Once more, I’m afraid I’m giving the “Screening Room” slightly short shrift (what is a shrift anyway?) this week—and for much the same reason as last week: the Asheville Film Festival. Considering I sat through 14 feature films on Monday and Tuesday (don’t try this at home), I have neither the time, nor the energy to get into anything too deep dish this week. (But I have plans…oh, yes, plans.) This means you’re in for another piece where I indulge in reminiscence. This, by the way, is the sort of thing that happens to you as slide perilously toward dotage—a destination I don’t plan on fully reaching for a couple weeks yet.
So gather ‘round, whilst I attempt to regale you with the grim story of my “old Bob Hope injury.” “His what?” you say. Well, I assure you the statement is 100% true, explicable and probably only very slightly embellished for dramatic effect. (This last you can get away with more and more on the Road to Dotage.)
This is a sorrowful tale that takes us back a full 40 years. Well, it takes me back 40 years, the younger of you will have to use your imaginations. Now, in order that you may get the good out of my story, you have to get a grasp on the remote era of 1968. We didn’t think it was remote at the time, of course, because it wasn’t. From this perspective, however, I can see that comparatively speaking we were in the stone-chisel-and-tablet stage of communications (I had a Remington portable actually, but I was a little advanced).
Television, while not exactly in its infancy, was at best a gawky adolescent in technical terms. We are talking about a period in time where people with color TVs would watch Bonanza, but not because of any intrinsic dramatic merit. (Face it, the show had two plots—one of the sons would get into trouble and the others would get him out of it, or one of them would get engaged and the writers would have to figure out how to kill the woman off by the end of the show.) They watched it because it had “good color.” People called it a “simpler time.” On occasions such as this it really seems a more simple-minded time.
The big drawback to television lay in choices of viewing material and reception. The younger among you may have trouble imagining a world where instead of having access to a hundred channels of nothing, you had access to maybe four or five channels of nothing. It is, however, the way things were. The term reception may mean almost nothing to those who’ve only ever had cable, but reception is at the very heart of my story. I shall explain.
In 1968 cable TV was fairly rare and it only meant you were kind of hooked up to a very large central antenna that allowed more channels from greater distances to make it to your home. We didn’t have even that. We had an antenna. Now, those wealthier than we appeared to have been had these things called “rotors” on their antennae. These were wired to a box that usually set on top of the TV (almost always contained in some massive and massively ugly cabinetry in an attempt to disguise it as furniture). By turning the knob atop this box, it was possible to rotate the antenna in order to theoretically pick up a better signal and a better picture (this way, your enjoyment of Bonanza‘s “good color” would be enhanced). We didn’t have one of these. We had a monkey wrench.
That monkey wrench (which may have been pilferred from the tool kit of a 1953 MG TD sports car) was very often a life-saver. A jaunt into the backyard with this allowed us to turn the antenna in a more propitous direction for what was to be watched. This was fairly essential living in Lake Wales, Florida, since it’s in the position of being about 65 miles east of Tampa and 55 miles west of Orlando (that’s pre-sprawl Orlando; it’s probably five miles now what with creeping theme parks) So you turned the antenna one way or the other.
It was a simple arrangement (in keeping with the simple times) and it suited my parents fine, since it allowed them access to the three basic networks—NBC, CBS, ABC—and they were nothing if not network watchers. I, on the other hand, was after different, more esoteric fare that came with local programming. So Channel 9 out of Orlando was fine with them for ABC and the ABC affilliate Channel 10 out of Largo was superfluous as far as they were concerned. Such wasn’t necessarily true for me, especially as concerned the late show. The problem was that the Largo station was hard to get. The conventional wisdom of the time was that this was because the signal passed over the phosphate mines situated between Lake Wales and Largo. Today, that sounds about as scientific to me as the idea that bad phone connections were due to starlings sitting on the wires, but I accepted it then—sort of.
I learned that a little careful fine-tuning with the monkey wrench might allow one to watch the Largo station, though not perhaps all that clearly. As a result, I tentatively added the station to my list of possible sources for catching movies. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t (Atmospheric conditions? Phosphate mines? Starlings? An out-of-sorts deity?). So scanning the TV Guide in my then typically religious manner, one week I chanced upon the fact that Saturday night this iffy venue was showing Alexander Hall’s The Great Lover (1949) with Bob Hope, Rhonda Fleming and Roland Young. A Bob Hope picture I hadn’t seen? Well, that was certainly worth a little monkey wrench business.
Saturday night came and I was all set, armed with the aforementioned tool of fine-tuning. Being pathologically early for just about anything you care to name, I tuned in and played with the antenna around 11 p.m.—the movie was at 11:30. I was greatly pleased to see that I had a pretty decent picture (i.e., you could see what was going on) so I sat back and made my way through the 11 o’clock news (the bane of my youthful existence as concerns getting to the late show). The question was—would my luck hold?
The signal started being a little dicey—drifting in and out on occasion—about 11:25, but no young cineaste armed with a monkey wrench is going to be daunted by that. Then it happened just as the anticipated film itself was about to start—the picture collapsed alogether into a flurry of snow, white noise and general nothingness. Naturally, I was on my feet in a heartbeat and headed for the backyard. And this is when disaster struck.
In my haste to get to the antenna, I had foolishly forgotten that there was a drop of a little over a foot between the kitchen and the utility room that led to the backyard. This miscalculation resulted in an unseemly crashing to the oh-so-hard terrazzo floor by yours truly. I have no doubt that it looked most amusing from the outside—or would have had there been anyone to witness my misfortune. It was not in the least humorous from my perspective. I had landed badly on my right ankle, twisting it in a manner that produced a nausea-inducing pain the like of which I had never experienced in my life. I tried calling out for assistance of some kind, but my parents were watching TV in the back of the house and heard nothing.
As the pain subsided a bit, I managed to stand up, thinking, that perhaps this wasn’t so bad after all. Putting pressure on the foot, however, proved to be what we call a bad idea. Still, I reckoned that it would be a simple matter to, well, hop out to the antenna and make the adjustment. This, naturally, is what I did. How I got back up into the kitchen is a detail lost in the mists of time, but I’m proud to say that I was situated in front of the TV just as the opening—very snowy—credits were ending. Despite considerable discomfort (not that doing anything else would have changed that) I watched Mr. Hope’s staunch efforts at entertaining me for the next 90 minutes. After this, I merely hopped my way to bed.
The following morning, I was not entirely surprised that the ankle was considerably larger than normal and that it was absolutely impossible to stand on it. The question of it being broken seems not to have entered anyone’s head. Instead, I had my first encounter with the world of the Ace Bandage, which, yes, did help. Soon I was limping about with all the agility of a damaged 90-year-old. Within days, I merely had a slight limp. The problem with that is that here we are 40 years later and guess what? I still have that limp.
When a medical opinion was sought—as a kind of sidelight to a different doctor visit—it was one of those cheery moments where one hears those words, “It would have probably been better if he had broken it.” (Doctors with 14-year-olds have a remarkable tendency to speak to the mother rather than the presumably rather thick-skulled child.) The upshot of all this was the idea that my misadventure would in all probability always be with me. How jolly.
There are two aspects of this that strike me as sad. Let’s look at them separately starting with the film itself. In truth, The Great Lover is simply not very good. (I don’t care that Leonard Maltin—at least on the cover of the frankly poor quality DVD—awarded it four stars. Mr. Maltin tends to be a little gushy on anything made before 1965.) Even as a Bob Hope fan, I have to admit that this is not one of his finer moments. It’s at best a servicable premise that’s blandly executed. Bob’s a kind of scoutmaster (they’re called Boy Rangers) chaperoning a group of uniformed youths back from a trip to France. He has to adhere to the Boy Rangers creed at all times—no smoking, no drinking, no women (you are allowed to kiss your mother). This works about as well as you might expect.
A plot involving a card-sharp and serial-strangler (Roland Young) comes into play, as does a romance with an impoverished duchess played by Rhonda Fleming, who appeared the same year with Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (There seems to have been a rule—probably fraught with subtext of some kind—that Hope and Crosby would inevitably have the same leading ladies even if it wasn’t a “Road Picture.”) There is a pretty funny cameo from Jack Benny that finds the two comics trying to get a look at each other’s toupees. And there’s a pleasant enough song for Hope and Fleming about mid-picture that affords some allure. But all in all, it’s an indifferent affair and the scenes of Hope being belittled by Boy Rangers wears thin—to the point of being mildly offensive—pretty fast.
Goodness knows, if you’re going to damage yourself permanently, it ought to be for a better movie than The Great Lover. I looked at it again for this article. (Yeah, I own it—I picked it up out of a dump bin for five bucks a few years ago. Even so, I had to take the shrinkwrap off yesterday in order to view it.) It definitely isn’t a film worth such a price. Couldn’t it at least have been Citizen Kane or, maybe, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla? That would lend some kind of cinematic street cred to the whole thing, but, no, it was grade B Bob Hope.
The other sad thing is that my ankle isn’t even any good as a weather-detecting-device. You’d think that such an injury might at least allow one to predict rain or snow, but such is just not the case. Oh, it’s painful on occasion, but that seems to have no meteoroligical significance whatsoever. It’s a dirty gyp, but I fear that notion must be consigned to the same realm as TV signals across phosphate mines and starlings on phone lines.
However, let’s be honest. There’s something to be said for being able to complain that my “old Bob Hope injury” is acting up. Few, if indeed any other, people can make that claim. Let the more athletically-inclined have their trick knees, calcium deposits, and football or badminton injuries of various kinds. I at least can lay claim to a bonafide movie-related problem—and that’s kind of apt, all things considered. Sure, it could have been a little more impressive, but it could have been so much worse. Imagine the personal embarassment one would experience over an “old Martin and Lewis injury.” At least, I was spared that!