Monday, 8 February 2016

Super Bowl Commercials 2016

For many the Super Bowl is about the big game, the championship of the National Football League. That having been said, I suspect for most people it is more about the commercials that air during the game. Indeed, I suspect most years coverage of the commercials that will air and do air during the game receive as much, if not more, coverage than the game itself. It would seem that not everyone is necessarily a fan of American football, but a lot of people are fans of well done commercials.

Sadly, like last year, this year's batch of Super Bowl commercials did not seem particularly remarkable. Many of them seemed like any commercials that debut at any other time of year. They could easily have premiered during a rerun of Madam Secretary in the middle of July. This year's batch of commercials also differed from last year's another respect. There were no overly controversial commercials. There was nothing like the extremely tasteless Nationwide spot  "Make Safe Happen" from last year.

Of course, there it must be pointed out that the trend towards serious, inspirational commercials of the past few years appears to be over.  Among the most serious commercials to air during the Super Bowl was one that aired only in the St. Louis market. In a simple commercial with the hashtag #SlamStan, well-known St. Louis lawyer Terry Crouppen summed up the feelings of St. Louis fans towards Rams owner Stan Kroenke for moving the team to Los Angeles. As someone who rooted for the Rams when they were in St. Louis, I must say I agree with Mr Crouppen entirely. There were only a very few commercials that aired nationally that could be considered serious or inspirational. There was the very well done Jeep commercial "Portraits", celebrating Jeep's 75th anniversary, and an Audi commercial with a retired astronaut and David Bowie's song "Starman", but that was about it. For the most part this year's commercials aimed more for humour. That many of the commercials simply weren't very funny is perhaps beside the point.

Not only were some of the commercials not that funny, some of the commercials were of the sort that should never air during an event in which food is often served. Quite simply, the past few years have seen pharmaceutical companies buying time during the Super Bowl for medications for conditions that turn most people's stomachs. There was a commercial for the toe nail fungus medication Jublia (who also aired a spot during last year's Super Bowl as well).  There was a commercial for the Irritable Bowl Syndrome with Diarrhoea medication Xifaxan. There was a spot for AstraZeneca, a medication for Opioid Induced Constipation. While I suppose there is no truly good time for commercials dealing with such conditions, I would think the Super Bowl, given people often eat and drink during it, would be among the absolute worst times to air them.

Beyond the pharmaceutical commercials, the worst commercials were attempts at humour gone horribly awry. NFL's "Super Bowl Babies" spot, which puts forth the theory that an inordinate number of babies are born after a Super Bowl victory, just seemed stupid and unamusing to me. Doritos's "Ultrasound" was not simply unfunny, but a bit frightening too. Quite simply, the commercial centres on a pregnant woman getting an ultrasound whose unborn foetus wants the Doritios her husband is eating. While the ad shows nothing (fortunately there is nothing like the Alien chest bursting scene), it is a bit disturbing when one starts to think about it.... As to the worst commercial aired during Super Bowl 2016, it could well be the absolute worst Super Bowl Commercial of all time were it not for Nationwide's distasteful "Make Safe Happen" ad from last year. The Mountain Dew commercial "Puppymonkeybaby" featured a creature with the head of a pug, the torso of a monkey, and the bottom of a baby. It is truly disturbing to see and difficult to dismiss from one's mind once one has seen it. I suspect many who saw the ad yesterday may well have had nightmares last night...

As to what I consider the very best commercials from this year's Super Bowl, here they are:

Terry Crouppen "Slam Stan"
 I think it can be said that Terry Croupen speaks for all former St. Louis Rams fans in this commercial that aired only in the St. Louis market. I know he summed up my feelings perfectly. As Mr. Crouppen says, "Just because it's legal and you're rich enough to do it – that doesn't make it right."



TurboTax "Never a Sellout"

It is hard to go wrong with a respected British actor like Sir Anthony Hopkins, especially when one is parodying the idea of respected, big name actors doing commercials. This is easily one of the funniest commercials to air in years.



Budweiser "Simply Put"

As I said, it is hard to go wrong with a respected British actor.  And while this commercial is funny, it deals with a very serious subject. Quite simply, Dame Helen Mirren does her part to discourage individuals from drunk driving (or as they call it in the UK, "drink driving").

Heinz "Weiner Stampede"

The two best commercials of this Super Bowl involved dogs. Okay, Heinz's "Weiner Stampede" is a bit of a one joke idea, but it is terribly cute as well as funny. I mean, what is cuter than a bunch of dachshunds dressed as hot dogs?


"Dorito Dogs"

Dorito's may have had a total misfire with their other commercial, but this was easily the best commercial of this year's Super Bowl. Quite simply, a group of adorable dogs plot to get their paws on some delicious Doritos. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mike Minor R.I.P.

Mike Minor, best known for playing Steve Elliott on Petticoat Junction, died on January 28 2016 at the age of 75. The cause was cancer.

Mike Minor was born Michael Fedderson on December 7 1940 in San Francisco. He was the son of Don Fedderson, the producer best known for the shows My Three Sons and Family Affair. When he was 13 years old he began voice lessons. He began his professional singing career at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills. He attended  University High School in Los Angeles and Brown Military Academy in San Diego.

Mike Minor made his television debut on an episode of My Three Sons in 1962. He appeared several more times on the show, although he played a different character nearly every time. He guest starred on two episodes of The Lieutenant and one episode of Petticoat Junction before he was cast as Steve Elliott on Petticoat Junction. The character of Steve Elliott first appeared on the show in 1966. He was a pilot who crashed in Hooterville and ultimately married Betty Jo Bradley (played by Linda Kaye Henning). Not only did Mike Minor remain with the show for the rest of its run, but he also appeared several times as Steve Elliott on the related show The Beverly Hillbillies. In 1968 he appeared on stage in The Impossible Years. He released the album This Is Mike Minor in 1966, as well as several singles during the decade.

In the Seventies Mike Minor guest starred on The Beverly Hillbillies  as a con man intent on marrying Elly May Clampett for her money. He also guest starred on episodes of CHiPs and Vega$. He had a recurring role on the daytime serial Edge of Night. In the late Seventies he had a recurring role on the soap opera All My Children. In the Eighties he had a role the soap opera Another World. In the Nineties he guest starred on L.A. Law.

As an actor Mike Minor was fairly talented. He was capable of playing different sort of roles. He played the honest, upright Steve on Petticoat Junction, but then played a conniving con man on The Beverly Hillbillies. He was convincing in both roles. He also had a good singing voice, which was often put to use on Petticoat Junction. While he did not sing the theme song to Petticoat Junction as often reported, he did sing the theme song to the first season of the sitcom The Smith Family, "Primrose Lane".

Friday, 5 February 2016

The Late Great Bob Elliott

Ray Goulding and Bob Elliott
Bob Elliott, one half of the comedy team of Bob & Ray with Ray Goulding, died on February 2 2016 at the age of 92. The cause was throat cancer.

Bob Elliott was born on March 26 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts and attended Winchester High School. It was while he was in high school that he developed his talent for radio over the school's public address system. After he graduated from high school he went to New York City where he attended the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. He also worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall and a page at NBC. In 1941 he moved back to Boston where he worked as an announcer for radio station WHDH. During World War II he served in the United States Army with the 26th Infantry Division in Europe before being transferred to Special Services.

Bob Elliott was demobilised in 1946 and returned to WHDH. Bob Elliott was a morning newscaster, while Ray Goulding was a disc jockey. The two began to banter between records and their repartee soon became popular with listeners. WHDH gave Bob and Ray their own weekday show, Matinee with Bob and Ray. As to why Bob was listed first, Ray Goulding joked that it was because Matinee with Bob and Ray sounded better than Matinob with Ray and Bob. Bob and Ray proved so popular that they were given another show, Breakfast with Bob and Ray. 

In 1951 Bob and Ray made the move to New York City and national radio, signing a 13 week contract with NBC. It was not long after the debut of their Saturday night radio show on NBC that they first appeared on television as well. Bob and Ray debuted on NBC-TV on November 26 1951 and ran until 1953. Initially on the TV show the female characters were played by Audrey Meadows and then by Cloris Leachman.

In 1955 Bob and Ray began a long stint on NBC's weekend radio show Monitor. The two were often expected to go on at a moment's notice in case a planned segment experienced difficulties. That same year the two of them became the hosts of the TV game show The Name's the Same. Bob and Ray also appeared on The NBC Comedy Hour, The Revlon Revue, The Tonight Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1957 Bob and Ray had a show on the Mutual radio network and in 1959 Bob and Ray moved to CBS for Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network. They voiced themselves in two animated shorts directed by Ed Graham: "Test Dive Buddies" (1959) and "Kid Gloves" (1960). They also released two comedy albums during the Fifties: Write If You Get Work in 1954 and Bob and Ray on a Platter in 1960. In 1960 they published a children's book, Linda Lovely and the Fleebus.

In the Sixties Bob and Ray appeared on television on such shows as The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Dick Frost Show, and Happy Days (a 1970 summer variety show, not to be confused with the later sitcom of the same name).  In 1966 they released the comedy record Bob And Ray Ask: Whatever Happened To The Hard Sell?.  In 1970 they appeared on Broadway in their show The Two and Only. That same year it was released as an album.

From 1973 to 1976 Bob and Ray were the hosts of WOR's afternoon drive time show. Both Bob and Ray appeared as various characters in the movie Cold Turkey (1971). On television they appeared on The Tonight Show, The David Steinberg Show,  and Saturday Night Live. Bob Elliott appeared without Ray Goulding in an episode of the sitcom Happy Days. They released the album Bob & Ray Present - Mary Backstayge Noble Wife in 1976. That same year they published the book Write If You Get Work: The Best of Bob & Ray. Without Ray, Mr. Elliott appeared in the movie Vengeance (1990).

In 1984 Bob and Ray's last show debuted on National Public Radio. It continued until Ray Goulding's health would permit them to go no further. They appeared in specials on PBS. They provided voices for the TV special B.C.: A Special Christmas. They guest starred on episodes of Trapper John M.D. and Coming of Age. Without Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott guest starred on Newhart. Bob and Ray appeared in the film Author! Author! and provided voices for the animated feature The Gnomes' Great Adventure (1987). Without Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott appeared in the films Kidco (1984) and Quick Change (1990).

Ray Goulding died in 1990 from kidney failure. Bob Elliott continued his career in the Nineties without his long-time partner. He appeared on Garrison Keillor's radio show The American Radio Company of the Air. He played the father of real life son Chris Elliott's character on the sitcom Get a Life. He guest starred on an episode of Lateline. He appeared in the movie Cabin Boy (1994).

In the Naughts Mr. Elliott appeared on the radio show The O'Franken Factor and was a guest voice on the animated TV series King of the Hill.

In addition to their work in radio and TV shows, Bob and Ray also appeared in commercials. They were particularly well known for providing the voices for the characters Bert and Harry in a series of animated commercials for Piels Beer.  They also did ads for Massachusetts Electric and The Hartford Insurance Company. Their popularity with Madison Avenue was perhaps ironic given their many spoof commercials over the years for such fictional products as Einbinder Flypaper and Cool Canadian Air.

Bob Elliott once said of Bob and Ray and their rise to fame, “By the time we discovered we were introverts, it was too late to do anything about it.” It perfectly summed up their brand of comedy. Their comedy was definitely low-key. While they were well known for their sharp-witted satire, it was of the sort that involved droll understatement rather than biting sarcasm. In many ways that made Bob and Ray all the more effective as they spoofed Madison Avenue, politics, business, and even the media. Indeed, their humour grew not out of a need to necessarily attack any person or thing but instead from keen observation of life in the United States of the late 20th Century.

Not only were Bob and Ray's brand of humour different from many comedians of the late 20th Century, but so was the way they operated. Traditionally comedy teams have consisted of a straight man (George Burns, Bud Abbott) who reacts to the comedy of the gag man (Gracie Allen, Lou Costello). At various times Bob and Ray each played the straight man to the other, often switching roles within minutes.

Over their long career Bob and Ray created a number of characters who would become famous in their own right. Bob Elliott played inept reporter Wally Ballou. sportscaster Biff Burns, Arthur Godfrey parody Arthur Sturdley, and old time radio announcer Kent Lyle Birdley. Ray Goulding played book critic Webley Webster, farm reporter Dean Archer Armstead, Charles the Poet, and home economics expert Mary Margaret McGoon. They were also well known for their parodies of radio shows, parodying Backstage Wife with Mary Backstage, Dr. I.Q. with Dr. O.K., and One Man's Family with One Fella's Family. They would even parody shows on whatever network they were on at the moment. When they were CBS they spoofed both Gunsmoke and Johnny Dollar.  In addition to their parodies of various shows and genres, Bob and Ray were well known for their many send ups of radio and television news. One of the most famous of these sorts of sketches involved Bob Elliott as a representative of the Slow Talkers of America who would take forever to even finish a sentence.

Alongside Ray Goulding, Bob Elliott was one of the funniest men of the late 20th Century. With their quiet brand of comedy Bob and Ray could accomplish much more than many louder comedians. It is little wonder that their career as a team lasted over forty years, while Bob Elliott's career lasted yet longer. Indeed, over 25 years after Ray Goulding's death, new generations are still discovering the comedy of Bob and Ray.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Female Voice Artists of Classic Cartoons

For better or worse, the voice artists who provide the voices of cartoon characters have historically worked in anonymity.  When a particular voice artist was well known, it was generally for something other than his or her work in cartoons. A perfect example of this is the late, great Stan Freberg. Famed for his comedy records (such as the classic "St. George and the Dragonet") and later his classic commercials, not many people realise that he got his start as a voice artist for Warner Bros. cartoons and continued to work as a voice artist into the Naughts. A notable exception to this rule was Mel Blanc, whose biggest claim to fame is that he was the voice of many classic Warner Bros. cartoon characters. Of course, it must be pointed out that it was in his contract with Leon Schlesinger Studios (who initially produced cartoons for Warner Bros.) and later Warner Bros. that he receive credit for his work. Unfortunately most voice artists during the Golden Age of Hollywood were not so lucky. More often than not they would go uncredited for their work.

It is perhaps for that reason that there are no women who match Mel Blanc's fame, at least as a voice artist. This is unfortunate, as through the years many women provided voices in the classic theatrical cartoons and later in cartoons made for television. In fact, some of the most famous cartoon characters of all time were obviously voiced by women.

This is particularly true of Fleischer Studios' most famous cartoon character, Betty Boop. Betty Boop made her debut as an anthropomorphic poodle in the 1930 Fleischer Studios short "Dizzy Dishes". In that cartoon she was voiced by Margaret Hines. She would be voiced by Ann Little in her second outing, the 1930 short "Barnacle Bill", while Margaret Hines voiced Betty again in her "Mysterious Mose" (1930). By the time of "Silly Scandals" in 1931 Betty Boop had more or less taken her human form with which everyone is now familiar. She was also voiced for the first time by the woman who would become most identified with the role: Mae Questel.

Mae Questel had begun her career in vaudeville, where she carved out a niche for herself with her impressions of famous singers, including Fanny Brice, Marlene Dietrich, Helen Kane, and Mae West. In fact, she even did impressions of male singers like Eddie Cantor and Maurice Chevalier. Legendary animator Max Fleischer saw her perform and immediately hired her to provide the voice of Betty Boop. While other actresses would occasionally voice Betty Boop, it was Mae Questel who provided the voice of the character in the vast majority of cartoons. In fact, it was Mae Questel who provided the voice of Betty Boop in the feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). At the time Miss Questel was in her Seventies, but she sounded no different than she did when she was in her twenties.

Mae Questel would go onto a very successful career as a voice artist, voicing other characters besides Betty Boop. In fact, she was nearly as famous as the voice of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons as she was the voice of Betty Boop. Mae Questel voiced Olive Oyl in the bulk of Popeye cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios and later Paramount made in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. She also voiced the character of Swee'pea in the Popeye cartoons. When King Features decided to produce a whole new batch of Popeye shorts for television in 1960, it was Mae Questel they hired as the voice of Olive Oyl. Over the years Mae Questel was also the voice of  Little Audrey, as well as the voices of several incidental characters in Fleischer Studios and Paramount cartoons over the years. She died on January 4 1998 at the age of 89.

There was a female voice artist who worked for Warner Bros. who was arguably as famous as Mel Blanc. That having been said, Bea Benaderet's fame was primarily due to her work in radio on such shows as The Jack Benny Program (where she was telephone switchboard operators Gertrude Gearshift and Mabel Flapsaddle) and  The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (where she was the Burns's neighbour Blanche Morton), as well as her work on television on the shows The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction. That having been said, Bea Benaderet was as central to Warner Bros. cartoons as Mel Blanc was. There was a time in the Forties and Fifties when a female character appeared in a Warner Bros. cartoon, chances were very good that she was voiced by Bea Benaderet.

 Unlike Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet did not voice a large number of famous Warner Bros. cartoon characters. She was the voice of Granny in the Sylvester and Tweety cartoons until June Foray took over the role in 1955. She was also the voice of the hen Miss Prissy in Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. She provided the voice of Witch Hazel in one cartoon.  That having been said, in the Forties and early Fifties she provided the majority of female voices in Warner Bros. cartoons, including Dora Standpipe in "The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall" (1942) and The Fair Melissa in "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" (1950).

By the mid-Fifties Bea Benaderet was no longer doing voice work for Warner Bros. on a regular basis, perhaps because she was busy with television, appearing as Blanche on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and providing the voice of Getrude the switchboard operator on The Jack Benny Program. She would go on to appear as Pearl Bodine on The Beaverly Hillbillies and to star as Kate Bradley on Petticoat Junction. That having been said, she still did voice work for cartoons. The last short she may have voiced for Warner Bros. (at least going by IMDB) was "Tweet Dreams" in 1959. She provided the voice of Mother Magoo and various incidental voices for the Mister Magoo shorts UPA made for television in 1960, as well as incidental voices for Hanna-Barbera's TV show Top Cat. The most famous cartoon character she ever voiced may well have been her last. Bea Benaderet was the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones throughout its six year run. Sadly, Bea Benaderet died of lung cancer on October 13 1968.

While Bea Benaderet's biggest claims to fame generally fell outside of her voice acting, June Foray's biggest claim to fame is her voice acting. In fact, June Foray could well be the person most famous for voice acting outside of Mel Blanc. It should come as no surprise that she has often been compared to Mel Blanc. In fact, animator Chuck Jones reportedly once said, "June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc, Mel Blanc was the male June Foray." June Foray also has one of the longest career in voice acting ever. Her career spans well over 70 years.

At only 12 years of age June Foray began her career in radio. In the late Thirties she starred in her own show, Lady Make Believe, and went on to make regular appearance on such shows as The Jimmy Durante Show and Lux Radio Theatre. She was the voices of Midnight the Cat and Old Grandie the Piano on The Buster Brown Program in the Forties. She made her debut as a voice artist in animated cartoons in the Walter Lantz short "The Egg Cracker" as the voice of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike many voice artists in the Forties and Fifties, who often worked for one studio, June Foray did voices for most of the major animations studios in operation. In the Forties alone she did voice work for MGM, Famous Studios, and Warner Bros. One of her most famous roles was as the voice of the cat Lucifer in Disney's Cinderella (1950).

June Foray continued to work for various animation studios in the Fifties. She did voice work for both MGM and Warner Bros. She was the voice of a mermaid and an American Indian in Disney's Peter Pan (1954) and did work in some of Disney's theatrical shorts as well. She even appeared in a few live action projects including the film Sabaka (1954) and a guest appearance on the TV show Father Knows Best. In 1955 she became the voice of Granny in Warner Bros.' Sylvester and Tweety cartoons. At Warner Bros. she also provided the voices of Witch Hazel, as well as various incidental characters.

Possibly her most famous roles came towards the end of the decade. June Foray voiced Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, and practically every female character on Rocky and His Friends and later The Bullwinkle Show. In fact, June Foray is the only person to have ever voiced Rocky the Flying Squirrel. She provided the voice of the character as recently as 2014, for the short "Rocky and Bullwinkle".  June Foray's work with Jay Ward Productions went well beyond Rocky and Bullwinkle. She was also the voice of Nell Fenwick in the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, Ursula on George of the Jungle,  and provided incidental voices for the vast majority of Jay Ward's other cartoons as well.

June Foray continued to be busy with voice work in the Sixties, not only providing voices for Jay Ward Productions and Warner Bros., but also King Features' "Beetle Bailey" cartoons, guest appearances on The Flintstones, and the voice of Dorothy Gale on the TV show Off to See the Wizard. June Foray also provided voices for the classic Rankin/Bass specials The Little Drummer Boy and Frosty the Snowman. She did voice work outside of animation as well. Indeed, her most famous role in the Sixties may have been the voice of the homicidal doll Talky Tina in the classic Twilight Zone episode "Living Doll".

Since the Sixties June Foray has remained busy. She was regularly employed in the Seventies for the many animated specials made during the decade. In the Eighties she provided voices for such TV cartoons as Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, The Smurfs (as Jokey Smurf), Teen Wolf, DuckTales, and Adventures of the Gummi Bears. In the Nineties she provided voices for Garfield and Friends and The All New Dennis the Menace. And, of course, through the years she had continued to voice Granny in various Sylvester and Tweety cartoons and Rocket J. Squirrel in various Rocky and Bullwinkle projects (including the 2000 feature film The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle). What is more, she is still working. She voiced Granny in The Looney Tunes Show from 2011 to 2013 and, as mentioned earlier, Rocky in the 2014 short "Rocky and Bullwinkle".

There can be no doubt that June Foray's long career is due to the versatility of her voice. Unlike many female voice artists she has not only done female voices throughout her career, but male voice as well. Indeed, the most famous character she ever voiced is male--Rocky the Flying Squirrel. She also voiced Lucifer in Cinderella, Jokey Smurf, and various other male characters. At the same time, however, she can sound very feminine. What is more she can sound like females of any age, from children like Karen in Frosty the Snowman to old women like Granny. She can even sound like evil incarnate, as she did with Talky Tina. Arguably June Foray could be the greatest voice artist of all time.

Unlike Mae Questel, Bea Benaderet, and June Foray, Janet Waldo's most famous voice work would be in television rather than theatrical shorts. In fact, Janet Waldo's earliest screen work would not be in animated cartoons, but in live action feature films. Starting in the late Thirties she began playing bit parts in feature films. In the early Forties she would play opposite Tim Holt in two Westerns. Ultimately, however, her career would take off with radio rather than movies. Her big break came with Lux Radio Theatre. From there she went on to appear on such radio shows as Big TownThe Eddie Bracken ShowOne Man's Family, and Sears Radio Theatre. She had a recurring role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Eventually she received her own shows. She starred in the radio sitcom Young Love, but her biggest claim to radio fame may have been playing the title character in Meet Corliss Archer. So identified with the role was Janet Waldo that when Meet Corliss Archer was adapted to television in 1954, she was offered the lead role (she turned it down and the part went to Ann Baxter).  In the Fifties Janet Waldo did appear on television, guest starring on both I Love Lucy and The Phil Silvers Show. She also had a recurring role on the television version of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

It was in 1962 that Janet Waldo became a voice artist for animated cartoons. In fact, the first cartoon character she voiced may well have been her most famous: Judy Jetson on the TV show The Jetsons. She would once more voice Judy when new episodes of the show were made in 1987. The Jetsons was the beginning of a long relationship Janet Waldo would have with Hanna-Barbera. She was the voice of Granny Sweet on The Atom Ant Show, Penelope Pitstop on both Wacky Races and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Josie on Josie and the Pussycats, and Hogatha on The Smurfs.  Janet Waldo also worked on Hanna-Barbera's theatrical cartoons, including Loopy De Loop shorts in the Sixties. She has also done a good deal of work outside of Hanna-Barbera. She provided voices for the English version of the French animated feature Fantastic Planet and voices for Battle of the Planets (the Seventies American version of the anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman). She was even a guest voice on King of the Hill.  She has continued to do voice work to this day. What is more, she sounds no different now than she did when she was Corliss Archer or Judy Jetson.

Over the years many women provided voices for both classic theatrical cartoons and animated series on television. Joan Gerber, Norma MacMillan, Grace Stafford, Billie Lou Watt, Billie Mae Richards, and yet other women have contributed to classic animated cartoons over the years. Sadly, very few voice artists--male or female--were credited for theatrical cartoons during the Golden Age of Animation. The end result is that they generally do not have the name recognition of live-action actors from the same era. Regardless, the many classic theatrical shorts and animated TV series could not have been made over the years without talented women to provide many of the voices.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Why Netflix Should Bring Back the "Not Interested" Button

I had a Netflix account for literally years. I started with Netflix when receiving DVDs by mail was the only option. Later streaming was added. I enjoyed Netflix a good deal and the only reason I cancelled my account was because I lost my job. It was about a year ago that my brother got his first Netflix account (streaming only). Since we share our house and he had used my Netflix account back in the day, he naturally created an account for me.

There had been some changes in Netflix since I had last had an account, but none of those changes truly interfered with my enjoyment of the service. The "Not Interested" button was still there. For those of you who have never used Netflix or have only started doing so recently, one can rate movies and TV shows on the site. If one had absolutely no interest in watching a particular movie or TV show, then one could simply mark it "Not Interested" in lieu of rating it. This affected the recommendations Netflix would make to someone, as Netflix would recommend no films or TV shows similar to those one had marked "Not Interested".

Unfortunately about June of last year the "Not Interested" button disappeared. In the intervening months the recommendations I have been getting from Netflix have been getting progressively worse. Indeed, the past few months Netflix has been consistently recommending Grey's Anatomy to me, a TV show I have always despised. Sadly, I now have no way of telling Netflix I am not interested in Grey's Anatomy.

Worse yet, the recommendation of Grey's Anatomy is not an isolated case. Over the past few months Netflix has recommended Making a Murderer, Gossip Girl, The Mysteries of Laura, and Madame Secretary to me. I have absolutely no interest in watching any of these shows and absolutely no way of making the recommendations go away without the "Not Interested" button.

The sheer usefulness of the "Not Interested" button in fine tuning one's recommendations from Netflix leaves me a bit puzzled as to why they did away with it. I realise that web sites and services occasionally do away with features that are seldom used, but I can't see how that would be the case with the "Not Interested" button. Everyone I know who has a Netflix account used it. While I realise that might not be representative of the majority of Netflix users, I think it would at least indicate that enough people used the "Not Interested" button to make it worthwhile for them to keep it. 

Ultimately I wish Netflix would do one of two things. One is to simply get rid of recommendations. Without the "Not Interested" button they are not particularly useful any longer. Simply because a lot of people watch Grey's Anatomy (which I hate) also watch Gilmore Girls (which I love) does not mean I want to watch or would be likely to watch Grey's Anatomy. I would rather have no recommendations at all than be recommended things I absolutely do not like. The other and more preferable option would be to bring back the "Not Interested" button. When Netflix had the "Not Interested" button I was always guaranteed that I would be recommended movies or TV shows that I would be likely to watch. Occasionally Netflix would make a mistake and recommend something to me that I wouldn't like, but it happened rarely and when it did I simply marked the offending recommendation "Not Interested" and went on about my business.

There was a time when Netflix's recommendations were a useful tool for finding movies and TV shows I might want to watch. Now Netflix's recommendations are not nearly so useful, with a good deal of chaff mixed in with the wheat. Restoring the "Not Interested" button could once more make Netflix recommendations useful to me and presumably many other users again. I only hope that Netflix realises their mistake and brings it back.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Shivers (1975): Canadian Grown Horror

( This blog post is part of the "O Canada" Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings)


Today David Cronenberg remains one of the most famous directors to emerge from Canada. He also remains one of the most controversial directors to emerge from Canada. In the late Seventies and early Eighties he was a pioneer, if not one of the inventors of body horror--a subgenre of horror in which horror is derived from the graphic alteration, degeneration, or destruction of the human body. And while David Cronenberg would eventually drift away from body horror, he would return to its themes from time to time, even late in his career.

As body horror can be extremely disturbing, especially in the hands of David Cronenberg, it should come as no surprise that some of his films would meet with controversy. This was true of such early films as Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1977). It was particularly true of his 1996 adaptation of J. G. Ballard's novel Crash, which met with such controversy that in the United Kingdom there were calls for its ban. The Westminster City Council of Westminster, London even went so far as to ban the film. As controversial as Crash was, it was perhaps not nearly as controversial as David Cronenberg's first commercially successful film. Shivers was originally titled The Parasite Murders in Canada and retitled They Came From Within in the United States. By any title it was a cause célèbre in Canada upon its initial release.

Shivers centred around the residents of Starliner Towers, an ultramodern, high-rise apartment situated outside Montreal. Unfortunately for the tenants of the high-rise, Dr. Emil Hobbes (played by Fred Doederlein) has been developing a form of sexually transmitted parasites that turn people into uncontrollable (and often violent) sex maniacs. As might be expected, the parasites are ultimately spread through the high-rise, resulting in a miniature, sexual apocalypse.

At the time that David Cronenberg directed Shivers, he was hardly new to filmmaking. As a student he directed two short films, "Transfer" (1966) and "From the Drain" (1967). He then directed two short, experimental, science fiction features that received little distribution beyond art houses in Canada: Stereo (1969)  and Crimes of the Future (1970). For the next few years he shot several short television documentaries for the CBC, as well as episodes of Canadian TV show Programme X and Peep Show. It was during this period that David Cronenberg came up with the concept for Shivers. Unfortunately finding somewhere to pitch Shivers proved difficult, particularly given its concept. In the end he found a distributor in the form of Cinépix.

Founded in 1962 by John Dunning and Andre Link, at the time Cinépix produced primarily soft-core porn films. Despite this Cinépix liked David Cronenberg's treatment for what would become Shivers (the original title of the script was Orgy of the Blood Parasites). They submitted it to the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in order to receive government funding. It took the CFDC three years to approve Orgy of the Blood Parasites for funding. It was then in September 1974 that it finally went into production. 

Shivers was shot on Nun's Island (an island located in the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal) with a shooting schedule of only fifteen days. It was made for only $185,000. The film's title would be changed before its release. Both Cinépix and David Cronenberg felt that Orgy of the Blood Parasites sounded too much like a Fifties movie. It was the retitled The Parasite Murders for English speaking Canada and Frissons (literally "Chills" or, well, "Shivers") for Quebec.

The Parasite Murders was first shown at the film market of the Cannes Festival in May 1975.  There it drew several buyers for the European market. At the same time it also came to the attention of European critics. In August 1975 it was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Unfortunately its reception there was chilly at best. In particular critic Robin Wood attacked the film in a review of the festival that appeared in Film Comment. Of The Parasite Murders he said, "Its derivation is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Night of the Living Dead, but the source of its intensity is quite distinct: all the horror is based on extreme sexual disgust." Robin Wood would remain one of David Cronenberg's fiercest detractors, attacking Shivers and Mr. Cronenberg's early films as "reactionary" in both The American Nightmare from 1979 and "Cronenberg: A Dissenting View" in the anthology The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg.

As hostile as some of the reviews that emerged from the Edinburgh Film Festival might have been, they were nothing compared to the reception that The Parasite Murders would receive in David Cronenberg's native Canada. One month before its official release in Canada, a special preview was held for The Parasite Murders. The end result was one of the biggest controversies in the history of Canadian film. In an article with the sensational title "You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid For It" in the September 1975 issue of the popular Canadian general interest magazine Saturday Night, Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, writing as "Marshall Delaney", attacked The Parasite Murders as "..the most repulsive movie I've ever seen." He further questioned how the CFDC could have financed such a film, writing, "If using public money to produce films like The Parasite Murders is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry."

Robert Fulford would not be the only person to attack The Parasite Murders. Martin Knelman, film critic for Saturday Night, characterised the film as a cheap exploitation movie in the newspaper the Globe and Mail . In the Montreal Gazette film critic Dane Lanken also attacked the film. Extremely negative reviews of The Parasite Murders appeared in the film magazines Séquences and MotionThe Parasite Murders was even denied a screening at the Canadian Film Awards.

While The Parasite Murders produced a negative, nearly visceral reaction in many Canadian film critics and journalists, the film did have its defenders. Film critic Natalie Edwards gave The Parasite Murders a positive review in Cinema Canada, beginning her rather humorous review with, "Well, I really have bad taste. I liked it." Cinema Canada also ran an article on David Cronenberg and The Parasite Murders by Stephen Chelsey. David Cronenberg's friend John Hofsess took up for the film in Maclean's.

Ultimately the furore over The Parasite Murders would prove so great that it would reach the House of Commons where there was a debate on whether the CFDC should have financed the film. Cinépix did not take the controversy lying down, and even went so far as to send a pamphlet entitled "Is There a Place for Horror Films in Canada's Film Industry" to every single member of Parliament.

The controversy over Shivers would have an immediate impact on David Cronenberg's career. After the publication of Robert Fulford's article in Saturday Night, David Cronenberg's landlord kicked him out of his apartment, citing a "morality clause" in his lease. For many years afterwards David Cronenberg found difficulty in finding financing for his films. In Canada his films would consistently open to negative reviews until the release of Videodrome in 1983.

Despite the controversy (or perhaps even because of it), The Parasite Murders performed very well at the box office in Canada. In fact, it was particularly successful in Ontario and Quebec (where, as mentioned earlier, it bore the title Frissons). Having only been made for $185,000, within a year it had made $5 million. This made it the most profitable Canadian feature film up to that time.

The Parasite Murders also performed well around the world. While nowhere else did the film produce the kind of controversy that it did in Canada, it was not always well received. Film critics in the United Kingdom were divided with regards to the movie, with some critics regarding it as "degrading" and others regarding it as "witty". The Parasite Murders was somewhat better received in Europe, where its reviews were more positive. Indeed, it won the award for best direction at the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya in Stiges, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain in October 1975.

Given it success in the French speaking parts of Canada, by June 1976 The Parasite Murders had been given a new title more in line with the French title Frissons: Shivers. When Shivers debuted in the United States it would bear yet another title--it distributor in the U.S., Trans American Films, retitled it They Came From Within. While in the United States the film would not cause the furore that it did in Canada, it would encounter some difficulties. In order to avoid receiving an "X" rating from the MPAA ratings board, twelve scenes had to be cut. Worse yet, it was often shown as part of a double bill with outright B-movies. As a result its reviews in the United States were often quite negative. A notable exception was Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, who said of the film, "It scares and shocks us because it's so cleverly made."

Treated as a B-movie in the United States, Shivers (or They Came From Within, if you prefer) did not receive particularly good distribution. Not surprisingly, in the United States it did not do the phenomenal business it had in Quebec. They Came From Within performed well in Chicago and New York City, but did not do as well outside of metropolitan areas.

In many respects it is easy to understand the controversy that Shivers evoked upon its release in Canada, particularly given its subject matter. The Parasite Murders (as it was titled then) was released only a little under seven years after Night of the Living Dead (1968), which became a similar cause célèbre in the United States. Of course, while the controversy over Night of the Living Dead centred on its content and the fact that young children could actually see the movie (the MPAA ratings system would not go into effect until a month after its release), the controversy over The Parasite Murders centred not only on its content, but the fact that it had been funded by the CFDC as well.

While Shivers remains disturbing even today, it seems possible that much of the controversy stemmed from the fact that in many ways Shivers was at odds with Canadian cinema as it was in 1975. Unlike many films made in Canada, there is no doubt that Shivers is a Canadian film. It is set in Canada. It was filmed in Canada. It was directed by a Canadian.  At the time, however, it must have seemed to some of its critics to be a very un-Canadian film. In 1975 Canada may have been best known for its documentaries of the sort produced by the National Film Board. In fact, the documentary genre known as Direct Cinema largely originated in Canada--to be specific in Quebec. With regards to narrative cinema, at the time Canada was producing a homegrown variety of the French Nouvelle Vague or the British kitchen sink cinema, films such as Goin' Down the Road (1970) and Mon Oncle Antoine (1971).  Shivers was most decidedly not kitchen sink realism or realism of any sort. It was a horror movie--a very sophisticated horror movie--but a horror movie nonetheless. And unlike the United States or the United Kingdom, horror was not part of the Canadian film tradition at the time.

Regardless of what was at the root of the controversy over Shivers, even today it is a very disturbing film. What many might find surprising for a film that stirred up such controversy is that very little is actually shown in Shivers. The viewer gets a few glimpses of the slug-like parasites, which can be transmitted sexually or through mouth to mouth, and can even travel though air ducts. The viewer glimpses some gore, but no more than in many prime time American police procedurals today. Even given the film's subject matter (normal humans turned into sex crazed zombies), there is very little sex to be seen. Rather than relying on gore that could produce at best a brief shock, with Shivers David Cronenberg relied more upon the power of suggestion to create a genuine sense of horror. In the end Shivers is then much more effective than many more graphic horror films.

Shivers may be all the more disturbing in that it isn't so much about sexual desires gone out of control as it is about attacking the upper middle class.  In the Sixties and the Seventies in both Canada and the United States there was very much a trend towards upscale, self-sufficient apartment complexes similar to Starliner Towers in the movie. Regardless of what tenants of such apartment complexes in the Seventies might have been like, in Shivers the residents of Starliner Towers are not very nice people even before they become infested with parasites. Starliner Towers is a regular Peyton Place, complete with secrets, deceit, adultery, and hypocrisy. In addition to being a horror movie, Shivers is then very much a black comedy that spoofs the upper middle class. Indeed, much of what might have upset its many critics is that Shivers can be interpreted as treating the infestation of the residents by the parasites as an act of liberation.

Ultimately the controversy over the CFDC having financed Shivers would have no lasting repercussions for the Canadian Film Development Corporation. In fact, the CFDC would continue to provide funding for David Cronenberg films, including Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Scanners (1981). The CFDC would be renamed Telefilm Canada in the Eighties and continued to finance David Cronenberg movies, including the controversial Crash. The CFDC would go onto finance horror movies made by people other than David Cronenberg as well: Rituals (1977), Death Ship (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Visiting Hours (1982), and yet others. If Robert Fulford had hoped that his article attacking Shivers in Saturday Night would stop the CFDC from financing horror movies, then he failed miserably.

In the end the controversy over Shivers would prove to have an enormous impact on David Cronenberg's career. While he would have some difficulty finding financing for his next few films, the controversy turned him into a household name in Canada for a time. Shivers proved to be the first commercially successful feature film for a director who is still making films forty years later. What is more, while many Canadian directors would eventually depart for Hollywood, David Cronenberg continued to make movies in Canada. In fact, his 2014 film Maps to the Stars marked the first time he ever filmed in the United States!

Upon its release in Canada Shivers was a source of controversy and a film that received extremely negative reviews. Upon its release in the United States Shivers was treated as little more than a B-movie and also received some extremely negative reviews. Despite those negative reviews over the years it has become a cult film. It has also become a much more respected film, particularly among fans of horror films.  It currently has a rating of 84% on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes and a user rating of 6.6 on IMDB (which is fairly high for the site). Ultimately it was the film that started David Cronenberg's career. In its own small way it changed the history of Canadian film forever.



Monday, 1 February 2016

50 Years Since Buster Keaton's Death

I am not old enough to have known a world with Buster Keaton. Oh, I was alive when he died, but at two years and ten months of age I probably did not even know who he was. I would discover him when I got older and he became one of my favourite actors of all time. Charlie Chaplin might be more famous, but it is Buster Keaton who has always been my favourite silent comic actor and director.

Sadly, it was fifty years ago today that the great Buster Keaton died. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer that January, but was neither told that he had cancer nor that he was terminally ill. Mr. Keaton thought that he had a severe case of bronchitis. He spent his last few days in hospital. According to his widow he was up and about, and even played cards with friends the day before he died.

Buster Keaton was not forgotten following his death. If anything his reputation has only grown. In 1987 there was a television documentary, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. In 1992 a fan club was founded, the  International Buster Keaton Society. In 1994 a caricature of Mr. Keaton by Al Hirschfeld, as well as other silent stars, graced a United States postage stamp. All eleven of his feature films have been released on DVD and Blu-Ray, and they are readily available on streaming media.

For my fellow fans of Buster Keaton, here is the post I wrote in honour of his 120th birthday. Below is a collection of his best stunts I found on YouTube.