Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Late Great Terry Jones

Terry Jones, founding member of Monty Python, director, writer, and medieval scholar, died yesterday, January 21 2020, at the age of 77. In 2015 he had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a type of dementia that impairs the ability to communicate. The cause of his death was complications from that dementia.

Terry Jones was born Terence Graham Parry Jones on February 1 1942 in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. When he was around 5 years old his family moved to Claygate, Surrey, a suburb of London. He was very young when he became a fan of The Goon Show, the legendary British radio comedy program featuring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, and Michael Bentine. He attended Royal Grammar School in Guildford, Surrey. He attended Oxford, where he developed an interest in the medieval era and Geoffrey Chaucer. While at Oxford he joined the university's Experimental Theatre Club. It was also while at Oxford that he met fellow future Monty Python member. Michael Palin.

It was in 1963 that Terry Jones performed in and wrote part of what was his first revue, Loitering With Intent, to which Michael Palin also made contributions. Another Experimental Theatre Club show, Hang Down Your Head and Die, on which Messrs. Jones and Palin worked, went onto a six week run at the Comedy Theatre on London's West End in 1964.

Terry Jones and Michael Palin appeared on the sketch comedy television program Twice a Fortnight in 1967. That same year they appeared on, as well as contributed writing to, the children's show Do Not Adjust Your Set, alongside future Monty Python member Eric Idle. Future Monty Python member Terry Gilliam was also a writer on the show. Among the fans of Do Not Adjust Your Set were Graham Chapman and John Cleese. It was because of Do Not Adjust Your Set that Terry Jones and Michael Palin became charter members of Monty Python. Terry Jones also appeared on the TV programs Marty and The Complete and Utter History of Britain. He wrote material for The Late Show, The Frost Report, A Series of Bird's, Horne A'Plenty, and Broaden Your Mind.

Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted on BBC1 on October 5 1969. The show proved extremely popular in the United Kingdom from the start. In 1974 it grew in popularity in the United States when PBS stations began running it. The success of Monty Python's Flying Circus led to several movies, the first of which was And Now for Something Completely Different in 1971. The cult film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), was co-directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Their next film, Life of Brian (1979), Mr. Jones directed alone. He would also direct Monty Python's final film, The Meaning of Life. Over the years Terry Jones appeared in various Monty Python reunions.

In the Seventies Terry Jones also wrote on the series The Two Ronnies, as well as wrote and appeared in the series Ripping Yarns. He appeared in Terry Gilliam's feature film debut as a solo director, Jabberwocky (1977). He also appeared in an episode of Saturday Night Live.

In the Eighties Terry Jones had a cameo in The Great Muppet Caper (1981).  In addition to The Meaning of Life, he directed the movies Personal Services (1987) and Erik the Viking (1989). He also played King Arnulf in Erik the Viking. He wrote episodes of the TV miniseries Bombardemagnus and the TV show East of Moon. He guest starred on the TV show The Young Ones.

In the Nineties Mr. Jones wrote episodes of the medieval documentary TV series Crusades. He co-created the animated series Blazing Dragons. He wrote episodes of the documentary TV miniseries Ancient Inventions. He wrote the screenplay for the movie The Wind in the Willows (1996), which he also directed. He played Toad in the film as well. He was the English voice of Obelix in Astérix & Obélix contre César (1999), appeared in the feature film Le créateur (1999), and provided the voice of Professor Mac Krill in Hjælp! Jeg er en fisk (2000).

In the Naughts Terry Jones did a good deal as a medieval historian, writing the documentary TV movie The Surprising History of Rome, the documentary TV movie The Surprising History of Egypt, the documentary TV movie The Surprising History of Sex and Love, the documentary TV series Medieval Lives, and the documentary TV series Barbarians. He provided the voice of the Messenger Bird in the mini-series Dinotopia, guest starred on the TV series Comedy Lab, and served as the narrator on The Legend of Dick and Dom.   In the Teens he wrote, directed, and appeared in the film Absolutely Anything (2015). He appeared in the TV series The Secret Policeman's Ball.

In addition to being a British comedy legend, Terry Jones was also a medieval historian of note. He was one of the world's foremost experts on Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1980), in which he argues that rather than the traditional interpretation of the Knight in The Knight's Tale as a exemplar of Christian virtues, he can be interpreted as an ordinary mercenary. He co-wrote the book Who Murdered Chaucer? (2003) with Robert F. Yeager, Terry Doran, and Alan Fletcher. As noted above, he wrote several television documentaries on history. He was known for challenging popular views of history. For example, in Barbarians he portrays the people conquered or opposing Rome as considerably more sophisticated than many historians have before.

He also wrote several children's books illustrated by Michael Forman and later Brian Froud, as well as novels for adults. He wrote columns for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Observer. He wrote poetry as well.

Terry Jones was a true Renaissance man who achieved much in his life, so much so that it is difficult to include everything he did in one blog post (I have to think that I have missed some of his career). Of course, chances are good that he will always be remembered as a comedy legend. Although not as well known in the United States, his work on Do Not Adjust Your Set is remembered in Britain to this day. He as regarded as the heart of Monty Python and often considered the driving force behind shaping the comedy troupe. He was well known for playing what the BBC termed "ratbag old women"and played notable parts in some of Monty Python's most famous sketches, including Cardinal Biggles in "The Spanish Inquisition," the nude organist who punctuated many sketches, a reserved, upper class man in "Nudge, Nudge," and the tobacconist in the "Hungarian translation sketch." Behind the scenes Terry Jones wrote much of Monty Python's material. He also co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail and directed The Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. He would go onto other comedy projects beyond Monty Python, including the classic comedy series Ripping Yarns and the movie Erik the Viking, which blended his interest in medieval history with comedy.

Of course, Terry Jones was much more than a comedy legend. He was also a medieval historian of note. It was Mr. Jones's gift as a historian to reveal other ways of looking at history than what many would have us believe. For anyone who has been taught that the tribes who often opposed the Roman Empire were nothing more than savages, the TV series Barbarians can be a revelation. As someone who has always had a keen interest in the Dark Ages (particularly Anglo-Saxon England), I have always had a keen appreciation for Terry Jones's work as a historian.

Terry Jones was also a rather prolific author, writing everything from a book of fantasy stories titled Evil Machines to medieval adventures such as The Tyrant and the Squire. He wrote a large number of critically acclaimed and award winning children's books.

Terry Jones was certainly appreciated in the entertainment industry, particularly by his fellow members of Monty Python. Michael Palin, who may well have been closest to Mr. Jones out of all the members of Monty Python, said in a statement, "He was kind, generous, supportive and passionate about living life to the full...He was far more than one of the funniest writer-performers of his generation, he was the complete Renaissance comedian – writer, director, presenter, historian, brilliant children’s author, and the warmest, most wonderful company you could wish to have." In the end Terry Jones was a most remarkable man, comedy legend, historian, author, and poet. He was a true scholar and a gentleman.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Some Thoughts on Federico Fellini

100 years ago today Federico Fellini was born in Rimini, Italy. He would not only become one of the most famous directors of all time, but one of the most influential as well. For a time he may well have been the most famous movie director in the world aside from Alfred Hitchcock. He had an influence on such diverse directors as Tim Burton, Barry Levinson, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Lina Wertmüller. Mr. Fellini has also been one of my all-time favourite directors for much of my life.

Unlike many of my favourite directors, I would not be exposed to the work of Federico Fellini until I was already an adult. After all, I grew up in a rural area where foreign films were almost never shown at our theatres or on the local television stations. Fortunately, as I entered adulthood, the advent of the VCR would change things. Video rental stores sprang up everywhere, among them the greatest of the them all, 9th Street Video in Columbia. It had everything, from silent movies to films from the Golden Age of Hollywood to a substantial collection of foreign films. My friend Brian and I made frequent trips to Columbia to rent movies there. It was through 9th Street Video that I would see my first films directed by Federico Fellini.

The very first Federico Fellini movie I ever watched would also be one of his most famous. La Dolce Vita (1960) is not only one of the best known foreign films of all time, but also one of the most famous. The title itself would enter the English language, and the name of  a photojournalist character, Paparazzo, would lead to the word paparazzi, used of independent photographers of high-profile people. Both Brian and I had been looking forward to La Dolce Vita, and neither of us was disappointed. To say we were blown away by the movie would be an understatement. To this day, that first viewing of La Dolce Vita, would leave a lasting impression on me.

Quite naturally, Brian and I sought out Federico Fellini's other movies. It should come as no surprise that the next Felllini movie we watched was 8 1/2 (1963). 8 1/2 (1963) did not impress me as much as La Dolce Vita did, but watching it was still an incredible experience. As a writer I could identify with the lead character, director Guido Anselmi (played by Marcello Mastroianni), as he suffered through director's block. The inability to be creative is a crisis that no creator wants to go through. Over the next few years Brian and I would watch more of Federico Fellini's films: La strada (1954), Giulietta degli spiriti (1965), Le notti di Cabiria (1957), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and others.

Over all I preferred Federico Fellini's earlier work to his later work. La Strada, Le notti di Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Giulietta degli spiriti are all masterpieces to me. For me, at least, Mr. Fellini's later works sometimes became so exaggerated as to be self-parody (in my opinion this is particularly true of Fellini Satyricon), but even when I might not appreciate some of his later films, I still had to respect the artistry behind them.

Federico Fellini may be the most famous Italian director of all time, but, except for his earliest films, he never really delved into the most famous movement to emerge from that country, Italian neorealism except in his earliest movies. Mr. Fellini was less interested in capturing reality as it is than he was in capturing the inner world of the human experience. For that reason the imagery in Mr. Fellini's films could often felt more like it came from dreams rather than real life. From the nightmarish sea creature caught in fishermen's nets in La Dolce Vita to a sacrilegious fashion show a noblewoman holds for a Cardinal (which, among other things, included priests on roller skates), the visuals in a Federico Fellini film could be stunning, uplifting, surreal, shocking, and even offensive, but they were never forgettable.

In the end, while every single one of Federico Fellini's movies might not be a masterpiece, they are all in his own voice. What is more, he dared try to do something few directors have ever done. He tried to capture the world of dreams, with all their illogic and chaos, rather than record reality. When he was successful in doing so, he made movies better than any other director to ever live.

Friday, January 17, 2020

100 Years Ago Today Prohibition Went Into Effect

It was one hundred years ago today that Prohibition went into effect in the United States. One year before, on January 17 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. It was on October 28 1919 that Congress passed the Volstead Act, meant to carry out the intent behind the Eighteenth Amendment. It was then on January 17 1920 that the production, sale, and transport of alcohol became illegal in the United States.

Obviously Prohibition had an immediate impact on the United States, but its impact would also be lasting and is still being felt to this day. Bootlegging began almost as soon as Prohibition took effect. Speakeasies, illicit places selling alcohol, sprang up almost immediately. While organized crime had existed prior to Prohibition, it grew ever more powerful during the years Prohibition was in effect. Such criminal organizations as the Chicago Outfit and the American Mafia made millions of dollars through bootlegging, the smuggling of liquor from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and the operation of speakeasies. Gangsters became prominent figures in the United States throughout the 1920s.

Of course, Prohibition would also have an impact on American popular culture. In fact, it seems very likely that the gangster movie would not exist as we know it without Prohibition. Gangster movies emerged during the Silent Era, among them Underworld (1927), Lights of New York (1928), and The Racket (1928). Arguably the Golden Age of gangster movies was the early Thirties. It was during this period that The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) were released. In all three films, bootlegging played a prominent role in the plot. The gangster movies of the Prohibition Era would have an impact that is still being felt to this day. Even more recent movies, such as The Untouchables (1987) and Miller's Crossing (1990), owe their existence to the gangster movies of the Prohibition Era. Even television would feel the impact of Prohibition years after its repeal. The Untouchables debuted in 1959 and produced such imitators as The Roaring Twenties. The Prohibition Era has been the setting of more recent television shows as well, most notably Boardwalk Empire.

While Prohibition would lead to the emergence of the gangster movie, it also had an impact on movies in other genres made while it was in effect. If the temperance movement had hoped that with Prohibition drinking would no longer appear in movies, their hopes must have been dashed repeatedly during the Silent Era and the early Pre-Code Era. If anything, drinking seems to appear more frequently in movies from the 1920s and the early Thirties than any other time in the history of American cinema. It certainly played a central role in many of the flapper movies of the era, such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Drunkenness continued to be a source of gags in movies even as Prohibition was still in effect. In fact, getting liquor and then getting drunk is at the centre of the Laurel & Hardy short "Blotto" (now lost except for a Spanish language version).  While drinking would continue to be part of the movies well after Prohibition was repealed and continues to be a part of movies to this day (let's face it, the "Thin Man" movies would be a whole lot less fun without the drinking), it seems like the Silent Era and the Pre-Code Era was some sort of heyday for on-screen drinking.

Of course, Prohibition eventually came to an end. Opposition to Prohibition had existed from the beginning, and as the Twenties progressed the movement towards its repeal only grew. Organisations in favour of the repeal of Prohibition, such as the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, had memberships in the thousands. The Democratic party's 1932 platform even included the repeal of Prohibition. It was on December 5 1933 that the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, finally bringing Prohibition to an end. While Prohibition was over, its impact is still being felt to this day.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Godspeed Neil Peart

Neil Peart, the drummer and chief lyricist for Canadian rock band Rush, died on January 7 2020 at the age of 67. The cause was glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.

Neil Peart was born on September 12 1952 in Hamilton, Ontario. He spent the first two years of his life on the family farm in Hagersville, Ontario. When he was two years old his family moved to St. Catharines, Ontario. He developed an interest in music while still very young. While he took piano lessons as a child, his parents bought him a drum kit for his fourteenth birthday and he began taking lessons in drumming. Mr. Peart played in local bands as a teenager and, at eighteen, he migrated to London in hopes of pursuing a music career there.

After eighteen months in London and having made little progress as a musician, Neil Peart returned to Canada. When Rush's original drummer John Rutsey left, Neil Peart auditioned for the band. He joined the band on July 24 1974, only two weeks before Rush's first tour of the United States. His first album with Rush was the band's second album, Fly by Night, released in 1975. Fly by Night was followed the same year by Caress of Steel. The album was not well received by critics. Worse yet, their tour sold below expectations, to the point that the band nicknamed it "the Down the Tubes Tour." Mercury Records considered dropping Rush, but were convinced by their manager Ray Daniels to let the band record one more album.

Mercury tried to convince Rush to make their next album more commercial, but the band ignored the label. Instead they recorded 2112, side one of which was occupied by a single, 20 minute track relating the story of a future dystopia. Released in 1976, 2112 proved to be a success, peaking at no. 5 on the Canadian album chart and no. 61 on the Billboard album chart. It also received positive notices from critics. Their following albums, A Farewell to Kings in 1977 and Hemispheres in 1978, performed even better on the charts than 2112 had. It would be their album Permanent Waves, released in 1980, that proved to be their big breakthrough. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard album chart and at no. 3 in the United Kingdom.

Rush would continue to top the charts after Permanent Waves, from their following album, Moving Pictures in 1981, to their final album, Clockwork Angels, in 2012. The band also went through stylistic changes. Starting with Signals in 1982 the band moved towards a more synthesizer dominated sound. With Presto in 1989 Rush moved back towards a more guitar oriented sound.

While the three members of Rush remained friends, Neil Peart retired in 2015 due to chronic tendinitis.

In addition to his work as a musician and lyricist, Neil Peart also wrote seven non-fiction books on this travels.

Although highly successful, Rush has been a band that many either love or hate, with little ground in between. This is also true of Neil Peart, whom Blender ranked as the second worst lyricist (after Sting) in their list of "the worst lyricists in rock." While Blender might not have liked Mr. Peart's lyrics, there were clearly many who do. His lyrics have described as "artful," and Neil Peart as "the thinking man's lyricist." For all that some might not appreciate Neil Peart's lyrics, it is clear that they speak to a good many people. Certainly, in his lyrics Neil Peart addressed things not often addressed in rock music. In his lyrics Mr. Peart drew upon science fiction, fantasy, mythology, personal issues, and humanitarian concerns. While other rock lyricists might only address subjects of love, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, Neil Peart addressed a wide variety of topics.

While Neil Peart was controversial as a lyricist, he was universally admired as a drummer. Even people who did not particularly like Rush often listed him among the greatest drummers alive. Neil Peart was known for the precision of his drumming, as well as the power of his drumming. He was well known for his massive drum kits, and used a diverse array of percussion instruments.  His drumming often defied genres, drawing upon rock, blues, jazz, funk, and everything in between.

As both a lyricist and a drummer Neil Peart would have a lasting influence. Rush has been cited as an influence by such diverse artists as Alice in Chains, Fishbone, Manic Street Preachers, Queensrÿche, and yet others. No less than Trent Reznor counts Rush as one of his favourite bands. Neil Peart certainly had an influence on his many fans. If Rush has been popular since the late Seventies, it is probably because Neil Peart's lyrics spoke to so many people. His lyrics were informed by his love of literature and history, and he often addressed the vagaries of life in his lyrics. He often addressed topics left unaddressed by rock lyricists, but topics with which the listener could identify. Neil Peart may have been a drummer, but he ultimately had the soul of a poet.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Edd Byrnes Passes On

Edd Byrnes, who played Gerald "Kookie" Kookson III on the classic TV show 77 Sunset Strip, died on January 8 2020 at the age of 87.

Edd Byrnes was born Edward Byrne Breitenberger on July 30 1932 in New York City. His father died when he was 13 and he took the name of his grandfather, a New York City firefighter. He eventually took an interest in acting and following his graduation from high school he worked in summer stock. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting.

Mr. Byrnes made his television debut on an episode of Crossroads. He guest starred on Wire Service, Navy Log, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Telephone Time, and Cheyenne. He also appeared in movies, making his film debut in Fear Strikes Out in 1957. It would be his role as a murderer in Girl on the Run (1958), a feature film that effectively served as the pilot for 77 Sunset Strip, that led to him being cast as Kookie. Kookie turned out to be the breakout character on 77 Sunset Strip. At the height of the show's popularity, he received over 15,000 fan letters a week, more than any other star at Warner Bros. The character's popularity led to Edd Byrnes recording the novelty song "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" with Connie Stevens. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959. Edd Byrnes would have frequent disagreements with Warner Bros., and during the second season actually walked off 77 Sunset Strip. He eventually returned to the show and remained with it until the sixth season, when the show underwent a format change and the entire cast except for Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was fired and the show.

In the late Fifties Edd Byrnes also guest starred on the shows Colt .45, The Gale Storm Show, Sugarfoot, Maverick (possibly as an ancestor of Kookie in one of the three episodes in which he appeared), Lawman, Surfside 6 (as Kookie), and Hawaiian Eye (as Kookie). He also appeared in the movies Reform School Girl (1957), Johnny Trouble (1957), The Deep Six (1958), Darby's Rangers (1958), Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Life Begins at 17 (1958), Up Periscope (1959), and Yellowstone Kelly (1959).

Edd Byrnes continued to appear as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip into the early Sixties. He also guest starred on the TV shows The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Burke's Law, Mister Roberts, Honey West, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Mannix, and Love, American Style. He appeared in the movies The Secret Invasion (1964), Beach Ball (1965), 7 winchester per un massacro (1967), Vado... l'ammazzo e torno (1967), and Professionisti per un massacro (1967).

In the Seventies Edd Byrnes was a regular on the short-lived TV series $weepstake$. He guest starred on Adam-12, Alias Smith and Jones, The Pathfinders, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The ABC Afternoon Playbreak, Faraday and Company, Marcus Welby M.D., Thriller, Police Story, Police Woman, Sword of Justice, California Fever, CHiPs, B.J. and the Bear, and House Calls. He appeared in the movies Wicked, Wicked (1973), Stardust (1974), and Grease (1978).

In the Eighties Mr. Byrnes guest starred on Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, Quincy M.E., The Master, Crazy Like a Fox, Simon & Simon, Throb, Rags to Riches, and Mr. Belvedere. He appeared in the movies Erotic Images (1983), Back to the Beach (1987), Mankillers (1987), Party Line (1988), and  Troop Beverly Hills (1989).

In the Nineties he guest starred on the shows Empty Nest, Married with Children; Burke's Law; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Murder, She Wrote; and Unhappily Ever After. He appeared in the TV movie Shake, Rattle and Roll: An American Love Story.

I think there can be no doubt that Edd Byrnes will always be remembered as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip. With Kookie, he created an instantly memorable character, a parking attendant known for his hip language and running a comb through his hair. It is little wonder that Kookie was at the centre of one of television's earliest fads, following Walt Disney's "Davy Crockett" but preceding The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Of course, Mr. Byrnes made numerous guest appearances on other television shows, from a convicted bank robber on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to a lecherous stockbroker on Murder, She Wrote. Edd Byrnes will always be remembered as Kookie, but he played numerous other roles as well.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Late Great Buck Henry

Buck Henry, who co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks and adapted the novel The Graduate for the big screen, died on January 8 2020 at the age of 89. The cause was a heart attack.

Buck Henry was born Henry Zuckerman on December 9 1930 in New York City. His father was an Air Force brigadier general and stockbroker, while his mother was Ruth Taylor, a former Ziegfeld Follies performer and silent movie actress. He attended Dartmouth where he wrote for the campus humour magazine and took part in campus theatrical productions. After he graduated from Dartmouth he was drafted and served in the United States Army. In the Army he was initially a helicopter mechanic before being assigned to Special Services and toured military bases with the Seventh Army Repertory Company.

It was in the Sixties that Buck Henry joined the Premise, an off Broadway improvisational comedy troupe. He was also a regular on The New Steve Allen Show, and wrote two episodes. He went onto become one of the writers on The Garry Moore Show, as well as That Was the Week That Was. He co-created the hit TV series Get Smart with Mel Brooks and served for a time as its story editor. He also created the superhero parody series Captain Nice. He regularly appeared on That Was the Week That Was and appeared on such talk shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Dick Cavett Show, and The Mike Douglas Show. Mr. Henry co-wrote the movie The Troublemaker (1964) with Theodore J. Flicker, The Graduate (1967) with Calder Willingham, Candy (1968), and Catch-22 (1970). He had cameos in the movies The Troublemaker, The Graduate, The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968), Candy, Catch-22, and The Owl and the Pussycat (1970).

In the Seventies Buck Henry created the short-lived science fiction parody TV series Quark. He also appeared in one episode of the show. He continued to appear frequently on various talk shows, as well as the late night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. He wrote the screenplays for the movies What's Up, Doc? (1972), The Day of the Dolphin (1973), and First Family (1980). He appeared in the movies Taking Off (1971), Is There Sex After Death? (1971), The Day of the Dolphin, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Old Boyfriends (1979), Gloria (1980), and First Family (1980).

In the Eighties Buck Henry was a writer on the sketch comedy TV show The New Show. He wrote one episode of the new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Mr. Henry appeared on the TV shows The New Show, Falcon Crest, Murphy Brown, and Trying Times. He wrote the movie Protocol (1984). He wrote the movie Protocol (1984). He appeared in the movies Eating Raoul (1982), Aria (1987), Rude Awakening (1989), and Tune in Tomorrow (1990). He directed the movies Heaven Can Wait (1978) and First Family (1980).

In the Nineties Buck Henry guest starred on the TV show Tales from the Crypt. He was a guest voice on the animated series Eek! The Cat and Dilbert. He wrote the screenplay for the movie To Die For (1995). He appeared in the movies Defending Your Life (1991), The Linguini Incident (1991), Shakespeare's Plan 12 from Outer Space (1991), The Player (1992), The Lounge People (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), Grumpy Old Men (1993), To Die For (1995), The Real Blonde (1997), 1999 (1997), I'm Losing You (1998), Curtain Call (1998), Breakfast of Champions (1999), and Lisa Picard Is Famous (2000).

From the Naughts to the Teens, Buck Henry wrote the screenplays for the movies Town & Country (2001), The Humbling (2014), and Babe West (2019). He appeared in the movies Town & Country, Serendipity (2001), The Last Shot (2004), and A Bird of the Air (2014). He appeared on the TV shows Will & Grace, 30 Rock, Hot in Cleveland, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Franklin & Bash.

There can be no doubt that Buck Henry was a genius. He had a gift for off-kilter humour and hilarious, if entirely natural dialogue. This can be seen in the best of his films, from The Graduate to What's Up, Doc? to To Die For. It could be seen in his work on television as well: Get Smart, featuring an inept secret agent, and Quark, centred on the captain of a garbage scow. Not only was Buck Henry gifted as a writer, but as a performer as well. On Saturday Night Live he appeared as such diverse characters as the sadistic stunt coordinator Howard and Mr. Dantley, the customer always coming face to face with John Belushi's samurai at various businesses. He played a wide variety of roles on film as well, everything from patent attorney Oliver V. Farnsworth in The Man Who Fell to Earth to Jack Dawn, an accountant for the mob and husband of the title character in Gloria. The word "genius" is often used, but in Buck Henry's case it was perfectly applicable.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Marvel Comics Westerns Part Three: Riding Off into the Sunset

The heyday of Western comic books lasted from the late Forties to about the mid-Fifties. The late Fifties saw many comic book publishers cancelling their Western titles. The majority of Western comic books cancelled at the time were the many cowboy movie star titles, perhaps because Hollywood had largely stopped making B-Westerns in the early Fifties. That having been said, other Western titles were cancelled as well. Prize Western, Red Ryder, and Straight Arrow all ended their runs in 1956. DC Comics cancelled both of its Western titles, Western Comics and All-Star Western, in 1961. While the late Fifties saw the cancellation of many Western comic books, Westerns did not entirely disappear from newsstands and comic book racks in the Sixties. Charlton Comics continued publishing Western comic books well into the Seventies, and continued publishing their title Billy the Kid until 1983. While they would publish Westerns in fewer numbers than they had in the Fifties, Marvel would continue to publish Western comic books until the end of the Seventies.

Of course, what would become Marvel Comics would undergo changes in the early Sixties. It was with Journey into Mystery #69 (June 1961) and Patsy Walker #95 (June 1961) that the company began formally branding itself "Marvel Comics." With Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961)  Marvel Comics re-entered the field of superheroes. Not only would Marvel Comics' line be increasingly dominated by superheroes as the Sixties progressed, but by the end of the decade Marvel had become DC Comics' chief rival.

While Marvel's Western characters would be overshadowed by the company's superheroes starting in the Sixties, their Western characters would continue to be popular throughout the decade. In fact, Marvel Comics would introduce two significant new characters, although both used the name of older characters. It was with Rawhide Kid #17 (August 1960) that writer Stan Lee, penciller Jack Kirby, and inker Dick Ayers introduced a new version of The Rawhide Kid. This new Rawhide Kid was Johnny Clay (later changed to Johnny Bart), who, like many of Marvel's Western characters, was falsely accused of a crime and forced to go on the run. The new Rawhide Kid was a short, soft spoken redhead with a gift for the fast draw and brawling. At a time when Western titles at other publishers were being cancelled, Rawhide Kid proved to be a hit.

Following the introduction of a new Rawhide Kid, Marvel then introduced a new Two-Gun Kid. Two-Gun Kid having ended its run with no 59 (April 1961), Two-Gun Kid #60 (November 1961) saw the introduction of an entirely new character by that name. The new Two-Gun Kid was Matt Hawk, a lawyer who decided to fight crime after reading dime novels featuring Clay Harder, known as The Two-Gun Kid (Marvel Comics' original character of that name). Matt Hawk then donned a mask to become the crimefighter known as The Two-Gun Kid. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had given the new Two-Gun Kid a dual identity so that he would closer resemble a superhero. Curiously, Marvel would sometimes reprint stories featuring the original Two-Gun Kid with the art redrawn so he resembled the new version.

While superheroes became increasingly popular as the Sixties progressed, Marvel's Western characters remained popular. According to sales figures from the website Comichron, Rawhide Kid ranked in the top-selling comic books for most of the decade, with Kid Colt, Outlaw also occasionally ranking. In the Sixties Marvel Comics may have been better known for their superheroes, but their Western characters were still selling well.

While superheroes dominated the early to mid-Sixties, by the late Sixties sales for superhero comic books were beginning to decline. Quite naturally, then, comic book publishers began to look to other genres. The horror genre was revitalised with such titles as DC Comics' The Witching Hour and Marvel's Chamber of Darkness. Before the revitalization of horror comic books, however, there was a slight resurgence in Western titles.

Given they already published Western titles, it should come as no surprise that Marvel would publish the first title in this revival of Western comic books. Beginning in 1950, Magazine Enterprises had published a character called The Ghost Rider. The original Ghost Rider was Rex Fury, a masked crimefighter who often found himself facing supernatural menaces. Quite simply Magazine Enterprises' Ghost Rider may well have been the first Weird Western in the history of comic books. It was in 1967 that Marvel Comics took advantage of the lapsed trademark and created their own Ghost Rider. Marvel's Ghost Rider was Carter Slade, who donned a mask and a phosphorescent costume to fight crime. Unlike Magazine Enterprises' Ghost Rider, Marvel's Ghost Rider did not fight supernatural menaces. Instead, Ghost Rider was a fairly straightforward Western. Marvel's Ghost Rider debuted in Ghost Rider #1 (February 1967). Ghost Rider would only run for seven issues, but the character would later appear in the Western anthology Western Gunfighters.

The failure of Marvel's Ghost Rider did not sidetrack the revival of Western comic books in the late Sixties. It was over a year later that DC Comics introduced the character of Bat Lash in Showcase #76 (August 1968). Bat Lash received his own short-lived magazine with Bat Lash #1 (October/November 1968).  DC Did not let the failure of Bat Lash stop them from moving further into the field of Westerns. The company launched All-Star Western with issue #1 (September 1970). It was only a few months later that DC Comics changed the format of their Revolutionary War themed title Tomahawk to that of a Western, the covers now emblazoned Hawk, Son of Tomahawk. While Hawk, Son of Tomahawk would only last for nine issues, All-Star Western proved somewhat successful. With its tenth issue (February/March 1972) it introduced the character of Jonah Hex, the most successful Western character to emerge since the Sixties. All-Star Western would be rebranded Weird Western Tales starting with issue #12 and ultimately ran for seventy issues.

Of course, unlike DC Comics, Marvel had never abandoned the Western genre, continuing to publish various Westerns throughout the Sixties. In fact, Marvel's responded to the renewed interest in Western comic books by creating titles filled with reprints of their earlier work. The first of these was The Mighty Marvel Western, which launched with a cover date of October 1968. The Mighty Marvel Western featured reprints of Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, and Two-Gun Kid stories, as well as occasional Matt Slade stories as well.

The Mighty Marvel Western would be followed by several more reprint titles. Ringo Kid reprinted old Ringo Kid stories and ran for 30 issues from January 1970 to November 1976. It was followed by Outlaw Kid, which ran for 30 issues from August 1970 to October 1975. Later in the Seventies Marvel would relaunch Wyatt Earp with issue #30 (October 1972), reprinting old Wyatt Earp stories. It ran for only for four issues, ending with #34 (June 1973).

Not every new Western title Marvel published in the Seventies featured exclusively reprints. While Western Gunfighters bore the title of an earlier Marvel Western anthology, it initially featured original material. Starting with issue #1 (August 1970), it featured such series as "Gunhawk," "Tales of Fort Rango," and "Renegades, " as well as new Ghost Rider stories. With issue #8 (April 1972) Western Gunfighters became a reprint title featuring old Black Rider, Outlaw Kid, Apache Kid, Matt Slade, and even Kid Colt stories.

It was with Avengers #80 (cover-dated Sept. 1970) that Marvel introduced a Native American superhero called Red Wolf. While this Red Wolf lived in the present day, Stan Lee wanted the character to be set in the Old West. It was then that the character was featured in Marvel's try-out magazine Marvel Spotlight starting with issue #1 (November 1971). Red Wolf was Johnny Wakely, a Cheyenne man who had been raised by white people. After stumbling upon the grave of a Cheyenne warrior known as Red Wolf, he was visited by a Native American spirit known as Owayodata and he became Red Wolf. Red Wolf received his own title with issue #1 (May 1972).  Red Wolf remained a Western only for six issues. With issue #7 (May 1973) it shifted to a modern day setting with someone else donning the mantle of Red Wolf. It only lasted two more issues.

It was a few months after Red Wolf received his own title that Marvel launched another Western title with Gunhawks #1 (October 1972). Gunhawks centred on Kid Cassidy, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, and Reno Jones, a former African American slave. Together they became wandering gunslingers, searching for the woman Reno loved, Rachel Brown, who had been kidnapped. It was with Gunhawks #6 (August 1973) that Kid Cassidy was killed. Gunhawks was then retitled Reno Jones, Gunhawk with its next issue, #7 (October 1972). This made Reno Jones only the second African American character at Marvel, after Luke Cage, to have his own title. Unfortunately, this would be the final issue of the magazine.

By the mid-Seventies, Western comic books would once more be in decline. Following Gunhawks, Marvel debuted no new Western titles for the rest of the decade. Kid Colt, Outlaw had increasingly begun featuring reprints as far back as 1966. With issue #142 (January 1970)  it entirely became a reprint title. Two-Gun Kid began featuring reprints in in 1970 and with #105 (July 1972) it became exclusively a reprint title. Rawhide Kid became exclusively a reprint title with issue #116 (October 1973).

Not only did Marvel's long-running Western titles begin printing reprints exclusively, but one by one the company began cancelling Western comic books. Western Gunfighters ended its run in 1975. The Mighty Marvel Western ended its run in 1976. Two-Gun Kid was cancelled the following year, in 1977. After over thirty years, Kid Colt, Outlaw ended with issue #229 (April 1979).  Rawhide Kid ended the following month with issue #151 (May 1979).

Before the Seventies were over, Marvel would make one last attempt at a Western. Caleb Hammer appeared in Marvel Premiere #54 (June 1980). Caleb Hammer was a Pinkerton detective in the Old West. For may years, his appearance in Marvel Premiere would be his only appearance.

Over the years Marvel would revive some of its better known Western characters. The Two-Gun Kid would even join Marvel's best-known superhero team The Avengers for a time. The 2000 mini-series Blaze of Glory featured several of Marvel's Western characters, including The Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, Outlaw Kid, Reno Jones, Red Wolf, and Caleb Hammer. The Rawhide Kid starred in the 1985 mini-series The Rawhide Kid which featured the character in middle age. The 1995 mini-series The Two-Gun Kid: Sunset Killers featured the character of that name. In 2003 there was a controversial mini-series, Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, which reinterpreted the character as gay. It was followed by Rawhide Kid: The Sensational Seven in 2010, which also featured Marvel characters Kid Colt, Red Wolf, and The Two-Gun Kid, as well as historical figures.  In between those two mini-series Marvel published issues under the title The Mighty Marvel Western. The year 2006 saw the publication of Kid Colt and The Arizona Girl (AKA Arizona Annie), Strange Westerns Starring The Black Rider, and The Two-Gun Kid.

Today it seems likely that only people of a certain age, as well as comic book historians and some comic book fans, even remember that Marvel published Western comic books. Despite this, Westerns played a large role in the history of Western comic books. Marvel saw more success with their Western titles than any other comic book publisher, and may well have published more Western titles than any other comic book publisher as well. In the dark days following the collapse of the distribution company American News Company and before the publication of Fantastic Four #1, it was largely their Western titles that allowed Marvel to survive. And while their Western titles would be overshadowed by their superhero titles in the Sixties, Marvel's Western comic books continued to be successful well into the Sixties. Indeed, Marvel Comics published Western comic books with nearly no interruption for over thirty years, from 1948 to 1979.