How Mary Tyler Moore Revived Raymond Chandler

How Mary Tyler Moore Revived Raymond Chandler

Why you should care

Raymond Chandler wrote something magical and it got lost — until it was rescued by a breakthrough TV show.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a lot of things in the ’70s: pioneering TV show about a working woman, launch pad for Ed Asner and Valerie Harper, home to the best opening credits scene ever. Remember that hat toss?

And it also may have revived the career of a quintessential L.A. noir writer.

It takes two geniuses to create a timeless quotation: one to write the words, the other to tease them out in a way that makes them utterly unforgettable. For instance:

Excerpt

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. — Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind,” 1938

Pretty great, no? Hard to believe this deathless Raymond Chandler paragraph lay hidden in plain sight for 30 years until Joan Didion put it on the literary map by quoting the three middle sentences in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” To fix a quote in the popular imagination, though, it takes more than a 1965 essay in the Saturday Evening Post. What it takes is television. And so it was that these few lines from Raymond Chandler’s short story “Red Wind” owe most of their immortality to the October 2, 1976, installment of The Mary Tyler Moore Show entitled “Mary the Writer.”

The episode marked one of relatively few times that television, famously a writer’s medium, took the act of writing itself seriously. (Except, that is, in almost the entire body of work by Aaron Sorkin, who, if anything, takes writing — speechwriting, newswriting, any writing — a little too seriously.) A few minutes into “Mary the Writer,” Mary walks into her boss’s office, anxious for his opinion on an excruciatingly saccharine writing exercise that she’s drafted for a night class. Ed Asner, indelible as Mr. Grant, harrumphs, “Do you know what really good writing is?” He takes a beat-up paperback out of his desk drawer and begins to read: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas…”

The whole episode is a masterpiece — and a cardinal example of brilliance meeting brilliance across the decades.

The episode was written by Burt Prelutsky, a cantankerous newspaper-columnist-turned-TV-scribe-turned-Internet-columnist. Contacted via email — and still fulminating on a variety of topics today at www.BurtPrelutsky.com — Prelutsky says that the Chandler quote wasn’t supposed to work as well as it did. “The weird thing,” he recalls, “is that at the taping, Chandler’s lines got a much bigger laugh than anything I had written. As a result, they had to wait for the studio audience to go home before Ed Asner read the lines again. It wasn’t supposed to get a laugh.”

The whole episode is a masterpiece — and a cardinal example of brilliance meeting brilliance across the decades. But there’s no telling where classic Chandler prose will wind up. The climax of “Red Wind” also contains the line “It’s the hot wind, Sam. Let’s forget it.” Anybody seen Chinatown lately?

But Robert Towne merely channeled Raymond Chandler for his Chinatown script. Prelutsky and Asner actually quoted Chandler verbatim — and just maybe kick-started an overdue Chandler revival that shows no sign of abating. Posterity owes them big time.

Video:

Mr. Grant and Raymond Chandler


Watch the full episode at YouTube.

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