Thursday, 8 September 2005

Blondie Turns 75

It was seventy five years ago today that the comic strip Blondie first appeared. Its creator Chic Young was already a veteran of comic strips, having already worked on Beautiful Bab and Dumb Dora. Blondie was always beautiful and blonde, but originally she was also single (her maiden name for trivia buffs out there is Boopadoop)--the epitome of the young flappers of the era. At the time Blondie had several boyfriends.

All of that would change when the son of a railroad tycoon, Dagwood Bumstead, entered her life. By 1932 Blondie and Dagwood would fall in love. In 1933 Blondie and Dagwood married. And while Dagwood, with his love of enormous sandwiches and catnaps might not seem very romantic to women these days, he did make one of the ultimate sacrifices for Blondie. His parents disapproved of Blondie so much that they disinherited and disowned him. A son of wealth, Dagwood chose a middle class life just to be with the woman he loved.

Married life suited both Blondie and Dagwood well. The comic strip had been declining in popularity, but with Blondie and Dagwood's marriage its popularity soared. As the years passed various changes were made to the comic strip. Their son Baby Dumpling was born in 1934; eventually he would be called by his given name, Alexander. Their daughter Cookie followed later. Both grew into teenagers, although Blondie and Dagwood remained the same age. In 1991 Blondie opened her own catering business with her friend Tootsie. Of course, some things in the comic strip never changed. Although his boss, Mr. Dithers, has threatened to fire Dagwood many times, he still works for the J.C. Dithers Construction Company. Dagwood still ploughs through the mailman in his rush to get to work. Neighbour boy Alvin Fuddle still harasses Dagwood with questions. And Dagwood still loves sandwiches made from whatever is in the refrigerator at the time.

The success of Blondie allowed its characters to expand into other media. Blondie and Dagwood made their movie debut in 1938 in the feature film Blondie, which led to a series of 28 movies which lasted until 1950. Penny Singleton played Blondie, while Arthur Lake played Dagwood. There was also a radio show based on the comic strip. Curiously, Blondie never found success on televison. There have been two TV series based on the comic strip, both lasting only about half a season. On the first series Arthur Lake reprised his role as Dagwood from the movies, while Pamela Britton played Blondie. The series lasted only from January 1957 to September of that year. The second series debuted in September 1968 and starred Will Hutchingson as Dagwood and Patricia Harty as Blondie. It only lasted until January 1968. Blondie has also been featured on a United States Postal stamp and in an exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Blondiewas popular enough to even outlive its creator. Chic Young died in 1973. His son Dean Young took over the comic strip and has done it ever since. Currently Blondie is published in 2300 newspapers and 55 countries. Its worldwide readership is estimated at 250 million.

As I see it, the success of Blondie is essentially twofold. On the one hand, the Bumsteads reflect American life as we would like it to be: a stable family that gets along well with each other and face few problems that they cannot overcome (even after all these years of Mr. Dithers threatening to fire Dagwood, he still has his job...). Particularly these days, when divorce and broken homes are so common, Blondie serves as a reminder that it is possible to have a successful, stable family life. On the other hand, much of its success is also due to the relationship between Dagwood and Blondie. The two of them obviously love each other. Indeed, I rather suspect that the comic strip gives hope to men everywhere as far as the realm of romance is concerned. If a bumbling fool like Dagwood can win a girl like Blondie, why can't the rest of us?

Blondie has been around for seventy five years now. Dean Young has no plans to retire any time soon and has even expressed the thought that one of his daughters could well take over for him. It seems fully possible that Blondie could then be around for another seventy five years. With its popularity showing no sign of diminishing, it seems fully possible that it will be.

Wednesday, 7 September 2005

Goodbye, Gilligan

There are certain American television characters who are so iconic that it would be difficult to find any adult in the United States who would not recognise them. Among those characters is Gilligan, the hero of what could possibly be the most successful sitcom of all time, Gilligan's Island. The man who portrayed that character has passed on. Bob Denver died Friday of complications from cancer at age 70.

Bob Denver was born in New Rochelle, New York. He was both an atheletic coach and a math and history teacher before he became an actor. He broke into acting in 1959 with both a part n the movie A Private's Affair and the pivotal role of the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs in the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Krebs was easily the funniest character on the show, dressing like a stereotyical beatnik and always playing bongo drums. For Krebs the word "work" was truly a four letter word.

For many actors a single, iconic role in a TV series would pretty much be the sum of their career. This would not be the case for Bob Denver. In 1964 he was cast in a sitcom that place seven very different castaways on a deserted island. Denver played Gilligan, the bumbling first mate of the S. S. Minnow for three seasons. The series was cancelled not due to low ratings, but rather to make room for Gunsmoke (which was among CBS President William S. Paley's favourite shows). Despite its cancellation, the series would find new life in reruns. In fact, it may be the most rerun American series of all time, even surpassing I Love Lucy. For Denver the series' success was a double edged sword. He was loved by millions as the goofy first mate, but he was so identified with the role that he often find it hard to get parts.

Denver was primarily a television actor. In addition to The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Gilligan's Island, he starred in the TV series The Good Guys, Dusty's Trail, Far Out Space Nuts, and Twilight Theater. He also provided the voice of Gilligan in two animated spinoffs from the sitcom--The New Adventures of Gilligan and Gilligan's Planet, as well as three reunion movies. He also reprised his role as Maynard G. Krebs in a Dobie Gillis reunion movie. Bob Denver made guest appearances on several TV shows, including Dr. Kildare, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Alf, and The Simpsons. On both Roseanne and Baywatch he appeared in salutes to Gilligan's Island.

While Denver was mainly a television actor, he also appeared in a few films over the years. He played in For Those Who Think Young, Take Her, She's Mine, Who's Minding the Mint, and Did you Hear the One about the Travelling Saleslady.

In the Seventies Bob Denver replaced Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam on Broadway. While his run was successful, he never performed much on stage thereafter.

Like most Americans of my generation, I first encountered Bob Denver as Gilligan. To this day Gilligan's Island is still maligned by critics, some of who would actually count it among the worst shows of all time. What these critics seem to overlook (or just plain ignore, as the case may be) is that Gilligan's Island was a genuinely funny show. And much of the reason the series was so funny was Bob Denver as Gilligan. Denver had a gift for slapstick and physical comedy. He also had a great sense of comic timing. Indeed, this was also evident in his earlier role as Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. This brings me to another of Denver's strongpoints, one that is overlooked given the many bumbling characters he sometimes played. Bob Denver did have something of a range in the characters he could play. Indeed, in many ways Maynard G. Krebs and Gilligan are two very different characters--Maynard was the epitome of "cool" in his era, while Giligan was anything but "cool." At any rate, Bob Denver played Gilligan so well that it is hard to picture any other actor in the role. It is hard to believe that the part was originally offered to Jerry Van Dyke (a fine comic actor in his own right).

To say that I am greatly saddened by Bob Denver's death would be a bit of an understatement. I grew up watching Gilligan's Island. Later I would discover The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in reruns. On both shows Denver played my favourite characters--Gilligan and Maynard G. Krebs respectively. And while I must admit that I do not consider myself either bumbling or lazy, I can honestly say that there have been times when I identified with both characters. I think most Americans my age probably have at one time or another. I suppose that in playing Gilligan, Bob Denver not only created one of television's most memorable characters, but one of the few true American icons to emerge from network television.

Monday, 5 September 2005

Labour Day

"Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country, All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation." (Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor)

Today is Labour Day in the United States and Canada. Despite Samuel Gompers' words above, I must admit that Labour Day never has meant too terribly much to me. To be honest, I don't know of anyone who actually celebrates Labour Day. My family never did anything special for the holiday. I do know a few people who hold barbecues or go to the Lake of Ozarks or go camping on Labour Day weekend, but that is more because it is a "three day weekend" than because it is Labour Day. In many ways, for me it is simply a day off from work rather than a real holiday. I get the feeling that is the case for most people.

Of course, that is not the way it was supposed to be. Labour Day is meant to honour the hard work and achievements of the American worker. Indeed, Labour Day was the brainchild of the American labour movement. It is uncertain as to who actually came up with the idea of Labour Day. Some believe that it was Peter J. McGuire, who was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and also co-founded the American Federation of Labour. Others believe it was Matthew Maguire, who was the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York and who would go on to become the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey. The one thing that does seem clear is that the Central Labour Union celebrated the first Labour Day on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884 the first Monday of September was settled upon as the date for Laobur Day. The Central Labour Union in New York City persuaded other groups to celebrate that day as "a working man's holiday." By 1885 Labour Day was being celebrated in other cities.

It would take a bit of time before Labour Day received national recognition. Various cities recognised the holiday in 1885 and 1886. By 1987 Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York all recognised Labour Day as an official state holiday. Other states would follow suit. It was in 1894 that the United States Congress passed the act which made Labour Day a legal, national holiday. Hard as it may be for many of us to believe today, they actually did celebrate Labour Day in the early years. Street parades would be held, as were picnics and such. Later, speeches by various important personages would become part of the celebration.

Of course, it seems to me that all of this has changed, at least by the Sixties. I have never seen or even heard of a Labour Day parade in my lifetime. I don't recall any significant speeches being made by any important people on Labour Day. I do know families who hold picnics and barbecues on Labour Day, but I think that has less to do with honouring t he American worker than it does simply taking advantage of a day off from work. Indeed, it seems to me that the most significant event held on Labour Day is the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon, which has very little to do with honouring the American worker either. Beyond the fact that very few, if any, seem to celebrate Labour Day as it was meant to be celebrated, there is also the bitter irony that many people have to work on Labour Day--the very people the day is meant to honour!

I rather suspect that none of this is going to change any time soon. For better or worse, Labour Day has changed from the original vision labour leaders had for the holiday. I suppose that it is sad that the day is not used to honour the American worker. But, then again, perhaps the best way to honour the American worker is to simply give him or her a day off, a day when he or she can enjoy a picnic or a barbecure or go fishing or whatever. Personally, I would rather have a day off from work than have someone honour me anyday....

Sunday, 4 September 2005

Gatchaman

This week I finally had the opportunity to see the first six episodes of Gatchaman, courtesy of the DVD released by ADV. For those of you wondering what Gatchaman is, it was an anime series first aired in Japan in October 1972. The series was produced by Tatsunoko Productions Co. Ltd. The show's original title was Birdmen, but it was changed to the onomatopoeic word Gatchaman, meant to represent the crashing of metal objects. I have no idea why the name was changed, although it could have to do with the fact that in the Sixties a Hanna-Barbera cartoon called Birdman aired here in the United States on NBC.

Gatchaman followed the adventures of the "Kagaku ninja tai" or, in English, the "Science Ninja Team," a group of young people formed by Dr. Nambu to fight the terrorist organisation Galactor. The group was made up of five members or "ninjas," all of them with a bird theme. The Eagle, Ken, was the group's leader, also known as "Gatchaman." Jun, the Swan, was the only female member of the Science Ninja Team. Jo, the Condor, was headstrong and impulsive, the member of the group most likely to fly off the handle. Ryu, the Owl, was the group's pleasure loving pilot. Jinpei, the Swallow, was the youngest member of the group and not quite as skilled as the others--he often served as comedy relief. Together the Science Ninja Team travelled the world battling Galactor in their remarkable jet plane (it could even go underwater!) the God Phoenix.

Gatchaman proved very popular in Japan. It ran for a total of 105 episodes and two years. Indeed, Gatchaman would prove to be very influential. It was the first of the "Sentai (in English, "taskforce")" series, whether live action or animated, in which a group of individuals (usually teenagers) with super powers are gathered together to battle some evil. Gatchaman can then be considered the direct ancestor of Chodenshi Bioman and The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.

The initial success of Gatchaman led to its continuation in new series. Gatchaman II debuted in 1978 and lasted for 58 episodes. Gatchaman Fighter fighter lasted for 48 episodes in 1979. In 1994 there three OAVs or "straight to video" releases based on the series were produced

With regards to the United States, Gatchaman holds a rather unique place in anime history. First, it was one of the very few anime series to make its way to America in the Seventies. The mid-Sixties saw a good number of anime series make their way from Japan to America, starting with Astro Boy and including such shows as Gigantor and Speed Racer. By 1968 the flood of anime series to the States stopped, perhaps due to greater restrictions on violence in children's programming (Japanese anime series often being much more violent than American cartoons) and the failure of some of the anime series to catch on. In the Seventies, then, only a handful of anime made their way to the United States. Gatchaman would be released here in greatly altered form as Battle of the Planets.

This brings us to the second reason that Gatchaman holds a significant place in the history of anime in America. Of nearly all the anime which has made its way to American television, Gatchaman may have been the most altered from the original version. Ever since Astro Boy debuted in the United States, American producers have made changes to the original product. Names would be changed (for instance, Astro Boy was originally Tetsuwan Atom in Japan--changed here because there was already a DC Comics character called The Atom in the United States) and much of the violence would be cut out. In the case of Gatchaman, however, the very concept of the series would be changed and scene would actually be added! In 1978 Sandy Frank Film Syndication brought Gatchaman to the United States. In the wake of the success of Star Wars, the series' name was changed to Battle of the Planets. While the original Gatchaman featured the Science Ninja Team battling a terrorist organisation here on Earth, Battle of the Planets featured G-Force travelling to "other planets (which all looked suspiciously like Earth...)" to battle an alien threat. Scenes of the Phoenix travelling through space were added, as was a robot sidekick named 7-Zark-7 and scenes in a so-called "ready room." Ridiculous measures were taken to downplay the violence of the original series (for instance, the narrator might point out that all of the innocents killed in any given battle were actually robots....). As an adaptation of Gatchaman, Battle of the Planets was not particularly well done. That having been said, it did introduce a whole new generation of fans to anime and maintained interest in anime in America in the Seventies.

The third reason that Gatchaman occupies a unique place in the history of anime in America is that it is one of the few anime series--perhaps the only anime series--which made the trip across the Pacific not only once, but three times in different incarnations! In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Ted Turner's cable channel, WTBS, had aired Battle of the Planets. Once Sandy Franks Film Syndication's licence on Gatchaman ran out, Ted Turner bought the rights to do another American adaptation of Gatchaman. G-Force, Guardians of Space aired very briefly on TBS in 1986. G-Force, Guardians of Space was a much more faithful adaptation of the original show, even leaving some of the violence in tact. Scenes taking place in space and the robot 7-Zark-7 were gone. Unfortunately, in some respects, G-Force, Guardians of Space was a poor adaptation of Gatchaman. The dubbing and voice acting was not particularly good, and the original music was replaced by rather bad electronic music. G-Force, Guardians of Space aired for only three episodes in 1986, although the entire run would air on the Cartoon Network in the Nineties.

The United States would see yet another adaptation of Gatchaman in the form of Eagle Riders. In this case, it was not the original series which was adapted, but the two sequel series, Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter. The series debuted in the U. S. in the fall of 1996 and ran for one year here. As in the case of Battle of the Planets, Eagle Riders made siginifcant changes to the original series. Indeed, while the sequel series featured the Science Ninja Team once more battling the terrorist organisation Galactor, Eagle Riders featured an alien threat known as Cybercon. The various foot soldiers of Cybercon are all said to be androids (in the original seires, Galactor's minions are human). Much of the violence of the original series was allowed to remain intact, although many of the hand to hand combat scenes were cut.

Fortunately, this year ADV Films started releasing an uncut Engilsh version of Gatchaman on DVD in the United States. Volume One was released on June 14, 2005. At last anime fans in America can finally see the series as it was originally aired.

In many respects Gatchaman is a rather goofy series. The animation is in some respects below par by today's standards. Indeed, often stock shots are used (particularly when Ken transforms into Gatchaman). Having been made in 1972, the characters all dress in those awful Seventies fashions. The dialogue is often rather cheesy. And many times the episodes are down right bizarre--just to give you an idea of this, the third episodeof the series is titled "The Giant Mummy that Summons Storms!" That having been said, Gatchaman has an energy that only a few cartoons--American or Japanese--possess. The episodes move quickly and there is a good deal of action in every one. And while much of the dialogue is awkward, Gatchaman at least possesses some character development. Indeed, the various characters have their own motivations. Jo is seeking revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of his parents. There is a bit of a mystery as to what happened to Ken's parents (it is revealed early on that his father was a pilot). Despite its shortcomings, it is easy to see why Gatchaman was a hit in Japan and is sitll considered a classic by American anime fans.