Monday, 31 December 2007

The Last Post of 2007

With today being the last day of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at 2007. Like any other year, in some ways it seems as if it was a remarkable year and in other ways as if it was a wholly ordinary one.

It was certainly a strange year with regards to movies. Indeed, I suspect the summer movie season of 2007 will be remembered as the "Summer of the Threequels." There were no less than six such Threequels released throughout the summer (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Ocean's 13, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Rush Hour 3). Three of the Threequels were released in May alone (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), and it seems to me that audiences expressed nearly universal disappointment in all three. I must confess that I agree with others when it comes to Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third, as both fell far short of the earlier films in their franchises. But I was always a bit mystified as to why critics and some audiences expressed disappointment in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. For me it was a fine ending to the trilogy.

With regards to movies, this summer was interesting for more than just the Threequels. For much of the history of the medium, the summer movie season lasted from Memorial Day to Labour Day. This changed in the late Nineties and early Naughts when blockbusters like Twister and Spider-Man were released earlier in May. It seems to me that the summer movie season then shifted to beginning in the month of May and lasting only until around July 4th. The bulk of Hollywood blockbusters would be released early in the summer, usually around May and June, with next to nothing being released after July 4th. This summer appears to have marked a shift back to something closer to the old summer movie season. The Simpsons Movie, Bourne Ultimatum, and Rush Hour 3 could rightfully be counted as Hollywood blockbusters, yet all three were released after July 4. And all three did very well at the box office. What is more, the late summer saw a "teen" comedy that appealed more to people in their thirties and forties. Superbad was one of the surprise hits of the summer. At any rate, the summer movie season of 2007 seemed much longer than any other summer movie season in the past few years and, in my humble opinion, could mark a shift back to something approaching the old summer movie season.

With regards to music, the big news of the year was the reunion of an old band. Plans were for Led Zeppelin to perform for a benefit for the Ahmet Ertegün education fund at the O2 in London on November 26, 2007. Jimmy Page fractured his finger, so on November 1 the show was postponed until December 10, 2007. When Led Zeppelin performed on December 10, it was to nearly universal accolades from critics. This certainly would not be true of the other old band which reunited in 2007. This year The Eagles released their first full album in 28 years. I don't know about critics, but talking to fellow fans and reading various reviews from fans on the Internet, it seems to me that Long Road Out of Eden was a universal disappointment. I must say I was disappointed in it.

Beyond reunions of both Led Zeppelin and The Eagles, I have to say it was an interesting year in music. Indeed, Radiohead not only produced what may be the best album of the year, but took a unique approach to its sales. The band initially released their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a digital download. What is more, fans could choose to pay whatever they wanted for the digital download of the new album, even nothing at all. On average, fans paid $10 for a digital download of In Rainbows. Outside of Radiohead, 2007 saw releases from some of rock music's best artists: Fountains of Wayne (Traffic and Weather), Good Charlotte (Good Morning Revival), Annie Lennox (Songs of Mass Destruction), Modest Mouse (We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank), The New Pornographers (Challengers), Ozzy Osbourne (Black Rain), Smashing Pumpkins (Zeitgeist, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Magic), and Wilco (Sky Blue Sky). Even with an inordinate number of great albums released this year, the best news (besides the reunion of Led Zeppelin, of course) this year may have been the fact that rap music continued its terrific nosedive in sales for the third straight year.

With regards to television, the 2007-2008 fall season saw the broadcast networks debuting a greater number of genre shows in the wake of the success of Heroes. This season has seen the debut or will see the debut of genre shows such as Bionic Woman, Chuck, Journeyman, Moonlight, New Amsterdam, Pushing Daisies, and Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sadly, most of these shows have not received particularly good ratings and, especially with the ongoing writers' strike, it is doubtful that many of them will survive. That having been said, the single best show numbers among these genre series: Pushing Daisies. Pushing Daisies had received a good deal of critical praise and has already won awards, with nominations for yet more. And while its ratings are not those of a smash hit, they are respectable. Pushing Daisies has consistently won its time slot. The 2007-2008 season has also seen the networks move farther away from police procedurals and reality shows. The trend towards talent competitions continued, with such new entries as Nashville, as has the game show cycle. Of course, for many the big news of the season is the return of Lost, coming back to ABC towards the end of January. Sadly, its already abbreviated season may be even more abbreviated.

Of course, the biggest news of the year in both television and movies has been the Writer's Guild of America strike. The writers' primary concerns in this strike are residuals from DVD sales and the Internet. The strike paralysed television in its early stages, shutting down production on the majority of TV series. The strike has now lasted long enough that it is affecting film production. Shooting on Angels and Demons, the prequel to The Da Vinci Code, has been postponed. Shantaram, Johnny Depp's next big project, has also been affected by the strike. So far it appears that little progress has been made with regards to the strike, as the studios and production companies continue to drag their heels in giving the writers what many of us see as being rightfully due them.

In literature the big news was the publication of the seventh and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book was plagued by leaks of some of its material to the Internet. Another problem was that some copies of the book actually shipped early, creating yet other problems. None of this affected the sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which broke sales records previously held by, well, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. This year also saw Michael Chabon tackling the detective genre with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, while David Michaelis published a controversial biography of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

There were several notable deaths this year. Among the most notable passings were from the literary sphere. I rather suspect that the many media outlets might proclaim Norman Mailer as the biggest literary figure to die this year, and any other year that might well have been the case. But this year also saw the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, whom I think many believe to be the greatest writer of his generation (I know I do). The year saw other very big names in literature pass on: fantastist Lloyd Alexander, columnist and humorist Art Buchwald, thriller writer John Gardner, fantasist Madeleine L'Engle, genre writer Ira Levin, and novelist Peter Viertel.

Television also saw some notable passings. It was certainly not a good year to be a talk show host. Both Merv Griffin and Tom Snyder passed in 2007. The year also saw the passing of comedic actors Alice Ghostley, John Inman, Tom Poston, Charles Nelson Riley, and Dick Wilson (most famous as Mr. Whipple in the Charmin commercials). Two legendary television producers also died this year. Sidney Sheldon created and produced both The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie. Dan Curtis created and produced Dark Shadows and several of the finest horror TV movies ever made. The year also saw the deaths of television writer Mel Tonkin, ABC movie critic Joel Siegel, and Mr Wizard himself, Don Herbert.

There were also several notable deaths in the field of movies. Actors such as Yvonne De Carlo, Laraine Day, Betty Hutton, Deborah Kerr, Michael Kidd, Lois Maxwell, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, and Jane Wyman all died this year. The year also saw the death of notable screenwriter Charles B. Griffith. Of course, perhaps the two biggest figures in cinema to die in 2007 died on the same day. On July 30 legendary directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both passed. Directors Bob Clark and Delbert Mann also died this year.

The world of music also saw a number of passings. Beverly Sills was perhaps the first opera star the American public truly appreciated, seeming so approachable that one could hardly call her a "diva." Ike Turner wrote what may be the first rock song, but may sadly be better remembered for his rocky marriage to Tina Turner. With Jay Livingston, Ray Evans wrote songs that would become American pop standards: "Buttons and Bows," "Mona Lisa," "Que Sera, Sera," and "Silver Bells," among others. Livingston and Evans also wrote the theme songs for such classic TV shows as Bonanza and Mr. Ed. Other figures in the world of music to pass in 2007 were The Cyrkle founder Thomas Dawes, opera singer and game show personality Kitty Carlisle, former member of the Mamas and the Papas Denny Doherty, soft rock artist Dan Fogelberg, baritone and Broadway star Robert Goulet, and song stylist Frankie Laine.

Over all, 2007 has been a rather remarkable year. Not only did this summer perhaps boast more Threequels than any other summer before, but it may have marked another shift in the length of the summer movie season. Led Zeppelin reunited and Radiohead introduced a new means for major artists to sell their music. Television saw another cycle under full swing, one towards genre shows, while continuing two others (towards talent competitions and game shows). The writers' strike shut down both the television and motion picture industries. It has been a year quite unlike any other. It remains to be seen what 2008 will bring.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

New Year's Day Television Viewing

In theory, at least, New Year's is supposed to be one of the biggest holidays in the American year. Granted, most of the celebration of the holiday takes place on New Year's Eve, but one would think that New Year's Day itself would be equally important. That having been said, it seems to me that, for as long as I have been alive, one wouldn't know this from the television schedule.

At one time, New Year's was a time of parades on the three oldest networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). The Orange Bowl Parade has always taken place on New Year's Eve in Miami. For years at least one of the networks aired the parade, but I cannot remember them doing so in recent memory. The Cotton Bowl Parade, my favourite of the New Year's parades, has always taken place on the morning of the New Year's Day. It aired on CBS from 1964 to 1992. When NBC won the rights to air both the parade and the game, it elected not to show the parade. Sadly, the only parade that airs these days (and on ABC, CBS, and NBC) is the Tournament of Roses parade. Even as a child it was my least favourite of the New Year's parades. Then as now, I thought it was a tad dull and a bit over long. I have to admit it amazes me that the most boring of the three parades is the one that continues to air each year. Of course, I must confess that I will probably watch part of it, if for no other reaosn than tradition. When I was a child and we only had three channels, it was the only thing to watch of New Year's morning.

Of course, of an afternoon there is always football. Several bowl games will air on New Year's Day, including the Cotton Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Capital One Bowl, and the Rose Bowl. I have to admit that I have never watched any of the bowl games on New Year's Day. It is not that I have anything against football. It is simply the case that for me to enjoy a football game I must have some kind of emotional investment in it. That is, I must have a team to root for. When it comes to college football, the team I root for is the University of Missouri Tigers. This year's Cotton Bowl will be the first time that Mizzou plays in a New Year's bowl game in literally years. This means that I will watch the Cotton Bowl this year. Of course, I also have a team I always root against, which is the Kansas Jayhawks. For that reason I might watch the Orange Bowl on January 3 just to see Virginia Tech soundly defeat the Jayhawks (which I suspect won't be very hard for them to do...).

Of course, it has always been the night of New Year's Day when network programming has always tanked. Generally speaking, the networks will simply show reruns of their usual shows. This means that for this year one can watch reruns of NCIS, The Unit, and 48 Hours on CBS, Boston Legal on ABC, and One Tree Hill on the CW. Only Fox and NBC are showing original programming. Fox is airing the Sugar Bowl (since Mizzou can't play in both the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, I won't watch it), while NBC is showing The Biggest Loser (a show I have no desire to watch).

So far I have mainly discussed the broadcast networks. Looking at the cable channels, I can say that they do a better job of programming on New Year's Day. Indeed, TV show and movie marathons have become a bit of a tradition on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in the past ten years. The only drawback with such marathons is that often the cable channels will air TV series that they have already shown to death. TNT and USA are prime examples of this. TNT is airing a Law and Order marathon, while USA is airing the whole first season of Monk Now I love both Law and Order and Monk, but I have seen so many of their episodes that I have no real reason to watch a marathon. Fortunately, there are other cable channels with other marathons. TV Land is airing a Beverly Hillbillies marathon starting on New Year's Eve and running for most of New Year's Day. It has been some time since I have been able to watch The Beverly Hillbillies and I don't think it has been on any of the major cable channels for some time. A Beverly Hillbillies marathon then sounds like a good idea to me. The Hallmark Channel has a different kind of marathon, showing not TV shows but Western movies instead. Indeed, they are showing classic Western movies at that, including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Hang 'Em High, and The Magnificent Seven. What better way to open up the New Year than with a shoot 'em up?

Ultimately, I have always been puzzled as to why television on New Year's Day has tanked for the most part. In theory, at least, it is supposed to be a major holiday on the American calendar. And given that many will be recovering from hangovers that day and not up to doing much beyond watching television, you would think the broadcast networks and the cable channels would give them something to watch. Quite frankly, I think if some broadcast network or cable channel would try something new on New Year's Day (the broadcast debut of some Hollywood blockbuster, a broadcast of a classic movie, or something of the sort), they would clean up in the ratings. Unfortunately, it seems that when it comes to television programming, New Year's Day does not bring us anything new, simply more of the old.

Friday, 28 December 2007

When TV Cartoons Become Live-Action Movies...

This holiday season saw the release of Alvin and the Chipmunks, a movie based on an animated TV series, which in turn was based on a series of novelty songs. This spring will see the release of the Wachowski Brothers' big budget adaptation of Speed Racer.Live-action versions of Dragonball, Voltron, and Jonny Quest are also in the works. The fact that there are several movies based on TV cartoons should come as no surprise. From the mid-Nineties to the early Naughts there was an entire cycle of live-action films based on animated TV series. Sadly, the vast majority of these films were wretched at best. For fans of both animated TV shows and movies, movies based on TV cartoons are most often the stuff nightmares are made of.

I am not absolutely certain what the first movie based on a TV cartoon was, but it could well have been Boris and Natasha: the Movie, released in 1992. As one could guess from the title, Boris and Natasha: the Movie is based on Jay Ward's famous cartoon titled at different times Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show, but popularly called Rocky and Bullwinkle. That having been said, Boris and Natasha: the Movie is curious in that neither "Moose" nor "Squirrel (as Boris and Natasha always referred to them)" put in an appearance in the movie. Boris and Natasha: the Movie centres entirely on the two superspies from the country of Pottsylvania as they undertake their latest plot. Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas do well as Natasha and Boris respectively. And director Charles Martin Smith did succeed in capturing the look of the old animated series. Unfortunately, Boris and Natasha: the Movie was simply not a good movie. Indeed, it entirely failed to capture the wit and satire of the original Jay Ward cartoon. This was perhaps the reason that, while it was made in 1990, it did not debut until 1992. And while it had been meant for theatrical release, Boris and Natasha: the Movie would make its debut on the cable channel Showtime. It was not an auspicious debut either for a live-action movie based on the works of Jay Ward or a live-action movie based on a cartoon.

Sadly, the unfortunate fate of Boris and Natasha: the Movie would not prevent other filmmakers from adapting other TV cartoons. In 1994 Universal Studios released a big budget, live action adaptation of the old Hanna-Barbera sitcom The Flintstones. Arguably, the movie did have one thing going for it. John Goodman would seem to have been born to play Fred Flintstone. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seemed to be miscast. Elizabeth Perkins did somewhat look like Fred's wife Wilma, but her performance seemed a bit lacking. Of course, Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma was far better than the other members of the cast. Rick Moranis was far too skinny to play Barney Rubble, looking more like Gilligan dressed as Barney for a Halloween party. At least he did somewhat get Barney's character right. This was certainly not the case for Rosey O'Donnell as Betty Rubble. It was not enough that O'Donnell looked nothing like Betty (who was about the same size and shape as Wilma on the TV show), but she did not even get the voice or mannerisms quite right. The miscasting in the film would not have been quite so bad if the movie did not boast one of the worst scripts for a live-action adaptation of a TV cartoon ever made (which is really saying something). The movie's plot was episodic in the extreme, lacking any sort of cohesion whatsoever. I rather suspect fans of the show were seriously disappointed.

Despite the relative lack of quality of The Flintstones, the movie did do well at the box office. This meant that there would be yet more live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, although it would take five years for this to happen. George of the Jungle was released in 1997, another film based on another classic Jay Ward cartoon. As in the case of The Flintstones, the movie was a bit miscast, with Brendon Fraser in the lead role (one would have expected someone a bit more square jawed and muscular). Even with Fraser in the role of George, however, the movie could have still worked had it not been for the script. It was not simply that the script was bad, it was also the case that it departed from the cartoon in some important respects. The cartoon had been a slapstick parody of Tarzan, littered with the wit and satire familiar in Jay Ward's work. Not only does the movie lack Ward's patented wit and satire, but it tried to be a romantic comedy and failed miserably. Amazingly, it did respectively well at the box office.

Unfortunately, George of the Jungle would not be the last of the live-action adaptations of TV cartoons by a long shot. Nineteen ninety nine would see no less than two such movies. The first was a live action version of the classic Eighties cartoon Inspector Gadget. Sadly, it would be no better than The Flintstones or George of the Jungle. While I have always liked Matthew Broderick as an actor, his performance as Inspector Gadget is one of his few misfires. For those of you who don't remember the original cartoon, Don Adams used his William Powell imitation (which he had previously used for hotel detective Byron Glick on the Bill Dana Show, TTV cartoon character Tennessee Tuxedo, and Maxwell Smart) for the voice of Gadget. Broderick did not even attempt to imitate Adams' voice (or William Powell's for that matter). That could have been overlooked had it not been for the fact that the movie itself simply was not very good. The film lacked much of the fun and humour of the original cartoon.

The second live-action version of a TV cartoon in 1999 was Dudley Do-Right, an adaptation of the classic Jay Ward Cartoon of the same name. Sadly, it was not much better than the first two adaptations of Jay Ward cartoons. Brendon Fraser was probably a good choice for the none too bright, yet earnest Canadian Mountie. And Alfred Molina did a good job as the villainous Snidely Whiplash. To the filmmakers' credit, they did try to capture the wit and zaniness of the original cartoon. And there are a few moments where they succeed. Unfortunately, the movie falls short of that goal. There are more comedic misfires than laughs to be found in the film. While the live-action version of Dudley Do-Right may be acceptable as a family film, it is not a very good adaptation of the cartoon.

Hollywood already having made three movies based on the works of Jay Ward, it was only a matter of time before they made a film featuring his most famous characters. Released in 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was based on the TV series called either Rocky and His Friends or The Bullwinkle Show. The film used CGI to create its two main characters, with the roles of Boris and Natasha being played by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo respectively. I have to say I have no objections to the film's cast. And like Dudley Do-Right, the movie tried to capture the sort of intelligent humour for which Jay Ward's cartoons were known. And the movie does have its share of funny moments. Sadly, however, as in the case of the film version of Dudley Do-Right, it also falls short of the original. In fact, there are many times the filmmakers seem as if they are trying to be witty, zany, and funny, only to come off as a bit silly. Fortunately, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was the last of the Jay Ward cartoon movie adaptations--I would hate to see what Hollywood would do to Super Chicken...

Two thousand also saw another adaptation of The Flinstones, in this case The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. The movie is sort of a prequel to both the first film and the animated series, portraying Fred and Wilma before they were married. The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas has a much better cast than the first film, with Mark Addy as Fred, Stephen Baldwin as Barney, Kristen Johnston as Wilma, and Jane Krakowski as Betty. Unfortunately, despite a good cast who actually looked like the characters they were playing, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas is not a very good movie (although it is at least better than the first film). In fact, the movie commits the worst possible sin for any film--it is exceedingly dull and unfunny. The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas seems less like the adaptation of a TV cartoon than a mediocre sitcom stretched to the length of a feature film.

I must confess that so far this overview of live-action films based on TV cartoons had been a bit depressing. Out of the seven films I have discussed so far, not a one of them can I actually say is good (although some are worse than others). While I cannot say that Scooby-Doo, released in 2002, is necessarily a good film, it is certainly an entertaining one. And that is saying a lot for someone who has always thought that Scooby Doo, Where Are You was one of the worst things to happen to Saturday morning cartoons. I must admit that I do have some caveats with the movie. Like many adaptations of animated TV shows, some of the roles are miscast. While I have always loved Sarah Michelle Gellar, she looks nothing like Daphne (I personally think Katie Holmes would have been better in the role). The same holds true for Freddie Prinze Jr. (any number of pretty boys from the WB's teen series of the time would have been better) as Fred. That having been said, Matthew Lillard and Linda Cardellini (who would have made a better Daphne than Gellar) are perfect as Shaggy and Velma respectively. What is more. for me at least, Scooby Doo succeeds where other cartoon adaptations have failed in that it is actually funny. The reason Scooby Doo works is that rather than doing a straight adaptation of what, in my humble opinion, was not a very good cartoon, it satirises the whole thing. To me this movie is not so much an adaptation of Scooby Doo, Where Are You, much less an homage to it, as it is a send up of the cartoon. In fact, I've often thought that many fans of the old TV show must hate the movie.

Two thousand four saw the release of a live-action adaptation of another Saturday morning cartoon for which I have little love, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Fat Albert has Albert and his gang leaving their cartoon universe for the real world, to help a troubled teen. They may have been better off remaining in the cartoon world. Fat Albert moves at a snail's pace, with a plot that simply cannot remain focused. Of course, the movie's biggest flaw is one shared by the original cartoon. Like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Fat Albert is overly preachy and tends to bang the viewer over the head with its message.

Two thousand four would also see a sequel to Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Made by the same filmmakers, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is not nearly as good as the first movie. Part of the problem is changes made to the premise of the both the original cartoon and the first movie. Scooby and the gang no longer ride around in the Mystery Machine (their van, for anyone not familiar with the show), but work out of a posh office suite. Furthermore, the gang have become celebrities in their hometown. In doing this the filmmakers removed much of the off kilter charm that was in the first movie and what very little charm there was in the original cartoon. And while the first movie was in its own respect a satire of the original cartoon, the second film plays it straight as a rather unfunny comedy. Of course, I have to admit, it may not have been the fault of the filmmakers. After all, I was surprised that Scooby Doo, Where Are You had material enough in it for even one movie...

Until 2005 nearly every TV cartoon adapted into a live-action film was a comedy. It was in 2005 that an action/adventure cartoon was finally adapted as a live-action movie. Æon Flux was based on the cartoon of the same name that aired on MTV in the Nineties. The series focused on a tall, blonde superspy in a dystopian future and is notable for having almost no dialogue. The movie, featuring Charlize Theron in the title role, was a loose adaptation of the series (unlike the animated series, it does have dialogue). The film received decidedly mixed reviews on its release. Among the complaints were that while the film looked good, it was also a bit on the dull side.

As atrocious as many of these live-action adaptations of TV cartoons are, I rather suspect none have been as reviled as Disney's live-action adaptation of Underdog. The original cartoon was essentially a funny animal parody of Superman, set in a world where humans existed along animals who could walk upright and talk (like Underdog and his girlfriend Sweet Polly Purebred). Unfortunately, the movie would not be a straight adaptation of the TV series. In fact, Disney made such changes that it seems as if they only took the names of the characters for Disney's Underdog (as I call it to differentiate it from the original show). To say this outraged the show's fans is an understatement (indeed, this is probably the fourth time I've complained about it...). Of course, while we fans may have objected to the changes in Underdog's mythos, there was still the possibility that it could have been a good family film. Sadly, that was not the case. Disney's Underdog was raked over the coals by critics. Indeed, it was described as lacklustre and even lame. Audiences seemed to agree, as it died a quiet death at the box office.

Live action movies based on animated TV series have had a rather ignominious history thus far. Sadly, this is not simply because so many of them depart from the original cartoons in some way, although many of them do (Disney's Underdog is simply a more extreme example). It is because they are more often than not poorly conceived. I have to wonder that the studios are not simply depending on the name recognition of a particular cartoon to draw audiences into theatres. It seems to be the only way to explain how little work they put into these films, from poor scripts to some of the worst casting ever seen in Hollywood. That having been said, I think there could be reason for hope. Fat Albert, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed,and Disney's Underdog bombed at the box office. It seems clear to me that audiences have caught onto the fact that so many live-action adaptations of TV cartoons are just plain bad. As a result I rather suspect that from here on out filmmakers will not be able to depend upon name recognition to draw audiences into theatres. They will have to put some real work and some real quality into any future projects based on cartoons. Of course, the sad fact is that I could well be wrong. Hollywood has a history of not learning from its past mistakes. Worse yet, the desire to make a quick buck in Hollywood often outweighs the desire to make good films. While I hope that the next round of live-action adaptations of animated TV series are better than the past one, I can't say that I have any real faith that it will be.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

What is Going on with TV Land?

I have written here before about how I feel cable television has gone down hill. A&E was once the home of arts and entertainment and quality programming from the best of American and British television. These days it is the home of reality shows and reruns of CSI. TLC (once better known as The Learning Channel) was once sort of a cross between the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, then it was overwhelmed by home makeover shows. Through all of this, one cable channel remained untouched, one cable channel remained true to its original vision. That channel was TV Land. Sadly, it seems that could be changing.

TV Land was founded in 1996 as a spinoff of Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite programming block--the night time hours when Nickelodeon shows classic TV series. Quite naturally, then, TV Land has primarily showed classic television shows, from I Love Lucy to Bonanza. Unfortunately, it appears that this has changed. Recently, TV Land has decided to shed the label of "Classic TV" and to target Baby Boomers instead. Now on the surface I would see nothing wrong with that. Indeed, given the series TV Land has shown over the past eleven years, it can be argued that they have been targeting Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers all along. After all, I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Superman, and Burns and Allen all aired while Baby Boomers were still young. Star Trek, Bonanza, The Addams Family, and M*A*S*H were all shows that older Gen Xers grew up with. Unfortunately, TV Land apparently thinks classic TV shows are not enough to draw in Baby Boomers or older Gen Xers.

Indeed, the first sign of this change I noticed was when TV Land started showing Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Now Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is not the sort of television series I would watch. That having been said, I have nothing against the show and, in fact, I think it is altogether an admirable idea (improving the homes of those who can't afford to improve their homes). But I do not think it should air on TV Land. To me TV Land should remain the home of Classic TV, and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has not been around long enough to be considered Classic TV.

I have the same objections to TV Land's acquisitions of Just Shoot Me and Scrubs, both scheduled to air on the channel in 2008. Now I love Scrubs. It is one of the funnier shows on the air right now. That having been said, it has not been around long enough to be considered a classic. In fact, it is only in its sixth season. Although it may achieve classic status one day, it will be several years before that is the case. As to Just Shoot Me, that show is a slightly different case from Scrubs. The show is ten years old. I could see how some people could argue that is sufficient time to determine if a show is a classic or not. Personally, I would say that ten or fifteen years would be a better test of whether a show is a classic or not. This is besides the point, however, as I think fifty years could pass and Just Shoot Me would not ever be considered a classic. When Just Shoot Me debuted, it received a critical lambasting. And while it did well in its ratings for the majority of its run, it was never a water cooler show. I never heard anyone talking about "last night's episode of Just Shoot Me." In fact, the media and viewers alike barely acknowledged that the show was on. I suspect the only reason Just Shoot Me survived was NBC's insistence on scheduling it Tuesday and Thursday nights, alongside such popular shows as Friends and Fraiser. Quite simply, it survived only by riding on the coattails of more popular TV series. Proof that the show was not particularly popular can be seen in the fact that Just Shoot Me had a very bad syndication run. In fact, it seems to me that it pretty much disappeared after NBC cancelled it. This is hardly the sort of show TVLand should be showing.

Ultimately, of course, I suppose that "Classic TV" is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps there are those out there who do believe that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Scrubs, and Just Shoot Me (although I'd find that hard to believe...) are "Classic TV." That argument cannot possibly be made for a reality show that will soon air on TV Land entitled High School Reunion. The show follows a high school class that graduated in 1987. That's right. It is the sort of reality show one would expect to see on A&E, TLC, or the broadcast networks. It is not the sort of thing one would expect to see on TV Land. In fact, speaking for myself, I don't want to see it on TV Land. Beyond the fact that it cannot be considered "Classic TV," I have trouble seeing the rationale for High School Reunion in light of TV Land's shift from "Classic TV" to programming for Baby Boomers. Quite simply, it centres on a high school class that graduated in 1987. Even given the broadest definition of "Baby Boomer," anyone who graduated in 1987 would still belong to Generation X. I can't see Baby Boomers being interested in being interested in what a bunch of "kids" have done since their high school graduation. Heck, I am a Gen Xer and I wouldn't be interested in what other Gen Xers have done since they graduated...

In TV Land's defence, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of their programming is still "Classic TV." They are still airing shows such as Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show, The Addams Family, and Star Trek. And for 2008 they have acquired the rights to show The Beverly Hillbillies, Hogan's Heroes, and Murphy Brown. Reality shows and TV series of more recent vintage have not overwhelmed TV Land by any stretch of the imagination. That having been said, I do think TV Land's fans have reason to worry. Let's face it, A&E was transformed from an Arts and Entertainment channel into the home of reality shows. MTV was once truly Music Television--now a better name for it would be Reality TV Show Television. It is not wholly inconceivable that TV Land could go down the path that other cable channels have.

Of course, I guess many might ask why it is important for TV Land to remain the home of Classic TV. The reason to me is quite simple. The vast majority of cable channels out there ceased showing older TV shows long ago. With the exception of the ubiquitous Law and Order, most cable channels show no TV shows older than ten or fifteen years old. In fact, the only cable channel that shows any amount of classic television shows besides TV Land is AmericanLife TV, which is not available on many cable systems. There is still a large audience out there for classic television shows. There are still fans out there eager to watch shows such as Gilligan's Island, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Dragnet. And not all of them are old farts like me. My number two best friend is a huge fan of M*A*S*H, among other old shows, even though it went off the air the year she was born. If TV Land were to go the way of A&E and MTV, then it would leave fans of classic television with virtually no outlet for classic shows beyond DVDs (which can get expensive after a while). It is for that reason I believe that TV Land should remain dedicated to classic TV shows. And they should not air any more reality shows, not unless in twenty years Survivor is deemed "Classic TV...."

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Choreographer Michael Kidd Passes On

Dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd passed on Sunday from cancer. He was 92 years old.

Michael Kidd was born Milton Greenwald in Brooklyn, New York. He attended New Utrecht High School and later majored in Chemical Enginering at City College of New York. After attending a dance performance, however, he developed an interest in dance. He studied under dancer and choreographer Blanche Evan. He also received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet.

Kidd made his debut on Broadway playing The Gangster in Filling Station in 1939. He later toured with Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, including a stint on Broadway in 1939. In 1941 he was assistant director and a soloist for Eugene Loring’s Dance Players. From 1942 to 1947 he was a soloist in the Ballet Theatre. Kidd continued to appear on Broadway, as the lead in Billy the Kid in 1942, in Interplay in 1946, and in the Ballet Theatre's Fancy Free in 1947. He choreographed his first musical in 1947, Finian's Rainbow. For the rest of his career, Kidd worked as a choreographer. Over the next 33 years Kidd would choreograph such musicals as Guys and Dolls, Li'l Abner, Destry Rides Again, Ben Franklin in Paris, and a revival of The Music Man. Starting with Li'l Abner in 1956, Kidd also took up directing. Among the plays Kidd directed were Destry Rides Again, Ben Franklin in Paris, Cyrano, and the musical version of The Goodbye Girl.

Kidd also had a career in film. He was the uncredited choreographer on the film Another Dawn in 1937. He was credited as part of the Music Department (dances and musical number staging, or some variation thereof) on such films as The Band Wagon (his first big break in Hollywood), Knock on Wood, Guys and Dolls, Li'l Abner, Star, and Movie Moive. He was credited as choreographer on the movies Where's Charley, Merry Andrew, and Hello Dolly. Perhaps his most notable work in film was on the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The movie is notable for featuring ballet that does not appear balletic at all, largely because Kidd insisted the dancers use natural movements. Although he did infrequently, Kidd also acted in film, perhaps his most notable role being in the movie It's Always Fair Weather. Playing Angie Valentine, Kidd was one of the few dancers who could actually keep up with Gene Kelly. He was also in the casts of the films Smile and Movie Movie.

Arguably, Michael Kidd was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. In fact, I daresay that his work on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers remains unmatched to this day. He won the Tony Award for Best Choreography no less than five times. The Academy Awards lacking an award for choreography, he was awarded an Honourary Academy Award "...in recognition of his services to the art of the dance in the art of the screen." The awards were well deserved. Short of Gene Kelly when it came to the movies, there was perhaps no better choreographer to ever work on Broadway or on film. Even with movie musicals having made a comeback of late, I doubt we will see anything quite so impressive as what Kidd achieved on the big screen.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Yuletide to All and to All a Good Night

Today being the day it is, I thought that rather than make a blog post as usual, I would do my part in spreading a bit of holiday cheer. Here then are some videos of some of my favourite songs of the season.

First up is The Killers' latest (and biggest) single, "Don't Shoot Me Santa." I must admit that this is one of my favourite Christmas songs of late. I don't know about anyone else, but I personally find it hilarious.



Another one of my favourite Yuletide songs is "Santa Baby." "Santa Baby" was originally performed by Eartha Kitt in 1952 and made its first appearance in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. It also appeared in the movie adaptation of the revue, New Faces, released in 1954. I couldn't find any footage from New Faces of Eartha Kitt performing the song, so here is a video of Kylie Minogue's version of the song from Top of the Pops. Okay, I'll admit it isn't the original, but I like Minogue's version of the song better than most. Too, I have always had a big thing for Kylie Minogue...



Finally, there is the song David Letterman has described as the greatest rock 'n' roll Christmas song ever made. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love first appeared on the album A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. It was not immediately hailed as a classic, although over the years its repuation grew until it has achieved classic status. Starting on Late Night with David Letterman on NBC and continuing on The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, every year Darlene Love visits Letterman's show to perform the song. This is her performance from December, 2005.



I hope everyone has a joyous Yuletide and a happy New Year!

Monday, 24 December 2007

Santa Claus

In the American celebration of Christmas, perhaps no figure is as ubiquitous during the season as Santa Claus. He can be seen everywhere--in department stores taking wish lists from children, on the street corner ringing bells for the Salvation Army, on television commercials, in television specials, and so on. Santa Claus has been central to the American observation of the holidays in the 20th and 21st centuries. And like many aspects of the modern Christmas celebration, the history of Santa Claus goes back a bit further than the 20th century.

Indeed, the origins of the American figure of Santa Claus are complex. They can be found in two historical figures, a god, and a personification of the holiday. The primary inspiration for Santa Claus is one of the two historical figures. St. Nicholas of Myra was the bishop of Myra in Lycia in the eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century. After his death he would be considered the patron saint of archers, the armed forces, sailors, the wrongly accused, and many other groups. As might be expected, he is also considered the patron saint of children. While being the patron saint of more people and groups than other saint, Nicholas is perhaps best known for the generosity he practised during his lifetime. In fact, perhaps the most famous legend concerning St. Nicholas centred around his generosity. There was a poor man with three daughters who could not afford a dowry for them. As a result of this there was the strong possibility that they would never marry and perhaps even fall into prostitution. Nicholas heard about the poor man and his daughters, and decided to help him. To spare the man the humiliation of having to accept charity, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the man's window (some versions of the tale has it that he three one bag through the window on three consecutive nights).

Across Europe, St. Nicholas' day would be set as December 6. In many parts of Europe, then, St. Nicholas' Day would become a day of gift giving. Particularly important to the evolution of the American figure of Santa Claus would be the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas' Day. St. Nicholas, called "Sinterklaas" in the Netherlands, delivers gifts to children on St. Nicholas' Eve (the evening of December 5). He is portrayed as having a long white beard and wearing red bishop's raiments. He rides a white horse, called called Amerigo, who can fly over rooftops. He is assisted in his work by Zwarte Piet, "Black Peter." Like Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet would bring treats to the good children, although he would also punish the bad ones. The influence of Sinterklaas on the American figure of Santa Claus is fairly obvious. Both are portrayed with beards. Both dress almost entirely in red. Both have assistants (Zwarte Piet in the case of Sinterklaas, the elves in the case of Santa Claus).

In those countries speaking Germanic languages, at least, the figure of St. Nicholas may have been influenced by the god called Wodan in Old Saxon (the language from which modern Dutch sprung) and called Óðinn by the Vikings. Like St. Nicholas, Óðinn was seen as a gift giver. Various legends portray Óðinn as bestowing gifts to his champions. Like St. Nicholas he is portrayed as having a long, grey beard. And like St. Nicholas Óðinn was said to ride a marvellous horse. Óðinn's horse, Sleipnir was said to be grey or white in colour and said to have eight legs, making him faster than any other horse in the worlds. Sleipnir was said to be able to carry Óðinn over the sea and through the air, and was said to even be able to journey to Hel, the world of dead. It seems possible that while certain elements of the legendary St. Nicholas stem from the historical figure, it is possible that other elements (such as his marvellous horse) could have been drawn from the Dutch's memories of Wodan.

Besides St. Nicholas, another historical figure (or perhaps a legendary figure based on a historical figure would be a better way to describe it) would also play a role in the evolution of Santa Claus. In the 15th century Martin Luther, wishing to distance himself from Catholicism, actively discouraged the customs of St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas' Day. For that reason he developed the idea of another gift giver. Luther meant the Christkind to be the incarnation of Jesus as an infant, although the figure evolved away from that considerably. The Christkind was most often depicted as a blonde child with the wings of the usual portrayal of angels in Christianity. Unlike St. Nicholas, the Christkind delivered his gifts on Christmas Eve, not unlike the modern day Santa Claus. The idea of the Christkind was brought to the United States, where his name would evolve into the mispronunciation Kris Kringle, now regarded as another name for Santa Claus.

The final figure to play a role in shaping Santa Claus was the English figure of Father Christmas. Like Santa Claus, the origins of Father Christmas are complex. Like the legendary figure of Saint Nicholas, he may have largely been inspired by the god called by the pagan Angles and Saxons "Woden ("Wodan" to the Dutch, "Óðinn" to the Vikings). Regardless, throughout the Middle Ages, this English personification of Christmas evolved until he was the Father Christmas known during the Victorian Era. Dressed in a furred, hooded robe of green and often wearing holly and having a long, grey beard, Father Christmas was not seen as a gift giver, but he was instead seen as presiding over Christmas revelries. Over the years he would play a large role in masques and mummer's plays.

All of this brings us to the area of North America that would later become the United States of America. Even in the earliest times, what would become the United States was settled by a variety of ethnicities: the English, the Dutch, the Germans, and the French. And each of these ethnicities would bring their own holiday customs. The Dutch brought with them the figure of Sinterklaas and the celebration of St. Nicholas' Day. The Germans brought with them the figure of the Christkind and his gift giving activities on Christmas Eve. The English brought with them the figure of Father Christmas, his furred robe, and his love of the Christmas festival. It was in the United States that these various figures would merge to create a new one, the American figure of Santa Claus. The Dutch name Sinterklaas would become Americanised as Santa Claus. Under the influence of the figure of the Christkind, his gift giving activities shifted from St. Nicholas' Day to Yule Eve--it is perhaps for this reason that Santa Claus is also called "Kris Kringle." Because of Father Christmas, Santa Claus would lose the bishop's mitre and robes and wear fur lined clothing instead, not to mention he would become a bit more jolly.

Of course, even after these figures had combined to lay the groundwork for the modern American Santa Claus, it would take some time before he would evolve into the figure we all know today. It was in 1804 that the New York Historical Society revived the Dutch custom of St Nicholas as a giver of gifts. Washington Irving would eventually join the organisation, observing its St. Nicholas' celebration, complete with rhymes about Sinterclaas. When Washington Irving revised his History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (first published in 1809) in 1812, he included "Santa Claus (the Americanised version of "Sinterclaas")," portraying him not as a bishop, but as a Dutch sailor wearing a green coat and with a pipe. Irving also described Santa's flight over the treetops in a wagon. A New York printer named William Gilley would further add to the mythos of Santa Claus in a poem published in 1821. Writing about Santeclaus, Gilley portrayed him as dressed entirely in fur and driving a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.

A pivotal moment in the evolution of Santa Claus would arrive in the form of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," first published in 1822. Often attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the poem established many of the particulars of the Santa Claus legend. It established that Santa Claus' sleigh is driven by eight reindeer and gives those reindeer their names. It also established Santa Claus as going down chimneys to delivery his toys. And while elves were not yet established as Santa's helpers, it is in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" that he is first described as "a jolly old elf." The poem also established Santa as being somewhat overweight.

Of course, even after the publication of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," the appearance of Santa was not set in stone. Washington Irving, William Gilley, and the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" all portray him as being rather small. "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" even describes him as the "little old driver" of a "miniature sleigh." And while Gilley and the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" both describe Santa as dressed all in fur, at this point in history he was often still portrayed in bishop's mitre and robes. It would be political cartoonist Thomas Nast who would shape the modern image of Santa. Nast first illustrated Santa for the 1862 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly. While Nast's Santa would vary in size, more often than not, he was roughly the size of a man. He was also jolly, rotund, and dressed in fur lined clothing.

Thomas Nast's impact on the mythos of Santa Claus would go further than shaping his appearance. It was in the illustration "Santa Claus and His Works," first published in Harper's Weekly, December 29, 1866, that Thomas Nast established Santa Claus as a maker of toys. It was in a book titled Santa Claus and His Works, featuring Thomas Nast's illustrations and a poem by George Webster, that it was established that Santa Claus uses the North Pole as his base. By 1881, Nast's illustrations of Santa had developed to where they were very close to the modern image of the jolly old elf.

It was roughly during the same period that elves would be established as Santa's helpers. It was Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, who first made reference to elves as Santa's helpers, in the unpublished story "Christmas Elves" from 1856. Another reference to elves as Santa's helpers occurs in an anonymous poem titled "The Wonders of Santa Claus," first published in 1857 in Harper's Weekly. By the late 19th century, elves were firmly established as Santa's work force.

It would be by 1885 that the modern day concept of Santa would nearly be in place. Given the black and white illustrations common up to that time, it was anyone's guess as to the colour of Santa's suit. Louis Prang introduced the idea of the Christmas card, invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 in Britain, to the United States. Among the cards he published in 1885 was one that featured a chubby Santa in a red suit. The image caught on and became the dominant image of Santa Claus.

While the mythos of Santa Claus was developing in the 19th century and his image evolving away from the bishop's raiments of St. Nicholas, he was also becoming more of a force in the American celebration of Christmas. As early as the 1840s, retail stores were advertising themselves as "Santa's headquarters." In fact, in 1841 Philadelphia merchant J. W Parkinson hired a man dressed as Santa Claus to climb the chimney of his shop. By 1874 Macy's became the first store to have their own in store Santa Claus. By the turn of the 19th century, Santa Claus was firmly rooted in the American Christmas celebration, seen in everything from Christmas cards to the advertising of the time.

Indeed, Santa Claus was popular enough that in 1802 L. Frank Baum, best known for the Oz books, published The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. In the book Santa is established as an abandoned infant raised by fairies who eventually becomes the gift giver we all know. The mythos Baum created for Santa Claus would not catch on, but The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would further add to Santa's popularity.

By now it should be clear that the claim so often made that Coca-Cola created the modern image of Santa Claus is patently false. The idea of Santa Claus dressed in a red and white was well established before the 1930s, when Coca-Cola hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create memorable drawings of the jolly old elf for use in their advertising. That having been said, while Coca-Cola had little to do with standardising the image of Santa Claus (which had largely been completed by the beginning of the 20th century), they were among the earliest corporations to make a good deal of use of Kris Kringle in their advertising. Alongside department stores such as Macy's, Coca-Cola was then largely responsible for turning Santa Claus into an advertising icon.

Of course, even if Coca-Cola had never used Santa Claus in their ads, he probably would have become an advertising icon nonetheless. By the 20th century, Santa Claus had become an established part of the American Christmas celebration. In fact, Santa Claus appears so frequently in American pop culture that it would be impossible to list every single reference to him. Perhaps the most famous appearance of Santa Claus in a pop culture artefact is the movie Miracle on 34th Street, in which an old man calling himself "Kris Kringle" claims to really be Santa Claus. Naturally Santa Claus played a big role in the many Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to their adaptation of Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Santa has also figured in many, many songs, including "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Santa Baby," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and many others.

Given his long history and the role he plays in the American Christmas celebration, one would think that Santa Claus would be universally loved. As the case may be, this is not true. Many Fundamentalist Christians regard the figure of Santa Claus as detracting from the religious observance of the holiday. Others view Santa Claus as being a symbol of the the commercialisation of the holiday season. They see Santa Claus not as a symbol of generosity and holiday joy, but of crass commercialism and conspicuous consumption. The controversy Santa Claus generates is perhaps nothing new. In 17th century England the Puritans banned Christmas as a pagan celebration and frowned upon the figure of Father Christmas.

While there are naysayers, I think it safe to say that a majority of Americans have no objections to Santa Claus. And why should they? He is a fond memory from most of their childhoods, well established in American folklore by the beginning of the 20th century. Regardless of what Fundamentalist Christians and those objecting to the commercialism of the holiday might desire, I don't think Santa Claus is going to go away any time soon. Quite simply, I rather think he will be making his annual trips around the world from the North Pole for a very long time.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Father Christmas

For many Englishmen, the Yuletide would not be complete without Father Christmas. Although many Americans may simply regard Father Christmas as a British variant of Santa Claus, Father Christmas actually predates the American character of Santa Claus by a good deal. In fact, Father Christmas was around before there was even a United States of America.

In fact, Father Christmas has been around for so long that no one can be certain when the character came about. It is possible that he owes something to the god called Wóden by the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain and thus created England, the god called by the Vikings Óðinn. In Old Norse sources, Óðinn has an appearance quite similar to that of the later Father Christmas. He has a long, grey beard and wears a wide brimmed hat and a cloak. In some legends, Óðinn even appears as a gift giver. In the Volsunga Saga, it is Óðinn who gives Sigurðr the marvellous horse Grani. According to Saxo Grammaticus, in his Gesta Danorum, Óðinn granted Harald Wartooth immunity to all wounds. The similarity between Óðinn and Father Christmas may go farther than gift giving. Among Óðinn's many names was Jólnir, a name derived from Old Norse Jól. Jól in Old English was Géol, our modern word Yule. It would then appear that the Vikings associated Óðinn with the holiday of Jól, and it seems safe to say that the pagan Angles and Saxons believed the same of Wóden. While Father Christmas is associated with Christmas, then, Wóden may have been associated with Géol or Yule, the holiday whose customs would survive in Christmas in much of northern Europe.

Of course, it is difficult to say whether Father Christmas owes anything to Wóden or not, despite their similarities. He could have simply evolved out of the medieval tendency towards personification and allegory. After all, it was during the Middle Ages that such personifications as the Grim Reaper (perhaps the most popular personification of Death) and Dame Fortune evolved. And it is during the Middle Ages that the first printed reference to a personification of Christmas is made. In a 15th century Christmas carol, often credited to Richard Smart (the Rector of Plymtree in Devon from 1435 to 1477). The carol is essentially a dialogue between a figure called "Sir Christmas" and a group who is welcoming him.

By the time of the Tudors, Yuletide festivities were often presided over by a figure variously called "Captain Christmas," "Sir Christmas," or "Lord Christmas." By the time of James I, the personification of Christmas was popular enough that playwright Ben Johnson made him the centre of his Christmas his Masque (from 1616). Thomas Nabbes would not only feature Father Christmas in a masque, The Springs Glorie (from 1638), but he would give us our first illustration of Father Christmas. He was portrayed as an old man wearing a furred cap and coat.

The Puritans tended to regard Christmas as a pagan holiday and actively discouraged its celebration, even going so far as to ban the celebration of Christmas in 1644. This simply resulted in those in favour of the celebration of the holiday going even further in personifying Christmas. An example of this was a pamphlet, published in 1645 in reaction to the Puritan ban on Yule, called An Hue and Cry after Christmas. An Hue and Cry after Christmas portrayed Christmas as "...an old, old, very old greybearded gentleman..." who "...used to appear in glittering gold, silk and silver, in the court, and in all shapes in the theatre in White Hall..." Even after the holiday was reinstated, many Englishmen felt the need to protect both the holiday and its personification. The Examination and Tryall of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King was published not long after the celebration of Christmas returned to Great Britain. As the title would indicate, in King's satire Father Christmas is placed on trial for inciting the folk "..to drunkennesse, Gluttony, and unlawful Gaming, Wantonnesse, Uncleanness, Lasciviousness, Cursing, Swearing..." King not only defended celebrating Christmas with joy and fun, but in the process he popularised the name of the personification of Christmas as "Father Christmas."

While the name of the personification of Christmas more or less became set in time as "Father Christmas," his appearance would vary right up to the Victorian Era. Ever since Thomas Nabbes had first done so, Father Christmas was almost always portrayed as old and bearded. Beyond that, however, his appearance could vary wildly. He might appear as an old man in a long, hooded coat or as a gigantic figure crowned by holly. It was during the Victorian Era that Father Christmas's appearance would become more consistent. He would appear as an old man in a long, furred, hooded coat of green and, more often than not, accompanied by holly.

Further changes to Father Christmas would come from across the Pond. As most people are aware, in the United States there had evolved a gift giving figure called Santa Claus. The poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," would set the appearance of Santa Claus in years to come. The poem paints a picture of an old, bearded, pipe smoking, round man dressed all in fur. American political cartoonist Thomas Nast would have an even greater impact on the appearance of Santa Claus. He first illustrated jolly, old St. Nick for the 1962 holiday edition of Harper's Weekly. Nast popularised the image of Santa Claus as a rotund, jolly old man dressed in furred clothing. It would not be long before the American figure of Santa Claus would influence the English figure of Father Christmas.

Indeed, by the 1880s Father Christmas was more often portrayed as being dressed in red than in green. Holly appeared less frequently in illustrations of Father Christmas as well. Previously, Father Christmas was seen as presiding over adults' celebration of Christmas. After the 1880s, however, he became a gift giver the same way that Santa Claus was, bringing presents to little children. It would not be long before Father Christmas would be thought of as living at the North Pole and driving a sleigh.

As a figure who has played a large role in the British celebration of Christmas for centuries, Father Christmas quite naturally appears in pop culture.In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present would seem to be based on the imagery of Father Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Present is described as a huge man with a red beard wearing a fur lined, green robe. Father Christmas himself figured in a story "Old Father Christmas" by Victorian writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote letters to his children as "Father Christmas," later published as The Father Christmas Letters. In the letters Tolkien created his own mythos for the old man (the elvan Tengwar script, featured in Lord of the Rings, first appeared there). Tolkien's friend, C. S. Lewis, also included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1973 Raymond Briggs published the graphic novel Father Christmas, which presented a radically different view of the character. Briggs would publish a sequel, Father Christmas Goes on Vacation, in 1975. Both graphic novels would provide the basis for the 1987 animated film Father Christmas. Father Christmas has also played a role in numerous television show episodes, from Keeping Up Appearances to Red Dwarf. Naturally, Father Christmas has played a role in songs as well. The most famous may well be The Kinks' "Father Christmas," in which a bloke playing Father Christmas finds himself mugged by street toughs. Another song centred around Father Christmas is "I Believe in Father Christmas," Greg Lake's protest against the commercialisation of the holiday.

The character of Father Christmas has existed in some form for centuries. And while today he is often considered synonymous with Santa Claus, I am not sure that is a good thing. Father Christmas has a history all his own quite separate from that of the American Santa Claus. As a result, he has a charm all his own as well. Indeed, while it would be hard to picture Santa Claus presiding over adult revelry, complete with eggnog and mistletoe, it is easy seeing Father Christmas doing so. While I quite naturally love Santa Claus (after all, living in the States I grew up with him), I also love the original Father Christmas before elements of old St. Nick were incorporated into his character. For that reason I think it would be best if we simply allowed Father Christmas to be his own man, quite distinct from Santa.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials

If you are between the ages of 35 and 55, the chances are good that you remember many of the animated Christmas specials produced by the production company called Rankin/Bass. Even if you are not, the odds are probably good that you have at least seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer many times over, and perhaps Santa Claus is Comin' to Town as well. From the Sixties to the Eighties Rankin/Bass produced nearly twenty different specials pertaining to the Yuletide. When it came to animated holiday entertainment, Rankin/Bass was the leader in the field.

Rankin/Bass was not founded to produce Christmas specials. And, in fact, they produced much, much more than that, including the King Kong cartoon of the Sixties, the Eighties cartoon Thundercats, the movie Mad Monster Party, and the animated feature film version of The Hobbit. And they produced specials for other holidays as well, among them Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters and Here Comes Peter Cottontail. That having been said, I think it was safe to say that it was their Christmas specials for which they were best known.

Arthur Rankin Jr. was the son of actor Arthur Rankin and grandson of actor Harry Davenport. Starting off at ABC as graphic designer, by 1952 he had founded his own company for producing commercials. It was through his work in commercials that he met Jules Bass. In the Fifties Bass was working for Gardner Advertising, a company which often did business with Rankin. In 1955 the two of them founded the company Videocrafts Incorporated, later renamed Videocraft International and still later Rankin/Bass Productions.

Initially, Videocraft only produced television commercials, but in 1960 they moved into the production of TV series. Videocraft's first project was a series of five minutes shorts made for television called The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Like much of the work that would later come out of Rankin/Bass, The New Adventures of Pinocchio used a stop motion process called Animagic that was quite similar to the same process George Pal used on his Puppetoons shorts. They followed The New Adventures of Pinocchio with another series of shorts called Tales of the Wizard of Oz. Tales of the Wizard of Oz was loosely based on the works of L. Frank Baum, the source material which would also provide the basis for the 1965 Rankin/Bass TV special Return to Oz (in fact, some character designs made for the series would be used in the special). Unlike the vast majority of Rankin/Bass's work in the Sixties, Tales of the Wizard of Oz was created using traditional cel animation rather than stop motion.

It would be the same year that Return to Oz aired (by now Videocraft Incorporated had been renamed Videocraft International), 1964, that Rankin/Bass would enter the field that would make them famous, that of Christmas specials. As it turns out, one of Arthur Rankin Jr.'s neighbours was Johnny Marks, the man who wrote "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and a number of other Yuletide classics. Rankin approached Marks about using the song as a basis for a holiday special produced using stop motion animation. Initially Marks was apprehensive, fearing the special could harm future sales of the classic song, but eventually he agreed to the idea. In fact, he provided every other song for the special. The special followed the plot of the song very closely and even expanded on it. When it aired as part of The General Electric Fantasy Hour on NBC on December 6, 1964, it was an immediate hit. It has aired during the holiday season every year ever since.

Despite the success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Videocraft International did not rush to make more Christmas specials. In the mid-Sixties their projects included the special The Ballad of Smokey the Bear, the feature film Willy McBean and his Magic Machine, and the Sixties cartoon King Kong, among others. It was a full three years after Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer aired that another Rankin/Bass Christmas special would air, in this case an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Cricket on the Hearth. The Cricket on the Hearth is notable for being another early piece of Rankin/Bass cel animation. Sadly, it was also one of their less successful products from the Sixties. Airing in 1967, it disappeared for decades before resurfacing on video.

Since around 1966 the Videocraft logo had included credits for Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. It was in 1968 that the company adopted the name by which it became best known, Rankin/Bass Productions, and adopted the logo with which most of us are familiar (see above). It was also that year the company would have its second hit Christmas special (The Cricket on the Hearth having not done particularly well). Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy was based on a hit song. Also like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, it was made using stop motion animation. That having been said, The Little Drummer Boy is different from almost every other Christmas special produced by Rankin/Bass. Its tone is very Christian (Aaron, the drummer boy, plays his drum for the baby Jesus). It includes a bit of violence (Arab marauders kill Aaron's family). And its portrayal of the Arab villains is hardly what one would consider politically correct these days. While it would air for many years on network television, it would eventually leave the networks for syndication. One has to wonder if its overly religious tone, violence, and what some might consider offensive portrayals of Arabs didn't play a role in it leaving the networks.

In 1969 Rankin/Bass would follow the success of both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy up with an adaptation of yet another Christmas song. Frosty the Snowman followed the plot of the song quite closely, although expanding a bit on the song's plot in which a snowman comes to life. While this gave it something in common with both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman was shot using traditional cel animation. Reportedly, Rankin wanted the cartoon to have the look of an old time Christmas card, even hiring greeting card Paul Coker Jr. for the project. It was perhaps for this reason that it was made using cel animation. That having been said, contrary to many reports, it was not the first time Rankin/Bass used traditional cel animation. It is predated not only by Tales of the Wizard of Oz in 1961, but by Return to Oz in 1964 and the King Kong cartoon in 1966. It is not even their first holiday special shot using cel animation (that would be The Cricket on the Hearth, which first aired in 1967). That having been said, it is arguably the second most successful Christmas special they ever made. It first aired on CBS on December 7, 1969 and has aired on network television every year ever since.

Although many people tend to think of the Sixties when they think of Rankin/Bass, arguably their most active period with regards to Christmas specials was the Seventies. That having been said, it can also be argued that it was during this decade that the company saw some decline in quality, the Seventies specials not quite matching those made in the Sixties. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Rankin/Bass began making more and more sequels to their earlier work. Between them, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer would have two sequels apiece (although they admittedly shared one).

Regardless, Rankin/Bass would start the Seventies off on a high point. In 1970 ABC first aired Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, a special based on the hit song and basically telling the origin of Santa Claus. The special would mark the first time that Mickey Rooney did the voice for Santa Claus in a Rankin/Bass production. He would repeat the role in more specials. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town first aired on ABC on December 14, 1970. Although it would not see the success of either Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman, it would air on network television for many years to come.

Rankin/Bass would go four years without producing another Christmas special. When new Rankin/Bass material debuted in 1974, it would be in the form of two different specials. Today 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is largely forgotten. A half hour special done in cel animation, the special actually owed very little the classic poem of the same name. Instead the plot centred around a small town which finds itself boycotted by Santa after a mouse writes him a nasty letter. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas would not see the repeated airings of other Rankin/Bass specials. It is available on DVD.

The other special that aired in 1974 would see a bit more success. The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley and once more featured Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus. The special's plot centred around a sick and disenchanted Santa, who considers calling off his usual Yuletide trip around the world. First airing on December 10, 1974, it would not become a holiday tradition the way that Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman has. That having been said, it would develop something of a cult following. In the movie Batman and Robin, Mr. Freeze even tries to teach his henchmen the Snow Miser song (Snow Miser being one of the characters in the special). In 2006 NBC aired a live action remake of the special that was considerably different from the original.

In 1975 another Rankin/Bass special made using Animagic aired on NBC, The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was not the story of Jesus's birth, the title referring instead to a Christmas pageant put on by children in the special. Although it originally aired on NBC, it would find a home on CBS for several years.

Nineteen seventy six should perhaps be regarded as a turning point for Rankin/Bass. It was that year in which sequels to the company's classic specials were first aired. Indeed, three new Rankin/Bass specials debuted in 1976 and all three were sequels. The first to air was Frosty's Winter Wonderland, debuting on December 2, 1976. Made in cel animation like the original, the plot introduced the character of Jack Frost as well as a wife for Frosty. As the title indicates, it included the song "Winter Wonderland."

Rudolph's Shiny New Year was the second to air, on December 10, 1976. The special centred upon Rudolph seeking out the next Baby New Year before midnight on New Year's Eve. Rudolph was the only one of the characters from the original to appear in this sequel. Even more curious is the fact that, while Rudolph was portrayed as an adult reindeer at the end of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in Rudolph's Shiny New Year he is once more portrayed as a youngster. Rudolph's Shiny New Year would not become the Yuletide tradition which the original was.

The final Rankin/Bass sequel to air in 1976 was The Little Drummer Boy Book II. Although not quite highly regarded as the original, it is perhaps regarded more highly than the other sequels which Rankin/Bass made. The special included characters from the original and, furthermore, the characters looked as they did in the original. Like The Little Drummer Boy, The Little Drummer Boy Book II was based on a song, in this case "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Sadly, it would not be repeated every year for literally years as other Rankin/Bass specials have been.

The next Rankin/Bass holiday special would not be a sequel, although it has also been largely forgotten. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey was made using Animagic and centred around Nestor, a donkey who winds up in the stable in which Jesus is born. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey first aired on December 3, 1977. Although now highly regarded by many Rankin/Bass fans, it did not become an annual Yuletide tradition.

Nineteen seventy nine would see one of the strangest developments in the history of Rankin/Bass and its strong link to the holiday season. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was not only a sequel to both Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, but it was also a feature film shot in Animagic. Odder still, it centred on July 4th and was released to theatres on July 1, 1979. Released in the middle of summer and featuring characters characters associated with Christmas, Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July died at the box office. It would find a second life on television, airing during the holiday season. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July would be historic in that it marked the first time Frosty was portrayed using stop motion animation and the last time that Rudolph was portrayed using such.

It was also in 1979 that Rankin/Bass created a special centred around the character of Jack Frost. Jack Frost had appeared previously in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July. Jack Frost gave the character centre stage. Shot in Animagic, the plot centred around Jack Frost falling in love with a mortal woman. It first aired on December 13, 1979.

The Eighties would see Rankin/Bass making fewer Christmas specials and even stop making them for a time. The reason for this is simply that throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties, the networks ceased airing as many Yuletide specials as they once did. With less demand for holiday specials, Rankin/Bass had no need to release a new special once year as they had in the Seventies.

For their first special of the Eighties, Rankin/Bass would turn to a familiar character. The first series the company had ever produced was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, so it should have been no surprise when they produced the special Pinocchio's Christmas. The special involved the puppet's efforts to earn money for present for Gepetto. Pinocchio's Christmas first aired on December 13, 1980.

In 1981 Rankin/Bass followed Pinocchio's Christmas with The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold. Also made in stop motion animation, The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold was a half hour special based in Irish folklore, complete with leprechauns and a banshee. Reaction to The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold has always been divided. There are those who feel it is one of the worst Rankin/Bass special, although those who enjoy Irish folklore seem to have a greater appreciation of it.

It would be be four years before Rankin/Bass would produce another holiday special. When they did, they would return to the works of L. Frank Baum. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was based on the Baum novel of the same name. Only an hour long, the special abbreviated much the novel's plot and made some changes to it. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is one of the few Rankin/Bass specials that actually created some controversy, as Fundamentalist Christians claimed the special was "Satanic (an accusation also thrown at Baum's Oz books)." The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is also unique among Rankin/Bass Christmas specials in that it is the only one which does not have a narrator. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus first aired on CBS on December 17, 1985. Perhaps due to the fact that the networks were airing fewer holiday specials in the Eighties and Nineties and perhaps due to anger on the part of Fundamentalists Christians, it would not see the repeat viewing of other Rankin/Bass specials. Despite the controversy, it remains one of the best regarded of Rankin/Bass's later holiday specials.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus would be the last Rankin/Bass holiday special aired for some time. In fact, it would be one of the last Rankin/Bass specials for some time. An adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in cel animation, first aired in 1987, would the last Rankin/Bass production for several years. Although the company continued to exist, it entered a period of dormancy when it was simply producing nothing. After fourteen years in which Rankin/Bass produced nothing, they returned in 2001 with another holiday special based on a Christmas song. Santa Baby. Unlike the majority of classic Rankin/Bass specials, Santa Baby was made with cel animation. The special owed very little to the song, in which a woman lists the extravagant gifts she wants Santa to bring her. Instead the special focused on a songwriter seeking to write a hit song. Despite featuring the vocal talents of Eartha Kitt (originator of the hit song), Patti LaBelle, and Gregory Hines, Santa Baby proved to be something of a disappointment to Rankin/Bass fans. It first aired on Fox on December 17, 2001 and has not aired very often ever since.

Since Santa Baby, Rankin/Bass has not produced anything else, although the company continues to exist. Here I should point out that while the 2001 computer animated, direct to video sequel to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys, utilised the characters and mythos from the original special, Rankin/Bass had nothing to do with it. I have no idea if Rankin/Bass has any new projects in production (Wikipedia claims they have a new holiday special, Rudolph vs. Frosty, on the boards, but I have found nothing else about it on the web, so it might just be a joke). Regardless, they do maintain a presence on the web.

Since its beginnings as Videocraft Incorporated in 1955, Rankin/Bass became a major contributor to Anglo-American pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies. They also became the company most associated with holiday specials. Indeed, it is perhaps a mark of the influence of Rankin/Bass that many of their specials continue to air on television (on the broadcast networks and ABC Family), decades after they were made. The influence of Rankin/Bass can also be seen in many of the commercials which have aired this year. An AFLAC commercial airing this season utilises the characters from the classic special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, done in the style of Rankin/Bass. Even when adverts don't outright use characters from the Rankin/Bass, they often pay homage to the company's Animagic style, from Mac computers to Alltel to Big Lots. There's even a Missouri lottery commercial airing at the moment featuring an "Island of Messed Up Gifts," a clear parody of the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, shot in a style reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass specials. As to parodies, there have been many over the years, from the shorts made by Corky Quakenbush for Mad TV to Robert Smigel's TV Funhouse takeoff on the old specials, aired on Saturday Night Live, in which Santa refuses to deliver toys to states that voted Republican. Regardless of whether Rankin/Bass ever produces another Yuletide special, the company has left a lasting legacy in Anglo-American culture with regards to holiday specials that will probably never be matched.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Frank Capra Jr. and Jack Linkletter Pass On

I was meaning to make a Yule themed post today, but it seems that two more famous people have passed on. Both were the sons of more famous fathers and both followed their father's footsteps in the same industries.

Movie producer Frank Capra Jr. was the son of the famous director Frank Capra, perhaps best known for the Yuletide classic It's a Wonderful Life. He died Wednesday at the age of 73 from prostate cancer.

Although the son of a famous filmmaker, Frank Capra Jr. did not plan to be a movie producer. He attended the California Institute of Technology and graduated from Pomona College with a degree in geology. Despite this, he soon found himself in the business of film making. At Hughes Tool Company, he made films which documented the various research programmes conducted by the company. Capra later joined the United States Army and served in the Signals Corps.

Capra's first experience with commercial media would be working on such TV shows as The Rifleman, Wanted Dead or Alive, and Dennis the Menace. He was a second unit director on the movie Pocketful of Miracles. Unlike his father, Capra's mark in movies would be made as a producer rather than a director. He earned his first producer credit as an associate producer on the sci-fi film Marooned in 1969. Beginning with Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Capra produced the last few sequels to Planet of the Apes. He would go onto produce such films as The Black Marble, Firestarter, and Waterproof. Capra was president of EUE/Screen Gems, the biggest studio in the United States outside of Hollywood.

Although not nearly as famous as his father, Frank Capra Jr. did contribute to the medium of film through producing such movies as the Planet of the Apes films and The Black Marble. His company, EUE/Screen Gems, has been involved in movies such as 28 Days and TV shows such as One Tree Hill.

Like Frank Capra Jr., Jack Linkletter was the son of a famous man. In his case, he was the son of legendary TV host Art Linkletter. He died Tuesday at the age of 70 from lymphoma.

Although Jack Linkletter would host many shows in his lifetime, his biggest impact on pop culture came when he was still a child. When he was five years old and in kindergarten, his father decided to interview him. Armed with a tape recorder, Art Linkletter asked young Jack how he liked school. Jack's response was that he did not like school, "Because I can’t read and I can’t write and they won’t let me talk." Art Linkletter's impromptu interview with his son inspired routine "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," long a segment on the show House Party and at various points a show of its own.

Jack Linkletter followed in his father's footsteps while still a teenager. When he was only 15 he was host of an interview show on CBS Radio and later the host of Teen Time on the same network. Linkletter was only twenty one years old and attending the University of Southern California when he became the host of Haggis Baggis, a summer replacement game show on NBC in 1958. At only 22 he was host of the daytime show On the Go. In 1962 he became the host of Here's Hollywood, a celebrity interview show. Jack Linkletter's most famous gigs would both be in the Sixties. In 1963 he was the host of Hootenanny ABC's attempt to cash in on the folk music craze that would be ended by the British Invasion. From 1964 to 1966 he was the host of the Miss Universe broadcasts. He would later serve as a co-host on House Party with his father in the late Sixties. In the Seventies he was the host of the daytime series America Alive. Jack Linkletter also served as the president of Linkletter Enterprises, the family's real estate development.

Jack Linkletter often joked that he was often hired when his employers could not afford his father. In truth, however, I always thought that Jack Linkletter was a genial and talented host in his own right. He could make even the most unwatchable show bearable to watch (a case in point being America Alive. While he was never as famous as his father, Jack Linkletter was certainly a good host in his own right.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Jack Zander R.I.P.

Animator Jack Zander, who helped develop Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame and pioneered animated commercials, died Monday at the age of 99.

Zander was born Arthur Jack Zander in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When he was in his teens, his family moved to Hollywood. He had planned to be an artist and attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. It was while he was at Chouinard that he found the career of his lifetime. The school received a call from the son of Western novelist Zane Grey, Roemer Grey, who had was founding an animation studio. The receptionist asked Zander and his friend Pete Burness (who would go onto work on many of the Mr. Magoo shorts and for Jay Ward), "Are you fellows animators?" The two of them being in dire need of jobs, they both answered, "Yes." At the time Zander didn't even know what an animator was. At Roemer Grey's studio Zander learned from two experienced animators, the brothers Tom and Bob McKimson (both would later work at Warner Brothers).

Grey's studio went out of business rather swiftly, leaving Zander out of work. In the following years Zander would work at Warner Brothers, the Van Buren studio, and Terrytoons. Eventually, he found himself at MGM. It was while he was at MGM that Zander helped Joseph Barbera develop the Tom and Jerry series, animating the mouse Jerry (called "Jinks" in the first cartoon) in the debut short of the series, "Puss Gets the Boot." During World War II Zander served as part of the Army Signal Corps. In the Signal Corps he made animated training films.

Following the war Zander left theatrical animation for the new field of animating commercials for television. He made his first TV commercial in 1947, an advert for Chiclets gum. In 1954 he founded his first animation studio, Pelican Films. Among his most popular commercials were those for Peils Beer, featuring animated brothers Bert and Harry Piels (voiced by comedy team Bob and Ray). Pelican Films lasted from 1954 to 1986, going out of business only after an ill planned foray into live action. In 1970 Zander founded Animation Parlour. Zander would go onto direct an episode of the ABC Superstar Movie, Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter (the film featured several King Features characters, including Hi and Lois, Snuffy Smith, Mandrake the Magician, and so on). He also directed the TV special Gnomes (which was nominated for an Emmy). Zander also directed the title sequence for the earliest seasons of Saturday Night Live, as well as the Tippi Turtle segments of the show.

Jack Zander may not be as famous as other names from the Golden Age of Animation, but his contributions to the medium are no less great. Indeed, he is as responsible for the success of Tom and Jerry as either William Hanna or Joseph Barbera, having worked on the first several cartoons of the series. He was also a pioneer in the field of animated commercials. Over the years he worked for such brands as Alka-Seltzer,Camel cigarettes, Colgate, Crest, Freakies breakfast cereal, Green Giant, and Shell Oil. During his career in commercials, he directed over 5000 adverts. While he may not be as famous as Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, he certainly made important contributions to the field of animation.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Dan Fogelberg and Floyd Red Crow Westerman Pass On

Cancer has taken two famous artists from our midst recently. One was soft rock balladeer Dan Fogelberg. The other was singer/actor/Native American rights activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

Dan Fogelberg died Sunday after a long struggle against prostate cancer. He was only 56 years old.

Dan Fogelberg was born in Peoria, Illinois on August 13, 1951. The son of a high school band director (his father) and a pianist (his mother), Folgelberg was exposed to music at an early age. He joined his first band when he was only 14. He was later a member of the band The Coachmen, who released two singles in 1967. Upon graduating high school in 1969, Fogelberg attended the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois. It was there that Irving Azoff, manager for such artists as The Eagles, REO Speedwagon, and Steely Dan found him. Fogelberg soon found himself a session musician for artists such as Buffy Saint-Marie, Jackson Browne, and Van Morrison. He released his first album, Home Free, in 1972 to only middling success. It would be his second album, Souvenirs, that would put Fogelberg on the map. The album did fairly well and produced a top forty single in the form of "Part of the Plan."

While his next album, Captured Angel, did not produce any top 40 singles ,it did solidify his status as one of top artists of the soft rock/folk rock genre. During his peak period in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Folgelberg produced such hit singles as "The Power of Gold," "Longer," "Same Old Lang Syne," "Leader of the Band," and "Make Love Stay." Folgelberg's career slowed down after his 1985 album High Country Snows, although he continued to record and tour. His last album, Full Cicle, was released in 2003.

Soft rock not exactly being my cup of tea, I cannot say I was ever a huge fan of Dan Fogelberg. That having been said, I think there is no denying his talent and his influence. The sounds of Dan Fogelberg can be heard in the music of artists as diverse as Allison Kraus and Jonathan Coulton. His song "Longer" has become something of a standard at weddings. And his songs continue to be played on adult contemporary radio stations throughout the United States.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman died Thursday, December 6, from leukaemia. He was 71 years old.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman or Kanghi Duta (his Dakota name, literally "Red Crow") was born on the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota as a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Dakota Sioux. As a child he attended the Wahpeton Boarding School. It was there that he met Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He attended Northern State College, South Dakota where he majored in Speech, Theater and Art. As a young man Westerman made a career for himself as a country/folk singer. His first album, Custer Died for Your Sins (the title taken from the book by Vine Deloria Jr.) was released in 1969. Westerman followed Custer Died for Your Sins with four more albums (Indian Country in 1970, The Land is Your Mother in 1982, Oyate, with Tony Hymas, in 1990, and A Tribute to Johnny Cash in 2006).

Although he started as a singer, Westerman is perhaps best known for his career as an actor. His acting career began with a guest appearance on MacGyver in 1988. he soon found himself in feature films, his first movie role being the father of Lou Diamond Philips in Renegades in 1989. His best known role would come in 1190 with the release of Dances with Wolves, in which he played Ten Bears. Over the years Westerman's film appearances would include the Shaman in the Jim Morrison biopic The Doors, Chairman Pico in Naturally Native, and Chief Eagle Horn in Hidalgo. Westerman also made several notable apperances on television. He was a regular on Walker, Texas Ranger and played a recurring character on Northern Exposure, The X-Files and Dharma and Greg. In choosing the parts he played on both television and movies, Westerman avoided playing any sort of Native American stereotypes.

Westerman was also active as an advocate for Native American rights. He often worked with the American Indian Movement. He testified at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg in 1992. He founded the Eyapaha Institute, a non-profit group which promotes the use of mass media as a tool to address issues of concern to indigenous peoples worldwide.

There can be no doubt that Floyd Red Crow Westerman was one of the most visible and most famous Native American actors of our time. His talent was considerable, as he played roles ranging from Ten Bears in Dancing with Wolves to Chairman Pico in Naturally Native. He was also a very talented singer and musician. Over the years he worked with everyone from Buffy Saint-Marie to James Browne. Westerman was no simple performer, however, as he was also one of the best known Native American activists. In fact, his work in both recording and acting was an extension of his activism. While I cannot say that I agree with every idea Westerman expressed, I must say I admire him for having the courage to espouse him. Indeed, my brother had the opportunity to speak with Westerman on the phone several times. According to my brother, Westerman was always a perfect gentleman, blessed with both intelligence and a great sense of humour. Talented and outspoken, I am sure he will be remembered for a long time to come.