Friday, 23 January 2009

The 2009 Oscar Nominations

Yesterday morning the nominations for the 81st Annual Academy Awards were announced. I saw fewer movies last year than I have in quite some time, so I don't have strong feelings about a lot of the nominees. That having been said, I do have a few opinions on what was and wasn't nominated.

Best Picture:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
Milk
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

The big surprise for me was that The Dark Knight was not nominated. The movie received sterling reviews and made a boatload of money (currently it is second only to Titanic in the biggest money makers of all time). It seemed to me to be a shoe in. I would have thought that it would have gotten an nomination before The Reader. The only thing I can figure is that the Academy still has a bias against genre films (science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero, et. al.) that kept it from being nominated for Best Picture.

As to who will win, I think that is difficult to say. My own bet is that it could be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It has received a good deal of critical buzz. And of the nominees it is arguably the most commercial--it has already made around $105 million at the box office. The movie is also a panorama of American history at a time when this country is in an economic depression, which could incline Academy members to vote for it. That having been said, I can see arguments as to why it won't win. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bit of a genre film--it is, after all, about a man who ages backwards. I also get the feeling that the Academy is not particularly fond of David Fincher. While he has made a slough of critically acclaimed movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the first one to see much in the way of Oscar nominations. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could be at a bit of disadvantage between these two things.

I also have to say that while Slumdog Millionaire appears to be the feel good movie of the year and the odds on favourite of many, I don't think it has much chance to win. My reasoning is that as a small, independent picture Slumdog Millionaire is a bit of an outsider in an awards ceremony that prefers its industry favourites. Indeed, I cannot remember the last time an independent movie ever won the Best Picture Oscar (I know it has happened at some point). I also think that the sheer fact that it is a feel good movie may put it at a disadvantage. While I am sure definitions of "feel good movie" vary, for me that last such film to win was Forrest Gump in 1994 (and don't get me started on how it didn't deserve to win...). While the Academy nominated Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways for Best Picture, it is notable that they did not win. Of course, I can see how one could argue the exact opposite of what I have. We are in an economic depression, if the Academy was ever going to give Best Picture to a feel good movie, it would probably be now.

Director:

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

I think David Fincher could take the Best Director award, unless I am underestimating any possible bias the Academy has against him. Let's face it. He did not get nominated for Fight Club or Zodiac. Here I must say I think Danny Boyle could actually stand a chance for Slumdog Millionaire. The Academy might not give Best Picture to a feel good movie, but they might give an award to its director.

Of course, here I was was surprised by the absence of Christopher Nolan. I can only guess that it is another example of the Academy's bias against superhero movies (in other words, no matter how great the direction on The Dark Knight was, it's still just a superhero movie).

Best Actor:

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

I think this award could well go to Mickey Rourke. He has gotten raves for his performance in The Wrestler and he has already won a few Best Actor awards for it. Too, Hollywood loves a comeback. It loves the bad boy who makes good. And if ever there was a bad boy who made good, Rourke is it.

Best Actress:
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, The Reader

The big shock for me was that Kate Winslet was nominated in this category The Reader and not Revolutionary Road. I thought that she would be nominated for Best Actress for Revolutionary Road and for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader. I am not sure I follow the Academy members' reasoning on this one. At any rate, I figure she is the odds on favourite.

Supporting Actor:

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

The big surprise for me was that Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for Tropic Thunder. It's not that he did not do a good job, but that the role was somewhat controversial and that the Academy has always preferred drama to comedy. At any rate, I think this award will go posthumously to Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight having been snubbed in every other major category.

Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

I have no idea who will take Best Supporting Actress, although I have to say my heart lies with Amy Adams and Marisa Tomei. But then that would be the case even if they gave bad performances....

As to the other categories, I must say that I am shocked that Iron Man was only nominated in two technical categories (Sound Editing and Visual Effecs). Surely it deserved more (Sound Mixing, at the very least). And how is it that Milk received nominations for Best Costume? The movie is set in the Seventies, a decade whose fashions can be found in most thrift stores even now! I would think any number of period pieces set in earlier times were worthier of being nominated. And how did Milk get a nomination for Film Editing? Unless I am missing something, while it's editing is good, it's hardly remarkable.

I must also admit I am puzzled by the nominees for Best Song. Okay, Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman were nominated for "Down to Earth" from Wall-E. But where is The Boss? I thought Bruce Springsteen was a shoe in, given the fact that he is an ageing rock star? You can't tell me that there are more Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney fans in the Academy than Springsteen fans....

While I was sorely disappointed that The Dark Knight was snubbed in the major categories and Iron Man did not pick up more technical nominations, I am glad to see Hellboy II: The Golden Army picked up a nomination for Makeup. Although now that I think of it, it really deserved one for Costume as well...

At any rate, it looks like this year's Academy Awards ceremony will be interesting. For once it will have some real suspense for me, as I really haven't much idea as to who will win in many of the categories. As far as I am concerned, it's anybody's game.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Sixties Sex Comedies Part Three

The late Fifties saw the emergence of the sex comedy. In 1958 a cycle towards sex comedies began with three different films being released. By 1960 the Sixties sex comedy cycle was well under way. That year saw several different sex comedies released.

Among these was the film Let's Make Love, starring Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand. The movie's plot centred around millionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Yves Montand), who visits the set of an off-Broadway revue, only to be mistaken for an actor supposed to play him. Clement plays along and takes the part so he can be close to actress Amanda Dell. As mentioned earlier, it is debatable whether The Apartment is a sex comedy or not. The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a hapless employee of a major insurance company, whose apartment is constantly taken over by his superiors at work for their extramarital affairs. This arrangement is complicated when Baxter falls in love with elevator operator Fran Kublick (Shirley MacLaine). Unfortunately, Miss Kublick had an affair with their boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who wants her back. The Battle of the Sexes, so central to the sex comedies, is nearly absent in The Apartment, existing only between Miss Kublick and Mr. Sheldrake, not between the two principal characters. And the deception that is seen in most sex comedies is absent. While it is certainly a romantic comedy, then it is doubtful The Apartment can be considered a sex comedy.

That is not to say that The Apartment would not have an influence on sex comedies. Indeed, both of its stars (Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine) would go onto star in several sex comedies. MacLaine had already appeared one sex comedy even before starring in The Apartment: Ask Any Girl in 1959. She would go onto appear in My Geisha, Irma la Douce, and What a Way to Go. Irma la Douce, released in 1963, was directed by Billy Wilder and once more teamed her with Jack Lemmon. MacLaine played the title character, a prostitute with whom ex-police officer Nestor Patou falls in love. To keep her away from men and in an effort to get her out of business, Patou pretends to be an elderly English lord, known only as Lord X. In some respects, it is debatable whether What a Way to Go is a sex comedy, as it does not really contain the Battle of the Sexes central to sex comedies. The plot centred on Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine), a luckless girl whose husbands always die, often in unusual ways, trying to get rich. The Battle Between the Sexes and the deception absent from What a Way to Go, although it is still counted as a sex comedy by many.

In 1962 the cycle would continue with the release of yet more sex comedies, including Lover Come Back. Among the films released that year was Come September. Come September centred on millionaire Robert L. Talbot (Rock Hudson) who goes on vacation at his Italian villa. Unfortunately, it seems that his long term girlfriend Lisa (Gina Lollobrigida) has tired of waiting for him and is going to marry another man. Among the co-stars of Come September was Sandra Dee. Best known at the point for having played Gidget in the movie of the same name and Tammy in Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor, she would go onto make a few sex comedies. In fact, in 1962 she would star in If a Man Answers, playing rich socialite Chantal Stacy who is trying to train her new husband Eugene Wright (Bobby Darin) to be the perfect husband. She went onto appear in That Funny Feeling and Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding. The latter, released in 1967, was notable in that Sandra Dee actually played a woman with sexual experience. Early in the movie she finds herself pregnant with marriage proposals from three different men.

By 1962 the sex comedies had grown considerably more daring than they had in the days of Teacher's Pet. Love Come Back implied a one night stand between its two lead characters, although it was under the intoxicating effects of VIP and involved a marriage licence as well.

Nineteen sixty two saw the sex comedy cycle continue stronger than ever, with the released of A Touch of Mink and If a Man Answers. Boys' Night Out was similarly daring. The film centres on three married men and one bachelor (James Garner) who rent an apartment as a love nest for extramarital affairs. They also hire a housekeeper, a beautiful blonde named Cathy (Kim Novack). In reality, Cathy is actually a graduate student in sociology researching her thesis--the sexual fantasies of the average male. Although tame by today's standards, Boys' Night Out must have seemed risque for the era.

Boys' Night Out would be significant in introducing a new star to the sex comedies, James Garner. Best known for his role on the TV series Maverick at the time, Garner would go onto star in two more sex comedies, both important in the history of the genre. He appeared opposite Doris Day in The Thrill of It All, released in 1963. Garner played Dr. Gerald Boyer, whose Beverly (Doris Day) soon finds herself a spokesman for a major brand of soap and a television personality. He would co-star with Doris Day again in Move Over, Darling, in which Doris Day plays Ellen, a woman declared legally dead after a plane crash only to show up five years later.

From 1963 to 1965 the sex comedy cycle was at its height, with more films in the genre released than in any other three year period. Many of the films were fairly significant: Move Over, Darling, The Thrill of It All, Under the Yum Yum Tree, Send Me No Flowers, Boeing Boeing, and How to Murder Your Wife . Two films released during this two year period are notable for their place in film history or pop culture history. Both were also released during the Christmas season of 1964. With Kiss Me, Stupid director Billy Wilder once more challenged the movie industry establishment. The film was passed by the Production Code Administration (a sign of how much the Code had weakened), but would run afoul of the Legion of Decency. The Catholic organisation would give the film a "C" rating for "Condemned," the first film it so labelled since Baby Doll in 1956. For once the Legion of Decency was not alone in its condemnation of a film. The film was roundly attacked by critics, many of whom attacked its vulgarity. Kiss Me, Stupid was very loosely based on the bedroom farce L’Ora della Fantasia by Anna Bonacci. It starred Dean Martin as a crooner called Dino, who finds himself in the small Nevada town of Climax, where struggling songwriter Orville Jeremiah Spooner (Ray Walston) tries to keep his wife Zelda (Felicia Farr) away from the handsome Dino while trying to sell the singer songs. He even goes so far as to hire a prostitute, Zelda (Kim Novack) to pose as his wife. The film dealt in adultery and in sexual humour that was much more obvious than any of its contemporaries. Roundly condemned in its time, Kiss Me, Stupid would later be re-evaluated so that its reputation was somewhat redeemed.

Also released during the holidays in 1964, Sex and the Single Girl shared its title with Helen Gurley Brown's famous sex manual. Warner Brothers had purchased the film rights to Brown's book, but ultimately the movie would be based on a screenplay that had been floating around Warner Brothers for years entitled How To Make Love and Like It. In the end, the only thing the movie would take from Brown's book was its name. The film Sex and the Single Girl cast Natalie Wood as a young sexologist named Helen Gurley Brown who crosses swords with scheming scandal sheet editor Bob Weston (Tony Curtis), who plots to seduce her and reveal her as an inexperienced virgin. As in other sex comedies, Weston pretends to be someone else in order to seduce Brown.

It was in 1966 that the cycle towards sex comedies finally showed signs of slowing down. While the past three years had yielded a bumper crop of sex comedies, 1966 would only see the release of a few. Among that year's sex comedies were The Swinger, Any Wednesday, and The Glass Bottom Boat. The Glass Bottom Boat is significant as Doris Day's last successful sex comedy. Doris Day played widow Jennifer Nelson, who has just taken a job as in public relations for NASA and also works as a mermaid for her father's glass bottom boat tours. It through her job as a mermaid for her father (Arthur Godfrey) that Jennifer meets Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor)--he accidentally catches her while fishing. As it turns out Templeton is also Jennifer's new boss. Not only was The Glass Bottom Boat a sex comedy, but it also capitalised on the spy craze of the time. It featured a large number of cameos, including Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo. It was the second time Doris Day and Rod Taylor had starred together, having first appeared together in 1965's Do Not Disturb.

There was perhaps no greater sign that the sex comedy cycle was coming to an end than the fact that 1966 was the last year that Doris Day would rank in the top ten of the exhibitors' polls of the top box office stars. Nineteen sixty seven would see yet fewer sex comedies released, including Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding and A Guide for the Married Man. It would be 1968 that would see the end of the cycle. That year How to Save a Marriage (And Ruin Your Life) was released, as was Doris Day's very last sex comedy, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out. Where Were You When the Lights Went Out was set in New York City during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Despite this, it was actually based on the French play Monsieur Masure by Claude Magnier. In the film Dois Day played a parody of herself, an actress typecast in virginal roles. Released in July 1968, it was the first Doris Day movie in years that did extremely poorly at the box office. At any rate, it was perhaps fitting that having started the cycle towards sex comedies, Doris Day would also end it as well.

Ultimately, the Sixties sex comedies had fallen victim to the same weakening of the production code and Sexual Revolution that had allowed them to exist to begin with. In 1961 the Production Code was revised once more, this time to include "sexual perversion (by which was pretty much meant homosexuality)." The production code would only be weakened by such foreign movies as L'Avventura, Jules et Jim, Room at the Top, Never On Sunday, and La Dolce vita, which often contained material that the current Production Code forbade in American films. American movies (including American co-productions) also challenged the Production Code. In 1964The Pawnbroker had included some very brief female nudity, which resulted in the Production Code Administration denying it a seal. This decision was overturned by the Production Code Administration's own review board.

Another challenge to the code came in the form of Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The movie included two scenes that the Production Code Administration found objectionable--one in which the protagonist cavorted with two nude girls in which pubic hair was very briefly visible, and another scene in which the protagonist watched his neighbour make love. Rather than cut the scenes, the film's distributor, MGM (originally a strong supporter of the Production Code), simply released the film under its subsidiary Premier Productions without a seal. The film did quite well at the box office. Curiously, it would not be the full frontal nudity of Blowup that would break the Production Code, but the four letter words of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.. The film was based on the Broadway play of the same name, which utilised exceedingly coarse language, including the word "goddamn" no less than fifteen times, as well as such words as "ass" and "son of a bitch." Before the film was even made, then the Production Code Administration advised Warner Brothers to remove every bit of profanity and coarse language. After negotiations with the Production Code Administration, in the end Warner Brothers only wound up cutting the words "screw you" and "frigging" from the film and added a special warning all advertisements for the film.

While The Pawnbroker, Blowup, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf challenged the Production Code, other films tested the boundaries of the Production Code. Some of these movies were even sex comedies, such Some Like It Hot and Kiss Me Stupid. By 1967 the Production Code was so weak that The Graduate was able to deal with adult themes such as extramarital sex. That same year two films, the screen adaptation of Ulysses and the movie I'll Never Forget What's His Name went further than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf had--they both included the "F" word. As much more was permissible in movies by this point, the sex comedies (in which there was no sex) probably started to seem both tame and dated by 1967. The films may have lost any audience who watched them primarily for their risque content.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that as the Sixties progressed, the sex comedies became more and more risque. Some Like It Hot included cross dressing. Boys' Night Out toyed with adultery (although it never actually occurred in the film). Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding featured a heroine who actually had a child out of wedlock. The sex comedies kept up with the changes in what was acceptable in films until, at last, they could not keep up.

Just as the Production Code was weakening in the Sixties, the Sexual Revolution began to gain steam. The birth control pill was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 1960, removing much of the threat of pregnancy from the sex act. In many quarters of the population premarital sex became acceptable. While it may not have been acceptable by other quarters of the population, it certainly became less shocking. By the late Sixties the concept of free love, which argues that sex between consenting adults should not be regulated by law, caught among among certain parts of the American populace. These changes in society effectively removed the impetus of many of the Sixties sex comedies, in which much of the plot was propelled by the woman saying, "No," to sex unless it was within the confines of marriage. It is safe to say that such films as Pillow Talk must have seemed dated by 1967.

Even without the weakening of the Production Code and the Sexual Revolution, however, the Sixties sex comedies cycle would have probably have ended sooner or later. Most movie cycles only last a few years before they burn themselves out. And by 1966 the market was literally glutted by sex comedies. It is safe to say that at some point audiences would have tired of them, even without the changes that occurred in both the movie industry and American society.

Regardless, while the sex comedy cycle would end, the sex comedies themselves would be remembered. Among some they would even become a source of controversy. There are those who maintain that the bulk of sex comedies are both sexist and misogynistic. In my opinion, however, this thought does not bear close inspection. While many sex comedies include protagonists who make speeches against both women and marriage, in nearly every sex comedy ever made such sentiments are proven wrong by the movie's end. At the end of Pillow Talk Brad Allen ceases to be misogynistic and finally concedes to Jan Morrow in having a monogamous relationship. If the films were truly misogynistic, it would be safe to say that characters who started out as playboys would remain playboys at the movies' ends.

It must also be pointed out that for films that are supposed to "sexist," the sex comedies paint a better portrait of women than many other venues in the media. While TV shows and other movies were still portraying the average American woman as a housewife, the sex comedies featured women in their own careers. There can be no better example of this than Doris Day. She was an interior decorator in Pillow Talk, an advertising executive in Lover Come Back, and in public relations in The Glass Bottom Boat. And Doris Day was not an isolated case by any stretch of the imagination. Prior to Boys' Night Out Kim Novak had previously played only sexpots; Boys' Night Out was the first time she played an educated woman with her own career. In fact, it is notable that once the sex comedy cycle ended, fewer women appeared in comedies for quite some time.

Of course, it must be pointed out that in the vast majority of the movies the women want monogamous relationships, namely marriage. In none of the sex comedies, however, is it indicated that the women were actively seeking marriage before they fell in love and in none of them is it indicated that they gave up their careers after getting married. It is then true that the sex comedies are very pro-marriage. That having been said, it seems likely that this was the consensus of most Americans in the late Fifties and even in the Sixties. Playboys such as Brad Allen in Pillow Talk and Hogan in Under the Yum Yum Tree were probably not nearly as common as men who preferred to be married at the time. In this respect, then, the sex comedies were merely reflecting the mores of their time.

Since the Sixties there have been very few movies that could be considered sex comedies. One instance was a television movie from 1976 called How to Break Up a Happy Divorce, starring Barbara Eden, in which a woman seeks to win her ex-husband back. Two other instances were feature films, both made in 2003. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, starring Kate Hudson, utilised the Battle of the Sexes and the charade of the sex comedies, but it turned it on its head. In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, both journalist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) and playboy Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey) are simply playing roles in their Battle of the Sexes. Down With Love was an outright pastiche of the Sixties sex comedies, drawing upon Pillow Talk, Boeing Boeing, A New Kind of Love, Sex and the Single Girl, and practically every other sex comedy made in the Sixties. The sex comedies would also influence many latter day romantic comedies, from When Harry Met Sally to Sunny Side Up.

When I was growing up the Sixties sex comedies were often shown on television, so I had many opportunities to watch them. I must confess that I enjoyed them as a child and that I still enjoy them. The plots of the sex comedies were often wonderfully complex and fully of witty dialogue. They often had excellent production values and featured great performances (due to their very form, sex comedies succeeded or failed most often because of their casts). It is not simply that many of the sex comedies were very well made, but that, like the screwball comedies of old, they were made so that members of both sexes could enjoy them. Sadly, this is not the case with most of today's romantic comedies (I have not seen Made of Honour and I never will). If the sex comedies of old are still viewed today, perhaps it is because they are so superior to romantic comedies from other eras.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Sixties Sex Comedies Part Two

By the mid-Fifties the stage had been set for the sex comedies which were about to emerge and which would proliferate through much of the Sixties. Prior to the advent of the sex comedies, however, there were a few movies that could be considered predecessors of the form. Foremost among these may have been Howard Hawks' Monkey Business, released in 1952.

Howard Hawks' Monkey Business is not a sex comedy. The plot centres on Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant), a chemist developing a "fountain of youth" pill for a pharmaceutical company. The pill would have the effect of restoring individuals to the vigour of their youth. Unfortunately, one of the chimpanzees upon whom they experiment gets loose and dumps a portion of the "fountain of youth" chemical in a water cooler at the lab. And, unfortunately, the chemical not only restores one to his or her youthful vigour, but to the mindset he or she had in his or her youth as well. The humour of the comedy emerges from individuals acting much younger than they actually are, and the "battle between the sexes," so central to the Sixties sex comedies, is nowhere to be found in the film. That having been said, the film does have some aspects of a sex comedy. After imbibing the chemical, Dr. Fulton goes out on the town with his boss's secretary, Miss Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). His wife, Edwina, also downs the chemical and mischievously calls her college beau, who then thinks she is unhappy in her marriage and wants a divorce. With various situations with a sexual component and humour stemming from misunderstandings that are sexual in nature, Monkey Business could be considered a forerunner of the sex comedies of the late Fifties and sixties.

Another predecessor of the Sixties sex comedies was Phffft, released in 1954. Phffft starred Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday as a married couple who divorce. Robert (Jack Lemmon) joins his friend Charlie Nelson (Jack Carson), a womaniser, while Nina (Judy Holliday) cries on her mother's shoulder. The battle of the sexes does exist to some degree in the film, although not to the extend that it would the later sex comedies. That having said, Phffft lacks the element of deceit present in nearly every sex comedy, as well as the misunderstandings that often occur in sex comedies. Like Monkey Business, then, Phffft could be considered a forerunner of the sex comedies.

Another forerunner of the Sixties sex comedies was the classic The Seven Year Itch. The Seven Year Itch centres on Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell), who sends his wife and son to Maine for the summer. Unfortunately, Sherman soon finds himself extremely attracted to The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), a model renting the apartment upstairs for a short time. The rest of the movie centres upon Sherman's attempts to resist temptation as he and The Girl grow closer. The central theme of The Seven Year Itch is certainly sex. That having been said, there is no Battle of the Sexes in the movie, nor is deceit central to the plot (Sherman does not pretend to be someone else to get close to The Girl). With sex as a central theme, The Seven Year Itch is definitely a forerunner to the sex comedies, but not a sex comedy itself.

While it is easy to find predecessors to the sex comedies of the Sixties, it is a bit more difficult to determine what the first Sixties sex comedy was. To what extent must deceit and the battle of the sexes play a role in a film before it can be considered a sex comedy? This is not a question that is easily answered. One possible candidate is The Tender Trap from 1955. The Tender Trap stars Frank Sinatra as theatrical agent Charlie Y. Reader, who could easily qualify as the forerunner of the many playboys of the Sixties sex comedies. With many female admirers, Charlie meets actress Julie Gillis (Debbie Reynolds) at an audition. After a few dates Julie informs Charlie that they will not get married until he stops seeing other women. Naturally, as a result, Charlie falls in love with her. Unfortunately for Charlie, his friend Joe (David Wayne) pays a visit and Charlie soon finds himself falling for Joe's girlfriend Sylvia (Celeste Holm). Charlie proposes to Sylvia, but only after he has proposed to Julie as well. The Battle Between the Sexes exists between both Charlie and Julie, and Charlie and Sylvia in the The Tender Trap, even if it is not as prominent as it is some later sex comedies. And there is a certain amount of deceit involved on Charlie's part, as he gets engaged to both Sylvia and Julie. In fact, even though he does not have an extravagant bachelor pad, Charlie is a close cousin to the playboys of the later sex comedies. The Tender Trap could then be considered the first of the sex comedies so prevalent in the Sixties.

If The Tender Trap is not counted as the first sex comedy, then it seems quite possible that the very first was Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter starred Tony Randall as the title character, a writer for television commercials. Eager to advance at the agency where he works, Rock finds the perfect model for the new line of lipstick he is promoting, Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield). Before Rita will promote the new line of lipstick, however, Rock must pretend to be her boyfriend in order to make her boy friend, Bobo Branigansky (Mickey Hargitay), the star of a jungle adventure show, jealous. Rock suddenly finds himself the idol of women and moves up the corporate ladder at work until he is the agency's president. Unfortunately, none of this makes his fiancee, Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake), happy. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter has many of the elements central to the Sixties sex comedies. The movie centres to a large degree on sex and deceit is central to the plot. The Battle of the Sexes is not particularly prominent in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, although it can be seen in Rock's relationship with Jenny and Rita's relationship with Bobo. With a plot centred on sex and featuring misunderstandings of a sexual nature, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter could be counted as a sex comedy.

Kiss Them for Me, released in late 1957, is another candidate for the first sex comedy. It stars Cary Grant as Commander Crewson, a consummate womaniser who finds wine and women for the suite at a hotel they rent during leave. Into all of this comes Alice Kratzner (Jayne Mansfield), who starts out attracted to Crewson, but soon find herself attracted to another pilot, Lieutenant McCann (Ray Walston), who also happens to be married. Sex is one of the central themes of Kiss Them For Me, and Commander Crewson shares a lot with the later playboys of sex comedies. Like The Tender Trap and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, it is also a candidate for the first sex comedy.

Regardless of which movie one decides is the first Sixties sex comedy (even though they were all released in the Fifties), it was in 1958 that the cycle towards sex comedies emerged at last. That year three movies that are most definitely sex comedies were released. In fact, it can be argued that Teacher's Pet set the stage for nearly all sex comedies to come. Teacher's Pet starred Doris Day as Erica Stone, a journalism professor at a local university. The plot begins when Erica asks James Gannon (Clark Gable), a city editor of a large newspaper who never went beyond the 8th grade, to speak before her journalism class. Gannon refuses, but soon finds himself forced by his editor in chief to find Erica and apologise for the letter he sent rejecting her invitation. Before he can introduce him and make his apology, however, Erica reads his letter before her class and makes fun of him. Humiliated but attracted to Erica, Gannon poses as a wallpaper salesman and enrols in Erica's class. All of the elements of the sex comedy are present in Teacher's Pet: the Battle of Sexes, the deceit (even to the point that Gannon pretends to be someone he isn't), and the wild misunderstandings. If none of the previous candidates for the first sex comedy are counted, Teacher's Pet would definitely be the first sex comedy.

The female lead of Teacher's Pet, Doris Day, would go onto be the star of Sixties sex comedies. She would go onto star in what may be the quintessential Sixties sex comedy, Pillow Talk, released in 1959. Pillow Talk was a huge hit, not only spurring the sex comedy cycle, but insuring that Doris Day would make even more sex comedies. In 1959 alone she would also appear in It Happened to Jane, going onto appear in Lover Come Back, That Touch of Mink, The Thrill of It all, Move Over, Darling, Do Not Disturb, The Glass Bottom Boat, and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out. The popularity of the sex comedies and particularly the popularity of Doris Day's sex comedies would propel her to the top of the box office. Starting in 1959, Doris Day appeared in the exhibitor's poll of the top ten box office stars for eight straight years. In 1962 she topped the list for three straight years. She would not drop out of the top ten until 1968, the year after The Glass Bottom Boat was released.

The other two sex comedies released in 1958 also featured actors who would go onto feature prominently in the sex comedy cycle of the Sixties. The Perfect Furlough starred Tony Curtis as Corporal Paul Hodges, a playboy who is unfortunately stationed in the Arctic. When morale is running low, Army pscychologist Lieutenant Vicki Loren (Janet Leigh) devises the "perfect furlough" to raise morale--give three men three weeks on a furlough that would fulfil their deepest fantasies. Naturally, Corporal Hogan wants to go to Paris with his favourite movie star, Sandra Roca (Linda Cristal). Unfortunately for Corporal Hogan, Lieutenant Loren goes along as a chaperone. Like Doris Day, Tony Curtis would figure prominently in the sex comedy cycle. He would go onto star in what could be the best sex comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot, as well as Who Was That Lady and Boeing Boeing.

Of Tony Curtis's sex comedies, Boeing Boeing may be the best besides Some Like It Hot. Released in 1965, Boeing Boeing was based on the French farce of the same name by Marc Camoletti, first staged in 1960. The play was adapted as a French film in 1960. For the most part Boeing Boeing remained loyal to the original bedroom farce, although the protagonist and his roommate were made Americans. Curtis played journalist Bernard Lawrence, who created a system based on the airline schedules so he can see three different stewardesses. Lawrence's system begins to break down when an acquaintance Robert Reed (Jerry Lewis) moves in with him and the airline schedules abruptly change. Indeed, unfortunately for Lawrence Reed plots to take over not only Lawerence's apartment, but his job and his girlfriends as well.

Houseboat was the third sex comedy released in 1958. The movie centred on widower Tom Winters (Cary Grant) who hires Cinzia Zaccardi (Sophia Loren), whom he hires as a maid to him and his three children, even though she is actually the daughter of a famous Italian conductor. While Cary Grant would not make very many sex comedies, he would make one of the most influential. That Touch of Mink starred Doris Day as Cathy Timberlake, who encounters wealthy Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) when he splashes mud on her dress just as she is on the way to a job interview. While both are attracted to each other, the two find themselves in conflict as Philip simply wants to have an affair while Cathy would prefer marriage.

The sex comedy cycle continued in 1959 with what is considered by many to be the quintessential Sixties sex comedy. Pillow Talk was the first time that Rock Hudson and Doris Day were paired together. The two of them play playboy Brad Allen and interior decorator Jan Morrow, but who find themselves constantly at odds over the use of a party line. When Brad finally sees Jan at a nightclub, he puts on the charade of being rich Texas rancher Tex Stetson to get close to her. Pillow Talk was exceedingly influential as far as the Sixties sex comedies go. It was perhaps the first to feature an extravagantly furnished bachelor's pad, complete with the most advanced technology. It took the premise of a character pretending to be someone else further than any film in the genre had before. It retained the Battle of the Sexes from Teacher's Pet, if anything intensifying it. Pillow Talk proved wildly successful. It was one of the top movies of 1959 and almost single handedly revitalised both the careers of Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

While many are under the impression that Rock Hudson and Doris Day co-starred frequently, in fact they would only make three films together. Lover Come Back was released in 1961. This time out Rock Hudson played womanising ad executive Jerry Webster and Doris Day his rival Carol Templeton. Like Pillow Talk, Love Come Back focused on the Battle of Sexes, making it even more intense. Like Pillow Talk it also proved successful. Send Me No Flowers, released in 1964, broke with the first two movies in that Rock Hudson and Doris Day played a married couple--George and Judy. George, a total hypochondriac, becomes convinced he is dying after hearing his physician talk about another patient. He then sets about trying to find Judy a husband for her after he is gone. Unfortunately, Judy takes his attempts to find a her a new husband as a sign he is having an affair. Although starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day and still centred on the Battle of the Sexes, Send Me No Flowers stands apart from the other two in that they play a married couple and George is not a deceitful womaniser, but merely an overly concerned doting husband. Rock Hudson would go onto make sex comedies without Doris Day. He starred in Come September, Man's Favourite Sport, Strange Bedfellows, and A Very Special Favour.

Tony Randall appeared in all three Doris Day and Rock Hudson vehicles, playing a different role in each. While he rarely played the lead, he has become as identified with sex comedies as either Rock Hudson or Doris Day. The reason for this was quite simple. He appeared in many of the sex comedies in the Sixtie. In fact, the same year he made Pillow Talk, Randall starred in The Mating Game. In The Mating Game Randall played tax collector Lorenzo Charlton, who visits country bumpkin Pop Larkin (Paul Douglas) to find out why he has not paid his back taxes, only to fall in love with Paul's daughter Mariette (Debbie Reynolds). Randall would also go onto appear in Let's Make Love and Boy's Night Out. He would have a part (one of his last) in the pastiche of Sixties sex comedies Down With Love

What may be the best sex comedy ever made, Some Like It Hot, was also released in 1959. Some Like It Hot stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as musicians Joe and Jerry who wind up posing as female musicians to join an all girl band--their only way out of town after witnessing a gangland massacre in the Twenties. Unfortunately, both fall in love with Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the band's singer. To court Sugar Joe creates another alter ego, that of the millionaire "Junior." While Some Like It Hot is a period piece, it fits in quite well with other sex comedies of the era, making the most of the charade that plays such a big role in many of them. It was also one of the films that would challenge the Production Code, thus weakening it even further and paving the way for other risque sex comedies. The film was almost condemned by the Legion of Decency, the national Roman Catholic organisation responsible for fighting what it saw as objectionable material in movies (if a movie was rated "C" or condemned by the Legion, it would be a mortal sin for any Catholic to watch it). Upon its initial release it was banned by the state of Kansas. Regardless, Some Like It Hot would prove incredibly successful, coming in second for the year at the box office to only Ben Hur.

Just as Tony Curtis would go onto make more sex comedies so too would Jack Lemmon. It is debatable whether The Apartment can be considered a sex comedy (the Battle of the Sexes is present, but not between the two protagonists), although it is counted as such by some. It Happened to Jane most certainly is, with Lemmon playing opposite Doris Day. It most certainly includes the Battle of the Sexes, as lobster dealer Jane Osgood (Doris Day) takes on railroad executive Harry Foster Malone (Ernie Kovacs) after one of her shipments of lobsters goes bad due to the railroad's neglect. Lemmon would also star in Irma La Douce and Under the Yum Yum Tree. While Lemmon detested Under the Yum Yum Tree, it is notable for two things. Lemmon plays one of the smarmiest playboys on film, Hogan, who is the landlord of an apartment complex who takes an unhealthy interest in a co-end living in the complex (Carol Lynley), who just happens to be living with her platonic boyfriend (Dean Jones). Hogan has what may be one of the most outlandish bachelor pads in the history of sex comedies, complete with blood red walls, a fireplace activated by remote control, and automated violins. Lemmon would also star in How to Murder Your Wife. In that film he played cartoonist Stanley Ford, who wakes up after one of his many drunken sprees one morning to find himself married to a beautiful Italian (Virnia Lisi). Forced to drastically alter his life and even change his comic strip (a secret agent strip titled Bash Brannigan) into a generic, domestic comedy. To vent his frustrations, Lemmon plots to kill the wife in the comic strip off, only to have his plot interpreted as a plan to actually kill his wife. How to Murder Your Wife is one of the more notable sex comedies. It is well regarded by many and it was one of Lemmon's favourite films. That having been said, others tend to see the film as a bit misogynistic.

Between Pillow Talk and Some Like It Hot, the sex comedy cycle was well under way. Started in the Fifties, it would thrive in the Sixties. In fact, for several years in the Sixties it must have very difficult to find a theatre that was not showing several sex comedies in any given year.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Sixties Sex Comedies Part One

Today when individuals think of movies made in the Sixties, they are apt to think of the extraordinarily large number of spy films made during much of the decade. While a large number of spy movies were made in the Sixties, however, they are just as apt to think of the decade's many sex comedies. In fact, if anything the cycle of sex comedies which began in the late Fifties and continued until nearly late Fifties was larger than the cycle towards spy films. As much of a Sixties icon as James Bond may be, Rock Hudson and Doris Day may be more fitting icons for the decade's movie industry.

While today we tend to speak of "Sixties sex comedies" or "sex comedies of the Sixties," this subgenre of romantic comedy actually developed in the Fifties and it was during that decade that the cycle actually began. That having been said, the bulk of the films were made in the Sixties and that is when the cycle actually reached its peak. If the homage to sex comedies Down With Love is set in the year 1964, it is with very good reason. While such classics of the subgenre as Pillow Talk and Houseboat were released in the Fifties, the Sixties would see even more classics, such as Lover Come Back, Boeing, Boeing, and How to Murder Your Wife.

In some respects using the term "sex comedy" of these films might seem a bit odd, as the films never feature the sex act itself. And in fact the term "sex comedy" has been applied to other sorts of films, such as the British erotic comedies of the Seventies, of which The Confessions of..." series starring Robin Askwith may be the best examples, and even teen comedies such as My Tutor and American Pie. It must be pointed out, however, that the term "sex comedy" was applied to movies such as Pillow Talk and Boys Night Out long before it was other sorts of film. And in many respects the term is perfectly fitting, as sex is the driving force in the sex comedies of the Sixties. Quite simply, a sex comedy can be defined as any comedy in which a man and woman are placed at odds with each other, with sex being the goal of each. The sex comedy is the descendant of both the bedroom farce (in fact, Boeing Boeing was based on a bedroom farce of that name by Marc Camoletti) and the screwball comedy. Like the bedroom farce much of the comedy is based around the various sexual pairings and re-pairings of individuals. Like screwball comedies, the sex comedies involve ridiculous situations, witty repartee, and a romantic plot.

What separates the sex comedies from both bedroom farce and screwball comedies is that a conflict between a man and a woman, the "battle of the sexes," lies at their heart. As the term "sex comedy" would indicate, that conflict is generally about sex. Here it must be pointed out that the conflict in these films is not that the man wants sex and the woman does not. For the sex comedies of the Sixties to have even worked, obviously the woman would have to desire sex too. The conflict lies in a disagreement over the circumstances under which sex will take place. The men of the Sixties sex comedies want sex before marriage or even completely without marriage expected to take place. In fact, many of the bachelors in the films are firmly opposed to marriage. While the man in Sixties sex comedies prefer their sex without marriage, the women either want sex only after they are married or, at the very least, with a firm commitment of marriage. It is this conflict which fuels many of the sex comedies of the late Fifties and Sixties.

Here it must be pointed out that the conflict does not always centre around when sex should take place. In Send Me No Flowers the conflict arises when George (Rock Hudson) thinks he is going to die and tries to find his wife Judy (Doris Day) a husband for after he's gone. These attempts to find his wife a husband for after he had died lead Judy to believe George is having an affair. While the conflict in this film centres on sex, it does not centre on the timing of it.

It is through this conflict between a man and a woman that it is revealed that both sexes generally act like idiots when in love or lust. George's attempts to find his wife a new husband in Send Me No Flowers is a perfect example of this. Another example can be found in Man's Favourite Sport in which so called fishing expert Roger Willoughby (Rock Hudson) finds himself faking it through a fishing tournament (in truth he has never fished before in his life) simply because he does not want his public relations women (Paula Prentiss) to reveal his secret and ruin his career.

While many of the ridiculous situations in the sex comedies result from the idiocy people experience while in love or lust, many of the ridiculous situations arise simply out the manipulations of one character in order to get the upper hand over another. More often than not, this involves a good deal of deceit. Deceit plays a central role in the conflicts found in the sex comedies of the Sixties. A perfect example of this can be found in Boeing Boeing. In this film Bernard Lawrence (Tony Curtis) juggles his schedule so that he can be involved with three different stewardesses, all the while leading each one to believe she is the only one he is seeing (the film provided part of the inspiration for Down With Love). Another example can be found in Who Was That Lady, in which Professor David Wilson (Tony Curits) convinces his wife (Janet Leigh) that he was kissing one of his students only as part of an undercover FBI sting.

More often than not the deceit in these films will even lead to one of the characters pretending to be someone else. The prime example of this may be Pillow Talk, which could well be the exemplar of the genre. In Pillow Talk interior designer Jan Morrow (Doris Day) and playboy Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) have never met, although they live in the same building and share the same party line (for those of the cell phone generation, a party line is one in which several telephone users are connected to the same line). It is the use of the party line which often makes them butts heads. Once Brad actually sees Jan at a nightclub and finds himself attracted to her, he pretends to be Texan rancher Rex Stetson so he can get close to her. In My Geisha actress Lucy Dell (Shirley MacLaine) disguises herself as a Japanese woman Yoko in order to get the role of Butterfly in a production of Madame Butterfly her husband (Yves Montand) is making (yes, I know, it is a bit absurd and racist).

With deceit playing such a large role in the sex comedies, it should not be surprising that much of the humour derives from who knows what. Generally speaking, in the films one character knows much more than the other. In the movie Lover Come Back, ad executive Jerry Webster (Rock Hudson) creates a product called VIP simply to get close to chorus girl (Edie Adams), promising her a part in its commercials. His archrival, Carol Templeton (Doris Day), then reports Jerry to the Advertising Council for advertising a product which does not exist. What Carol does not know, however, is that Jerry has bribed a chemist to actually create VIP, which he brings to the Advertising Council hearing. Another example of humour deriving from who knows what can be seen in Send Me No Flowers, in which George (Rock Hudson) thinks he is dying but does not bother to tell his wife this.

Beyond these broad features, the various sex comedies tended to share some things in terms of their production. They were almost always set in glamourous settings and featured lavish costumes, and were shot in glossy Technicolour. A central feature of many of the sex comedies, from Pillow Talk to Under the Yum Yum Tree, was the bachelor pad. The bachelor pads of the Sixties sex comedies were exaggerations of the sort written about in Playboy at the time. In fact, in many of them it seemed as if everything (including the fireplace) could be operated by remote control. It must also be pointed out that music plays a central role in nearly all of these films. Never mind that Doris Day and other stars often sing in these films, the sex comedies get a good deal of mileage out of music when it comes to setting a mood. The romantic scenes tend to have soft, romantic music, while the comedic scenes will tend to have something more fitting. Is it any wonder that the score for Pillow Talk was nominated for an Oscar?

Having discussed what the sex comedies involved, it might be a good idea to clear up some misconceptions about the sex comedies of the Sixties. First, while the sex act never appears in these sex comedies, it does not mean sex is absent from them. In Lover Come Back, after it turns out that the candy VIP has unexpected side effects, Carol (Doris Day) finds out that not only did she have sex with her archrival Jerry (Rock Hudson), but she apparently married him as well. In Sunday in New York it is very obvious that Adam (Cliff Robertson) and his girlfriend Mona (Jo Morrow) have a sexual relationship without being married.

Second, another misconception about the Sixties sex comedies is that all of the heroines were virgins. One need look no further than many of the characters Doris Day played in her sex comedies. In both Send Me No Flowers and The Thrill of It All she plays married women. In The Glass Bottomed Boat she plays a widow. In Move Over, Darling she plays a woman who had been married, but was declared legally dead after she went missing in a plane crash. Even Sandra Dee, who was typecast in virginal roles, played a woman with sexual experience in a sex comedy. In Doctor, You've Got to be Kidding, not only is she unmarried and having a baby at the beginning of the movie, but the father could be one of three men!

Given that sex lies at the core of the sex comedies of the late Fifties and Sixties, the subgenre could not have existed in the Thirties and Forties. The Production Code of the movie industry simply would not have permitted such films. Several events had to take place before the subgenre could come into being. Quite simply, the Sexual Revolution had to begin.

Although the period from the Thirties to the Fifties is often seen as a conservative one, the roots of the Sexual Revolution actually extend well before the Fifties. In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud's theories emphasised sexual desire as the primary motivational factor in life. Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse and particularly William Reich argued for sexual liberation. With psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers arguing for a loosening of sexual mores, all it would take would be the right catalyst to bring the Sexual Revolution into full swing. This would come in the form of a researcher named Alfred C. Kinsey. Conducting surveys into human sexuality, Kinsey published his results in what has become known as collectively as the Kinsey Reports: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male in 1948 and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953. The Kinsey Reports challenged conventional beliefs regarding human sexuality, particularly with regards to women. For much of the Twentieth Century many in society barely even recognised that women had sexual desires, much less engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage. The Kinsey Reports overturned the assumptions many in the general public held about sex. As a result, attitudes towards sex began to change in American society.

In fact, even before Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female was published, changes in American society with regards to sex were under way. Taboos in various media were soon being challenged In publishing this was reflected by bans on such books as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill (then over two hundred years old at the time) were successfully challenged.

In movies the Production Code, first enacted in 1934, also found itself challenged. It was in 1952 that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that movies were protected by the First Amendment and that the New York State Board of Regent could not ban "The Miracle," part of Roberto Rossellini's anthology film L'Amore. As the Production Code was created to prevent government regulation, this decision had the effect of making the Production Code seem less important. Indeed, competition from such foreign films was perhaps much of the reason producers pushed for changes to the code. In 1953 From Here to Eternity managed to make it to the screen, despite its depiction of adultery. Curiously, the film that may have forced changes in the Production Code seems totally innocuous today: The Moon is Blue. It was the first American film to use the words "virgin," "seduction," and "mistress' since the Production Code had been created in 1934. As a result the Production Code Administration denied the film its seal of approval. Producer/director Otto Preminger and United Artists then made a surprising move. They released The Moon is Blue without a Production Code Seal, although United Artists did drop out of the Motion Picture Association of America to avoid paying a fine. The Moon is Blue proved to be a huge hit at the box office, and as a result proved it was possible to challenge the Production Code and be successful. In 1954, after it was denied a Production Code Seal, Howard Hughes released The French Line without a seal. The French Line did quite well at the box office. In the end the Production Code would be changed in 1956 so that almost everything except nudity, obscenities, venereal disease, and sexual perversion was permissible. With revisions to the Code, then, the Sixties sex comedies became possible. Pillow Talk would not have been possible in 1951. It became possible in 1956.

Another factor in the creation of the sex comedies was the birth of the modern day men's magazine or "girlie magazine" or, to be more precise, one girlie magazine in particular. In the early Fifties such girlie magazines as Caper and Modern Men would hit newsstands. While these magazines featured nude photographs of women, it would be Playboy that would be the surest sign that the sexual revolution was under way and that would pave the way for the sex comedies of the Sixties. First published in 1953, Playboy not only featured nude pictures of women, but advocated sex as a pastime for men. In fact, in the Fifties many of the articles in Playboy were predicated on the idea of being successful in picking up women. To this end much of the magazines was dedicated to the proper alcohol, food, music, and so on with which to equip one's bachelor pad. It was then Playboy that created the archetypal protagonist of so many Sixties Sex Comedies--the bachelor out to pick up women, who lives in an exquisitely equipped bachelor pad, complete with the latest in technology.

Beyond the Sexual Revolution, the roles of women in American society would have to change as well. At the start of the Twentieth Century there were very few women in the workplace. This would change with World War II. With many men in service overseas, women had to take their place in the work force. Following the war many women remained in the work force, more than had before. The Fifties saw more women in the workplace than many decades before it. While in the Thirties only 25.4% of all women worked, by the Fifties that number had risen to 34%. This change was necessary for the sex comedies to come into existence as the vast majority of the heroines were working women. One only has to look at the characters played by Doris Day to see this. She played a college professor (Teacher's Pet), an interior decorator (Pillow Talk), and an advertising executive (Lover Come Back), among other things. In fact, the work place would play a major role in most of the films, often being the means through which the man and woman would meet.

With changes in American attitudes towards sex and changes in the roles of women in American society, the stage was set for the sex comedy cycle of the late Fifties and early Sixties. In fact, the very first of them would be released not long after Alfred Kinsey had released his Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The Golden Age Blue Beetle

When it comes to superheroes from the Golden Age of comic books, I think The Blue Beetle might be one of the most interesting. It is not because the character was particularly original or even interesting in and of himself. He wasn't. It was not because his stories were particularly well written or the artwork particularly well drawn. They weren't. It's not because he was a character with a modicum of popularity, although he did enjoy a bit of popularity in his heyday. Rather it is for two reasons that I find the Golden Age Blue Beetle interesting. The first reason is that despite being a fairly unimaginative creation, The Blue Beetle proved fairly successful. The second is that, even as far as Golden Age characters go, he has one of the most convoluted histories of any of them.

The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, August 1939, published by Fox Features Syndicate. Fox Features Syndicate was a company founded by Victor Fox, one of the shadiest characters in the history of comic books. Indicted of mail fraud in the late Twenties, Fox prompted the first plagiarism suit in the history of the medium. For his first comic book he hired the Eisner and Iger Studio, instructing writer and artist Will Eisner to more or less plagiarise Superman. Eisner was reluctant to do so, but Jerry Iger thought Fox was offering too much money to pass up. Wonder Comics, May 1939 debuted featuring a character called "Wonder Man." The end result was that Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would form the basis for D.C. Comics) promptly sued Fox for plagiarism. Detective Comics Inc. won the suit and that was the end of Wonder Man. Sued for plagiarism, Fox had to get more comic books on the stands quick. Even after the lawsuit, however, Fox's characters would never be particularly original.

The Golden Age Blue Beetle is such a case in point. The character was a blatant ripoff of the radio show hero The Green Hornet, down to his name. The Blue Beetle was police officer Dan Garret. Apparently dissatisfied with the legal system, he also fought crime as The Blue Beetle. With a bulletproof costume (it was supposed to look like chain mail, although it rarely did in the series' artwork) provided by kindly scientist Dr. Franz, The Blue Beetle would leave a small beetle-shaped token as his calling card. He would also frighten criminals with a flashlight which would cast a beetle shaped image. Like The Green Hornet, The Blue Beetle drove a bulletproof car. Unlike The Green Hornet, The Blue Beetle did not use anything as harmless as a gas gun. In his early days The Blue Beetle carried a revolver at his side, and he had no compunction about using it.

Given that The Blue Beetle was obviously a very derivative character, it is surprising that he would be successful. It is even more surprising given the fact that in his first appearance in Mystery Men Comics #1 he was not treated as a major character. Not only did The Blue Beetle not appear on the cover (that honour went to The Green Mask), but his first adventure appeared towards the back of Mystery Men Comics #1 and was only four pages long. It would appear that The Blue Beetle was simply meant to be a back up feature.

Despite all of this The Blue Beetle would prove to be popular. He would receive his own self titled magazine, The Blue Beetle, dated winter 1939-1940. He was only the second comic book character to get his own title (the first was Superman). With Mystery Men Comics #7, February 1940, he took over the cover of that title from The Green Mask.

In fact, The Blue Beetle was popular enough that he would receive his own newspaper comic strip starting on January 8, 1940. The Blue Beetle newspaper strip is notable primarily because it features some of the earliest work of Jack Kirby, before his partnership with Joe Simon even began. Indeed,The Blue Beetle was the first superhero strip on which Jack Kirby worked. Kirby handled everything on the strip, from the inking to the scripting. This could well be the reason that the newspaper strip would be superior, at least for a time, to any work regarding The Blue Beetle which appeared in Fox's comic books. Unfortunately, Jack Kirby would leave the strip after the March 9, 1940 instalment. The Blue Beetle newspaper strip would not prove to be a success. It ground to a halt in November 1940.

Both the Blue Beetle comic books and the Blue Beetle comic strip which ran in newspapers would see a dramatic change in 1940. This change would occur first in the newspaper comic strip. In the March 18, 1940 instalment Dan Garret first takes a pill developed by Dr. Franz called Vitamin 2-X. The drug gave Garret, and hence The Blue Beetle, superhuman strength, greater speed, a greater capacity for healing, and heightened senses. Vitamin 2-X would first appear in the comic books with Blue Beetle #5, November 1940.

Vitamin 2-X would play a role in the syndicated Blue Beetle radio show from the beginning. The radio show made its debut on May 15, 1940. The radio show consisted of 13 minute long episodes, airing twice a week. Stories were generally two parters, so that The Blue Beetle's adventures were simpler than many adventure programmes of the day. The first thirteen episodes featured star of radio and movies Frank Lovejoy as the voice of Dan Garret/The Blue Beetle. Afterwards an uncredited actor provided the voice. The Blue Beetle radio show was relatively short lived. It ended its run in September 1940.

The Blue Beetle might have found himself featured in yet another medium had things unfolded differently. Victor Fox had planned a four page Sunday supplement featuring comic strips not unlike Busy Arnold's famous "Spirit section." Initially featuring Dr. Fung, The Golden Knight, The Green Mask, Patty O'Day, Rex Dexter of Mars, Spark Stevens, Tex Maxon, and Yarko the Great, it was supposed to roll out on December 3, 1939. It never did. A second attempt at such a Sunday supplement, this one featuring The Blue Beetle, was set to come out on May 12, 1940. It never materialised either. Fox's Weekly Comic Magazine was never published.

In 1940 The Blue Beetle was popular enough that he played a role in the New York World's Fair. On July 4, 1940 a "Superman Day" was held at the World's Fair, climaxed by the appearance of actor Ray Middleton as Superman. Not to be outdone, The Fox Features Syndicate hosted a "Blue Beetle Day" at the World's Fair on August 7, 1940.

Nineteen forty appears to have been the peak of The Blue Beetle's popularity. Both his newspaper comic strip and radio show began and ended in that year. And for The Blue Beetle there would be no more radio shows and no movie serials. Worse yet for The Blue Beetle, things would not always run smoothly in the comic books either. In 1942 Victor Fox was forced to take bankruptcy. Holyoke Publishing, a comic book company founded in 1940 and based out of Holyoke, Massachusetts, then obtained the rights to Fox's characters. Beginning issue #12, June 1942 and lasting until issue #30, February 1944, The Blue Beetle would be published by Holyoke.

While at Holyoke drastic changes would be made to The Blue Beetle. As of Blue Beetle #14, September 1942, Dan Garret was no longer a police officer, but a Secret Service agent. He also picked up a kid sidekick. It was in Blue Beetle #15, October 1942, that he was joined by Sparkington J. Northrup, more simply known as "Sparky." Sparky wore a simplified version of The Blue Beetle's uniform. Sparky appeared regularly for a few issues before disappearing. By the time he did reappear The Blue Beetle was in Europe fighting Nazis. Curiously, Sparky had by then abandoned his costume and fought alongside The Blue Beetle in street clothes. With issue #30, February 1944, Sparky would be gone for good.

It would be in 1944 that Victor Fox left his voluntary bankruptcy. He apparently engaged in a struggle over ownership of The Blue Beetle and his other characters with Holyoke Publishing. A lawsuit was filed by Fox Features Syndicate against Holyoke. Regardless, Fox Features Syndicate returned to publishing The Blue Beetle with issue 31, June 1944.

In the years since The Blue Beetle had peaked in popularity in 1940, the character had not fared well. With Fox's bankruptcy, The Blue Beetle would not appear in a comic book for four months. After Fox regained ownership of the character, there would be another four months before The Blue Beetle would see publication. Even after Fox had regained The Blue Beetle, the character would sometimes be published irregularly. There were sometime gaps up to seven months between issues of The Blue Beetle.

Over the years The Blue Beetle also started showing an amazing lack of continuity. While at Holyoke Vitamin 2-X had apparently been forgotten, as it ceased to be mentioned in the series. Once Fox regained possession of The Blue Beetle, his powers began to vary wildly. At times the character might possess no powers at all; even the fact that his costume was bulletproof might be forgotten. Other times in addition to his super strength, The Blue Beetle might be able to fly, change shape, or even grow or shrink at will. Originally a Green Hornet imitator and later a more generic superhero, The Blue Beetle started to ripoff Batman. He obtained a Beetlemobile, a plane called the Beetlebird, and a Beetleboat. The Blue Beetle's adventures became more fantastic, with the character facing everything from dinosaurs to his police partner grown to enormous size. In some respects, however, The Blue Beetle resembled the original character to the degree that Dan Garret was a cop once more and he was no longer operating abroad.

Eventually The Blue Beetle would shift back towards more realistic adventures as Fox Features Syndicate joined the trend towards true crime comic books in the late Forties. Around the time of Blue Beetle #53, January 1948, The Blue Beetle simply became a narrator of true crime stories, such tales as those of Legs Diamond and Carlo Barone.

As the Forties came to a close, Victor Fox once more found himself in debt. There was a gap of over two years between The Blue Beetle #58, April 1948 and The Blue Beetle #59, June 1950. With The Blue Beetle #60, August 1950, Fox published his last issue featuring the hero. On July 15, 1950 Victor Fox filed for bankruptcy. Fox Features Syndicate was never able to recover from bankruptcy. Victor Fox himself filed for personal bankruptcy on May 29, 1952.

This would not be the end of the Golden Age Blue Beetle. The character was purchased by Charlton Comics, who published reprints of the character in Space Adventures issues 13 and 14 (October 1954 and December/January 1954/1955 respectively). For four issues in 1955 (#18, February to #21, August) Charlton published its own Blue Beetle title, again featuring reprints. That would be the last to be seen of the Golden Age Blue Beetle.

Charlton would revive the Blue Beetle with Blue Beetle volume 3, #1, June 1964. This version would essentially wear the same costume and even possess a similar name, but it was unclear whether he was meant to be the same as the Golden Age character or not. This time out The Blue Beetle was archaeologist Dan Garrett, who found a mystical scarab in Egypt which gave him superstrength, flight, heightened senses and so on. This new version of The Blue Beetle only lasted a few bi-monthly issues, until March 1966.

It was in November 1966 that yet another version of The Blue Beetle appeared as a back up feature in Charlton Comics' Captain Atom. This Blue Beetle was the creation of the legendary Steve Ditko. This Blue Beetle was millionaire, inventor, and electronics genius Ted Kord. Among his accoutrements was an advanced personal aircraft called The Bug, the BB gun (a gun which can emit a blinding light or a powerful blast of air), and various other gadgets. The new Blue Beetle would eventually receive his own title, which would only last five issues as Charlton's superhero line collapsed. Regardless, he would develop a cult following and would see some success after DC Comics obtained Charlton's characters in 1983. Sadly, this Blue Beetle would be killed off in the DC Comics mini-series Infinite Crisis.

DC Comics would then create its own Blue Beetle. Teenager Jaime Reyes obtained the scarab once owned by Dan Garrett and passed onto Ted Kord. As The Blue Beetle Jaime possessed nearly invincible armour which can shape itself into anything from cannons to blades to wings for flight. First appearing in Infinite Crisis, this Blue Beetle received his own title cover dated March 2006. The series ended with Blue Beetle #36, February 2009.

It is difficult to explain how The Blue Beetle proved popular enough that the name would persist in comic books for nearly seventy years. The Golden Age Blue Beetle was not a particularly original character. His adventures were neither well drawn nor well written. In fact, in The Great Comic Book Heroes Jules Feiffer referred to Fox Features Syndicate as "...the Monogram Studios of the industry." As far as The Blue Beetle goes, it could be the case that he became popular simply because he was one of the very first superheroes. The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, August 1939. This means that he appeared only two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics and several months before such classic Golden Age characters as The Flash, Hawkman, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner. In fact, his newspaper strip debuted well before such great characters as The Green Lantern or Captain America even appeared.

Having become popular due to the sheer fact that he was one of the few superheroes around in late 1939, The Blue Beetle was able to expand into newspaper syndication and radio with little fear of competition. Exposed to a much larger audience than many superheroes of the time through the newspaper comic strip and the radio show, The Blue Beetle achieved name recognition that only a few Golden Age superheroes would enjoy. This allowed The Blue Beetle to survive through the Forties, even though his art and stories were often subpar. Sadly, the Golden Age Blue Beetle saw more success than his more original, better written, and better drawn successor, the Silver Age Blue Beetle (Ted Kord). It is perhaps a simple example that, at least in comic books, it is often being there first that counts.