As he has done in the past, Lear offers us a show set not in the make-believe middle-class world so many of us take for granted, but set instead in a decaying urban hostelry, populated with real people—the kind of people we pass on the street every day, but never really see.
Who are they? There is a crotchety old man (yet, trapped inside of him is a kindly, lonely fellow who wants most of all to love and be loved); two warm and charmingly fussy middle-aged homosexuals; two unashamed prostitutes (one innocent and foolish, modeled in a strikingly contemporary move, on Fanne Foxe; the other worldly-wise and tough); two sympathetic lesbians (the first young, pretty, and butch; the second fortyish, femme, but unafraid); and more.
One can say, then, that Hot l Baltimore raises questions about American life equally as profound as those raised by the advertising agency that asked the nation to decide which Twin had the Toni; that it deals with the sexual foibles of mankind, womankind, and otherkind with more honesty and compassion than anything since The Sonny & Cher Show went off the air; that it smashes taboos with the kind of nerveless bravado one would have thought was lost to video when Milton Berle hung up his petticoats. And what of Lear himself? Well, it can be said—it must be said—that no one has treated “the little people” of our land with greater affection and respect since Nelson Rockefeller learned how to say, “Hiya, fella.”
It is hard to pick the high point of the show. Perhaps it was when the old man came down the stairs yelling, “My hot plate’s on fire. It’s a towering inferno!” Perhaps it was when Taboo #6 (mention of perversion) was smashed nervelessly—no, it was when Taboo #4 (mention of V.D.) was smashed nervelessly; the live audience stood and cheered as one; you could almost see the “Applause” sign go on. Or was it the “bittersweet ending” after the “madcap comedy” (the audience was very, very quiet—in fact, you could practically see the “Quiet” sign go on)? One cannot choose between such moments.
I must quarrel with Lear on one matter, however. Terrence O’Flaherty quotes him in the Chronicle as saying, “Anyone who aspires to be a showman doesn’t keep repeating himself.” Now, Norman, you’re kidding us; for what makes Hot l Baltimore so perfect is the very careful repetition of every single element of the formula you have applied to all your other shows! The delightful use of coy “misunderstanding” plots that give us the heartwarming thrill of being able to feel superior to the characters as we see through their dilemmas long before they do; the way you let the live audience direct the shows by forcing the actors to freeze wordlessly after every hot line so there’s room for all the laughter and applause (Pauline Kael once called that kind of direction “demagogic,” but everyone knows she never has a good word for anyone trying to do something noble); the masterful way you outfox censors by stereotyping the characters in such a manner that no one can fail to see that they’re fools that wouldn’t hurt a fly. With your touch, Norman, anything is safe for TV!
You may have a problem, though, with Conchata Ferrell who plays April, one of those hookers—she came on a little too strong. One got the idea she might even put her character across. Well, should that happen, you could always write her parts down and bring back the mean old man. Or let her adopt a kid. Or have her get hit by a car and almost die. There’s lots of ways to soften her up. As you yourself told O’Flaherty: “It will no longer matter that April is a hooker. [The audience] will simply like the human being. Since we’re all God’s children—and I assume that applies to the Bible Belt also—in that context we’re members of the same family—the family of man.”
I can’t go as far as Lear—I haven’t grown to the point where I think Bible Belt people, the sort of bigoted folks who’d want this wonderful show taken off the air, can be considered God’s children—but I can admire Lear’s tolerance in accepting them into the human family. It’s not every day you find a man so gracious.
In these terrible times, it does give you hope.
Wednesday, Feb. 5
—10 PM, Ch. 5: Patty Hearst—Can She Ever Come Home? In a box, maybe. Marilyn Baker wraps up the case, takes viewer’s questions on the phone. An orgy of recrimination.
Friday, Feb. 7
—8 PM, Ch. 5: Khan! Premier of yet another city cops and robbers entry. This time the hero is a private eye working Chinatown with—no kidding—a Number One Son and, in keeping with the times, a Number One Daughter to boot. Read Dashiell Hammett’s “Dead Yellow Women” instead (in The Big Knockover, Vintage Paper).
Sunday, Feb. 9
—8:30 PM, Ch. 4: Colombo (2 hrs.). Colombo gets his first vacation in ten years but someone gets murdered and he’s the only homicide dick around, so he takes off his Bermuda shorts, puts on his raincoat, and gets to work. The show’s producers are going to have to pull some fancy stuff to get through the whole two hours without giving us a glimpse of Colombo’s long-rumored wife.
—9:30 PM, Ch. 9: The Ascent of Man—The Music of the Spheres. Mathematics and music traced through the Greeks, the Islamics, Moorish Spain, and the Renaissance. The great thing about Jacob Bronowski’s series is the sense of awe and majesty he can convey about human history—the final incomprehensibility of it all—and his flair for seeking out obscure places and characters to illustrate familiar concepts and themes. His only unifying idea, though, is “progress,” and that often makes his presentation as simplistic as it is compelling. Still, a very fine show.
Wednesday, Feb. 12
—10 PM, Ch. 5: Cher. Her comeback, not to mention Bette Midler’s, who’s on tap as well. Elton John drops in, offers a ten-minute dissertation on “Theory of the Bass Guitar in the Later Records of J. Frank Wilson,” explains why Miss M’s career has gone down the tubes, sings one song, and steals the show.
Thursday, Feb. 13
—1:30 PM, Ch. 7: Afternoon Playbreak—The Girl Who Couldn’t Lose. Julie Kavner (Rhoda’s sister Brenda) as an “ugly duckling” (of course) who wins big on the quiz shows but doesn’t do so well in The Great Game of Life. Good Bet.
—9 PM, Ch. 5: Queen of Stardust Ballroom (2 hrs.): Drama centering on a widow’s attempt to make something of her life. A rare chance to see the great Maureen Stapleton.
Friday, Feb. 14
—11 PM, Ch. 2: Sgt. Bilko—“Where There’s a Will.” Perhaps the finest of all Bilko segments, turning on the attempt of a greedy relative to cheat one of Bilko’s boys out of his inheritance. You can guess the ending, but you won’t believe how Bilko gets there.
Monday, Feb. 17
—9:30 PM, Ch. 5: Salute to Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra hosts an evening of clips and speeches. Welles will be present to be honored; humility is demanded, but will he come through?
Thursday, Feb. 6
—3:30 PM, Ch. 7: Masque of the Red Death (1964, Dir. Roger Corman). City film critic Michael Goodwin rates this as Corman’s best. Drawn from Edgar Allen Poe and featuring a disease only Poe seems to have known about, plus Vincent Price and Jane Asher.
Saturday, Feb. 8
—11 PM, Ch. 44: Pat & Mike (1952, Dir. Geo. Cukor). Tracy as a sports promoter and Hepburn as the P.E. teacher he turns into a star. One of their best, if not the best. Features the famous line, “There’ ain’t much meat on ‘er, but what there is is cherce.”
Sunday, Feb. 9
—12 Noon, Ch. 44: Air Force. Listed in last issue, but Ch. 44 dumped it. This time it’s for real, we hope.
—[Time/Channel missing] Road to Bali (1953). Hope, Crosby, Lamour. Irresistible.
—4 PM, Ch. 2: Road to Rio (1947). Same cast, same rating.
—7 PM. Ch. 44: To Have and Have Not (1945, Dir. Howard Hawks). Hawks and Hemingway were shooting the bull one day. “I can make a good movie out of your worst book,” Hawks told Hem. “Oh, yeah? What’s my worst book?” To Have and Have Not was the book and the movie’s better than good. With Bogart, and the unbelievable debut of 19-year old Lauren Bacall. The song she sings, by the way, was dubbed—by Andy Williams.
Thursday, Feb. 13
—11:30 PM, Ch. 44: To Be or Not To Be (1942, Dir. Ernst Lubitsch). An absolute marvel. A troup of actors outwit the occupying Nazis in WW 2 Poland; Benny’s the Polish Ham and he was never better. With Carole Lombard, too—you can’t miss.
Saturday, Feb. 15
—11:30 PM, Ch. 2: Dementia 13 (1963). Family with morbid interest in dead sibling has difficulty resolving internal conflicts. Somebody good directed this, but we’re damned if we can remember who.
THE TUBE EDITOR REQUESTS: That Channel 44, the Bay Area’s TV Movie Champ, dig deep into its vaults and pull out Suddenly, a chilling 1954 action classic starring Frank Sinatra as an assassin hired to kill the president as his train pulls through a sleepy California town. Hasn’t been on TV since 1963, but now it’s time to bring it back.