Thursday, November 24, 2011

TV Bites: The In-Laws

Grandma's Turkey Split Pea Soup

Happy Thanksgiving!

So instead of a Hitchcock double bill, you get a caper comedy double bill. Not bad....

I've been dying to add this movie to the "Chef du Cinema collection," as it may well be the funniest movie ever made. But the reason I chose it for Thanksgiving was that one of the only foods referenced in The In-Laws is pea soup, which comes in the scene when Sheldon and Vince are in the cafeteria early on after the shoot-out at Vince's office.

Now I have two associations with pea soup. One is that whenever I drive I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, I always make it a point to stop at Pea Soup Anderson's for lunch. The other is that in my family, usually a few days after Thanksgiving, my grandmother or my mother would make this soup with the leftover turkey carcass. The smell of the soup cooking always takes me back to childhood and it's a big comfort food winter meal for me to make ever since.

So then how perfect is it that early on during the commentary track on the DVD, Peter Falk notes: "How many people in America take this picture, The In-Laws, and whether it's on Christmas, Rosh Hashanah – some holiday – and they get the whole family together and they run it? And they run it every year. And they've been doing it for 10 years."

And do not miss the enjoyment of listening to the DVD commentary track as it is also nostalgic, at least, for me. You get to listen to four lovable alter-kakers reminiscing about the making this movie. (Like My Favorite Year - a previous Chef du Cinema pick - this is what I would call a "Jew movie." If you're not a Jew, there's a level of enjoyment in all the kvetching going on by Arkin that won't remind you of sitting around with your immediate family on a Saturday afternoon. There are just these little nuances you'll miss. Ain't nothing I can do.)

And back to the point I'm trying to make here, screenwriter Andrew Bergman adds: "On Turner Classic Movies they ran it the night before Thanksgiving and I said, 'That's it. We're now up there with It's A Wonderful Life.' And I know a lot of people who run this the day or the night before they got married." (Though this year it'll be running on TCM December 28th.)

But if you can't wait till then, The In-Laws is available for purchase/streaming/download @ Amazon, and home rentable via NetFlix.

Also, as a tradition I started last year, instead of links below to buy stuff, I'm offering up links to organizations that I encourage you to support as the spirit of Thanksgiving has to do not just with eating, but with giving....


"Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine!"

The birth of The In-Laws actually began with another movie - 1974's Freebie & The Bean, starring Alan Arkin and James Caan, which was a financially successful - and funny - buddy comedy/action movie in which Arkin and Caan played two cops in San Francisco. About three years later, Peter Falk got a phone call that Alan Arkin wanted to meet with him. Falk did, and the first question Arkin posed to him was: "'Are you interested in making a sequel to The Freebie & The Bean?'" [Falk always referred to it as "The Freebie."] This kind of threw Falk as he had read the script back when, and felt it was "too violent."

"So I didn't think I would say anything to Alan about having read that script," Falk recalled. "All I said was, 'Am I interested in making a sequel? I hadn't really thought about it.' And I could tell Alan was not interested in making a sequel, you know, by the tone of his voice. But then, [Alan said], 'Well, I'd like to make a picture with you.' and I said, 'I'd like to make a picture with you, Alan.'"

"Then about three months later," he continued, "I get a call from Alan Arkin. 'Hello. What's going on?' 'We got the script.' 'Oh, really.' 'And you got the best part.' 'Oh, good. Send it to me.' And that's how it started for me.... And Alan was right. I did have the better part.... The only thing I had to play to throughout the whole picture is 'be likeable.' That's why it was so simple. I didn't have any emotional conflict, nothing – just be likeable, easy, and that's it."

Andrew Bergman (which should be noted that besides being a talented screenwriter and director, wrote one of the classic books on Depression Era cinema, and a couple of enjoyable detective novels, as well) remembered, "I got a call from Warner Bros. who said we have bad news and good news. The bad news was this movie I wanted to make of mine they weren't going to make. The good news is they wanted me to write the sequel to Freebie & The Bean. And I said, 'That's the good news? I liked Freebie & The Bean, but I don't know if I want to write the sequel.' And they said, 'It's not really the sequel, but Alan Arkin and Peter Falk want to do a movie together.' And I said to myself, 'Didn't they do a movie together?' But they didn't. It seemed like the most natural pairing in the world and that began one of the truly great writing experiences of my life."

So Bergman met with Arkin who said "he wanted to do a movie with Peter and all we knew was that we had to do something where they had to be stuck together, because the whole point of the movie was that we have to Peter eating into Alan for two hours. And that would be the whole movie. So we had various futile scenarios that went on for two months. At one point I thought that we would do a detective story in which Alan would be a detective and Peter would be a client and that went absolutely nowhere. It just seemed so stupid. And literally it was in the middle of the night, I said, 'They're in-laws! If they're in-laws, they're stuck together! They're absolutely stuck together and there's no way Alan can get rid of Peter.' So I called him up the next morning and it was like one of those eureka moments, and I said, 'That's it, they're in-laws.' Simple. So simple."

"The thing that made it such a pleasure to write," he admitted, "was that I didn't have to worry about a plot. The plot was these two guys. And everything that Peter did to Alan was the plot. And I will make a confession: When writing the script, from one day to the next, I had no idea what was going to happen. It was absolutely a shaggy dog story.... Just keep it funny enough that nobody ever says, 'what's this all about?' Because if they ever ask what it is about - you're finished.."

"If you ask me on my deathbed what this plot was about I can't tell you," Bergman continued. "It was just this McGuffin – the engravings. The Freshman also I sort of painted myself into a corner, but nothing like this because it was so set up for [Alan and Peter]. I mean I generally have no plan [when I'm writing a script], I generally follow character around. But I never had anything where the characters WERE the plot. And that was all. Whatever could keep them going, whatever could keep [Peter] driving [Alan] nuts made it work and to know which two actors you had and their skills.... People always say, 'Why don't you write something like The In-Laws again?' I want to kill them, because I can't. It's not possible. It was so specific to a time and a place and [the two of them]."

And speaking of The Freshman, Bergman wound up writing and directing it because Marlon Brando was such a huge fan of The In-Laws. Alan Arkin said in 2003, "I had dinner with Brando about 20-25 years ago and he confessed to having seen it about 20 times and then he started doing imitations of me and Peter."

Bergman recalled the first time he showed The In-Laws script to Arkin. "I drove to [his] house... and I sat in the living room reading the newspaper while [he] was in the next room reading the script. And I remember hearing [him] starting to screech about five minutes in. I was so nervous. I thought, 'What if he doesn't like it? I mean, he's so meshugana. What if I made this terrible mistake?' And [he] came running out after 10 minutes and said: 'The Guacamole Act of 1907! I love this!'"

Arthur Hiller was brought in to direct. Hiller, was one of those film directors who began in New York television directing episodes of Playhouse 90 (along with John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet, amongst others) and then made his name with a range of genres, from comedy/dramas like The Americanization of Emily and The Hospital, Neil Simon adaptations - The Out-of-Towners and Plaza Suite, to the populist tearjerker Love Story. He had also directed Arkin previously in Popi. But the film he had last directed before The In-Laws was the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor buddy comedy Silver Streak, so everyone knew the picture would be in capable hands.

"We rooted [The In-Laws] in reality as if it was really happening, and I think that's very important to make that comedy work," Hiller said. "But you need two great actors to play it with such reality that you believe it."

Hiller cast the rest of the parts with an ensemble of great character actors, as well, including wonderful turns by David Paymer (in his first movie role), James Hong, and perhaps most perfectly cast - Richard Libertini as General Garcia.

"I had seen [him] on stage years ago," recalled Hiller. "I think in a Woody Allen play and I just loved him so much I just immediately put him in my next movie [The Out of Towners] in a very small part because that's all I could. And then this obviously felt like the perfect place for him."

"I had worked with [Richard Libertini] about 10 or 12 times by the time this picture came around," Arkin noted, "so he used this opportunity to try and crack me up. I know his major effort was to try and wreck me, and he almost succeeded." In fact, throughout the entire shooting of the film, Arkin added, "my legs were black & blue from me beating myself to keep from laughing."

And speaking of having fun, Arkin wrote in his autobiography how this film was a turning point for him:

"[F]or the first time in my life I found myself having a good time while working. There was nothing I could do about it. There was no struggle involved, no mountain to climb. Out of nowhere, acting had become play, and for weeks I worried that I might get fired. Before The In-Laws I had felt that I had to work my ass off to get into some kind of state, into the zone, shot by shot, in order to do acceptable work. Now, in spite of myself, I was having fun.

"For the first week of shooting I tried to jam myself into my old familiar work place. I tried to suffer, to constrict myself; I couldn't make it happen. I kept looking at the director, Arthur Hiller, to see if he was disapproving, to see if he knew the terrible fact that I was having fun and not working. I looked at Peter Falk, my co-star, to see if he was hating me for enjoying myself; no one said anything. In fact, people seemed to like it. I even think my having fun allowed Peter to do the same."

"The most interesting thing about this entire project is that there have been literally hundreds of occasions where people come up to me and talk about this film," Arkin described. "And the first thing they say, invariably, is 'God, it looked like you were having a good time in making that movie.' And they breath a sigh of relief when I can say, 'Yeah, it was as much fun as it looks.' It matters to people that we had a good time."

Bergman culled two great ideas from his own memory that went into the script. The first were the characters of Billy & Bing, the Chinese pilots, who were actually two German guys, cousins, he had known and thought they had great names. The other is the word most people immediately say when you mention the film: "serpentine."

"A friend of mine from college," said Bergman, "we used to play touch football - four on a side. And we'd huddle and he'd say, 'serpentine out!' Like four guys would serpentine out of the huddle because he thought it would look great.... Suddenly it hit me, 'serpentine.' I mean, just the word is so funny. All those consonants." And so it found its way into the movie.

"Before we started to shoot this scene," Falk recalled, "I looked at Alan and said, 'You think this is funny?' And he looked at me and his mouth was open and he said, 'You don't?' And I said, 'No, I think it's silly.' And he said, 'Peter, you're the dumbest actor in America.' And when we went to do it, we were shooting it, I didn't look forward to it until it started. And then, once it started, Alan had that grin on his face. He was so happy doing it. He would run back and forth. He would still be running back and forth. He could do it forever. And that tickled me. It tickled me so much to see him running with that funny walk of his. And that's why when he got to a safe place, he had to go out again. Remember he got behind the car and then he went back out again?"

"The serpentine thing, for me was one of the things that made it so exciting," Arkin said. "It was the moment where I finally lost my mind completely. The doubling back wasn't just a joke, it was the fact that he is completely gone. From that moment on, through the rest of the time, he's just gone. He's fried. His brain is gone."

Hiller noted that he uses the firing squad sequence near the end of the picture to instruct to film students. "If I'm doing workshops, I send that scene at the firing squad, because I show them to look at how you make each of the actors have to play off each other, and the movements, and how they express themselves physically, and with the lines and the emotions."

The film did modest business in the box office when it was released in 1978, but over the years, thanks to television and video rentals, the film has gathered loyal fans and has come to be considered a comedy classic.

In 1986, an attempt was made to recreate it by re-teaming Falk, Arkin, Bergman, and Richard Libertini, with the film Big Trouble. One of the film's biggest troubles was that it was released at the same time as the Kurt Russell film Big Trouble in Little China which led to a lot of confusion for audiences. It is also sadly remembered as the last film John Cassavetes directed - a man not known for wacky comedy. The picture was famously taken away from him and spent two years in the can before the studio reedited it and dumped in the theaters.

In 2003, another attempt was made to recreate the success of the film with an uninspired remake featuring Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks.

In many ways, The In-Laws was a "perfect storm." The combination of talent and the fact that everyone had such a good time making it is all there on the screen.

I'll let Andrew Bergman sum it all up. "You make movies and you hope a few of them stick to the wall," he said. "That's all you can hope for, and this one clearly has. And the fact that it was such a nice experience on top of that, makes it all the better."


Peter Falk's character explains in the movie about what will happen if the "Latin American Syndicate" gets the engravings he's stolen:

"What do you think will happen when they run off this dough and there's trillions of extra dollars, francs and marks floating around? You've got a collapse of confidence in the currency. People are gonna panic. There's gonna be gold riots, atonal music, political chaos, mass suicide. Right? It's Germany before Hitler. You can see that. Jesus, I don't know what people are gonna do when a six pack of Budweiser costs $1200."

Would we ever have to live in a world with "atonal music" and $1200 Budweiser?

By the mid-1860's, according to the US Marshall's Service, about a third of all the currency in circulation in the US was counterfeit. This led to the creation of the Secret Service, whose primary job was to thwart counterfeiters and bring them to justice.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank: "Out of the approximately $760 billion in U.S. banknotes in circulation by the end of 2005, the U.S. Secret Service reported that about $61 million in counterfeit currency was passed on the public worldwide, or about $1 for every $12,400 in circulation. Of that $61 million, the vast majority ($55.2 million) was passed in the United States, with the remainder passed abroad. In terms of enforcement, the U.S. Secret Service counterfeit program in FY 2004 resulted in the arrest of 2,879 suspects and the suppression of 469 counterfeiting plants in the United States. In FY 2005, 3,717 suspects were arrested and, as mentioned above, 611 counterfeit printing plants were suppressed."

In a 2011 interview with Ben Tarnoff, author of the book Moneymakers about the history of US counterfeiting, we still live with about one fake per $10,000 altogether both in the US and abroad. But, according to a 2007 article in USA Today, the number of counterfeit dollars in the US has been on the rise (see chart).

This was before the US Mint started releasing its new high-tech designed cash in the last few years. (Though I'm in favor of some of the more interesting designs submitted to the Dollar Redesign Project.) However, counterfeiting remains big business.

And while there is no "Latin American Syndicate," as described in The In-Laws, per se, Tarnoff notes that for decades, Colombia was where most of the counterfeit dollars were being brought into the United States from, upwards of 70 percent of all fake money. “A crackdown begun in the late 1990s by the Secret Service and the Colombian government brought this number down to 5 per cent, but moneymaking hubs have sprung up elsewhere – notably Peru, which is now the region’s major producer of counterfeit American cash.”

Since 2008, the country of Peru has become the main distributor of counterfeit currency internationally. According to Kenneth Jenkins, a U.S. special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Criminal Investigative Division, "Approximately $33 million has been seized in Peru since 2009, which is a substantial number."

But that is not the reason why a six pack of Budweiser costs in some places more than $10/six pack. That's just regular inflation at work.


Okay, so as I mentioned up above this is my Grandmother's recipe. This is what we'd have every year whist I was growing up a few days after Thanksgiving. And it's the same recipe I've made pretty much every year myself since leaving home.

Like many old family recipes, it was never written down. It's just something you watch done and after a decade or so, you learn how it's done. So this is the first time I've ever written it down, and had to do it while I was making it.

The other thing is that this is not a traditional split pea soup. It's not thick and the split peas aren't the main attraction.

Since I grew up in a pretty orthodox Jewish home, we didn't eat pig products. Most split pea soup recipes call for ham hock or a ham bone, but since that was out of the question - and I have no idea who first came up with this recipe or if it's traditional in other kosher homes - but it always came with hot dogs floating in it. And when you're a kid, it's even more fun to have hot dogs floating in your soup than little alphabet pasta (which is a lot of fun, mind you).

As always, cook, watch, eat & enjoy....

Grandma's Turkey Split Pea Soup
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 12-14

2 pounds turkey necks, wing, drumstick mix OR preferably the carcass of a 10-18 pound turkey
1 large onion, cut in half
2 large carrots, cut in thirds
3 celery stalks, 2 from outside, 1 from inside w/leaves
3-4 parsley sprigs, cut in half (about 1/2 ounce)
1 large bay leaf
1 3/4 gallons water
2 tablespoons salt, and more to taste
2 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper, and more to taste
2 cups split peas, green or preferably a mix of green & yellow
4 cups water
8 Hebrew National Franks, sliced 1/2" rings (NO OTHER BRAND WILL DO, seriously - and not the jumbo nor the 97% fat free ones)

If using a carcass, break it up to fit in large stockpot.

Add all ingredients through black pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce to low boil/simmer, and partially cover for 2 1/2 hours. Check occasionally to remove any foamy scum or excess fat that forms on the top.

You should have lost at least a quart of liquid. Add 2 cups of water and the split peas, then return to heat and boil. Then lower to low boil/simmer (partially covered) for another hour. Stir regularly about every 10 minutes or so, so peas don't burn and stick to bottom.

Remove from heat and fish out the bones. (When bones have cooled take any meat off them and return them to the pot.) Add another 2 cups of water, shmoosh the carrots a bit with your ladle. Return to low boil/simmer (still partially covered) and continue cooking for another 1/2 hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so.

Add the hot dogs, bring to boil. Then turn off heat. Let stand for 15 minutes, covered. Adjust seasonings as needed and serve - though I promise you this tastes even much better the following day, reheated.

Doctors without Borders
Reporters without Borders
PetSmart Charities
Amnesty International
Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization
Capital Area Food Bank of Texas

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