Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Batman Through The Years on Film and In Television

30 March of this year marked the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. To honour the character's 75 years of existence DC Comics then declared today, 23 July, to be Batman Day. Today comic book shops have been giving away free copies of Detective Comics #27 Special Edition. Participating shops are also giving away a host of other Bat-paraphernalia, including bookmarks, bags, a cape, and four different masks.

Of course, even fictional characters change over the years and this is particularly true of The Batman. In the comic books alone he has gone from a dark night avenger to a more fatherly figure who travelled through time and met aliens from outer space to the world's greatest detective and then back to a dark night avenger. These changes would also be reflected on both movie and television screens. Batman was not the first comic book superhero to appear on the big screen (that would be Superman in the classic Fleischer Studios cartoons), nor even the first comic book superhero to appear in a live action film (that would be Captain Marvel), but he was the first superhero from what would become DC Comics to appear in a live action film. Indeed, it is quite possible that Batman has appeared in more films and TV shows than any other comic book superhero. Here then is a look at Batman in movies and on television through the years.

Batman made his first appearance on screen in Columbia Pictures' 15 chapter serial The Batman from 1943. This is not an actual trailer for that serial, but one that was made for the serial's 1966 re-release. It starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. Among other things, The Batman introduced the Caped Crusader's secret headquarters, the Batcave (called "the Bat's Cave" in the serial).

Columbia Pictures would follow The Batman in 1949 with another serial, Batman and Robin, which starred Robert Lowery as Batman and Johnny Duncan as Robin. Batman and Robin would be historic as the first time that Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot) and Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) appeared on the big screen.

Of course, for many the most familiar iteration of Batman remains the television show that debuted on ABC in 1966. It certainly remains one of the most famous versions of the Caped Crusader. Adam West played Batman and Burt Ward played Robin. The villains on the show were played by a Who's Who of Hollywood, from Caesar Romero as The Joker to Julie Newmar as The Catwoman. Batman proved to be phenomenally successful, becoming a hit in the Nielsen ratings and generating a ton of merchandise. A movie based on the television show was released in 1966. Here is the trailer to that film.

Batman would return to the big screen in 1989 in a film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Batman. Batman would also prove to be a resounding success, becoming the #1 movie in North America for 1989 and the #2 film worldwide (after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). It would have a lasting impact on superhero movies ever since. It was also followed by several more Batman movies: Batman Returns in 1992 (with Michael Keaton once more playing Batman); Batman Forever in 1995 (with Val Kilmer playing Robin and Chris O'Donnell playing Robin); and Batman and Robin (with George Clooney playing Batman, Chris O'Donnell playing Robin, and Alicia Silverstone playing Batgirl). Here is the trailer for Batman (1989).

Not only was Batman (1989) followed by several more movies, but also by the TV show Batman: The Animated Series in 1993. Featuring Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and developed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, Batman: The Animated Series remains for many their favourite incarnation of the Dark Knight. Like the 1966 television series, Batman: The Animated Series would also lead to a feature film. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released in December 1993. While it did poorly at the box office, it would do very well on home video and would be followed by direct-to-video feature films spun off from Batman the Animated Series. Here is the trailer for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

While Batman: The Animated Series would lead to further "Batman" animated shows (including The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond), as well as a number of cartoons based in what came to be known as the DC Animated Universe, the "Batman" movies of the Nineties would come to a grinding halt in 1997 with the financial and critical failure of  Batman & Robin. The character of Batman would be rebooted on the big screen with the film Batman Begins (2005), directed by Christopher Noland and starring Christian Bale as Batman. Batman Begins would be followed by The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The Dark Knight in particular proved be phenomenally successful, for a time ranking as the second highest grossing film of all time without being adjusted for inflation. Here is one of the trailers for The Dark Knight.

Currently Batman is set to appear in the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where he will be played by Ben Affleck. It is currently rumoured that another Batman film is set for 2019 to be titled The Batman. Whether this is true or not, given the character's history it seems likely that Batman will appear in his very own film sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The 125th Anniversary of James Whale's Birth

It was 125 years ago today, on 22 July 1889, that director James Whale was born in Dudley, Worcestershire. Today he may be best known for the classic horror films he directed for Universal Pictures (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein), although he directed  many other classic films as well (including the 1936 version of Show Boat). Today he numbers among the best known and most respected directors of the Thirties. Despite this his career as a film director was relatively short. He only worked in motion pictures for eleven years.

James Whale began his adult life as a cobbler and also lettered signs for extra money. With the onset of the Great War he enlisted in the British Army, in which he rose to the rank of second lieutenant in the Worcestershire regiment. It was while serving in Flanders that he was taken prisoner by enemy forces. He was sent to the Holzminden POW camp in Lower Saxony, Germany, where he remained for 17 months. It was while there that he discovered his talent for the theatre, writing, directing, producing, and acting in amateur theatrical shows.  It was then after the war, in 1919, that James Whale embarked on a career in the theatre.

It was in 1928 that James Whale achieved a good deal of success directing R. C. Sherriff's play Journey's End on London's West End. The original production starred a young Laurence Olivier and centred on a group of soldiers involved in trench warfare during the Great War. Journey's End proved successful enough that in 1929 a production of the play was staged in New York City, also directed by James Whale. It once more proved to be a success and attracted the attention of Hollywood. He served as a dialogue director at Paramount for The Love Doctor (1929) and directed the dialogue sequences for Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930) before directing the film adaptation of Journey's End (1930).

Journey's End was produced by British producer George Pearson for Gainsborough Pictures and Tiffany Pictures, and starred Colin Clive in the lead role of Captain Denis Stanhope. The film proved to be a hit at the box office and also received a good deal of critical acclaim.  Like the play upon which it was based, Journey's End also attracted the attention of Hollywood. It was in 1931 that James Whale signed to a five year contract with Universal Pictures.

There can be no doubt that James Whale's time with Universal marked the peak of his career. It was at Universal that he made his best known films, the classic horror movies for which he has been famous ever since. That having been said, not all of the classic films James Whale made at Universal were horror movies and, in fact, the first film he made there was a wartime drama. Mr. Whale's first movie for the studio was the 1930 version of Waterloo Bridge, based on Robert E. Sherwood's play of the same name. Not only did James Whale bring the film in under budget, but the film proved to be a critical success. Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. then gave James Whale his choice of directing any property the studio owned. Mr. Whale chose Frankenstein.

Alongside its sequel Frankenstein (1931) would prove to be the most successful film of James Whale's career. Frankenstein would prove to be a phenomenon at the box office, the Jaws or Star Wars of its day. It would also receive a good deal of critical acclaim. To this day it is still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Not only would Frankenstein inspire a number of sequels, but alongside the previously released Dracula it sparked a Golden Age for horror movies that lasted until about 1935. Of course, the success of Frankenstein also meant that it would not be the last horror film James Whale directed at Universal.

In fact, another horror film directed by James Whale would be released by Universal in the following year. That having been said, even for the time The Old Dark House (1932) is a very different sort of horror film. Indeed, The Old Dark House is as much a comedy as a horror movie, taking the clichés of the "dark house" subgenre of horror and turning them on their heads. The film was based on J. B. Priestley's novel Benighted and its screenplay was co-written by Benn Levy, who had also co-written the screenplay for Waterloo Bridge (1930). Sadly, The Old Dark House would not do well at the box office in the United States, although it did well in the United Kingdom. It has since become regarded as a classic.

James Whale's next horror film would be an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man. The project has already been through a few hands before it reached James Whale. Screenwriter Garret Fort and director Robert Florey worked on a screenplay for the adaptation that was ultimately rejected. Playwright and screenwriter John L. Balderston also made multiple attempts at a screenplay, one with director Cyril Gardner. Several different writers, among them John Huston, would contribute rewrites. Eventually the project went to James Whale, who succeeded where several others had failed. The Invisible Man (1933) did very well at the box office and even received a good deal of critical acclaim. It was even named one of the Ten Best Films of 1933 by The New York Times.

James Whale's next and final horror film is considered by many to be the best film he ever made. Strangely enough, it was a film that he initially refused to do. Almost immediately with the success of Frankenstein Universal had wanted to produce a sequel. Mr. Whale was not as enthusiastic about the idea, feeling that he had already done everything he could do with the idea and later worrying that he was becoming typecast as a horror director. Fortunately James Whale eventually agreed to direct the sequel to Frankenstein. The resultant film, Bride of Frankenstein, would become regarded as Mr. Whale's masterpiece. Indeed, Mr. Whale deftly blended dark comedy with moments of true horror to create what many consider the finest Gothic horror movie ever made. Bride of Frankenstein proved to be a hit at the box office upon its initial release, and also received a good deal of critical acclaim.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, James Whale directed more than just horror films at Universal. He directed a 1934 adaptation of John Galsworthy's One More River (published as Over the River in the United Kingdom) that was critically acclaimed, but that failed at the box office. Following Bride of Frankenstein he directed what may be his best known film besides his horror movies, his 1936 adaptation of the Kern and Hammerstein musical Show Boat, which was in turn based on Edna Ferber's novel. Universal had previously adapted the novel as a part-talkie in 1929. James Whale's version of Show Boat would prove to be possibly the most faithful version of the musical ever filmed. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and proved to be a success at the box office. Unfortunately, Show Boat (1936) would be withdrawn from circulation after MGM bought the rights to the musical and would remain so for years after MGM released their own version in 1951. Fortunately it would re-enter circulation in the Eighties and has since once again become regarded as a classic.

Unfortunately James Whale's career would soon go into decline. His project following Show Boat was an adaptation of the novel The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque. The novel was banned in Nazi Germany, which would create problems for Mr. Whale's film adaptation.  The consul for Nazi Germany in Los Angeles, George Gyssling, protested the making of the film. Initially nothing came of this, with Universal resisting any changes to the picture. Unfortunately, at some point before the film's wide release Charles R. Rogers, the new head of Universal Pictures, gave into Nazi Germany and made cuts to the film. This angered James Whale, who then left the studio.

Sadly Mr. Whale would see little success after he departed Universal. Both The Great Garrick (1937) for Warner Bros. and Port of Seven Seas (1938) for MGM would bomb at the box office. He returned to Universal where he found himself directing the B-movies Sinners in Paradise (1938) and Wives Under Suspicion (1938). His last major feature film,  a loose adaptation of  Alexandre Dumas' novel The Man in the Iron Mask, was released in 1939. Made for United Artists, Whale's version of The Man in the Iron Mask would prove successful at the box office. It would also prove influential in its own way. Nearly every adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask made since Whale's 1939 version has remained more loyal to the plot of that film and than the plot of the actual novel.

While The Man in the Iron Mask could well have helped James Whale's career, his next film probably hastened its end. Green Hell (1940) was a jungle adventure starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Bennett. The film failed miserably at the box office. The last film on which James Whale worked would be the World War II drama They Dare Not Love (1941) for Columbia.  Unfortunately, James Whale would not get to complete the film. Columbia head Harry Cohn fired James Whale and the film was finished by Charles Vidor. James Whale's film career was effectively over.

After They Dare Not Love James Whale would only direct two more films. For the United States Army he directed the short training film "Personnel Placement in the Army" (1942). His very last work on film was the 1949 short "Hello Out There," based on William Saroyan's one act play of the same name. A&P supermarket heir and millionaire Huntington Hartford hired James Whale to direct a short film adaptation of "Hello Out There" that would showcase his then wife, actress Marjorie Steele. The male lead was Harry Morgan, who had also appeared in the play on stage. "Hello Out There" was meant to part of an anthology film along the lines of Quartet (1948), but for whatever reason it was never released.  "Hello Out There" (1949) would be James Whale's last film work.

 In later years James Whale would increasingly suffer depression and in 1956 he suffered a minor stroke. It was later in the year that he suffered an even more severe stroke. In declining health and his depression growing worse, on n 29 May 1957 James Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his pool. He was 67 years old.

Particularly when compared to such directors as Sir Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, James Whale did not have a particularly long film career. It only lasted eleven years, from 1930 to 1941. Despite this James Whale has probably had more influence on film than many directors with much longer careers. It has often been pointed out that James Whale was heavily influenced by German Expressionism (particularly the works of Paul Wegener and Paul Leni). This is especially seen in his horror films, in which James Whales proved he was a master of light and shadow. More so than any other director of his period, James Whale would shape the look of Gothic horror films for literally decades. Indeed, his influence is still seen today.

While James Whale's expressionistic style would have a lasting impact on the horror film, his mobile camera work would have a lasting impact on film in general. At a time when much camera work tended to be static, James Whale is to be noted for actually moving the camera. He pioneered the use of 360-degree panning shots, most notably in the trial sequence of The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) and the "Ol' Man River" sequence of Show Boat. He also used tracking shots, one of his most notable being in This Old House.

Beyond his expressionistic style and his use of camera movement, however, James Whale's greatest legacy may have been his skill at transcending genres. While today many think of James Whale as a horror director, it must be pointed out that most of his horror films are actually a blend of horror and comedy. Indeed, his masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein combines horror with black humour, pathos, and philosophy. And while James Whale is best known today as a horror director, he was quite skilled in other genres. Many believe his version of the romantic drama Waterloo Bridge to be the best, just as many believe his version of the musical Show Boat to be the quintessential one.  James Whale was a truly pioneering filmmaker, one of the first directors to truly use camera movement to its fullest extent and one who conquered several different genres.

Monday, 21 July 2014

When Harry Met Sally Turns 25

 (Warning: If you have not seen When Harry Met Sally before and are entirely unfamiliar with the film, you might not want to read this article. HERE THERE BE SPOILERS)

There was a time when romantic comedy was a respected film genre. Many of the greatest films of all time belong to the genre, including My Man Godfrey (1936), The Lady Eve (1941), Sabrina (1954), and Pillow Talk (1959). Unfortunately the late Twentieth and early Twenty First Centuries would not be kind to the romantic comedy. It has become a genre that is often looked down upon as trite, predictable, and simplistic. Indeed, the films themselves are often referred to derogatorily as "rom-coms".

It is then rare that one finds a romantic comedy made after 1980 that is not only universally loved, but also widely regarded as a classic. One of these few exceptions to the rule is When Harry Met Sally. It was on 12 July 1989 that it went into limited release. It was exactly twenty five years go today that it entered wide release in 775 theatres. This was later increased to 1174 theatres. Not only would When Harry Met Sally prove to be a hit in 1989, but it has since become regarded as a classic. Indeed, to this day it is referenced in TV shows and motion pictures.

When Harry Met Sally was a collaboration between director Rob Reiner (who may have then been best known for the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap) and writer Nora Ephron (who may have then been best known as a journalist and for co-writing the screenplay for Silkwood). Miss Ephron, Mr. Reiner, and producer Andy Scheinman met for lunch in 1984. From that meeting Mr. Reiner and Miss Ephron developed the ideas that would form the basis for the film. Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay while Rob Reiner worked on other projects (including the classics Stand By Me and The Princess Bride).

The lead role of Harry Burns was offered to Albert Brooks, who turned it down because he thought it was too similar to other roles he had played. The part then went to comedian Billy Crystal, a television veteran whose best known film role at the time may have been that of Miracle Maxx in The Princess Bride. Several different actresses were considered for the role of journalist Sally Albright. Both Elizabeth Perkins and Elizabeth McGovern were considered for the part, as Molly Ringwald also reportedly was (she would later play the role in a stage version of the film on London's West End). In the end Meg Ryan was cast as Sally Albright. At the time Miss Ryan had only appeared on television and in supporting roles in movies. When Harry Met Sally would be her first lead role.

When Harry Met Sally would prove to be a hit upon its initial release. The film earned $92,823,546 at the box office, making it the twelfth highest grossing film for 1989. It also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, perhaps the only real criticism at the time was that a few critics thought it was too similar to the films of Woody Allen. Nora Ephron's screenplay earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Since then When Harry Met Sally has become regarded by many as a classic, something very few romantic comedies made after 1980 have achieved.

If many today regard When Harry Met Sally as a classic, it is perhaps because it benefits from a particularly strong script. Beyond the cleverness of Nora Ephron's dialogue, there is the simple fact that Miss Ephron created two three-dimensional characters in Harry and Sally. Indeed, they seem more like real people than mere characters in some rom-com. Harry is a far cry from the usual one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out pretty boys of most recent rom-coms. He is a man with his own hopes, dreams, and neuroses. By the same token, Sally is not simply Snow White waiting for her Prince Charming, but instead a realistically portrayed, intelligent woman. What is more, the progression of Harry and Sally's relationship from acquaintances who can barely stand each other to best friends to soul mates may well be one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship on film.

When Harry Met Sally also benefits from a great cast. Indeed, it is hard to believe that anyone else could have been considered for the roles of Harry and Sally than Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. In the hands of Mr. Crystal and Miss Ryan, Harry and Sally are charming, witty, loveable, and more than a bit neurotic. What is more, both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan can be very subtle in their performances, able to convey a whole set of emotions with a single glance or gesture. As to the film's supporting cast, Bruno Kirby as Harry's friend Jess and Carrie Fisher as Sally's friend Marie perform admirably.

On top of its strong script and excellent cast, it should be little wonder if classic film buffs would love When Harry Met Sally, as it has a number of references to classic films. Indeed, both Harry and Sally are movie buffs themselves. They share a love for Casablanca. When Harry is mourning the loss of Sally, at one point he has It's a Wonderful Life on the telly. And there are references to The Lady Vanishes, Pillow Talk, Planet of the Apes, Annie Hall, and other films. Even the climax, on New Year's Eve, is reminiscent of The Apartment (perhaps the greatest romantic comedy of all time IMHO).

Of course, the central question behind When Harry Met Sally was "Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way?". Despite this the film never truly answers the question. While Harry and Sally becomes friends,  it seems clear that the two of them are in love nearly from the beginning. Indeed, after seeing Sally at an airport for the first time in five years, Harry goes out of his way to talk to her. Even after their friendship has commenced it seems clear that there is something deeper between Harry and Sally, in everything from the way they look at each other to the way they talk to each other. When Sally gets angry at Harry after they have sex for the first time, I suspect it is not because she thinks he took advantage of her, but rather because she was forced to confront the feelings they had both kept buried for so long. Quite simply, When Harry Met Sally fails to answer the question of whether men and women can be friends simply because Harry and Sally were in love all along. That having been said, When Harry Met Sally would seem to make another point:  at the root of every successful romantic relationship there must be friendship.

As mentioned earlier, When Harry Met Sally proved to be a hit on its initial release and it has since become regarded as something of a classic. Indeed, in much the same way that When Harry Met Sally referenced classic films, When Harry Met Sally itself has been referenced in various films, television shows, and even commercials over the years.  There has even been a loose remake of the film in the form of the 2004 Bollywood comedy Hum Tum. If romantic comedies in the past thirty years have not been regarded highly, When Harry Met Sally is proof that they can be if done properly.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Late Great James Garner: A True Maverick

For most classic film and television buffs there are those actors that they have admired all their lives. These are the actors they remember from the earliest days of their childhood. These are the actors whose films of which they have seen every one without really trying. These are the actors that many classic film and TV buffs have admired for so long that it seems as if they know them personally. When one of these actors die, then, it is as if an acquaintance or even a friend has died. James Garner is one of those actors for me. Sadly, James Garner died last night at the age of 86.

James Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner on 7 April 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma. His earliest years were spent in the small community of Denver, Oklahoma, living with his family in the back of the store that his father Weldon owned. When he was only four years old his mother Mildred died. When he was seven years old his father's store burned down. His father then sent young James and his two older brothers to live with relatives. His father remarried in 1934 and young James and his brothers returned to live with him. Unfortunately his stepmother was an abusive woman who regularly beat the boys. Eventually his father and stepmother divorced.

It was not long after his divorce that young James's father Weldon moved to Los Angeles. Young James and his brothers remained in Norman. He worked a number of odd jobs and then joined the Merchant Marine when he was sixteen, lying about his age to do so. He afterwards joined his father in Los Angeles, attending Hollywood High School, and even finding a job modelling  Janzen bathing suits. Despite this Los Angeles was not particularly to his liking and young James soon returned to Norman. At Norman High School he played football and basketball, and was on the school's track team as well. It was in 1950, with the Korean War, that he was drafted into the United States Army. He earned two Purple Hearts during his service.

It was in 1954 that a friend who was a talent agent suggested that Mr. Garner take a non-speaking role in the Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. He played one of the members of the court. It was in 1955 that television director Richard L Bare, then working on the television show Cheyenne, cast him in the role of Lt. Brad Forsythe of the U.S. Calvary in the episode "Mountain Fortress". Besides being Mr. Garner's television debut, it was also the first episode of the historic series. Not only did this start James Garner's long television career, but it also led to a contract with Warner Bros.

James Garner would appear in different roles a few more times on Cheyenne, as well as make guest appearances on Warner Brothers Presents, Zane Gray Theatre, and Conflict. It was in 1957 that he was cast as gambler Brett Maverick on the TV show Maverick. Maverick proved to be a hit and made James Garner a household name. He made guest a appearance on another Warner Bros. Western, Sugarfoot, in the role of Bret Maverick and even had a cameo as Bret in the Bob Hope movie Alias Jesse James. Unfortunately the success of Maverick would not last.

Like many of the studio's talent (including Maverick creator Roy Huggins) James Garner found himself in conflict with Warner Bros. Despite the popularity of the show and the at times gruelling pace of shooting an episodic television series, James Garner did not share in the show's profits. It would be the Writers Guild strike of 1960 that would be the straw that broke the camel's back. Warner Bros. refused to pay James Garner his salary on the grounds that they had no scripts and could shoot no new episodes during the strike. They pointed to a clause in his contract that said that they did not have to pay him if production was halted for any reason. James Garner then sued Warner Bros for breach of contract. Among other things the lawsuit uncovered that Warner Bros.was recycling scripts for its other shows and as a result continued production on those shows even as the strike was under way. Ultimately Warner Bros. lost the lawsuit and lost their appeal as well. James Garner then left Warner Bros. and, of course, Maverick. Without James Garner the show lasted another two years.

During the Sixties James Garner had a busy movie career and, as a result, he made no appearances on television beyond a few talk shows and variety shows. He returned to the medium in 1971 in the short lived Western Nichols. Nichols was set in Arizona in 1914 and starred James Garner as the title character, a pacifist who finds himself appointed the sheriff of a small town. Unfortunately, the series did poorly in the ratings and was cancelled after only one season. It was in 1974 that Mr. Garner starred in his next television show The Rockford Files. Created by Roy Huggins (who had also created Maverick) and Stephen J. Cannell, The Rockford Files centred on down and out private eye Jim Rockford, who preferred to talk his way out of situations than resorting to violence. The Rockford Files proved to be a hit, lasting six seasons and an additional eight TV movies. During the Seventies James Garner also reprised his role of Bret Maverick in the pilot for Young Maverick, The New Maverick, as well as the episode "Clancy" of the TV show itself.

In the Eighties James Garner once more played Bret Maverick in the TV show of the same name. Bret Maverick only lasted one season, from 1981 to 1982. He also appeared in the mini-series Space as well as on The Hallmark Hall of Fame and in the television movies Heartsounds and The Glitter Dome. In the Nineties he was the star of the short lived series Man of the People. He appeared in several Rockford Files TV movies, as well as the mini-series Streets of Laredo. He had a recurring role on the show Chicago Hope and provided the voice of God in the animated series God, The Devil, & Bob.

In the Naughts James Garner starred in the short lived drama First Monday as well as the sitcom 8 Simple Rules. He provided the voice of Shazam in the straight to video animated DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.

While most actors specialise in one medium or another, James Garner was as much a movie star as he was a television star. In fact, he achieved movie stardom even as he was playing Bret Maverick on Maverick. James Garner made his film debut in a small part in Toward the Unknown in 1956. Warner Bros. then used him in small parts in The Girl He Left Behind (1956), Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957), and Sayonara (1957). He received his first starring role in a motion picture when Charlton Heston had a disagreement with Warner Bros. over money. Mr. Heston walked out on the film Darby's Rangers (1958) and as a result James Garner was cast in the lead role of World War II hero Col. William Darby.While still starring on Maverick James Garner went onto play the lead in the films Up Periscope (1959) and Cash McCall (1960).

The Sixties would be James Garner's most prolific period as a movie star. In fact, he made some of his most popular films during the era. He appeared alongside several other big name stars in The Great Escape (1963), playing Lt. Hendley "The Scrounger". He appeared in some of the notable sex comedies of the Sixties, including Boys' Night Out (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), and Move Over, Darling (1964). He also starred in other notable comedies, including The Americanization of Emily (1964) and the Western parody Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). While Mr. Garner made many notable comedies during the decade, he did star in dramas and action films as well. He played obstetrician Joe Cardin in The Children's Hour, Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun (1967), and Philip Marlowe in Marlowe (1969).  During the Sixties he also appeared in such films as The Wheeler Dealers (1963), 36 Hours (1965), A Man Could Get Killed (1966), Duel at Diablo (1966), Grand Prix (1966), How Sweet It Is! (1968), and A Man Called Sledge (1970).

While James Garner returned to television in the Seventies, he still made several films during the decade. He made several Western comedies during the decade, including Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Skin Game (1971), One Little Indian (1973), and The Castaway Cowboy (1974). He also appeared in the films They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) and HealtH (1980).  The Eighties saw James Garner make fewer movies, although arguably his films during the decade were bigger than those he had made in the Seventies. He played shady club owner King Marchand in Victor Victoria (1982) and Murphy Jones in Murphy's Romance (1985). He also appeared in the films The Fan (1981), Tank (1984), and Sunset (1988).

From the Nineties into the Naughts James Garner appeared in such films as The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), Fire in the Sky (1993), Maverick (1994), Twilight (1998), Space Cowboys (2000), The Notebook (2004), The Ultimate Gift (2006), and First Night (2007). He provided the voice for Commander Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Doron in Battle for Terra (2007).

James Garner has always been one of my all time favourite actors. In fact, given he was already an established television and movie star well before I was born, I cannot remember a time when I did not know who James Garner was. I could not even say where I first saw him. It could have been one of his many movies (perhaps Support Your Local Sheriff or The Great Escape) or a rerun of Maverick. I only know that James Garner starred in two of my all time favourite TV shows (Maverick and The Rockford Files) and an inordinately large number of my favourite films (Boys' Night Out, The Great Escape, The Thrill of It All, Support Your Local Gunfighter, and so on).

What always appealed to me about James Garner was that while he was incredibly handsome and charming, at the same time he seemed entirely approachable. Unlike many movie stars James Garner came off as "just one of the guys". I always imagined that if someone met Mr. Garner in a bar that he or she could sit down with him and talk about the weather, sports, television, and all of the other things about which everyday people talk. Indeed, James Garner treated acting as if it was simply another job. In his memoir The Garner Files he wrote of acting, "Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something it isn’t."

While James Garner may have treated acting as just another job, there can be no doubt that he was great at it. While he will forever be remembered as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, he played a wide variety of roles throughout his career. Many of them were similar to his two best known roles, men who preferred to use their wits instead of their fists. There is a marked similarity between Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford, Lt. Hendley of The Great Escape, and  Jason McCullough of Support Your Local Sheriff. And while Mr. Garner played such charming rogues well, he was equally adept at the sometimes very different roles he played. He played tough as nails lawman Wyatt Earp not once, but twice, and did so convincingly (once in Hour of the Gun and once in Sunset). And while most of the characters James Garner played were nice guys, he was capable of playing characters who  were not so nice. In the television movie Barbarians at the Gate he played real life millionaire  F. Ross Johnson. Like many of James Garner's characters real life  F. Ross Johnson is charming, but at the same time he had no problems with thousands of Nabisco employees losing jobs if it made him millions of dollars.

Over the years Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford have been described as anti-heroes, although I don't think this is quite accurate. While both Maverick and Rockford preferred words to weapons, they did not alway act in their own self interest and would actually help those in need. If anything this made them even more heroic than more traditional heroes, given they could not fall back on force if their lives were in danger. The interest of many of his characters in the welfare of his fellow man was shared by James Garner in real life. On 28 August 1963 he was one of the celebrities to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Mr. Garner was quite active in both the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. It must also be pointed out that it took considerable bravery on his part to stand up to Warner Bros. Indeed, his lawsuit would be one of the earliest instances of a television star taking on a major Hollywood studio and winning.

Ultimately it would seem that James Garner was not only a great actor, but a truly good man. He was married to the same woman, his wife Lois (who survives him) for 58 years. And if anyone has had anything bad to say about James Garner as a person, I do not think I have ever read it. Indeed, even after James Garner accidentally cracked two of Doris Day's ribs during the shooting of a scene for Move Over, Darling, Miss Day still had nothing but good to say bout him. From James Woods to Tom Selleck, Mr. Garner's co-stars all seemed to respect him for his honesty, generosity, kindness, and professionalism. It seems that James Garner was not simply a great actor, but a true gentleman as well.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Satan Bug (1965)

From the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties one could say that director John Sturges was on a roll. He had directed such popular and critically well received films as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963). The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in particular had fairly large, big name casts and were truly epic in scope (both films' running times were in excess of 2 hours). Mr. Sturges' 1965 film following The Great Escape would then be a change of pace for the director.

The Satan Bug was based on Alistair MacLean's 1962 novel of the same name. At a time when fears of nuclear annihilation may have been at an all time high, The Satan Bug dealt with biological warfare. It would be a topic that many films in the late 20th Century and early 21st Century would deal with, from The Crazies (1973) to Twelve Monkeys (1995), but in 1965 it was a fairly novel idea. Prior to The Satan Bug very few films dealt with bacteriological warfare, RKO's 1951movie The Whip Hand perhaps being the most significant.  The Satan Bug was also one of the many spy thrillers released in the mid-Sixties. That having been said, it was a very different sort of spy thriller from the various Bondian pastiches being released at the time. It was a much more intellectual film, with its hero Lee Barrett (played by George Maharis) preferring to use his wits rather than a gun.

Not only did The Satan Bug differ from other spy thrillers of the time, it also differed a good deal from John Sturges' best known films of the time. While The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape both had big name casts, the biggest name movie star in The Satan Bug was Dana Andrews, then past his days as a leading man. That is not to say that the rest of the cast were exactly unknowns. Both Anne Francis and Richard Basehart had appeared in a number of supporting roles in films and guest appearances in films. At the time Richard Basehart was playing Admiral Nelson on the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, while Anne Francis would receive her own show in the fall of 1965, Honey West. As to the film's star, George Maharis, he had played Buzz Murdock on the popular TV show Route 66. The rest of the cast of The Satan Bug was filled with actors whose faces are today recognisable to audiences, but at the time mostly played small roles in films and made guest appearances on television. Edward Asner was years away from playing Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore, while Frank Sutton was still in his first year as Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.

While The Satan Bug differed form  The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in lacking a big name cast, it differed from other spy thrillers of the era in that its emphasis is not on non-stop action. Rather than building suspense through various action scenes, instead The Satan Bug does so through the search for t dialogue, character interaction, and planning. Combined with its rather deliberate pace, The Satan Bug is then much more suspenseful than if it had been done in the manner of the Bondian thrillers of the day. This is not to say that The Satan Bug entirely lacks action scenes. There are a few and, as might be expected of John Sturges, they are all exciting and very well done.

That The Satan Bug lacks the big name casts of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, one should not think that it is lacking in good performances. Richard Basehart is particularly impressive in what might be the film's most difficult role, as is Dana Andrews as General Williams. While George Maharis' Lee Barrett seems more than a little reminiscent of Buzz Murdock on Route 66, it is still a good performance as the character as written seems very similar to Buzz anyway. Perhaps my only complaint with the cast of The Satan Bug is that Anne Francis is not given very much to do. While she gives a solid performance as always, in the end it seems that her character could have been better utilised.

The Satan Bug is not a perfect film. At times its plot does seem a bit disjointed. And while I thought it fit the film perfectly, even at the time of its release there were those who complained about its very deliberate pace. And, as I said in the above paragraph, I really think that Anne Francis' character should have been given more to do. 

The Satan Bug premiered in New York City on 14 April 1965. While John Sturges' previous film, The Great Escape, had been a huge success, The Satan Bug did extremely poorly at the box office. Critics were not particularly kind  to The Satan Bug. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times complained that it "...has much the triteness and monotony of an average serial television show." The headline of Mae Tinnee's review in The Chicago Tribune summed up many critics' opinion of the film, "The Satan Bug,'All Talk, Little Action'".

Today The Magnificent Seven  and The Great Escape are regarded as classics, while The Satan Bug has largely been forgotten. This does not quite seem right to me. Despite the indifference of audiences at the time and the sometimes poor reviews from critics, The Satan Bug is a fine, well wrought thriller that is begging for rediscovery. In the future I hope that it is included among the lists of John Sturges' best films.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Godspeed Johnny Winter

Legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter died 16 July 2014 at the age of 70. He had emphysema and had recently had pneumonia. That having been said, a cause of death has not yet been established.

Johnny Winter was born on 23 February 1944 in Beaumont, Texas Along with his younger brother Edgar Winter (who would go onto his own successful career in rock music), Johnny Winter took music lessons from a young age. When Johnny Winter was ten years old the two brothers performed with ukuleles in a local talent contest. The contest earned them an audition with Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour. They did not pass the audition.

Johnny Winter began playing clubs in the Beaumont, Texas region when he was in his teens. When he was only fifteen years old he recorded his first song "School Day Blues", along with his band Johnny and the Jammers, on a regional label. He attended Lamar State College in Beaumont for two years before moving to Chicago to pursue a career as a blues musician. He returned to Texas only a few months later. He then started performing at local clubs again. When  Roy Head and the Traits were in the Beaumont area he would sometimes play with them. In 1967 he even recorded a single ( "Tramp" backed with "Parchman Farm") with the Traits.

It was in 1968 that he was mentioned in a Rolling Stone article on the Texas music scene. That same year he released his first album, The Progressive Blues Experiment, on the Sonobeat label. It was the following year, in 1969, that he signed with Columbia Records. His first album, Johnny Winter, was released later in the year. It peaked at #24 on the Billboard albums chart. It was followed in 1969 by his second album, Second Winter. It was also in 1969 that Johnny Winter performed at Woodstock, as well as various other music festivals. He formed a band with what was left of The McCoys called simply "Johnny Winter And". Johnny Winter And released a 1970 self titled studio album, followed by a live album in 1971.

In the early Seventies Johnny Winter's career stalled as he struggled with heroin addiction. Eventually he sought treatment for the addiction and returned to recording with the album Still Alive and Well in 1973. It proved to be the most successful studio album of his career, reaching #22 on the Billboard chart. The Seventies proved to be his most successful period.  His fifth album for Columbia, Saints and Sinners (released in 1974), went to #42 on the Billboard chart, while his sixth album for Columbia, John Dawson Winter III (also released in 1974) went to #78. His next few albums did not fare as well. In 1977 Nothin' but the Blues only went to #146.  In 1978 White, Hot and Blue only went to #141. In 1980 Raisin' Cain did not even chart.

The early Eighties would see Johnny Winter with a new label, the independent blues label Alligator Records. His next three albums, Guitar Slinger (1984), Serious Business (1985), and Third Degree (1986), were all released on that label. In 1988 he released one album recorded for MCA, Winter of '88. With the Nineties Mr. Winter's output slowed down. He released two albums on Virgin subsidiary Point Blank (Let Me In and Hey, Where's Your Brother, both in 1992) and one album on Virgin Records itself (I'm a Bluesman in 2004). In 2011 he released the album Roots on the Megaforce label. His final studio album, Step Back, is due to be released on 2 September 2014 on Megaforce.

Starting with Live Johnny Winter And in 1971, Johnny Winter released several live albums throughout the years. In addition to Woodstock in 1969, Johnny Winter performed at several music festivals throughout the years, including the Chicago Blues Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and others. He also served as a producer on Muddy Waters' albums Hard Again (1977), I'm Ready (1978), and King Bee (1980).

There can be little doubt that Johnny Winter was one of the greatest blues guitarists of the late 20th Century. He was a virtuoso when it came to the guitar. He could play incredibly fast, playing the guitar with a speed matched only by a few in the late Sixties and early Seventies. At the same time, however, there was a richness, an emotiveness to his music. Indeed, unlike many white blues artists, the music of Johnny Winter actually sounded as if it could have been recorded by African American blues musicians earlier in the century. In the end there was a sincerity and truthfulness to Johnny Winter's music that was sometimes lacking in that of his contemporaries. It is perhaps for this as much as his virtuosity with the guitar that he will perhaps be remembered.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Late Great Elaine Stritch

Star of stage, screen, and television Elaine Stritch died today at the age of 89.

Elaine Stritch was born on 2 February 1925 in Detroit, Michigan. Her father was George Stritch, an executive with B. F. Goodrich. Her mother was Mildred Stritch (née Jobe), a homemaker. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago from 1940 to 1958, Samuel Cardinal Stritch, was one of her uncles. Miss Stritch was only four years old when her father took her to see a touring production of The Ziegfeld Follies. Her father took her backstage to meet comedian Bobby Clark, whom her father knew. It was the beginning of Elaine Stritch's love affair with the stage. It was after she graduated from high school that she moved to New York City to pursue acting. She studied drama at the he New School for Social Research under Erwin Piscator. Among her fellow students were Bea Arthur and Marlon Brando.

Elaine Stritch made her stage debut in a children's play entitled Bobino. She made her debut on Broadway in the play Loco in 1946. Miss Stritch would have a long career on Broadway. In the late Forties she appeared in such productions as Made in Heaven, Angel in the Wings, and Yes, M'Lord. She was Ethel Merman's understudy in Call Me Madam. While she never got to play Ethel Merman's role of Mrs. Sally Adams on the Broadway stage, she did star in a national tour of Call Me Madam in the Fifties. In the Fifties she also starred in a revival of Pal Joey on Broadway, as well as the original production of Bus Stop as Grace Hoylard. In the Fifties she also appeared in the productions On Your Toes, The Sin of Pat Muldoon, and Goldilocks.

In the Sixties Miss Stritch appeared on Broadway in Noel Coward's play Sail Away. Later she was one of the actresses who played Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Later in the decade she appeared in the production Company. Elaine Stritch would then be absent from the Broadway stage until 1990, when she took over the role of Melissa Gardner in Love Letters. In the Nineties she appeared in a revival of Company, a revival of Show Boat, and a revival of A Delicate Balance. In the Naughts she was the star of her own Broadway show, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, and appeared in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Elaine Stritch made her debut on television as one of the regulars on the DuMont sitcom The Growing Paynes in 1949. In the Fifties she was the first actress to play the role of Trixie Norton, appearing only once in the part on a "Honeymooners" sketch on the DuMont show Cavalcade of Stars starring Jackie Gleason. Late in the Fifties she starred as Ruth Sherwood on the TV series My Sister Eileen. Throughout the Fifties she guest starred on such shows as Kraft Theatre, The Motorola Television Hour, Goodyear Playhouse, Appointment with Adventure, Climax, Studio One, Adventures in Paradise and Wagon Train.

Aside from her role as Ruth Sherwood on My Sister Eileen, in the Sixties Miss Stritch only appeared on television in the on the shows The Nurses and The Trials of O'Brien as well as various talk shows and variety shows. In the Seventies she starred in the British TV series Two's Company. She played the role of Aunt Polly in a miniseries version of Pollyanna and had a recurring role on the series Nobody's Perfect. She also appeared on the shows Shades of Greene, Jackanory, and Tales of the Unexpected.

In the Eighties Elaine Stritch was a regular on the TV series The Ellen Burstyn Show. In 1984 she also appeared in several episodes of the daytime serial The Edge of Night. She guest starred on the shows Trapper John, M.D., Tattingers, American Playhouse, Head of the Class, and The Cosby Show. In the Nineties Miss Stritch made two appearances on Law & Order as Lanie Stieglitz, the first of won her the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. In 1993 she appeared in several episodes of the soap opera One Life to Live. She guest starred on such shows as Bless This House, Soul Man, Oz, and 3rd Rock from the Sun.

From the Naughts into the teens Elaine Stritch played the recurring role of Colleen Donaghy, Jack Donaghy's overbearing mother on 30 Rock. She won another Emmy for the role, one for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, and was nominated another four times in the category for playing Colleen Donaghy.  She was also a regular on the show Life's a Bitch.

Elaine Stritch made her film debut in The Scarlet Hour in 1956. In the late Fifties she appeared in the films Three Violent People (1956), A Farewell to Arms (1957), The Perfect Furlough (1958), and Kiss Her Goodbye (1959).  In the Sixties she appeared in the films Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965), Too Many Thieves (1967), and Pigeons (1970). In the Seventies she appeared in the films The Spiral Staircase (1975) and Providence (1977). 

In the Eighties she played former actress Diane in Woody Allen's September (1987). While the film itself was not well received, Miss Stritch was widely praised for her performance. She also appeared in the films Cocoon: The Return (1988) and Cadillac Man (1990). In the Nineties Elaine Stritch appeared in the films Out to Sea (1997), Krippendorf's Tribe (1998), Screwed (2000), Small Time Crooks (2000), and Autumn in New York (2000). From the Naughts into the Teens she appeared in the films Monster-in-Law (2005), Romance & Cigarettes (2005) , and River of Fundament (2014). She was the voice of ParaNorman (2012).

To put it simply, Elaine Stritch was incredible. Plain spoken, acerbic, and extremely funny in person, Miss Stritch was no small talent. In a career that literally spanned from the Forties to the Teens she played a wide variety of roles and played all of them well. If Elaine Stritch ever gave a bad performance I never saw it. Even when the material was not particularly good Miss Strich was capable of  great acting. A perfect example is the role of brassy, abrasive, self-centred former movie star Diane in September. The movie was not particularly good, but Elaine Stritch was fantastic. She also shined in another Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, playing snobbish socialite Chi-Chi Potter. Elaine Stritch had a particular gift for comedy, capable of eliciting laughs with the delivery of only a single line.

Of course, not all of Elaine Stritch's roles were comedic, nor were all of her characters abrasive or offensive. In another instance of her performance actually being better than the over all film, Elaine Stritch played Dolly Talbot, Winona Ryder's character's caring grandmother in Autumn in New York. She was also great in the role of caring, motherly nurse Helen Ferguson in the 1957 version of A Farewell to Arms. It must also be kept in mind that Elaine Stritch was a talented singer and dancer. After all, of all the media in which she appeared, Elaine Stritch may have seen the most success on Broadway. If one has ever seen her show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, then they are fully aware of her talent as a vocalist.

In the end Elaine Stritch was a woman of multiple talents, who was great at all of them. She was equally adept at playing drama as she was comedy, and she could play a wide array of roles. Elaine Stritch was an absolutely brilliant woman, who could be as entertaining in interviews as she was on the stage or the screen. She was a wholly singular talent whose like we probably won't see again.