Friday, 31 December 2010

Happy New Decade!

Although the media has hardly noticed, today is the last day of the decade I call the Naughts (I think they think it ended last year, which is incorrect). Over all, I think the Naughts were a very bland decade, much less flashy than say the Sixties or the Eighties. Even the Nineties I think were more interesting. But then the Naughts had much that made it different from other decades.

For myself, this would be the first decade I would spend without my parents. My mother died in October 2000, just shy of seeing the new decade and new century in. For myself this meant a huge change in my life. My sister is much older than I am, and had married while I was still very much a child. My brother was pursuing his own path. As a result, I found myself caring for my mother, very much a part of the Sandwich Generation. It would take a toll on my personal life, but I do not think I would have had it any other way. Regardless, the loss of my mother meant a very big change in the role in which I saw myself. I was no longer a caretaker, so I had to essentially redefine myself. Now that 10 years have passed, I find I am redefining myself again. I have decided to try to make a living at what I was born to do: writing.

As to the world beyond myself, perhaps the biggest impact on pop culture was the growth of the internet. The internet had been around since the late Sixties and the World Wide Web since the mid-Nineties, but the Naughts would see phenomenal growth. As the decade passed more and more people began accessing the internet by broadband. The higher speeds of broadband allowed for the rise of video sharing sites like YouTube. The various broadcast networks, such as the BBC, ITV, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox began offering their shows on the internet. Cable channels such as TNT and USA did as well. Netflix, the video rental site, also began allowing movies to be viewed on the internet.

While social networking sites had existed in some form since the Nineties, the Naughts would see a phenomenal rise in their popularity. First MySpace and then Facebook became very popular, creating a new form of communication for many. Towards the end of the decade Twitter would arrive on the scene, creating the phenomenon of microblogging. Blogging, which had been around since the Nineties, would become a bit of a fad in the years 2004 and 2005, giving rise to thousands of blogs (including this one). By the end of the decade blogging would be an established part of pop culture and an important source of information for many.

Relatively uncommon at the start of the decade, cell phones would become as common, if not more so than landline phones. What is more, as the decade passed, cell phones would become more and more powerful, with more and more functions. In the early Naughts, it was remarkable if a cell phone had a camera. By the end of the decade cell phones would be capable of accessing the internet, and would essentially become, micro-computers.

In film computer generated imagery came to dominate. In many films it was used to create special effects, replacing the models and even make up of old. Computer animated films tended to be more popular than traditional cel animation. The success of Spider-Man in 2000 led to a new cycle of superhero films, including a revived Batman franchise, a new Superman movie, an Iron Man franchise, and the decidedly adult Watchmen. Epics of all sorts were popular during the Naughts, including Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and The Matrix trilogy. A new cycle of fantasy movies also came about, embracing both animated films (the Shrek franchise, How to Train Your Dragon) and live action (the Harry Potter films and Lord of the Rings). Independent films grew more popular, from Little Miss Sunshine to Juno.

In music rap dominated the early part of the decade before, thankfully, heading towards extinction in the latter part of the decade. Power pop would make a comeback, with such new bands as Farrah, Hellogoodbye, OK Go, My Chemical Romance, The 88, and Throwback Suburbia. Heavy metal, indie rock (which was often power pop), and post punk also made comebacks. Synthpop would also make a noticeable comeback, particularly in one of the biggest artists to emerge at the end of the decade. Lady Gaga borrows a good deal from Eighties synthpop in her songs. R&B would come to dominate the charts in a way it had not since the Sixties. Many new artists made their way to superstardom. Lady Gaga would even be included in Time magasines 100 Most Influential People. Taylor Swift would emerge as country's only real superstar of the decade. Katy Perry would become one of the most popular pop rock performers. Digital technology would revolutionise the sale of music, with many songs downloaded from a computer rather than bought on CD, through programmes such as Napster and ITunes. The rise of video sharing sites would mark the rebirth of the music video, abandoned by MTV early in the decade.

Television in the Naughts would be rather depressing. For much of the decade American broadcast television was dominated by police procedurals (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order, Criminal Minds), reality shows, and talent competition shows (American Idol). While I liked many of the police procedurals (I am a big Law and Order fan), I despised many of the reality shows, many of which are simply exploitative. Cable finally caught up with the broadcast networks, producing such hit shows as Mad Men, Burn Notice, Leverage, and Nip/Tuck. For the broadcast networks and the cable channels alike, the biggest change may have been the increase in the number of people connecting to the internet via broadband. As a result, many shows would be watched on the network and cable channels' web sites, as well as downloaded through programmes such as ITunes or sites such as Amazon.

As far as literature, the Naughts may be remembered as the Decade of Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series became the smash hit of the decade, selling in numbers usually only reserved for the Bible. The book series would produce movies, games, and other memorabilia. Indeed, the Harry Potter series created a boom in young adult books, with such series as the Artemis Fowl series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Percy Jackson series, and many others. Sadly, among the most successful of the young adult series would be the Twilight Saga. While it has a large number of fans, there would be many more who would recognise how poorly the books were written. The decade saw an increase in the popularity of genre fiction, including mystery, fantasy, horror, and romance. It would also see the rise of digital books, read on such devices as Amazon's Kindle.

Sadly, print media would not see the success that books would. With more and more people turning to the internet for their information, newspapers and magazines would suffer. Many would fold during the decade, including some of the major newspapers and magazines. Yet others would go totally to the internet. Amazingly, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the decade actually showed an increase in reading.

For me and many others, the Naughts would be a decade of tears. Many greats in the fields of film, television, music, and literature. It would be impossible to cover them all, but I will cover those who meant the most to me. Perhaps the deaths I took the hardest were musicians. Beatle George Harrison died at the start of the decade after a long bout with cancer. Both as as a Beatle and a solo artist, he had an impact on my life I cannot begin to measure. John Entwistle died in 2002. The Who was always my second favourite band after The Beatles, and had an enormous impact on my life. Mr. Entwistle composed some of my favourite songs. This year saw the death of Doug Fieger, leader and founder of The Knack. The Knack is my second favourite American band after Cheap Trick, and "My Sharona" my third favourite song of all time. Many of my favourite actors also died in the decade. As many of you know, I have always had a crush on Janet Leigh. I was very hurt when she passed from this world. I also have a crush on Cyd Charisse. Perhaps best known for her fantastic legs, she was a very fine actress and possibly the greatest female dancer on the silver screen. Two of my favourite actors died within a day of each other. Patrick McGoohan was John Drake and Number Six (whom I think were one and the same) and Dr.Syn. I remembered him from childhood from the Disney miniseries The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and from the TV series Danger Man and The Prisoner. His characters taught me much about honour and decency. Ricardo Montalban was Khan in the TV series Star Trek and the movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. He was also a bona fide movie star who later made many guest appearances on television shows. Mr. Montalban had a phenomenal voice and could play almost anything. Jack Lemmon will forever for me be Baxter from The Apartment, the everyman who always gets taken and never does the taking. He played many similar roles, always convincingly. Tony Curtis was the handsome leading man, but so much more. He had a gift for comedy, but could play drama equally well. Leslie Nielsen may well have been Canada's best import. He was the handsome leading man in the early days. He was the commander in Forbidden Planet and Frances Marion in the Disney mini-series The Swamp Fox. He always had a gift for comedy, however, and in his later years he would use that to revive his career. With a deadpan delivery he could be hilarious. Television saw the passing of so many great actors who played some of my favourite characters: Don Knotts, Bob Denver, Don Adams, Gene Barry, Frank Gorshin, Peter Graves, and John Forsythe. Kurt Vonnegut was one of my favourite authors of all time, and in my wildest dreams I would like to think I was influenced him. Even given such greats as John Updike (one of my other favs) died, I think Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest author to pass in the Naughts. Robert B. Parker was another one of my favourite authors to die, just this year. He gave the world detective Spencer and Police Chief Jesse Stone. Frank Frazetta was one of my favourite artists of all time. Indeed, he was perhaps the most famous fantasy illustrator of them all.

Over all, I think the Naughts were a bland decade in television and to a lesser degree music. It was actually quite a good decade for movies. Sadly, it would be a decade that would see so many great actors, musicians, authors, and artists pass. My hope for the Teens is that it is a more colourful decade, producing better movies, music, television, and books. I also hope for fewer tears in the Teens, although I fear we might see even more of the greats from pop culture pass.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Goodbye, 2010

Twenty ten is coming to a close and with the decade I call the Naughts. I'll talk more about the decade tomorrow, but today I thought I would discuss 2010 itself.

Last year I proclaimed 2009 to be the Year of Death. Now I know that I spoke too soon. If ever there was a Year of Death, it was 2010. I suspect more important figures from pop culture have died this year than any other. We lost some major stars in film, many from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Jean Simmons, director Eric Rohmer, Lionel Jeffries, Kathryn Grayson, Lynn Redgrave, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Neal, director Clive Donner, Kevin McCarthy, director Arthur Penn, Gloria Stewart, director Roy Ward Baker, Sir Norman Wisdom, producer Dino DeLaurentiis, Ingrid Pitt, and director Blake Edwards. In television such figures passed as Gumby creator Art Clokey, Pernell Roberts, producer Aaron Ruben, Peter Graves, Robert Culp, John Forsythe, Allen Swift (the voice of Simon Barsinsiter and Riff Raff), Dixie Carter, Art Linkletter, Rue McClanahan, Peter Fernandez (the voice of Speed Racer), Maury Chaykin, writer Jackson Gillis, Bonanza creator David Dortort, newsman Edwin Newman, Harold Gould, producer Stephen J. Cannell, actor and producer William Self, Tom Bosley, Barbara Billingsley, James MacArthur, and Jill Clayburgh. The field of music saw the passing of guitarist Mick Green, Dale Hawkins, founder and leader of Type O Negative Peter Steele, Lena Horne, Ronnie James Dio, Paul Gray of Slipknot, Robert Wilson of The Gap Band, bassist Peter Quaife of legendary rock band The Kinks, and Eddie Fisher. In the realm of literature, comic books, comic strips and art, Robert B. Parker, J. D. Salinger, comic book legend Dick Giordano, legendary artist Frank Frazetta, Modesty Blaise creator Peter O'Donnell, legendary EC Comics artists Al Williamson, and underground comics creator Harvey Pekar.

At times this year I felt as if it was not enough for the Grim Reaper to take many of my favourite actors, writers, musicians, and artists. She had to take some of those I loved the most. Fess Parker had a huge impact on my young life, as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Much of what I learned about honour, I learned from Daniel and Davy. Tony Curtis was one of my favourite actors of all time, a master of epic movies and comedies. As much as I mourned over Messrs. Parker and Curtis, however, they would not be the men I mourned over the most. Leslie Nielsen was one of my favourite actors from childhood. As a child he was the handsome leading man, playing in Forbidden Planet and the Disney mini-series The Swamp Fox. As I reached adulthood he became a master comic actor, giving me many hours of laughter. I cry when I think he is gone. By far the worst death for me, however, was the passing of Doug Fieger, leader and founder of The Knack. I was so upset the day he died I could not write his eulogy in this blog right away. Try as I might, I would start crying. And the crying would not stop for some days. Not since John Lennon, George Harrsion, and John Entwistle passed had I mourned a musician so. Quite simply, The Knack was my second favourite American band of all time (second only after Cheap Trick), and only a few musicians had as huge an impact on my life as Doug Fieger.

In movies the big news was 3-D. In fact, it is difficult to find a major motion picture that was not released in 3-D in 2010. Certainly most animated films and sci-fi/fantasy epics seem to be released in 3-D these days. While many seem to enjoy the format, I am personally hoping it is a fad. While many films are impressive in 3-D, with many other films it just seems unnecessary. As has been typical of the past few years, there were many remakes and sequels. In fact, of the highest grossing films thus far this year, five were sequels and one was a remake. Worst of the remakes were those of horror movies, whether classic (The Crazies) or definitely not classic (Friday the Thirteenth). Fortunately, the year would end well, with a movie that many thought was a remake but was actually another adaptation of a popular novel. The Coen Brother's True Grit is worth the full price of admission.

As far as television, the best new shows all seemed to be on cable. The Walking Dead continued AMC's winning streak begun with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Showtime scored big with Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Pillars of the Earth. If Laugh In was around, NBC would surely have received the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award. Twice. The first time would be for returning continuously unfunny Jay Lenno to and bumping Conan O'Brien from The Tonight Show. Not surprisingly, Leno's ratings are lower than Conan's. Even more surprisingly, NBC has not booted Leno off the show yet. The second time would be for cancelling Law and Order, right when it was poised to break the record set by Gunsmoke as longest running drama on American television. The show was still popular and only needed one more season to break the record! The 2010-2011 season as been unimpressive thus far on American broadcast network television, and the film industry's taste for remakes seems to have reached the broadcast networks. ABC returned their remake of V this season, while CBS debuted remakes of Hawaii Five-O and The Defenders.

In music in 2010, Billboard  seemed to be dominated by  R&B artists such as Rihanna and Usher. Lady GaGA (who defies genre classification) and Katy Perry also continued their dominance of the charts. Taylor Swift continued as the only country artist to enjoy superstardom (I think it's the movie star good looks, myself). Rock music is still alive and well, with top albums by such artists as Bruce Springsteen and Kings of Leon. Rap, with the exception of Eminem, seems to be dying (thank heavens for that).

Over all 2010 was not a stand out year. Movies were dominated by remakes and sequels, a trend which seems to be creeping into television as well. Nothing particularly impressive emerged in the field of music, aside perhaps from the dominance of Lady GaGa. If the year stands out at all it is for a particularly sad reason. I was wrong. Twenty aught nine was not the year of death. It was twenty ten. It is a sad trend that so many of the greats of movies, television, and music are passing. Sadly, I am not sure it is a trend that will end soon.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Lone Ranger Announcer Fred Foy Passes On

Fred Foy, best known as the announcer on The Lone Ranger, passed on December 22, 2010 at the age of 89.

Fred Foy was born on March 27, 1921 in Detroit, Michigan. Not long after graduating high school, he was hired by radio station WMBC. It was in 1942 he was hired by WXYZ, the radio station from which The Lone Ranger, Sgt Preston of the Yukon, and The Green Hornet aired. During World War II Fred Foy served in the United States Army as an announcer for Armed Forces Radio in Cairo, Egypt.

It was in 1948 he began announcing The Lone Ranger. He was certainly not the first announcer on the radio show (it had begun in 1933), but he would become the voice most identified with it. Beginning in 1949, he also announced the television version. He remained with both until they went off the air. He also announced The Green Hornet and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. Mr. Foy would later serve as a narrator on documentaries, as well as an announcer on The Dick Cavett Show. The Generation Gap, and The $20,000 Pyramid.

Author Jim Harmon called Fred Foy as "the announcer, perhaps the greatest announcer-narrator in the history of radio drama." I doubt there would be many who would say Mr. Harmon was exaggerating. Mr. Foy had a stentorian voice that fit adventure series such as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet perfectly. Indeed, it is because of his magnificent voice that he would become one of the most celebrated announcers among fans of Old Time Radio. He was truly one of the greats.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Steve Landesberg Passes On

Comedian and actor Steve Landesberg, best known as Detective Sergeant Dietrich on Barney Miller, passed on December 20, 2010 at the age of 74. The cause was colon cancer.

Steve Landesberg was born in New York City on November 23, 1936. In the late Sixties he was a stand up comic, known for his deadpan delivery and akimbo observations. He made his film debut in a bit part in You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat (1971). He also made his television debut that year on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1972 he made his first of many appearances on The Dean Martin Show. He also appeared on The David Frost Show. In 1973 he appeared in the movie Blade. From 1974 to 1975 he was a regular on the TV show Paul Sands' Friends and Lovers.

In 1975 Mr. Landesberg was cast as Detective Sergeant Arthur P. Detriech on Barney Miller. Detective Sergeant Detriech was a soft spoken genius with knowledge on nearly every subject under the sun. Indeed, he often stated such facts in Mr. Landesberg's standard, deadpan delivery. He stayed with the show until it went off the air in 1982. In the Seventies he would also guest star on When Things Were Rotten, The Rockford Files, On the Rocks, and Fish (as Detective Sergeant Dietrich). In the Eighties he guest starred on Mr. President, Nine to Five, and Saturday Night Live. He also appeared in the movie Leader of the Band (1988). In the Nineties he guest starred on The Golden Girls, Seinfeld, Dinosaurs, Law and Order, Two Guys a Girl and a Pizza Place. He appeared in the movies Little Miss Millions (1993), The Crazysitter (1995), and Puppet (1999). In the Naughts he guest starred on Twice in a Lifetime, That 70's Show, Everybody Hates Chris, and The Cleaner. He was a regular on Head Case. He appeared in the movies Wild Hogs (2007), and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008).

Steve Landesberg was a great actor, with a gift for playing intellectuals. Indeed, aside from Detective Sergeant Fish (played by the great Abe Vigoda), Detective Sergeant Dietrich was my favourite character on Barney Miller. Landesberg not only made Dietrich intelligent, but also very cool and likeable. He proved one can be a bookworm and still be hip. Although best known for his role on Barney Miller, Mr. Landesberg was also a great comedian. He was exceeding funny, make left of centre observations on life and society, always delivered in his deadpan style. Steve Landesberg died all too young.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Holidays 2010

Today I thought I would share with you some of my favourite Yuletide songs. The first one I just discovered this year. It's "All I Want for Christmas is You" by My Chemical Romance. I was never a big fan of the original version by Mariah Carey, but I really like this one.



Next up is "Don't Shoot Me, Santa" by The Killers. I never pictured Santta with a gun, but come to think of it, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn looks sort of like Santa. Well, if Santa had an eyepatch and a Peacemaker....



Next is one of the greatest songs, period. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon.



Finally, here is what I consider the greatest rock 'n' roll Yuletide carol of them all: "Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love.



Wishing everyone a happy Yuletide!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Birthday, Ava Gardner!

Today in 1922 one of the most beautiful women ever to live was born. Ava Gardner was not simply any movie star. She was both a sex symbol and a talented actress. She looked as good as Marilyn Monroe (well, better, really) and could act as well as Bette Davis. What is more, she never forgot her roots. She was always a true Southern belle.

Here Ava is in seasonal garb, looking as fetching as ever. I rather think most men would prefer a visit from Ava on Yule Eve than Santa!



Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)

The holidays have always been a time for novelty songs. Songs such as "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and even the bizarre "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" were hits during the Christmas season. As many novelty songs have there have been in Yuletides past, there is only one that created a multi-million media franchise. That was the "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)."

"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" and hence The Chipmunks (Alvin, Theodore, and Simon) were created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. had a good deal of previous successes prior to his biggest hit. With his cousin, William Saroyan, he co-wrote "Come on-a My House," the first hit for Rosemary Clooney. He had also appeared in bit parts in movies, including Rear Window (1954) and Stalag 17 (1953). He recorded many records under his given name before scoring a minor hit with "The Trouble with Harry" under the stage name of David Seville in 1955. Several more singles would follow, but he would not have a huge hit until "Witch Doctor" in 1958.

"Witch Doctor" took advantage of a fact many children had long knew. If a record was played at a higher speed than it was meant to be, the voices on that record would become very high pitched. Record players weren't the only technology in the Fifties capable of this, as the effect could also be achieved with a V-M tape recorder. Mr. Bagdasarian (or Mr. Seville, if you prefer) used his V-M tape recorder to achieve the high pitched voice of the witch doctor in the song. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. would use the effect again in another novelty song, "The Bird in My Head," which did not even hit the top 40.

"Witch Doctor" only used the sped up voice in its chorus. "The Bird in My Head" only used it in parts of the song. David Seville's next novelty song would be a quantum leap forward where the effect of sped up voices was concerned. First, it would use three sped up voices (all done by Ross Bagdasarian) singing in unison. Second, the sped up voices comprised nearly all of the song.  That song was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." For the record David created the characters of three chipmunks, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, named for Liberty recording executives Alvin Bennett and Simon Warnoker and recording engineer Theordore Keep. Each Chipmunk had his own personality. Simon was the intelligent, capable one. Theodore was the shy, sensitive, slightly none too bright one. Alvin was impulsive, anarchistic, anti-authoritarian one (in his original incarnation he was a lot like Bart Simpson). David Seville himself appeared as a character on the record, conducting The Chipmunks and keeping Alvin in line.

"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) proved to be a huge hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the last Christmas song to do so. It also hit number one on Billboard's special Christmas singles chart. For several years afterwards, until 1962, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" would re-enter the Top 100 each holiday season. Ultimately, it would sell 4.7 million copies.

Indeed, so successful was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" that David Seville was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show with his singing rodents. This created a bit of a problem, as The Chipmunks did not actually exist. David Seville then went to legendary animator and puppeteer Bob Clampett (best known as the creator of Beany and Cecil), who created three puppets based on The Chipmunks as they appeared on record sleeves. Here it must be pointed out that  The Chipmunks in their original incarnation did not look as they do today. At that point The Chipmunks looked more realistic, more like actual Chipmunks. Regardless, David Seville and The Chipmunks did well enough on The Ed Sullivan Show that they appeared five more times. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" would also win three Grammy Awards: Best Comedy Performance, Best Children's Recording, and Best Engineered Record (non-classical).

So successful was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" that it created a media franchise. In 1959 David Seville would have two more hits with his singing rodents ("Alvin's Harmonica" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," as well as a full length album (Let's All Sing With The Chipmunks). The Chipmunks would also appear in a comic book, in Dell's Four Color Comics #1042, December 1959. The success of The Chipmunks would not only lead to more records, but to a prime time television series. The Alvin Show aired on CBS in the 1961-1962 season. The original designs for The Chipmunks were rejected for the television show, and entirely new designs were provided for The Chipmunks. In other words, The Chipmunks' modern appearance was created for the TV series. Afterwards, The Chipmunks' earlier records would be re-issued with the new design from the TV show. Although lasting only one season, it would appear in  network Saturday morning line ups for years and would be a huge success in syndication.

Throughout the Sixties The Chipmunks continued to release records, even tackling The Beatles' early hits and a few rock songs. Their last album in their original incarnation was The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, released in 1969. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. died in 1972 from a heart attack, putting an end to any more Chipmunks records. It was in 1980 that Ross Bagdasarian Jr. revived The Chipmunks with the album Chipmunk Punk. This would lead to more records and in 1983 a new animated series, Alvin and The Chipmunks. The new cartoon differed considerably from the original incarnation of The Chipmunks to a degree, particularly in that Alvin was no longer quite the anti-authoritarian, anarchistic reprobate he had been. Since then there have been two live action movies.

By 1961 The Chipmunks had already become a million dollar business. They not only sold records, but appeared on television and in comic books (a Dell comic spun off from The Alvin Show ran from 1962 to 1973). It had all began with a single record, a Christmas novelty song, which became an enormous hit. While there have been holiday novelty songs since "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," it is the only one that can truly claim to have created a media franchise.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Five Most Romantic Holiday Movies

While many think of the Yuletide as a time for families, there can be no doubt that there has always been a certain amount of romance linked to the holidays. After all, it is the one time of the year when it is wholly acceptable to kiss in public, even if it is only under the mistletoe. It should be no surprise, then, that there have been holiday movies with a good deal of romance in them. Here are what I consider the five most romantic movies of all time.

1. The Apartment (1960): C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a man with a very special problem. He often cannot go straight home to his apartment after work because he is constantly lending it to his superiors at a large insurance company for their illicit affairs. Baxter's problem is complicated by the fact that he is in love with one of the company's elevator girls, the charming Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Worse yet, Miss Kubelik had an affair with the insurance company's head honcho, the smarmy Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Baxter is then faced with one of the greatest conundrums any cinematic hero has faced--he can only truly win the girl of his dreams by losing his job. It is this central conflict and the electricity between Baxter and Miss Kubelik that makes this one of the most romantic movies of all time. Indeed, I consider it the second most romantic film ever, second only to Casablanca (1942). It is also a wonderful combination of comedy and drama, balancing the two in the way director Billy Wilder could only have done.

2. Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is the Martha Stewart of her day. She is famous for her column in a monthly housekeeping magazine, writing about cooking recipes and other bits of domesticity. Indeed, he even lives on a farm with her husband and baby. Unfortunately, none of it is true. Elizabeth cannot cook. She is not a great housekeeper. She does not have a husband and baby. She does not even live on a farm. Unfortunately, her publisher invites a war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) to spend Christmas on her non-existent farm. Elizabeth must then swiftly find a farm and have her boyfriend pose as her "husband," all the while relying on friend and chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) to make up for her non-existent cooking skills. Unfortunately, keeping up this facade proves harder than Elizabeth expected, especially when she and Jones fall in love at first sight. Christmas in Connecticut is a hilarious screwball comedy set during the holidays, but it is also a very romantic film. Barbara Stanwyck never looked more appealing, and she has a definite chemistry with Dennis Morgan. Few movies are quite as funny or romantic as this film.

3. Holiday Affair (1949): Robert Mitchum is rarely thought of as a romantic lead, and yet he is very effective in this film. In Holiday Affair Janet Leigh plays war widow Connie Ennis, who lives alone with her son Tommy in a small apartment and has been dating lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey). Connie's life is upset after she gets Steve Mason (played by Mitchum) from his job in a department store. Tommy grows to think of Steve as a friend, while Connie must resist her attraction to him. It is the relationships that make Holiday Affair. Indeed, what is wonderful about the film is that there are no bad guys. Carl Davis is a genuinely nice guy, not some cardboard villain as in many romantic films. And the sparks between Mr. Mitchum and Miss Leigh are powerful indeed. What is more, Holiday Affair is genuinely funny. Indeed, it has one of the funniest scenes I have ever seen on film, with Harry Morgan as a befuddled police captain brought face to face with the complex relationships of the lead characters.

4. It's a Wonderful Life (1946): While it is often called a fantasy, it is rare that It's a Wonderful Life is called a romance, and there is no reason it should not be. At the heart of the film is the relationship between George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife Mary (Donna Reed). We see their relationship develop from childhood, when Mary already had a crush on George, to their life as a married couple. Mary is the ideal wife, devoted to George and supportive of him. And George is genuinely in love with her, the sparks between them still there after years of marriage. Indeed, It's a Wonderful Life features one of the single most romantic scenes on film, in which George and Mary  must share a phone. Perhaps even more so than Scarlett O'Hara and Rhet Butler, George and Mary Bailey are one of the most romantic couples on screen.

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Like It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street is rarely termed a romance, even though it should be. While the plot centres on the fate of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), the relationship between lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne) and Macy's executive, divorcee Doris Walker, is an important part of the movie. Indeed, much of what makes the movie so effective is watching their relationship develop. And the relationship between Mr. Gailey and Miss Walker is a realistic one, in which the two do not always see eye to eye and even argue. It is the fact that Doris Walker is an intelligent, independent, strong willed woman that makes the relationship so effective and makes her feelings for Fred Gailey seem all the more realistic. Although Miracle on 34th Street is not strictly speaking a romantic comedy, it is much more romantic than many so-called romantic comedies.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Christmas Gift for You From Philles Records

Today A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records is regarded as one of the greatest holiday albums of all time, if not the greatest. As hard as it is to believe, however, it was hardly a success upon its first release. Indeed, it would take many years before it would come to be considered a classic.

Phillies Records was founded in 1961 by Phil Spector and Lester Sill. It was only a few years into its existence that the label was producing hits in the form of "Da Doo Ron Ron" by The Crystals and "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. Most of the label's singles were produced by Phil Spector himself, using his Wall of Sound technique (which utilised layered, dense sound achieved by a number of musicians playing the same thing in unison). For the most part Philles Records was focused on the success of singles, but in August 1963 he called his performers together for the first and only album into which Philles Records would pour a good deal of energy. That album was A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records.

Over the next few weeks A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records would be recorded. Phil Spector would book the studio for nearly twenty four hours a day, and it was not unusual for Spector to work until dawn. Indeed, unlike many albums of the day, every song the album was treated as if it was a potential single. The gruelling pace would take a toll on legendary engineer Larry Levine, who was at odds with Spector after working on the album for some time. In fact, towards the end of the six weeks Mr. Levine was so exhausted and aggravated that he no longer wanted to work with Phil Spector. The album itself would include nearly every possible sound linked to the holidays: sleigh bells, chimes, bells, and so on.

For the most part, A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records consisted of secular, holiday standards treated to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique. Darlene Love performed "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland." The Crystals performed "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The Ronettes performed "Sleigh Ride"and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." An exception to the various Christmas song covers was the single original song on the album. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." The song was written by Elle Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector, and it was originally intended to be sung by Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. Ronnie Spector was not able to give the song the emotional impact it needed, however, so Darlene Love would sing "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" instead.

Sadly, in the short run it would seem as if all of producer Phil Spector and engineer Larry Levine's work would be to no avail. A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records was released on November 22, 1963, which was unfortunately the date that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. With the country in mourning and in little mood for holiday celebrations, A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records would prove to be a disappointment. The album itself would only peak at number 13 on the Billboard Christmas albums chart issued in December 1963. The album's only single release, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" would do even worse. It did not even hit the Billboard singles chart.

Despite the failure of A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records in 1963, over the years it would come to be regarded as a holiday classic. Over time songs from the album, would receive more and  more radio airplay during the Yuletide. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" would not only become one of Darlene Love's signature tunes, but a Christmas standard. The album was reissued by Apple Records in 1972 with the title Phil Spector's Christmas Album. That reissue hist #6 on Billboard's Christmas album chart for that year. Since then it has been reissued many times, and it is not unusual for radio stations to play the entire album during the holiday season.

Below are three songs from the album, including what I consider the greatest rock 'n' roll, Yuletide song of all time, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love


Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes



Parade of the Wooden Soldiers The Crystals



Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) by Darlene Love


Monday, 20 December 2010

Yule

Today when many in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and other English speaking countries think of Christmas, holly, mistletoe, evergreens, and bright lights are apt to come in mind. Indeed, the imagery of Christmas is intimately joined to the imagery of winter in Northern Europe and Great Britain: snow, sleighs, and cold weather. None of this has a thing to do with the birth of Jesus, who was more likely born in spring, summer, or autumn given biblical accounts (the shepherds are said to be out with their flocks). Indeed, European holly and mistletoe are not to be found in Israel. For that matter, even in winter, snow is very rare in Israel and almost never substantial. Why then is Christmas in the mind of English speakers so tied to holly, snow, bright lights, evergreens and snow? The reason is simply that these are survivals of a festival celebrated in late December among the various Germanic peoples (including the English, the Danes, the Swedes, the Germans, and so on) known by cognates of our modern word Yule (OE Geól), a word synonymous even today with Christmas.

The etymological origins of our modern word Yule remain unknown, although it appears in nearly every Germanic language, from Old English Geól to Old Norse Jól to Frisiian Giel to modern Danish Jul to modern English Yule. Indeed, our earliest attestation of a cognate to Yule is to be found in in a portion of the Codex Ambrosianus dating to the 4th Century CE in a fragment of a Gothic calendar. In the fragment Fruma Jiuleis ("Before Yule") is given as the native, Gothic name for November. This reflects native month names among the Angles and Saxons which will be discussed below). Indeed, given the Anglo-Saxon calendar, it seems likely the author was mistaken and Fruma Jiuleis actually  corresponded roughly to December. Sadly, there is little else in the Gothic language about Yule.

Fortunately, we have a few more sources about Yule to be found among the Angles and Saxons of early England. In his De Temporum Ratione Bede gives Giuli (a cognate of Geól) as the native, ancient, Angle and Saxon name of December. He states that ancient English peoples began the year on 25 December, the day now observed as Christmas, and its very night they called Módraniht ("Mothers' Night"), he suspected on account of ceremonies they observed that night. The Martyrology, written in Old English rather than Bede's Latin, gives two other, native month names that reference Geól. It gives Ærra Geóla "Before Yule" for December and Æftera Geóla "After Yule" for January, the former month name recalling the Gothic Fruma Jiuleis. The month name for December, Ærra Geóla, is also referenced in the Menologium. Elsewhere in Old English the word Geól is used as the word for the holiday Christians now call "Christmas" in English. Here it must be noted, that for the Angles and Saxons of Dark Ages England, Christmas was indeed twelve days long,  from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night or Epiphany.

Sadly, we know little of how the ancient English peoples might have celebrated Yule. From Bede's reference to Módraniht, we can guess that it might have involved some form of ancestor worship. Indeed, Bede suspected what is now called Christmas Eve was called Módraniht because of ceremonies performed on that night. It seems possible that the mummer's plays, pantomimes, and Morris dancing performed even today in England could go back to the Angles and Saxons of the Dark Ages. St. Augustine himself preached against those who dressed as a stag or a horse. In the sixth century the Council of Auxerre would not only condemn masquerading as a stag or a bull, but would give a date when such a thing was done: New Year's. While Auxerre is located in France, it seems that if pagan Franks dressed as animals at New Year's (which for Germanic peoples was Yule), then so too did the Angles and Saxons. Indeed, around 700 CE (a time when there were still heathen in England), Theodore Archbishop of Canterbury would prescribe a punishment of three years penance for anyone who dressed as a stag or old woman, dressed in the skins of animals, about the Calends of January--in other words, Yule. Although Morris dancing is mentioned no earlier than the 16th century, mummer's plays the 18th century, and pantomimes the 17th century, it seems possible that they had origins in customs that go back to before the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain in the 5th century, customs linked to Yule.

Just as Old English and Anglo-Saxon sources are richer in information on Yule than Gothic sources, so too are Old Norse and Icelandic sources richer than Old English sources. Indeed, in the poetry of the skalds (the poets of the Old Norse speakers), Jólnir is given as one of the names of Óðinn, god of wisdom, poetry, magic, aristocrats, and many other things. Writing in the 10th Century, the skald Eyvindr skáldaspillir uses a plural of Jólnir, Jólnar, of all the gods. Another name for Óðinn was Jólföðr, literally "Yule Father." It seems possible Óðinn, called among the Angles and Saxons  Wóden, was the original Father Christmas.

The holiday of Yule itself is mentioned in a prose portion of the "Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar" in the Poetic Edda, a poem dated by some to the 11th Century. It describes how on Yule Eve men laid their hands on the sacrificial boar and swore oaths upon him. It also makes mention of the king's toast. A more detailed account of Yule is to be found in "The Saga of Hakon the God," the fourth book of Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson. There it told how King Hakon the Good of Norway rescheduled the celebration of Yule to coincide with the Christian celebration. As to the heathen celebration of Yule, according to "The Saga of Hakon the Good," at Yuletide the farmers would come to the temple and bring all the good they would need for the length of the feast. At the feast there would be a good deal of drinking of alcohol. Livestock would be slaughtered as sacrifices to the gods. Their blood would be sprinkled upon the congregates there as a blessing upon them, while their flesh would be cooked served at the feast. It was the chieftain who made the feast, blessed the alcohol, and blessed the sacrificial meat. Toasts would then be drunk. First would be a toast to Óðinn for victory and power to the king. Second would be to the gods  Njörðr and Freyr for peace and good harvests. Third would be a toast to dead ancestors and kinsmen.

Further sagas tell a bit more about Yule among the Old Norse speakers and Icelanders. Indeed, Grettirs Saga had quite a bit more to say about Yule. It told how the mistress of the house decorated it and readied for the Yuletide. It also told how  it is also at Yule when ghosts are most powerful. Set not long after the Icelanders had converted Christianity, Grettirs Saga equates Yule with Christmas, much as the Angles and Saxons had. In Svarfdæla saga a berserk postpones a duel until three days after Yule has ended in order not to disturb the sanctity of the holiday. In The Grœnlendinga Saga there is even a reference to gift giving at Yule. Thorfinnur Karlsefni gave Eirikur Raudi malt with which to make ale at Yule.Among the Icelanders, at least, Yule apparently lasted thirteen days. Epiphany, Twelfth Night in English, was called Þrettándi in Old Icelandic, "the Thirteenth.

Looking at Yule (or Jól as they would have called it) celebrated among the Old Norse speakers and assuming the Angles and Saxons would have celebrated it similarly, one can see customs which have survived to this day in the celebration of Christmas. Feasting remains a part of Christmas to this day. Even today drinking is common place at Christmas, and the oaths and toasts made at the heathen Yule reflect the toasts and resolutions made today at New Year's. Even the sacrificial boar seems to have survived as a custom at Christmas, ham being a traditional holiday meal. As to giving gifts, it is still very much a part of Christmas.

Of course, the sad fact is that none of the sources describing Yule among the pagan Germanic peoples go into detail about how the holiday was celebrated beyond dressing as animals, feasting, drinking, oaths, toasts, and sacrifices. Certainly, the custom of wassailing--of drinking to the health of trees in order that they might live longer--could be a survival of heathen Yule as well. Indeed, the word wassail dates back to an Old English greeting "Wæs þú hal"--"May you be whole (as in healthy)." 

Sadly, we cannot be certain of other customs, although it is quite possible that they date back to pagan Yule. This could be particularly true of holly, often used in Christmas decoration whether in making wreaths from it or decking the halls with boughs of it. Both holly and ivy have been used in Christmas decorations since at least the 15th and 16th centuries, and the carol "The Holly and the Ivy" maybe nearly as old. While holly and ivy have a fairly long history as holiday decorations, mistletoe, much less the custom of kissing beneath it, is rarely mentioned prior to the 18th century. Still, it seems likely that it was a pagan survival  given the significance of mistletoe in myths and legends. Indeed, in the Prose Edda Snorri Sturluson states that it was with mistletoe that the god Baldr was slain. It was also a popular plant to use in herbal remedies.The Christmas tree also seems to be a recent tradition. Indeed, it is first referenced in 1510 in Riga, Latvia. In 1521 the German Princess Helene of Mecklembourg brought a Christmas tree to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Afterwards, it is often referred to as a German custom.

While many of these Christmas decorations, such holly and Christmas trees, are referenced no earlier than the 15th or 16th century, and mistletoe even later, it does seem possible that they are heathen survivals. In Grettirs Saga we are told the lady of the house decorated it for Yule. In other holidays which survived from paganism, such as Midsummer, it was traditional to decorate the house with flowers. Flowers being unknown in December, at Yule the Germanic peoples may have used evergreen plants, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, as decorations instead. Indeed, they may have had a special significance. Yule was the beginning of the year, while evergreens were always green--they did not lose their foliage as other plants did. Evergreens could then be a symbol of birth and rebirth, as in the birth and rebirth of the year.

The Yule log could also be a survival of the pagan celebration.  Although not mentioned in Old English or Old Norse sources, the Yule log is burned in England, in Germany, and in France. While it is first mentioned in England only in the 17th century, in its first reference it already seems to be a well established custom among rural folk. The significance in the Yule log may be in providing light and warmth during the longest night of the year, Yule originally falling on the winter solstice (December 25 according to the Julian calendar).

Sadly, we can never be certain that these customs survived from the pagan Yule celebration or merely developed over time. It does seem that they have very little to do with the birth of Jesus or anything to be found in the Christian Bible. Given this, it seems likely that they are pagan in origin rather than Christian, and owe more to the pagan celebration of Yule than the Christian celebration of Christmas. What we do know for certain of the heathen Yule, however, points to the fact that much of it survived to this day. People still drink. People still make toasts. People still make resolutions. People even still eat ham and give gifts. Although many Christians would insist that it isn't Christmas without many of these things, the fact is that they are survivals of a festival celebrated long before Christianity came to Northern Europe, the festival of Yule.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Captain Beefheart Passes On

Legendary rock musician Captain Beefheart passed on December 17, 2010. The cause was complications from multiple sclerosis.

Captain Beefheart was born Don Vliet in Glendale, California on January 15, 1941. While young he exhibited a gift for sculpture, so much so that he was offered several scholarships. Unfortunately, his parents were not particularly supportive of his artistic talents and turned down every scholarship offer. It was when he was thirteen that his family moved from Glendale to the town of Lancaster, California. There he met a classmate with similar tastes as he had by the name of Frank Zappa. He began to play with local bands, including The Omens and The Blackouts (the latter group featuring Mr. Zappa on drums). It would be at Mr. Zappa's suggestion that Don Vliet would become Don Van Vliet. Frank Zappa and Don Vliet would work on an unfinished rock opera, I Was a Teenage Maltshop. They also built sets and wrote part of a script entitled Captain Beefheart Vs. The Grunt People.

In 1965 Don Vliet changed his name to Don Van Vliet. It was also in 1965 that Don Van Vliet became Captain Beefheart, forming the quintet Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The name would soon be changed to Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. By late 1965 the band was signed by A&M Records to record two singles. It was in 1967 that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band released their first album, Safe as Milk. While very blues oriented, Safe as Milk featured the surreal lyrics and jerkiness that would become part and parcel of Captain Beefheart's style. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would fully plunge themselves into experimental music with their critically acclaimed 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, which blended blues, jazz, and many other genres. It would later influence both post punk and alternative rock.

Their 1970 album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, would go deeper into experimentation. Indeed, much of the album was created through improvisation. To promote Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart created a television commercial and promotional film with surreal, non sequitur imagery. The suggestiveness of the album's title and the surreality of the commercial's imagery kept if off the air, but it would eventually find its way into the Museum of Modern Art. It has since been remembered as an important milestone in music video.

Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would drift away from experimentation and by their 1973 album Clear Spot they were performing fairly straight forward blues. With the 1974 album Unconditionally Guaranteed, raked over the coal by critics, the whole band would quit. Captain Beefheart recorded the 1975 album Bongo Fury with Frank Zappa. He also formed a new Magic Band, which would record four more albums. With the 1978 album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) Captain Beefheart returned to experimentation. His last two albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow also contained a good deal of experimentation. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would even shoot a video for the song "Ice Cream for Crow," which was rejected by MTV as being "too weird."

Don Van Vliet then retired from music to concentrate on his painting. He would establish a long association with the Michael Werner Gallery. Like his music, Mr. Van Vliet's art was a mixture of different genres, from modernism to abstract expressionism to primitivism.

While I did not like every single piece of music Captain Beefheart recorded, I must confess that I always admired him. In an era when many music artists were satisfied with producing commercially acceptable music, Captain Beefheart showed a willingness to experiment. His ground breaking work on his first four albums would prove a lasting influence on a diverse range of artists, including Tom Waits, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Devo, and The White Stripes. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band proved a lasting impact on both post punk and alternative rock. Captain Beefheart was very much a pioneer who sacrificed monetary success for breaking new ground in rock 'n' roll.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Late Great Blake Edwards

Director and writer Blake Edwards passed December 15, 2010 at the age of 88. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Blake Edwards was born William Blake Crump in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 26, 1922. When he was four years old his mother married an assistant director and movie production manager Jack McEdwards, so that the young Blake's name became Blake McEdwards. After graduating from high school. Mr. Edwards enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. He also went into acting, initially on radio. He supposedly worked on The Mercury Theatre of the Air's production of War of the Worlds, among other radio productions. He also broke into writing for radio. Indeed, in 1949 Blake Edwards created the radio show Richard Diamond, Private Detective, for which he also wrote several scripts.

Eventually, as an actor Blake Edwards moved into film, making his debut in The Gentleman from West Point (1942). After his stint in the Coast Guard, Blake Edwards went into acting. He was even briefly under contract to 20th Century Fox. From 1942 to 1948 Mr. Edwards appeared in bit parts, often uncredited, in such films as A Guy Named Joe (1943), Marshall of Reno (1944), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Big Town (1948).

It was in 1948 that Blake Edwards broke into writing for film. His first script was for Panhandle (1948). Over the next few years he wrote screenplays for such films as All Ashore (1953) and Cruisin' Down the River (1953). It was in 1953 that Mr. Edwards entered television, writing episodes of Four Star Playhouse. In 1954 he did his first directing for that show as well. Over the next few years Blake Edwards wrote such screenplays as Drive a Crooked Road (1954), My Sister Eileen (1955), Operation Mad Ball (1957), and That Happy Feeling (1958).  On television he created The Mickey Rooney Show and wrote many of its scripts. When Richard Diamond, Private Detecive was brought to television in 1957, he wrote many of the show's teleplays.

While Blake Edwards would later famous for his film comedies, in television his crowning achievement was the private eye series Peter Gunn. Mr. Edwards would not only write many of the show's episodes, but he would also direct several episodes. He also served as the show's executive producer. Peter Gunn centred on a noirish detective of the same name, played by Craig Stevens. Although he had a good deal in common with the hard boiled detectives of the Thirties, he was very much a creature of the late Fifties. Peter Gunn was an untracool hipster who loved jazz and was as smooth as a con man. The show proved to be a hit, running from 1958 to 1961. Blake Edwards also adapted Milton Holmes' story "Bundles for Freedom" as the TV series Mr. Lucky. Although it shared its name with the 1943 film of the same name (also based on the same story), the two were quite different. The show centred on a professional gambler with extraordinary luck.

In 1955 Mr. Edwards broke into directing film with Bring Your Smile Along. Over the next few years he would direct Mister Cory (1957), That Happy Feeling, the classic sex comedy The Perfect Furlough (1959), and Operation Petticoat (1959). It was in 1961 that Mr. Edwards entered the height of his career, with the classic Breakfast at Tiffany's. Over the next several years he directed such classics as Days of Wine and Roses (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Great Race (1965), Gunn (1967-based on the show Peter Gunn), and The Party (1968). He also wrote the screenplays for most his films.

Mr. Edwards' career would falter in the Seventies, when his most remarkable films would be sequels to The Pink Panther such as The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). His career was revitalised in the Eighties after the success of 10 (1979). He directed such films as S.O.B. (1981), Victor Victoria (1982), The Man Who Loved Women (1983), A Fine Mess (1986), Blind Date (1987), and Skin Deep (1989). His last film was Switch (1991). For television he directed a telefilm of the same title based on the series Peter Gunn. It aired in 1988.

Blake Edwards was immensely talented as a director and writer. He is best known for his comedies, and with good reason. Mr. Edwards had a gift for timing and the ability to mine the faults an foibles of humanity for humour. While very talented at comedy, however, he was also adept at drama. Indeed, what may be his most famous film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, was a drama. Mr. Edwards also had a talent for good detective stories. First on the radio show Richard Diamond, Private Detective and later on the TV show Peter Gunn, Mr. Edwards could generate great mysteries with plenty of atmosphere as well. He had a particular gift for characters, having created some of the most memorable characters in film history. In doing so, he contributed so much to modern pop culture.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Peter Gunn Episode in Honour of Blake Edwards

Film and television director, writer, and producer Blake Edwards passed yesterday. I do not have time tonight to write a eulogy that would do him justice, so I am simply going to post a video courtesy of YouTube in his honour. This is part one of three parts of the episode "The Kill," written directed by Blake Edwards, from the ultracool private eye series which Mr. Edwards created, Peter Gunn.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My Bad Romance with Lady Gaga

Okay, I hated Madonna. I never liked Beyonce. I could not stand Britney Spears. Over the years I have concluded that most female pop singers are absolute rubbish. Some of them may be nice to look at (and Madonna wasn't even that), but they have nothing to offer musically. Why is it then, in the last years of the first decade of the 21st Century, I have found a new guilty pleasure? That's right. I must confess. I listen to Lady Gaga.

Okay, let's face it, she is different from most female pop stars of late. Madonna seemed to be performing a resurrected version of disco when she started out. Britney Spears drew upon pop stars like Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson. In contrast, Lady Gaga draws heavily on glam rock, particularly Queen (she takes her stage name from their song "Radio Gaga") and David Bowie. Her music also shows traces of German house techno music and Eighties synthpop. Indeed, her sound reminds me more of The Pet Shop Boys and The Human League than Janet or Michael Jackson.

Of course, my comparison to the synthpop groups of the Eighties points to another way Lady Gaga differs from Madonna, Britney, and their ilk. The lyrics of her songs actually have an edge to then. Let's face it, "Bad Romance" basically offers up a scenario in which the singer would prefer a bad romance to merely being friends with a guy (even citing three different Alfred Hitchcock movies in the process). "Paparazzi" seems to be about stalking (in the process condemning the paparazzi as, well, stalkers) and veneers of stardom. Okay, "LoveGame" seems to be more about sex and dancing, but then its musical style owes more to The Pet Shop Boys than Donna Summer. I have to admit. Even the songs I don't like by Lady Gaga can be pretty sophisticated. I don't like "Telephone," but it has a pretty complex idea behind. As I see it, the song is about a performer who continues performing rather than talking to her boyfriend on the telephone. The same sophistication can be even be seen in "Poker Face," a song I despise (although I like the card game innuendoes).

Now don't get me wrong. I am not going to rush out and buy every Lady Gaga CD out there. I am not going to say that she is the greatest artist of all time or even one of my favourites. What I am going to say is that, while I am a bit embarrassed to say it, I actually do like quite a few of Lady Gaga's songs. Unlike most previous female pop singers, she actually appears to have some talent. While I could never take pleasure in anything Madonna or Britney did in their early days, I must confess that some of Lady Gaga's are a guilty pleasure of mine.

Monday, 13 December 2010

"All I Want for Christmas is You" by My Chemical Romance

Okay, I've had a bout with the flu yesterday and today, so I do not quite feel up to posting a long blog entry tonight. Instead I will leave you with one of my new, favourite Yuletide songs. It is My Chemical Romance's version of "All I Want for Christmas is You." It is also probably the only version I like!


Saturday, 11 December 2010

Jimmy the Raven: Frank Capra's Avian Star

When most people think of stars with whom Frank Capra worked frequently, Gary Cooper might come to mind. But there was another actor with whom the director worked more frequently.  In fact, he was the star with whom Frank Capra worked more than many other, appearing in every Frank Capra film after You Can't Take It With You (1938) for many years. Despite this, most audiences probably didn't know his name, and they probably couldn't tell the difference between him and other members of his species. He was Jimmy the Raven.

Not only did Jimmy the Raven star in many Frank Capra movies, including rather central roles in You Can't Take It With You, Arsenic and Old  Lace (1944), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but he may have appeared more than any other avian star, and certainly more than any other corvid. It is estimated that he appeared in over 600 other films.

Contrary to popular belief, Jimmy the Raven was not Frank Capra's pet. Instead he was the bird of animal trainer Curly Twiford. He trained a wide variety of animals for films, including a raccoon, a marmoset, and a rat, as well as such birds as canaries, meadowlarks, parrots, and robins. Of all this animal stars, by far the most popular would be Jimmy. Mr. Twiford claimed he found Jimmy as a raven chick in a nest in the Mojave Desert which had apparently been deserted. He adopted the young bird and named him Jimmy. Curly Twiford kept Jimmy in his house and trained him to do a variety of tasks, from typing, putting coins in piggy banks, lighting cigarettes, and so on.

Indeed, Jimmy's skills were put to good use in You Can't Take It With You, his first film with Frank Capra. In the movie Jimmy plays, for lack of a better term, the household crow of Martin Vanderhof's eccentric family. Not only is the crow one of the family, but he even helps out in the family's firecracker factory. Arguably, it would be the most pivotal role Jimmy would play in a Frank Capra movie until It's a Wonderful Life, in which he played Uncle Billy's pet raven. It was a part which Mr. Capra created for Jimmy--the original script to It's a Wonderful Life did not call for a raven in any scene. Here it is worth noting that while Mr. Capra perhaps wished to give Uncle Billy a pet raven to show his eccentricity, he may have had other reasons as well. I do not know how much Frank Capra knew about Norse mythology, but according to Norse myth the god Óðinn had two ravens, Hugiinn (often interpreted as "Thought") and Muninn ("Memory"), which he sent across the world to gather information each day. Given Norse myth and the fact that Uncle Billy was absent minded, a raven would then make a fitting pet for him. Jimmy also had a fairly visible role in Arsenic and Old Lace, where he was the raven who frequented the graveyard.

Having appeared in over 200 movies, Jimmy obviously appeared in more than just Frank Capra films.Indeed, he would also have a rather obvious part in The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), in which he played the crow of Pop Tolliver (Harry Davenport). Besides It's a Wonderful Life, the most famous movie in which Jimmy ever appeared was The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was the crow who landed on the Scarecrow's shoulder in the cornfield. Jimmy also appeared in Moon Over Miami (1941--as Mr. Sylvester), Son of Dracula (1943--as Madame Zimba's crow), The Enchanted Forest (1945--as Blackie), and many other films. His last on screen appearance may have been 3 Ring Circus in 1954. Curly Twifold died in the Fifties and it is not known what happened to Jimmy afterwards. At any rate, by 1954 he would have been around 20 years old--not particularly old for a domesticated corvid, but not young either.As an animal actor, Jimmy was extremely successful. He made enough money on his own to pay for the food and housing of all of Curly Twifold's animals.

Here I must address a question which has perplexed me for some time. In most articles on Jimmy, he is referred to as a "raven." Indeed, Curly Twifold referred to him as such. That having been said, his IMDB profile is under "Jimmy the Crow," and in the few films in which he was given credit, he is referred to as "Jimmy the Crow" or  "Jim the Crow." In the book For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide, author Laura Erickson insists he is actually a crow. That having been said, I believe that Jimmy is indeed a raven. In the films in which he is most visible (You Can't Take It With You, It's a Wonderful Life), he looks to me more like a Common Raven (native to virtually the whole Northern Hemisphere) than the smaller American Crow. Regardless of his species, Jimmy played both crows and ravens throughout his career.

While Jimmy the Raven would go uncredited in the majority of the films in which he appeared, he earned a place in film history that no other bird would. He starred in several classic films and in some of them he was played primary roles. If he had appeared in It's a Wonderful Life alone, Jimmy would be memorable, but he appeared in so much more.

Friday, 10 December 2010

TV Producer Alan Armer Passes On

Television producer Alan A. Armer, who produced such classic shows as The Fugitive and The Invaders, passed on December 5, 2010 at the age of 88. The cause was colon cancer.

Alan Armer was born on July 7, 1922 in Los Angeles, California. During World War II he served in the United States Army. He served as an announcer for Armed Forces Radio in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. He attended Stanford University where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in speech in 1947. After graduation he because a radio announcer at a radio station in San Jose, California.

It was upon his return to Los Angeles that he made his first tentative steps into television. He took a job with an advertising agency where he wrote, directed, narrated, and even acted in commercials for television. It was in 1949 that with Walter Grauman he created Lights! Camera! Action! for KNBH (now KNBC), a talent show.  Her remained with the show until 1951. It was in 1956 that he began producing nationally broadcast television shows. It was that year that he produced My Friend Flicka and then the Western Broken Arrow. He produced Man Without a Gun before moving onto The Untouchables. After The Fugitive Mr. Armer produced The Fugitive, for which he won one Emmy Award. Over the next several years Alan Armer produced such shows as The Invaders, Lancer, Cannon, and The Magician,

It was in 1980 that Alan Armer became part time faculty at California State University, Northridge. He eventually became a full professor.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The 30th Anniversary of John Lennon's Death

Today it is the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. It was around 10:50 PM on 8 December 1980 that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were returning from a recording session at the Record Plant to The Dakota, the late Victorian apartment house John and Yoko had called home since 1973. Unfortunately, in the shadows one Mark David Chapman was waiting for John. As John made his way towards The Dakota's entrance, Chapman took aim and fired upon him. The first bullet would miss. Unfortunately, the next two would strike John, one in the left side of his back and the next in his left shoulder. Chapman would shoot John several more times, one of the bullets penetrating the aorta of John's heart. The shot was fatal. John managed to stagger a few steps to The Dakota's reception area where he murmured, "I'm shot," before collapsing. The Dakota's concierge Jay Hastings covered John's body with the jacket from his uniform and called the police. The Dakota's doorman Jose Perdromo seized Chapman and shook the gun from his hand.

John was taken by policemen Bill Gamble and James Moran to Roosevelt Hospital. When John was brought into the emergency he had no pulse and was not breathing. Three doctors worked for twenty minutes in an attempt to revive John. It was at 11:15 PM, Monday, 8 December 1980 that John Lennon was declared dead on arrival.

On 8 December 1980 I had a severe case of influenza which included several trips to the bathroom during the day. The following morning of 9 December 1980 I had no intention of waking up and going to school at 6:30 AM as I usually did. Unfortunately, I would be awakened with the second worst news I had ever had in my life (the worst was when my mother passed). My brother shook me awake and simply said, "John Lennon's dead. He was shot." I simply sat up in my bed, glared at my brother, and said flatly, "B.S. (well, that's the abbreviation for what I said--I used the whole word...)." My brother shook his head and replied, "No. It's true. The Today Show is on." I could tell by the tremble in my brother's voice and the state of shock in which he looked to be that what he said was true. I walked into the living room to learn the horrible truth.  The Today Show was indeed on a half hour early. The usually calm Tom Brokaw looked shaken. Jane Pauley, a self proclaimed Beatles fan, was as white as a sheet and looked as if she had been crying. It was true. The night before John Lennon had been shot and murdered.

It was perhaps good that I had the flu, as I could not have gone to school that day regardless. I spent the next three days crying and listening to Beatles and John Lennon songs. In fact, in the weeks that came I would cry any time John Lennon's latest single, "Starting Over," or his perennial holiday classic, "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," would come on the radio (indeed, I have to confess, I have cried while writing this). While I had already heard of the deaths of many celebrities I admired (the first was Judy Garland, followed later that summer by Sharon Tate) in my young life, the death of John  Lennon grieved me more than any before or since. Quite simply, he was John Lennon. I have already written of the impact John Lennon had on my life.  Suffice it to say that John Lennon had a greater and longer lasting impact on my life than any other artist in any field.

Of course, I was not alone in mourning John Lennon. In fact, the sheer scale of the grief upon his murder was far greater than anything seen before. Fans gathered from all around outside The Dakota, creating a makeshift memorial of flowers and other tokens of appreciation for John. Tape players played old Beatles and John Lennon songs, and fans sang some themselves. By the night of Tuesday, 9 December 1980, the crowd had swelled to over 1000. No funeral was held, but perhaps because she had witnessed the grief of John's fans first hand, Yoko Ono suggested that on 14 December 1980 fans should meet at Central Park for 10 minutes of silence in remembrance of John Lennon. Fans would not only meet at Central Park, however, as the 10 minutes of silence in remembrance of John would become a worldwide event, making John Lennon's vigil perhaps the largest ever held in history. On 14 December 1980, over 225,000 fans gathered at Central Park in New York City. They gathered in other cities as well. Thirty thousand gathered in John's hometown of Liverpool. Even in Moscow fans gathered to mourn John, although there the Soviet police broke up the vigil. The ten minutes of silence was not simply limited to John Lennon fans either. Radio stations around the world fell silent for ten minutes too. Sales of Beatles albums and John Lennon albums rose sharply in sales after John's murder.

Even the media seemed to take notice of the sheer scale of mourning for John Lennon. Indeed, after dismissing rock musicians for years, they actually realised John Lennon's importance in the history of the late 20th Century. I am not sure who first used the term. It may have been Tom Brokaw that very morning of 9 December 1980 or it may have been in Time magazine or some other news outlet. Regardless, John Lennon may have been the first musician in the history of mankind whose murder was termed an assassination, as if he had been a political or religious figure, or at least as important as a political or religious figure. Over the next several weeks there would be literally thousands of articles in the news and pieces on television shows on John Lennon's life and death. A search on Google's news archive for December 1980 results in about 2080 articles. Given that even Google's formidable news archive does not cover every printed news source and certainly not those of television or radio stations, this number is probably very conservative.

I am sure in 1980 there were many who wondered why John's fans mourned him so and in such numbers. Indeed, most all of us had experienced the deaths of celebrities before. The first celebrity death I remember happened when I was six. when Judy Garland died. Knowing she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the news upset me. Indeed, I thought she was still 17 years old. I asked my mother how someone so young could die and she told me The Wizard of Oz was made years ago and Judy Garland was not young any more. She conveniently left out the part about her death being cause by a drug overdose and that she was that old. It was only a few weeks later that I would hear of Sharon Tate's murder, later to be revealed as having been at the hands of the Manson Family. Much more so than Miss Garland's death, Sharon Tate's death would haunt me for years to come. I did not quite know who Sharon Tate was, but I knew she played Janet Trego (on whom I had a crush) on The Beverly Hillbillies. And while I did not know the details of her murder, the fact that she had been murdered bothered me to no end (it still does to this day). Over the years other celebrities I admired would pass, including Jack Benny (whom I actually cried over), Groucho Marx, and Steve McQueen. Keith Moon of The Who would be the first rock star I admired whose death I heard reported, but as much as I loved The Who, I fully expected him to die young given his lifestyle. But none of those deaths would impact me in the way John Lennon's death did.

In fact, the plain truth is that John Lennon's death still has an impact on me. Over the years I have cried many times over John Lennon's passing, and I always do on the anniversary of his death. Indeed, as I stated earlier, I have cried writing this post, as I had also cried during the post I wrote for his 70th birthday. Since John Lennon's death there have been only a few deaths that have come close to evoking the sort of grief in me that John's did (George Harrison, John Entwistle, Patrick McGoohan), but none have ever surpassed the sheer level of emotion that John's murder evoked in me. He is truly the only celebrity whose passing evoked grief in me as intense as if a personal friend or family member died.

I suppose there are those who think that it is silly that someone should mourn over someone famous as intensely as I did John Lennon. After all, I never met him or even so much as exchanged letters with him.  Having experienced such grief, I do not. The plain fact is that we have lived in a society of mass communication for the past several hundred years, since the invention of the printing press. This has made it possible for us to be touched by the lives and words of individuals we have never even met. Before the advent of radio, much less television, in 1870 Charles Dickens was mourned by all of England and much of the rest of the world. In 1944 crowds of people gathered to witness the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's funeral train. In 1962 Marilyn Monroe was mourned nearly as much as some politicians. In 1964 the assassination of John F. Kennedy not only resulted in schools and businesses closing down, but in coverage of the passing of the President for the next three days on television. The vast majority of people who mourned Messrs. Dickens, Roosevelt, and Kennedy and Miss Monroe had never met them in person or even so much as exchanged letters with them, yet these individuals had a huge impact on the lives of many. As a musician, songwriter, and political activist, John Lennon had influenced the lives of many and shaped the lives of many. It should be little wonder, then, that people mourned him so.

Terence Towles Canote
8 December, 2010

As I wrote on his 70th birthday, John Lennon had an enormous impact on my life. Given the fact that I was a Beatles fan and John Lennon fan since birth (they came to the U.S. less than a year after I had been born), John Lennon perhaps influenced and shaped my life in ways I cannot measure and cannot possibly begin to understand. Indeed, it would seem I am not alone. In the days following his death a young New Yorker said what many of us felt, "I can't believe he's dead. He kept me from dying so many times before." Given John Lennon had influenced the lives of many, shaped the lives of many, and even saved the lives of many, it should be little wonder he was mourned by so many and so intensely. If the outpouring of grief for John Lennon was so great and came from so many, it is perhaps a mark of so deeply he had touched so many of us. In fact, if many John Lennon fans are like myself, he continues to be a lasting influence on them as well as me. In a way, then, while John Lennon may have died that cold, New York night on Monday, 8 December 1980, he has never really left us.



Sunday, 5 December 2010

Characters Inspired By Marilyn Monroe

There can be no doubt that Marilyn Monroe was one of the most popular actresses in the history of Hollywood. From 1953 to 1962 she ranked in Quigley's top ten box office stars three separate years. In Empire magazine's list of the "Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" Miss Monroe ranked #8. In Empire magazine's list of "Sexiest Female Movie Stars of All Time" she ranked #1. In the American Film Institute's list of "100 Years...100 Stars" she was ranked #6. Premier magazine voted her the #2 greatest movie star of all time (Cary Grant was #1). In a poll conducted by Clairol, Marilyn even beat out Grace Kelly (who was #2 and would have gotten my vote) as the greatest blonde of all time. Even before she died, Marilyn Monroe had become an icon. After he death she would become even more of one.

Given the impact Marilyn Monroe had on popular culture, even as she was still alive, it should come as no surprise that several characters in pop culture have been inspired by her and even based directly on her. Some characters merely took her appearance, while others took various aspects of her personality as well. In fact, it seems possible that of female celebrities, Marilyn Monroe has inspired more characters than any other woman, except possibly for Bettie Page.

Indeed, it is possible that one character was inspired by Marilyn Monroe before she was even famous. Vicki Vale, a photojournalist for The Gotham Gazette, first appeared in Batman #48, October/November 1948 (it probably hit the stands in August or September of that year). According to legend, she was based on a young actress named Norma Jean Mortensen. As told by Bob Kane, he first met Norma Jean in 1943 at a cast party held after shooting had ended on the serial The Batman (1943). Later when Bob Kane was serving as a consultant on the serial Batman and Robin in 1948, he met Norma Jean, now Marilyn Monroe, on a Hollywood backlot. The two went to the beach where Mr. Kane drew some sketches of her. When he returned to New York City he showed the sketches to his editor and told him his idea for the character of Vicki Vale. The editor approved the idea. When Batman #48 was being prepared, however, the colourist made her hair red instead of blonde. Of course, here I must mention that Bob Kane also claimed to have had an affair with Marilyn....

Although it has often been stated that Vicki Vale was based on Marilyn Monroe, Bob Kane's story does seem questionable. I must point out that Bob Kane was well known for embellishing his life and his career. Indeed, for decades he insisted that he and he alone created Batman. When it was finally revealed that the character was co-created by Bill Finger, Mr. Kane even denied the fact, although he would eventually acknowledge the fact that Mr. Finger made Batman's costume darker and more bat-like, created and named the secret identity of Bruce Wayne, created Robin, and even named Gotham City. Sadly, this was not the only instance in which Bob Kane stretched the truth, so it possible he did the same with his story of the creation of Vicki Vale. First, it seems highly unlikely he first met Norma Jeane Mortensen in 1943. The Batman was an extremely, low budget serial shot very swiftly, so that it is doubtful that there was ever a cast party when it ended shooting. If there was, there can be no doubt that Columbia Pictures did not flit the bill. Even if there was a cast party, it is doubtful Miss Mortensen was even there. She had not yet begun her career in modelling, let alone acting. Second, it seems unlikely Bob Kane ever had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. Although Bob Kane was a known womaniser and was actually very handsome (when younger he looked somewhat like Robert Young), it is curious that Marilyn herself never mentioned any such affair, nor anyone who knew her! Indeed, it must be pointed out that in 1948, Marilyn Monroe was married.

Some have questioned Bob Kane's story of the creation of Vicki Vale based on the fact that by 1948 Bob Kane no longer worked on Batman, leaving that to a number of ghost artists. Here I must point out that even after Mr. Kane had ceased drawing the feature, he still had input on its characters. For instance, Bill Finger himself has said Bob Kane created The Penguin, basing him on Willy, the advertising mascot for Kool cigarettes. It was Bill Finger who gave The Penguin his personality as a rather snooty gentleman. Bill Finger has also credited Bob Kane with co-creating  The Mad Hatter, who first  appeared in Batman #49, November 1948, only a month after Vicki's first appearance!

That having been said, there could be a kernel of truth to the story that Bob Kane based Vicki Vale on Marilyn Monroe. One scenario is that Bob Kane did indeed meet Marilyn Monroe on a Hollywood backlot in 1948 and she served as a the model for Vicki Vale. Batman and Robin, like the first serial, was shot at Columbia Pictures. Marilyn Monroe had a contract with Columbia from March 9, 1948 to September 8, 1948. This at least makes it possible that they met on the Columbia backlot. Another scenario is that Bob Kane met Marilyn Monroe on a beach and asked if he could sketch her. The sketches which Bob Kane always claimed he made of Marilyn Monroe on that beach do indeed resemble her. And since Bob Kane had an eye for the ladies, it seems likely he would ask her to pose for him for sketches. A third scenario, is that Bob Kane based Vicki Vale on Marilyn Monroe without ever having met her.  Norma Jeane Dougherty ( her surname having changed after marrying James Dougherty) began modelling in 1944 and proved rather popular as a pinup and cover model. By 1948 she had appeared in such publications as Family Circle, Yank, U.S. Camera, and Pageant, among others. Indeed, this cold explain why Vick's hair was red rather than blonde. When Norma Jeane first started modelling, she still had her natural hair colour, which was auburn. The closest comic books in the late Forties could come to auburn was red.

Regardless, while Bob Kane's story of how Vicki Vale was created is unlikely, it is quite possible that Vicki Vale was based on Marilyn Monroe. Of course, while Vicki Vale's appearance may have been based on Marilyn Monroe, her personality was based largely on Lois Lane. Just as Lois was always trying to uncover Superman's identity, so too was Vicki always trying to uncover Batman's identity!  From her face to her figure, Vicki does resemble Marilyn a good deal, particularly in her early days of modelling. Vicki Vale would appear in the serial Batman and Robin, where she would be played by Jane Adams. In the movie Batman (1989) she was played by the very blonde Kim Basinger. Vicki Vale would be a regular character in the Batman comic books until 1963, after which editor Julius Schwartz dropped the character. Since then she has resurfaced a few times in the comic books.

Given Bob Kane's story of the creation of Vicki Vale, it would seem that he was very attracted to Marilyn Monroe whether he met her or not. In 1960 Bob Kane created the animated series Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse. A funny animal parody of Batman, the series ran from 1960 to 1962. Minute Mouse's love interest was a movie star named Marilyn Mouse, who looked like a rodent version of the movie star.

While it is debatable whether Vicki Vale was based on Marilyn Monroe, it is fairly certain that Milton Caniff based the character of Miss Columbia Mizzou in the comic strip Steve Canyon on the actress. Of course, her name has an entirely other source of inspiration. Miss Columbia Mizzou first appeared in  Steve Canyon in September 1952. Miss Mizzou was a blonde who wore a trenchcoat and generally nothing else. Milton Caniff drew her while consulting a picture of already famous actress Marilyn Monroe. As to her name, Milton Caniff spoke at the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1949 as part of the university's Journalism Week. Mr. Caniff apparently enjoyed his visit to Columbia, as he maintained close ties with the university for the rest of his life. The first name of Miss Mizzou then came from the city in which the University of Missouri is located. Her surname came from the nickname of the university to this day--Mizzou (short for "Missouri University"). Here I must note that the University of Missouri is also the alma mater of Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker and underground cartoonist Frank Stack was an art professor there (in fact, he still lives in Columbia). I must also point out that I was named for Milton Caniff's Terry Lee from Terry and the Pirates...

It would be in 1955 that one of the earliest characters to be based on Marilyn Monroe would appear in a play. The play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? revolved around a fan magazine writer (Orson Bean) who must ,make a deal with a Hollywood literary agent in order to become a successful screenwriter. Among the characters was Rita Marlowe (played by Jayne Mansfield in a break through role), a movie star who was essentially an exaggerated version of Marilyn Monroe. The 1957 film version would retain Rita Marlowe and Jayne Mansfield, and she would remain an exaggerated parody of Marilyn, but it largely jettisoned the plot. In the movie, starring Tony Randall, an advertising man must pretend to be Rita Marlowe's boyfriend in order to make her actual boyfriend jealous. Jayne Mansfield would essentially make a career out of parodying Marilyn Monroe.

Most of the characters based on Marilyn Monroe up to the late Fifties had been largely positive, if some of them were a bit exaggerated. This was not the case with the lead character in Paddy Chayefsky's movie The Goddess (1958). The movie starred Kim Stanley as Emily Ann Faulkner, who becomes the extremely famous and popular movie star Rita Shawn. The film portray how, even though Rita has attained dizzying heights of fame and wealth, she is still essentially lonely and unhappy. It has always been said that the film was based loosely on the life of Marilyn Monroe and, indeed, there are many similarities between Rita Shawn and Marilyn.

Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse would not be the only TV series to draw inspiration from Marilyn Monroe. Although it has never been clear, many have often suspected that the character of Marilyn Munster was based on Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, not only is Marilyn the only normal looking human being in the Munster family (the rest looking like classic Universal monsters), she is a beautiful blonde. Beverly Owen, the first actress to play Marilyn Munster, certainly thought so. She stated that the producers seemed to be going for Marilyn Monroe's image. In the end, however, Miss Owen confessed that she thought Marilyn Munster wound up being a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Sandra Dee.

Another television character patterned after Marilyn Monroe was Sweet Polly Purebred, TV reporter and the romantic interest of Shoeshine Boy and his alter ego Underdog. While creators W. Watts Biggers and Chet Stover named and developed the characters, it was artist Joe Harris who designed their appearances. In the case of Sweet Polly Purebred, he modelled her after Marilyn Monroe. This is fairly obvious given the colour (blonde) and style of her hair. Of course, Polly was not the only character on Underdog based on a movie star. Underdog's archnemesis Simon Barsinister was based on Lionel Barrymore. The gangster Riff-Raff was based on George Raft. Even Underdog himself was based on an actor, namely the actor who voiced him, Wally Cox.

While it is fairly certain that Sweet Polly Purebred is based on Marilyn Monroe in her appearance, it is not so clear that the character of Maggie in Arthur Miller's play After the Fall was based on Marilyn. The play debuted in 1964 and centred around lawyer Quentin. Quentin later marries the sexy Maggie, who goes from a shy, slightly scatter brained girl to an outright prima donna after she attains fame as a singer. Maggie drinks, takes barbiturates, and becomes increasingly irrational. Maggie eventually commits suicide. Although Arthur Miller always denied it, many have suspected that Maggie was based on Marilyn Monroe. From her shyness to being slightly scatter brained at times to taking barbiturates, Maggie does have a lot in common with Marilyn Monroe. For that matter, After the Fall seems all to similar to Arthur Miller's actual life, including being suspected of Communist sympathies. Of course, Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe.

While After the Fall had a very dark character who may or may not have been based on Marilyn Monroe, cartoonist Mort Walker would base a much lighter character on her. It was in 1971 that Mr. Walker gave General Halftrack a secretary named Miss Buxley in his comic strip Beetle Bailey. She was largely based on Marilyn Monroe. Miss Buxley was a sexy blonde who dressed provocatively but was entirely oblivious to her affect on men. Miss Buxley was sweet, but a bit scatter brained, and not always efficient at her job. With Miss Buxley, Mort Walker was trying to capture the air of innocent sexuality Marilyn Monroe often displayed. Unfortunately, Miss Buxley would increasingly become a source of controversy. Starting in the Minneanpolis Tribune in 1981 and soon spreading nationwide, Miss Buxley was increasingly criticised as being a stereotypical, dumb blonde secretary. Even though most readers were not critical of Miss Buxley, Mort Walker was eventually forced to revamp the character in 1984. Sadly, many of his critics missed the fact that Beetle Bailey was a comic strip that poked fun at everyone and everything: the United States Army, lazy soldiers (Beetle himself), martinet officers (Lt. Fuzz), intellectuals (Plato), womanisers (Killer), dirty old men (General Halftrack), and volatile, fat people (Sgt. Snorkle).

While many characters have been based on Marilyn Monroe, there are many that people believe were based on the actress who most certainly were not. Most incredulously, there are those who believe classic cartoon character Betty Boop was based on Marilyn Monroe! This is obviously not the case. Besides the fact that Betty is very much black haired as opposed to blonde or even auburn haired, the first prototypes for Betty came about in 1930, when Norma Jeane Baker was only four years old! Betty Boop emerged completely in her now familiar form in 1932. This is not to say that the character was not based on a sex symbol. Betty Boop was based in appearance on the It Girl herself, Clara Bow. If Betty shares anything in common with Marilyn Monroe, it is perhaps because Marilyn shared a lot in common with Clara Bow.

Another character often claimed to be based on Marilyn Monroe is Tinker Bell from Disney's version of Peter Pan (1953). While Tinker Bell is blonde and most certainly has an hourglass figure, she was not based on Marilyn Monroe. In fact, it is impossible that she could have been. Disney bought the rights to Peter Pan in 1939. While World War II would halt the film, work would start on the animated Peter Pan again in 1949. While traditionally Tinker Bell had been portrayed only as a spot of light accompanied by tinkling bells in the stage play, the Disney studio had decided from the beginning to make Tinker Bell a humanoid fairy. Indeed, they even decided Tinker Bell should have some sex appeal to keep male viewers interested. That having been said, they did not look to Marilyn Monroe for inspiration. In fact, in 1949 Marilyn was not yet a big name movie star and probably below Disney's radar. Instead, they held auditions for women to try out as the model for Tinker Bell. They chose Margaret Kerry, a shapely and leggy young actress and model. Of course, by the time Peter Pan  was released in 1953, Marilyn Monroe was at the height of her fame. People then simply assumed Tinker Bell, the shapely blonde fairy, was based on Marilyn Monroe, the shapely blonde actress.

Another character people often assume is based on Marilyn Monroe actually owes very little to her. The character of actress Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island was originally written as a wisecracking actress and was portrayed as such by the original actress to play her in the series' original pilot. In other words, she was closer to Jane Russell or Eve Arden than Marilyn Monroe. Tina Louise was re-cast as Ginger Grant and it soon became apparent she was not comfortable playing a wisecracking actress. Ginger Grant then became an amalgam of various actresses. Like Marilyn Monroe, Ginger exuded a naive sexuality. Like Sandra Dee she tended to be wide eyed and innocent. Like Lucille Ball she could be daffy and get into all kind of scraps. While Ginger Grant owes a little to Marilyn Monroe, she also owes a good deal to other actresses as well. This makes sense as she is meant to be an archetypal Hollywood starlet.

Regardless, Marilyn Monroe provided the inspiration for many characters in popular culture and there can be no doubt that she will continue to do so. It is possible that more characters in various media are based upon than any other actress. Indeed, more characters may be based on her than any other actor, male or female. From comic strips to plays, she has had an enormous impact on American pop culture.