Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Late Great Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

Norman Bridwell, the writer and cartoonist best known for creating Clifford the Big Red Dog, died 12 December 2014 at the age of 86.

Norman Bridwell was born on 15 February 1928 in Kokomo, Indiana. After graduating Kokomo High School in 1945 he attended the  John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and Cooper Union in New York City.  He struggled for years as a commercial artist before his first "Clifford the Big Red Dog" book, Clifford the Big Red Dog, was published in 1963. His second book, Zany Zoo, was published that same year. Clifford proved to be extremely popular, so it was followed by Clifford Gets a Job in 1965 as well as by Clifford's Halloween and Clifford Takes a Trip in 1966. In the end there would be over 150 titles with 120 million copies sold worldwide. Two more "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books, Clifford Goes to Kindergarten and Clifford Celebrates Hanukkah, are due to be published next year.

With his success,  Clifford would also eventually venture into other media. In 1988 there began a series of direct to video releases entitled Clifford's Fun with... From 2000 to 2003 Scholastic Studios produced the animated series Clifford the Big Red Dog for PBS. John Ritter provided the voice of Clifford. John Ritter also provided the voice of Clifford in Clifford's Really Big Movie (2004).  Both were followed by the animated series Clifford's Puppy Days. In 1990 a giant balloon of Clifford the Big Red Dog made its debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Norman Bridwell also wrote other books besides the "Clifford Big Red Dog" books. The Witch Next Door, about a kindly witch, was published in 1965 and was followed by such books as The Witch's Vacation and Witch's Catalog. Norman Bridwell also wrote a number of books centred around humorous monsters, including How to Care for Your Monster, Monster Holidays, and Monster Jokes and Riddles. He also wrote a number of other children's books, including Bird in the Hat, Kangaroo Stew, A Tiny Family, and many others.

Norman Bridwell was one of the most influential children's authors of the 20th Century. As with many popular authors it is often hard to determine precisely why he was so successful. I think much of it may have been because in nearly all of his books, from the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books to the "Witch" books to the "Monster" books, there was an underlying message that it was all right to be different. Clifford the Big Red Dog is unlike any dog in the world and yet Emily Elizabeth loves him all the same. For children who might feel like outsiders the message that being different is not only acceptable, but admirable is an important one.

Beyond the message in Norman Bridwell's books that being different is all right, there is also an underlying message that it is important to try to be good, even when things might be going awry. In the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books Clifford always tries to be good, even as his huge size sometimes creates problems. Even as Clifford makes mistakes, Emily Elizabeth still loves him all the same. And in the end Clifford always finds a way to make things right. This is another important message for children, that one should always try to be good and it is all right to make mistakes. There can be no doubt that many children identified with Clifford more than they did Emily Elizabeth.

Norman Bridwell's "Clifford the Big Red Dog" books would become among the most successful in the history of children's books. They certainly struck a chord with younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, who have passed their love of the books onto their children. While Norman Bridwell may no longer be in this world, there can be no doubt that Clifford the Big Red Dog will be with us for a long time to come.

Monday, 15 December 2014

P. L. Travers Syndrome: When Authors Hate the Films Based on Their Works

There can be little doubt that the adaptation of a work of fiction to film can be a trying time for an author. After all, regardless of what it says in the short story, novella, or novel, for years later many people will base their images of the characters and places upon the way they look in the film. In the novel Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell states that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..," but in the film the character is played by the undeniably beautiful Vivien Leigh. Ever since the movie Gone with the Wind came out, then, even many people who have read the book picture Scarlett O'Hara as the drop dead gorgeous Vivien Leigh and not Margaret Mitchell's charming, but ultimately plain Jane. Sometimes film adaptations of works of fiction will even change the plot substantially. Using Gone with the Wind once more as an example, there are entire subplots and characters in the novel that are omitted from the film.

Fortunately most authors realise that cinema and literature are two different media and will readily accept that any films based on their works may be different from what they have written, for better or worse. That having been said, there are those authors who will always resent it when a film adaptation strays from their particular vision, even when the resulting film is lauded by critics, loved by audiences, and eventually considered a classic.  In many instances such authors may even regret that their books were adapted as movies at all.

Perhaps the most famous example of such an author was P. L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books. For around twenty years Walt Disney sought to get the film rights to the first book, Mary Poppins, only to find his offers rejected by Mrs. Travers who firmly opposed the idea. By 1959, however, the royalties to the various "Mary Poppins" books had begun to decline and P. L. Travers found she could really use the money from selling the film rights to the first book. Ultimately a deal was struck between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers that, among other things, would give her a $100,000 advance and  5% of the producer's gross. As part of the agreement P.L. Travers would be retained as a consultant on the film.

Unfortunately for P. L. Travers, being a consultant would not give her much control over the film based on her creation. Mrs. Travers was not happy that the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins's personality were softened. She did not particularly care for the fact that the movie was going to be a musical. Most of all, P.L. Travers wanted absolutely no animation in the movie. It should then come as no surprise that P.L. Travers thoroughly disliked Disney's film adaptation of Mary Poppins. She actually left the Los Angeles premiere of the film in tears. What is more, she refused to let Walt Disney adapt any of the other "Mary Poppins" books. When Mary Poppins was adapted as a stage musical in the Naughts, she agreed only so long as no one who had worked on Disney's film adaptation was involved in the project. Despite the fact that the film version of Mary Poppins was well received upon its initial release and regarded as a classic in later years, P. L. Travers still disliked the film for having departed from her particular vision for Mary Poppins.

While P.L. Travers's experience with the adaptation of Mary Poppins may be one of the most famous instance (if not the most famous) instances of an author disliking the film adaptation of her work, it was by no means an isolated case. Before P.L. Travers, Willa Cather had seen one of her books adapted into a film that she did not like.Willa Cather's 1923 novel A Lost Lady was adapted as a silent film in 1925. Miss Cather apparently had no objection to this adaptation of her novel. That having been said, the 1934 sound version would be an entirely different matter. While Barbara Stanwyck earned very good notices for her performance in the film, over all the critics' reception for A Lost Lady was lacklustre. As to Willa Cather, she disliked the film so much that she never again let one of her novels be adapted as a movie. Adaptations of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and various other works would have to wait until after Miss Cather's death in 1947.

Of course, perhaps no author is perhaps as notorious about hating films based on his works than comic book writer Alan Moore. Not only has Mr. Moore been highly critical of movies based upon his works, but he even had his name removed from adaptations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. In the case of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen it is perhaps understandable why Mr. Moore would want his name removed; the film seriously departed from his work and was largely panned by critics. It is less understandable why he wanted his name removed from V for Vendetta (2006), a film which was mostly faithful to the graphic novel (although with some major changes) and received mostly positive reviews, and Watchmen (2009), a film which was largely faithful to the graphic novel and received mixed reviews. Curiously, while he disavowed the film, Alan Moore's name remains on the credits of the adaptation of From Hell (2001).  Of course, here it must be pointed out that as a comic book writer most of Alan Moore's works are owned by others (for instance, Watchmen is owned by DC Comics).

The fact is that there are many other instances of authors who have hated film adaptations of their work than P.L. Travers, Willa Cather, and Alan Moore. In fact,  the phenomenon of authors disliking film adaptations of their work is so common that it can perhaps be given a name. As P.L. Travers's dislike of Disney's adaptation of her work numbers among the most famous examples, I think it could perhaps be called "P.L. Travers Syndrome". 

While many people might think authors are being overly persnickety when they dislike and even disavow film adaptations of their work (many fans have said as much of Alan Moore), I can understand where such authors are coming from. While I have never published any fiction, I have written it as a hobby and I have considered how I would want my characters and stories treated on screen. If I did publish one of my works of fiction and it was being adapted to a film, I must confess I would not only want final approval on the casting and screenply of the film, but even the music that would played in it. I would want actors who actually looked and sounded like my characters, and not simply big names to bring in money at the box office. My reason for feeling this way is that, like most writers, I have a vision for my work. And like most writers, I want any adaptations to other media to conform largely to that vision.

The fact is that writing can be very personal, and I think this is even more the case when it comes to writing fiction. One's characters feel very much like one's children, as does the milieu in which they exist, for that matter. When filmmakers make changes to the characters or plot in an adaptation, then, it must often seem to a writer like an attack on his or her "children". Of course, there is no doubt concern on the part of writers as well that people might think the film reflects the short story, novella, or book upon which it was based. If the writer does not consider a film adaptation of his or her work to be faithful, or if he or she thinks the film adaptation is of low quality, then quite naturally he or she will quite naturally dislike the movie.

Of course, an author's dislike of a film is probably going to be greater if it departs very substantially from his or her original work. This is why P.L. Travers disliked Disney's adaptation of Mary Poppins so much. Anyone who has read the books knows that the movie departs a great deal from them. While the movie was critically acclaimed and is now considered a classic, it is then understandable why P.L. Travers detested it so. Quite simply, Disney took her characters and the milieu she created and turned it into something almost entirely different. Given Mrs. Travers's personality and her attachment to her work, it would have been surprising if she had reacted any other way.

While I must confess to being sympathetic to writers with regards to those times when they are disappointed with film adaptations of their works, I must also admit that I have some sympathy for the filmmakers as well. Writers may have a particular vision for their work, but then readers have their own vision as well.  An example of this is how I as a reader differ from Ian Fleming as an author on the casting of James Bond. Ian Fleming wanted David Niven to play James Bond. I have to confess that even if I had never seen a James Bond movie or recognised any of the actors who have played him over the years, I have never pictured David Niven as 007 when reading the books! Anyhow, my point is that while authors might have a particular vision of a short story, novella, or novel, a filmmaker might have an entirely different vision of the same work, and they may have no problem changing it for that reason. This is perhaps a good thing, as we would not have Disney's Mary Poppins otherwise. As much as I love P.L. Travers's work, I would hate to think of a world where the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins did not exist. Indeed, it was one of my favourite movies of all time.

Ultimately, short of giving an author total control over a film adaptation of his or her work (and perhaps even not then), I don't think there is any "cure" for P.L. Travers Syndrome. Indeed, for many writers even minor changes to their work might elicit a reaction to a film adaptation that is less than kind. And in the end I am not sure that a cure for P.L. Travers Syndrome is necessarily desirable. After all, it serves as a warning to filmmakers that they are ultimately working with something created by someone else and they should treat it with the utmost care. It seems possible that if it was not for P.L. Travers Syndrome, filmmakers might take even more liberties when adapting works of literature, as hard as that might be to imagine.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Facebook Won't Beat Google

This past week a few sites published articles expressing the idea that Facebook''s new search (which it purports will search posts) somehow presents a challenge to Google. No less than Time published an article entitled "Facebook Just Took a Huge Shot at Google", proposing that Facebook's new search could not only hurt Google, but even kill Google's social network Google+. An article on the site InvestorPlace, not only puts forth the idea that Facebook's new search could be a threat to Google, but to sites like Yelp and Angie's List as well. This is not the first time that various sites have behaved as if Facebook somehow presented a serious challenge to Google, much less other sites. When Facebook came out with Graph Search in early 2013 there were actually a few articles that behaved as if Graph Search would be a real threat to Google. We all know how that went.

The truth of the matter is that Facebook has never handled searches very well. Those of us who have been on Facebook for quite a while know that there was a time when one could have trouble even locating one's friends on the site, let alone anything else. Facebook's once much vaunted Graph Search was not much of an improvement over the old search. My brother was among those who first got Graph Search (he signed up for it) and, even with his low expectations, he was disappointed. Among his many complaints was that one could not refine searches. Facebook's search has changed since Graph Search first rolled out in March 2013, but at  no point has it improved to the point where it could challenge Google. There is no reason to think it will now.

Of course, even if Facebook's new search proves to be functional and useful, there are some other, very good reasons to think it will not challenge Google. The simple fact is that people use Facebook and Google for different things. Quite simply, Facebook is a social network; Google is a search engine. Let's say that I want to look up the history of the TV show The Avengers. I would go to Google to do that. Or let's say I want to look up restaurants near my home. I would use Google to do that as well. The majority of people I know use Google, or at least some other search engine, to search for nearly everything. They do not use Facebook. And there is a very good reason for that. Facebook's search is pretty much limited to what is on Facebook (and what is posted publicly on Facebook at that). While I doubt Google has access to all of the Web, it has access to a good chunk of it, as do the other search engines. If one wants to find something then, they are better off, well, googling it.

As to the possibility that Facebook's new search could kill off Google+, I don't believe that for a moment. For one thing, it seems to me that the majority of Facebook users have their privacy set so that only their friends can see their posts (I know most of my friends and I do). For example, none of my posts would come up in the results of a search conducted by a total stranger.  While I cannot be absolutely certain, from my experience it seems that the majority of Google+ users post publicly or at least make posts that can be seen by extended circles (basically including followers in one's circles' circles--sort of "friends of friends", if you will). Because of this, then, I suspect any search conducted on Google+ will have more results than the same search conducted on Facebook.

For another thing, even if Facebook's new search is as good as that of Google+, there is much more to a social network than the ability to search posts. People don't just use Google+ because its search is superior to that of Facebook. We use it because it has a better, easier to use interface. We use it because it gives us more control over the posts we see in our stream than Facebook does. We use it because it gives us more control over our own privacy. We use it because our posts on Google+ are more likely to be seen than they would be on Facebook due to FB's filters. We use it because Google is more responsive to what users want than Facebook ever has been. Quite simply, we use it because we believe Google+ is better than Facebook. It would take a lot more than a new search for Facebook to kill Google+, more than Facebook can possibly do.

It seems to me that for a long time there have been those who consistently overestimate what Facebook can do. With every new feature, every new development, they behave as if Facebook will somehow trump Google, Twitter, or whatever other sites they might perceive as rivals to FB.  In the end they are a bit like the boy who cried wolf. They constantly cry "Facebook will win! Facebook will win!" and in the end it never does. Will Facebook's search be better than its old search? I don't know, but I can tell you one thing. It won't be a credible threat to Google. Heck, it won't even be a threat to Bing.

Friday, 12 December 2014

TCM Remembers 2014

Every year since 1998 Turner Classic Movies has produced annual tributes to those in the film industry who have died the past year (actors, directors, writers, producers, et. al.) under the heading "TCM Remembers". Turner Classic Movies released this year's TCM Remembers yesterday. The song playing during the clip is "All I Want" by Kodaline. As to those featured in the clip, I rather suspect most classic film fans would recognise the majority of them. Sadly, this year saw the passing of many classic film and television stars, including Eli Wallach, Mickey Rooney, Lord Richard Attenborough, Lauren Bacall, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and James Garner, among many others. Like most years I suspect most classic film fans will have difficulty watching TCM Remembers without breaking into tears at some point (for me it was when they hit Russell Johnson).  Anyhow, without further ado, here is this year's edition of TCM Remembers

Thursday, 11 December 2014

"Joel, the Lump of Coal" by The Killers

Each year since 2006 The Killers have released a Christmas song, as well as a video to the song. All profits from these singles go to the Product Red campaign to to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa. This is this years Christmas single by The Killers, "Joel, the Lump of Coal". The song was written by The Killers with Jimmy Kimmel and Jonathan Bines. Jimmy Kimmel directed the video, which made its debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on 1 December 2014. I have to say that, along with "Don't Shoot Me Santa" and "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball", "Joel, the Lump of Coal" could be my favourite Killers Christmas single. Anyhow, without further ado, here is the video for "Joel, the Lump of Coal".

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Godspeed Mary Ann Mobley

Mary Ann Mobley, actress and former Miss America, died on 9 December 2014 at the age of 77. The cause was breast cancer.

Mary Ann Mobley was born on 17 February 1937 in Biloxi, Mississippi. She grew up in nearby Brandon. She attended the University of Mississippi, where she was a majorette and a member of the Chi Omega Sorority. It was in her senior year there, in 1959, that she was crowned Miss America.

It was following her reign as Miss America that Mary Ann Mobley launched her career in show business. She was a regular on the short lived 1960 variety show Be Our Guest on CBS-TV. In 1962 she appeared on Broadway in Nowhere to Go But Up. Miss Mobley signed a contract with MGM and made her film debut in Get Yourself a College Girl (1964). She co-starred with Elvis Presley in Girl Happy (1965) and Harum Scarum (1965). In the Sixties she also appeared in the films Young Dillinger (1965), Three on a Couch (1966), The King's Pirate (1967), and For Singles Only (1968).

While Mary Ann Mobley appeared in several movies during the decade, she may be best remembered for her work in television. She appeared in five different episodes of Burke's Law, playing a different character each time. Miss Mobley was also the original "girl from the U.N.C.L.E.". The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Moonglow Affair served as a backdoor pilot for the spinoff series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. In the episode Mary Ann Mobley originated the role of U.N.C.L.E. agent April Dancer. Unfortunately the role of April Dancer was recast with Stefanie Powers for the series. She was also considered for the role of Batgirl on Batman, although the part eventually went to Yvonne Craig. Miss Mobley also guest starred on such shows as The Smothers Brothers Show, Perry Mason, Mission: Impossible, Run for Your Life, The Virginian, Iron Horse, Custer, Irnoside, and To Rome with Love. Miss Mobley also appeared on several variety and talk shows in the Sixties, including The Mike Douglas Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Pat Boone Show, and The Joey Bishop Show.

In the Seventies Mary Ann Mobley guest starred on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of ColourSearch; The Sixth Sense; Love, America Style; The New Perry Mason; Police Story; Born Free; The Fantastic Journey; and Flying High. She appeared on such game shows as Match Game, Tattletales, To Tell the Truth, and Card Sharks. From 1977 to 1979 she appeared in each edition of the yearly Circus of the Stars.

In the Eighties Mary Ann Mobley guest starred on such shows as Matt Houston, Fantasy Island, Hotel, The Love Boat, and Designing Women. She was a regular on Diff'rent Strokes and had a recurring role on Falcon Crest. She was a regular panellist on the game shows Hollywood Squares, Body Language, and Super Password. She was the host of the documentary series Wedding Day.

From the Nineties into the Naughts Mary Ann Mobley guest starred on the shows Hearts Afire, Hardball, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Dead Like Me. She appeared on the competition programme Cupcake Wars in 2012.

Mary Ann Mobley was also active in many charities. She produced documentaries about poverty stricken and starving children in such places as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the Sudan. She raised money for both the United Cerebral Palsy Association and the March of Dimes. For her work on behalf of children's health the Mary Ann Mobley Paediatric Wing at the Rankin General Hospital in her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi was named for her.

I must confess that I have always had a crush on Mary Ann Mobley. I thought she was spectacularly beautiful, one of the most beautiful women in the world. I thought she was also exceptionally graceful and that she had one of the sexiest voices I had ever heard. Of course, many actresses are beautiful, as are many former Miss Americas. What Mary Ann Mobley had that is lacking in many other actresses was real talent.

While she was best known for playing rather sweet women (much as she was in real life), she did play a variety of other roles. In the film B-movie Young Dillinger she played Dillinger's moll Elaine, a part rather far removed from the sweet natured women she usually played. In For Singles Only Mary Ann Mobley does play a rather sweet woman, but one who is willing to pretend to have been seduced by a male friend so that he can win a bet.  Of course, given Mary Ann Mobley frequently appeared on television, it should be no surprise that many, perhaps most, of her best performances were on the small screen. Two of the best came from the TV show Perry Mason. She played a good natured, but flighty blonde in the episode "The Case of the Blonde Bonanza", and a rather less good natured, scheming model in "The Case of the Misguided Model". On Designing Women she played a rather caustic head of a local historical society, a character as sour as Miss Mobley was sweet in real life.

Not only was Mary Ann Mobley exceedingly beautiful and very talented, but she was also a true lady, the ideal Southern belle. She worked tirelessly on the behalf of many charities over the years. She raised money for the the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. She raised money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. She even served on the National Council on Disability. From those who had the honour of meeting her in person it has been reported that she was one of the sweetest women one could ever meet. She always had kind words for her many fans and always treated them with dignity. Ultimately it would seem that Mary Ann Mobely was a true rarity. She was a woman who was as sweet and charitable as she was beautiful and talented.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Ken Weatherwax R.I.P.

Ken Weatherwax, best known for playing Pugsley on the 1960's TV show The Addams Family, died on 7 December 2014 at the age of 59. The cause was a heart attack.

Ken Weatherwax was born on 19 September 1955 in Los Angeles, California. He came from a show business family. An aunt on his mother's side was famous musical actress and dancer Ruby Keeler. Frank and Rudd Weatherwax, the trainers of canine star Lassie, were uncles on his father's side. His older half brother, Joey D. Vieira, played Porky on the first three seasons of Lassie.

Ken Weatherwax started his acting career in commercials. He was 8 years old when he was cast as Pugsley on The Addams Family. On the TV show Pugsley was the eldest child of Morticia and Gomez Addams. He had a streak of inventive genius, capable of creating such things as a disintegrator gun and a computer. Along with his younger sister Wednesday he showed an interest in such things as dynamite and venomous spiders. He also kept a pet octopus named Aristotle.

While appearing on The Addams Family he made a guest appearance on the TV Western Wagon Train. After The Addams Family ended Ken Weatherwax found it difficult to find other roles due to typecasting. When he was 17 he enlisted in the United States Army. After his stint in the Army he provided the voice of Pugsley in the 1973 Saturday morning cartoon The Addams Family and later appeared in the 1977 reunion movie Halloween with the New Addams Family. He also went to work as a grip at Universal Studios and worked as a set builder as well. As a grip he worked on such Hollywood films as Unlawful Entry (1992).

Ken Weatherwax's acting career was very brief, but as Pugsley Addams he left his mark. In many respects he was the ideal Pugsley. As played by Mr. Weatherwax, Pugsley was in some ways a normal, somewhat congeial little boy, albeit one with interests that tended more towards the macabre. He was in some ways a contrast to the other Addamses (especially Wednesday), who tended to be a bit more sombre. Ken Weatherwax played the role very well, creating a memorable character in a cast of memorable characters. While he may not have played a large variety of roles in his acting career, Ken Weatherwax will be remembered.