Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Jungle Adventure Cycle That Never Was

There have been several occasions in this blog that I have written about various cycles in American television. A cycle is perhaps most simply defined as a trend or fad towards certain types of programming. The best example of a cycle may be the one towards Westerns in the Fifties. This cycle began in 1955 with the success of such series as Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. It lasted until 1960, a full five years. There were times during the Western cycle when there was a Western on one of the networks every night--often more than one. A more recent example of a television cycle is the one towards police procedurals that began with the success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Starting in 2000, it seems to me that the police procedural cycle is only just now coming to an end.

Of course, not all cycles last as long as either the Western cycle or police procedural cycle. Many only last two to three years. And then there are those cycles that never really begin. Such with jungle adventure series in the Sixties. Within a two year period three different shows (four if one counts a Saturday morning cartoon) set in the jungle debuted on American television. Only one of these series saw any real success and, perhaps as a result, a cycle towards jungle adventures never got off the ground.

Here it should be pointed out that while jungle adventure was something new to network television in the Sixties, it was nothing new to American television. With the success of the Tarzan movies, jungle adventure was a popular movie genre in the Thirties,Forties, and Fifites. Such movie series devoted to such characters as Jungle Jim and Bomba the Jungle Boy saw some degree of success. Naturally, these movies found their way to television in the Fifties and Sixties. Eventually, television would produce its own syndicated jungle adventure shows. The earliest of these may have been Ramar of the Jungle. The series featured Jon Hall as Dr. Tom Reynolds (AKA Ramar), a physician who operated in the jungles. It ran in first run syndication from 1952 to 1954 and many years afterwards in reruns.

The success of Ramar of the Jungle may have led to two more jungle adventure series, both airing in the 1955-1956 season. Jungle Jim was based on the comic strip of the same name, upon which the movie series starring former Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, was also based. The TV series did not see the success of either the comic strip or the movie series and lasted only one season. The other jungle adventure show to debut that season also lasted only one year, but it is somewhat better remembered. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was based on the comic book character of the same name, created by the legendary Will Eisner and S.M. "Jerry" Iger. Irish McCalla played the lead role, admitting, "I couldn't act, but I could swing through the trees." While the series only lasted one season in first run, it has been remembered ever since, if for no other reason than McCalla's statuesque form and her somewhat scanty (for the era) costume.

The jungle adventure shows of the Fifties were made primarily for a juvenile audience and would probably appear very unsophisticated to the eyes of modern viewers. Not only were they shot on budgets even smaller than many of the jungle adventure movies that preceded them, not only was the acting and writing often less than desirable, but the sort of colonial attitudes and racism that would very slowly fade from view in the late Twentieth century.

Indeed, there was very little of the sort of colonial attitudes that permeated the Fifties jungle adventure shows to be found in their counterparts in the Sixties. The Sixties jungle adventure series were a bit more sophisticated. In fact, they were made to appeal to adults as well as children. Regardless, they saw very little success. In fact, even the king of the jungle adventure genre, Tarzan could not master the Nielsen ratings.

Tarzan was the first of the jungle adventure series to debut in the Sixties, on NBC on September 8, 1966. Tarzan came to television courtesy of Sy Weintraub, the man who had produced the last few Tarzan movies, and starred Ely in the title role. Ron Ely's Tarzan was a sharp contrast to the Tarzan of the Johnny Weismuller movies. Having returned to the jungle after receiving an education in civilisation, Tarzan spoke in more than monosyllables. Jane was nowhere to be seen on the series, although the chimpanzee Cheeta was still around. While Tarzan had seen success in both books and movies, it would seem success in television would escape him. The Sixties series Tarzan lasted only two seasons. Other series based on the adventures of the apeman that have aired since have fared no better.

While Tarzan was still in its first season, the second jungle adventure show debuted as a mid-season replacement. Daktari first aired on CBS on January 11, 1966. The show followed the adventures of Dr. Marsh Tracy (Marshall Thompson), a veterinarian at Wameru Study Center for Animal Behavior in East Africa. It was based on the 1965 movie Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion and developed by legendary television producer Ivan Tors. Daktari received very good ratings in its earliest seasons, even ranking in the Top Twenty Five shows for the year at one point. Success would not last for Daktari, however, as its ratings declined in its final year. In all, it would last only three seasons. As to why the show saw more success than either of the other two prime time jungle adventure shows, it is perhaps because it was slightly different from the usual jungle adventure show. With a hero who was a veterinarian, episodes of Daktari often focused on animals as opposed to the usual diamond smugglers and corrupt hunters (although it featured those as well).

The final jungle adventure series of the Sixties was Cowboy in Africa, which debuted on ABC on September 11, 1967. Also developed by Ivan Tors, the series was based on the 1967 movie Africa: Texas Style and starred Chuck Connors as a cowboy hired to introduce American ranching methods to a game ranch in Kenya. Featuring a protagonist who was a champion rodeo rider in Africa, the series blended both Western and jungle adventure genres. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Cowboy in Africa did not last long. It went off the air after one season.

As of September 1967, there was a jungle adventure show airing on each of the networks. In fact, it could be argued that one network actually had two, although one of its jungle adventure shows aired on Saturday morning. George of the Jungle was an animated series produced by Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the men also responsible for The Bullwinkle Show and many other classic cartoons. It debuted on ABC in September 1967. The primary segment of George of the Jungle was a sly parody of Tarzan and other jungle adventurers. Although incredibly strong, George is as dim witted as they come. He believes that his elephant Shep is a big dog and does not seem to realise his friend Ursula is a girl. Adding to the humour of the show is the fact that George's friend Ape (his name is the same as his species) is a very adroit intellectual. George of the Jungle ran a few seasons on Saturday morning before going on to a healthy syndication run.

As stated earlier, by September 1967 every network had their own jungle adventure series. By September 1969 every one of these shows would be gone. And despite the novelty of a jungle adventure series being on each of the networks (a situation that has never happened again), there was no rush on the part of the networks to produce more. It all came down to ratings. Except for Daktari in its first two seasons, none of the jungle adventure series on prime time network television performed well in the Nielsens. The networks then probably saw no point in creating more jungle adventure series.

As to why the networks seized upon the jungle adventure genre to begin with, that may have been due to two factors. The first was perhaps the fact that many of the old jungle adventure movies (from Tarzan to the movies of actress Acquanetta) had been released in syndication to television in the Fifties. Noticing the popularity of the jungle adventure movies on local stations, network executives may have naturally looked to the genre for the next hit. Another factor may have been the fact that the Sixties saw several movies set, if not in the jungle, then at least in Africa. Beyond the usual Tarzan movies, there were also such varied films as Hatari, Call Me Bwana, Zulu, and Born Free. Indeed, it is notable that Tarzan, Daktari, and Cowboy in Africa were all spun off from films.

As to why the Sixties jungle adventure series failed, the reasons may be no farther than George of the Jungle. The reason that George of the Jungle worked so effectively as a parody is the fact that the jungle adventure genre had been done to death by the Sixties. It can be argued that Ruyard Kipling more or less invented the genre with The Jungle Book (although it is set in India rather than Africa). Edgar Rice Burroughs popularised jungle adventure with the Tarzan novels (first published in 1912). Naturally, movies, comic strips, and comic books followed--the first Tarzan movie was released all the way back in 1918. By the Sixties there would be little wonder if the genre was a bit tired and shopworn. And while the Sixties jungle adventure shows were a bit more sophisticated than their predecessors, they were still rife with many of the cliches of the genre. The basic plots seen in Ramar of the Jungle and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in the Sixties could still be seen in the Sixties Tarzan series and Cowboy in Africa. It is perhaps notable that Daktari, which departed somewhat from the jungle adventure formula, was the most successful of the three shows. Quite simply, if a cycle towards jungle adventure on the American television networks never quite got off the ground in the Sixties, it might have been because these particular shows did not add very much new to the genre. Regardless, it is perhaps remarkable that there was a point in the Sixties that three (or four, if you count George of the Jungle) jungle adventure shows aired in the same season on the American television networks.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Ike Turner and Marit Allen Pass On

Thankfully, December has not seen nearly a many deaths among the famous as November has. That having been said, two more well known artists have recently passed.

One was Ike Turner, the legendary performer, songwriter, and producer, Turner died Wednesday at the age of 76.

Turner was born either Izear Luster Turner Jr. or Ike Wister Turner on November 5, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. While only eight years old, he got a job at a radio station. Initially, he simply ran the elevator, but he soon found himself behind the turntable and associating with the likes of blues artists Robert Nighthawk and Pinetop Perkins. Reportedly, it was Perkins who helped teach Turner guitar. It was in the late Forties that Turner launched his music career, with a band called the Kings of Rhythm. It was in 1951 that the Kings of Rhythm, credited as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (Jackie Brenston being the lead singer on the song), released the epochal record "Rocket 88." Written by Ike Turner, the album is credited by some as the first true rock 'n' roll record. Among other things, it was one of the first songs to use guitar distortion. It was during these early days that Turner also acted as a talent scout, helping sign such names as Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Turner was also much in demand as a sideman, working with Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, and Otis Rush among others.

It was around 1958 that Ike Turner discovered a teenage vocalist named Anna Mae Bullock, who would go onto greater fame as Tina Turner. Initially Tina was a background vocalist who only occasionally sang lead, but this changed in 1960 when the lead vocalist scheduled to sing the song "Fool in Love" did not show up. Tina filled in and the song became a hit, reaching #2 on the R&B chart and entering the Billboard top 30 singles chart as well. The two were married two years later in 1962. From 1960 to 1975 Ike and Tina Turner had a string of hits, including "River Deep--Mountain High," "A Love Like Yours," and "Nutbush City Limits." Unfortunately, their marriage was not exactly smooth. Tina left Ike in 1975 and his music career floundered. He released two solo albums, but neither did well. To make matters worse, Turner found himself on the wrong side of the law. Arrested on drugs and weapons charges in 1989, he spent some time in prison. After his release in 1993, Turner returned to recording. His album Here and Now was nominated for a Grammy. His album Risin' with the Blues won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. He also worked with the likes of Gorillaz and The Black Keys.

Although today widely known for his violent temper and his marriage to Tina Turner, Ike Turner was a talented musician. Depending on whom one asks, he may well have written the first true rock 'n' roll record--he was definitely one of the first to use distorted guitar on a song. He had a lasting influence on artists ranging from The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin. While his personal was not always what it ought to have been, he did have a lasting impact on rock music and yet other musical genres.

The other celebrity to die recently was costume designer Marit Allen. Allen died at the age of 66 on November 26 from a brain aneurysm.

Allen was born September 17, 1941 in Cheshire, England. She attended the University of Grenoble, France. Following graduation she got a job as an assistant at the magazine Queen. It was only two years later that she began writing the the magazine's "About Twenty" pages, which were devoted to the lifestyle of twentysomethings at the time. It was in 1964 that she started working for Vogue and writing their "Young Idea" pages. In 1966 she married movie producer Sanford Lieberson. Her marriage to Lieberson opened the door to a career in movies, her first film credit being as a "fashion consultant" on the movie Kaleidoscope in 1966. Her first credit as a costume designer was on the film Bad Timing in 1980. Over the years, she designed costumes for such films as Little Shop of Horrors (the 1986 musical version), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Eyes Wide Shut, and Brokeback Mountain. Her last film credit was for the Justice League of America movie slated for release in 2010.

Marit Allen was a talented and prolific costume designer, having designed costumes for 41 movies in all. She was also very versatile in her costuming. She could create ornate costumes for a period piece such as La Vie en Rose, off the wall costumes for a musical comedy such as Little Shop of Horrors, or more sedate costumes such as the ones she did for Don't Look Now. Having a talent that lent itself to a wide array of styles and having worked on so many movies, Allen will not soon be forgotten.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

We Have Experienced Technical Difficulties

I have to apologise for not having made an entry the past two days, but due to the ice storms that struck Missouri and other states, I was without an internet connection for the better part of those two days. Fortunately, my connection has been restored and it looks like the bad weather is gone for now. I will try to post something Friday and Saturday.

Monday, 10 December 2007

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Central to many people's memories of their childhoods is how they celebrated the Yuletide. And I would expect that most people would have their favourite eras when they felt Christmas was at its best. In fact, I rather suspect that one could look at the history of the holiday and pick out various Golden Ages, times when Yuletide celebrations were bigger and better than they had been at any other period in history.

Indeed, as hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Christmas was not celebrated in England as it is today. The Puritans had viewed the holiday as merely an excuse for overindulgence in such things as drinking, eating, and games. No less than Oliver Cromwell himself thought of the celebration of Christmas as "heathen traditions." It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1644 the celebration of Christmas was banned by an Act of Parliament. The celebration of the holiday would return with the Restoration, although it would be far more subdued than it had been in years prior to the Puritan ban. In fact, until the Victorian Era, it was not unusual for many in England to work on the holiday.

It would be the Victorian Era that would see Christmas truly return to its prominence on the calendar. Queen Victoria would take the throne in 1837 and rule until her death in 1901. During that time a number of developments would lead to the holiday that we know today. In some respects, the process had already begun before Victoria had taken the throne. Washington Irving published his popular book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall in 1820. The seminal poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," was first published in 1923. As early as the 1820s and 1830s sweet shops in New York City began to capitalise on the holiday. Christmas seems to have been returning to the forefront of holidays before Victoria's reign. That having been said, it was definitely during the time that Victoria was on the throne that Christmas became the Christmas most of us know.

Much of this would be due to the royal family themselves. Christmas trees had existed in Germany at least since the 16th century. In Britain the custom was unknown until George III's queen consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced one into the palace. It would not be until the reign of Victoria, however, that the custom would would become widespread across Britain. Prince Albert loved Christmas trees, and woodcuts of the royal family's tree would appear in the Illustrated London News in December 1848. In the U.S., Christmas trees appeared as early as the 18th century. It would be in 1851 that preacher Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio became the first man to place a Christmas tree in a church, despite protests from some of the parishioners. By the end of the 19th century, it would probably be safe to say that most homes in England and United States had Christmas trees during the Yuletide.

Other Christmas traditions were being introduced in England at the same time as the Christmas tree. It was in 1843 that Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first commercial Christmas cards. By 1875 lithographer Louis Prang would introduce the Christmas card to the United States. While the British custom of the Christmas card would spread to America, the tradition of Christmas crackers would remain a particularly British custom. For those of you who don't know what a Christmas cracker is, it is a tube of generally bright coloured paper, which when pulled apart makes a loud noise or "crack." The crackers generally contain some sort of gift, such as sweets or party hats or whatever. The Christmas cracker was invented by Tom Smith as a means of promoting his bon-bons. Initially he had thought of simply wrapping his candies in bright coloured paper, although he eventually fell upon the idea of putting them in a strip of specially made paper that would make a noise. It was his son, Walter Smith, who thought of putting the various gifts in the crackers.

While various innovations were being introduced into the Yuletide celebration during the Victorian era, the mass media also embraced the celebration. Beyond the aforementioned "A Visit from St. Nicholas," perhaps the works of no other writer had as much influence on the holiday as Charles Dickens. He is perhaps best known for A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, but Dickens would write four other works that dealt with the holiday. Throughout the years he wrote such holiday themed tales as The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1847). Dickens was not alone in embracing the holiday. In the United States political cartoonist Thomas Nast popularised the image of Santa Claus as a jolly old fat man. His first illustration of Old St. Nick appeared in 1963 in the pages of Harper's Weekly.

There were yet other developments during the Victorian Era that would give rise to the modern Christmas. As the 19th century passed, retailers developed more and more means of capitalising on the holiday. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus' headquarters. Macy's was among the earliest department stores to capitalise on the holiday. In 1867 it was open until midnight on Christmas Eve for the very first time. In 1874 they set up the first of their famous window displays. It was also in that year that they had their first in store Santa Claus.

Ultimately, the Victorian Era would give shape to the modern day celebration of Christmas. It saw the custom of the Christmas tree spread throughout the English speaking world. It also saw the introduction of Christmas cards and Christmas crackers. Seminal works dealing with the holiday, such as those of Dickens and Nast, were published for the first time. And it was during that period that retailers began to capitalise on the holiday.

If there is another Golden Age for Christmas celebrations, it may well be the post war years, following World War II. Although it was not quite a period of innovation in the same way as the Victorian Era, it also gave shape to the modern day Yuletide celebration. In fact, it was during this period that electric Christmas lights grew in prominence. During the Victorian era and before, it was customary to decorate Christmas trees with candles. Naturally, this was dangerous and, as might be expected, there were a few fires resulting from candles on Tannenbaums. The introduction of electric lights was then a welcome innovation. It was not one, however, that was embraced immediately. In 1882 Edward H. Johnson, then vice president of Edison Electric Light Company, became the first man to decorate a Christmas tree with electric lights. In 1890 he would introduced the first mass produced string of Christmas lights. By 1900 stores would begin using Christmas lights for their displays. One more innovation would be made in 1917. The early Christmas lights were not quite as dangerous as the candles before them, but they were hardly safe. It would be Albert Sadacca who would invent the first safe Christmas lights. His family manufactured novelty ornaments, among which were novelty lights. Sadacca adapted these novelty lights into a string of Christmas lights. In their first year the sales of the lights were very poor, but the next year Sadacca introduced coloured lights and sales soared. Albert Sadacca and his brothers would found NOMA Electric Company, the biggest manufacturer of Christmas lights until the Sixties.

With Sadacca's invention, Christmas lights grew increasingly more common throughout the Twenties and Thirties. It was during this period that many families took to decorating their tree with lights. It was also during this period that cities and communities began creating outdoor displays with lights. At the time, however, it was cost prohibitive for private individuals to decorate their homes with lights. The advent of World War II would not help matters. Most industries shifted to producing goods for the war and materials, particularly metal, was in short supply. As long as the war lasted, no new strings of Christmas lights were produced. This is not to say that innovations were not made in Christmas lights during this period. It was in 1939 that bubble lights were first developed. They would not go not onto the market until after the war, but when they did they became an outright fad. Bubble lights were popular for many years before falling out of favour with the public.

Indeed, the post war period saw Christmas lights soar in sales. In 1947 alone General Electric could not keep up with the demand for lights. The late Forties would see community light displays become even more common. And by the Fifties lights had dropped in price to where the average person could afford to decorate his home with lights.

While Christmas lights also became more common in the post war period, both during and after the war would see the introduction of some of the most beloved Yuletide carols. The movie Holiday Inn would introduce "White Christmas," still the biggest selling song of all time, in 1942. The film Meet Me in St. Louis would introduce the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in 1944. The post war period would be a particularly productive time for Christmas carols, with such classics as "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" (1945), "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)" (1946), "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)" (1947), "Sleigh Ride" (1948), and "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" (1951) all released during that time period. One classic song released during the period, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," actually has its roots before the war. The character of Rudolph was created by Robert L. May in 1939 as part of a Montgomery War advertising campaign. The tale of Rudolph would be adapted as a theatrical cartoon in 1944. Eventually Johnny Marks, May's brother in law, would adapt Rudolph's story as a song, although changing it considerably. Recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, it became a smash hit. Indeed, it must be pointed out that "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" represents the first major addition to the mythos of Santa Claus since the 19th century.

The post war period as not only a good time for Christmas carols, but it could well have been the Golden Age of Yuletide movies. Of course, it could be argued that this Golden Age started before the war was even over. Nineteen forty four saw the release of both The Bells of St. Mary's and Meet Me in St. Louis. That having been said, it was after the war that the true classics of the holiday were released. No less than It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street were released following World War II--the former in 1946 and the latter in 1947. The next several years would see the release of several holiday classics, among them The Bishop's Wife (1947), Holiday Affair (1949), A Christmas Carol (1951), and The Lemon Drop Kid.

While the Victorian Era and the post war years saw some innovation in Christmas celebrations, the Sixties can be considered a Golden Age for Yuletide celebrations simply because it was a time when everything that had gone before coalesced into our modern day Yuletide festivities. By the Sixties most home owners decorated both their trees and houses in lights for the holidays. In those days before the Energy Crisis of the Seventies, towns and communities could still afford lavish Christmas light displays, as could the various retail outlets. This is not to say that the Sixties did not see at least one innovation in the holiday, albeit one that would not be well loved over the years. Artificial trees had been made as early as the 19th century. It was in the Thirties that the Addis Brush Company introduced the first artificial brush trees. It was in 1959 that Aluminum Specialty Company introduced the first aluminium Christmas trees. Because they were made of aluminium, it was not particularly safe to decorate them with electric lights. For this reason the trees were illuminated by multicoloured, rotating floodlights, better known as colour wheels. Sales for the trees were initially very good, although they gradually fell into disrepute as the Sixties wore on. In fact, on A Charlie Brown the aluminium Christmas tree was attacked as a representation of crass commercialism. By the end of the Sixties, the age of aluminium Christmas tree was pretty much over. While there are those who are nostalgic for the aluminium trees, I though they were ugly even as a child, alhough I admit that the colour wheels were very pretty.

While the Sixties was the era of the aluminium Christmas tree, it was also a good era for holiday music. In fact, it was in 1963 that A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. The album mostly consisted of Spector's artists performing such standards as "Sleigh Ride" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" done with Spector's "Wall of Sound" production. Its one original song, however, would turn out to be the greatest holiday rock song of all time--"Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," performed by Darlene Love. Aside from the songs on Spector's classic rock album, many other classic holiday songs came out during the period: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (1960), "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" (1963), "Holly Jolly Christmas" (from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), and "Little Saint Nick" by The Beach Boys (1964).

The Sixties did not produce much in the way of classic holiday movies (unless one counts Scrooge from 1970), but it was the Golden Age of holiday specials. Starting as early as as the late Forties and early Fifties, many celebrities hosted their own holiday specials. Jack Benny, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Andy Williams all had their own specials during the holidays. Indeed, Como, Crosby, Hope, and Williams would make their Christmas specials an annual event. By 1963 celebrity Christmas specials were so prevalent on television that they were parodied in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show called "The Alan Brady Show Presents."

Of course, for most members of Generation X it was not the celebrity Christmas specials to watch in the Sixties, but the animated ones. In 1962 Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol inaugurated the tradition of the animated Christmas special. That tradition was cemented in 1964 with the success of Rankin/Bass's Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Shot in stop motion animation, the special proved a huge hit and has aired every year ever since on network television. It began a Golden Age of animated specials, with the classics being released over the next few years: A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1967, The Little Drummer Boy in 1968, and Frosty the Snowman in 1969. Many of these specials were produced by Rankin/Bass an animation company best known for their work in a stop motion process called "Animagic (although Frosty the Snowman was made using cel animation)." Their output of holiday specials was actually greater in the Seventies, but arguably their best work was done in the Sixties. Indeed, their first holiday special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was arguably the greatest work they ever did.

The Seventies saw the advent of the Energy Crisis, during which time many communities either cut back on their Christmas light displays or did away with them entirely. Many private individuals simply made due with lighting their trees while not bothering to decorate their houses in lights. For whatever reason, Christmas songs became fewer in number. When they were released at all, they generally did poorly on the charts. As to television, as the Seventies wore on Christmas specials numbered fewer and fewer on the small screen. By the Eighties only the perennials (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas) remained. Personally, I think it was the lowest point the Christmas celebration has seen in the past 150 years.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that my earliest childhood was spent in the Sixties, when the celebration of Christmas was still at its most extravagant. I remember each year we would go to the woods and cut down a tree, then bring it into the house to decorate it with ornaments and lights. Dad would decorate the outside of the house with lights as well, with the classic C-7 candelabra bulbs. The local towns would all be decorated with lights as well, with lights even strung along the power lines crossing their downtown streets. I remember one of the highlights of my Yuletide as a child was the trip to see an enormous Christmas light display, I think in New Franklin (although I can't be sure). Sadly, that ended with the energy crisis. Of course, the radio was filled with holiday songs, from the classic "White Christmas" to the not so classic "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." And, of course, every year I could expect to see Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Bob Hope's latest Yuletide special on TV. Locally, carolling was still a common event during the holidays then.

Since the Eighties I think the celebration of Christmas has improved. Gradually towns and communities have reintroduced Christmas light displays, even if they are a bit more subdued than they were in the Sixties. People started decorating their homes with lights again. And in the Naughts Christmas specials returned to the small screen, first on cable and now on the networks. This is the first year in ages I can remember seeing How the Grinch Stole Christmas on a major network. Of course, only time will tell if any of this will result in another Golden Age of Christmas celebration, one to match those of the Victorian Era, the Post War years, and the Sixties.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The Golden Compass (the Movie, not the Book)

There are times when I am utterly mystified as to why a particular movie gets bad reviews. This is the case with The Golden Compass, the feature film adaptation of the controversial novel Northern Lights (called The Golden Compass for some odd reason here in the States). The Golden Compass has received some good reviews (Roger Ebert gave it a particularly glowing one), but the bad notices have far outnumbered the good ones. I am here to tell you to simply ignore the critics who have trashed this film. I honestly have to wonder if they even saw the same film that my best friend and I did.

As I mentioned earlier, The Golden Compass is based on Philip Pullman's Northern Lights. The novel is set in a steampunk world analogous to our own Victorian Era. Much of this world is dominated by the Magisterium, a religious institution that practises an odd blend of Calvinism and Catholicism and answerable only to the Authority (a powerful entity who is not, as many seem to believe, God). Here England is still a world power and the nations are not the same as our own (for instance, Svalbard is ruled by the intelligent, armoured bears known as Panserbjorn). Every human being in this world has his or her own daemon, a manifestation of that person's soul taking the form of an animal of the opposite sex. Children's daemons are able to change shape, although they settle into one form by adulthood (Lord Asriel's daemon is a snow leopard named Stelmaria). Central to the plot of Northern Lights and the rest of His Dark Materials trilogy is the device known as an alethiometer, a device which measures the truth (there were once several in existence, now there is only one). Given the portrayal of organised religion in His Dark Materials trilogy, it is perhaps understandable why the trilogy of late has generated more controversy than even the Harry Potter series.

The movie The Golden Compass sidesteps this controversy by never directly mentioning either God or religion. While an individual watching the film could easily interpret the Magisterium as being a version of the Church, it can just as easily be interpreted as any other source of authority, from the Congress of Soviets to the Gestapo. Regardless of the content of the novel, then, the film operates not as a commentary on organised religion, but rather as an example of British fantasy at its finest.

Indeed, among the objections that I have to some of the poorer reviews this film has received is that it lacks warmth. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the movie is darker and more complex than the film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I also found it much warmer. Much of this stems from the fact that, contrary to many of the reviews you will see out there, the characters are developed quite well through a combination of director Chris Weitz's script and the talents of the film's fine cast. In fact,I would have to say that the film is nearly perfectly cast. After all, if one needs a grizzled aeronaut/cowboy, who better to cast than the one and only Sam Elliot? Similarly, if one needs a cool but sexy blonde, one could perhaps do no better than Nicole Kidman (still one of my favourite actresses around). Nearly every part in the film is perfectly cast, from a cameo by the great Christopher Lee as the Magisterium's First High Councillor to Ian McKellan as the voice of the Panserbjorn Iorek Byrnison and Ian McShane as the voice of his evil counterpart Ragnar Sturlusson. While the film is filled with some very big name actors, among the most delightful members of the cast is its lead, Dakota Blue Richards. Richards plays Lyra Belacqua, the 12 year old noble girl who wants to be a ragamuffin, but finds herself swept up in events much bigger than herself. Richards convincingly plays a resourceful young girl with the courage, intelligence, and charisma to get herself out of nearly any situation.

The Golden Compass also benefits from being beautifully shot. The movie features some of the most amazing visuals seen in films of late, and ones that are a stark contrast to the psuedo-medeival landscapes of Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, or the more modern ones of the Harry Potter series. The settings range from a wonderful realisation of Pullman's steampunk, pseudo-Victorian version of London to the frozen landscape of Svalbard. The sets and costumes are suitably lavish for an epic fantasy film set in a Victorian world.

This is not to say that The Golden Compass is a perfect film. The movie suffers from what I like to call Harry Potter syndrome. Harry Potter syndrome results when filmmakers adapt a novel and try to fit so much of that novel into the movie that in end it feels a bit rushed. This is the case with The Golden Compass, particularly in its first quarter. The movie could have easily been made a half hour longer, fleshing out some of the situations in the film, and not suffered at all. In fact, I rather believe it would have been a much better film (which to me is really saying something).

From this review it should be obvious that I really liked The Golden Compass. It is for that reason that I am puzzled as to why the movie has received so many bad reviews. I honestly have to wonder if many of the critics are reacting more to the controversy generated by the books than they are the film itself. It's either that or they wandered into a showing of Fred Claus instead. Regardless, I am telling you not to listen to the naysayers with regards to this movie. Go see The Golden Compass. You'll thank me later.

Postscript: For those of you who are curious as to what my daemon would be if I existed in the world of Northern Lights, here she is. It figures that my daemon would be some sort of cat...