Saturday, 7 March 2009

Sydney Chaplin Passes On

Sydney Chaplin, the son of Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey who went onto his own acting career, passed on March 3 at the age of 82. He had experienced a stroke not long before his death.

Sydney Chaplin was born on March 30, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. His father was legendary director and actor Charlie Chaplin. His mother was Chaplin's second wife, actress Lita Grey, who was only sixteen when Charlie Chaplin married her and only seventeen when Sydney Chaplin was born. His parents divorced only a year later, in 1927. Sydney Chaplin proved troublesome in school, being moved around from one to the next, before he finally dropped out and joined the Army. He did not make it through his first year in the Army, although a military career was in his future regardless. A year after he was discharged from the Army, he was draughted. He served in Europe under General George Patton.

After World War II Sydney Chaplin returned to the United States where he formed the Circle of Players with undergraduates from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dedicated to theatre in the round, the Circle of Players performed several plays by William Saroyan, among them the world premiere of Sam Ego's House. In 1952 he received his first movie role courtesy of his father, Charlie Chaplin, who wrote the role of Neville in Limelight specifically for him.

Chaplin's film career would not be quite as esteemed as his father. Not viewed as leading man material, he was often cast in secondary roles in such films as Land of the Pharoahs, Abdul the Great, and Pillars of the Sky. In the Sixties he primarily appeared in foreign films, including Sept hommes et une garce, Troppo per vivere... poco per morire, and Le Clan des Siciliens. Exceptions were his roles in Follow That Man, The Adding Machine, and in his father's final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, released in 1967.

Chaplin would have a much more impressive career on Broadway. In 1956 he played opposite Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing, for which he won the 1957 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. He would also perform on Broadway in Goodbye, Charlie (1959), Subways Are for Sleeping (1961), and In the Counting House (1942). He played opposite Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl in 1964, for which he won another Tony Award for Best Actor in Musical.

Chaplin also appeared on television, albeit infrequently. He guest starred on the short lived show King's Row and starred in a television production of Wonderful Town. He appeared on television more frequently in the Seventies, when he guest starred on Police Woman, Spencer's Pilots, Switch, and The Bionic Woman. His last role on screen was in the cult film Satan's Cheerleaders. In the Eighties Chaplin opened a restaurant in Palm Springs.

Sydney Chaplin was a talented actor whose talents were ill used by Hollywood. Indeed, when Funny Girl was adapted to film, his role was given to Omar Sharif. This is sad, as he gave good performances even in such forgettable films as Four Girls in Town. He should have had a great career both on Broadway and in Hollywood.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Watchmen

Even given Zack Snyder's experience in bringing graphic novels to film (he is the man who adapted 300 after all), adapting Watchmen had to have been formidable. On one hand, the graphic novel had been labelled "unfilmable" by some. On the other hand, it is also considered the greatest graphic novel of all time. There would be many who would looking for Snyder to fail in adapting Watchmen, and regardless of how fine a film he made, there would be those who would insist he did indeed fail.

As it turns out, however, Zack Snyder proves that Watchmen was not unfilmable by giving us very well done film adaptation. Given the sheer length of the graphic novel, the movie version of Watchmen does omit many of the smaller details found in the graphic novel (for example, the characters on the New York street corner which appears in much of the graphic novel is absent from the film), but with the exception of one major change in the plot and a very few minor ones (which I won't reveal here) it is relatively faithful to its source material. I honestly cannot see any of the graphic novel's fans beyond purists being displeased with the film. Indeed, the film duplicates some of the Dave Gibbons' panels from the graphic novel almost exactly and uses some of Alan Moore's dialogue verbatim!

Of course, for the film to succeed it would have to stand on its own. And that it does quite well. Indeed, just as Watchmen the graphic novel wasn't your father's comic books, Watchmen the movie isn't your father's superhero movie. It is an epic which runs two hours and 43 minutes and spans 45 years of history. Watchmen is also a very complex film which makes frequent use of flashbacks and unfolds in a distinctly non-linear fashion. What is more, some of the more important information about the characters is revealed in brief, key scenes--from Rorschach as a young boy fighting back against bullies to Dr. Manhattan as a child learning from his watchmaker father. In many respects, Watchmen is The Dark Knight meets Citizen Kane.

While Zack Snyder achieves much that is worthwhile in his adaptation of Watchmen, the film does have a few (granted, a very few) moments that misfire. The love scene between Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) aboard Archimedes (AKA the Owlship) to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" simply seems awkward (although much of this may be due to the choice of music more than anything else).

For the most part the film's performances are impressive. Best of them all is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, the violent vigilante who starts the plot rolling when he looks into the death of fellow mask The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Haley not only brings a sense of psychosis to Rorschach (here is a superhero who would frighten even The Joker as played by Heath Ledger), but a scene of pathos as well. Billy Crudup gives a solid performance in what was a very difficult role, as Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman member of The Watchmen whose very power makes him detached from humanity over time. Jeffrey Dean Morgan also does an excellent job as The Comedian, the amoral old timer whose murder sets everything in motion. In fact, perhaps only two of the film's performances do not quite seem up to par. Malin Akerman gives Silk Spectre II little personality, but then it must be admitted that given the script (and the graphic novel, for that matter) she had very little to work with. At the same time it is very difficult to get a grasp upon Mathtew Goode as Ozymandias, beyond the fact that he seems a bit of an egomaniac. In Goode's defence, however, it must be pointed out that Ozymadias is given very little screen time.

As I said earlier, Watchmen is not your father's superhero movie. It earned its R rating rightfully. There is a good deal of violence in the film. Rorschach breaks limbs and cracks skulls. The Comedian guns down people in cold blood. Even Dr. Manhattan turns human beings into bloody splatter. There are at least two sex scenes. There is even full frontal, male nudity, although it is achieved through the use of CGI. This is not one of the Spider-Man movies, and my advice to any parent thinking of letting young children watch this film is simple: don't.

Watchmen is not a perfect film, but it is a very well done one. And I have to wonder that its status as an intellectual superhero movie that goes even further than The Dark Knight in overturning what one expects from superhero movies will make it difficult for the average movie goer to access. At any rate, I rather suspect that at the very least Watchmen will join Zack Snyder's 300 as a fanboy fave.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

It was 105 years ago that Theodor Giesel was born. If you don't recognise the name, then don't worry. You will certainly recognise his nom de plume: Dr. Seuss.

In an extraordinarily long and fruit career Dr. Seuss wrote over sixty children's books. Dr. Seuss also worked in advertising, as a political cartoonist, and even as an animator. He was a man of many talents and apparently great at all of them. Indeed, it is safe to say that no other children's book author in the history of the medium equals him in either fame or stature.

Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Giesel in Springfield, Massachusetts. He attended Springfield's Central High School and later enrolled at Dartmouth College. Mr. Giesel worked on the school's humour magazine, The Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern and eventually became its editor in chief. Unfortunately he would be caught drinking, at the time not only a violation of Dartmouth policies but the Prohibition laws in effect at the time. Dartmouth allowed Mr. Giesel to remain in school, but they required him to withdraw from all extracurricular activities, including The Jack-O-Lantern. To get around this, Mr. Giesel would sign his contributions to the magazine "Seuss." He would not become "Dr. Seuss" until his humour pieces were published in the magazine The Judge.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Seuss attended Lincoln College at Oxford University where he intended to receive a PhD in literature. It was at Oxford that he met Helen Palmer. The two fell in love, married, and Dr. Seuss eventually returned to the United States without earning his degree. Having left Oxford, Dr. Seuss began submitting material to such humour magazines as The Judge, Liberty, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Vanity Fair.

Dr. Seuss's cartoons would lead directly to his career as an advertising illustrator. His first advertising illustrations would be for Standard Oil. Ultimately he would illustrate ads for Standard Oil for a full seventeen years. Manufactured by Standard Oil, Dr. Seuss also illustrated ads for the insecticide Flit. During his career in advertising Dr. Seuss illustrated ads for Ajax Cups, Ford, General Electric, NBC, Shaefer Bock Beer, and many others. Dr. Seuss would also try his hand at a newspaper comic strip. Hejji debuted on April 7, 1935 and was syndicated by King Features Syndicate. Unfortunately, it would be cancelled before the year's end.

If Dr. Seuss did not see success in newspaper comic strips, he would soon find the most successful venue in which he ever worked. Returning from an ocean voyage to Europe, Dr. Seuss was inspired by the rhythm of the ship to write a poem which would become the children's book . Published in 1937, it has the honour of being the first children's book published by Dr. Seuss. Before the United States' entry into World War II, Dr. Seuss would publish three more children's books. Surprisingly two of them, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and The King's Stilts, were written as prose rather than poetry. The third, Horton Hatches the Egg introduced the elephant Horton to the world and would become an unabashed classic. Dr. Seuss also wrote one of his few books for adults, The Seven Lady Godivas, published in 1939. At the time the book bombed, although when Dr. Seuss's fame grew it would later be redeemed.

With the start of World War II Dr. Seuss would enter the world of political cartooning. For two years he would create over 400 cartoons for the liberal New York City daily newspaper, PM as its editorial cartoonist. By 1942 Dr. Seuss would create posters for both War Production Board and the Treasury Department. By 1943 he joined the Army and became the commanding officer of the Animation Department of First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. While in the service Dr. Seuss wrote such films as Your Job in Germany, Our Job in Japan, and, most famous of them all, the Private Snafu series of training films. While in the Army Dr. Seuss worked closely with the legendary animator as Chuck Jones.

After the war ended Dr. Seuss returned to writing children's books. It was during the period that the bulk of his classic works were written, including Horton Hears a Who (1954), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), The Cat in the Hat (1957), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), and The Lorax (1971). Starting in the Sixties he also wrote beginning readers under the pseudonym Theo. LeSieg. While the Dr. Seuss books were only illustrated by Dr. Seuss, the Theo. LeSieg books were illustrated by a number of different artists.

Of course, it must be pointed out that Dr. Seuss did not spend the rest of his life only writing children's books. Dr. Seuss had provided the story for two Terrytoons (Put on the Spout and 'Neath the Bababa Tree as far back as 1931. In 1942 Warner Brothers adapted his book Horton Hatches the Egg as a ten minute cartoon, while George Pal adapted The 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street as Puppetoons in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Following the war, Dr. Seuss would create the animated character Gerald McBoing Boing and provide the screenplay for the live action classic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.. In 1966 the classic holiday special How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted, directed by Dr. Seuss's old friend Chuck Jones. It would be followed by nine more specials based on Dr. Seuss's works.

Dr. Seuss also wrote two more books for adults (although all of his works are enjoyed by adults, perhaps more so than by children), Oh, the Places You'll Go and You're Only Old Once.

Dr. Seuss died on September 24, 1991. If anything, since then his fame has only grown. The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden opened in 2002 in his birth place of Springfield, Massachusetts. He has been commemorated on United States postage stamps. Dr. Seuss's birthday has practically become a national holiday, with schools across the nation commemorating his birth from simply reading his books aloud to having the children dress up as his characters.

Indeed, Dr. Seuss could well be the most successful author in the English language of the whole 20th century. At the very least I can think of no other author whose birthday is celebrating annually by children and adults everywhere. And while there are many who believe that Dr. Seuss was the greatest children's author of all time, I would argue that Dr. Seuss was the greatest poet of the 20th century. After all, most so called poets of the 20th century did not even bother to rhyme and were heard of by no one outside of a very few. In his poetry Dr. Seuss always rhymed. Of course, this points up to something important to consider about Dr. Seuss. If he is the most successful writer of the 20th century, or at least the most successful children's writer, it is perhaps because he can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike. I have been known to read the work of Dr. Seuss for entertainment. And my best friend openly admits he not only buys Dr. Seuss books for his daughter to enjoy, but so he can enjoy them as well. It is then perhaps fallacious to call Dr. Seuss a children's writer. His work transcends age.
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As part of today's salute to Dr. Seuss, I thought I'd provide a links devoted to the great man:
The Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss
(A website devoted to Dr. Seuss long career in advertising)
Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden
(Self explanatory)
Dr. Seuss's Seussville
(Random House's Dr. Seuss site for children)
Dr. Seuss Went to War
(A web site hosted by the Mandeville Special Collections Library and centred on Dr. Seuss's political cartoons)

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Paul Harvey Passes On

Radio broadcaster Paul Harvey passed yesterday at the age of 90.

Paul Harvey was born Paul Harvey Aurandt on September 4, 1918 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was interested in radio from a young age, making radio receivers. In 1933 he started working at KVOO in Tulsa on a teacher's suggestion. Initially only cleaning up, he was eventually allowed on the air to read the news and do commercials. He continued to work at KVOO, first as an announcer and then as a programme director, while attending the University of Tulsa. After graduation he worked as a station manger at KFBI in Abilene, Kansas. Afterwards he work first as a newscaster in KOMA in Oklahoma City and later as Director of Special Events and roving reporter for KXOK in St. Louis.In 1940 Harvey went to Hawaii to cover the United States fleet in the Pacific. He returned home not long before the attack on Pearl Harbour. Harvey served breifly in the United States Army Air Force during the war. He was released on an honourable discharge after a training injury.

After leaving the service in 1944, Harvey moved to Chicago and went to work for ABC affiliate WENR in Chicago. In 1945 he started hosting Jobs for G.I. Joe, a job employment programme, on WENR. It was in 1946 that Paul Harvey began a practice that would make him a success. He would begin a feature story, only to pause for a commercial break with a promise to deliver "...the Rest of the Story." "The Rest of the Story" spots would be made into a series all their own by ABC News in 1976.

Paul Harvey was immensely popular as a broadcaster, so much so that ABC debuted Paul Harvey News and Comment in 1951. The show continued until now, making it the longest single radio show of all time. From the late Sixties into the early Eighties, ABC also produced a five-minute editorial by Paul Harvey which local stations could choose to place within their own news programmes or air separately.

As a broadcaster, Paul Harvey was very idiosyncratic, relying on dramatic pauses, his own particular inflections, and using certain catchphrases repeatedly. He generally opened his broadcasts with "Hello Americans! This is Paul Harvey. Stand by! For news!" And, of course, there was the classic "...in a minute, you're going to hear ... the rest of the story." In fact, Harvey's voice and style are so identified with him that Harvey has inspired a good number of impersonations over the years.

Paul Harvey was also the author of several books, including Autumn of Liberty (1956), The Rest of the Story (1956), Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story (1977), and so on.

I cannot say that I always agreed with Paul Harvey. He had a tendency to see things from a conservative point of view which runs counter to my own. And Harvey was apparently not always careful about checking his facts--some of the stories he reported have turned out to be urban legends. While Harvey's value as a newscaster may have been dubious, he was great as a storyteller. Even with the conservative bent, I always enjoyed him as a storyteller. With his deep voice and dramatic pauses, no one could tell a story like Paul Harvey. In there any wonder Paul Harvey remained popular and retained sponsors for decades. Though no newsman, as an entertainer he was great.