Monday, 20 October 2014

The 100th Birthday of Fayard Nicholas

If you are a fan of musicals and a fan of dance in particular, then you probably know who the Nicholas Brothers are. The Nicholas Brothers were Fayard and Harold Nicholas who together made perhaps the most spectacular dance team ever on the silver screen. The Nicholas Brothers combined tap dancing with acrobatics and even ballet to create some of the most incredible dance routines of all time. Fayard Nicholas was born 100 years ago today.

Fayard Nicholas was born on 20 October 1914 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Viola, was a classically trained pianist. His father, Ulysses, was a drummer. Both had college educations. They played in bands in vaudeville, forming their own band called the Nicholas Collegians in the Twenties. Nearly from birth, then, Fayard Nicholas was exposed to musicians and vaudeville performers. Fayard would be followed by two more siblings, his sister Dorothy and his brother Harold. Surprisingly enough, none of the Nicholas children had any formal training in dance or singing. By watching the performers on stage Fayard taught himself both how to sing and how to dance. He then taught his younger siblings, Dorothy and Harold, how to sing and dance as well. The Nicholas family eventually settled in Philadelphia.

Eventually Nicholas formed a dance team with Dorothy known as the Nicholas Kids. Harold later joined the dance team. Dorothy eventually left the act, whereupon they became the Nicholas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers soon made a name for themselves. They made their debut on radio on The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, which aired on n WCAU in Philadelphia,  Afterwards they performed at such local theatres as the Standard and the Pearl. It was in 1932, when Fayard was 18 and Harold was 7, that the Nicholas Brothers made their debut at the Cotton Club in Harlem in New York City. They would perform at the Cotton Club for two years. It was also in 1932 that they made their debut on film, in the short "Pie Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake and his band.

Over the next few years the Nicholas Brothers would be very much in demand. They appeared as a dance speciality act in such films as Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Babes in Arms (1937), and Down Argentine Way (1940). They made their debut on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. In 1937 on Broadway they appeared in Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms.

The Nicholas Brothers did not slow down in the Forties. They toured England, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It was in 1948 that they gave a Royal Command Performance for King George VI at the London Palladium. The Nicholas Brothers would also perform for many Presidents of the United States. They also continued to appear as a speciality act on film, appearing in such movies as The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Orchestra Wives (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and The Pirate (1948).  In the Fifties the Nicholas Brothers appeared in several movies made in Europe. They would later teach tap dancing at both Harvard University and Radcliffe College. Fayard appeared in the films The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) and Hard Four (2007), as well as a Bob Hope special in 1971.

In a different time and place the Nicholas Brothers could have been stars on the level of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Both Fayard and Harold Nicholas were gifted with good voices and they were both handsome men. More importantly, they might well have been the greatest tap dancers of all time. Either Fayard and Harold could give Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire a run for their money. Had opportunities for African Americans in the Thirties and Forties been greater, it is not hard to imagine that Fayard and Harold Nicholas could have been major movie stars.

For those of you who have never seen The Nicholas Brothers in action, here is proof of their talent. This is their "Jumpin' Jive" sequence from the movie Stormy Weather. No less than Fred Astaire thought that it was the greatest dance sequence ever filmed.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

From Stage to Screen: Arsenic and Old Lace

Frank Capra apparently had a knack for making films that would be forever linked to specific holidays. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a perennial Yuletide favourite. Meet John Doe (1941) is also linked to that particular holiday. As to Frank Capra's adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), it has always been tied to Halloween. There should be little wonder that it is. Not only is Arsenic and Old Lace set at Halloween, but its subject matter makes it perfect viewing for the holiday.

Arsenic and Old Lace centres on drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), who returns to visit his spinster aunts, Martha (Jean Adair) and Abbey (Josephine Hull) following his wedding. His cousin Teddy (John Alexander), who lives with his two aunts, believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt. When Mortimer discovers a dead body in a window seat, he concludes that Teddy must have committed murder. It is not long before Mortimer learns the shocking truth behind the murder. Worse yet, his homicidal brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up. Jonathan brings with him surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), with the plan that Einstein will perform plastic surgery on him so he won't be recognisable to the police As might be expected, hardly anything goes according to plan for either Mortimer or Jonathan.

The film Arsenic and Old Lace was based on the hit Broadway play of the same name by Joseph Kesselring, who wrote it in 1939. As hard as it is to believe, the black comedy had some basis in real life. It is commonly believed at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas that Goerz House at the college served as the basis for the Mortimer sisters' home. While Mr. Kesserling taught at the college he lived at Goerz House, which at the time served as both a residence for male teachers and a men's dormitory. Among its features were a rather large window seat and a cellar with a dirt floor, much like the Mortimers' house. At Bethel College it is also believed that the Mortimer sisters themselves might have been based on people he met while living in Kansas.

Of course, no murders were ever committed at Goerz House at Bethel College. That having been said, the inspiration for that part of the plot of Arsenic and Old Lace might have been based on a real life murder case.  Amy Archer-Gilligan was the owner of a nursing home, the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm in Windsor, Connecticut. For lifetime care at the nursing home, one only needed to pay Archer-Gilligan a one time fee of $1000. Unfortunately, she had a novel means of making more room at the home and thus creating more business. Quite simply, between 1907 and 1917 Archer-Gilligan murdered several of the residents at her nursing home for their pension money. She was charged with five counts of murder, which her lawyer got reduced to one count, although she might have been guilty of many more (between 1907 and 1917 there were sixty deaths at the nursing home).  As to how she committed the murders, Archer-Gilligan had been buying arsenic in bulk, ostensibly to deal with a rat problem.

Prior to Arsenic and Old Lace Joseph Kesserling had not been particularly successful as a playwright. His first play on Broadway, There's Wisdom in Women, closed after only 46 performances in 1935. His third play, Cross-town, did even worse. It closed after only five performances in 1937. Fortunately Mr. Kesserling sent a copy of Arsenic and Old Lace (then titled Bodies in Our Cellar) to actress Dorothy Stickney with the idea that she could play one of the aunts. Ultimately she would not, but Miss Stickney was married to Howard Lindsay, who with  Russel Crouse formed a successful writing team on Broadway. Mr. Lindsay saw potential in the script for Bodies in Our Cellar and as a result Lindsay and Crouse decided to make the play their first joint production on Broadway. Allegedly Lindsay and Crouse rewrote the play a good deal, although they took no credit for it publicly.

To direct Arsenic and Old Lace (as the play was retitled), Lindsay and Crouse turned to Bretaigne Windust, who had directed Lindsay and Crouse's hit play Life with Father in 1939. For the important role of serial killer Jonathan Brewster, Lindsay and Crouse recruited Boris Karloff (the line "He looks like Boris Karloff!" was then an in-joke that got uproarious laughter from audiences when the play was first performed on Broadway). For the other roles in the play Lindsay and Crouse hired Broadway veterans: Josephine Hull; Jean Adair; John Alexander; Allyn Joslyn; and Edgar Stehli.

The play Arsenic and Old Lace made its debut in a trial run in Baltimore, Maryland on 26 December 1940. The show opened to overwhelmingly positive notices from critics. It also proved to be a smash hit. It was then on 10 January 1941 that Arsenic and Old Lace made its debut on Broadway at the Fulton Theatre (now called the Helen Hayes Theatre). It proved to be an enormous success. As in Baltimore the reviews from critics were overwhelmingly positive. What is more, Arsenic and Old Lace was playing to largely full houses. The play would remain at the Fulton Theatre until 25 September 1943, whereupon it moved to the Hudson Theatre. It was there that it closed on 17 June 1944 after 1,444 performances.

Such success did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. Nearly every major studio sought the film rights to Arsenic and Old Lace, including Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn. In the end it was Warner Bros. who won the rights to the play, closing the deal less than a month after Arsenic and Old Lace had opened on Broadway. As part of the deal Lindsay and Crouse insisted that the film could not open until 1 January 1943, giving the play a chance to run two years on Broadway. As it was the play would run considerably longer and in the end the film would not be released until 23 September 1944.

Lindsay and Crouse were hoping that René Clair would direct the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Instead Jack L. Warner chose Frank Capra, who had directed such hit films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  The screenplay was written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. The screenplay would depart from the play in some respects, largely because of the Production Code. The line, "I'm not a Brewster! I'm a bastard!" had to be altered in order to conform to the Code. Another change made in the film is that in the play Mortimer and Elaine are only engaged, while in the film they have just married. Yet another change made for the film is that while the play is set in September, the film is set in Halloween.

The casting of the lead role of Mortimer for the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace would take some time. Originally Warner Bros. wanted Bob Hope for the role. Although it might seem odd now, there's no doubt that it made perfect sense to Warner Bros. at the time. Bob Hope had recently starred in two hit horror comedies for Paramount: The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), which they probably thought made him a good choice for Arsenic and Old Lace, yet another horror comedy. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., Bob Hope was under contract to Paramount and that studio refused to loan  him out. Reportedly Frank Capra offered the role to Jack Benny, who was then under contract to Warner Bros., but Jack Benny turned him down. On 11 August 1941 Warner Bros. announced that Richard Travis (now best known as Bertram H. Jefferson in The Man Who Came to Dinner) would play Mortimer. This changed on 30 September 2011 when Warner Bros. announced that Cary Grant had been cast in the role.

The role of Mortimer would not be the only one that would prove difficult to cast. The role of Jonathan would as well. Warner Bros. wanted Boris Karloff to play the role, but Lindsay and Crouse did not want to release him from the play for two months to make the film. They tried to convince Warner Bros. to wait until June 1942, when Boris Karloff (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) would be free to do the film. Lindsay and Crouse believed that Boris Karloff was the play's chief asset and without him ticket sales could actually go down. Ultimately Raymond Massey would be cast in the role of homicidal sociopath Jonathan Brewster.

Then as now Raymond Massey was best known for playing villains in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Santa Fe Trail (1940). He had appeared with Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House (1932). He also resembled Boris Karloff insofar as both men were tall and somewhat menacing in appearance. As it was Frank Capra insisted that make up be used to make Raymond Massey look even more like Boris Karloff. This alarmed Warner's legal department, who had Mr. Karloff sign a release so that he would not sue the studio.

While Boris Karloff did not get to appear in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace, his co-stars from the play Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander were able to recreate their respective roles of Aunt Abby, Aunt Martha, and Cousin Teddy for the film. The three actors were given eight weeks off from the play in order to play their parts in the film.  Their roles were taken over by Patricia Collinge, Minnie Dupree, and Harry Gribbon respectively.

For the most part the rest of the cast was filled out by players under contract to Warner Bros. Legendary actor Peter Lorre played the role of plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein. Priscilla Lane played Mortimer's new wife, Elaine. Jack Carson played the rather clueless Officer O'Hara. Legendary character actor Edward Everett Horton was one of the exceptions in the cast. He spent nearly his entire career as a freelancer, so he was not under contract to Warner Bros. when he played Mr. Witherspoon, the superintendent of Happy Dale Sanitarium.

For its adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace Warner Bros. spared no expense. Its cinematographer would be Sol Polito, who had already shot such classic films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). He had already been nominated for one Academy Award, for his photography on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Max Steiner, then as now known for his work on King Kong and Gone with the Wind, would compose the score. Arsenic and Old Lace was budgeted at $1,220,000 then a respectable sum for a film. It was given a shooting schedule of 48 days or, more simply, eight weeks.

Arsenic and Old Lace was shot from 20 October 1941 to 16 December 1941. Despite this it would be some time before the movie would be seen by audiences in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Lindsay and Crouse did not want the film released while Arsenic and Old Lace was still playing on Broadway. Initially they had thought the play would have ended its run by 1 January 1943 at the latest. As it turned out Arsenic and Old Lace was such a roaring success that it ran until 17 June 1944. While Warner Bros. would not release the film during this time, it was shown to troops serving overseas in World War II during 1943.

It was also during this period that the film would undergo one change from its original, completed version. The original, completed version of the movie Arsenic and Old Lace ended with Aunts Abby and Martha poisoning one last victim, Mr. Witherspoon. The Breen Office was none too happy with this ending, and it turned out that preview audiences were not either. In the end Warner Bros. simply cut the ending off, so the film ends with Mortimer, Elaine, and the taxi driver in the cemetery.

With the play's Broadway run completed Arsenic and Old Lace premiered at the Strand in New York City on 1 September 1944. It went into general release on 23 September 1944. In the intervening time two of the film's cast members had died, Edward McWade, who played the murder victim Gibbs, and Spencer Charters, who played the Marriage Licence Clerk. Priscilla Lane was also no longer with Warner Bros., the actress and the studio having terminated her contract by mutual consent not long after Arsenic and Old Lace had finished shooting.

The film Arsenic and Old Lace would prove very successful. It would literally play for weeks in several cities. Ultimately the film made $2,836,000 in the United States and $1,948,000 overseas. The film also received largely positive reviews. Donald Kirkley wrote in the Baltimore Sun, "The epic, macabre humour of Arsenic and Old Lace has been fully retained in the screen version... In some ways the film is superior." The New York Times reviewer wrote of the film, "Frank Capra has put into the picture all of the riotous farce, gentle naivete and broad melodrama that Messrs. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse put originally into the Joseph Kesselring stage play."

Curiously not everyone was happy with the film adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Cary Grant felt that he overplayed Mortimer Brewster and that Allyn Joslyn (who originated the role on stage) was much better. He also felt Jimmy Stewart would have done a better job of playing Mortimer in the film. Mr. Grant considered Arsenic and Old Lace to be his least favourite performance on film.

It would appear that audiences have disagreed with Cary Grant over the years. Arsenic and Old Lace continued to do brisk business well into 1945. The film would later prove to be a favourite on television, where it is among Frank Capra's most frequently shown films. Indeed, for many television stations airing Arsenic and Old Lace is a Halloween tradition.

As a postscript it must be noted that while Boris Karloff did not get to play Jonathan Brewster on film, he did eventually get to play the role in a television adaptation of the play. On 5 January 1955 the CBS series The Best of Broadway aired an adaptation of the play that not only featured Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster, but John Alexander as Cousin Teddy, Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein, and Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon. Josephine Hull would go from Arsenic and Old Lace to another great success on Broadway, the play Harvey. She would reprise her role as Veta Louise Simmons in the 1950 film version of Harvey as well.

Seventy years after its release Arsenic and Old Lace not only remains popular, but also well respected. At film review site Rotten Tomatoes the film has a rather phenomenal rating of 92%. At IMDB it has a rating of 8.1 out of 10. In 2000 the American Film Institute placed Arsenic and Old Lace at #30 in its "
100 Years...100 Laughs" list of the funniest movies of all time. Originating as a smash hit Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace has gone on to become one of the best loved film comedies of all time.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Godspeed Elizabeth Peña

Elizabeth Peña, who appeared in such films as Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Jacob's Ladder (1990) as well as her own TV show I Married Dora, died on 14 October 2014 at the age of 55. No cause of death has been given beyond that it was after a short illness.

Elizabeth Peña was born on 23 September 1959 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her father was Cuban actor, director, and writer Mario Peña. He was a co-founder of the Latin American Theatre Ensemble. Her mother Estella Peña (née Toirac) was an arts administrator and producer. Most of her early years were spent in Cuba. Her family moved to New York City when she was 8 years old. She started acting on stage while still a child and she attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. Among her class mates were Ving Rhames and Esai Morales.

She made her film debut in 1979 in the film El Super and appeared in a small role in the film Times Square (1980). During the Eighties she appeared in the films They All Laughed (1981), Crossover Dreams (1985), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), La Bamba (1987), Vibes (1988), Blue Steel (1989), and Jacob's Ladder (1990). She made her television debut on an episode of Cagney and Lacey in 1985. She played the lead role of Dora Calderon on the short lived sitcom I Married Dora. She was also a regular on the shows Tough Cookies and Shannon's Deal. She guest starred on the shows T. J. Hooker and Hill Street Blues.

In the Nineties Miss Peña appeared in the films The Waterdance (1992), Dead Funny (1994), Across the Moon (1995), Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995), Lone Star (1996), Recon (1996), The Pass (1998), Rush Hour (1998), Strangeland (1998), and Seven Girlfriends (1999).  On television she had a recurring role on L.A. Law. She starred on the show Resurrection Blvd. Elizabeth Peña guest starred on the shows The Outer Limits, Two, Dead Man's Gun, and The Eddie Files.

In the Naughts Elizabeth Peña started directing. She directed episodes of the TV shows Resurrection Blvd., The Brothers Garcia, and Ylse. She was only the fourth Latina to join the Directors Guild of America. She provided the voice of Mirage in the animated film The Incredibles (2004), as well as the voice of Paran Dul on the animated series Justice League. She appeared in such films as On the Borderline (2001), Ten Tiny Love Stories (2002), Transamerica (2005), Down in the Valley (2005), The Lost City (2005), Adrift in Manhattan (2007), Love Comes Lately (2007), Nothing Like the Holidays (2008), Mother and Child (2009), and Becoming Eduardo (2009). She guest starred on the TV shows Boston Public, CSI: Miami, NCIS, and Without a Trace. She was a guest voice on American Dad.

In the Teens she was a regular on the short lived show Off the Map and she had a recurring role on the show Matador. She guest starred on the shows Charlie's Angels, Common Law, and Modern Family. She appeared in the films The Perfect Family (2011), Blaze You Out (2013), Plush (2013), and Girl on the Edge (2014).

Elizabeth Peña was an extremely talented actress who played a wide variety of roles throughout her career. In what may have been her first major, mainstream film role she played the sexy maid Carmen in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, who in the course of the film goes from watching soap operas to reading political literature. In Transamerica she played a cool, calm therapist with the patience of Job. With The Incredibles she got to provide the voice of a femme fatale with a conscience, Mirage. In Rush Hour (1998) she played a bomb expert with the Los Angeles Police Department.

A mark of Elizabeth Peña's versatility is that she was as good at comedy as she was drama. Her sitcom I Married Dora may have had its problems, but Miss Peña was not one of them. She was extremely funny and possessed near perfect timing. She also did well in such comedies as Tortilla Soup and Seven Girlfriends. Her two appearances are Modern Familyi were so perfect that one forgot that Elizabeth Peña was much too young to have a daughter the age of Sofia Vegara. Elizabeth Peña was an incredible talent, and it is truly sad that she died so  soon. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

More Rock 'n' Roll on The Ed Sullivan Show

Yesterday I wrote a post on how Ed Sullivan featured many rock 'n' roll acts on The Ed Sullivan Show and embedded videos of some of the more historic performances. I was not able to feature as many as I liked, however, so I thought I would include a few more today.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, The Ed Sullivan Show was the first national show to feature a rock 'n' roll performance. That particular performance was Bill Haley and His Comets playing "Rock Around the Clock". It aired on 7 August 1955. Here is a portion of that performance.

Among the most popular and frequent artists seen on The Ed Sullivan Show were The Supremes. The trio appeared on the show fourteen times. What is more, The Supremes not only performed their own hit songs, but Broadway show tunes, old standards, and other pop songs as well. They were clearly one of Ed Sullivan's favourite acts to ever appear on the show. The Supremes first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on 27 December 1964, performing their hit "Come See About Me"

While The Supremes were one of Ed Sullivan's favourite acts, it is safe to say that The Doors definitely were not. The Doors appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 17 September 1967 and performed their hit "Light My Fire". CBS Standards and Practices objected to one line in the song, "Girl, we couldn't get much higher," on the grounds it could be construed as a drug reference. CBS's censors wanted to change the line to "Girl, we couldn't get much better." Not surprisingly, when The Doors performed the song lead vocalist Jim Morrison sang the original line, "Girl, we couldn't get much higher." Since The Ed Sullivan Show aired live, there was nothing the network whatsoever the network could do about it. Ed Sullivan was very angry with the band. In fact, The Doors were told they would never appear on The Ed Sullivan Show again, and they didn't. Jim Morrison's response when he was told they would never be invited back was simply, "Hey man, we just did the Sullivan show." Here is that famous performance.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rock 'n' Roll on The Ed Sullivan Show

It was forty years ago today that Ed Sullivan died at age 73 from oesophageal cancer. While Ed Sullivan started his career as an entertainment columnist in the Twenties, it would be as the host of the long running Ed Sullivan Show (originally titled Toast of the Town) that he would have his most impact. As the host of The Ed Sullivan Show, Mr. Sullivan often introduced Americans to acts they would not have seen on others shows. He not only featured African American acts more often than other variety shows, but he also featured lesser known acts with whom white Americans might not have been familiar. At a time when, for the most part, country music only appeared on such country specific shows as Louisiana Hayride, Mr. Sullivan was regularly featuring country artists on his show.

Of course, Ed Sullivan was also famous for introducing many rock 'n' roll acts to the American television audience. In fact, CBS and many television historians believe that it was Ed Sullivan who aired the first rock 'n' roll performance on national television. That particular performance occurred on 7 August 1955 when Bill Haley and His Comets played "Rock Around the Clock" on the show. Over the  years Ed Sullivan would feature several legendary rock and rhythm and blues acts on his show, including The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, The Miracles, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Lovin Spoonful, The Four Tops, The Doors, and many others. Here are four of the best known performances from the show.

Contrary to popular belief, Elvis Presnley's debut on The Ed Sullivan Show did not mark his first appearance on national television. In fact, he had made his national television debut on the  Dorsey Brothers' programme Stage Show on 28 January 1956. He even appeared on The Milton Berle Show (the first time on 3 April 1956) and The Steven Allen Plymouth Show (the first time on 1 July 1956) before he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Regardless, Elvis's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on 9 September 1956 was very much a big event. 60 million viewers tuned into see Elvis on the programme. Here is his performance of "Love Me Tender" from that show:

Bill Haley and Elvis Presley were not the only legendary rockers from the Fifties to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Buddy Holly and The Crickets appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on 1 December 1957. The band performed their hit single "That'll Be the Day" and their latest single "Peggy Sue". The band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show would largely be responsible for "Peggy Sue", then making its way up the charts, ultimately reaching #3 on the Billboard singles chart. Unfortunately Buddy Holly and The Crickets would only appear one more time on The Ed Sullivan Show, on 26 January 1958. The band wanted to perform their hit "Oh, Boy!", but Ed Sullivan thought the song was too suggestive and insisted they perform another song. Ultimately Buddy Holly and The Crickets' time on the show as cut from two songs to one and Ed Sullivan was not happy when the one song they performed was "Oh, Boy!". Ultimately Ed Sullivan was none too eager to have the band back on the show, but their performance proved so popular that he invited them back anyway. Buddy Holly's response was that Ed Sullivan did not have enough money to pay The Crickets to be back on the show.

Regardless, here is their performance of "That'll Be the Day" from their first appearance on the show.

Of course, the single most famous edition of The Ed Sullivan Show was The Beatles' debut on the programme on 9 February 1964. It was not the first time The Beatles had been seen on American television. The Beatles' first appeared on American television in a news report aired by NBC their evening news programme The Huntley-Brinkley Report, on 18 November 1963. CBS aired their own news report on The Beatles on The CBS Evening News on 10 December 1963. On 3 February 1963 Jack Paar showed a clip of The Beatles performing "She Loves You" on The Jack Paar Show, although he clearly did so in an effort to get laughs. The Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was then historic as the first time the band played on a live television programme in the United States. It was also historic as the show that kicked off the British Invasion. Indeed, that night The Beatles were seen by 73 million viewers, the most for any programme up to that date.  Here then, without further ado, is The Beatles' full performance from the 9 February 1964 edition of The Ed Sullivan Show.

Ed Sullivan would feature many more British Invasion bands on his show. In fact, The Dave Clark Five would make their first appearance on the show only a few weeks after The Beatles, on 8 March 1964. Over the years such British bands as The Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman's Hermits, The Hollies, and others appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Among the bands to make multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show were The Rolling Stones. They made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on 25 October 1964. It was very nearly their last. While The Rolling Stones generated a good deal of excitement, performing Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" and Kai Winding's "Time is On My Side", Ed Sullivan apparently thought they generated too much excitement. Ed Sullivan is alleged to have said,  "I promise you they'll never be back on our show."

Fortunately Ed Sullivan would change his mind and The Rolling Stones would appear five more times on The Ed Sullivan Show, the last being on 23 November 1969. Aside from their debut, perhaps The Rolling Stones' most notorious appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was on the 15 January 1967 edition of the programme. The Rolling Stones were set to perform the songs from their latest single, "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday". Ed Sullivan felt "Let's Spend the Night Together" was much too suggestive and insisted the band change the line to "Let's Spend Some Time Together". The Rolling Stones complied, but during the performance both Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman visibly roll their eyes every time they get to the chorus. Here, from the 15 January 1967 edition of The Ed Sullivan Show, are The Rolling Stones performing "Let's Spend the Night Together" "Let's Spend Some Time Together".

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The 110th Anniversary of Lester Dent's Birth

Chances are good that most people would not recognise the name "Lester Dent". A notable exception would be among fans of 20th Century pulp magazines, for whom his name would be very familiar. Quite simply, it was Lester Dent who, with magazine publisher Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic, created Doc Savage. Of course, besides The Shadow, Doc Savage may well be most famous pulp magazine hero of all time. Lester Dent was born 110 years ago today.

Lester Dent was born on 12 October 1904 in La Plata, Missouri. And while he spent some time as a child in both Wyoming and Oklahoma, it was ultimately to La Plata that his family returned and it was where Mr. Dent spent most of his life. He graduated from high school there, and then went on to attend Chillicothe Business College in Chillicothe, Missouri in nearby Livingston County.

It was in 1929 that Lester.Dent made his first sale, the story "Pirate Cay" to Top Notch magazine, cover dated September 1 of that year.  Mr. Dent soon had a very good career writing stories for pulp magazines. Indeed, it was less than two years late that he  he created his first recurring character. Curt Flagg made his first appearance in Scotland Yard, March 1931 in the novel Wildcat!. Curt Flagg worked for a detective agency based out of New York City, but often found that his work made him travel to various locales such as London, England and Tulsa, Oklahoma. In some respects he was a prototype for Doc Savage's aide John "Renny" Renwick,, being enormous in size and possessing "hands the size of gallon pails." While a large man and nearly indestructible, Curt Flagg was also very intelligent. Between his size and his skill at deduction, he was nearly the perfect detective. Flagg never earned his own magazine, appearing in Scotland Yard and still later in All Detective. In all, Flagg appeared in four stories, spread out from 1931 to 1933.

The next recurring character that Lester Dent created for the pulp magazines is better remembered than Curt Flagg, although it is primarily for his connection to the Doc Savage.  Lynn Lash first appeared in Detective-Dragnet Magazine, March 1932, in the story "The Sinister Ray." In many respects, Lash was a prototype for Doc Savage. Lynn Lash was a science based detective, roughly patterned after Arthur B. Reeve's ficitonal criminologist, Craig Kennedy, who used science in his investigations. Like Doc, then, Lynn used a variety of gadgets in his work, and had a fully equipped laboratory in which to do research. Lash was also extremely intelligent, a match for such classic detectives as Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe in the science of deduction. His similarities to Doc Savage do not end with Lash's gadgets, laboratory, or intelligence, either, as Lash had his own team of assistants. In fact, one of the characters who appeared in "The Sinister Ray" was an ape like man called "Monk", who resembled one of what may have been Doc Savage's most popular aide, Andrew Blodgett "Monk" Mayfair. For that matter, the opponets that Lash faced were very similar to those faced by Doc Savage (and still later in the best of Norvell Page's Spider novels), diabolical masterminds who used advanced technology in their attempts to obtain their goals.

Sadly, Lynn Lash would only appear in two more stories, one of which remained unpublished for nearly fifty years. "The Mummy Murders" was published in Detective Dragnet, December 1932. The third Lynn Lash story would not be published until 1980, in serial form in the small periodical Chapters, which reprinted vintage material from old comic strips and pulp magazines. At long last the three Lynn Lash stories would be published in one volume by Will Murray, in a limited edition book, The Sinister Ray,  published by Gryphon Publishers in Brooklyn.

It was the character of Lynn Lash that drew the attention of Street and Smith business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic to Lester Dent. The two men decided Mr. Dent could be the right man to write their new character Doc Savage. As a test, Mr. Dent wrote a novel for The Shadow. The Golden Vulture met with Street and Smith's approval, even though it would not see publication in The Shadow magazine until 15 July 1938 (then rewritten by The Shadow's writer Walter Gibson). It was then that Mr. Dent was officially give the job of writing Doc Savage.

While Messrs. Ralston and Nanovic laid much of the groundwork for the Man of Bronze, it would be Mr. Dent who would fully realise the character. Indeed, in many ways Mr. Dent plagiarised his own character, Lynn Lash, in doing so. Like Doc, Lash used gadgets extensively. Like Doc, Lynn had his own fully equipped laboratory in which to do research. And like Doc, Lynn had his own team of assistants. As to Doc's assistants, Renny Renwick resembles Mr. Dent's earlier character Curt Flagg to the point that the two could nearly be the same character, while an ape like character called "Monk" also appeared in the course of Lynn Lash's adventures. Of course, Monk Mayfair may well have been Doc Savage's most popular assistant.

While other writers would also pen Doc Savage novels, it was Lester Dent who wrote the bulk of them, 161 in all. Amazingly enough given just how many Doc Savage novels Mr. Dent wrote, he continued to write for other publications as well. In fact, it was during Doc Savage's first year of existence that Lester Dent created his next recurring character, Lee Nace, who first appeared in Ten Detective Aces in the story "The Death Blast" in 1933. Nace was a tall, blond, rather sombre man (he was often called "the Blond Adder") who used gadgets in his battles with often bizarre opponents, from a mass murderer who collected skulls to a scientist who specialized in explosive death rays. In all, Nace would appear in five stories in Ten Detective Aces.

Lester Dent created another recurring character who, not surprisingly, used gadgets in 1934.  Foster Fade first appeared in All Detective Magazine, February 1934. While Foster Fade used gadgets much like Doc Savage or Lee Nace, he also tended to be a bit more flamboyant in how he went about things. Not only did he investigate only the strangest of cases, but he usually solved them in ways so unusual that he was sure to get his name in the newspaper! Unlike Doc Savage, Foster Fade was not publicity shy. In all, Foster Fade would appear in three stories in All Detective Magazine.

For much of the thirties, Mr. Dent's time was occupied by Doc Savage. That having been said, he would still write other material. Like Lynn Lash, Lee Nace, Foster Fade, and Doc Savage, Lester Dent's character Click Rush used gadgets. In fact, he was called the Gadget Man. Even more so than Doc, Click Rush was the consummate technophile. The Gadget Man was a tall, slender, yet strong man who had first come to the city in hope of selling technologically advanced equipment to the police. When he was essentially laughed out of police headquarters, Rush went on his own as an amateur detective who used gadgets to fight crime. And Click Rush had a huge arsenal of gadgets to rely upon--radio equipment that can amplify sound, gas grenades, explosive heels in his shoes, and a hidden hypodermic needle. Written in a humorous tone, the Gadget Man would prove to be Mr. Dent's most successful character besides Doc Savage. He first appeared in a seven page preview in Best Detective, September 1937, only to make his full debut in Crime Busters, November, 1937 in the story "Talking Toad." In all, Click Rush would appear in eighteen stories in Crime Busters from 1937 to 1939.

Roughly concurrent with Click Rush the Gadget Man was Lester Dent's character Ed Stone, written under Street and Smith's house name of Kenneth Robeson. Like the Gadget Man, Ed Stone appeared in the pages of Crime Busters, his first appearance in the magazine being in the story "Ring Around the Rosey" in its August 1938 issue. Ed Stone was a washed up prizefighter who was dragged into the detective business sheerly out of the necessity to make a living. He also unwillingly had an Asian valet simply called "One" foisted upon him. This may have been fortunate for Stone, as One was the real brains of the two men. It was One who made sure that Stone continued to take cases to keep them in food and shelter, not to mention the one who did much of the work on the cases and made sure that they received payment for their cases. Ed Stone appeared in six stories in Crime Busters, from 1938 to 1939.

It was in 1946 Lester Dent's novel, Dead at the Take Off was published by Doubleday Crime Club. It was a considerable departure from his work in the pulps, being a complex mystery novel more reminiscent of the stories he had written for detective magazine Black Mask than his work on Doc Savage. It also represented the first appearance of Chance Malloy, the hero of a series of hard boiled mysteries written by Mr. Dent.

It was in 1949 that Street and Smith cancelled Doc Savage along with the majority of its remaining pulp magazines. During the Fifties Mr. Dent oversaw two farms in the La Plata area and ran an aerial photography service called Airviews for a time. He continued to write both short stories and novels. His last published short story was a Western titled "Savage Challenge". It was  published in the 22 February 1958 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. His final sale was the novel Lady in Peril to Ace Books in 1958. Lady in Peril was published in March 1959 as one half of an Ace Double (a series of paperbacks published by Ace that contained two full novels) along with Wired for Scandal by Floyd Wallace.

It was in February 1959 that Mr. Dent suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken immediately to Grim-Smith Hospital in Kirksville, Missouri where he remained a patient until his death. Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage and one of the most prolific pulp writers of all time, died at 11:30 AM on Wednesday, February 11, 1959.

While the average person today may not recognise the name "Lester Dent", Mr. Dent had a lasting impact on American pop culture through the character of Doc Savage. Doc Savage was very much a predecessor to the superheroes who started to populate comic books during the early years of World War II. In fact, Street and Smith described Doc Savage as a "superhero" in house ads years before Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1, June 1938. For that matter, the influence that Doc Savage had on the Man of Steel would take an entire article in and of itself. Well before Batman and his utility belt, Lester Dent had created characters who kept gadgets (from thermite hidden in clothing and gas grenades) hidden on their person. Indeed, while the debt the superspies of the Sixties owed to James Bond is often acknowledged, the debt they owe to Doc Savage is not as well known. In fact, some of the gadgets Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin used on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. owe as much, if not more, to Lester Dent than Ian Fleming (what are the U.N.C.L.E. Specials but a variation on Doc Savage's superfirer machine pistols?). The character of Doc Savage had a lasting impact on American pop culture, and it was largely Lester Dent who was responsible for realising the character as we know him. Along with fellow pulp writers Walter Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, and Norvell Page, the creator of The Spider, Lester Dent changed pop culture forever.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Mexican Spitfire Films

During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was not unusual for an actor to become identified with a role that he or she played in a series of films. While William Powell and Myrna Loy each did many other films, to this day many still think of Mr. Powell and Miss Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" films. While Penny Singleton appeared in a number of movies over her career, for many she remains Blondie Bumstead. Basil Rathbone played the villain in many a swashbuckler movie, yet Sherlock Holmes is still his best known role. Like many other actors Lupe Vélez also became forever identified with a role she played in a series of films. Namely, for many Lupe Vélez will always be Carmelita Lindsay (née Fuentes), better known as the Mexican Spitfire.

The "Mexican Spitfire" series of movies proved to be some of RKO's most popular films in the late Thirties and early Forties. The films centred around  Lupe Vélez as Carmelita Lindsay, a Mexican singer who married New York City advertising man Dennis Lindsay (played in succession by Donald Woods, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, and Walter Reed). Carmelita's staunchest supporter and partner in her various schemes was Dennis's Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt was played by veteran comedian Leon Errol, who also played the role of  Lord Basil Epping, a doddering English peer and alcohol tycoon. Given Uncle Matt and Lord Epping looked a good deal alike, it should come as no surprise that Uncle Matt often impersonated the British noble.

While Carmelita Lindsay would become Lupe Vélez's most famous role, it did not exactly mark a big change in her career. Many actors would find their careers redefined after playing a character in a popular series of films. Myrna Loy began her career playing various femmes fatales, vamps, and exotics before being cast as the witty, sophisticated Nora Charles in The Thin Man. After The Thin Man and its sequels, Myrna Loy generally played sophisticated women. In contrast, Lupe Vélez had been playing roles similar to Carmelita for years before the "Mexican Spitfire" series began.

Lupe Vélez had arrived in Hollywood during the Silent Era. She appeared in various Hal Roach comedy shorts before receiving her big break in Douglas Fairbanks' The Gaucho (1927). Miss Vélez followed The Gaucho with other successful films, including The Wolf Song (1929) and  East is West (1930). Having played drams for several years, Lupe Vélez found her niche in comedy with the films The Half-Naked Truth (1933) and Hot Pepper (1933). In both films she played what could be considered prototypes for Carmelita in the "Mexican Spitfire" films: hot tempered Latinas who were blatantly sexy. It would be the sort of role for which Lupe Vélez would become known for the rest of her career. Indeed, both Hollywood and to some degree Miss Vélez herself cultivated that same image of the actress in real life. Lupe Vélez was known for being overly emotional, very open about sex, saying exactly what was on her mind,  and, of course, her temper. Miss Vélez often received more press for what she did in real life than she did her films. After RKO did not renew her contract in 1934 Miss Vélez spent a good deal of time on Broadway, appearing in such productions as Hot-Cha! (Florenz Ziegfeld's last musical), Strike Me Pink, and the Cole Porter musical You Never Know. She even returned to her native Mexico to make the film La Zandunga (1937).

It was in 1939 that Lupe Vélez made a B comedy titled The Girl from Mexico for RKO. It would be the film that would inaugurate the "Mexican Spitfire" series. In The Girl from Mexico advertising man Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods) brings Mexican singer Carmelita Fuentes to the United States to work in national radio. Complications arise when Carmelita falls in love with Dennis. The Girl from Mexico introduced many of the characters of the "Mexican Spitfire" series, including Dennis's Uncle Matt and his disapproving Aunt Della (played by Elisabeth Risdon). The Girl from Mexico proved so successful that the head of RKO,  George Schaefer, not only gave the go ahead for a sequel almost immediately, but he also signed Lupe Vélez to a contract with the studio with a salary of a $1,500 a week.

Mexican Spitfire was released only six months after The Girl from Mexico and marked the official start of the "Mexican Spitfire" series. In Mexican Spitfire Carmelita and Dennis have just married and face two very big obstacles. One is Dennis's Aunt Della, who strongly disapproves of the marriage. Another is Dennis's scheming ex-fiancée Elizabeth (played by Linda Hayes), who wants him back. Mexican Spitfire would mark a significant shift from The Girl from Mexico. Namely, Leon Errol received a larger role in the film, one he would maintain for the rest of the series. Indeed, Mexican Spitfire introduced the role of wealthy distiller Lord Basil Epping, whom Mr. Errol would play as well as Uncle Matt. The character of Uncle Matt also played a bigger role in Mexican Spitfire than he had in Girl from Mexico, playing Carmelita's co-conspirator in the film as he would the rest of the series. Donald Woods, who as the rather bland Dennis Lindsay, had been second billed in The Girl from Mexico was then reduced to third billing in Mexican Spitfire.

Marion Martin, Leon Errol,
and Lupe Vélez"
Mexican Spitfire set the tone for the rest of the series. To a large degree the film was a farce, and so too would be the "Mexican Spitfire" films that followed it. Much of the humour in the films emerged from misunderstandings, mistaken identities, double entendres, and so on. At the same time the "Mexican Spitfire" movies seem very reminiscent of the situation comedies of both radio and television. Indeed, the "Mexican Spitfire" films have been compared to the classic sitcom I Love Lucy on more than one occasion.  Carmelita and Uncle Matt were hatching schemes well before Lucy and Ethel ever appeared on the small screen. It was guaranteed that at some point in every film Uncle Matt would impersonate Lord Epping. Less often noted is that to a degree the "Mexican Spitfire" films resemble another classic sitcom, namely Bewitched. Just as Samantha often tries to help Darrin in winning accounts, so too does Carmelita try to help Dennis.

For the most part the "Mexican Spitfire" films featured the sorts of plots one would expect from a series of B comedies. In Mexican Spitfire Out West, because she thinks Dennis has been taking her for granted Carmelita goes to Reno to get a quickie divorce In The Mexican Spitfire's Baby Carmelita and Dennis adopt a war orphan who turns out to be a beautiful French woman (played by Marion Martin). Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost was set in a haunted house (practically every series of film comedies had to have at least one entry set in a haunted house). Mexican Spitfire's Elephant found Carmelita mixed up with jewel thieves. Mexican Spitfire at Sea found Carmelita and Dennis going on a cruise for their much delayed honeymoon. The final film in the series, Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event, saw Dennis believing Carmelita was pregnant when in reality she was referring to their pet ocelot.

Like many series of B comedies from the era, the "Mexican Spitfire" films were not particularly inventive. Gags and routines were reused from film to film.  As mentioned above, Uncle Matt impersonates Lord Epipng in every single movie. Carmelita tries more than once to help Dennis win an important account. There are misunderstandings between Carmelita and Dennis often enough that one sometimes wonders how they stayed married.

While the sorts of plots featured in the "Mexican Spitfire" films varied little from film to film, the series would undergo a few changes throughout its run. Dennis Woods left the series and was replaced by Charles "Buddy" Rogers as Dennis Lindsay in The Mexican Spitfire's Baby. In turn Walter Reed took over the role with Mexican Spitfire's Elephant. Linda Hayes was last seen as Dennis's conniving ex-fiancée in Mexican Spitfire Out West (apparently she gave up on getting him back after that film).

Today anyone reading about the "Mexican Spitfire" films might assume that Carmelita Lindsay was an outright stereotype--the hot tempered, hot blooded, highly sexualised Latina. Indeed, the very title of the series, "Mexican Spitfire", would seem to indicate this.  It is certainly true that certain aspects of Carmelita's personality are stereotypical. Carmelita certainly had a temper. Like Ricky Ricardo after her, Carmelita is prone to rapidly shout a stream of Spanish when angered. Carmelita also had a tendency to mangle the English language. Even after living in the United States for a few years, Carmelita still spoke with an exaggerated Mexican accent.

While there were some elements of Carmelita's character that were stereotypical, however, there were many that were not. In fact, in some respects the "Mexican Spitfire" series could even be seen as progressive for the era. Indeed, the "Mexican Spitfire" movies are among the first to portray a mixed marriage, this at a time when some states still had laws forbidding Mexicans to marry individuals of other ethnicities. In fact, it is Aunt Della, who is constantly trying to break Carmelita and Dennis up, who is the villain of the series.  In having Carmelita and Dennis marry, then, RKO was in many ways making a very bold move.

While Carmelita and Dennis's marriage was portrayed positively, so too was Carmelita's friendship with Dennis's Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt always treated Carmelita with respect and as an equal, to the point that he always went along with her schemes. And while Uncle Matt does correct Carmelita when she errs with regards to the English language, he does so politely and without ridicule. Like Carmelita, Uncle Matt was one of the protagonists of the series, and to have him treat her with respect definitely sent a message to audiences about both women and ethnicity.

It must also be pointed out that throughout the series Carmelita never gave up her singing career, despite the fact that women of the time were generally expected to set aside their careers when they married. What is more, Carmelita was not particularly anxious to have children, this at a time when most married women were expected to embrace motherhood. As odd as it might sound, one can read a feminist subtext into the "Mexican Spitfire" films. Quite simply the series says that it is all right for women to continue to have a career after marriage and not to consider motherhood their foremost goal in life.

Indeed, not only is Carmelita independent, but she is also intelligent. It is always Carmelita who resolves the various misunderstandings that have arisen in the course of the films. And more often not, after some difficulties, it is Carmelita who insures that Dennis wins an important account. Throughout the series Carmelita prevails, this in the face of many obstacles, not the least of which is Aunt Della's none too thinly veiled racism. In many ways Carmelita entirely subverts the hot tempered, hot blooded Latina stereotype, using aspects of it to create a character who was very progressive for her day.

Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event, released in 1943, would be the last film in the series. Lupe Vélez would make only one more movie, Nana (1944) in her native Mexico. Sadly, Miss Vélez committed suicide on 13 December 1944. While the reasons Miss Vélez took her own life are not certain, it must be pointed out that she did not die with her face down in a toilet as Kenneth Anger claimed in his libellous account in Hollywood Babylon. While accounts at the time of her death said that her secretary found Miss Vélez on her bed, police photos show she was found on the floor beside her bed. Regardless, the public still loved Lupe Vélez. At her funeral held in California more than 4,000 people walked past her casket. In her funeral held in Mexico later thousands also showed up to express their grief at her passing. In both the United States and Mexico Lupe Vélez was a beloved star.

The "Mexican Spitfire" films were very successful upon their first release. Today it seems likely that they are only known to fans of classic film. The films certainly do have their flaws. Often one "Mexican Spitfire" movie differs very little from another. Gags are often repeated and the same sort of misunderstandings arise in each film. That having been said, there is much to recommend the "Mexican Spifire" movies. While they are hardly Noel Coward, they are pleasant films that can be very funny in much the same way that the concurrent "Blondie" movies are. Indeed, Lupe Vélez and Leon Errol made a great comedy team, the two playing off each other very well. While the "Mexican Spitfire" films are largely forgotten today, there is good reason that they should not be.