Saturday, 5 April 2008

Bette Davis Turns 100

One hundred years ago today a child was born named Ruth Elizabeth Davis in Lowell, Massachusetts. If the name "Ruth Elizabeth Davis" seems unfamiliar to you, then you are probably familiar with the name by which she came better known: "Bette Davis."

Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born to Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney, and Ruth Augusta Davis. Sharing her mother's first name, the family simply called the child "Betty," short for her middle name "Elizabeth." Her parents separated when Betty was only seven years old. In 1921 her mother, Ruth, moved to New York to work as a portrait photographer. It was there that Betty discovered the movies. She decided to become an actress after seeing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse starring Rudolph Valentino and Little Lord Fauntleroy starring Mary Pickford in 1921. She also changed the spelling of her name from "Betty" to "Bette" after encountering La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac.

While Davis wanted to be an actress, the path to her chosen career would not be easy. After graduating from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, she tried getting admitted to the Manhattan Civic Repertory, the repertory founded by actress and director Eva Le Gallienne. La Gallienne rejected Davis, telling her "I can see your attitude toward the theatre is not sincere..You are a frivolous little girl." Although dismissed by La Gallienne, she was accepted into the John Murray Anderson's acting school. There one of her classmates was none other than Lucille Ball. There Davis also studied dance under choreographer Martha Graham.

Despite studying at a prestigious acting school, Davis's path to acting would still not be easy. She left school and even gave up a scholarship to do so when offered a part in a play at the Provincetown Playhouse by director Unfortunately, production of the play was postponed several times, making Davis unable to return to school and very much in need of a job. With a letter of recommendation from director Frank Conroy, Davis met with director George Cukor, then casting for the play Broadway in Rochester, New York. Cukor was not particularly impressed with Davis, but cast her in the small part of a chorus girl as a favour to Conroy. Advised by her mother to study the whole play because the lead actress might have an accident, Bette Davis did just that. As it turned out, her mother was right. Only two days after Broadway opened the lead actress, Rose Lerner, twisted her ankle after a part of the play in which she was to fall down a staircase. Davis soon found herself cast in the lead role because she already knew the part. Davis would go onto play Hedwig in Wild Duck. She made her debut on Broadway in The Earth Between in 1929 and appeared in Broken Dishes on Broadway the same year.

It was on Broadway that Davis was noticed by a Universal talent scout. Following two screen tests, she was signed to a contract and went to Hollywood. Davis was not met by anyone from the studio at the train station. It was later revealed that the Universal employee sent to fetch her had not done so because he saw no passengers who looked like a movie actress. As it turned out, Universal may have been a very poor fit for Davis. Universal production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. considered terminating her contract and once said she had as much sex appeal as comedy actor Slim Summerville. She was saved only by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, who thought she had beautiful eyes. It was because of Freund that she was cast in her debut film, The Bad Sister. The film flopped. Sadly, all of the films she made at Universal and the ones for which she was loaned to Columbia and Capital Films failed. After only about a year, Universal terminated Bette Davis's contract.

Fortunately for Davis, actor George Arliss was looking for an actress to play his love interest in the film The Man Who Played God, being shot at Warner Brothers. He chose Davis, whose performance was impressive enough that Warner signed her to a five year contract. It would be with the 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage that Davis would receive her first critical acclaim, even being nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Sadly, the nomination would not lead to great roles for Davis. While she was cast in The Petrified Forest opposite Humphrey Bogart, for the most part she was being cast in mediocre films that did poorly at the box office. As a result Bette Davis took off for England where she had been offered roles in two films, feeling that she was being misused by Warner. Unfortunately for Davis, Warner Brothers brought suit against her for violating her contract. Ultimately, Bette Davis lost her case against Warner Brothers.

It seems possible that the lawsuit may well have resulted in Davis being cast in better films. Her next film, Marked Woman, recieved good reviews. It was in 1938 that Davis would become a bona fide star. That year she appeared in the film Jezebel. A success at the box office, it earned her critical acclaim and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In fact, from 1939 to 1943 Davis would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role every single year, for Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). She was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress for her role in Mr. Skeffington in 1945.

Here we should perhaps digress to discuss something other than movies which was pivotal to the legend of Bette Davis--her long standing feud with Joan Crawford. Supposedly it began in 1935 when Bette Davis fell in love with actor Franchot Tone. Sadly, for Davis, it seems that Tone was already taken by another actress, Joan Crawford, then a star at MGM. It would be in the mid-Forties that events would unfold to add fuel to the rivalry between the two actresses. Throughout the Thirties Joan Crawford had made a number of successful films at MGM. By the early Forties, however, her career had stalled. It was then in 1943 that Crawford jumped ship for Warner Brothers, the studio that was home to Bette Davis. Soon Crawford was taking parts that had been meant for Davis

Unfortunately, while Davis's career was still quite strong in the late Forties, it also was not what it had once been. Much of this may have been because of bad career choices on Davis's part. She turned down the parts in Mildred Pierce and was unable to appear in Possessed because she was pregnant at the time (Joan Crawford took Davis's parts in both films). Her film A Stolen Life was critically lambasted, while Deception became the first Bette Davis movie in literally years to bomb at the box office. She clashed with the studio during the making of Winter Meeting, clashed with Robert Montgomery during June Bride, and begged to be released from the film Beyond the Forest. Davis's instincts regarding Beyond the Forest appear to have been right. The film received universally bad reviews. Despite this it contains what may be Davis's most famous line: "What a dump!"

Davis was released from her contract at Warner Brothers following the release of Beyond the Forest in 1949. Many at the time thought that Davis's career was over. And in fact, Davis was not receiving many offers. It was then that Darryl F. Zanuck offered Davis the role of Margo Channing, the ageing theatre star, in All About Eve. The film did very well with critics. The Cannes Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Circle ,and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle all gave her their awards for Best Actress. Amazingly, although she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Leading Actress for All About Eve, she did not win (Judy Holliday did for Born Yesterday).

Despite her success in All About Eve, Davis's film career would not return to the heights it had once been. She still made movies. During the decade she appeared in The Virgin Queen and The Catered Affair. But she was not the movie star she had once been. Perhaps for this reason she returned to Broadway, playing in Two's Company in 1952, The World of Carl Sandburg, and The Night of the Iguana in 1960. She also appeared on television, guest starring on The Twentieth Century Fox Hour, Studio 57, General Electric Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Wagon Train.

Fortunately for Bette Davis, she would make a comeback in the Sixties. Director Robert Aldrich cast her in the horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane opposite her long time rival Joan Crawford. The movie centred on two ageing sisters, a former child star Jane (Bette Davis) and former movie star Blanche (Joan Crawford). Now paralysed from the waist down, Blanche is now at the mercy of her long envious sister. The hatred of the two actresses for each other was apparent during the making of the film--each would call Aldrich every night to snipe about the other. And that hatred fuelled the performances of both actresses. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is one of the most intense movies of the era. As to Davis, she was nominated for another Oscar. Her rival, Crawford, wasn't.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was so successful that it was decided the thwo should be teamed for a similar film, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Initially Davis baulked at the idea of performing with Crawford again, but later relented. Crawford simply insisted that her name appear first in the credits. As filming began, however, Joan Crawford fell ill and was admitted to hospital. Her part then had to be recast. It was offered to Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh. Ultimately, it was Olivia de Havilland received the role.

In addition to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Davis made several notable films in the latter part of her career. She appeared in the crime drama Dead Ringer, the horror movie The Nanny, the Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile, and The Whales of August. She also continued to appear on television. She guest starred on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and Laugh In. She also appeared in several telefilms, including Scream, Pretty Peggy, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Family Reunion, and A Piano for Mrs. Cimino.

Having had breast cancer in 1983, in 1989 it was discovered the cancer had returned. It was on October 6, 1989 that Bette Davis died.

Of the actresses of the Twentieth Century, Bette Davis is one of the most legendary. She was the first actress ever to receive ten nominations for Best Actress. She was one of the biggest box office draws of the Thirties and Forties. What is more, she still maintains a following to this day, among Gen Xers who first encountered her in the horror movies and TV movies she made in the Sixties and Seventies. This is all the more remarkable given that Bette Davis was not what one would call a beautiful woman. Davis herself said that she had made her career without the benefit of beauty. What is more, Bette Davis often took very unsympathetic roles, playing everything from murderers to schemers. If Bette Davis became a star, it was perhaps largely due to her talent.

Indeed, Bette Davis has permeated pop culture in a way that many of her contemporaries have not. Her rivalry with Joan Crawford is the stuff of legend, and has been referenced in everything from Laverne and Shirley to Iki-jigoku. She has been mentioned in at least two songs, "Vogue" by Madonna and "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes (not to be outdone, Joan Crawford is mentioned in song too--"Joan Crawford" by Blue Oyster Cult--personally, I think Joan got the better end of the deal when it came to songs...). Scenes from her movies, from the cigarette lighting scene in Now Voyager to the scene in which she serves a dead rat to Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are still well known. One hundred years after her birth, Bette Davis is still a star. One has to wonder if the same will be said of many actresses today?

Friday, 4 April 2008

Soda-Pop Mail

Sadly, I can no longer check my email from my cell phone. For the past two years I have had an application on my phone called Soda-Pop Mail. Essentially, Soda-Pop Mail retrieves email from one's email provider. That provider can be a web based email service, such as Yahoo or Hotmail, or it can be the email account one has through one's provider. What makes Soda-Pop Mail even handier is that it leaves the email on the server, so that you can still download it to your computer.

Unfortunately, it was about two weeks ago that Soda-Pop Mail simply disappeared from my phone. I have checked the list of applications that U.S. Cellular provides and I don't see it on the list. I am thinking then that they may have dropped it. That is sad, as I think there is a greater need for Soda-Pop Mail than many of the applications they do still offer. I mean, what individual other than a teenage girl is going to use Chick Talk, an application for sharing advice on such things as dating, family, et. al. And I can't think of anyone but the truly desperate or truly hypersexual who would use something like Flirt Pix. It is essentially an application for single people to share their "hottest lifestyle pictures." It amazes me that these applications are still available, and yet Soda-Pop Mail is not.

Anyhow, I truly enjoyed Soda-Pop Mail while I had it. And if you are on a cellular phone company that offers it, I fully recommend that you subscribe to Soda-Pop Mail. It is a worthwhile application that comes in use when you are away from your computer.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Dark Side of the Office

On the surface, it would appear that working in an office would not be that bad of a job. After all, it would seem that there are much worse jobs to be had. Office work is not physically demanding in the way that construction work or farming are. Office work is not a dirty job, in the way that garbage collecting or sewer maintenance are. And office work surely is not as dehumanising as some factory work is, in which an individual may repeatedly perform the same simple task over and over and over again.

Despite this, it seems to me that in the latter of part of the Twentieth century, the United Kingdom and the United States has developed a bit of hatred towards working in offices. It would seem that in Anglophonic pop culture offices are at times portrayed as draconian bureaucracies where individualism is discouraged and conformity is often more important than productivity or as Kafkaesque workplaces where office politics often run counter to common sense. While office work may not be physically demanding or particularly dirty, it would seem to have its own dangers if many movies and TV shows are to believed.

In many respects this is nothing new. A law clerk and court stenographer at different times in his life, Charles Dickens often portrayed offices as less than desirable places to work. Perhaps the prime example of this is in A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge ruthlessly overworks his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Of course, employers weren't the only villains in the office space of Dickens' world. In David Copperfield it is clerk Uriah Heap who ruthlessly blackmails his employer, Mr. Wickfield.

While Dickens and a few other earlier writers recognised offices as potential minefields, it seems to me that it wasn't really until the late Twentieth Century that portrayals of offices as less than pleasant places to work. If there was perhaps a pivotal moment in the Anglo-American portrayal of offices, it was perhaps the publication of the novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, later adapted to film with Gregory Peck in the lead role. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit if the title is employed by a public relations at a television network. It is through this job that he faced with such decisions as to whether work is more important than family and whether integrity has any place in the work place. While it was considered rather stinging at the time, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit would be tame compared to portraits of the office to come.

Indeed, the play (and later movie) Glengarry Glen Ross is positively dark compared to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Both the play and the movie follow the lives of four real estate agents for two days. So intent are the agents to make sales that they are prepared to violate conventional ethics and even the law to do so. They have utterly no respect for their boss and are even willing to betray each other to get ahead in the business. The owners of the real estate agency, Mitch and Murray, are never seen, but clearly have little concern for their employees. They set up a sales contest in which the agents must make sales or face being fired.

The office as a place of interpersonal politics and cutthroat competition is also seen in the TV series Mad Men. Set in the early 1960's, Mad Men centres on the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency. The advertising men on Mad Men are largely amoral characters. They drink. They smoke. They womanise. And they are not below violating ethics and even the law to get ahead. At one point in the series a junior account manager tried to blackmail one of the firm's junior partners into giving him a promotion. The office manager at Sterling Cooper is not below using her feminine wiles to get her way with her male employees. What makes Mad Men. all the more depressing is that it is a largely accurate portrait of Madison Avenue in the early Sixties.

While many movies and TV shows attempt to somewhat realistically portray the dangers of office work, yet others take an absurdist view of the office. In fact, absurdism was at the core of the satirical book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Shepherd Mead. Written as a "self help" of the sort popular in the early Fifties, the book recommends the most devious means to get ahead in business. The book was turned into the musical of the same name, debuting on Broadway in 1962. Although a musical comedy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying takes a very cynical view of the business world. It centres on J. Pierrepont Finch, a window cleaner who uses the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to rise to the top of the corporate world. And just as the book recommends, Finch uses the most villainous means to get ahead in the work place.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was not alone in its Kafkaesque view of the office. It would soon be followed by two sitcoms which took similar views. While the primary focus of The Beverly Hillbillies was the Ozark family who moved to Californy, it showed enough of the Commerce Bank for one to get a feel of the place. Not only was banker Milburn Drysdale willing to do literally anything to keep his wealthy clients at the bank, but it was sometimes hinted that he was an absolute slave driver with regards to his employees (he certainly was when it came to his secretary, Jane Hathaway). Bewitched took an even more absurdist view of the office. As if Darren Stevens did not have enough problems being married to a witch, he was also employed at the advertising agency of McMann and Tate. Sadly, his boss, Larry Tate, was more obsessed with profits than anything else, willing to do literally anything to land or keep important clients. And more than once in the series (in fact, it seemed like almost every episode), Larry would "fire" Darren over some foolishness or another.

More recent sitcoms have continued this absurdist view of offices. The Drew Carey Show centred on Drew, who worked in the human resources department of the department store Winfred-Louder. Drew's bosses changed over the years, from the sexist and self centred Mr. Bell to Mr. Wick, who wasn't below violating conventional ethics to keep his job. Of course, as absurdist as offices portrayed in The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, and The Drew Carey Show could be, none of them compare to either offices on the British or American versions of The Office. Both are centred at paper companies. In the British version, the regional manager David Brent is a shameless self promoter who wants to be loved so much by his employees that he has pretty well alienated him. His assistant, Gareth Keenan, is self important and a stringent enforcer of rules. In the American version the regional manager Michael Scott is socially awkward and, like his British counterpart, so desperate to be liked that he drives people away. His assistant, Dwight Schrute, is downright psychotic, eager to believe in any conspiracy theory and overly interested in survivalism of any sort.

Of course, in recent years sitcoms aren't the only things to take an absurdist view of offices. Nine to Five revolved around three women who take revenge on their egomaniacal, hypocritical, sexist, and racist boss. Mike Judge's cult film Office Space would go even farther in portraying the office as a place where ridiculousness sometime rules. It portrayed the plight of average IT workers. They must put up with consultants sent to help their company cut costs. They must also put up with a boss who insists on micromanaging everything, obsessed entirely with making sure every bit of paperwork that passes through the office is absolutely correct. It is a world where a red Swingline stapler is often an office workers' most valuable possession.

While some TV shows and movies portray the office in humorously absurdist terms, yet others take an even darker view of the office. In effect, they use the office workplace as a metaphor for the dehumisation of modern man. The movie Brazil presents a futuristic world in which bureaucracy has run amok. It is perhaps for this reason that screenwriters Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown made their lead character, Sam Lowry a low level government employee. His job is dull, boring, and virtually mind numbing. Indeed, in some respects Brazil could be seen as an office on a massive scale, where filling out the wrong form can be a crime.

Office work is also at the centre of both the novel and the film Fight Club. The nameless narrator works for a car company in a division which appraises the cost of automotive recalls. In both the book and the novel the narrator's job would seem representative of his own dissatisfaction with his life and emblematic of the sad state of masculinity in the modern world. Quite simply, the narrator's job at the car company is as dehumanising as Fight Club is liberating.

In Brazil and Fight Club, the office lies at the periphery of greater plots. This is not the case of In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute's dark take on corporate culture. The movie centres upon two junior executives who ruthlessly toy with a secretary at another office in their company. And that is not the end of it--In the Company of Men presents the office as a place of vicious oneupmanship.

Perhaps the darkest view of office work, however, is not to be found in a book or a movie, but in a short lived TV series. Profit centred on Jim Profit, Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. Profit would literally do anything to get ahead in business. Among other things, he framed the former Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen so he could have the position, blackmailed his archnemesis's psychiatrist, and even murdered his own father. And that is only the start of a very long list of Jim Profit's crimes. Had the show lasted longer (only four of its seven episodes were originally ran), who knows what else he might have done? Profit was the corporate world as the epicentre of evil.

In many respects it is difficult to say why Anglophonic pop culture often takes a dark or absurdist view of office work. I suspect part of it may simply be an outgrowth of the post-World War II United Kingdom and United States. Following World War II, more individuals entered white collar jobs than ever before. With more people working in offices, more people were bound to write about their experiences in offices. And not all of these experiences would be pleasant. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was based upon Sloan Wilson's experiences as sistant director of the US national citizen commission for public schools. David Mamet drew upon his own experience as working in a real estate office.

At the same time, however, I suspect that negative portrayals of offices have also developed from a distrust of the corporate world that has grown since the Fifties. After corporate scandals ranging from Kaiser-Frazer Corporation and stock floating to Enron and its myriad crimes, it should be no surprise that many would be suspicious of corporations. And that suspicion might lead many to believe that corporate employees are as cutthroat with each other as they are other corporations. It should be little surprise that it was following the many business scandals of the Eighties that we see works such as In the Company of Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Profit.

Of course, another reason for pop culture's concentration on the dark side of office work could be that the office is often being used as a microcosm for society at large. Quite simply, authors, screenwriters, and television writers are using the office in the same way that Shakespeare might use the court of King Claudius or the streets of Verona--as a means to comment on society in general and humanity at large. If much of the material tends to be of a rather dark nature, it could be because that is sometimes more interesting than lighter fare.

Surely not every office is dehumanising, cutthroat, or Kafkaesque (I would like to think mine isn't). And surely not every office worker feels hopelessly oppressed by his job. But I rather suspect that in the future we will see more books, movies, plays, and TV shows in which the office is a metaphorical minefield.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Jules Dassin R.I.P.

Jules Dassin, the director best known for the heist films Rififi and Topkapi and the police procedural Naked City, died yesterday at the age of 96.

Jules Dassin was born in Middletown, Connecticut on December 18, 1911. Not long after he was born, Dassin's family moved to Harlem. He went to Morris High School in the Bronx. Dassin studied acting in Europe in the mid-Thirties. When he returned to the United States, he became an actor with the ARTEF (Yiddish Proletarian Theatre) company in New York. It was shortly before the outbreak of World War II that he made his way to Hollywood. There he was apprenticed to both directors Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. He made his film debut directing the classic short "The Tell-Tale Heart" (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story) for MGM in 1941. He made his feature film debut with Nazi Agent in 1942, an MGM programmer in which Dassin's talent nonetheless shined through. Dassin would direct a few more films for MGM, including a classic version of The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton in the lead role in 1944.

While with MGM Dassin dabbled in a variety of genres of films, from comedies to thrillers. Once he left MGM, however, his speciality became film noir. His first film for a studio other than MGM (it was Universal) was Brute Force, a tough film noir set in a prison. Dassin would follow Brute Force up with other classics of the genre, such as Thieves Highway and Night and the City. It was during this period that he also directed one of his most influential films. The Naked City was one of the earliest police procedurals.Set in New York City, it followed the investigation into the murder of a model, showing step by step and day by day the police investigation. The Naked City was also revolutionary in that it was shot on location in New York City, at a time when on location shooting was very, very rare. The film would serve as the basis for the TV show The Naked City (1958 to 1963). Its lasting influence can be seen in such shows as Law and Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The Naked City was a great success. With Night and the City, Dassin repeated that success. A film noir involving a London con man, it was widely hailed by critics as his best film. Unfortunately for Jules Dassin, events would unfold that would ultimately prevent him from working in his native country for some time. Having joined the Communist Party as an idealistic young man in the Thirties, he was set to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) even as Darryl F. Zanuck assigned him to direct Night and the City. Dassin never did appear before HUAC, but directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle testified before the committee that Dassin was a member of the Communist Party in the Thirties. It was enough to result Dassin being blacklisted here in the United States.

Unable to find work in the U.S., Dassin moved to France in 1953. Short on money and needing work, Dassin accepted the job of directing a low budget movie about a jewellery heist called Du rififi chez les hommes. In the United States the title was simply shortened to Rififi. While The Naked City was one of the first police procedurals, Rififi was one of the first heist films or caper movies. Based on a novel by Auguste le Breton (who co-wrote the screenplay), Rififi followed the planning, execution, and consequences of a jewel heist. Dassin strayed from the book in taking the actual safe cracking, only briefly described in the novel, and turning it into a 32 minuted sequence shown in meticulous detail. Rififi would prove enormously successful in the United States upon its release in 1955, remarkable given that it was shot in the French language. In the United Kingdom it was released on a double bill with the Hammer Films classic The Quatermass Xperiment, becoming one of the biggest double features in British history. At the Cannes Film Festival Dassin tied with Sergei Vasilyev for the Best Director award for the film. Although it was not the first heist film, Rififi would prove to be one of the most successful. In fact, it may be in part because of Rififi that caper movies would be so popular in the Sixties. Dassin won a best director award.

After having concentrated on film noir for many years, Dassin's next great film would be a comedy. Never on Sunday (Pote tin Kyriaki) featured Greek actress Melina Mercouri as a prostitute whom an amateur scholar from Middletown, Connecticut (played by Dassin himself) tried to reform. The film would earn Dassin a nomination for the Oscar for Best Director and was nominated for the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As to Dassin and Mercouri, they would marry and Greece would become Dassin's new home.

Jules Dassin had already had a huge impact on caper films in directing Rififi. He would have as much impact on the genre with a film released in 1964, Topkapi. Like Rififi, Topkapi featured a group of criminals planning and then executing the theft of a heist--in this case, the theft of a jewelled dagger from Istanbul's Topkapi Museum. And like Rififi, Topkapi shows everything from the initial planning to the consequences of the theft, all of it in meticulous detail. But while Rififi was a dead serious, film noir thriller, Topkapi was a light hearted comedy. Topkapi proved extremlely successful. Its succes would would spur the development of yet more comedic caper movies, including everything from How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn to The War Wagon with John Wayne. Although Dassin would continue to make quality movies for the rest of his career (Up Tight and The Rehearsal among them, he never again matched the heights he had achieved with The Naked City, Night and the City, Rififi, and Topkapi.

Dassin not only directed movies, but also acted in them as well. As mentioned above, he was the male lead in Never on Sunday. He also played a role in Rififi, as an Italian safe cracker. Dassin also appeared in his films Phaedra, The Promise at Dawn, and The Rehearsal. Dassin also worked on Broadway. Among the plays he staged and directed on Broadway were Medicine Show (1940), Joy to the World (1948), Magadalena (1948), Two's Company (1952), and Isle of Children (1962). In 1967 he adapted Never on Sunday as the musical Illya Darling, with Melina Mercouri again in the title role. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist for Manos Hadjidakis and Joe Darion, Best Actress in a Musical for Melina Mercouri, among other awards.

Although he may not be one of the best known directors among the general public, Jules Dassin was arguably one of the most influential. With The Naked City he pioneered the police procedural. With Rififi he virtually invented the modern heist film. With Topkapi he invigorated the comedic caper movie. And on top of all this, Dassin was one of the greatest directors of film noir of all time, directing such classics as Brute Force, Thieves Highway, Night and the City. Few directors have ever achieved what he did. If he was able to continue his career after being blacklisted in Hollywood where others could not, it is perhaps because he had the sheer talent, as well as tenacity, to do so. He will certainly be remembered.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Answers to the Warner Brothers Cartoon Quiz

For those of you who are curious, here are the answers to the Warner Brothers Cartoon Quiz from March 24.

1. In what year was the first Looney Tunes cartoon released?

1930

2. What is the title of the theme song to the Warner Brothers cartoons (bonus points for the year it became such)?

"The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" The year was 1937.

3. In what year did Porky Pig make his first appearance?

1935

4. What legendary animator created the original Daffy Duck?

Tex Avery

5. What is considered the first official Bugs Bunny cartoon?

"A Wild Hare," released on July 27,1940

6. In what cartoon did Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny parody Wagner?

"What's Opera, Doc?"

7. In what cartoon did Marvin the Martian first appear?

"Haredevil Hare" in 1948. He was called Commander X-2--he would not be named "Marvin" until the Seventies!

8. What is Chuck Jones's full name?

Charles Martin Jones (which is why his cartoons are sometimes credited to "Charles M. Jones")

9. In what year did Warner Brothers first shut down their animation unit?

1963

10. What famous sports figure co-starred with the Warner Brothers cartoon characters in the movie Space Jam?

Michael Jordan

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Robin of Sherwood

Of the British shows which aired in the Eighties, perhaps none is better remembered than Robin of Sherwood. The series followed the adventures of Robin Hood, the outlaw of myth and legend, who in this show is appointed champion of the people by the mystical entity Herne, Lord of the Woods. Robin of Sherwood aired from 1984 to 1986 on ITV in the United Kingdom and on Showtime in the United States.

Robin of Sherwood was the creation of Richard Carpenter, then best known as the creator of the children's show Catweazle. In some respects Robin of Sherwood was the culmination of Carpenter's work until that time. He had already dealt with fantasy in Catweazle (which featured an 11th century wizard thrown forward through time to the 20th century) and, as the creator of the series Dick Turpin (with Sidney Cole, who had produced Danger Man, and Paul Knight, executive producer on The Adventures of Black Beauty), he had already dealt with outlaw heroes. Paul Knight, who had worked with Carpenter on Dick Turpin, was the original producer on the series. Carpenter's version of the Robin Hood legend would in many respects be positively legendary. Prior to Robin of Sherwood, no film or television adaptation of the Robin Hood myth had incorporated mythology into their storylines, nor had they included strong elements of fantasy. Despite the often fanstasic elements found in Robin of Sherwood, the show was also set apart from previous Robin Hood adaptations in being grounded in the real life history of England.

Initially, Carpenter had tried to sell Lord Lew Grade on the show. Unfortunately, Grade had experienced a number of flops in the early Eighties, from Raise the Titanic to Legend of the Lone Ranger, resulting in problems within his organisation. As a result, Grade simply could not do the show. In the end Carpenter went to HTV (a contractor for ITV) and Goldcrest Films (who had produced Chariots of Fire and Gandhi), with additional backing provided by the American Showtime premium movie channel.

Robin of Sherwood would be blessed with one of the best casts for any show of its type. Carpenter and Knight decided upon Michael Praed in the pivotal role of Robin after seeing him in the West End production of Pirates of Penzance. Following the show Praed would go onto a good deal more success on stage, in plays ranging from Carousel to Sleuth. He would also play Phineas Fogg in The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. Ray Winstone, cast as Will Scarlet, would go onto appear in such films as Sexy Beast and King Arthur. Clive Mantle, cast as Little John, would go onto appear in the shows Casuality and The Vicar of Dibley. One regular on the show was not meant to be a part of the cast. Mark Ryan was cast in the role of Nasir, the Saracen henchman of the villainous Baron De Belleme in the first episode. Originally, Nasir would have died in combat with Robin Hood. Mark Ryan got along with the cast very well and Nasir showed all the signs of possibly becoming a very popular character. Producer Paul Knight then thought that they should not kill Nasir off, but make him a regular on the show. Richard Carpenter, all too aware of the inauthenticity of having a Saracen running around Sherwood Forrest, had his doubts, but eventually came around to the idea.

The stunt coordinator on Robin of Sherwood was Terry Walsh, who already had considerable experience with medieval fantasy. He had been stunt coordinator on the films Dragonslayer and Krull. Walsh arranged a "boot camp" for the actors in which they could learn those skills necessary for medieval combat--swordsmanship, archery, the use of the quarterstaff, and riding.

The music on the series was provided by Irish folk group Clannad. Oddly enough, although they wrote the music for the series, the group never saw an episode of the show. Each year Paul Knight would visit the band in Ireland to pick up approximately an hour of music for use on the show.

Robin of Sherwood was very much an upscale production. Much of the series was filmed on location around the woods of Bristol, where the trees are a bit more period than those now in Sherwood Forest (fir trees having been imported in the 19th century). It was also shot on locations ranging from the Saxon Tithe Barn in Bradford-on Avon, Great Chalfield Manor in Melksham, Farleigh Hungerford Castle, and Lacock Abbey.

Robin of Sherwood debuted on HTV in the United Kingdom and Showtime in the United States in April 1984. The show became an almost immediate success, swiftly developing a cult following. Fan clubs on both side of the Pond were formed in very short order. Michael Praed would become something of a sex symbol for women in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Despite its success, all would not go smoothly for Robin of Sherwood. After the second series, Michael Praed was offered the role of D'Artagnan in a musical version of The Three Musketeers. Feeling this was not a chance he could pass up, Praed then left the show. The producers were then faced with the fact of finding another leading man. They considered such actors as Simon Dutton, Paul McGann, Jason Carter, and Neil Morrissey before finally casting Jason Connery, son of Sean Connery (who had played Robin Hood in the movie Robin and Marion), in the role. That having been said, Connery did not play the same character as Praed. Praed had played Robin of Loxley, an English yeoman. Recalling that in some legends Robin was a nobleman, Carpenter made Herne's new champion Robin of Huntingdon, son of the Earl of Huntingdon.

Such a change in leading men could hurt other shows severely, but Robin of Sherwood continued to be a success in its third series. Ultimately, it was not declining popularity that would result in the cancellation of Robin of Sherwood, but simple economics. In the mid Eighties Goldcrest saw a downturn in its film division. Box office flops such as Revolution, The Mission, and Absolute Beginners cost the studio millions. Since Robin of Sherwood was a very expensive show to make, it was cancelled to cut costs.

While it would end after its third series, Robin of Sherwood would maintain a cult following to this day. Indeed, it would be one of the most influential adaptations of the Robin Hood myth ever made. It was the first such adaptation of the Robin Hood legend to incorporate a strong does of magic and mythology into its plots. Other adaptations, from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to The New Adventures of Robin Hood (both low points in the long history of the characters), would follow suit to some degree or another. It was also one of the first adaptations of the legend to be placed in a gritty, realistic, medieval setting. Other adaptations, including BBC's most recent Robin Hood series, would follow suit. It was also the fist adaptation of the myth to introduce a Saracen character, something repeated in such adaptations as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Robin of Sherwood has proven to be the most popular Robin Hood series besides The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene. It has maintained a cult following to this day. Indeed, it was released on DVD in the United Kingdom in 2002 and in the United States and Canada in 2007. I think it is safe its popularity will continue for some time.