked stranger and suffers the after shocks while being kept for observation. Also impacted is the doctor attending her, Cynthia Sykes’ Annie Cavanero, who suddenly dislikes the way her own boyfriend touches her back at home.

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TopBilled:

In ‘Drama Center’ the very first rape occurs, in the hospital parking lot after Peter White is off duty. Personally, I do not think White committed this rape, because as we shall see later, another man is nabbed as a rapist. And since White has such an attractive wife, can get any prostitute he wants, and has had a series of affairs with women at the hospital, he does not need to force himself on anyone. They’re all willing to sleep with him. Also, White has never been depicted as anyone interested in older women, and the first victim (Allyn McLerie) is middle-aged.

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It doesn’t exactly fit White’s profile as a drug user and ladies man. But what is interesting here is how this all begins and it inevitably pulls Peter into a situation that leads to huge consequences, consequences he may not have fully deserved.

I am glad Jlewis mentioned earlier medical dramas like Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby M.D. We can also add M*A*S*H and its “spinoff” Trapper John M.D. There’s a fun in-joke in one of the episodes of St. Elsewhere in which the hospital’s director, Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) says his favorite TV show is Trapper John.

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Obviously, while St. Elsewhere follows in the tradition of those earlier shows, it steps to the beat of an irreverent drummer and seeks to subvert the form, by creating its own unusual tropes. One thing I love about St. Elsewhere is that it is not afraid to kill off characters we become attached to (that’s life) and it mixes in a fair amount of cheeky satire with the requisite pathos required for a weekly medical drama. It takes itself seriously but then it doesn’t really take itself seriously.

As for Jlewis’ comment about how racial minority characters are depicted…we do learn more about Wendy Armstrong’s background in a later episode before she commits suicide. Armstrong (Kim Miyori) is revealed as coming from a prominent white community in Florida, and that she was always someone who didn’t fit in.

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Meanwhile, Phillip Chandler (Denzel Washington) has a similar background, that he came from a wealthy black family and relates more to wealthy whites than he does impoverished blacks. This is explored in a later arc when he decides to do community outreach in the black ghetto around St. Eligius hospital. 

I just watched a season 4 episode where Chandler complains that when he is at a hospital party everyone wants to match him with a woman of his color because it is assumed they will have their blackness in common. But Chandler is really what could be termed an “oreo” (black on the outside and white on the inside) so he’d probably have a lot in common with a white woman. 

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As for the other minorities on the show, Luther Hawking the orderly (Eric Laneuville, who directed 20 episodes of St. Elsewhere and has gone on to direct countless other shows) is a working class black; and so is Warren Coolidge the maintenance man. I should point out that Byron Stewart brought his character Warren over to St. Elsewhere from The White Shadow

***

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Season 2, Episode 15 — Attack; Broadcast on February 22, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Cynthia Darnell & Douglas Brooks West

Directed by Kevin Hooks

Jlewis:

As the title suggests, we continue with another assault case…and still another. Both victims this time are younger and on the medical payroll, rather than just a visiting patient. All of the women on staff are given advice on how to protect themselves and one over-reacts with a fellow raiding the drug supply instead of showing any interest in her. Another refuses Howie Mandell’s Wayne ”Shut Up” Fiscus’ chaperone services.

Our big gotcha moment comes when the villain is revealed in the final freeze-frame. Or is he the villain we are seeking?

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We may have crimes committed by two different people here. Resident intern Peter White has all kinds of psychological issues, including disgust with a wife who left him and a lady-of-the-evening reminding him of his inability to get-it-up. This leads him to be quite aggressive towards his female co-workers.

This is an episode in which the men are all having problems with their relationships with women. Ed Beggly Jr. as Dr. Victor Ehrlich, who was not shown last week, returns from his honeymoon and, right away, things are not going great.

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His marital issues get broadcast by his new bride Roberta (Jean Bruce Scott) over the hospital PA system. I guess this story arc is supposed to be funny, a diversion from more serious affairs. 

I will be frank here. St. Elsewhere operates best when it is downright serious and dramatic, being one of the golden jewels of NBC primetime and worthy of its Emmy Award attention. Yet it sometimes suffers when it attempts to be light-hearted. Much of the main cast is pretty straight-faced. Well…except for Howie Mandell’s Wayne who smiles more than Howdy Doody, even though he too never has anything particularly comical to say.

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The best opportunities for added color come from the guest stars appearing as patients and visitors. I did enjoy Geraldine Fitzgerald playing an old flame of Lloyd’s Dr. Daniel. Through her, we learn quite a bit about him and his past, fussing too much about family acceptance and career and not enough on true love. She was the one who got away despite how both had polarizing personalities.

***

TopBilled:

Just a few comments here…first, this episode was directed by Kevin Hooks who had a main role on The White Shadow. He has gone on to direct many television programs.

As for the main storyline, let’s go over Wendy Armstrong being jumped by Peter White in the women’s dressing room. This is interpreted differently by various characters. Is he attacking her non-sexually or is it a thwarted rape?

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This leads to revealing that Wendy is bulimic, which had been implied in prior episodes. But her eating disorder comes front and center now, while she is dealing with what has happened between her and Peter. 

Victor Ehrich (Ed Begley Jr.) is used in quite a few humorous scenes, usually in the operating room where he is annoying the bejeezus out of Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels). At this point, he has rushed into a marriage with Roberta, a woman that he barely knows and his personal life is a shambles.  

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The subplot with Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) and his old flame (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is nicely done. We have two old pros in these scenes together. The story is revisited later in season 5 when it is revealed that Fitzgerald’s character had a son fathered by Daniel Auschlander, which she has neglected to tell him in this episode. Daniel meets his son in season 6.

For now he is presented as having no sons. He and his wife Katherine (Jane Wyatt) just have a daughter, and two grandchildren.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'After Dark' & 'Equinox' (1984)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 2, Episode 16 — After Dark; Broadcast on February 29, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana and Steve Lawson; Teleplay by Steve Lawson

Directed by Eric Laneuville

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Jlewis:

Although we are not 100% certain if Peter White (Terence Knox) is THE serial rapist, we did see him attack co-worker Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori) in the last episode. His rage here is agitated by her higher position on the totem pole than him (i.e. he accuses her of being snobbish). He gets arrested for his behavior but you quickly suspect that he will be back to work since so many who don’t know him well view him as a ”nice” guy.

Continuing from last week, we have the saga of a construction worker named Joe (Dan Hedaya) eager to return back to work who suffers dramatic seizures. Jack Morrison (David Morse) attends him and also visits his over protective mother (Angela Clarke) at her place. This story raises some interesting questions in regards to our present day working conditions that impact our overall health. Yet Joe may just be depressed with his lot in life and using his smoking and other addictions to end it quicker.

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Oh…Victor, Victor, Victor. You can be so annoying with your new wife. At least he gets more interesting as a character when temptation arrives to disrupt the home front in the form of a sultry patient he examines and she is quite open and direct in her flirtations when unknowingly talking to Roberta. Victor makes the mistake of questioning Dr. Mark Craig about his need-to-stray during bloody surgery and gets the expected marital advice from ”Yes, Daddy” in the form of ”When you get stuck with a lemon, just spit out the pits and live with the juice.” Love that line. Ha ha!

We now have Mark Harmon back as Dr. Robert Caldwell.

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The ladies auxiliary convention allows the cast to dress up like they are the swells in Dallas. I guess that is Gretchen Wyler playing the matron in charge who annoys everybody in her bossy, gossipy manner in these particular shows?

***

TopBilled:

I thought this episode had a great ending. Peter White (Terrence Knox)  is arrested and hauled away, while Jack Morrison (David Morse) looks on and business at the hospital is conducted as usual. On traditional medical programs, this would probably be the end for a guy like Peter. He seems to be guilty and justice must be served. However, since St. Elsewhere is a serialized medical show and Peter White is still a lead character AND the second season is not over yet, we can be sure his storyline is not over. And indeed, it is not.

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Actually, Peter’s story does not technically end until the 5th season, and even then it carries forward under a new guise.

I did not include ‘Vanity,’ the episode right after this one because Peter appears in flashback and has only one scene where Jack visits him at the prison. Peter obviously fights the charges, and he does get out on bail. The rape trial occurs very quickly.

What’s important in this ongoing arc is the close friendship between Peter and Jack. Back in season 1, Jack Morrison’s wife Nina had a son they named Peter, after Peter White who is Jack’s best friend in the residency program at St. Eligius. While everyone else is damning Peter and trying to convict him as the culprit behind the masked rapes, Jack continues to stand by him.

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However, another character, Nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry), will take a decidedly different approach.

I already mentioned that Dr. Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori) spirals into a depression after her violent encounter with Peter and she will commit suicide, when her bulimia gets out of hand.

Jlewis went over the subplot with the construction worker. This is basically a self-contained story. St. Elsewhere is known for stories of varying lengths. While the Peter White saga runs for several seasons, there are some arcs that last only one season, for a span of episodes. Meanwhile, there are more traditional plots that are resolved within a given episode.

As for Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.) and his wife Roberta, their marriage is very short-lived. Basically we have a comedy plot, filled with a certain amount of romantic angst for Victor. The real heart of the story is that Victor’s controlling mentor Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels) is now taking him more under his wing.

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Though often exasperated by Victor’s antics, Dr. Craig sees potential in him and they have an edgy father-son bond. Their “relationship” is contrasted with the fact that Dr. Craig is estranged from his own son Steven, who is off somewhere in a residency program at another hospital.

Re: Mark Harmon’s character Dr. Bobby Caldwell…he is a plastic surgeon and that causes a more superficial outlook in his character. Harmon’s character is written as basically a nice guy, with hang-ups, in seasons 2 and 3. But going into season 4, Bobby morphs into a cad, sleeping with a bunch of random women and he contracts the AIDS virus.

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Bobby’s girlfriend Joan Halloran (Nancy Stafford) continues to appear at St. Eligius in an administrative capacity on a recurring basis, and she is involved in the AIDS arc in the middle of season 4, since she has to get tested as Bobby may have infected her.

Actress Gretchen Wyler is seen on a recurring basis in season 2, but her character is dropped afterward. She added a certain zest to the proceedings as a matron in charge of fundraising activities at the hospital through the ladies auxiliary. The writers hand these plots over to Jane Wyatt. Wyatt portrays Katherine Auslander, the respected wife of Norman Lloyd’s character.

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***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 2, Episode 18 — Equinox; Broadcast on March 14, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Channing Gibson & Charles H. Eglee

Directed by David Anspaugh

Jlewis:

TerenceKnox

Dr. Peter White (Terence Knox) is back to work, but with security monitoring him constantly. Dr. Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori) is justifiably furious that his sentence is downgraded to a mere ”battery.” Likewise, Barbara Whinnery’s Dr. Cathy Martin also had conflict with Peter and she seeks resident psychiatrist Paul Sand’s Michael Ridley to help her adjust. Her comment about wanting to ”dream in color again” is interesting.

I have to comment a bit on the opening credits of the show. It starts in the beginning with three transitions from black and white to full color, starting with the established shot of the hospital and with at least three main characters and performers playing them also making the transition.

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It would be interesting to know what the creators’ intentions here were. Were they just being gimmicky in showing some kind of artistic relevance? Or is some sort of symbolic meaning imposed here?

Other stories: test*cal cancer…and losing one…is a new topic here a college dude named Kevin (Thomas Byrd) eager for spring break. For the opposite gender, breast cancer also gets profiled and puts individual patients to question what it means to be a man and a woman.

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Howie Mandel’s Dr. Wayne Fiscus is again working with kids (assisting one’s dog in a previous episode) and later suffers great tragedy when his beloved cap is put in the microwave oven by accident.

Luther Hawkins is now competing with Phillip Chandler (Denzel Washington) for the same girl (”dim the lights and put on the Barry White”) and we see Mean Green-with-jealousy Phillip lurk out with his constant personal attacks on his rival.

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For over the top dramatics, we have a Christopher Payne (Charles Tyner) of the Paul Revere Society bringing a horse for surgery, but this is quickly resolved in a few minutes of screen time.

***

TopBilled:

Peter has been released on bail and is back working at St. Eligius while awaiting his rape trial. His mentor Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) has done a 180, having gone from staunch supporter and defender of Peter White, to now believing Peter is guilty of the crimes that he is alleged to have committed. Westphall regrets keeping Peter on at St. Eligius after the drugs debacle of the previous season, and he regards White as a liability.

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However, White’s constitutional rights prevent him from being fired, while he is still in the process of going through the court system.  Westphall’s answer is to have Peter monitored and he keeps Peter away from the E.R. where Peter had been interacting with many female coworkers and patients. Peter’s current assignment is the morgue where he is meant to stay out of trouble. But Peter has had issues with Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery) who works with him in the morgue.

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As Jlewis mentioned, Dr. Wendy Armstrong (Kim Miyori) is upset that the charges against White have been reduced to battery. The rapes that occurred cannot be pinned on Peter, since they occurred with the assailant wearing a mask and none of the victims can make a positive ID.

However, there was one altercation between White and Martin at the morgue, in which she pulled off his mask. But Cathy did not report the incident, and it sort of occurred in a dream-like state.

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Also, since the mask was pulled off, we can assume that this may have stopped White from doing the deed with Cathy, if in fact he did attack her (could it have been a figment in Cathy’s confused imagination?). Cathy is written as an oversexed and mentally unbalanced woman, and she has been depicted this way since she was introduced back in season 1. So is she a victim of Peter’s?

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Or is some of this all a big sick fantasy she is experiencing? Yes, this is not a traditional rape/social message storyline.

I am not going to comment much on the black-and-white to color portion of the opening credits, since I don’t know the answer why that was done. Except to say maybe it was supposed to seem like a newspaper clipping of the hospital morphing into how it is today. A sense of ongoing history?

As for the other plots in this episode, the bit about the man from the Paul Revere Society bringing the horse to surgery is obviously comic relief. And it is also a way for us to get to know the young resident Dr. Elliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst), who is said to be the son of a veterinarian.

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Axelrod appeared earlier in season 2 in a slight comedy plot with Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel). I guess he impressed Paltrow and Fontana enough that they brought him back in this episode. He will become a regular member of the cast starting in season 3 and he remains on St. Elsewhere until the end of season 6.

There is a plot in a season 4 episode where Axelrod helps treat a gorilla that is brought into the ER. And another plot, also in season 4, where he looks after a homing pigeon owned by Luther (Eric Laneuville). So the writers do not forget that he is the son of a vet, and that he enjoys helping animal patients as much as human ones.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Cramming' & 'Rough Cut' (1984)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 2, Episode 20 — Cramming; Broadcast on May 2, 1984

Written by Steve Lawson and Steve Bello

Directed by Tim Matheson

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Jlewis:

A conversation involving Philip and Wendy two weeks ago (we are skipping another episode) mentioned possible lay-offs at the hospital. Victor and Dr. Craig continue the topic during surgery and ”Daddy” reminds ”Junior” that he is just as vulnerable as anybody else. The title of our episode refers to the latest round of national board tests for the interns and they must all prep for them or Get The Cut.

In a lie detector test, Peter admits to assaulting Cathy Martin. She had confronted him previously in the cafeteria and he denied it, as he does to his friend Jack later. She testifies at the trial, but is cross questioned about her own delusional memories and is also asked, shockingly, how many times she has had sex in the morgue. Her response is an angry ”none of your damn business,” rather than yes or no.

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Later, she gets some judgment comments in the cafeteria about her sex life. I won’t get into how often women are judged for such things with more scorn than men usually are, but it is what it is and those critiquing her most are quite often women.

Wendy gets the primary focus here, cramming for her tests and causing a bit of havoc with Wayne Fiscus over a patient’s diagnosis. She is feeling anger lately, although it isn’t explained exactly why. Perhaps, her ordeal with Peter played a part. The loss of a patient’s baby under her care understandably makes her downward emotional spiral worse.

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We were clued in previously by Annie that she may be suffering an eating disorder. In a candid conversation with Cathy about childhood dreams, Wendy reveals she did not embark on a career as a dancer due to being fat-shamed by others. Kim Miyori gives a pretty good performance here, but I kinda wish there had been a little more development of ”why” she is going through all of this. 

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Victor’s Aunt Cherise (Louise Lasser) has a comic visiting role and attempts to date Donald Westphall. Although he is listed first in the opening credits, I often forget to mention Ed Flanders’ matter-of-fact performance as the head physician supervisor in the bulk of these episodes. 

Back to Cherise. I was confused at first as to why she was in this episode and what her primary purpose was. In a way, she vaguely resembles Cathy in an older, more psychologically adjusted form; both ladies being quite eccentric and she admits to Victor that she had many male acquaintances in her past but has, as the popular song goes, been looking for love in all the wrong places.

***

TopBilled:

This is one of my favorite episodes. I gave it a 10/10 on the IMDb. It really adheres to the main theme of the show, that St. Eligius is a teaching hospital. Residents are seen learning and increasing their knowledge on the job, as they all prepare to pass important exams.

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The emphasis seems more on the younger cast members in these types of episodes. We know they all won’t pass and be invited back for the next year of residency at the hospital.

Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse) is, intellectually speaking, the weakest link on staff. A plot in season 3 will develop this strand further…he is revealed to have earned an earlier medical degree in an accelerated program at a barely accredited college in Mexico. Morrison may lack the knowledge of his colleagues, but he cares a lot about his patients and he is the only non-hispanic who speaks Spanish at St. Eligius.

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Jlewis mentioned the subplot involving Dr. Ehrlich’s wacky aunt Cherise (Louise Lasser). She appeared earlier in the season at the Craigs’ home when Victor married Roberta. writers do not feature Aunt Cherise again. Instead they play up the fact that Victor is estranged from two siblings and they have lost their parents. However, Victor’s parents turn up in season 5, in the form of Steve Allen & Jayne Meadows, and they are even spacier than Aunt Cherise!

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 2, Episode 21 — Rough Cut; Broadcast on May 9, 1984

Story by Steve Lawson and Steve Bello; Teleplay by Susan Lindner & Mitchell Fink

Directed by Eric Laneuville

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Jlewis:

Sax jazz starts us off on a light note, but this episode is anything but light. The music playing gets Victor on edge as he tries to break open the candy machine. Like Wendy, the stress at work gets him hungry often.

Mark Harmon’s Dr. Robert Caldwell seems like the more adjusted one here at first, agreeing with his girlfriend’s suggestion to an escape to Paris. That is, until he gets a stuck-in-the-zipper situation predating THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and Ben Stiller’s comic incident.

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Fittingly, Dr. Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes) is the one who aids him, which I found most appropriate due to her previous experience with the college student also suffering a problem down below. Robert eventually decides to call it quits in his relationship, which prompts the question: is the zipper injury on his ”little” head impacting his ”big” head’s decision making?  

At first, I thought the title referred to Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel). He complains about not getting any romance in his life and then agrees to partake in a Boston’s Most Eligible Bachelor magazine photo gig. We see his rough-cut photo shoot edited along with scenes of the elder doctors — Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), Mark Craig (William Daniels) and Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) discussing his rising status among the staff and in the medical community.

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Of course, Wayne is a trifle worried at first if this silly media project will impact his credibility as a physician, but he quickly gets wrapped up in the excitement. Like Robert, he also appears for the camera shirtless…and with a bow-tie no less.

I guess some commentary should be made about his subtle homophobia when his public photo ”exposure” gets a few guys, rather than girls, calling to date him. Had this show been done more recently, Wayne would more likely have taken it in stride and responded in a more polite ”sorry, I don’t swing that way” or something along those lines.

Yet this was the 1980s when society was far more conservative and less gay friendly. Not that this show is any more offensive to modern viewers than anything else you would see from this time period (note how much worse the teen comedies were at this time) and, of course, not every viewer watching it today would be bothered by it.

Needless to say, I had mixed opinions about the peculiar blend of high comedy with dark menace and depression. This brings me to the our trio of hospital heads all agreeing that, like Wayne, Wendy should also stay regardless of her personal struggles.

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She certainly has her hands full, with a bereaved mother lashing out on her and yet another nurse commenting on her eating too much, something she was likely NOT in the mood to hear. When you are feeling that depressed, ”helpful” criticism is last thing that is helpful if you want to lift up your spirits. Then there’s her friendship with eccentric Cathy and her live-to-the-edge talk.

This all sets up for a big tragedy as she suffers a pill overdose and dies during surgery. Yes, in one quick flash, Wendy’s role on this show ends abruptly.

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Later we get an unusual and, for me at least, unexpected speech between Cathy and Daniel about her own future as a psychiatrist/therapist. It is unusual only to me because I found her pre-suicide advice a bit strange. Again, maybe I just need more backstory on the Cathy/Wendy relationship so that all of this material isn’t so abrupt to me?

Cathy meets up with evil Peter again and I get a curious sense that both characters have multiple personalities. Not that I consider anything else between them similar.

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Both Jack and Peter initially get the cut and have an intense discussion about it. Jack feels he deserves his, often being hard on himself. After Wendy’s death, however, he is reinstated with Donald referencing Wendy’s last words written down ”Why does life always start tomorrow?” On a more uplifting note, the cast all toast to Wendy’s life at the end since tomorrow is always another day.

***

TopBilled:

This is a very emotional episode. As Jlewis pointed out, it features the last appearance of resident Dr. Wendy Armstong (Kim Miyori). Though she still remains in the opening credits for one more episode.

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I should point out that Rough Cut currently has the highest score of any St. Elsewhere episode on the IMDb. I guess Armstrong’s unexpected death packed a punch, or else Howie Mandel’s legion of fans upvoted it because his character, Dr. Wayne Fiscus, strips down to his underwear during the photo shoot.

I thought the comedy plot with Dr. Bobby Caldwell (Mark Harmon) was a bit silly…we find out he stopped using underwear and gets his zipper stuck. Ouch! This is the end for Caldwell and Joan Halloran (Nancy Stafford) as a couple. Halloran still appears on a recurring basis in season 3 and season 4.

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What can I say about Peter White. The character fascinates me. I love this storyline. It’s a thoughtful piece about how rape, and accusations of rape, affect everyone on staff at a large hospital. 

I can see how Jlewis feels Peter might have more than one personality. Some shocking things happen to Peter at the start of season 3. I think the scene near the end of this episode where Peter reminds Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders) that he will be back, is excellent. Westphall had once been Peter White’s staunchest advocate. But now they have become enemies, since Westphall believes Peter should not have been exonerated and poses a continuing danger at the hospital.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Two Balls and a Strike' & 'Strikeout' (1984)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 3 — Two Balls and a Strike; Broadcast on October 3, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana and John Tinker; Teleplay by John Tinker

Directed by David Anspaugh

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Jlewis:

This episode was not available for my viewing.

***

TopBilled:

Strike

The third season of St. Elsewhere opens with a short arc about a nurses’ strike. It’s an interesting story, especially since it adds a new dimension to the working relationship between head nurse Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles) and veteran administrator Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) who sit on opposite sides of the bargaining table.

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The story shows the need for a compromise and there are long-term ramifications on St. Eligius’ budget when some concessions must be made to keep the nurses happy. I have to chuckle at how Dr. Auschlander is a bit arrogant at first, then gradually realizes that Rosenthal and her group are a force to be reckoned with, when they vote to strike.

Into this mix a labor negotiator (Herb Edelman) is introduced. He becomes a new love interest for Rosenthal.

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Nurse Lucy Papandrao (Jennifer Savidge), who will later become the second Mrs. Victor Ehrlich, helps to lead the strike with Rosenthal. Meanwhile nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry, wife of writer-producer John Masius) continues to work her usual shifts. They can’t all go out on the picket line, or else the hospital would close.

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 4 — Strikeout; Broadcast on October 17, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana and Steve Bello; Teleplay by Steve Bello

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

We are now well into the third season with an October 17, 1984 episode. The latest story arc involves a nursing strike that is going on while William Daniels’ Mark Craig is still on vacation at home with his wife Ellen, after a vacation abroad to Honolulu, and now complaining about the shoddy construction work done to their home while away.

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He hires Luther (Eric Laneuville) and his buddy Warren (Byron Stewart), who is temporarily laid off on account of the strike, to do patch work for him. This provides scenes where he can act all bombastic and patronizing to others, aspects that I am sure some viewers may find quite enduring if not necessarily me. For me, a little Mark Craig goes a long, long way. (The actor is still doing pretty well today at age 94 as is Bonnie Bartlett at age 92, both still happily married in real life.)

Regardless of strikes that demand better wages and better working situations, many a nurse’s call to duty still reins supreme. Lucy (Jennifer Savidge) leaves her striking post to aid an all important surgery here involving a fire fighter. Nice to see Herb Edelman in a guest appearance as part of the negotiations along with head nurse Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles); his career stretching from the original Odd Couple to his later role as Stan in The Golden Girls.

Cathy is shown in training for her new specialized work, which is a nice contrast to the surreal dark humor surrounding her in the previous episode I watched. Psychiatry is a topic that needs to be explored more often in TV shows. Hypnosis is also examined here involving another interesting lead character, Dr. Charlotte (Renée Taylor).

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Peter returns for more ”sick games” in a private meeting with Cathy, continuing his villain-ish role into the new season. From the way she is holding herself, sobbing, when she leaves the room he traps her in, you can tell there was obvious sexual abuse. Not that we are certain what exactly happens, but I do think Peter is guilty and that his buddy, Jack, is still in denial of accepting.

There is an unsettling, scene at the end when Shirley (Ellen Bry) seeks forgiveness from bed-bound Cathy for misjudging her earlier. Cathy’s response: ”Cathy Martin is gone. She is never coming back.”

***

TopBilled:

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After picketing in front of the hospital in rainy weather, the strike finally ends. The nurses emerge victorious in their crusade for better wages, benefits and hours. Emotions have run high during the walkout. Shirley Daniels, who continued to work during the strike, is probably the one most at her wit’s end. 

As Jlewis described above, Shirley has been feeling guilty about not supporting Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery) during Peter White’s recent rape trial. The subsequent fallout is that the women are more on edge than ever, because Peter is back on staff and everyone continues to feel vulnerable.

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I think an overlooked part of the strike storyline is that during negotiations, Nurse Rosenthal did not bring up the nurses’ safety when she was sitting at the bargaining table with Dr. Auschlander. She would have felt the need to mention tighter security and precautions being taken to keep the staff from harm. Granted, not all the nurses are women, but I do feel the nurses as a whole would have wanted Rosenthal to bring this up during negotiations since Peter White has returned to St. Eligius.

Meanwhile, Cathy starts to go off the rails and in an upcoming episode she is victimized again. But is Peter really her rapist?

Ladyshrink

Renee Taylor’s character is just a temporary guest and she only appears in two or three episodes. But I thought it was a good idea that they brought in a female shrink. The previous psychiatrists had all been male.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Breathless' & 'My Aim Is True' (1984)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 5 — Breathless; Broadcast on October 24, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana and John Tinker; Teleplay by Joel Sumow

Directed by Eric Laneuville

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Jlewis:

A moderately interesting episode, the opening scene involves a maintenance man fussing over the newer digital clocks and how he favors the old fashion kind. Intriguingly so many episodes feature a clock image in the corner of the screen to show the passage of time. Al Ruscio plays this interesting character, Raleigh, who later needs surgery on account of years of asbestos exposure.

Again, “Daddy” Mark Craig gives abstinence advice to “Junior” Victor during bloody surgery. These scenes used to be mildly humorous to me in the beginning, but they are developing into a boring, repetitive one-joke idea.

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One semi-adorable aspect to Victor’s personality is his willingness to receive advice from literally anybody and everybody, whether it is Mark or his visiting aunt or overly talkative patients like Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop). Although he complains about everybody knowing about his private life, he has absolutely no trouble discussing it with any ears willing to listen.

A minor story of importance involves Herb Edelman’s Richard wooing head nurse Helen, whom he helped in the strike. Both are engaging characters even if the writers don’t do much with their developing relationship here.

The big highlight is another assaulter of the resident women getting caught in the act and wearing the all important mask. He is revealed when getting psychotherapy with Dr. Charlotte. Peter thinks he is off the hook and is more eager than ever to reunite with his ex and children.

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The maintenance guy in this episode is a recurring character, and he dies at the hospital later, not from asbestosis. This plot seems very mid-80s, because I remember as a kid, there were reports of the dangers of asbestos on the news. And one of the schools my sister attended still had asbestos in it, which by law, the district was required to rip out. This was a big concern at the time, but of course people had been exposed to asbestos for decades.

The relationship between Dr. Craig and Dr. Ehrlich will gradually deepen, after the Craigs’ estranged son dies in an accident. I think Ed Begley Jr. is wonderful in his role. Recently I watched a season 6 episode where Ehrlich gets married again (to Nurse Lucy Papandrao, who is known as the witch of St. Eligius).

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It’s fascinating to see Victor paired off with a strong woman who is going to mold him into a strong doctor, along with help from Dr. Craig. The character of Victor Ehrlich evolves considerably by the time the series concludes.

I have to comment on Mrs. Hufnagel. A book could be written about her. First, Florence Halop was a great character actress. This recurring role during season 3 led to her becoming a full-time cast member on Night Court the following season, replacing Selma Diamond. Florence Halop was the sister of Dead End Kid Billy Halop, and she started in radio and had plenty of roles on television over the years.

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Mrs. Hufnagel appears in many episodes in season 3. Interestingly, Halop has rather low billing, always billed in the end credits. She isn’t ever considered a main guest star. But the writers seem to have been inspired by her. A running gag is that she keeps getting readmitted to St. Eligius with a new ailment, and the next resident tries to pass her off to someone else. Eventually Westphall (Ed Flanders) and Craig (William Daniels) are brought in to consult when her medical problems worsen, but Mrs. H has an uncanny way of alienating everyone with her obnoxious behavior and outspoken comments.

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I think my favorite scene with Mrs. Hufnagel occurs later on and involves her and Dr. Chandler (Denzel Washington). Chandler senses her dismissive attitude and tries to tell Mrs. Hufnagel just how skilled he is, citing his academic achievements at an ivy league college. She is not phased and says “go tell it on the mountain.” She proceeds to give him a hard time. The only person Mrs. Hufnagel shows her vulnerable side to is Dr. Elliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst). But she is still hard on him too, though she does bequeath her estate to Axelrod when she dies.

The plot with Nurse Rosenthal and the labor negotiator (Herb Edelman) picks up speed. She ends up divorcing her current husband (husband #4)  and he moves in with her and her kids. A running gag is that Rosenthal can’t stay married for more than a few years. She repeatedly trades in her husbands for “new models” and Richard is the latest. She is still with him when the show ends, so maybe this is the relationship that will last. We occasionally see Rosenthal deal with domestic issues, and she has kids from all four husbands, plus she has a pregnancy scare with Richard. Herb Edelman is an excellent character actor, and he has nice chemistry with Christina Pickles.

Pickles&Edelman

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St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 6 — My Aim Is True; Broadcast on October 31, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Charles H. Eglee & Channing Gibson

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

This title reminds me of the song “Alison” by Elvis Costello.

I attempted to watch this episode on Dailymotion because it was not available on the other viewing site I was using and… EGAD!… there were too many long ads that I was unable to skip through. It took me roughly 90 minutes to get through what was supposed to be just 45 minutes.

There are multiple stories in this one, including Robert giving an elderly fire-fighter a new face and humorous Mrs. Hufnagel, one patient whom Victor is eager to get rid of, spoiling the scenery for visitors by gossiping all kinds of trash. 

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Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels) sides with Stephen Furst’s Elliot against Dr. Jacqueline (Sagan Lewis) telling one patient she needs bypass surgery when it is not necessary; the primary characteristic about Elliot that interests me is his voice: he sounds a lot like Woody Allen even though the two look nothing alike.

Peter finally reunites briefly with his kids in what are inevitably his last moments with them as the affectionate father he always wanted to be.

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Then Nurse Shirley (Ellen Bry), all dressed in Clorox white and high heels and a purse that are equally white, gets seductive with him before pulling out a gun as revenge. At first, I was wondering if she would merely shoot him below the belt and Dr. Annie would be called in to rescue his manhood like she did for the college dude with cancer and Bobby Caldwell with his zipper mishap. No…this shot will prove to be fatal in the end. Before he falls, Peter confesses that he did not assault Cathy but is guilty of addressing that thought, enough to send Shirley to react as she does.

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The stuff with Peter White and his family is poignant, very bittersweet. He has it all, but he is continually at the mercy of his demons. As we see at the end of this tense episode, Peter is brought to his knees, literally.

We watch Nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry) make sexual advances towards Peter White then she pulls out a gun, fires two shots, goes to the phone, and says “code blue in the morgue.” This felt like a Dallas or Dynasty-type season ending cliffhanger. 

Of course, we are now examining what happens when women take the law into their own hands to eliminate a threat of rape. Shirley has become a vigilante and there will be considerable discussion in future episodes about whether or not she should be convicted. There are some interesting twists and turns.

I should comment on Peter’s confession. While being held at gunpoint, Shirley forces Peter to confess to the rapes but this type of confession would never hold up in court. Prior to this, a psych ward patient admitted to the rapes but his confession was discounted. There is another man who is committing rape at St. Eligius, which is revealed, and so we can never be sure just how guilty Peter is.

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Shirley definitely feels he is guilty, but she resorts to entrapment and becomes a criminal herself. 

It is significant that she shoots him in the groin and then in the heart. This was a shocking storyline for primetime television in the mid-80s.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Fade to White' & 'Sweet Dreams' (1984)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 7 — Fade to White; Broadcast on November 7, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Cynthia Darnell

Directed by David Anspaugh

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Jlewis:

…or Peter’s final moments. White is important here, as we will discover in the next episode. He survives the shooting, but only temporarily. After he does go, his wife meets the killer without realizing it in the hospital chapel memorial service for him, but nothing is developed here beyond Shirley’s fleeting “I’m sorry” statement that reveals nothing. Earlier the wife told Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) that Peter used to be a ”good person.”

Personally I don’t feel that the Peter White the character matches up all that well with Terence Knox the actor playing him. Terence is way too mild mannered in his personality and lacks much of the malice factor required. Not that such a trait in the performance is necessary, but it does help. It just feels to me that the team of writers had to draw straws to decide which cast member should play a villain and Terence simply raised his hand and stated ”oh shucks, I’ve got broad shoulders and can handle it.”

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Yet I do feel that his departure through the hands of a woman he did not molest but provokes in words (taking her and other women for granted) is a rather clever way for him to go. I liked his exit better than Wendy’s departure by suicide, since her character was too strong willed and successful at coping with life overall; her eating disorder and Peter’s assault on her did not cut it for me when she easily aced her exams and kept her job despite so much else pushed on her. In a way, Peter’s death is also one that the old Hays Code and Catholic Legion of Decency running classic Hollywood decades earlier would have approved of, since ”crime does not pay.”

Surprisingly, Peter only appears in roughly three minutes of footage this show. Everybody goes about their business as if it isn’t a big deal. Of course, we do have a detective on the case– Charles Lanyer playing Det. Alex McGallen. It is interesting to note that hospitals in the 1980s still were not equipped with security cameras. Shirley would certainly not be able to get away with it today.

One throwaway plot, at least for me, involves a boy named Jimmy suffering from asthma or, rather, some emotional reaction that resembles asthma that is built on stress about the everyday world. Couldn’t the writers create something more substantial than that as a cause?

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We also get the return of Michael Richards’ Bill Wolf. In the very first episode we profiled, Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels) reluctantly agreed to allow a television crew film his work for a documentary. They are back, thanks to recently appointed Joan Halloran (Nancy Stafford), Robert’s ex, agreeing to it and Victor, of all people, agreeing to be the host of a talk show. Of course, this impacts the relationship between Junior and Daddy a.k.a. ”You lie with dogs, you get fleas!” First topic that Victor discusses in a panel discussion is circumcision, which he considers ”a dilemma”. Oh-kay…

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I think the writers made a mistake killing Peter. It would have been more interesting if he had been shot in the groin, lost his manhood, then had to deal with the disgrace of that. Also, I think he definitely would have gone to live and work somewhere else. There is no way he would want to stay at St. Eligius after all this. But the door could have been left open for him to rehabilitate and come back later in some reformed capacity. Part of me wanted Peter to have some sort of redemption long-term.

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His death in this episode is quick. He is in his hospital bed and looks over at Shirley, and that is it. I wonder if the writers toyed with the idea of Shirley euthanizing him in the hospital room. In season 5 there is a mercy killing storyline, where someone on staff is murdering terminal patients and Shirley is involved in that.

I liked the scene that occurred near the end of the episode inside the hospital chapel. Peter’s widow is consoled by Shirley, which is very ironic. Jack Morrison (David Morse) is there and so is Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders). Karen Landry, the actress who plays Peter’s wife Myra perfectly complemented Terrence Knox as Peter. They both have this charming but vulnerable quality.

I agree with Jlewis’ comment that Knox is not very menacing as the villain in this storyline. Back in season one, when Peter was revealed to have a drug problem, we were supposed to be shocked that this all-American, likable doctor had such a dark secret. His secrets became darker, his demons became scarier. But Peter himself never became scary, and I think that was deliberate. We were still supposed to like Peter, because Terrence Knox is a likable actor.

Here’s a more recent photo of him:

terenceknox

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St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 8 — Sweet Dreams; Broadcast on November 14, 1984

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse) is having a nightmare at the hospital, with 70s heavy metal music on the soundtrack and he expresses great shock when opening a door for authorized personnel only.

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This is revealed (in a second dream sequence towards the end of the episode) as Peter in the After Life, dressed in white masculine clothes to match his killer’s equally white dress. That I found interesting. The speech Peter makes to Jack is pretty predictable and hardly dream-like, but it adds closure to his character. This is standard ghost story material of the Dickens sort with the living being advised not to mourn any further than necessary. Peter feels no grudges against those responsible for shooting him since he now realizes he was ultimately responsible for his own fate.

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Victor also has a dream. He is held hostage on a deserted island full of Amazonians. His character probably benefits with women being in charge over him since he is one of the most indecisive characters on network TV, needing somebody to push him to be the Man he needs to be.

Luther has a Park Avenue dream sequence with ZZ Top, I guess, adding musical support. His ladies are far more supportive of him than Victor’s as they all seek revenge on the higher ups who don’t treat Luther fairly.

All of these fantasies, sporting bigger than usual production values and not at all like the dreams I have (i.e. you ever notice how the dreams in so many movies and TV shows are so structurally plotted while the actual dreams most of us have are jumbled messes with little coherence in theme?) are part of their sleep therapy with their heads wired up as they snooze, under the guidance of Dr. Linda Ellis (Patricia Hardy).

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As usual, head Dr. Mark is furious about all of this going on and so many on his staff yawning on the job.

This show is interesting from an artistic, creative editing standpoint, but it all becomes rather silly after the initial novelty. M*A*S*H and other key shows before had similar episodes involving multiple characters going through something like this all at once and the novelty was a bit old-hat by the 1980s.

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Also it feels way too coincidental that the whole sleep deprivation issue carries over in two patients whom Wayne and Annie are treating that are suffering similar sleep deprivation issues. Wayne debates with Mark that the cause of death with his Philippine patient was nightmare related.

I did like the scene with Robert calling Victor out with his joke-making during surgery and, yes, patients can hear the sometimes mocking ridicule during their life-or-death situations. Simply put, Victor lacks a lot of sensitivity towards others (and his dream features aggressive women who are hardly sensitive to him) and may or may not have influenced William Hurt’s performance in the later movie THE DOCTOR (1991) about a physician learning more bedside manner.

Recently a script for this episode signed by cast members sold for just twenty bucks on eBay. There are some good collectibles you can get on eBay if you do the proper searching.

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This is certainly an experimental episode. I should first point out that St. Elsewhere was filmed at the old CBS Studio Center on Radford in Studio City, even though it aired on NBC. This is because the show as produced by Mary Tyler Moore Productions which took over the facilities there.

Other well-known series were filmed there (and are still filmed there) including Gunsmoke, Gilligan’s Island and Roseanne. Gilligan’s lagoon was an outdoor set there and it featured in an experimental episode of Roseanne and of course, it is what they used to film Victor’s dream sequence with the native women on the beach.

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Though I am not a huge fan of ZZ Top, I did find Luther’s video dream of ‘Legs’ a comic highlight. And of course, the dramatic highlight is Jack’s visit with Peter in an all-white morgue. Are the writers telling us that dreams merge with death?

I like the fact that during their visit, Jack asks Peter if he was really guilty and Peter does not confirm it. If Peter is a figment of Jack’s mind in this dream-state then clearly Peter cannot tell him something he wouldn’t know. But just what does Jack know about Peter, after all is said and done?

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Peter White appears in one more episode later, another experimental episode. It’s very interesting the way the writers finally “end” his character, though the rape motif carries forward because Shirley shoots at someone else at the hospital that she accuses of rape. And then Jack Morrison (David Morse) becomes a victim of rape in prison.

I agree with Jlewis’ comment that the plot with Dr. Craig and the nightmare death was too coincidental. But this was a thematic episode, about sleep and dreams…and that plot was meant to mirror the nightmare of the rapes and the death of Peter White.

I should mention that ‘Sweet Dreams’ was nominated for an Emmy for writing, for Tom Fontana & John Masius. Plus an Emmy nomination for sound mixing. It also received a nod for director Mark Tinker at the Directors Guild Awards that year.

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I've enjoyed reading your posts about St. Elsewhere.  While I haven't seen it since it originally aired, I vividly remember the Peter White storyline.   I specifically remember the image of the masked rapist being  pretty disturbing back then.   Reading your posts brought back characters and storyline I had forgotten about.  I may have to seek out St. Elsewhere and try watching it again. 

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8 hours ago, Peebs said:

I've enjoyed reading your posts about St. Elsewhere.  While I haven't seen it since it originally aired, I vividly remember the Peter White storyline.   I specifically remember the image of the masked rapist being  pretty disturbing back then.   Reading your posts brought back characters and storyline I had forgotten about.  I may have to seek out St. Elsewhere and try watching it again. 

I think Jlewis has been watching them on Daily Motion or some other site. I have a Hulu subscription and all six seasons are on Hulu, without commercials.

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