Sunday, 28 June 2015

The British New Wave

Arguably British cinema reached its height in the years following World War II. Immediately following the war such films as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), Odd Man Out (1947), Oliver Twist (1948), and The Red Shoes (1948). British films would continue to see a good deal of success in the Fifties, and it was only natural that various trends in British film would emerge during the decade. A cycle of comedies began during the decade that would last into the Sixties. With the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 Hammer Films would begin a cycle of Gothic horror movies that would involve American studios as well as British ones. Among the most significant trends in British films to emerge in the Fifties was one called "the British New Wave".

The British New Wave was a movement that took it's name from La Nouvelle Vague (literally "the New Wave") that took place in France in the Fifties and consisted of such directors as François Truffaut,  Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and so on. As might be expected  the British New Wave has a good deal in common with La Nouvelle Vague. The films of the British New Wave were often shot in black and white and often in the style of documentaries. The films of the British New Wave usually dealt with everyday people in realistic situations and were generally shot on location. The British New Wave began in 1959 with the release of two films, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger.  Both films would prove to extremely successful. In fact, Room at at the Top would win two Academy Awards (Best Actress in a Leading Role for Simone Signoret and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). It would also win three BAFTA awards and was nominated for four more.

While the British New Wave took its name from La Nouvelle Vague (also known as the French New Wave) and shared much in common with La Nouvelle Vague, arguably the British New Wave also emerged from movements in literature, theatre, and film that already existed in Britain in the 1950s. Chief among these movements was one consisting of various playwrights and novelists collectively referred to as "Angry Young Men". The term "Angry Young Man" was first applied to playwright John Osborne, having been coined by the Royal Court Theatre's press officer for promotion of Mr. Osborne's play Look Back in Anger. In the end the term "Angry Young Men" would be applied to such diverse artists as novelist and poet Kingsley Amis, novelist John Braine, playwright Harold Pinter, philosopher Colin Wilson, and several others. In the end the term "Angry Young Men" might have been used so broadly as to be meaningless, but arguably the one thing they all had in common was a disillusionment with British society in the Fifties.

 The impact of the Angry Young Men on the British New Wave is fairly obvious. What are generally considered the first two British New Wave films, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger, were both based on products from Angry Young Men (Room at the Top on John Braine's novel of the same name and Look Back in Anger on John Osborne's play of the same name). In fact, a large number of the British New Wave films were based on the works of AngryYoung Men: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), and  The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) among them.

Another movement from which the British New Wave emerged was kitchen sink drama. The term "kitchen sink" originated in an article by David Sylvester in the December 1954 of Encounter, who coined it after seeing a piece of art by painter John Bratby that included a kitchen sink. Mr. Sylvester applied the term "kitchen sink" to a trend among young British painters towards portraying domestic banality. It would not be long before the term was applied to literature, the stage, and film as well. With regards to the stage and film the term refers to works that deal realistically with the lives of the working class in Britain. A good number of the kitchen sink dramas were set in the North of England, although examples can be found in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The terms "British New Wave" and "kitchen sink drama" are sometimes used interchangeably, although there is good reason to treat them as two separate, but related phenomena.  Quite simply, not all British New Wave films are kitchen sink dramas and vice versa. Shot in black and white in a style similar to documentaries, The Entertainer (1960) identifiably belongs to the British New Wave. That having been said, given that it centres around a British music hall performer whose career is in decline, it is debatable whether it can be considered a kitchen sink drama. Shot in vivid colour (although still possessing the look of a documentary), Kes (1969) probably should not be considered part of the British New Wave, although it is most certainly a kitchen sink drama. While many British New Wave films are also kitchen sink dramas, then, this is not always the case.

Indeed, an argument can be made that the genre of kitchen sink drama pre-dates the emergence of the British New Wave (or the Angry Young Men, for that matter). It is possible to trace the origins of kitchen sink drama not only back to the Silent Era, but very early in the history of film at that. Arguably early director James Williamson virtually invented the genre with the films The Soldier's Return (1902) and A Reservist, Before the War, and After the War (1902),  both of which offered slices of working class life. Later in the Silent Era, the 1927 film Hindle Wakes, based on Stanley Houghton's 1912 stage play of the same name, presented a fairly realistic portrayal of the working class in Lancashire.

If not outright kitchen sink dramas, then at least precursors to the genre continued to be made after the advent of talkies. Starting with Doss House in 1933, low budget film director John Baxter made a number of films that portrayed working class life at a time when the working class was largely ignored by British mainstream cinema, including Say It with Flowers (1934), A Real Bloke (1935), and The Common Touch (1941). Arguably his masterpiece, Love on the Dole (1941) starring Deborah Kerr, centred on life during the Depression of the Thirties and was as close to kitchen sink drama as any early Forties film could come. In the Forties John Baxter's films would be followed by other movies that could be considered forerunners of the kitchen sink dramas if not out right examples of the genre itself: This Happy Breed (1944); It Always Rains on Sunday (1947); and The Blue Lamp (1950).

Regardless of when the kitchen sink drama emerged, the fact is that many of the films of the British New Wave were clearly kitchen sinks dramas. This is certainly true of Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and This Sporting Life (1963), all of which presented starkly realistic portrayals of working class life. What separated the British New Wave kitchen sink dramas from earlier examples of the genre is that they tended to be much grittier and often dealt with subjects that would have been impossible before the relaxation of film censorship: pre-marital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and so on.

Finally, another movement from which the British New Wave would emerge was the Free Cinema movement. The Free Cinema movement was a documentary movement that emerged in the Fifties with such films as O Dreamland (1953), Momma Don't Allow (1956), and Together (1956). The documentaries of the Free Cinema movement were characterised by the use of handheld cameras and being shot on 16mm film in black and white. They generally focused on working class people, much in the way kitchen sink dramas had. Most of the documentaries belonging to the Free Cinema movement cost only a few hundred pounds to make and most tended to be short in length. Three of the most important directors in the British New Wave had started out as part of the Free Cinema Movement:  Tony Richardson (who went on to direct Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner),  Karel Reisz (who went on to direct Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), and Lindsay Anderson (who went on to direct This Sporting Life).

As mentioned above, the British New Wave emerged in 1959 with two films. The first to be released, Room at the Top, centred on Joe Lampton (played by Laurence Harvey), a working class young man who had just gotten a job with  Borough Treasurer's Department. He ultimately finds himself torn between the daughter of a wealthy man and an older married woman. The second film to be released, Look Back in Anger, was based on  John Osborne's play of the same name. It centred on the archetypal angry young man, Jimmy Porter (played by Richard Burton), who is unhappy in his marriage, restless in his life, and generally angry at the world.  Both films proved to be successful at the box office and both picked up their share of awards. Both also established much of the character of the British New Wave: films shot in black and white and generally centred on angry young men of the working class living in the North.

Even if both films had failed, it seems likely that the British New Wave was inevitable. In fact, 1960 would see the release of two of the most notable films of the movement: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and The Entertainer (1960).  While Saturday Night and Sunday Morning followed Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger in centring on an angry young man of the working class, The Entertainer offered a stark contrast to those films. The film centred on music hall entertainer Archie Rice (played by Lord Laurence Olivier) in London whose career is on the decline. One could say rather than centring on an angry young man in the North, it centres instead on a depressed middle aged man in the South. Regardless, The Entertainer is identifiably part of the British New Wave, with its social realist approach and black and white photography.

Arguably the British New Wave reached its peak in the years 1962 and 1963. The year 1962 saw the release of A Kind of Loving (1962) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), while the year 1963 saw the release of Billy Liar (1963), This Sporting Life (1963), and The L-Shaped Room (1963). Even as the British New Wave reached its peak, however, it was coming to an end. British cinema was changing and moving away from the sort of kitchen sink realism embodied by many of the British New Wave movies. In fact, this shift in British cinema can be seen in one of the last British New Wave films to be released, Billy Liar.

Billy Liar is identifiably a British New Wave film. It is shot in black and white and to a large degree it shares the cinéma vérité style of other British New Wave films. It is even set in the North and centres on a young man. That having been said, it also differs a good deal from other British New Wave films. Its protagonist, Billy Fisher (played by Sir Tom Courtenay), seems more middle class than working class, and more frustrated than angry. Indeed, he seems much more likeable than the protagonists of many of the other British New Wave films, despite his tendency to stretch the truth. What is more, Billy Liar has a somewhat lighter touch than other British New Wave films, with a good deal of humour, not to mention fantasy sequences illustrating Billy's daydreams. While still identifiably part of the British New Wave, at the same time Billy Liar pointed the direction in which British cinema was moving, that of the lighter hearted, more fantasy oriented "Swinging London" films characterised by A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Knack …and How to Get It (1965), and Smashing Time (1967).

Indeed, the end of the British New Wave would be ushered in by one of the men who had started it. Tony Richardson directed Tom Jones, an adventure comedy shot in colour that was a far cry from the British New Wave. Released in 1963 it proved to be an enormous success and would be followed by similar British adventure comedies for the remainder of the decade. In 1964 A Hard Day's Night was released. Not only did the film introduce The Beatles to the big screen, but it also started a cycle of "Swinging London" films that lasted until around 1967.

While the British New Wave can be said to have ended in 1963, it would have a lasting impact on British cinema. In fact, it even had an impact on the "Swinging London" movies and comedies that followed. Although both are comedies, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and Georgy Girl (1966) are not only shot like the British New Wave films, but dealt with subjects previously covered by the British New Wave. Of course, there have been dramas released since the mid-Sixties that show a strong influence from the British New Wave. Lindsay Anderson's if... (1968) carried on the anti-establishment stance of the British New Wave films. Kes (1970) could very nearly pass for a British New Wave film had it not been shot in colour. Even though it was released in 1996, was shot in colour, and is set in Scotland rather than England, Trainspotting also owes a good deal to the British New Wave.  Of course, the British New Wave's most lasting legacy may be in the directors who emerged from it. Lindsay Anderson, Jack Clayton, Bryan Forbes, Tony Richardson, and John Schlesinger all began by directing British New Wave films.

In all the British New Wave would only last about four years. Despite this it would have a lasting impact on British cinema that is still being felt today. Indeed, if kitchen sink realism has been more common since the Sixties than it was before, that is largely due to the British New Wave. There can be little doubt it will continue to have an influence in the decades to come.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Death of a Top Professional: The Late Great Patrick Macnee

In the Sixties television stars did not get any bigger than Patrick Macnee. He played superspy John Steed on the wildly successful TV show The Avengers. The show was a veritable phenomenon in its country of origin, the United Kingdom. It developed a large and intensely loyal cult following in Canada and the United States. By 1969 The Avengers had aired in over 90 countries. Short of Doctor Who, it is arguably the most popular British TV series of all time.

Of course, Patrick Macnee had a career that pre-dated his starring role on The Avengers by many years and his career would last long after the show ended its run in 1969. Before The Avengers he had appeared in such films as The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) and A Christmas Carol (1951), and he had starred in the Canadian TV series Tales of Adventure. He made frequent guest appearances on American television in such shows as The Alcoa Hour, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Following The Avengers he appeared in the movies The Howling (1981) and A View to a Kill (1985), and appeared as Dr. Watson in three television movies (one with Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes, the others with Sir Christopher Lee in the role). Patrick Macnee had a long and rewarding career that endeared him to his many fans. Sadly, Patrick Macnee died yesterday at the age of 93.

Patrick Macnee was born Daniel Patrick Macnee on February 6 1922 in Paddington, London. His father, Daniel Macnee, was a racehorse trainer. His mother, Dorothea, was a niece of the Earl of Huntingdon and the family claimed descent from Robin Hood. Dorthea also received a British Empire Medal for her work with military families. He spent much of  his early life in Lambourn, Berkshire. His parents separated while Patrick Macnee was very young. His father went to India. His mother would eventually move to Wiltshire where they lived with his mother's lover, a woman young Patrick called "Uncle Evelyn". He attended Summer Fields preparatory school near Oxford, where one of the other students was Sir Christopher Lee. The two of them appeared together in a production of Henry V.

Afterwards Patrick Macnee attended Eton. He continued to act at Eton, where he was active in the school's dramatic society. He also established himself as the school's foremost bookie and pornographer, something which ultimately got him expelled from the school. Fortunately in 1941 he won a scholarship to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. That same year he made his professional debut in a small part in a stage production of Little Women. He made his film debut as an extra in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

During World War II Patrick Macnee served in the Royal Navy as as a navigator on torpedo boats in the English Channel and North Sea. He received both the Atlantic Medal and the Long Service Medal. Patrick Macnee returned to acting after he was demobilised. He appeared on stage, at The Windsor Repertory Theatre in London’s West End, as well as on tours of the United States and Canada. In the late Forties he appeared in television productions of Morning Departure, Arms and the Man, Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights. He appeared in the films The Fatal Night (1948), Hamlet (1948), All Over the Town (1949), The Girl Is Mine (1950), Dick Barton at Bay (1950), and  The Elusive Pimpernel (1950).

In the early Fifties Patrick Macnee made a memorable appearance as young Jacob Marley in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (also known as Scrooge). Much of his career in the Fifties would be spent between Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He starred in the Canadian TV series Tales of Adventure. He guest starred on such TV shows as BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, CBC Summer Theatre, Producers' Showcase, Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Alcoa Hour, Suspicion, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, One Step Beyond, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Encounter. He appeared in the films Three Cases of Murder (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and Les Girls (1957). He made his Broadway debut in 1954 in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It was in 1961 that Patrick Macnee made his debut in the role of John Steed on The Avengers. As hard as it is to believe now, Patrick Macnee was not originally the star of The Avengers. Instead the star was Ian Hendry, who played Dr. David Keel, a surgeon who comes to assist Steed on cases following the murder of his  fiancée. While Steed was originally a secondary character, however, as the first series passed he played an increasingly more and more important role on the show and even had entire episodes devoted to him. When Ian Hendry left it was only natural that Patrick Macnee as John Steed was promoted as the star of the show and received new partners. Among the new partners was Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman).  An anthropologist skilled in judo and other forms of hand to hand combat, Mrs. Gale was a woman who almost never needed to be rescued. The team of Steed and Mrs. Gale turned The Avengers into a phenomenon in Britain and soon it was among the most successful shows on the air. Honor Blackman would eventually leave the show, whereupon Steed received a new partner in the form of Emma Peel (played by Dame Diana Rigg). It was with Emma Peel as Steed's new partner that The Avengers finally aired in the United States. The show proved to be a success in the U.S. as well, where it has maintained a cult following ever since.

For much of the Sixties Patrick Macnee would be occupied with playing John Steed on The Avengers, which ultimately turned out to be the longest running spy series on either side of the Atlantic. That having been said, he did guest star on other shows during the decae, among them Thursday Theatre, Love Story, Conflict, Armchair Theatre, and The Virginian. Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg appeaered as a team on the game show Hollywood Squares. He appeared in the film Incense for the Damned (1970).

While The Avengers ended its run in 1969,  in the Seventies Patrick Macnee would return to the role of John Steed in The New Avengers. He was also reunited with co-star Diana Rigg in her American sitcom Diana. On the American sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica he was the opening credit announcer, as well as the voice of the Cylons' Imperious Leader. He also made a guest appearance on the show as Count Iblis. Patrick Macnee guest starred on such shows as Alias Smith and Jones, Night Gallery, Great Mysteries, Dial M for Murder, Columbo, and Matt Helm. He played Dr. Watson opposite Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes in New York. He appeared in the films King Solomon's Treasure (1979) and The Sea Wolves (1980).  From July 3 1972 to October 13 1973 he appeared on Broadway in Sleuth.

In the Eighties Patrick Macnee would make several notable appearances in movies. He played the therapist Dr. George Waggner in The Howling (1981), the Head of Polymer Records Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This is Spinal Tap (1984),  and horse trainer and 007's ally Sir Godfrey Tibbett  in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill (1985). He also appeared in the films The Hot Touch (1981), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Sweet 16 (1983), The Creature Wasn't Nice (1983), Shadey (1985), Waxwork (1988), Transformations (1988), Chill Factor (1989), Lobster Man from Mars (1989), and Masque of the Red Death (1989). He was a regular on the TV series Gavilan, Empire, and Lime Street. He guest starred on such shows as House Calls, Automan, Magnum P. I., Hart to Hart, Love Boat, Blacke's Magic, and Murphy's Law. Mr. Macnee appeared in the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair and a television adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days.

The Nineties saw Patrick Macnee with regular roles on the TV shows Super Force, Thunder in Paradise, and Night Man. He appeared as Dr. Watson opposite Sir Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Incident at Victoria Falls. He played the great detective himself in the TV movie The Hound of London. He guest starred on the shows Dream On; Murder, She Wrote; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Diagnosis Murder; Spy Game; and Family Law. He was the voice of Invisible Jones in the ill-fated 1998 film adaptation of The Avengers. He also appeared in the films Eye of the Widow (1991), Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992), and King B: A Life in the Movies (1993).

In the Naughts Patrick Macnee guest starred on the TV show Fraiser and made his final film appearance in The Low Budget Time Machine (2003).

Patrick Macnee would be remembered if John Steed was the only role he ever played. More so even than such classic characters as Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond, John Steed was the quintessential English hero. Steed was polite, congenial, witty, and charming, yet he possessed a will of iron that allowed him to survive against countless diabolical masterminds. He could be ruthless when the need arose. In episode after episode of The Avengers he defeated opponents armed only with his bowler, umbrella, superior physical agility, and a healthy sense of irony. Steed rarely carried a gun because he didn't have to.

It was a role well suited to Patrick Macnee, who was in many ways the quintessential English gentleman himself. In interviews Patrick Macnee was always unflappable and possessed of good manners. He had a great sense of humour that was often subversive, but never cruel. He was incredibly witty, and could make the drollest comments off the cuff. There was probably never an actor before or since who was so much like the character he was best known for playing than Patrick Macnee.

Of course, Patrick Macnee played more roles than simply John Steed.  He even played villains on the original Battlestar Galactica--he was the voice of the Imperious Leader and played the sinister Count Iblis on the show as well. While the quality of Battlestar Galactica might be questionable, Patrick Macnee's performance was not; he was as diabolical a Prince of Darkness as there ever was. He had one of the best parts in This is Spinal Tap, playing  Polymer Records head Sir Denis Eton-Hogg.  It was a role as far as from Steed as one could get, the pretentious head of a record label. As Captain John Good in the 1979 version of King Solomon's Mines he played a role much closer to Steed, that of a stalwart British hero. It must also be noted that Mr. Macnee played Dr. Watson three times and Sherlock Holmes himself once.

The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and John Steed is one of my favourite characters. I must say that I am then deeply saddened by Patrick Macnee's death, even though I realise he was very old. In many ways I owe a lot to Patrick Macnee and The Avengers. It not simply a case that the show made me an even bigger Anglophile than I would have been otherwise, but I suspect like many other young men I learned a good deal about being a gentleman from John Steed and Patrick Macnee.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Mr. Steed, You're Needed: Remembering Patrick Macnee & The Avengers

Patrick Macnee died today at the age of 93. Many of you probably know him as superspy John Steed from the 1960s British television show The Avengers. Those of you who know me also know that The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and, short of Emma Peel, John Steed is my favourite TV character of all time. Patrick Macnee also happened to be one of my favourite actors. Even though I realise that Mr. Macnee was very old, I am still crushed, so much so that I do not feel up to writing a full fledged eulogy this evening. That having been said, I feel that I have to express my grief at Mr. Macnee's death and my appreciation of the place both he and The Avengers occupy in my life.

Indeed, The Avengers and John Steed have been a part of my life nearly from the very beginning. I first discovered the show when I was only six years on a rainy Sunday afternoon. One of the Kansas City stations were rerunning The Avengers in those days before sport overtook weekend television. I am not sure which episode I saw that day. I am thinking it was probably "The House That Jack Built", although it could have been "From Venus with Love". Either way I was hooked.

Quite simply, The Avengers was very different from anything I had ever seen before. Oh, having been born in the mid-Sixties I had seen spy shows before. By the time I was six years old I had seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West. I had even seen at least one British show before--I remember my family watching The Saint when it ran on NBC. The Avengers was different from any of them. For one thing, there was this drop dead gorgeous woman who could easily dispatch men twice her size with a karate chop or a kick, and look good while doing it. Diana Rigg numbered among the very first crushes in my life. For another thing, there was this dapper English gentleman in a bowler and suit, who faced diabolical masterminds with nothing more than his wit, charm, and umbrella. John Steed was one of the heroes of my childhood. Unlike Batman he didn't need all those gadgets. Unlike the other superspies he didn't need a gun. That made him just about the coolest character around in my mind.

I watched The Avengers loyally every Sunday until such time as either we could no longer receive that particular Kansas City station (our reception of the stations in St. Louis and KC could be iffy at times) or they stopped showing The Avengers. Regardless, the show left a strong impression on me, much stronger than many other shows from my childhood. When The New Avengers started airing on CBS Late Night I watched it. I didn't like it as much as the original show, but I still enjoyed it. If nothing else Patrick Macnee was still John Steed. Eventually CBS Late Night would begin airing the original episodes of The Avengers, so I was able to see the show for the first time in years. Once more I was in love with Emma Peel and John Steed was the hero that I wished I could be.

Since that time I have had ample opportunity to watch The Avengers. Not only did A&E air it for years, but they even aired the episodes with John Steed's partner before Emma Peel, Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman), for the first time ever in the United States. For a time BBC America aired The Avengers. Of course, over the years I got several episodes on VHS, until I owned most of the run of the show.

It is impossible for me to entirely assess the impact of The Avengers on my life. It is probably much of the reason that I am an avid Anglophile. Oh, I have no doubt growing up knowing I was largely English in descent played its role, as did The Beatles, The Who, and other British bands that were popular in my earliest years, but it would be largely The Avengers that would engender in me an interest in British television and film, as well as British culture. Without The Avengers, I might never have discovered Danger Man, The Prisoner, Are You Being Served, Red Dwarf, and many of the other British shows I love.

Beyond making me an even bigger Anglophile I might have otherwise been, I think that more than any other show The Avengers is responsible for making me regard women as equals. Some American shows, such as Star Trek, gave lip service to this idea, but The Avengers actually put it in action. John Steed was never intimidated by his female partners who were every bit as skilled and as accomplished as himself.  Indeed, John Steed, who to all appearances was the traditional English gentleman, seemed to appreciate that the women who fought along his side were deadlier than most men. He never spoke down to Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, and it was more often they who rescued him than the other way around. John Steed treated his female partners as equals, and I do believe that made a big impression on my young mind.

As John Steed, the one constant on The Avengers and the show's central character, Patrick Macnee was largely responsible for its success, not to mention the impression it made on young viewers such as myself. He played John Steed as the quintessential English gentleman. In his bowler and impeccable suit, John Steed was entirely unflappable, whether he was facing man eating plants, killer kitty cats, a new incarnation of the Hellfire Club, or indestructible Cybernauts. Over the years Steed and the talented amateur with whom he was working at the moment would face a number of different threats to the United Kingdom and the world, and all the while Steed did it with a sense of humour, charm, and plenty of aplomb. Patrick Macnee would play other characters over the years, but his greatest role is still the one he played the longest, that of John Steed.

It should come as no surprise that Patrcik Macnee in real life appeared to be not much different from John Steed on The Avengers. He always displayed plenty of wit and charm, and he always seemed to be the perfect gentleman. In interviews he always credited Honor Blackman and Dame Diana Rigg with the success of The Avengers, even though it was obvious to the rest of us that the show would not have worked with anyone but himself as John Steed. Patrick Macnee's considerable sense of humour even extended to himself. In his autobiography Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns, Mr. Macnee was brutally honest about his life and himself. displaying a good deal of self deprecating humour. Reading the book one got the feeling that not only did Patrick Macnee have no real ego, but he didn't even realise just how special he really was.

I never had the opportunity to meet or interact with Patrick Macnee. I only knew him from the many television shows and films in which he appeared over the years, as well as the many interviews he gave. It is perhaps silly then that I am mourning as if I have lost an old friend or relative. Regardless, Patrick Macnee had an impact on my life in a way that few other actors would have. Without him as John Steed and The Avengers, I might not be who I am today.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Dick Van Patten Passes On

Actor Dick Van Patten, who appeared on the TV shows Mama, Young Dr. Malone, When Things Were Rotten, and Eight is Enough and movies from Charly (1968) to Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), died yesterday, June 23 2015 at the age of 86.

Dick Van Patten was born on December 9 1928 in  Kew Gardens, New York. His younger sister Joyce would also go into acting. His career in show business began when he was still a child.  He made his debut on Broadway in 1937 in The Eternal Road when he was only 8 years old. In the late Thirties he also appeared on Broadway in the productions On Borrowed Time, Run Sheep Run, The American Way, and The Woman Brown. He also made his debut on radio when he was only 8 years old. Over the years he would appear in over 600 different radio programmes. Among the radio shows on which he appeared were Young Widder Brown, Duffy's Tavern, The Aldrich Family, Let's Pretend, Coast to Coast on a BusThe Theatre Guild on the Air, and Reg'lar Fellers.

In the Forties young Mr. Van Patten continued to appear regularly on Broadway, appearing in the productions The Lady Who Came to Stay, The Land Is Bright, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Snark Was a Boojum, Decision, Too Hot for Manoeuvres, The Wind Is Ninety, O Mistress Mine, and Mister Roberts. He continued to regularly appear on radio. In 1949 he made his television debut on the show Mama in the regular role of Nels Hansen. It was a role he would play well into the Fifties.

In the Fifties he guest starred on Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, The Silent Service, Rawhide, and The DuPont Show of the Month. In the Sixties Dick Van Patten was a regular on the soap opera Young Dr. Malone. He guest starred on the shows Naked City, I Dream of Jeannie, The Governor & J.J., and Arnie. He appeared in the films Violent Midnight (1963), The Secret Dream Models of Oliver Nibble (1967) , and Charly (1968). He appeared on Broadway in Have I Got a Girl for You!, A Very Rich Woman, Lovers and Other Strangers, and But Seriously.

In the Seventies Dick Van Patten played Sgt. Nelson Higgenbottom on the short lived TV show The Partners, Max Mathias on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Friar Tuck on When Things Were Rotten, and patriarch Tom Bradford on Eight is Enough. He guest starred on such shows as That Girl, Sanford and Son, Hec Ramsey, The Doris Day Show, McMillan & WifeKolchak: The Night StalkerEllery Queen, Emergency!, Wonder Woman, and The Streets of San Francisco. He appeared on Broadway in Thieves. He appeared in such films as Beware! The Blob (1972), Joe Kidd (1972),  Soylent Green (1973), Westworld (1973), Superdad (1973), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), Treasure of Matecumbe (1976), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), and Freaky Friday (1976).

In the Eighties Dick Van Patten was a regular on the short lived show WIOU. He guest starred on such shows as Too Close for Comfort; Insight; The Love Boat; Mike Hammer; Murder, She Wrote; and Crazy Like a Fox. He appeared in the films Lunch Wagon (1981), Spaceballs (1987), and Going to the Chapel (1988).

In the Nineties he appeared on such shows as Diagnosis: Murder, Baywatch, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Boy Meets World, and Touched by an Angel. In the Naughts he appeared in the films Groom Lake (2002), Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003), The Sure Hand of God (2004), Quiet Kill (2004), and Opposite Day (2009). He guest starred on the shows 7th Heaven, Arrested Development, and That 70s Show. In 2011 he made his last appearance, guest starring on Hot in Cleveland.

Dick Van Patten was an animal rights activist who particularly loved dogs. In 1989 he founded Natural Balance Pet Foods. In 2009 he started National Guide Dog Month to help raise awareness for non-profit guide dog schools in the United States.

Dick Van Patten had an incredibly long career. Starting in childhood, his career spanned over seventy years. What is more he was exceedingly prolific. He appeared often on radio in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and he appeared frequently on the Broadway stage from the Thirties to the Fifties. From the Seventies to the Teens he was regularly seen on television and in films. Generally Mr. Van Patten played roles that were not too far removed from what he was in real life, that of the perpetual nice guy.

Dick Van Patten's characters were friendly, kind hearted, and sometimes (like Friar Tuck on When Things Were Rotten) a bit absent minded. As far as films go, Mr. Van Patten's best roles might have come courtesy of Mel Brooks. He was the guilt ridden, fearful Dr. Wentworth in High Anxiety. He was doting father King Roland in Spaceballs. He was the flustered abbot in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Mel Brooks and Dick Van Patten made a good team, perhaps because they were both men who enjoyed making people laugh. Indeed, it is perhaps for the sheer enjoyment Dick Van Patten brought people that he will be best remembered. From Mama to his guest appearance on Hot in Cleveland, it was hard not to look on Dick Van Patten and smile.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960)

Even in an overall sterling career it can be said Billy Wilder was on a bit of a roll in the Fifties. Starting with Ace in the Hole in 1951 he directed some of his very best films during the decade: Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959).  Billy Wilder ended the decade with what I consider to be his greatest achievement in film: The Apartment (1960). The Apartment is not only my favourite Billy Wilder film. It is also my second favourite film of all time. In fact, I long ago lost count of just how many times I have watched it.

For those who have never seen the movie, The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon),  a clerk at Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a rather unusual problem. Quite simply, he finds himself constantly lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendezvous. While this puts him in good with his bosses, it otherwise makes his life miserable (for instance, he can't always go straight home from work). Complicating matters even further, Baxter is carrying a torch for elevator operator Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a situation which can only serve to make Baxter even more miserable.

The inspiration for the unusual premise of The Apartment stemmed from the first time Billy Wilder saw Brief Encounter, David Lean's film about an affair between two married people. At one point in the film the two lovers meet in an apartment belonging to a co-worker of the man in the affair. Billy Wilder found himself more interested in the co-worker to whom the apartment belonged than the two people having the affair.

The Apartment also took some of its inspiration from a real life Hollywood scandal. Agent Jennings Lang had an affair with actress Joan Bennett, some of their meetings taking place in an apartment belonging to one of his subordinates at his agency. Ultimately Joan Bennett's husband, producer Walter Wanger, would wind up shooting Jennings Lang in a fit of jealousy.  Jennings Lang survived while Walter Wanger served four months in prison. Yet another source of inspiration for The Apartment was a story that Billy Wilder's co-writer I. A. L. Diamond heard about a woman who had committed suicide in a man's apartment as an act of revenge against him.

From the beginning Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had intended for Jack Lemmon to play C. C. Baxter. Having worked with Jack Lemmon on Some Like It Hot (1959), Billy Wilder wanted to work with him again. Shirley MacLaine was cast in the role of Miss Kubelik. At the time Miss MacLaine was an up and coming star, having already appeared in such films as The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Matchmaker (1958), and Some Came Running (1958). She had been nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the last film.

Originally the role of the oily chief executive of the Consolidated Life Insurance Company and the film's antagonist, Mr. Sheldrake, was planned to go to character actor Paul Douglas. Mr. Douglas appeared in such films as Angels in the Outfield (1951),  Executive Suite (1954), and Beau James (1957). Sadly, Paul Douglas died of a heart attack at age 52 only shortly after completing the Twilight Zone episode "The Mighty Casey" and not long before production was set to begin on The Apartment. It was then that Fred MacMurray was cast in the role Sheldrake. Fred MacMurray was initially hesitant to take the role. Not only was he well known for having generally played nice guys over the years, but he was just beginning his long running TV sitcom My Three Sons and he had just signed a contract with Disney to star in a series of family films. Fortunately Billy Wilder was able to persuade Fred MacMurray to take the role. Mr. Wilder had previously persuaded Fred MacMurray to play against type as the none-too-nice Walter Neff (who also happened to be in the insurance industry) in Double Indemnity (1944).

The role of Baxter's neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss, would also go to an actor other than the one Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond originally had in mind. They had originally intended for character actor Lou Jacobi to play the role. At the time Mr. Jacobi may have been best known for his work on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank. As it turned out Lou Jacobi was already committed to another Broadway play, The Tenth Man, and its producers would not release him from his contract so he could appear in The Apartment. Jack Kruschen was then cast as Dr. Dreyfuss. Jack Kruschen was a frequent guest star on television shows in the Fifties, and he had appeared in such films as The Buccaneer (1958) and The Man Who Understood Women (1959).

Not only does The Apartment take place roughly during the holiday season, it was also shot largely during the holiday season as well--from November 1959 to February 1960.  And while much of the film was shot in Hollywood, parts of it were shot on location in New York City, including scenes set at Columbus Avenue, 59th Street, and the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street. If at times the actors in The Apartment look as though they really are cold, it is probably because they are.

Many of Billy Wilder's films would begin shooting before their screenplays were even finished. This was no less true of The Apartment. When it began shooting only half the script was finished. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond finished the script as filming progressed.

The Apartment would prove to be both a critical and commercial success. The film received generally positive reviews. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther gave the film a glowing review, calling The Apartment "...a gleeful, tender and even sentimental film."   Variety also gave The Apartment a positive review, opening with, "Billy Wilder has furnished The Apartment with a one-hook plot that comes out high in comedy, wide in warmth and long in running time." Given the generally positive reviews The Apartment received, it should come as no surprise that the film did well at the Academy Awards. The Apartment won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White). It also received nominations for Oscars for Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), and Best Sound. The Apartment would also prove to be a hit at the box office. It made $6,700,000 and was the sixth highest grossing film for 1960. By 1970 The Apartment had grossed $25,000,000 worldwide.

Of course, this is not to say that The Apartment was not the source of some controversy. Not everyone was happy with the film, which portrayed martial infidelity as rather commonplace.  Hollis Alpert of The Saturday Review referred to it as "a dirty fairy tale". Allegedly Chicago critic Ann Marsters told Billy Wilder in person that he had made a dirty film. Not only did Fred MacMurray find himself receiving hate mail for having played the smarmy Mr. Sheldrake, but he even found himself being accosted on the street by people for having made a "dirty" movie. Although tame by today's standards, The Apartment was considered racy in 1960.

 Regardless of its few detractors in 1960, The Apartment would prove to have an impact on the careers of its lead actors. It established Jack Lemmon as a leading man in his own right. It was because of The Apartment that Jack Lemmon appeared as the lead in such films as The Notorious Landlady (1962), Good Neighbour Sam (1964), The Great Race (1965), and many more films throughout his career.  What is more, it was following The Apartment that Jack Lemmon, a comic actor earlier in his career, began playing dramatic roles as well. The Apartment  would have a similar impact on Shirley MacLaine's career. While Some Came Running established her as a major star, The Apartment more than affirmed it.

Ultimately The Apartment would become regarded as a classic. It would be the last black and white film to win Best Picture until Schindler's List (1993)It also provided the basis for the 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises, and the inspiration for films from the 2005 Malaysian film Salon to the 2007 Bollywood film Life in a... Metro.

As to why The Apartment was so successful upon its initial release and has since become considered one of Billy Wilder's greatest movies, it is perhaps because it is a sophisticated and complicated movie, despite its somewhat simple premise (C. C. Baxter loans out his apartment to his superiors at work). In many respects The Apartment is surprisingly dark, much darker than many of Billy Wilder's other comedies. The Apartment is not only set in a world where marital infidelity is commonplace, but where corporate executives regularly exploit their underlings for their own benefit. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to say whether The Apartment is indeed a comedy or if it is instead a realistic drama that just happens to have a good deal of humour. Regardless, The Apartment can be both deeply cynical and very serious in ways that many of Billy Wilder's comedies are not.

Of course, this is not to say that The Apartment is not a very funny film. In fact, I believe it is the funniest film Billy Wilder ever made, despite the darker and more serious themes that pervade the movie. Even more so than Some Like It Hot, The Apartment has a large number of extremely funny and very quotable lines. It also has a number of very funny, if very human and very realistic, scenes. Indeed, the film does have its share of physical humour. It then seems possible that The Apartment could be described as a dark comedy with a good deal of drama.

While The Apartment takes a very dark of view of corporate America, the film also has a sweetness to it, although it never becomes overly saccharine. At the core of The Apartment is not Baxter's predicament with his apartment or even his predicament with his superiors at work, but instead his relationship with Miss Kubelik. Unlike "playboys" Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) in The Seven Year Itch or Joe (played by Tony Curtis) in Some Like It, C. C. Baxter is not seeking merely to bed Miss Kubelik. Although neither he nor Miss Kubelik realise it, Baxter is sincerely, genuinely in love with her, and that fact propels much of the plot of the film. The Apartment is a true romantic comedy in a way few modern "romcoms" are.

The Apartment is also a treat for fans of 20th Century popular culture. Early in the film C. C. Baxter settles down to watch television only to find every single television station is showing Westerns except for one  (it is showing Grand Hotel), a reference to the huge cycle towards Westerns then dominating television in the late Fifties. With regards to its reference to Grand Hotel, The Apartment is the first Best Picture winner to reference earlier Best Picture winners according to the website IMDB. The other Best Picture besides Grand Hotel referenced in The Apartment is The Lost Weekend. This is something of an in-joke, as The Lost Weekend was also directed by Billy Wilder. The Apartment also references Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Mae West, The Untouchables, and then hit Broadway musical The Music Man. In more ways than one The Apartment captured the zeitgeist of 1959.

In some respects The Apartment could be considered the quintessential Billy Wilder film. Unlike many other directors, Billy Wilder was equally adept at comedy and drama, and with The Apartment he blended them together seamlessly. The cynicism of many of his films is also blended with the sentiment he sometimes expressed in others. What is more, The Apartment features the witty dialogue and complex characters for which he was so well known. While many might point to Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Some Like It Hot (1959) as Billy Wilder's greatest masterpiece, I am convinced it is The Apartment.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Pillow Talk (1959)

One of the genres most closely associated with the early to mid-Sixties is the sex comedy. Numerous sex comedies were released in the first half of the decade. And at least one major star, Doris Day, made so many well known examples of the genre that she would become forever linked to it. While associated with the Sixties, the genre actually originated in the Fifties. And while the films were termed "sex comedies", they never featured the sex act itself. Instead the Sixties sex comedies were films in which sex was at the centre of the conflict between the lead characters. In many respects the Sixties sex comedies could be considered descendants of both the bedroom farce and the screwball comedy, combining elements of both. Of course, as might be expected, there was always a good deal of sexual innuendo in the films.

As mentioned above, while sex comedies are identified with the early to mid-Sixties, they originated in the Fifties. That having been said, it is difficult to say precisely what the first sex comedy was. Certainly Monkey Business (1952), Phffft (1954), and The Seven Year Itch (1955) could be considered forerunners of the sex comedy, even if they don't exactly belong to the genre. The Tender Trap (1955), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1957), Kiss Them for Me (1957),  and three movies released in 1958 (Teacher's Pet, The Perfect Furlough,  and Houseboat) are all possible candidates for the first sex comedy. Of course, if none of them are considered the first sex comedy, then there can be little doubt that the first in the genre was Pillow Talk (1959). Not only is it definitely considered part of the genre, for many it remains the quintessential sex comedy. What is more, it was the movie that kicked off the cycle towards sex comedies that lasted for the remainder of the Fifties and well into the Sixties.

Pillow Talk was the first of three sex comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson (the other two were Lover Come Back, released in 1961, and Send Me No Flowers, released in 1964).  In the film Rock Hudson and Doris Day play playboy Brad Allen and interior decorator Jan Morrow respectively, who find themselves constantly at odds over the use of the party line they share (for those of the mobile phone generation, a party line is one in which several telephone users are connected to the same line). When Brad finally sees Jan at a nightclub, he puts on the charade of being rich Texas rancher Tex Stetson to get close to her.

Pillow Talk originated from material by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, best known for such films noirs as D.O.A. (1950), The Well (1952), New York Confidential (1955), and so on. Messrs. Rouse and Greene's concept was given shape as a screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin, both veterans of television who had worked on the sitcoms Where's Raymond starring Raymond Bolger and Hey, Jeannie starring Jeannie Carson.

It is surprising today to consider that at the time Doris Day signed to star in Pillow Talk she was not considered as major a star as she once had been. Having ranked in the top ten of Quigley's annual poll of the top box office stars in both 1951 and 1952, by 1958 she was ranked only 15th in the poll. Worse yet, her last two films, The Tunnel of Love (1958) and It Happened to Jane (1959) had not done particularly well at the box office. Fortunately for Doris Day, Pillow Talk would bring her career to heights it had never seen before.

It is also surprising to think that Rock Hudson, who may now be best known for his work on the sex comedies he made with Doris Day, was initially apprehensive about making Pillow Talk.  In fact, he initially turned the movie down. Not only did he worry that the material was too risqué, but he was also worried because he had never done a comedy before. Fortunately Mr. Hudson was convinced to star in the film. As to his concerns about playing comedy, both director Michael Gordon and co-star Doris Day helped him through it. In the end it proved to be one of the films Rock Hudson enjoyed making the most, and the start of a lifelong friendship with Doris Day.

As to the film's third major role, that would be filled by Tony Randall. Not only was Mr. Randall already a veteran of comedy movies, but arguably he was already a veteran of sex comedies or, at least, their direct forerunners. He had already starred in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Mating Game (1959).  In Pillow Talk he played Brad's old college buddy, neurotic rich boy Jonathan Forbes. Unfortunately, Jonathan is one of Jan's clients, and he makes no secret about his crush on her. Tony Randall would return as a tertiary lead in Doris Day and Rock Hudson's other two films, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. He would also prove to be something of a regular in the Sixties sex comedies. In addition to the films he made with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Tony Randall also appeared in Let's Make Love (1960) and Boys' Night Out (1962).

The film's primary cast was rounded out by character actress Thelma Ritter. She played Jan's alcoholic housekeeper Alma. Thelma Ritter already had a very good career as a character actress, having appeared in such films as All About Eve (1950), Rear Window (1954), and Daddy Long Legs (1955). Not surprisingly she had some of the funniest bits in the film.

Surprisingly enough given the classic status that Pillow Talk would achieve, not to mention the fact that it would even spark a whole cycle of similar sex comedies, neither Universal-International nor theatres were particularly enthusiastic about the film. Their line of thought was that sophisticated comedies had gone out with the Thirties. Eventually producer Ross Hunter was able to persuade Sol Schwartz, who owned the Palace Theatre on Broadway in New York City, to book Pillow Talk for two weeks. It proved an enormous success at the Palace Theatre, so much so that soon cinemas across the country were booking the film.  In the end Pillow Talk made $18,750,000 at the box office and was the 5th highest grossing film for 1959. Pillow Talk would also win the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen, and was nominated for the Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Doris Day); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for Thelma Ritter); Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (for Frank De Vol).

Pillow Talk would prove to have a lasting impact on the Sixties sex comedies that followed it. While it was not necessarily the first comedy in which sex was at the centre of the story's conflict, it took it to heights it had never been before, with enough innuendo that some people (even its star Rock Hudson) worried it might be too racy. And while it was not the first such comedy to involve deceit, it took such deceit further than it might ever had been before given the lengths to which  Brad Allen took his charade as Tex Stetson. Pillow Talk does appear to have established some of the tropes now identified with the Sixties sex comedy genre. Brad Allen's extravagantly furnished bachelor pad, where where a good deal could be done with the press of button, was the prototype for all bachelor pads to come in the Sixties sex comedies. 

Pillow Talk was also one of the very earliest films to portray a career woman whose focus was firmly on her job rather than romance. Not only was Jan not waiting around to find a man to marry, but she truly enjoyed her job. What is more, even though Doris Day has been stereotyped as a perpetual virgin, it is clear that her character Jan Morrow is not precisely virginal. What is more, neither were Doris Day's characters in her successive sex comedies. For Jan Morrow (and Doris Day's other sex comedy characters, for that matter) resisting a man was not about protecting her virtue, so much as it was as insuring that the man pursuing her was truly worthy of her. This would also be the case of the many other sex comedies that followed in the wake of those starring Doris Day. They often featured career women devoted to their jobs who resist men not to protect their virginity (which might well have been long gone by that point), but to make sure that the men were truly good enough for them.

As mentioned above, while it is possible that Pillow Talk was not the first Sixties sex comedy (there are several contenders for the title), it is the one that started the cycle of sex comedies that spanned from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties. Pillow Talk would be followed by several more sex comedies starring Doris Day. In addition to those in which she co-starred with Rock Hudson there were That Touch of Mink (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), Do Not Disturb (1965), and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). Of course, there were many other sex comedies besides those starring Doris Day, including Come September (1962),  Boys' Night Out (1962), Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963), Boeing Boeing (1965), and many others.

Given its success, it should come as no surprise that Pillow Talk revitalised the career of Doris Day. For 1959 she ranked 4th in Quigley's annual poll of the biggest stars. From 1960 to 1966 she ranked in the top ten of the poll every year--six of those years spent in the top five and four of those years at no. 1. Pillow Talk would also reinvent Rock Hudson's career. Previously the star of such dramas as Giant (1957), A Farewell to Arms (1957), and Twilight for the Gods (1958), in early to the mid-Sixties he would primarily be the star of comedies such as Come September (1961), The Spiral Road (1962), Man's Favourite Sport? (1964), and Strange Bedfellows (1967).

In the end Pillow Talk would prove to be one of the most influential and most important films of the late Fifties. It revitalised Doris Day's career, changed the direction of Rock Hudson's career, and started an entire cycle of sex comedies that last until the middle of the Sixties. And it did it all by centring on sex without ever actually showing the sex act itself.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Another Liebster Award

If you have been a blogger for any amount of time chances are good that you have heard of the Liebster Award (I was nominated for one years go, hence the title). The Liebster Award is a means by which bloggers show appreciation for one another. The rules are simple. You answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you, list 11 things people might not know about you, and then nominate up to 11 other bloggers. The past few weeks I have been nominated by both Steve Bailey of MovieMovieBlogBlog and Jennifer Garlen of Virtual Virago. What I will do then is answer both Steve and Jennifer's questions, in that order.

First up are Steve's questions.

1. “All-time favourite movie” is too tough. What is your favourite genre, and what is your all-time favourite movie in that genre? Well, my all-time favourite movie is easy. It's Seven Samurai (1954). As to my all-time favourite genre, that's a lot more difficult. I like a wide array of genres, so it is actually hard for me to pick a favourite. If I were forced to choose,  I guess I would go with the British "Swinging London" movies of the Sixties. My favourite movie in that genre would be a tie: A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). I can't decide which one I like better.

2. “Theatrical” is too easy. What’s your all-time favourite TV-movie? The Night Stalker (1972), the TV movie that introduced the world to newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin)

3. The Great Movie Genie is allowing you to permanently change the ending of one movie. Which one do you choose, and why? Superman (1978). I really dislike the idea that Superman can fly fast enough that he can literally turn back time. First, even as a kid I never thought Superman was that fast (The Flash may be, but Superman's not). Second, turning back time is too much power for a superhero who is already more powerful than a locomotive and can already leap tall buildings in a single bound to have.

4. You’re the latest heinie-kissing Hollywood exec, slavishly following trends. Which movie, good or bad, would you like to sequelize or remake? I'll probably get hate mail for this (especially as there was already one  horrible remake), but I would like to remake Pscyho (1960). That having been said, it would not be so much a remake as a more faithful adaptation of Robert Bloch's original novel. I love Hitchcock's movie, but I love the book too. It would be great to see a more faithful adaptation where Norman Bates is short, overweight, and balding as he was in the novel instead of, well, the handsome and charming Anthony Perkins.

5. Name the movie whose screening you’d like to co-host on TCM with Ben Mankiewicz. I already did this back in April. It was a lot of fun too! The movie was A Hard Day's Night (1964).

6. Describe your most memorable movie occasion — not necessarily your favourite film, but a movie you enjoyed with friends, one that evoked a particular memory, etc. It was when I was in college. We went to a midnight double feature of A Boy and His Dog (1975) and Scanners (1981). We had gone to it the night before, but went to it a second time because my friend Carol had slept through it the first time around. Keep in mind by this point all of us, save Carol, had been awake for 72 hours!   Not surprisingly, all of us (except for Carol) fell asleep during A Boy and His Dog. As fate would have it all of us woke up during the notorious "brain exploding" scene in Scanners. To say we all jumped in our seats would be an understatement... Despite that I enjoyed Scanners both times I saw it in the theatre and it remains a fond memory of my misspent youth. 

7. What is your favourite line of movie dialogue? " It was beauty killed the beast." from King Kong (1933)

8. Why are movies special to you? That's a hard question to answer. At least part of it is sheer escapism. Movies are a way of escaping one's everyday, workaday world for a few hours, a way of forgetting one's troubles. Of course, that is hardly the only reason films are special to me, as sometimes I watch movies whose realities are much less preferable to my own, For example, I would not want to be one of the characters in the movie Scarface (1932)! In instances such as Scarface, movies are a way of experiencing other worlds, other realities, safely from a theatre or one's own home. If I actually could go back in time and live among gangsters in the early Thirties, chances are good I would be shot or be given a pair of concrete galoshes. I can watch Scarface, though, and not have to worry about winding up dead.

9. What do you enjoy most about blogging? That's like asking what I enjoy most about writing. I really don't know.  I enjoy doing research for my articles (in fact, a lot of what I learn doesn't always make it to the finished product), but then I also enjoy the actual writing. In fact, about the only thing I don't enjoy is proofreading (I really wish I could afford to hire someone to do that for me). Oddly enough, getting a response to my blog is not that big of a priority for me. I'd blog even if I had no readers (and in the early days I really didn't).

10. What is your favourite book about movies? The Parade's Gone By by Kevin Brownlow. It was one of the first books on movies I ever read, and the first book about silent movies I ever read.

11. You have your favourite movie actor or actress to yourself for 24 hours to do with what you will. Name, please. Vivien Leigh and we'll leave it at that.

And now here are Jennifer's questions.

1. Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire? This had always been a hard question for me to answer. I think they were very different sorts of dancers and hence equally good. That having been said, in the end I think I would have to go with Gene Kelly because I like more of his movies.

2. What's your favourite Val Lewton film? Bedlam (1946). You can't beat a Val Lewton film starring Boris Karloff set in an asylum.

3. Name one book about classic movies or stars that everyone should read. The above mentioned The Parade's Gone By by Kevin Brownlow. It is still the best primer on silent movies around.

4. What's the absolute worst old movie that you love anyway? That's hard to say. Keeping in mind that I think this is a good movie and I suspect many others think so too, I would have to say A Bucket of Blood (1959). If not that, then I would have to say The Tingler (1959), which I personally think is a great movie too. Of course, while I don't consider either film to be bad by any stretch of the imagination, I guess there might be some people who do.

5. Who is your favourite character actor?  I have a ton of favourite character actors, so it is hard to choose. If forced to choose I think it would either be Eddie Anderson (who played my favourite character on The Jack Benny Programme, Rochester) or Sheldon Leonard (who played a ton of gangsters and, coincidentally, the racetrack tout on The Jack Benny Programme).

6. If you could adapt one literary work for film, which would it be and why? Wuthering Heights, because I don't think there has been a proper adaptation yet. Don't get me wrong. I love William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), but it only adapted one half of the novel and Merle Oberson was horribly miscast as Cathy (Vivien Leigh would have been much better). Of course, if I did adapt Wuthering Heights I would have to do it in two or three parts, like Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings. There's just a lot of novel there!

7. What's the last book you read? Woody Allen: Reel to Real by Alex Sheremet (which I really need to get around to reviewing next week)

8. Name one of your favourite movie death scenes. What's so great about it?  The death of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) in Seven Samurai. Kikuchiyo was a peasant who wanted to be a samurai so badly that he even falsified his family tree. Arguably it is with his death, defending the hapless farm village against bandits, that he truly achieves his goal, dying a hero's death as what he wanted to be, a samurai.

9. Who should really have gotten the role of Scarlett O'Hara? Vivien Leigh. I am convinced she was the best possible actress for the role. That having been said, I do think Paulette Goddard, who very nearly got the role, would have made a great Scarlett O'Hara as well. I don't think anyone but Paulette would have done as well as Vivien did in the role.

10. Coffee, tea, or alcohol? I love all three, so it's hard for me to say. Can I just cheat and say, "Long Island iced tea" or "Irish coffee?" Actually, given I am not at all a morning person, I would probably have to go with coffee, of which I consume a great deal before noon.

11. What's your favourite Disney movie? Pinocchio (1940).  To me it has the best animation, best songs, and the best story of any Disney film.

And now for 11 things readers might not know about me.

1, Through my mother's family I can trace my line back to the Plantagenets. This is not as impressive as it sounds. If one is of English descent, then chances are good he or she is descended from the Plantagenets!

2. There was a time I could sight read Old English. I have read Beowulf in the original language. Sadly, I am horribly out of practice and these days I need help from a Old English-Modern English dictionary.

3.  I have written six novels, all of them unpublished. I have not even tried publishing them as I don't think they are very good. At any rate they would need drastic revising!  Five of them I wrote for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place each November. During National Novel Writing Month one must write a novel of at least 50,000 words in thirty days.

4. As you can probably guess from the above, I have written five novels each in under thirty days....

5. I live only about an hour to ninety minutes drive from the hometowns of Walt Disney (Marceleine, Mo), Steve McQueen (Slater, MO), and Lester Dent (La Plata, MO). I also live only about an  hour away from Hannibal, MO, the hometown of Mark Twain, the Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Cliff Edwards. Sadly, the only famous person from my hometown is Civil War guerilla Bloody Bill Anderson.

6. I am 1/8 Cherokee through a great grandmother on my father's side.

7.  I am very slightly ambidextrous. I can write with my left hand, although it isn't pretty and I get writer's cramp pretty quickly! That having been said, I favour my left hand for many things. I shoot a bow with my left hand, and I favour it when it comes to handguns as well. If I have to type with only one hand for some reason, it tends to be my left.

8. I can still wear clothes that I wore in my twenties.

9. At one time my brother and I had possibly the largest collection of vinyl records in the county.

10. I think most of my readers probably already know this, but I have a pronounced preference for brunettes. Except for Grace Kelly, Maureen O'Hara, and Veronica Lake, my favourite actresses all tend to be brunette: Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Tierney, Margaret Lockwood, Audrey Hepburn, Paulette Goddard, and so on.

11. I own several Region 2 DVDs and my computer is set to only play Region 2 DVDs. I did this so I can watch DVD sets of classic British TV series (like Adam Adamant Lives and Justice) that aren't available on Region 1 in the United States.

And now for my questions for those I am nominating for a Liebster Award:

1. What is your favourite British film (a film made in Britain, not about Britain but made elsewhere)?
2. Who is your favourite British actor or actress?
3. What is your favourite British TV series (again, a show made in Britain, not about Britain but made elsewhere)?
4. Who is your favourite British band?
5. If you could create a TV show based on any intellectual property (novel, movie, comic book, pulp magazine, et. al.), what would it be?
6. What is your favourite TV show that lasted a season or less?
7. What is the first movie you can ever remember watching all the way through?
8.  Disney or the Fleischer brothers?
9. If you could put an end to any current trend in movies, what would it be?
10. What is your favourite movie romance and why?
11. Why did you start blogging?

And now for the nominees:
A Classic Movie Blog
Crítica Retrô Laura's Miscellaneous Musings 
Movies Silently 

Thanks to Steve and Jennifer for nominating me!