Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Late, Great Jean Simmons

Actress Jean Simmons OBE passed yesterday evening at the age of 80. The cause was lung cancer. Her career spanned sixty five years.

Jean Simmons was born in Lower Holloway, London on 31 January, 1929. During Germany's air attacks on Great Britain during World War II, her family evacuated to Winscombe in Somerset. It was while her father taught at Sidcot School that she sometimes took to the village stage. When the family returned to London she was enrolled at the Aida Foster School of Dance. It was there, when she was 14, that director Val Guest discovered her. He cast her as Margaret Loockwood's sister in the 1944 film Give Us the Moon.

Jean Simmons' career was already well under way. In 1944 she also appeared in the films Sports Day and Mr. Emmanuel. The next several years would see her appear in major motion pictures. David Lean cast her as the young Estella in Great Expectations, while Michael Powell utilised her talents in Black Narcissus.  She played Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier in his version of Hamlet, a role that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It was in 1950 that the Rank Organisation sold the last six months of her contract to Howard Hughes and RKO. Simmons sued Hughes and the studio, as he had claimed an oral agreement with the Rank Organisation would preclude her being loaned out to other studios. While the suit resulted in Simmons being under contract to RKO for three years, it also resulted in the studio having to pay Simmons' legal fees and it gained her the right to be loaned out to other studios.

The next few years saw Jean Simmons appear in  Hughes: Otto Preminger's Angel Face, The Robe, and The Egyptian. The late Fifties saw her appear in some of her best known roles: Sergeant Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, Julie Maragon in The Big Country, Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry, and Varinia in Spartacus. The Sixties saw her appear in such films as The Grass is Greener, Divorce American Style, and Rough Night in Jericho.  The Sixties also saw her appear on television for the first time,  in two episodes of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, an episode of Hallmark Hall of Fame, and the famous 1968 television movie adaptation of Heidi.

In the Seventies Jean Simmons' career changed course and she did more television and work on stage. On television she appeared in the telefilms Decisions! Decisions! and Beggarman, The Easter Promise, Thief. She guest starred on The Odd Couple, and Hawaii Five-O. She toured the United States in Stephen Sondheims's  A Little Night Music and later played it on the West End in London. Jean Simmons did appear in films, including Say Hello to Yesterday, Mr. Sycamore, and Dominique.

In the Eighties Jean Simmons appeared in the mini-series The Thornbirds (for which she won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special), North and South, North and South Book II, and Great Expectations. She guest starred on Hotel, the new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Murder She Wrote (for which she was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series). She appeared in the telefilms A Small Killing, December Flower, Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love, and Inherit the Wind. She appeared in the films The Dawning and Yellow Pages.

The Nineties saw Jean Simmons starring in the short lived remake of the TV series Dark Shadows. She guest starred on Star Trek: the Next Generation and In the Heat of the Night. She appeared in They Do It With Mirrors and other telfilms, as well as the movie How to Make an American Quilt. The Naughts saw Simmons do voice work for the animated feature films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle), and Thru the Moebius Strip. She appeared in the telefilm Winter Solstice. Her last appearance on screen was last year as the star of Shadows of the Sun.

 If Jean Simmons had a remarkably long career, it is perhaps because she had a remarkable amount of talent. She was an amazingly versatile actress. In her long career she appeared in nearly every genre of film and TV show that exists, from film noir to musicals to sword and sandal movies. And she often played vastly different roles. In Angel Face she played a murderous femme fatale. In Elmer Gantry she played Sister Sharon Falconer, a none too honest revivalist obviously inspired by the real life Aimee Semple McPherson. In Spartacus Simmons played Spartacus' wife Varinia, whose quiet gentleness masks a hidden strength. Jean Simmons was capable of playing nearly any role she which she wished to. It is for that reason that her career lasted 65 years and for that reason she will be remembered as one of the greatest actresses of the silver screen.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Erich Segal R.I.P.

Erich Segal, the writer who co-wrote Yellow Submarine and and novels such as The Class and Doctors, passed on January 17 at the age of 72. The cause was a heart attack.

Eric Segal was born in Brooklyn on June 16, 1937. He earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard in 1958 and a master's degree a year later. He received a PhD in 1965. He taught the classics at the beginning of his career at Harvard, but moved onto Yale and taught at Princeton as well. While working towards his PhD, Segal wrote music and lyrics for revues. He also wrote musicals such as Voulez-Vous (which only lasted five nights) and Sing, Muse (which only lasted thirty nine nights). It was in 1967 that animated cartoon producer Al Brodax recruited Segal to write the bulk of the script on Yellow Submarine.

At the time Yellow Submarine was not the only screen play on which Segal was working. He had also written a screenplay that was essentially an old fashioned tearjerker. With the screenplay finished, he found it rejected by every single studio. Segal then rewrote the screenplay as the novel Love Story. Published in 1970, it proved to be a bestseller, although one that was raked over the coals by critics. The movie adaptation, released later that year, also proved to be a hit. Segal also wrote the screenplay  for R.PM. (also released in 1970) and the film adaptation of Robert L. Simons' Jennifer on My Mind (released in 1971).

Erich Segal would go onto write other works of fiction. including the children's book Fairy Tale, the sequel to Love Story (Oliver's Stoy), Man, Woman and Child (which was adapted as a movie in 1983). The Class, Doctors, and Prizes. He also wrote several scholarly works such as Roman laughter : the comedy of Plautus and The Death of Comedy. He edited Greek Tragedy: Modern Essays in Criticism, Oxford Readings in Aristophanes, and Oxford Readings in Menander, Plautus, and Terence.

Erich Segal was a very well respected professor in the classics. His book The Death of Comedy covered the genre from ancient Greece to modern times. As a writer there are many who are apt to think of Love Story, perhaps not the best book for which to be remembered (a book even Segal did not take seriously). That having been said, he also wrote the screenplay to Yellow Submarine, one of the greatest animated films ever made, and several other books that, if they did not sell as well as Love Story, were much better received. While many might remember Segal as the writer of Love Story, then, he should perhaps be remembered for much more.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Late, Great Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker, the best selling author who created private eye Spenser and small town police chief Jesse Stone, passed Monday at the age of 77. He died at his desk, working on another book. The case was a heart attack.

Robert B. Parker was born on September 17, 1932 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine and graduated in 1954. Afterwards he served in the United States Army, stationed in Korea following the Korean War. In 1957 he graduated from Boston University with a MA in English literature. Parker worked as a technical writer and also co-owned an advertising agency. He earned a PhD in English literature from Boston University in 1971. His dissertation, "The Violent Hero," discussed the sort of heroes created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

In 1968 Robert B. Parker was an assistant English professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Inspired by Raymond Chandler and missing Chandler's private eye, it was there that he created tough private eye Spenser (no first name was ever given). Spenser was created firmly in the mould of such hard boiled private eyes as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but updated for the modern era. Although possessed of a tough exterior, Spenser was always swift to rush to the aid of the innocent and fiercely loyal to his friends. Spenser first appeared in the novel The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. He would appear in 28 more novels, with two more apparently on the way. The Spenser novels provided the inspiration for the TV series Spenser for Hire, which ran from 1985 to 1988.

Although Spenser was his most famous creation, Robert B. Parker also wrote about two other heroes. One was Jesse Stone, a former baseball player and Los Angeles homicide detective turned police chief of the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Stone, Paradise seems riddled with major crimes. Jesse Stone first appeared in the novel Night Passage, published in 1997, and appeared in eight more novels, with a tenth to be published next month. Starting with Stone Cold in 2005, seven of the Jesse Stone movies have been adapted as television movies. At the request of actress Helen Hunt, Parker created the character of Sunny Randall,  a style conscious private eye and daughter of a police officer. Randall first appeared in the novel Family Honour in 1999 and in five more novels.

It was in the Eighties that Robert B. Parker was commissioned to finish an uncompleted Raymond Chandler novel. The finished result was Poodle Springs, the final Philip Marlowe novel. Not surpisingly, Parker's style blended perfeclty with Chandler's style. He also wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep entitled Perchance to Dream. As crime writer Ed McBain observed, "Parker sounds more like Chandler than Chandler himself." Parker worked in other genres than the mystery. He also wrote Westerns, including the novel Appaloosa (adapted as a feature film in 2008) and young adult novels. In all Parker wrote over 60 books.

Robert B. Parker was one of the best mystery writes of the past thirty years. His style was remarkably close to such classic writers as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, his prose both clipped and yet intelligent. With Spenser he successfully brought the hard boiled detective into the milieu of the Seventies and beyond. Indeed, what perhaps made Parker such a great writer was his characters, who were always completely realised. Although best known for Spenser, his greatest creation may have been Jesse Stone--the flawed, former alcoholic police chief who must nonetheless face some very serious criminals. If Robert B. Parker became one of the best selling writers of recent years, it is perhaps it is because he was one of the best writers of recent years.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Kool-Aid

Chances are that if you grew up in the United States in the 20th century (or many other places in the world), at one time or another you drank Kool-Aid. Not only was it one of the first flavoured drink mix sever invented, but it also remains one of the most popular.

Kool-Aid largely owed its existence to another powdered product, the powdered gelatin product Jell-O, marketed since 1845. It was while growing up that Edwin Perkins first discovered Jell-O. The product interested him so much that he convinced his father to carry it in his general store in Hendley, Nebraska. As an adult Perkins began selling a concentrated drink mix called Fruit Smack. Fruit Smack came in six different flavours and was sold in four ounce bottles. Although popular, Fruit Smack would prove troublesome. The bottles cost quite a bit to ship and they would sometimes break. It was in 1927 that Perkins developed a means of removing the liquid from Fruit Smack to leave a powder that, when remixed, would make a fruit drink. This powder could then be sold in small packages. Perkins initially sold this new powdered drink mix under the name Kool-Ade, later changed to Kool-Aid. Like Fruit Smack, it came in six flavours: cherry, grape, lemon-lime, orange, raspberry, and strawberry.

In the beginning Kool-Aid was sold by mail order to grocery stores and other outlets. By 1929 Kool-Aid achieved nation wide distribution. Kool-Aid proved so popular that by 1931 Perkins dropped all of the other products he sold in order to concentrate on it. He also moved his base of operations from Hastings, Nebraska to Chicago.Originally sold for 10 cents a package, Perkins cut the price to five cents during the Depression. In 1953 that Kool-Aid was sold to General Foods.

It would be in 1954 that the famous Smiling Face Pitcher featured in ads and on packages of Kool-Aid was introduced. The image was created by ad man Marvin Plotts, who was charged with finding a way of visualising the slogan "A five cent package makes two quarts." Reportedly Plotts was inspired to create the Smiling Face Pitcher on a cold day when he watched his son trace smiley faces on a frosted window pane. General Foods also introduced new flavours to Kool-Aid, introducing root beer and lemonade in 1955. In 1964 they developed a pre-sweetened version of the drink mix, re-developing it in 1970.

Over the years Kool-Aid would feature various commercial spokesmen. In the Sixties animated children called "the Kool-Aid Kids" were featured in commercials. By the mid to late Sixties, Bugs Bunny served as the product's spokesman in commercials. He also appeared on packages of the pre-sweetened version of Kool-Aid from the Sixties into the Seventies. After CBS began rerunning The Monkees on Saturday morning in 1969, the band appeared in commercials alongside the wascally wabbit. Of course, the character now most strongly associated with the product is probably Kool-Aid Man.

It was in 1975 that the Smiling Pitcher was given arms and legs to become "Kool-Aid Man." In the original commercials the character was played by a man in a costume. He was generally summoned by children yelling "Hey, Kool-Aid!" and would arrive by bursting through a wall or some other usual means. His only words were generally, "Oh, yeah!" By the late Eighties he was given dialogue. For the most part the character has been computer generated since the late Nineties, with a few exceptions.

In 1985 General Foods was acquired by Philip Morris Companies. Three years later Philip Morris  Companies acquired Kraft, Inc. Philip Morris merged the two companies, so that Kool-Aid is now owned by Kraft Foods. Kraft had introduced such new products as Kool-Pumps (Kool-Aid flavoured sherbet contained in cylinders) and Kool-Burst (essentially Kool-Aid in squeezable bottles).

The success of Kool-Aid would inspire imitators almost immediately. Jel Sert, whose original product had been a gelatin desert mix, introduced its own powdered drink mix,  Flavor Aid, in 1929. In 1964 Pilbursy introduced its own powdered drink mix to the market. It was named "Funny Face" for the cartoon characters featured on its packages (Goofy Grape, Rootin'-Tootin' Raspberry, and so on). Unlike Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid, Funny Face drink mix was pre-sweetened. Originally cyclamate was used as the sweetener, but after cyclamate was suspected of being a carcinogen it was replaced with saccharine in 1969. Funny Face always lagged behind both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid in sales, so that Pilsbury sold the line to Brady Enterprises, who continued to make it on a limited basis until it was finally discontinued. Of course, Kool-Aid was arguably the ancestor of all powdered drink mixes, from Tang to Country Time Lemonade to Crystal Light.

Kool-Aid has existed for over eighty years now and continues to be as popular as ever. It may well be the best selling powdered drink mix worldwide. It certainly forms the memories of many people born in the 20th century, in the United States and elsewhere.