Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Late Great Marni Nixon

In movie musicals today it is not unusual for actors to sing their own parts, even when they are not particularly gifted at singing (examples are 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and 2012's Les Misérables). That having been said, there was a time when Hollywood took a slightly different approach. In the Fifties and Sixties it was not unusual for an actor's voice to be be dubbed even when he or she could sing. The singers responsible for the dubbing are known as playback singers, and in many classic Hollywood musicals it is their voices one hears rather than that of the actors.

Perhaps the most famous playback singer of all time was Marni Nixon. She provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice in The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood's singing voice in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). While Marni Nixon had her own singing career and even appeared on Broadway, she has remained best known for her work as a playback singer. Sadly, Marni Nixon died July 24 2016 at the age of 86. The cause was breast cancer.

Marni Nixon was born Margaret Nixon in  Altadena, California on February 22 1930. She took to music while very young, studying the violin when she was only four years old. She became a child actress who played bit parts in films. She had a credited role in the film The Bashful Bachelor (1942), which was released when she was only twelve years old. She was eleven years old when she won a singing contest at the Los Angeles County Fair. She studied under Vera Schwarz, an Austrian soprano who had appeared in opera houses throughout Europe. When Miss Nixon was 17 she appeared as a solo vocalist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She later studied at the Berkshire Music Centre in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.

As a teenager Marni Nixon worked as a messenger at MGM. It was not long before the studio decided to use her to dub the singing voices of actors. Her first job as a playback singer was dubbing the singing voice of Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden (1949).  This was followed by singing in two classic Disney films, Cinderella (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951). The very late Forties through the Fifties would see Marni Nixon very much in demand as a playback singer in films. In 1950 she provided Jeanne Crain's singing voice in Cheaper by the Dozen. The year 1953 saw Miss Nixon provide Ida Lupino's singing voice in Jennifer and also saw her sing a few of Marilyn Monroe's lines in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She provided Deborah Kerr's singing voice in both The King and I (1956) and An Affair to Remember (1957). She was Janet Leigh's singing voice in Pepe (1960), Natalie Wood's singing voice in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in My Fair Lady (1964). She provided the voices of the geese in Mary Poppins (1964).  She was the voice of Princess Serena in Gene Kelly and Hanna-Barbera's television special Jack and the Beanstalk in 1967. She later provided the signing voice of Grandmother Fa in Mulan (1998).

While Marni Nixon's spent much of her time dubbing the singing voices of actors, she was seen on screen a few times. She played Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music (1965) and guest starred as herself on the Sixties sitcom The Mothers-In-Law. In the Eighties she hosted the children's show Boomerang. She guest starred on a 2001 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Although best known for dubbing the singing voices of actors, Marni Nixon had her own career as a performer. She appeared on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), James Joyce's The Dead (2000), Follies (2001), and Nine (2003). She played Eliza Doolittle in a revival of My Fair Lady at City Centre in New York City in 1964. She also performed with the New York Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall,  Alice Tully Hall, and Town Hall in New York City. Over the years she performed many concerts and made several recordings.

In some ways it is sad that Marni Nixon will always be best known for providing the singing voices of other performers in films, as she was gifted with an incredible soprano voice. What is more, it was a highly adaptable voice. Miss Nixon could sound like such diverse women as Deborah Kerr, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, so much so that to this day many audiences are none the wiser that it is not those women singing. Given her sheer virtuosity and versatility, Marni Nixon really deserves to be better known for her own work than she currently is. Few singers were ever as talented as she was.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The 70th Anniversary of Martin and Lewis

It was 70 years ago today, on July 25 1946, that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made their debut as a comedy team at the 500 Club in Atlantic City. Prior to teaming up Dean Martin was a nightclub singer while Jerry Lewis was a comic among whose schticks was lip-synching to records. The two met in 1945 while they were both performing at the Glass Hat Club in New York City.

The debut of Martin and Lewis did not go over particularly well that night at the 500 Club. In fact, it went so badly that the owner of the 500 Club, Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, threatened to fire them if their second show that night was not better than their first. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis then wholly redid their act, doing away with many of the scripted gags they had used in their first show and relying more on improvisation. Their second show that night received a much better reception than the first.

It was not long before Martin and Lewis were performing at clubs all along the East Coast. On June 20 1948 they appeared on the first edition of a brand new TV show, Toast of the Town (later to be renamed for its host, The Ed Sullivan Show). On August 3 1948 they appeared on Texaco Star Theatre Starring Milton Berle. By 1949 Martin and Lewis had their own radio show on NBC. That same year they made their feature film debut in My Friend Irma (1949).

Sadly, Martin and Lewis would not last. After a successful radio show, sixteen successful films, and numerous television appearances, tensions between Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis reached such a point that the two were constantly arguing. On July 25 1956, ten years exactly after their debut as a comedy team, Dean Martin split with Jerry Lewis. Their seventeenth and final film together, Hollywood or Bust, was released several months later, on December 6 1956.

While the team of Martin and Lewis had ended, they would each go onto highly successful solo careers. Dean Martin not only became a popular recording artist, but also starred in a number of movies and had his own long running variety show. Jerry Lewis made several successful comedy films. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would eventually reconcile, appearing together on Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon on Labour Day 1976. The two appeared together one last time at Bally's Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on June 7 1989. Dean Martin was performing there and Jerry Lewis showed up for Dean's 72nd birthday. Sadly, Dean Martin died on December 25 1995, ending any chance of the world again seeing the team of Martin and Lewis perform live.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Garry Marshall Passes On

Garry Marshall, producer of the classic TV show The Odd Couple and creator of such shows as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, died on July 19 2016 at the age of 81. The cause was complications from pneumonia following a stroke.

Garry Marshall was born on November 13 1934 in The Bronx, New York. His father was a director of industrial films while his mother taught tap dancing. His younger sister is Penny Marshall, an actress and director in her own right who starred in Mr. Marshall's show Laverne and Shirley. Garry Marshall attended Northwestern University where he received a degree in journalism.

Mr. Marshall began his career as a gag writer for such comedians as Joey Bishop. His first work on television was on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1960. As a television writer he went on to write for such shows as The Danny Thomas Show, The Bill Dana Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Lucy Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. He created and produced the short lived sitcom Hey, Landlord.

While Hey, Landlord is largely forgotten, Mr. Marshall's next sitcom would become a classic. He developed Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple for television. While the sitcom, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, was not a smash hit in the ratings, it managed to last five seasons and has went on to a highly successful run as a syndicated rerun. Mr. Marshall followed The Odd Couple with the hit sitcom Happy Days. Created and produced by Mr. Marshall, Happy Days was a hit from which the hit shows Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy were spun off. Like Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy were created and produced by Garry Marshall. Garry Marshall also created and produced the sitcoms Blansky's Beauties and Angie.

Not only did Garry Marshall write, produce, and direct for television, but he also had an acting career. He made his acting debut in a a bit part as a United States recruiting officer in the film The Phoney American in 1961. In the Sixties he appeared on the TV shows The Dick Van Dyke Show; That Girl, Hey, Landlord; Good Morning, World; and The Odd Couple. He appeared in small parts in the films Maryjane (1968) and Psych-Out (1968). In the Seventies he appeared on Laverne and Shirley Happy Days, and Vegas$ as well as a bit part in the film Grand Theft Auto. In the Nineties he had a recurring role of Stan Lansing on the TV show Murphy Brown and guest starred on the sitcom A League of Their Own  and Pinky and the Brain. He appeared in such films as Soapdish (1991), his sister's film A League of Their Own (1992), The Twilight of the Golds (1996), With Friends Like These... (1998), Never Been Kissed (1999), This Space Between Us (1999), and It's a Shame About Ray (2000). In the Naughts he appeared in such films as Orange County (2002), Mother Ghost (2002), The Long Ride Home (2003), and Race to Witch Mountain (2009). He guest starred on Monk, Brothers and Sisters, ER, According to Jim, and The Simpsons. In the Teens he guest starred on such shows as Two and a Half Men, Hot in Cleveland, and the revival of The Odd Couple.

Of course, today, in addition to his work in television, Garry Marshall may be best known as a director of feature films. He broke into directing with an episode of his show Hey, Landlord in 1967. Afterwards he directed episodes of The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. His first screenplay was the 1968 film How Sweet It Is. It was followed by the 1970 film The Grasshopper. The first feature film he directed was the comedy Young Doctors in Love (1982). He followed Young Doctors in Love with the hit Flamingo Kid in 1984. In the Eighties Mr. Marshall directed the films Nothing in Common (1986), Overboard (1987), Beaches (1988), The Lottery (1989), and Pretty Woman (1990). In the Nineties Mr. Marshall directed Frankie and Johnny (1991), Exit to Eden (1994), Dear God (1996), The Other Sister (1999), and Runaway Bride (1999). In the Naughts he directed The Princess Diaries (2001), Raising Helen (2004), The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), Georgia Rule (2007), and Valentine's Day (2010). In the Teens he directed New Year's Eve (2011) and Mother's Day (2016).

Even if Garry Marshall had never directed a single film he would have an impact on American pop culture. In fact, it seems possible that his work in television may be his greatest legacy. The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy all proved to be very successful and all four have remained on television since their debuts. Most television producers are lucky to have one hit show. The fact that Garry Marshall had a highly successful film career as well as his work in television is nothing short of remarkable.

As to why Garry Marshall had success in both television and film, it is perhaps because he not only treated his subjects with humour, but with warmth as well. Mr. Marshall's work was often very funny, particularly with his work on The Odd Couple, but he never lost sight that his characters were human beings with their own thoughts and feelings. What is more, he could find humour in nearly any situation. Indeed, his first film, Young Doctors in Love, was set in a hospital.

Garry Marshall was not only a man who did a good deal in his career, but he was also a man who was universally loved. His death has seen a number of tributes from those who worked with him over the years. Those fans lucky enough to have met him have all said the same thing. He was a warm and funny man who always had a kind word to say. Garry Marshall was remarkable given his multiple successes in both film and television. What is more, he was also a truly nice guy.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Lisa Gaye Passes On

Lisa Gaye, who appeared in the cult film Rock Around the Clock (1956) and made numerous guest appearances on television, died on January 14 2016 at the age of 81.  She is survived by her sister Debra Paget, her brother Frank Griffin, and several grandchildren.

Lisa Gaye was born  Leslie Gaye Griffin in Denver, Colorado on March 6 1935. Her family moved to Los Angeles after her oldest sister,  Marcia Eloise Griffin, signed a contract with Paramount. Marcia Eloise Griffin would act under the name "Teala Loring". Her sister Debralee Griffin would later sign with 20th Century Fox and became famous as Debra Paget. Her older brother, Frank Griffin, would act under the name Ruell Shayne before going onto become a makeup artist.

It was because of a recommendation from her older sister Debra that Leslie Griffin was given a screen test by Universal-International. The studio signed her and gave her the stage name "Lisa Gaye". Her first appearance on film was in an uncredited role as a bobbysoxer in The Glenn Miller Story in 1954. Her first major role came later that year, in Drums Across the River (1954). In the Fifties she appeared in the films Rock Around the Clock (1956), Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956), Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957), and Sweethearts (1957).

While Miss Gaye's film career never quite took off, she had a very healthy career in television. She played the recurring role of Collette DuBois on The Bob Cummings Show and was a regular on the second season of How to Marry a Millionaire. She guest starred on numerous shows in the Fifties, including Passport to Danger, The Great Gildersleeve, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Science Fiction Theatre, Zorro, Mike Hammer, Have Gun--Will Travel, Black Saddle, Sea Hunt, Perry Mason, Death Valley Days, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wanted Dead or Alive, Cheyenne, Rawhide, and many others.

In the Sixties Lisa Gaye guest starred on such shows as Wagon Train, Bat Masterson, Bachelor Father, Laramie, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, Burke's Law, My Living Doll, Perry Mason, Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, Death Valley Days, I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun, and Mod Squad. She appeared in the films Night of Evil (1962), Face of Terror (1962), Castle of Evil (1966), and The Violent Ones (1967).  In 1970 Lisa Gaye retired to raise her family.

Like her sisters Teala Loring and Debra Paget, Lisa Gaye was a very beautiful woman. That alone would explain much of her success as a guest star on numerous TV shows. That having been said, she was also fairly talented and capable of playing a number of different roles. Indeed, she was cast in a number of different ethnic roles over the years: Native Americans on Have Gun--Will Travel, Death Valley Days, and many other Westerns; a gypsy on Death Valley Days; Latinas on Zorro and various Westerns; a foreign princes on Hawaiian Eye; and so on. It wasn't simply a case that Miss Gaye's looks allowed her to be somewhat convincing in many roles, but she was able to do a wide variety of accents somewhat well. What is more, she could play a wide variety of different sorts of roles as well. She was a murderer on Perry Mason, a gambler on Mr. Lucky; and a prisoner on Wanted Dead or Alive. While Lisa Gaye was very pretty and gifted with both a rather adaptable look and a rather adaptable voice, she was also quite versatile.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

My Review of Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen by Lyndsy Spence

Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen and author
Lyndsy Spence
In the mid to late Forties in the United Kingdom there was no bigger star than Margaret Lockwood. She ranked in the Motion Picture Herald's polls of the top ten most popular British stars seven years in a row, and often she was the top ranked actress in the polls. She won three Daily Mail National Film Awards (one for Most Outstanding British actress during the war years in 1946, one for Best Film Actress of the year in 1947, and one for Best Film Actress of the year for Jassy in 1948).  Her film The Wicked Lady (1945) remains one of the highest grossing British films in the United Kingdom of all time. To this day she maintains a following across the English speaking world, not only in Britain, but in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere.

Amazingly enough given her popularity, there have been very few books written about her life. Two autobiographies were published while Miss Lockwood's career was still ongoing: My Life and Films in 1948 and Lucky Star: The Autobiography of Margaret Lockwood in 1955. Once a Wicked Lady: A Biography of Margaret Lockwood by Hilton Tims was first published in 1989, a full 27 years ago. Fortunately for Margaret Lockwood fans a new biography has just been published in time for the centennial anniversary of Margaret Lockwood's birth. Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen was published July 11 of this year.

In Margaret Lockwood-Queen of the Silver Screen author Lyndsy Spence provides readers with a wealth of detail. Miss Spence covers Margaret Lockwood's life in much more depth than it ever has been before. We learn never before revealed details of Miss Lockwood's genealogy, as well as much more about her parents. We also learn much more about the various important relationships in her life, including her marriage to husband Rupert Leon (a British Army Intelligence officer who wrote the book Memoirs of an Intelligence Officer). Miss Spence discusses Margaret Lockwood's films, plays, and TV appearances in detail, including the censorship battles many of Miss Lockwood's movies (The Wicked Lady in particular) faced in the United States. There are also many photos, including several that have been rarely seen before.

Lyndsy Spence is clearly a fan of Margaret Lockwood, but she writes about Miss Lockwood's life and career objectively, discussing both the good and the bad. Lyndsy Spence's prose is also very readable. Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen is written in a concise style that still remains lively and enjoyable to read. That having been said, those of you who are looking for a bit of scandal will be disappointed. Despite her screen image, Margaret Lockwood was very much a down to earth lady who lived a down to earth life.

Margaret Lockwood's fans will be very pleased with Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen. It is a loving look at one of the greatest film stars of Britain in the 20th Century. It is not only well written and informative, but highly entertaining as well. It is a fine gift for the 100th anniversary of Margaret Lockwood's birth (September 15), and easily the best book on the star ever written.

(Margaret Lockwood--Queen of the Silver Screen can be purchased at Fantom Films, Amazon, and other fine book selling establishments)

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

"Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful

Many of you know that summer is my least favourite season of them all. It is hot. It is muggy. It is uncomfortable. I would really be happy if we simply skipped summer and went straight from spring to autumn. It is for that reason that I have always been mystified as to why so many songs about summer portray the season as some kind of joyous time full of fun. I have to disagree with George Gershwin. In summertime, the livin' isn't easy.

That having been said, there is one song I believe does capture something of the reality of the season, at least as it is here in Missouri. In "Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful the singer describes the back of his neck as getting "dirty and gritty". He refers to the sidewalk as "hotter than a match head". The first stanza, at least, sums up summer perfectly for me. Now it is true the song's portrayal of summer nights are a bit more pleasant than I've experienced, but then The Lovin' Spoonful were from New York City, where I assume it is cooler than it is here in Missouri. At the very least "Summer in the City" is more accurate than 99% of the other songs about the summer.

Anyhow, without further ado, here is "Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Why I Don't Like Hulu's Watchlist

For years now the shows and movies any given Hulu user wanted to watch were sorted into one of three sections: there was Shows You Watch for shows one is currently watching; there was the Queue, for movies one wants to watch; and there was Favourites, for one's favourite shows and movies. Unfortunately last week Hulu rolled out its new Watchlist to all of its users. Watchlist consolidates the functions of Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites into one list. Allegedly Watchlist is supposed to make watching shows and movies on Hulu easier. According to Ben Smith of Hulu, "Watchlist dynamically tailors the order of your content to match how you watch TV and suggests actions for you."

Unfortunately for Hulu, a quick search on Twitter and on Google reveals that there are a lot of users who not only dislike Watchlist, they absolutely loathe it. In fact, looking at the various tweets I would say that reaction to Watchlist has been overwhelmingly negative. Many users have made it clear that they want the Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites back. There is even a hashtag, #bringbackthequeue. There is also a petition on Care 2 Petitions demanding that Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites be restored, although it only has 167 signatures so far.  It seems fairly clear to me that Hulu users really don't like Watchlist. What is more, I have to say that I believe their complaints are legitimate.

Indeed, while I don't necessarily hate Watchlist, I do dislike it and I much preferred using Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites. The problem with Watchlist is that it actually makes it more difficult to watch shows While the shows I am currently watching are at the start of the queue, to watch something I'm not currently watching I have to scroll through several movies and even shows I haven't watched in a while. This is not nearly as handy as having three different sections, each with its own function. I wanted to watch a movie? I went to the Queue. I wanted to watch something new, I went to Favourites. I wanted to continue watching a show I have been watching for a while, I went to Shows You Watch. It's hard for me to understand how Hulu thought Watchlist would be easier to use than that. Indeed, the fact that Watchlist is harder to use than Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites is the major complaint many users have about it.

Of course, users might not be quite so angry about Watchlist if it wasn't rather buggy. I seem to be unable to add shows to my Watchlist as I am supposed to be able to. I suspect the only way I will be able to add a show is to actually watch it. This makes it very hard for me to plan ahead and add shows I want to watch in the future, as I would with the old Favourites section.

Other people have had the exact opposite problem. Reading various tweets on Twitter and complaints elsewhere on the internet, it seems that some people found their Watchlists filled with shows they had never watched and had no intention of watching. Yet others discovered many of the shows they regularly watch and many of their Favourites were missing from Watchlist, even though the shows were still available on Hulu. It seems in many cases that Watchlist does not function the way that it is supposed to.

The outrage with regards to Watchlist has been so great that I do feel sorry for Hulu Support. In my experience Hulu has some of the best customer service around. Hulu Support has always been polite and helpful to me, and they have always solved any problem I might have. Sadly, right now they taking the brunt of anger over a decision to change Hulu in which they had no say whatsoever. 

I can only guess that in creating Watchlist Hulu was was trying to do something similar to Netflix's "My List" or Amazon Prime's own "Watchlist". That having been said, one thing I always preferred about Hulu to Netflix and Amazon Prime is the fact that it was so much easier to organise shows and movies with Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites. Both Netflix's My List and Amazon Prime's Watchlist are difficult to navigate and are much less easily organised than Hulu's Shows You Watch, Quene, and Favourites were. Sadly, Hulu's Watchlist is a hot mess like Netflix and Amazon Prime's lists.

It should be little wonder, then, that many Hulu users are angry. While I have no plans to cancel my account any time soon, I have seen many state on Twitter and elsewhere that they plan to do so. I really think Hulu ought to do something before they lose very many customers. In fact, I think they really have only two choices available to them. One is to entirely forget about making improvements to Watchlist and simply restoring Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites. The other is to make Watchlist something into which one must opt in. If you don't opt in, then you have Shows You Watch, the Queue, and Favourites instead. At this point I think the worst thing for Hulu to do is to force users to keep a Watchlist they loathe.