A Sultry Defender of the CBS Olympics

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

Among the most entertaining of non-“auteur” star vehicles-made at a time when stars often were not only good actors but unique personalities as well-is the first pairing of America’s innocent James Stewart (as he was always billed in pictures, never Jimmy) and Europe’s worldly Marlene Dietrich, out in the Wild West of 1939’s Destry Rides Again [Tuesday, Feb. 24, AMC, 54, 11 P.M.]. The picture is a perfect example of what made the old studio star system in its heyday work so well: Both stars’ parts are expertly styled for what these actors can do best and, because their innate personas have such appeal and scope, the characters achieve an added dimension of mythic size that could never be attained with only good actors. It was Stewart’s first of about two dozen westerns-only John Wayne rivaled him for hit cowboy pictures throughout the early 50’s and early 60’s (Wayne’s first hit western, John Ford’s Stagecoach, was also released in 1939)-and set a particular image of him that he and others did variations on for the rest of his career: the book-reading, nonviolent Eastern dude in the West who must learn to use a gun when necessary. Western master Ford cast Stewart in exactly that same role 23 years later for what would turn out to be Stewart’s, Ford’s and Wayne’s last great western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Also released in 1939 was Stewart’s most defining nonwestern role, in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For Dietrich, on the other hand, Destry was a huge change of image-done with that clearly in mind: Marlene, after several successes with director-discoverer-mentor-lover Josef von Sternberg in the early 30’s, had toward the end of the decade become “box-office poison” to exhibitors, the somewhat distant pedestal Sternberg had put her on having lost its allure with Depression audiences. Destry ripped her right off any pedestal and, interestingly, it was Sternberg himself who convinced her to take the role of a tough, brawling saloon chanteuse, a woman of easy virtue. The extended cat fight between her and Una Merkel is justly famous, and the novelty song she sings, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” became a popular Dietrich standard throughout the rest of her career. I saw her sing it marvelously at a concert in Denver 33 years later. Directed by veteran Hollywood hack George Marshall, the film is unadorned, straightforward, unpretentiously made and surely Marshall’s best movie of about 400 he did. Marlene and Jimmy had a blazing affair during the shooting, and the electricity is noticeable. Dietrich told me that during one love scene, Stewart’s “interest” became so “apparent” that director Marshall called an early lunch, at the same time wagging his index finger reproachfully at the actor, “Jimmy …”

The Hitchcock Watch: Stewart’s lifelong best friend, Henry Fonda, did one stark, strange suspense film with the Master, an especially personal work to Hitchcock, yet among his least known and least popular, 1957’s true story The Wrong Man [Tuesday, Feb. 24, AMC, 54, 8 P.M.]. When Hitchcock was 5, his father had a police friend put the child in a prison cell for five minutes to teach him “what happens to bad little boys”; this resulted in a thoroughgoing terror of police, and in this picture an innocent man goes to jail, which drives the wife mad. Done in a kind of hypnotic, quasi-documentary fashion, the film is brilliantly played by Fonda and Vera Miles, and reveals the director in one of his darkest moods. From 1938 comes Hitchcock’s final English success, relying on a lot of British humor, The Lady Vanishes [Saturday, Feb. 21, CUNY, 75, 9 P.M.]. Although Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Dame May Whitty are absolutely splendid, the script dates: As Hitch himself used to say, negating the entire message-in-code plot, “Why didn’t they just send a carrier pigeon?” But as an example of the oddball innocence of early Hitchcock, it’s charming.

Wednesday, Feb. 18

Olympic Winter Games. Tonight: Ladies’ figure skating, short program. NYTV correspondent Nick Paumgarten filed this report from his couch:

Sadly, there are only a few more days left to watch figure skating practices in prime-time. No more Verne Lundquist and Scott Hamilton, the CBS commentators in the brown sweaters, killing time in the skim-milk light of a near-empty rink, while flu-ridden CBS staff members keep repeating the network-mantra that Americans tune into the Olympics for stories, not sports. Now you have to settle for Verne and Scott in tuxedos getting worked up over American medal contenders Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek in the real competition.…

In fact, at this point, the Olympics may make for compelling TV. The ice dancers will be swapping partners back at the hotel, the female hockey players will be loading up on the sake and looking for a scrap in the Olympic Village.…

But if the coverage is still pissing you off, or if you have questions (i.e., is Scott Hamilton “best friends” with every skater whose moves he describes?), just put in a call to Leslie Anne Wade, the CBS Sports Olympic spokesman. Ms. Wade is the Mike McCurry of the Nagano Olympics. She calms all the disgruntled sports TV columnists who keep writing about how dull host Jim Nantz is and why they delayed the women’s Super G, etc.…

NYTV called her in Nagano to complain about Verne and Scott’s brown sweaters, but wound up taking a shine to Ms. Wade’s smoky voice. “Did you know the voice was gonna sound like this?” she said. “It’s not from smoking or talking too much. I’ve sounded like this since I was a kid.”…

Then Ms. Wade started putting the hurt on me a little bit: “So what are you gonna write about, how beleaguered I am or something?” she said. It was 8:20 A.M., Nagano time. “Well, I’m not beleaguered.” But is she having fun? “Truthfully? I’d rather be in New York.” But then she’d have to watch the Games on TV. [WCBS, 2, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, Feb. 21

Look, just because ABC avoids airing Nothing Sacred during a rating sweeps period (tonight, you get Harrison Ford in the 1994 semi-blockbuster Clear and Present Danger ) doesn’t mean that someone in the executive offices doesn’t like the show. Even though the show is not in the top 40 (actually, it usually finishes around 118th place), ABC has renewed the priest drama and will begin showing it at 9 P.M. on Saturdays when it relaunches on March 7 (that is, a week after sweeps is up).…

“It’s very baffling to me how these decisions get made,” said Kevin Anderson, the 38-year-old star of the show from his trailer on the set in Canoga Park, Calif. “So a couple of months ago, I decided to stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy myself. The feedback we get is 99 percent positive, including priests and nuns and spiritual people. It’s very inspiring to feel that people who actually live that life kind of dig it. Bill Kane, who created the show, was saying that it’s kind of a cathartic experience for people who are in these religious communities to see their lives revealed in a kind of artistic way, and that they appreciate the show’s attempt to be authentic and honest.…

“So far it has stirred up a debate, and I think that’s great and that as an actor that’s what you want to do-make people talk about a certain idea. It has as much effect on people’s lives as watching the mindless crap that you see all over the TV. You know, bathroom humor. I’m not a sociologist, but I would think it would have a dulling effect on someone if they watched it constantly.”…

Mr. Anderson has appeared in a few movies ( Hoffa, Sleeping With the Enemy ), but he likes the grind of TV acting: “One of the pros is you never have time to get neurotic about what you’re doing, particularly me, because I’m in, like, every scene. There’s kind of an un-neurotic thing that’s very nice. You have so little time you’re just going with your instincts, and that can be kind of fun. One of the negatives is you can’t be as thorough. You can’t rehearse, and a lot of times you’re basically remembering your lines and hitting your mark. It’s relentless. I miss not being able to go back to my trailer after lunch and take an hour nap, but actors are such babies. I would say I’m getting more good out of this than bad, because you’re just acting 12 to 15 hours a day, just like nonstop.”…

What do you watch on TV? “I like to watch David Letterman, and I like that George-is it George?-or Charlie Rose. I shamefully admit that when I’m not working, I get a sort of sadistic pleasure out of watching those cheap shows like Hard Copy .”…

Michael Suman, author of a collection of essays, Religion and Prime-Time Television , thinks Nothing Sacred deals with religion better than any other show, but that basically religion has little place on TV: “TV isn’t the best medium for religion because spiritual and transcendental issues aren’t that entertaining. Whenever it gets into the public realm, one religion tries to cram its way of looking at religion down each other’s throats. A lot of the criticism today is about the lack of religion on TV or when it’s on, it’s portrayed as negative; but it’s all coming from the religious right, who really don’t want to see religion in all its different realms but only their own view. They don’t want to see an accurate reflection of religion in American life, especially if it’s far removed from the Protestant conservative vision of the world. TV is a business. It’s about entertainment, it’s about removing people from the serious issues of life. It doesn’t deal well with the subtleties, complexities and transcendental issues involved. I think Nothing Sacred is a good show, and one of the best examples of religion on television that I’ve seen because there’s a bit of ambiguity-which is why it’s doing so poorly in the ratings. It’s too good of a show to be successful on network TV.” [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]