Foot Work

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“When you come to the evolution of the dance, its history and philosophy, I know as much about that as I do about how a television tube produces a picture — which is absolutely nothing. I don’t know how it all started and I don’t want to know. I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or as a means of expressing myself. I just dance.” — Fred Astaire

Eccentric Cricket

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From the London Review and Literary Journal of August 1796:

A Cricket-Match was played by eleven Greenwich Pensioners with one leg against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new Cricket ground, Montpelier Gardens, Walworth. About nine o’clock the men arrived in three Greenwich stages; about twelve the wickets were pitched, and the matched commenced. Those with but one leg had the first innings, and got ninety-three runs; those with but one arm got but forty-two runs during their innings. The one-legs commenced their second innings, and six were bowled out after they got sixty runs, so that they left off one hundred and eleven more than those with one arm. Next morning the match was played out, and the men with one leg beat the one-arms by 103 runnings. After the match was finished, the eleven one-legged men run a sweepstakes of one hundred yards distance, for twenty guineas, and the three first had prizes.

From Henry Colburn’s London “calendar of amusements,” 1840:

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From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:

A few winters ago, when a fine stretch of water in Sheffield Park was frozen over, his lordship [the Earl of Sheffield] organized a match on the ice, in which several of his house guests appeared. All the players used skates, the wicket-keeper, as might be imagined, having no little difficulty to keep still, and the bowlers being continually no-balled for running, or rather skating, over the crease. The beauty of ice-cricket lies in the fact that the batsman may score half-a-dozen runs while the fieldsman is endeavouring to regain his feet and pick up the ball, which may be lodged in a bank of snow.

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Fools’ Play

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In Top Hat, Ginger Rogers shuns the ardent Fred Astaire because she thinks he’s her best friend’s husband. How she could persist in this belief for any length of time is never explained — the misunderstanding drives the whole story.

This is an “idiot plot,” defined by Roger Ebert as “a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot.”

The term was coined by science fiction author James Blish, whose colleague Damon Knight added the second-order idiot plot, “in which not merely the principals, but everybody in the whole society has to be a grade-A idiot, or the story couldn’t happen.”

Such contrivances are annoying, but we’ll forgive a lot if we get to watch Fred Astaire dance. “How is it that Ginger has never met her best friend’s husband?” asks critic Alan Vanneman. “Well, Europe is a big place.”

Box Scores

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“It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation.” — RCA president David Sarnoff, 1939

“Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good can come of it.” — Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott, 1928

“Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.” — Rex Lambert, The Listener, 1936

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — movie producer Darryl Zanuck, 1946

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.” — BBC school broadcasting director Mary Somerville, 1948

“How can you put out a meaningful drama or documentary that is adult, incisive, probing, when every fifteen minutes the proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?” — Rod Serling, 1974

“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.” — Orson Welles, 1956

The Kuleshov Effect

In the 1910s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated the power of film editing with a telling experiment: He intercut the “inexpressive” face of actor Ivan Mosjoukine with images of a plate of soup, a child in a coffin, and an attractive woman. Though the footage of Mosjoukine was the same in each case, an audience “raved about the acting,” noted director Vsevolod Pudovkin. “[They admired] the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”

This reveals the effectiveness of montage, Kuleshov said. An audience reacts not to a film’s elements but to their juxtaposition — the sequence of images suggests an emotion to them, and they project this onto the actors. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrates:

Skin Deep

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

During the filming of Planet of the Apes in 1967, Charlton Heston noted “an instinctive segregation on the set. Not only would the apes eat together, but the chimpanzees ate with the chimpanzees, the gorillas ate with the gorillas, the orangutans ate with the orangutans, and the humans would eat off by themselves. It was quite spooky.”

James Franciscus noticed the same thing filming Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1969. “During lunch I looked up and realized, ‘My God, here is the universe,’ because at one table were all the orangutans eating, at another table were the apes, and at another table were the humans. The orangutan characters would not eat or mix with the ape characters, and the humans wouldn’t sit down and eat with any one of them.

“I remember saying, ‘Look around — do you realize what’s happening here? This is a little isolated microcosm of probably what’s bugging the whole world. Call it prejudice or whatever you want to call it. Whatever’s different is to be shunned or it’s frightening or so forth.’ Nobody was intermingling, even though they were all humans underneath the masks. The masks were enough to bring out our own little genetic natures of fear and prejudice. It was startling.”

(From Joe Russo and Larry Landsman, Planet of the Apes Revisited, 2001.)

On Time

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Japanese puzzle maven Kobon Fujimura devised this mind-reading trick. Ask a friend to look at his analog watch and mentally choose one of the hour numbers. Tell him, “I’m going to point to various numbers on the face of your watch with a pencil. As I do so, count silently, starting with the number after the one you’ve chosen. For example, if you’ve chosen 7, start counting with 8. When we reach 20, say, ‘Stop.'”

Point to any seven numbers at random, pretending to concentrate deeply. Then point to 12, then 11, 10, and so on counterclockwise around the dial. When your friend tells you to stop, you’ll be pointing to the number he had chosen.

Making Luck

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The audience was stunned when contestant Michael Larson won $110,237 on Press Your Luck in 1984, easily the largest one-day total ever won on a game show to that date. As lights flashed randomly on the Big Board, somehow Larson was consistently able to stop on squares that led to cash and additional play, and avoid the “whammy” that would bankrupt him.

It turned out that the light indicator wasn’t random. In studying the game at home, Larson had discovered that it followed five recognizable patterns; after memorizing these he could always be sure of landing on winning squares.

CBS producers divined the scheme, but they could find no cause to disqualify Larson, as he had broken no rules. They paid him his money, fixed the board, and established a maximum sum that future contestants could win.

Larson may have congratulated himself, but he didn’t get to enjoy his winnings — he lost the money in bad real estate investments and died of throat cancer at age 49.

Slow Muse

Uninspired film titles listed by Patrick Robertson in Film Facts (2001):

  • **** (U.S., 1967)
  • (Argentina, 1971)
  • ←→ (Canada, 1969)
  • A 100% Brazilian Film (Brazil, 1987)
  • An Animated Film (Poland, 1984)
  • Dutch Movie (Netherlands, 1984)
  • Film Without Title (West Germany, 1947)
  • Untitled (Italy, 1973)
  • Still Lacking a Good Title (Yugoslavia, 1988)
  • Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title (U.S., 1965)

Greta Garbo said, “If only those who dream about Hollywood knew how difficult it all is.”