Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Geeks That Time Forgot: The Lone Gunmen

The renewal of Chuck has given many geeks reason to rejoice. But Chuck was not the first television which featured a geek in the lead role. It was not even the first action/adventure show to feature a geek in the lead. Before there was Chuck, even before Timothy McGee and Abby Sciuto on NCIS, there were three geeks who fought threats to national safety and world peace. They worked for no government agency, although they did assist a couple of FBI agents on several occasions. And eventually they would be the stars of their own, sadly short lived show. They were John Fitzgerald Byers, Melvin Frohike, and Richard "Ringo" Langly. Collectively they were known as The Lone Gunmen.

The Lone Gunmen were created by Glen Morgan and James Wong for the X-Files episode "E.B.E." In the episode Mulder requires assistance from what he describes to Scully as a government watchdog group. That group happens to be three men. Of the three only John Fitzgerald Byers (Bruce Harwood) appears normal. Not only is he apparently the only one who combs his hair, but he also wears a suit. In further episodes of The X-Files it was revealed that he was born the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated and was named in honour of the late president. Prior to his involvement with The Lone Gunmen, Byers was a public affairs officer with the Federal Communications Commission. Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), the oldest of the three, had been a Sixties radical and an acclaimed tango dancer in Miami (as hard as that is to believe...). As trim and neat as Byers tended to be, Frohike tended to be scruffy (combat boots, leather vests, et. al.). His expertise within the group was photography, electronic surveillance, and engineering. Of The Lone Gunmen Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) looked the most like a geek--he had long hair like Garth from Wayne's World, wore t-shirts, and jeans. He was a huge fan of The Ramones and also played Dungeons and Dragons. Unlike Byers and Frohike, Langly apparently did not have a honest living. He operated his own bootleg cable company, Langly Vision. He was the group's expert with regards to computers and a master hacker. Together Byers, Frohike, and Langly published a magazine centred on various conspiracy theories, variously called The Lone Gunman or The Magic Bullet.

The Lone Gunmen were based on three men that Glen Morgan had seen at a UFO convention selling pamphlets on various conspiracy theories, shortly before starting work on The X-Files. Even the way the men's clothing provided inspiration for The Lone Gunmen. Byers, Frohike, and Langly were meant to appear only once. The trio proved extremely popular with fans and, in fact, it was the fans who gave them the collective name of "The Lone Gunmen (the name is not used on The X-Files until much later)." They proved popular enough that their images would soon appear on t-shirts and posters. The Lone Gunmen not only appeared in more episodes of The X-Files, but played an increasingly large role in the episodes in which they did appear.

In fact, eventually the story of how The Lone Gunmen joined forces would be told in the fifth season X-Files episode "Unusual Suspects." Using a framing device in which the three men are questioned by Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) of the Baltimore Police (this may have been one of the first cross network crossovers), it is told how while at an electronics exposition Byers, Frohike, and Langly uncovered a government plot to test a gas which causes fear and paranoia on a civilian populace. Towards the end of the episode it is revealed that it was the mysterious figure known only as "X (Steven Williams)" who gave the group their name. In reference to the assassination of John F. Kennedy assassination (about which the three men endlessly theorise), he told Byers, "I heard that it was a lone gunman." "The Unusual Suspects" proved so popular that there would be another episode focusing mostly on The Lone Gunmen.

The sixth season episode "Three of a Kind" followed Byers, Frohike, and Langly as they uncovered a government plot to use a brainwashing drug for assassinations. It was actually very early in the run of The X-Files that a spin off series featuring The Lone Gunmen had been suggested. "Three of a Kind" cemented this idea. Writers Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban told The X-Files creator Chris Carter that they wanted to do a Lone Gunmen series. The three men then pitched the idea to the Fox Network, with the idea that the new series would focus on conspiracies like The X-Files, but it would centre primarily on technological crime.

The Lone Gunmen debuted on March 4, 2001. The series added two new characters who would assist Byers, Frohike, and Langly. Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden) was a rather clueless, if somewhat clueless young man who proved his worth to The Lone Gunmen through his boundless enthusiasm and the sort of the optimism the three had in their youth. Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson) was a beautiful thief and hacker who sometimes assisted The Lone Gunmen, but was also sometimes their rival as well. The series also featured characters from time to time from The X-Files. Kimmy the Geek (Jim Fyfe) was the identical twin of Jimmy the Geek (also played by Jim Fyfe), who had assisted The Lone Gunmen from time to time on The X-Files. Majestic-12 operative Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean), FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and Fox Mulder all appeared on episodes of the show.

Today the series' first episode and pilot provides for chilling viewing. The pilot involved a plot by a clandestine agency to divert a commercial Boeing 727 from Boston to New York with the purpose of crashing the jet into the World Trade Centre by remote control. Following episodes would feature plots involving a water powered car, a genetically engineered monkey, a TV children's TV show host accused of espionage, and a secret government agency that could be the granddaddy of all conspiracies. Sadly, although the series received good reviews, The Lone Gunmen lasted only thirteen episodes. Like so many genre shows before it, Fox had placed in in a Friday night death slot when most of its viewers would not have been at home.

Despite its cancellation, The Lone Gunmen would have a final episode of sorts. The ninth season X-Files episode "Jump the Shark" resolved a story arc began on The Lone Gunmen and provided closure to its series. Not only did the episode centre on Byers, Frohike, and Langly, but its opening credits were even a combination of X-Files and The Lone Gunmen opening. In the episode The Lone Gunmen uncover a plot to commit acts of bio-terrorism using living beings as carriers and a virus so deadly it could conceivably spread throughout the world. In the climax of the episode John Fitzgerald Byers, Melvin Frohike, and Richard Langly cornered the bio-terrorist and the virus's human carrier in the corridor of a government building. Before the bio-terrorist has completely released the virus, the Lone Gunmen tripped a fire alarm which causes emergency doors to seal off the corridor. This effectively contained the virus, but also sentenced the Lone Gunmen to death. Byers, Frohike, and Langly then sacrificed their lives to save the world. Having died heroes' deaths, Assistant Director Skinner then has it arranged so they can be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. Of course, given their death scene was meant to an homage to Spock's death in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Spock returned from the dead, it seems possible that Byers, Frohike, and Langly could still be out there fighting the good fight. The "ghosts" of the Lone Gunmen would appear to Mulder in The X-Files series finale "The Truth."

The Lone Gunmen would prove to be highly influential characters. Similar, technologically adept geeks would appear on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The Trio of would be supervillains Warren Mears, Andrew Wells, and Jonathan Levinson), Supernatural (ghost chasers Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spangler), and Invasion (Dave the blog journalist). Indeed, without The Lone Gunmen we might not have Timothy McGee and Abby Sciuto on NCIS or even Chuck. Although not well known to the public at large, The Lone Gunmen could well be as popular with X-Files fans as Mulder and Scully themselves. Certainly they have their place in television history as possibly the first geeks to be leads in their own action-adventure TV series and an important part of The X-Files mythos.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Crazy Eights

I was tagged by Raquel of Out of the Past (one of the best blogs on classic film out there) for this meme. Raquel changed things in the meme a bit on her blog, so I only know the "official" rules from other blogs. Not that it matters. Like Raquel, I'm changing the meme, in this case to make it more pop culture oriented as to suits this blog.

Eight Things I Look Forward To:

1. The new season of Burn Notice (it starts next Thursday).
2. Sam Raimi's new movie Drag Me to Hell
3. The new season of Mad Men.
4. The latest album from Eels.
5. Public Enemies. Michael Mann. Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis. Enough Said.
6. Quentin Taratino's Inglourious Basterds.
7. The movie adaptation of Robert E. Howard's classic character Solomon Kane (with James Purfoy in the title role).
8. Buying everything I want from the Warner Archive.

Eight Thing I Want to Do with This Blog:
1. Figure out something special to celebrate the fifth anniversary of A Shroud of Thoughts (it is only a little over a week away now).
2. Increase my readership.
3. Do more post related to books and literature. Sadly, beyond posts about pulp magazines and comic books, posts on literature have been few and far between. It's the one aspect of popular culture I think I've neglected in A Shroud of Thoughts. A shame, as the blog takes its name from a Byron quote...
4. Do more series of articles (although they take a lot out of me...).
5. Post pictures to go with the articles more often...
6. Do my usual, week long series of horror related topics for Halloween.
7. Update my links.
8. Perhaps have guest bloggers for times like these when I am seriously overworked (I am so glad it's Memorial Day weekend...)

Eights Movies I Have Watched Recently:
1. Star Trek (2009)
2. Quadrophenia
3. The Black Cat (1934)
4. The Road to Singapore
5. Jesus Christ Superstar
6. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
7. Charlie Chan in London
8. A Touch of Zen

Eight TV Shows I Watch
1. The Avengers
2. The Wild Wild West
3. The Monkees
4. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
5. NCIS
6. Lost
7. House
8. Have Gun Will Travel

Since I think most of the bloggers I know have already did this meme, rather than tagging eight people, I'll simply state that if you are a blogger and you're one of the few people who regularly read this blog (I think there may only be eight anyway...), consider yourself tagged!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Ida Lupino as Director

Many probably remember Ida Lupino as the glamourous actress who appeared in such films as They Drive By Night and High Sierra. In fact, she may best be known now as she was in her heyday, as "Queen of the B's." What many might not realise is that Ida Lupino was also a director. She was only the second female director to be admitted into the Directors Guild of America. In fact, when taking into account her career in television, Ida Lupino may be the most prolific woman director of all time. In all, she directed six films (and did uncredited directorial work on another) and over one hundred television episodes.

It was Lupino's career as an actress which led her to become a director. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, nearly every acting contract had in it a suspension clause--a clause whereby if an actor refused an assigned role could be placed on suspension by the studio. An actress with her own mind, Lupino had turned down more than one role offered by a studio and hence she also spent time on suspension (the most famous case may have well been when she refused to play Cassandra in King's Row). It was the feeling of helplessness at the studio's control over her career as an actress which led Lupino to become a filmmaker. It was in the late Forties that Ida Lupino found a script about unwed mothers. Impressed, her husband of the time, Collier Young, took the script to his boss, notorious studio head Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Cohn not only refused to finance any film made from the script, but would not even allow Young to produce it for Columbia.

It following this that Ida Lupino and Collier Young joined Emerald Productions, a fledgeling company specialising in low budget films. It would be that company which would produce the script about unwed mothers, initially titled Unwed Mothers, but soon to be known as Not Wanted. Elmer Clifton had been set to direct Not Wanted. It was only a few days before the film was to begin shooting that Clifton suffered a heart attack. Although Clifton recovered, he was still weak and had to remain seated much of the time. Ida Lupino then took over the bulk of the directorial chores. Not Wanted would prove to be a roaring success at the box office. It was in the wake of the success of Not Wanted that she and Collier Young formed their own production company, The Filmakers.

In all Ida Lupino directed seven films. When Nicholas Ray fell ill during the filming of On Dangerous Ground, Lupino took over the directorial chair for a few days, although she was uncredited. Taken as a whole, Lupino's films clearly mark her as an auteur. While her many of her films could be a bit melodramatic, through them Lupino tackled subjects which the major studios considered too controversial or uncomfortable to address. Her films often involved ordinary people whose lives are upturned by a single event. And Lupino did not provide the characters in her films with easy solutions. As might be expected of a strong willed, female director, many of the women in the Ida Lupino's films are often independent and able to hold their own with men. Sometimes women ever appear as villains.

The subjects which Ida Lupino covered in her films would surprise many viewers today, as some were largely considered unacceptable for the movies at the time. Lupino had to work with the Breen Office to even get Not Wanted. Her film Outrage centred on a young woman, about to be married, who is raped. The Hitch-Hiker was based on the real life case of Billy Cook, who murdered an entire family and a travelling salesman. The Bigmaist dealt with bigamy. Her follow up to Not Wanted, Never Fear, focused on a young woman who contracts polio. Only two of her films did not address subjects that were either controversial or uncomfortable. Hard, Fast, and Beautiful was essentially a soap opera about a tennis player and her overbearing mother. The last feature film Lupino directed, The Trouble with Angels from 1966, is the only comedy she ever directed.

Released in 1953, The Bigamist bombed at the box office. Its performance led directly to the end of Lupino's production company, The Filmakers. After the demise of The Filmakers, Lupino would not direct another feature film until The Trouble with Angels. Lupino did not retire from directing, however, as she moved into the then young medium of television. Ida Lupino's first experiences with television were as an actress. She had made appearances in episodes of Four Star Playhouse and The Ford Television Theatre. It was in 1956 that Ida Lupino was hired direct an episode of Screen Director Playhouse, an anthology series which brought Hollywood directors to the medium of television. It opened up a whole new career for Lupino. She became one of the first female directors, if not the first, in American television.

Curiously, much of Ida Lupino's work as a director on television was on action/adventure shows. Ida Lupino directed a variety of genres of TV shows, including sitcoms (she directed episodes of Giligan's Island), anthology series (General Electric Theatre), and yet others. That having been said, she became best known for her work in action/adventure series such as Have Gun--Will Travel, 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, The Viriginian, and Daniel Boone. In fact, she was considered a female, television equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock, a director who could easily handle action scenes and create a real feeling of suspense. Interestingly enough, she directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the horror anthology Thriller.

In the late Sixties Ida Lupino brought her directing career to an end. Her last work was an episode of the series The Bill Cosby Show in 1969. The reasons for Lupino giving up directing are unclear. She had always enjoyed directing both films and television shows. Regardless, she abandoned directing, although she would continue to act, appearing in such films as Junior Bonner and TV shows ranging from Columbo to Ellery Queen.

On the sets of the films which Ida Lupino directed, her nickname was "Mother." Indeed, on the back of her director's chair was inscribed "Mother of Us All." That was precisely the approach she took to her films. Ida Lupino had an uncanny ability to bond with her casts and crews. She was very much an "actor's director," able to direct male and female actors both with ease. With her own considerable acting experience, Lupino was always sensitive to the needs of her cast.

Beyond her interpersonal skills, Ida Lupino always showed grace under pressure as a director. Often her film and even her work in television was shot in less than ideal conditions. A portion of The Hitch-Hiker was shot in the desert, with little to ease the searing heat. In television she often found herself facing schedules that would have daunted a lesser director. On The Untouchables and other hour long series she would have only six days to churn out on episode, with no overtime and no night shooting. On half hour series she would have even less time, only two to three days. Not only was Ida Lupino able to complete entire television episodes in the time allowed, but she would bring them in under budget and produce quality work as well.

Today Ida Lupino is regarded by many film historians as a pioneer and a true auteur. She directed movies at a time when it was almost unknown for women to direct films, and did so on her own terms. She can rightfully be regarded as an early and important independent filmmaker. And while her name is not often uttered in the same breath as Lucille Ball and Loretta Young with regards to trailblazers in television, there is every one it should be. Ida Lupino may well have been the first woman director in the medium, and she was certainly the most prolific. Although best known for her work as an actress, she should be equally well known for her work as a director as well.