Saturday, 17 June 2006

Hair

"Gimme head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen..."
("Hair," from the musical of the same name, lyrics by James Rado & Gerome Ragni music by Galt MacDermot)

Call me vain, but I have always been overly proud of my hair. I was fortunate enough to be born with a thick head of sable brown hair that has only decreased a little (compared to many of my contemporaries) with age. And I was fortunate enough to be born at a time when long hair on men would soon be in fashion. Unlike other generations, mine would not be subjected to the ignobility of the "buzz cut." I suppose I am not alone in being overly proud of my hair. Given the popularity of baldness cures and Just for Men hair colour, I'm guessing a lot of guys are.

Of course, I must admit to being sometimes puzzled by the changes that have occurred in men's hairstyles over the years, not the least of which is the fact that some men's hairstyles are just so unattractive. Indeed, I have never been able to figure out why really short hair sometimes comes into fashion for men. In the Jewish Bible there is the story of Samson, who derived his strength from his hair. Among various Germanic tribes the kings often wore long hair, and only slaves would have their heads shorn. During the English Civil War, the Cavaliers wore long, flowing hair, a sharp contrast with the less glamourous Roundheads who kept their hair cut short. Even as late as the 19th century a decent head of hair was not unknown among men. We still have the picture of my great, grandfather and, even in his older years, he had a good head of hair.

I must admit that I am not an expert on the history of hairstyles, but it seems to me that all of this changed in the 20th century. I know the "buzz cut" came into fashion during World War II and remained popular until Elvis, JFK, and The Beatles made having a decent head of hair fashionable again. And I must point out that when The Beatles first arrived on the scene, they were considered to have long hair, and there were actually accusations from some quarters that they looked like girls! I guess somehow the pendulum had swung so far that near baldness was now considered a sign of masculinity

Fortunately, this changed with the Sixties. Long hair would become fashionable among men again and would remain so throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Since then hair length among men has varied, but at no point has the buzz cut ever become the dominant fashion. And I must confess that I have always been puzzled as to why the buzz cut ever did come into fashion to begin with. I mean, it seems to me that most of the movie stars whom women swoon over had hair (just think of Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Gene Kelly...). Contrast this with the number of bald movie and TV stars that women consider "sexy." I can think of only one, Yul Brynner, although I know one woman who actually thinks Patrick Stewart is "sexy (I know, I can't explain it either...)." It seems to me that if one wants to attract women (or if one is married, keep his wife happy), unless one is in the military, one should at least keep his hair over an inch!

At any rate, I think my hair has been nearly every length possible. As a very young child, my father gave me crewcuts. As soon as I could I started growing it long. As an adult it was actually down to the small of my back at one point. Right now it is a little over an inch long and I must admit that I like the way it looks (as I said, I'm fortunate that in my forties I've kept most of my hair). For that reason (and the fact that I don't want my head getting frostbitten in the winter) I pray the crewcut and buzz cut never come back into fashion...

Friday, 16 June 2006

Walk the Line

I have said it before in this blog. I do not like country music. A lot of you might then find a bit puzzling that I have been a fan of Johnny Cash since I was little. That having been said, while he is often classed as a country artist, I have never seen him as such--I count him as a folk artist myself. Of course, I suspect that even the most die hard country fan would have to admit that Johnny Cash is one of those artists who transcended genres.

Anyhow, given my love for the music of Johnny Cash, it was only a matter of time before I watched Walk the Line, the movie based on part of his life. Walk the Line covers events from his childhood to his proposal to the legendary June Carter. And while many biopics simply move from event A to event B without ever letting us see the man inside the character, Walk the Line lets us view not only Johnny Cash's inner demons, but June Carter's inner demons as well.

Indeed, Walk the Line is very much an actor's movie. Its strongest point is its performances. Even though Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon only vaguely resemble Johnny Cash and June Carter, they are wholly convincing in the parts. And their roles were anything but easy. Phoenix had to play the Man in Black, who for all his great talent also fell victim to equally powerful addictions. Witherspoon had to play June Carter, arguably the most famous bluegrass artist of all time, who not only fell in love with a deeply flawed man, but had the insight into him to realise that he could overcome his inner demons. That Phoenix and Witherspoon play their roles with total sincerity and without the slightest hint of melodrama is a major accomplishment. I very seriously doubt any other actors could done as well.

Of course, much of the credit also goes to the screenplay written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold. The writers eschewed the usual formula of biopics (ever notice in Hollywood's biopics how many actors and singers' mothers had to do laundry for a living...) for something much more enthralling--the truth. What is more they eschew the usual sentimentality and melodrama for a realistic portrayl of Cash's life. Most Johnny Cash fans will be familiar with the events which unfold in the movie, yet most people who watch this movie will be transfixed by the story nonetheless.

And it is quite a story. In the world of 20th century entertainment it seems to me that there were two great love stories: George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Johnny Cash and June Carter. While I do not believe in predestination, it seems to me that these are individuals who were meant for one another. By the time Johnny Cash and June Carter married, they had been friends for over a decade. And despite their weaknesses (which, in Cash's case, were considerable), the two had a good deal in common (both were nonconformists who were interested in a wide range of music and subject matter) and complimented each other perfectly. Indeed, I don't think anyone can deny that it was ulitmately June's love for John that saved his life from a world of drug addiction.

For those who are fans of Johnny Cash, this movie also had the great songs of the Man in Black. What is remarkable is that the performances are original. They are not dubbings of old recordings. Both Phoneix and Witherspoon did their own singing. That they sound almost exactly like Cash and Carter in nothing short of amazing.

I would recommend Walk the Line even for those people who are not fans of Johnny Cash. The movie is an interesting portrayl of a man who sunk to the lowest depths in his life, only to be saved by the woman who loves him. It is not only a great biopic, but a great romance as well.

Thursday, 15 June 2006

AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers

Wednesday night CBS aired AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers, an American Film Institute special in which they revealed what they considered the 100 most inspiring films of all time. As has been the case with AFI's past specials, I found this one to be a mixed bag. There were movies I thought should not be on the list, movies I thought should have been on the list, and movies that I thought should have ranked either higher or lower.

I suppose I should begin with the movies I feel should not have made the list. Among these is Working Girl, which came in at 87. Now I like Working Girl. It is a funny, well done movie. But is it inspiring? I don't think so. Another movie I do not think should have made the list is An Officer and a Gentleman (#68). I do think it is an enjoyable movie (although a bit overrated...), but is it particularly inspiring? Again, I don't think it is. Another movie that I like a good deal that I don't think should have made the list is Thelma and Louise. Now I think it is a great film (as many of Ridley Scott's films are) and I have always enjoyed it, but I find it no more inspiring than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Bonnie and Clyde (two films I also like a good deal).

Of course, there were films that I did not like that I don't think should have made the list. One of those is The Sound of Music. I have said it before in this blog and I will say it again. The Sound of Music is dull. A movie cannot be inspiring if you cannot bear to sit through the parts where they are not singing (it does have a great soundtrack).... At least The Sound of Music is based on real life events. While Braveheart purports to be based on historical events, it departs so much from the historical record that if Edward Longshanks was still alive, he could sue for slander. Its message of freedom is admirable; its portrayal of historical events and personages is offensive in the extreme.

As to movies that should have made the list, while there are quite a few I can think just off the top of my head. I have always thought El Cid to not only be one of the greatest epics of all time, but one of the most inspiring films of all time as well. Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee, is in my opinion perhaps the best movie about racial relations ever produced. And while I am not Christian, I must say that I found both The Bishop's Wife and The Last Temptation of Christ to be particularly inspiring movies--they can be appreciated as universal statements of faith, regardless of one's beliefs. There are a few other films I can think of that should have made the list as well: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the best children's movie ever made) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the greatest fantasy films of all time).

As I mentioned above, there are also movies that made the list that I think should have ranked lower. I can appreciate that Rocky is considered inspiring for many. I cannot deny I find it a bit inspiring myself. But is it so inspiring that it should rank #4 on the list? Is it really more inspiring than The Grapes of Wrath and Apollo 13? By the same token, I can't see how Philadelphia came in at #20, placing above Gandhi, City Lights, and Meet John Doe.

Finally, there are movies that made the list that I think should have ranked higher than they did. I was suprised that Babe only came in at #80. I would have thought it would have made the top twenty, at least. By the same token, I would have thought Fiddler on the Roof (one of my favourite musicals of all time), which came in at only 82, should have made the top twenty. Spartacus, one of the best movies addressing heroism ever made, should have made the top ten. It only ranked #44.

Overall, I can't complain too much about AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers. Most of the films I expected to make the list did make it. And I can't argue that too many of the films on the list are not inspiring. I am very happy that It's a Wonderful Life was #1, although I seriously doubt there were very many who had any doubt that it would be.

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Bernard Loomis R.I.P.

Most of you have not heard of Bernard Loomis, but chances are if you are a member of Generation X or Generation Y he had an impact on your life. Bernard Loomis was a toy marketer, possibly the best in the business. In a career spanning over fifty years, he marketed Mattel's Hot Wheels line and licensed toys for a movie then simply called Star Wars. Loomis died on June 2 at the age of 82 from heart disease.

Loomis was born in the Bronx, New York on July 4, 1923. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps. He entered the toy business in 1958 and by 1960 he had joined Mattel. Among his first major projects was the marketing Chatty Cathy, the first talking doll. When Mattel introduced the Hot Wheels miniature car line, Loomis made the then revolutionary proposal that the line could be promoted with a half hour, Saturday morning cartoon. The cartoon Hot Wheels debuted on ABC in the fall of 1969 and would run for two years. It was cancelled because of complaints to the FCC that it was essentially a half hour commercial for the Hot Wheels toys. Regardless, a precedent had been set and Hot Wheels would be the forerunner of such toy based cartoons as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Transformers in the Eighties.

Loomis would move from Mattel to General Mills, who owned the toy company Kenner. There he became a vice president at General Mills and president of Kenner. There he saw to it that Kenner became the first company to license Star Wars, feeling that the various characters and vehicles would make for a great toy line. He was also pivotal in the marketing of the Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears lines. In 1992 he was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.

When it came to toy marketing, Bernard Loomis was a true pioneer. As mentioned above, he conceived of marketing lines of toys with half hour cartoons based on those toys. Loomis was revolutionary in that rather than focusing on the sale of individual toys, he instead focused on the marketing of entire toy lines. If not for Loomis, many of us as children may not have been able to enjoy the never ending number of toys from a single line. Had he simply obtained the Star Wars licence for Kenner, he would have had a place in the history books. As it is, he did so much more.

Monday, 12 June 2006

Superman in Song

Tonight I watched the documentary Look Up in the Sky: the Amazing History of Superman on A&E. I can't recall who mentioned it, but when dicussing the demand that there still is for the Man of Steel, he mentioned that there had been several hit songs written about Superman. I had never really thought about it, but it seems to me that he is right. I can think of several off the top of my head. And given my total ignorance of rap, my knowledge of songs about Superman is probably not near being complete.

At any rate, the Man of Steel appeared in song fairly early in the history of rock 'n' roll. Dale Hawkins, composer and original performer of the classic "Suzy Q. (later covered by Credence Clearwater Revival)," recorded a song entitled "Superman" in the Fifties. This song is not so much about Superman, as it is about a fellow who feels like Superman whenever he is with his girl.

By the same token, "Sunshine Superman" by Donovan, released in 1966, is not a song about a Man of Steel. Instead, it is a song in which the singer boasts that a girl is "...going to be mine." There is only one reference to the Last Son of Krypton, in which the singer boasts, "Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me."

While neither Dale Hawkins' "Superman" or Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" are about the Man of Steel, The Clique's "Superman," released in 1969, would certainly seem to be. At the very least, the singer boasts "I Am Superman!" The Clique's "Superman" is essentially a love song in which the singer proclaims that "I know you don't really love that guy 'cause I can see right through you..." I suppose the song proves that even Superman can have problems when it comes to affairs of the heart (of course, it did take him 60 years just to win Lois Lane...). The Clique's "Superman" was later remade by R.E.M. on their album Life's Rich Paegent.

The Man of Steel has a universal appeal that seems to cut across cultures. It should then be no surpise that even legendary London band The Kinks should acknowledge him in song. "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" appeared on their 1979 Low Budget. The song is not about Superman himself, but rather about "a nine stone weakling (that'd be a 126 pound weakling for my fellow Americans out there...)" who longs to be the Man of Steel. The singer not only wants to be in better shape, but he wants to be able to change the world.

If there was a golden age for songs about Superman, it may well have been the Nineties. Throughout the decade, several songs appeared that were either about or at least mentioned the Man of Steel. Indeed, in 1991 The Spin Doctors (not one of my favourite bands) released an album whose title even related to Superman-- Pocket Full of Kryptonite. The title was taken from a line in the song "Jimmy Olsen's Blues," in which Jimmy Olsen expresses his repressed desires for Lois Lane. Indeed, depending upon how one interprets the line "pocketful of kryptonite," he may even be willing to kill the Man of Tomorrow for her... Of course, if Lois Lane does look like Kate Bosworth, I can't say I'd blame him...

While there were plenty of songs about Superman in the Nineties, there were some who thought that the concept of Superman may sadly be outdated. That was the theme of the 1996 song by Our Lady Peace, "Superman's Dead." Reportedly, Raine Maida (the lead vocalist of Our Lady Peace) has said that the song is about the ideas of morality, being a gentleman, and everything else that Superman represented being pretty much dead in modern day society. If Our Lady Peace is right, then perhaps this is why superheros such as Superman and Batman remain popular. Our world lacks heroes so we have to create our own...

That the world needs Superman is a theme that does occur in "Waitin' for a Superman" by The Flaming Lips, released in 1999. Unlike "Superman's Dead," however, "Waitin' for a Superman" is hopeful. Its chorus states that Superman "...hasn't dropped them/or forgot them/or anything."

So far the only song I have mentioned which is sung from the point of view of the Man of Steel has been "Superman" by The Clique. In 2000 another such song was released, "Krytonite," by 3 Doors Down. The song apparently centres upon Superman's concerns about his relationship with Lois Lane. He makes references to all the times in which he has saved her ("I picked you up and put you back/On solid ground..") and asks the question "If I go crazy then will you still/Call me Superman?"

Another song in which the singer longs to be Superman is "If I Were Superman" by Dweller, released in 2001 on their album Before You Save the World. In this song the singer's motives aren't entirely selfish: "If I were like Superman/I'd be the one to save the land/taking on the bad guys/I'd save the day..." And once more in this song, the romance between Superman and Lois Lane is stressed.

I know that these are not nearly all the songs about the Man of Steel. In fact, Rhino Records is releasing a tribute album called Sound of Superman tommorow, filled with songs about the Man of Steel. As one of the iconic characters of the 20th century, I suppose it is natural that there would be a number of songs that are either about Superman or at least make references to him. Indeed, I rather suspect that there will be even more songs about the Man of Steel to come.

Sunday, 11 June 2006

The Most Successful Studio Never to Exist

When people think of the most successful studios in the history of Hollywood, they might think of MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and so on. One studio that does not come to mind is Mammoth Studios. Of course, there is a good reason for that; a Hollywood studio called "Mammoth Studios" never existed. Nonetheless, the name probably sounds familiar to many Americans, because the name has been used repeatedly for fictional studios in movies, television shows, and books.

I am not sure why various directors and writers seized upon the name "Mammoth Studios." I have heard the big studios of Hollywood's Golden Age described as "mammoth" fairly often, and perhaps this is the source of the name. Regardless, it has been used repeatedly in films, television, and other media for a very long time.

Indeed, I am not sure when the name "Mammoth Studios" was first used. It may well have been in the 1933 screwball comedy Bombshell, starring Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy. The movie cast Harlow essentially as herself. She played Lola Burns, a rising starlet at Mammoth Studios. In Bombshell Mammoth Studios is obviously a takeoff on MGM. There are references to such MGM performers as Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. The entrance way to Mammoth even resembles that of MGM! This is remarkable given the fact that MGM produced the film, so that they were in effect parodying themselves.

A studio bearing the name "Mammoth" would also appear 12 years later in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. The movie casts Abbott and Costello as barbers Kurtis and Abercrombie, whose shop just happens to be down the street from Mammoth Studios. Naturally, they find themselves in trouble and they are forced to hide out at that studio's lot. Curiously enough, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood is another MGM production. Indeed, the backlot used in the film is that of MGM.

It seems quite possible to me that in its first few uses in movies, Mammoth Studios was pretty much a fictionalised version of MGM. This certainly seems to be the case in Merton of the Movies from 1947. Also produced by MGM, Merton at the Movies features a movie usher from Kansas, Merton Gill (played by Red Skelton), who imitates his screen idol Lawrence Rupert's heorics so well that the studio brings him out to Hollywood in hopes of free publicity. Naturally, Gill thinks he is being considered for stardom. Set in 1915, during the Silent Era, the plot of Merton at the Movies actually predates MGM. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would not be founded until 1918 when Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures were combined to form a new company. Regardless, it is a Silent Era version of the MGM backlot where much of the movie's action takes place.

Of course, Mammoth Studios does not only appear in movies produced by MGM. In fact, its most famous appearance may well be in a television show. On The Beverly Hillbillies, during the 1964-1965 season, banker Milton Drysdale obtained controlling insterest in Mammoth Studios for hillbilly multi-millionaire Jed Clampett. For the next few seasons Mammoth Studios head Lawrence Chapman's life would never be the same. Drysdale tried tearing down the studio to make way for a new development. The Clampetts tried opening a general store on the studio lot. They even made a silent movie featuring legendary star Gloria Swanson. Regardless, Lawrence Chapman had to be thankful for the Clampetts. His studio on the decline and Milburn Drysdale wanting it torn down, it was only the Clampetts which kept the studio running!

Although it received most of its exposure on The Beverly Hillbillies, Mammoth Studios was also referenced on another sitcom, The Monkees. Curiously, on The Monkees Mammoth Studios seems to have been in worse straits than it was on The Beverly Hillbillies. It appears in the first season episode "I've Got a Little Song Here" as a thriving studio where the latest movie featuring starlet Joanie Janz is being made. It is only nine episodes later, however, in The Monkees at the Movies, that a comment is made that Mammoth went out of business years ago! Indeed, in the second season episode The Picture Frame, Mammoth Studios appears as being totally abandoned. The final reference to Mammoth Studios is in the final episode of The Monkees, "Mijacogeo" (AKA "The Frodus Caper"). Although they are at TV station KXIW, Peter tells the police on the phone that they are being held captive behind Mammoth Studios! I can only guess that maybe the studio was back in business and had bought KXIW-TV. Or maybe KXIW-TV had bought Mammoth Studios....

References to Mammoth Studios aren't simply limited to movies and television. The name has also been used in books. Mammoth Studios appears in the 1960 book The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford and later in the film adaptation of that novel. Both the book and the movie centred around a used car salesman desperate to break into film. The Woman Chaser differs from many works which mention Mammoth Studios in that, while it has its funny moments, it is definitely not a comedy. Instead, it is a thriller of the hardboiled variety which also serves as a psychological study of its protagonist.

In a much more humourous vain is Elementary, My Dear Groucho by Ron Goulart. It is the third in a series of comedic mysteries Goulart has written which feautre the legendary comedian Groucho Marx solving various crimes. In Elementary, My Dear Groucho, Groucho and his writing partner Frank Denby must solve a murder on the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie being filmed at Mammoth Studios. In this novel he has competition in the form of the film's star, Miles Ravensclaw (playing Sherlock Holmes in the Mamoth Studios film), who boasts that he can catch the killer before Groucho and Denby can.

Mammoth Studios has also been mentioned in comic books. In Blue Ribbon Comics (published in the late Thirties and early Forties by MLJ Comics, which later renamed itself after its most successful character, eternal teenager Archie), a studio known both as Mammoth Studios and Mammoth Pictures appeared in two Rang-A-Tang the Wonder Dog stories. In the first, "The Madman of Mammoth Studios," the Wonder Dog must find who is causing the mysterious accidents surrounding a new director at the studio. In the second Rang-A-Tang must stop Nazis from shutting down one of the studio's latest productions.

In Marvel Comics, the character known as The Hangman was Jason Roland, a former actor at Mammoth Studios. First appearing in Tower of Shadows #5 (May 1970), he made a deal witht the devil for fame and fortune as a horror actor. To this end the devil gives him a monstrous visage. Unforutnately, he found that at the end of the production, the makeup wouldn't come off. Roland later made another deal with demons to restore him to human form. After this, he became The Hangman. In his first appearance as The Hangman, he attempted to shut down a remake of one of his old movies at Mammoth Studios.

I am not sure, but I suspect that "Mammoth Studios" may be the most often used name for fictional studios in film and television, and perhaps books as well. Of course, it is not quite so fictional any longer. There is a Mammoth Studios in Burnaby, British Columbia, which boasts the largest sound stage in North America (I think parts of The Fantastic Four movie were filmed there). Of course, this Mammoth Studios is a Candian operation, whereas the Mammoth Studios mentioned in film, television, books, and even comic books, is always very much a Hollywood affair.

Indeed, if one looked at the references in film and television as reflecting the history of a real life studio, then the fictional history of the fictional Mammoth Studios would parallel those of the real life studios. In Bombshell, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, and Merton at the Movies, Mammoth Studios is a thriving movie studio. In fact, as it is modelled after MGM, it could well have been the biggest studio in Hollywood. These movies were made at a time when the real life Hollywood studios were at their peak, so the success of the fictional Mammoth Studios in those films reflects that the real life studios were having at the time. This was not the case at the time of The Beverly Hillbillies was in production. The Hollywood studios were already well into their decline. Increasingly, the studios looked to television production as a means of making money (consider the number of TV shows produced by Warner Brothers and Universal in the Fifties and Sixties). And by the Sixties, studios were already becoming part of conglomerates. MCA had acquired Universal. Gulf & Western would acquire Paramount in the mid-Sixties. As alarming as it may be, the major studios were under constant threat of suffering the same fate that Mammoth Studios had apparently suffered on The Monkees--of being shut down forever. Indeed, RKO ceased operating as a studio in 1957. Ten years later, had things unfolded only a little differently, it could have easily been 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, or even former giant MGM that shut down.

Sadly, forty years later, the studios of the Golden Age are either parts of conglomerates or have ceased to exist altogether. Indeed, MGM and United Artists were bought by Sony just last year. While films will still be released under the MGM and United Artists names, for all practical purposes they have ceased to exist as independent studios. If Mammoth Studios had existed, this would probably have been its fate. A Hollywood giant in its glory days, featuring such stars as Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Mammoth Studios would either close its doors or be a mere subsidiary of a larger corporation. Of course, that is if the Clampetts had ever decided to sell it....