Saturday, 8 September 2007

Miyoshi Umeki R.I.P.

To film buffs Miyoshi Umeki was probably best known as the first Asian to ever win an Oscar. To the majority of people she might well have been best known for her role as Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie's Father. She died in Licking, Missouri at the age of 78 after a long battle with cancer.

Umeki was born on May 8, 1929 in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan. She entered show business as a nightclub singer in Japan using the name Nancy Umeki. She recorded for RCA Victor and also made several musical shorts. Eventually she was noticed by a talent scout who convinced her to move to the United States. In the United States she became a regular on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and recorded songs on the Mercury Records label. In 1957 she appeared in her best known film role, as a naive Japanese woman who marries an American Air Force sergeant (played by Red Buttons). For the part she won the 1957 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first actor of Asian descent ever to do so.

From December 1, 1958 to May 7, 1960 she appeared as Mei Li in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The Flower Drum Song. She would reprise the part for the 1961 movie based on the musical (like the movie Memoirs of the Geisha, both the play and the movie The Flower Drum Song disregarded ethnicity in casting). Umeki would appear in a few films throughout the Sixties: Cry For Happy, The Horizontal Lieutenant, and A Girl Named Tamiko.

For the most part, however, her career was spent on television. She guest starred on The Donna Reed Show, Rawhide, Mr. Ed, The Virginian, and Burke's Law. She may be best known as housekeeper Mrs. Livingston on the late Sixties/early Seventies TV series The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Following The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Umeki retired from acting. She ran a business which rented film editing equipment to studios until retiring around five years ago. She moved to Licking to be near her son.

Although her acting roles rarely gave her a chance to prove it, Miyoshi Umeki was an actress of real talent. She certainly deserved her Oscar for Sayonara. She was also a gifted singer, with a gift for American pop standards. Even now she may have been the best known actress of Japanese descent to have performed in the United States. I must say that I am a bit saddened by her passing.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon Preempted by Golf

Every year, for literally decades, KOMU has always joined the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon after its 10 o'clock news on Sunday night. I have never known a time when they preempted the telethon for anything, until this Labour Day. This Labour Day my brother and I were watching the telethon when, suddenly at 1:00 PM, KOMU switched to NBC's coverage of some golf tournament. The golf tournament ran from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM, taking out nearly the whole part of the telethon on Labour Day afternoon.

To say the least I was shocked. After joining the telethon at 11:00 PM Sunday night, KOMU has never preempted any portion of it. That they did so this year surprised me. And I must admit I was a bit dismayed. Okay, I'll confess I only watch a very small portion of the telethon each year. For the most part the entertainers featured on the telethon do not appeal to my tastes (although they did have Cheap Trick on this year). That having been said I watched the telethon when I was a kid growing up when all we could get were two television stations (we didn't even have an ABC affiliate then), so it is somewhat of a holiday tradition. Besides which, I do enjoy seeing how our local fund raising efforts for the MDA Association are going. Neither of those reasons, however, are why I was a bit dismayed at the MDA Telethon being preempted by golf.

Instead, I can think of a more important reason, and that is the fact that the Jerry Lewis MDA Marathon does raise a good deal of money for the MDA Association. And to me it makes sense that the more time the telethon spends on the air, the more money will be donated to the cause. In preempting the MDA Marathon for golf, then, KOMU effectively reduced the amount of money that could have been donated to the MDA Association. Now I realise that during coverage of the golf tournament KOMU could have still gone to cutaways of the local fund raising efforts--I don't know if they did or not--but I rather suspect that it would not have mattered if they did. I rather suspect that most of the audience simply switched the channel when the golf tournament came on. I know that is what my brother and I did. While I have no doubt that golf is an enjoyable game to play, I have never had any real desire to watch it.

Of course, a less important reason that I was displeased when KOMU preempted the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon is simply that to me it is a tradition. It is to Labour Day what the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is to Thanksgiving or It's a Wonderful Life is to the Yuletide. One simply does not overturn decades of tradition simply for a golf game. Television has so few traditions now, it seems a shame to do away with what few they have had. Indeed, I would not have been happy if they had preempted it for a Cardinals or Rams game, sports I might watch!

I do realise that almost from the beginning other stations have preempted portions of the telethon. Since the Seventies, WGN has preempted it for baseball (either the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox). And I know in the past some CBS affiliates have broken away from coverage of the telethon to air coverage of the U.S. Open during Labour Day afternoon. But I never thought KOMU would be one of those stations which would preempt the Labour Day Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for anything but the most important news (assassinations, disasters, terrorist attacks, and so on). While I still think KOMU (along with our other mid-Missouri stations) is among the best stations in the United States, I was a bit disappointed in KOMU this Labour Day.

Monday, 3 September 2007

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

"Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, "I'm alive, and being alive is fantastic!" Every time such a thing happens, you're part of the Circus of Dr. Lao." (Dr. Lao, from the film The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao

Among the earliest films I ever saw was The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. It was one of my favourite movies as a child (it seemed as if NBC showed every year for several years). And it remains a movie I enjoy very much as an adult.

In fact, in all my years I think the only complaint I have heard about the film is that it departs from its source material, The Circus of Dr. Lao, a good deal. There is some truth to this. While The Circus of Dr. Lao is set in the Depression, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is set at the turn of the century. While The Circus of Dr. Lao is a rather cynical and even sarcastic work, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is somewhat lighter in tone. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is in their structure. The Circus of Dr. Lao has no central plotline, instead being a collection of vignettes interrelated only by the fact that they take place at the circus of Dr. Lao. The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao has a primary plotline, along with a romance that does not appear in the book.

That having been said, I am not sure criticisms that the film departs from the book are quite justifiable. Most films based on books depart from those books in some ways. And, from my standpoint, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is more faithful to The Circus of Dr. Lao than many movies are to their source material. Many of the vignettes that appear in the film play out much as they do in the book. Dialogue from the book is even quote word for word in the movie. And while The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao does have a lighter tone than The Circus of Dr. Lao, both works share the theme that the average American would not recognise a miracle if he came face to face with one. The difference is that The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao also has a more central them that we should look for the miracles in everyday life.

Indeed, the fact that many of the vignettes from the book made their way into the film, and played out much as they did in the book, makes The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao a darker film than many would expect. While the circus of Dr. Lao produces changes in many people in th movie as they come face to face with miracles, like most of the characters in the book, there are others who fail to recognise the miracles they see and don't change at all. And while the movie does not contain the undercurrent of eroticism that the book does, there is one particular scene in the movie (very similar to the same scene from the book) in which there is a strong current of sexuality. Those who have seen the film probably know the one I am talking about, in which Barbara Eden's character becomes, how shall we say, hot and bothered.

Of course, the strongest point in the film are the performances of Tony Randall. Randall played seven different roles in the film, aided by the work of legendary makeup artist William Tuttle (for which he won an honourary Oscar). Under the makeup, Randall is nearly unrecognisable in his various roles, given away only by his voice (and sometimes not even that). George Pal had originally wanted Peter Sellers for the roles, but it is hard to see how anyone, even Sellers, could have done a better job than Randall. The rest of the cast is largely made up of many faces recognisable from television: John Ericson (who played Sam Bolt on Honey West), Noah Beery Jr. (a regular in films and television from the Thirties to the Forties, who late played Jim Rockford's father on The Rockford Files), Lee Patrick (who played Henrietta Topper on Topper), Frank Cady (general store owner Sam Drucker on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres), and Douglas Fowley (Doc Holiday from The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp). Of course, the most regconisable face may well be the exquisite Barabara Eden, a year before she appeared on I Dream of Jeannie. Even in turn of the century clothing, Miss Eden was never sexier than she is in this film

As mentioned earlier, the film is boosted considerably by the makeup work of William Tuttle. It also has some very good special effects for its time, complete with stop motion animation provided by FX legend John Danforth. Over all, the special effects still hold up well today. Sadly, the special effects of the time did not permit the appearance of many of the creatures that appear in the book (there is no chimera or werewolf in the movie).

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is hardly a perfect film. It does have its share of flaws. But for the most part those flaws are very few and will not take away from enjoying the movie for most viewers. While it bombed at the box office upon its debut, I can easily see why it has become a cult film over the years. The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is one of director George Pal's best films. And one of the best works of fantasy to ever be filmed.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Circus of Dr. Lao

"Science? Science is nothing but classification. Science is just tagging a name to everything." (Dr. Lao)

This weekend I read The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney. Many of you may be familiar with it as the source material for the George Pal movie The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Others might know it as one of the classic fantasy novels of the mid-Twentieth century. Published in 1935, it would have an influences on novels ranging from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes to Stephen King's Needful Things.

People like me, who saw the movie long before they read the book, will find very much that is familiar in The Circus of Dr. Lao. Like the movie, the book is centred around the visit of Dr. Lao's circus to the small Arizona town of Abalone. The movie also quotes lines of dialogue from the book almost verbatim. The movie played out many of the scenes from the book very similarly as well. That having been said, there are some major differences between The Circus of Dr. Lao and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, enough that many purists reject the movie even if it is a cult film regarded as a classic by some. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two works is that while The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao has a linear plot with one central plotline, The Circus of Dr. Lao is essentially a collection of vignettes, linked by Dr. Lao's visit to Abalone, without a central plotline. Another difference is that while The 7 Face of Dr. Lao is set in turn of the century America, The Circus of Dr. Lao takes place during the Depression.

The Circus of Dr. Lao is also a much darker work. In fact, it is darker even than many of the novels inspired by it, including Something Wicked This Way Comes and Needful Things. Finney's approach is one of both cynicism and irony. While the townsfolk of Abalone go to the circus wanting to see something remarkable, ultimately many of them cannot accept it when they come face to face with genuine wonders. Finney compounds this in the fact that, with but few exceptions, he does not tell us the consequences of the townspeople's encounters with the circus, as if whatever happened to the townsfolk after Dr. Lao's visit matters very little. There is also a current of eroticism and sexuality running through the book that is surprising for something published in 1935. Although there is absolutely nothing explicit and it is mild by today's standards, it is clear that Finney was writing a fantasy work for adults and not children. It is definitely not The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Finney's cynicism, irony, and sarcasm is in fine display in a "Catalogue" he includes after the end of the book. The Catalogue lists every single character, even those we meet in passing, the various mythological figures mentioned in the book, the various towns, and even "Questions, Contradictions, and Obscurities." The Catalogue reads to some degree like Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, with Finney often providing caustic observations and comments rather than definitions and explanations. In some respects, it is the funniest part of the book.

I do have to add a word of warning here. While The Circus of Dr. Lao is in many respects ahead of its time, it is also a book very much of its time. Occasionally terms which we today consider racist do occur (fortunately nothing as severe as the "N" word). The people of Abalone are very much people of their time, which means that they are very much racist in attitude and suspicious of foreigners as well. Charles Finney pulls no punches in this book, so he felt no need to whitewash his characters so that they became something that people in 1935 were not.

It is easy to see why The Circus of Dr. Lao is considered a classic fantasy book and why it has had such influence. The Circus of Dr. Lao is funny, sarcastic, full of irony, unconventional, and, even after so many similar novels, starkly original. I must confess that I have never read a book quite like it. Anyone who is a fan of the movie, appreciates great fantasy works, or has a slightly off kilter sense of humour will enjoy The Circus of Dr. Lao.