A HIGH-POWERED HOWARD

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (courtesy Verduno)

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

Howard in his prime (courtesy Verduno)

Howard in his prime (courtesy Di Verduno)

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday (courtesy Di Verduno)

During his fabulous decade in Hollywood Leslie Howard received two Academy Award nominations.  His first was for the leading role in Berkeley Square, the part he made his own on stage and screen.  The second nomination came in 1938, the year before he would appear as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind  —  a nomination for his performance as Henry Higgins in the British film Pygmalion,a role for which he was eminently suitable and one which he played to the hilt.  As excellent as Wendy Hiller and everyone else are,  Pygmalion is Howard’s picture  —  as Of Human Bondage is his despite the fact that these days it tends to be discussed only in reference to Bette Davis.

Viewing Pygmalion for the first time in several years, I am aghast at how slow a start it takes, and how belabored some of the Shavian wit occasionally sounds.  This is a play, and no amount of opening up, no amount of montage-ing by the writing and direction and editing can disguise that this is a play, though contemporary (and some present-day) reviews seem so untroubled by this that I suspect I may owe the film yet another look.

But once these fine actors go to work, everything picks up, and the camera persistently catches an array of subtleties in the Howard face.  Most amazing of all, for a 1938 British film, is the richness of sexual dynamism In Howard’s portrayal.  As he begins to respond to Wendy Hiller’s growing interest and flirtatiousness, his eyes give us surprising erotic messages for a film of this vintage.

And speaking of its vintage:  Pygmalion was released the year before Clark Gable made a legendary exit in Gone with the Wind.  In Pygmalion Leslie Howard says damn four times.

In addition to his damns, Howard offers us another of his instances of seeming born to play the part.  He handles the Shavian lines like the professional he is, the Englishman he is  —  and solid actor and shining star.

Pygmalion
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
1938

Rick’s Flicks is grateful to Ginevra Di Verduno for permission to use photographs featured on her blog.  If you are not familiar with her INAFFERRABILE LESLIE HOWARD, you have a treat ahead of you. The blog is picture-filled with a wide range of portraits, on- and off-screen; it features history and interviews and memoirs; and embraces the latest in Howard scholarship.

https://inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com

NEXT FRIDAY POST February 24

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

AWARD BIZARROS

The National Board of Review has announced its award winners for 2015.  The best written, best directed film with the best performance by an actor is The Martian, and the best film is Mad Max.  Interesting.  But then, the National Board of Review is always interesting.  Actually, they are.  And one must admire their going always their own way as the Golden Globes used to do before succumbing  —  to what?  I still admire the National Board for presenting its best actor award to William Hurt AND Raul Julia for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  We need more getting away from the idea of a single award for a single performance among all the year’s great work.  The Golden Globes make an effort but only by pretending that certain films are comedies.

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The awards madness has begun, and award givers continue to let journalists and talking heads influence their decisions, which decisions the journalists and talking heads will then decry.  While it is hard to take seriously a journalist whom the once-staid New York Times allows to use most to mean almost, the article in the 12/15/15 paper at least is not by the cynical Michael Cieply and did teach me that the typical budget for a best picture campaign  —  yes, you read that correctly, campaign  —  is one million dollars.  (“The Oscar Race Begins…” by Cara Buckley, 12/3/15.)

It does become increasingly difficult to take the Academy Awards seriously.  I have to keep reminding myself that the award did honor Vivien Leigh twice, even being ahead of its time in recognizing AT THE TIME what would prove to be the timelessness of the Streetcar performance.  (There seems some present confusion about their decision, however,  since clips from the film on the Oscar show never show HER but only feature non-winner Marlon Brando.)  In the past the Academy twice honored Olivia de Havilland as well for two remarkable performances  —  and Luise Rainer whose talents and two Oscars it is fashionable to denigrate today.  Some Academy voters had the guts to vote for Hamlet as the best picture of 1948.  They also recognized Maggie Smith in her Prime and the sets in Hugo and the editing of Body and Soul.  I wander.  There HAVE been good decisions.  I can’t dismiss the award though I reserve the right to despise the annual show.

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DOCUMENTARY SHORT LIST

The Academy has released a short list of 15 films being considered for the feature documentary award.  The list includes The Hunting Ground, Going Clear, and Where to Invade Next.  The final five will be announced January 14.  (My information from the New York Times 12/3/15.)

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MATT DAMON?  REALLY?

Matt Damon, among the best and brightest of current stars, has joined the ranks of those saying dumb things about Academy Awards.  Speaking at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Damon apparently described himself as “shocked” to discover that Ridley Scott had never won an Oscar as best director.  How could he need to discover that?  I’ve always known it.  Perhaps it only means that the Oscars are not that important to him.  I can respect and admire that while being shocked myself that Damon has not been nominated for such outstanding portrayals as those in The Rainmaker, Mr. Ripley, Bagger Vance, Contagion, The Informant and Pretty Horses.  No one admires Matt Damon more than this critic, but his comments disturb me since they suggest that artists should receive the annual Oscar for overall career work.  Isn’t That what the honorary ones are for?  (See Rick’s Flicks, 4/1/12, “The Myth of Cary Grant’s Oscar.”)

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SOMETHING BESIDES AWARDS

If you are in Astoria, New York or can get there, you will not want to miss the Museum of the Moving Image, especially its exhibit “Walkers:  Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact,” (through April 10).  You will also find it time well spent to run down Kristin M. Jones’ beautifully written article about the exhibit’s juxtaposition of posters, stills and clips from Hollywood’s past with works of art influenced by filmmakers and their films, especially, apparently, Hitchcock and Ford.  (Wall Street Journal, 11/18/15.)

NEXT Friday POST JANUARY 15

Until then,
See you AT the movies,
Rick

ACADEMY AWARDS – a scattering of quotes

A few quotations over the last few years from the prominent and the not so prominent:

A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times in 2008:

“…I am…bothered by the disproportionate importance that the Academy Awards have taken on, and by the distorting influence they exercise over the way we make, market and see movies in this country.”  (2/24/08)

Scott wrote in the same article:  “The wonderful thing about the Academy Awards is that they are fundamentally trivial.  To pretend otherwise is to trivialize movies.”   This reminds me of the psychiatrist who after a “Good morning!” from a fellow psychiatrist, asked himself:  I wonder what he meant by that.  I wish Scott had written more about what he meant.

“the way we make, market and see movies in this country”:  Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes in the NYT later that same year:  “If, as expected, ‘Iron Man’ comes into the awards mix, that will be partly because Paramount recently moved a more conventional prospect, a drama called ‘The Soloist,’ into next year and out of contention.  That film…had promised to complicate the studio’s life at a time when it saw awards potential for the currently hot Mr. Downey in three pictures at once.”  (“Box Office Winners,” NYT 10/28/08)

Two years later, Tom Sherak, then president of the Academy, was quoted by interviewer David Mermelstein in the Wall Street Journal about interesting the public in the awards presentation:  “…make them feel invested and that’s done by having movies they like up for awards.”  Mermelstein:  “ABC, the show’s long-time broadcaster, depends on high numbers (ratings) to set pricey advertising rates.  The greater the fees, the more the network pays to televise the ceremony.  That’s important because over 90% of the Academy’s revenue is derived from this relationship.”   (3/3/10)  AH!  “the way we make, market and see movies in this country.”

Back to 2008:  Sean Smith and Benjamin Svetkey wrote an article for Entertainment Weekly called “Why Does Hollywood’s Biggest Night Keep Getting Smaller?”  There’s very little historical perspective in this piece by youngsters unfamiliar with the world before T.V.; but they offer a couple of fascinating quotations from E.W. Davis, then  Executive Director of the Academy.  “…it’s not because we’re too dumb to know that people aren’t fascinated by who wins best production design.”  Well, they won’t become fascinated if that’s how the Executive Director feels; and they could become more interested in technical awards if the same dumb, shallow explanations of categories were not engaged  every year with stupid comments from silly gigglers like Goldie Hawn and arrogant clowns like Mike Myers.  This year one of the two awards I was most interested in was the award for production design which I so wanted to go to Budapest Hotel.”  In 2011 it was the single category in which I was most interested, in favor of Hugo.

But the strange Mr. Davis did make a good point:  “We gave out Oscars before there was any television broadcast at all.”  (Hear!  Hear!)  But the article next immediately made fun of that remark.  And Smith and Svetkey made an admirable observation themselves about “a fragmented media culture  —  with a glut of award shows and 24-hour entertainment coverage dimming the mystery of stardom…” (EW 3/7/08)

And continuing with Academy Award history, from Jerry Vermilye’s The Films of the Twenties:  “In the Academy’s third competition, there were no less than eight nominations for Best Actor, including two each for Ronald Colman, Maurice Chevalier and Geroge Arliss.”  (Secaucus, Citadel Press, 1985)  THEM WAS THE DAYS.

NEXT FRIDAY POST April 3
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

MORE LEVIATHAN, PLUS 40s DISNEY

MORE ON THE RUSSIAN FILM LEVIATHAN

Please see last week’s blog (3/13/15) for an earlier description of the film.

The local priest is another interesting character in Leviathan.  He is portrayed as siding with the community’s power structure, perhaps even being part of it.  He offers sympathetic counsel to the grasping, drunken mayor but gives the desperate, honestly self-questioning Kolya bromides and judgmental preachments.  Interestingly he quotes the scriptural leviathan but likens him, if the subtitles are correct, to God (instead of the traditional enemy that God defeats).  Most reviews I have seen are more interested in Thomas Hobbes’ leviathan (Leviathan) than the Bible’s.

Lindsey Bahr, reviewing Leviathan for the Associated Press and describing Kolya’s struggle to save his property from developers, says many things better than I could.  Here are two:

“Kolya, a hot-tempered, passionate sort, calls in his cool, suave friend…a buttoned-up Moscow lawyer, for help in court.  Despite a front of masculine aloofness, Kolya wears every worry on his face and in every jug of vodka he consumes.  His entire being is wrapped up in the house, a physical representation of his heritage, and a symbol of his personhood, and it’s all in jeopardy.”

AND:

“Alas, their appeal is rejected by a humorless bureaucrat who reads what might as well be this man’s execution sentence with monotone, robotic speed.”

Reprinted in the Akron Beacon
Journal 2/26/15

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DISNEY IN THE LATE 40s

My  out-of-town film festival program a couple of years ago promised that the annual Saturday morning potpourri of animation would include a feature mixing animation and live action.  Since the announcement further described the surprise film as one not having been publicly shown in a long while, I guessed to myself what I was about to see.  When the Song of the South title hit the screen I burst into applause, joined by only two others in an audience of more than a hundred.  The couple on my left stared at me as if wondering should they change their seats.

The Akron Beacon Journal‘s outstanding television/film reporter/critic, Rich Heldenfels writes a weekly mailbag column in which he responds to requests for information.  A recent query concerned the Disney 1946 feature Song of the SouthHeldenfels responded with information about the Disney group’s keeping the film unavailable for fear of reaction to what is seen as racist content.

Having seen Song of the South not all that long ago at that Midwest film festival mentioned above, I am convinced that the perception of the film and the company’s fears are groundless.  (Easy for me to pontificate:  I have nothing at stake.)  And it might be more accurate to say that the perception is wrong  but that the fears of reaction might be realistic.  I consider myself highly sensitive to racism in every form and, with a lifetime of moviegoing experience under my belt, especially sensitive to it on screen.  At this same film festival over the years I have been chagrined to find that many in the audience are quite comfortable laughing at the typical stereotypes and racial jokes in the typical Hollywood productions of the 20s, 30s and early 40s.  I confess to having once hissed a cartoon there.  But I write of my own sensitivity with fear and trembling, aware that I have never experienced for one moment the hurts and injustices that the average African- American must daily encounter.

Having declared my caveats, I feel prepared to assert that I found nothing offensive in Song of the South.  Uncle Remus is a slave, and he is obsequious in the manner of a slave toward his owners.  His speech is that of many African-Americans to this day.  But the boy Johnny’s devotion to him and his love for him are the emotional center of the story.  The audience identifies with Uncle Remus and his delightful tales (recently selected and rewritten for modern readers by towering African-American author Julius Lester).  As Johnny, Bobby Driscoll, an uneven, unreliable talent, is good here.  His performance works.  James Baskett as Uncle Remus received a special Academy Award for his portrayal.  Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Tempy is strangely subdued.  (Was she already ill?)

What shines through all the film is the strange historical, sociological fact that for Southerners more than Unionists, blacks were people, individual human beings.

When you are part of an audience you can sense its overall reaction, its general leaning, its siding this way or that.  At my film festival, the same audience that I was certain was so moved by the gentle Uncle Remus and were pulling for him, laughed at an ugly racist joke in the very next film.

Also in the cast are Ruth Warwick, Luana Patton and the great Lucile Watson.  The photographer was Gregg Toland.  The Academy Award-winning song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah was written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert.  James Baskett’s Oscar citation read:  “To James Baskett for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus friend and storyteller to the children of the world in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.”

Song of the South
Harve Foster (live action)
Wilfred Jackson (animation)
1946

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FOR NORTHEAST OHIO

If you are a reader of blogs devoted to film, you will be aware that the Cleveland International Film Festival is underway.  Check out John Ewing’s current Cleveland Cinematheque calendar in which he describes how he uses the festival’s excellent but unwieldy schedule and calendar.  I found it to be personally helpful advice.

Be sure to check out also websites and Rich Heldenfels’ Akron Beacon Journal articles for opportunities to catch festival films at other, closer venues:  The Nightlight, the Akron-Summit County Public Library and the Akron Art Museum.

NEXT FRIDAY POST March 27
Until then,
See you at the movies, including at Akron and Cleveland,
Rick

OPEN LETTER ON ACADEMY AWARDS

OPEN LETTER TO THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS & SCIENCES

As a lifelong movie fanatic who has followed the Academy and its Awards for more years than I like to remember, I feel disappointed with the responses of the president, Ms. Boone Isaacs, to critics of this year’s nominations as reported by the AP’s Sandy Cohen.  I am puzzled to learn that the Academy is working on “greater diversity” and on “being more inclusive.”  Just how can you accomplish that?  By nominating possibly less worthy films and performances in the interest of a range of colors and genders?  By establishing a quota system?  For performers?  Writers?  Script content?  I heard a television commentator state blithely  —  but definitely and firmly  —  that Hollywood does not make enough movies about blacks and women.  How many are enough?  By whose yardstick?

I do appreciate the president’s addressing the factor of of the individual voter as opposed to an apparently general public conception of  the Academy members around what would have to be a huge table or in a massive meeting, talking and comparing as a group  —  instead of what they actually do:  send in individual ballots from many states and countries.  The Academy as a whole doesn’t work at balancing acts or arrange trade-offs.  “We’re not giving this picture any major awards, so let’s give it this as consolation.”  This is how the public and the Academy’s unenlightened critics seem to imagine the nominating and voting process.

It of course doesn’t work that way.  It can’t.  And that would be the only way the Academy could perpetrate a snub, which journalists are more and more anxious to find and which I’m sick of reading about.  I have loved Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz all my life.  The only way for Gone with the Wind to win the best picture Oscar was for The Wizard of Oz not to.  It never occurred to me that The Wizard of Oz had been snubbed.  It did not occur to the Academy either and was not intended.  A snub by the Academy would require deliberate planning by all the membership or a large chunk of it.

I am grateful for your president’s statement supporting this year’s nominees.  They are all excellent performers with fine talents, and I regret the opprobrium being heaped on them by hecklers.

Allied to this kind of unintelligent criticism going on this year, though without the racial/racist bent, is the call for additional best picture nominees; this call, which has been heeded by the Academy, began with  journalistic demands that films which make a lot of money be nominated whether or not they are deserving, in order to keep the public interested.  This call is now being sounded by even once responsible critics, critics I used to respect.  Incomprehensibly some journalists  —  we’re talking publications as significant as the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly  —  are calling for the nomination of big box office hits in order to keep the public interested in the Oscar show.  God’s eyebrows.  The show?  Not even addressing the obvious fact the presentation of the Awards should never have become a show, I can claim that  I go back so far that I remember when the evening was an awards ceremony and not, repeat NOT, a show.  And it was not considered mandatory that a comedian host the ceremony  —  much less a comedian who will make fun of all the pictures and performances we are miraculously supposed to take seriously a few minutes later.  Not to mention the lame jokes of  awkward presenters, unaccustomed to a live audience.  They are often so busy making fun of what they’re presenting, or calling attention to themselves rather than the recipient, that I am still waiting and hoping for the serious winner who will come to the stage, take his or her Oscar and knock the presenter(s) flat or at the very least lecture the presenters or the writers of their jejune patter and take up for the dignity of the award.

Every year, because you ask for it, you get reviewed as a show; and you’ve yet to get a good review.  And it’s in the interest of this poor excuse for a television show that the Academy is to lower its standards and further increase the number of picture nominees?  Why not just let the public vote?

If any increase in the number of nominees is needed  —  and not for any of the reasons journalists are giving thus far  —  it is in the acting categories.  Why just five?  Year after year, outstanding performances go ignored because of the limit on the number of nominees.

I thank President Boone Isaacs for her response to the media.  And while I appreciate her willingness to address concerns regarding the nomination process, I believe that the Academy has work to do in how it honors its professionals.  Thank you for listening.

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I appreciate the assistance of correspondent/follower BEC in preparation of this letter though BEC bears no responsibility for possible error or misinterpretation.

NEXT POST FridayFebruary 13
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

 

INDIAN SUMMER, LESLIE HOWARD, LEATRICE JOY

MOVIES ARE EVERYWHERE

Lynn, in John Knowles’ novel Indian Summer,  is a young adult but not too old to run away  —  away from a family and a place that are stifling her.  Walking through the Connecticut night she heads for a big enough town “where the movie houses seemed the kind of palaces she loved, so much more magical than a real house…movie palaces with their functionless theater boxes, tormented Vatican pillars lining the lobbies, rococo balconies encrusted with crust, lost Arabian courtyards featuring one drinking fountain, fake stars winking from the satiny ceiling; above all, their huge screens, where she could watch huge people doing huge things and be happy until the arid moment when the lights came on and she had to withdraw into her own somewhat undersized self again and step back onto the bleak, unintelligible treadmill called real life.”  (John Knowles, Indian Summer, Random House, 1966.)

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LESLIE HOWARD IN WORDS AND PICTURES

The magazine/book “Gone With the Wind, 75th anniversary of the first blockbuster movie,” does better by Leslie Howard  than the other current magazine/book (Life’s) mentioned in my blog of 11/21/14.  Howard was omitted from the latter in the section on the post- GWTW life and work of the film’s stars.  But here he is included with mention of his death in WW ll in a plane crash following Nazi gunfire.  The two pages of information capsules contain stills from The Petrified Forest, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and his two Oscar-nominated roles in Berkeley Square and Pygmalion.  There is also a very good studio portrait as well as a black and white study of him as Ashley Wilkes.  (“Gone With the Wind, 75th anniversary…”, 1-5 Publishing, Irvine, CA.)  (For an outstanding gallery of Leslie Howard photographs I refer readers to Ginevra di Verduno’s blog http://www.inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com.)

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On her blog “John Gilbert, St. Elmo and Me” Sheryl Stinchcum currently offers a farewell to the late Leatrice Joy.  (www.johngilbertandme.wordpress.com)

NEXT FRIDAY POST FEBRUARY 6, “An Open Letter to the Academy”
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

SHORT TAKES; A POTPOURRI OF THE RECENTLY VIEWED — PLUS MEMORABLE QUOTES

GREAT MOVIE LINES OF ALL TIME:

Joan Leslie & Eddie Albert

JL: You don’t LOOK like a lion tamer.
EA: How many’ve you met?

THE WAGONS ROLL AT NIGHT (1941)

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Serious Reflection for All MovieGOers

My local newspaper this morning contained a Washington Post article by Cecilia Kang reporting that four new films starring Adam Sandler and a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will show on Netflix without being released to theaters.  Netfilx will make the Sandler movies.  The Weinstein Company “swung the deal” for the Crouching Tiger sequel…”  Kang begins her article:  “Not coming first to a theater near you…”  She continues, “The move has the potential to disrupt the business food chain that has fed Hollywood for decades.”

Those of us who love GOING to the movies need to keep aggressively doing so, supporting our film society, supporting the special venue, supporting the theater that shows the kind of film we want to see.

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RECENTLY VIEWED  —  FROM 2004 BACK TO 1927

Colin Farrell Back to Back

His versatility and profound talent shine in two films I saw within a 24-hour period.  I came away from them impressed not so much with his knowing, and leading from, his strengths as by his apparent ability to play any role handed to him.  As a playfully murderous, murderously playful Jesse James in a fantasy called American Outlaws he is photogenic, touching, scary and hilarious. In A Home at the End of the World he is heartbreakingly believable in a film that swings its pendulum between hectic humor and bemused melancholy.

En Effeuillant la marguerite (Plucking the Daisy)

The single- joke plot goes on a bit too long, but this is filled with French charm.  Brigitte Bardot and Daniel Gélin are both very good.  The pace is right, and there is an excellent score.  Highlight:  Bardot, discovering that people she knows are in the audience, is side-splittingly funny trying to be modest while stripping on stage.

Flesh and the Devil

This is Clarence Brown’s movie.  Garbo  —  mea culpa  —  over-vamps, and John Gilbert is over-the-top all way round.  Even Lars Hanson is not as effective as usual.  (What must Garbo have thought of her erstwhile Swedish co-star’s American presence?)  Brown tells his story with pictures.  The camera’s study of the gift bracelet is a good example, expressing Garbo’s character and motivation.  88 years later the sex in this film is still coolly hot.

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SCORSESE ON WILDER

Scorsese calls Billy Wilder’s The Apartment “one of the most beautiful black-and-white Cinemascope pictures ever made.”  He continues:  “the sets were designed by the great Hungarian/French art director Alexander Trauner (who also designed Children of Paradise and Welles’ Othello), and by the time the story has ended you know every object in that apartment, and you’ll probably be able to draw a floor plan.  Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, along with Trauner, the set decorator Edward G. Boyle, the actors Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine and the cinematographer Joseph LaShelle…work out all the action with the greatest care:  every movement and gesture is inseparable from the space itself.”  (The quotation is from Martin Scorsese’s programming column in TCM’s September issue of Now Playing.)

1960 was a year in which Hollywood’s best film actually won the Academy Award as best picture of the year.

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For Northeast Ohio

ReelMassillon continues at the Lincoln Theatre in downtown Massillon as Kurtiss Hare presents Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem.  This should be a visual feast and probably a thoughtful one as well.  Christoph Walz, Matt Damon, David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton.  7:00 tonight.  Let’s GO to a movie.

NEXT Friday Post October 16.  Please stop by.

Until then,
SEE YOU AT THE MOVIES
Rick