Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Music Man (the movie, not the play)

Among my all time, favourite movie musicals is The Music Man, based on the hit Broadway play and released in 1962. There are so many reasons I love the film. It has great performances, led by Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. It has great songs, all written by Meredith Wilson. It has excellent direction, courtesy of Morton DaCosta (who also directed the stage production). It is one of those few movies which I can say is nearly perfect. But the primary reason I love The Music Man is its plot. The Music Man is not so much about a con man seducing a small Iowa town in 1912 as it is a small Iowa town seducing him, with some help from the beautiful Marian the Librarian, of course.

The Music Man was the brainchild of Meredith Willson. Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa in 1902. From 1921 to 1923 he played the piccolo for John Philip Sousa's band. From 1924 to 1929 he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He later became concert director for San Francisco radio station KFRC and still later music director for NBC. In 1929 he scored his first film, Chaplin's The Lost Zeppelin. He later scored The Great Dictator and Little Foxes. As the band leader on The Burns and Allen Show, he was a regular part of the cast

The genesis of The Music Man goes back to 1949 when Meredith Willson was telling a group of friends about his youth in Iowa and his experiences with John Philip Sousa. It was songwriter Frank Loesser who suggested that Willlson's tales of his Iowa childhood could be the basis for a stage production. Meredith Wilson was inspired and, even though he had never written a musical, he set to work on turning his childhood reminisces into a Broadway show. Indeed,  a version of "Till There Was You" existed as early as 1950. Willson recorded that year with singer Eileen Wilson under the title "Till I Met You" with only slightly different lyrics.

It was in 1951 that Broadway producers  Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin optioned Meredith Willson's musical, then called The Silver Triangle. Even at this early period the plot of the musical had been established as that of a grifter conning a small Iowa town to buy musical instruments which did not exist and the piano teacher who could well put a stop to his scheme. That having been said, other particulars of the plot had yet to be ironed out, and it would be this fact which would cause Feuer and Martin to drop Meredith Willson and The Silver Triangle. As they dropped Willson and his musical, however, they would do him the favour of giving him a new title: The Music Man. Feuer told Willson, "I always thought that The Silver Triangle sounded like something Ibsen had written."

Even though he continued work on his musical, newly renamed The Music Man, Willson had difficulty in finding new producers for the show. One obstacle was the fact that Meredith Willson, for all his experience as a composer, arranger, and band  leader, had never written a Broadway musical. Another obstacle was the very nature of The Music Man. It was in 1954 that musicals such as The Pyjama Game and Fanny were major hits on Broadway. The trend on Broadway seemed to be towards slightly risqué material. By contrast, The Music Man was a warm hearted, sweet natured love story set in middle America in the 1910's. Most producers simply were not interested in sweet stories about the American Midwest.

Fortunately, Meredith Willson finally found a producer who was sympathetic to his musical about a small town in Iowa in 1912. Kermit Bloomgarden had produced several successful, but very serious dramas, including Death of a Salesman, The Children's Hour, and The Diary of Anne Frank, but he saw promise in Willson's musical comedy about a con man conning a small Iowa town. It was Bloomgarden who hired director Morton Da Costa, fresh from the hits No Time for Sergeants and Auntie Mame, to direct the musical. Onna White, who had choreographed both Guys and Dolls and Silk Stockings, was hired as the play's choreographer.

As hard as it is to believe now, Robert Preston was not the first choice to play con man Harold Hill. In fact, he was not even the second choice. Meredith Willson had his friend band leader, singer, and actor Phil Harris (best known for his work on The Jack Benny Programme) in mind for the part. Harris ultimately decided against taking the part. Danny Kaye was then offered the part of Harold Hill, but he turned it down as he could not see himself a in the role. The part of Harold Hill was then offered to Ray Bolger, Gene Kelly, and Dan Dailey, but all of them turned the role down. The production team found their Harold Hill in the form of an actor who had played the second in many films: Robert Preston. By the Fifties Preston had turned to the stage and had starred in several comedies on the Broadway stage by the time he received the role of Harold Hill. The Music Man would be the first musical in which Robert Preston ever appeared. What is even more amazing is that he had never even sung one note before taking the role of Harold Hill!

After 32 draughts, at least two different titles, and eight years, The Music Man finally debuted on December 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. The Music Man proved to be the smash hit on Broadway of 1957, and against such impressive competition as West Side Story. It garnered sterling reviews from The New York Times, The New York Herald-Tribune, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and The New York Journal-American. It would take home five Tony Awards in 1958, including the awards for Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Robert Preston), and Best Direction (Morton Da Costa). Ultimately, The Music Man would run 1357 performances, until April 15, 1961.

The enormous success of The Music Man naturally meant that Hollywood would want to adapt the play into a film. In fact, both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby respectively  tried to buy the movie rights to the musical, with an eye on themselves playing Harold Hill. Meredith Willson refused to sell the rights to either of them. Meredith Willson eventually sold the rights to Warner Brothers. In a move that was very rare when adapting Broadway musicals into movies, Morton Da Costa was hired as the film's director. Unfortunately, the fact that The Music Man was a smash hit on Broadway was not enough. He wanted to insure box office success by casting Cary Grant as Harold Hill. Fortunately, Grant turned Warner down, stating emphatically,  "Not only will I not play it, but if Robert Preston doesn't do it, I won't even see the picture" according to legend. Even then, Meredith Willson and Morton Da Costa had to beg Warner Brothers to cast Robert Preston in the film version of The Music Man.

With Robert Preston reprising his role as Harold Hill, Warner Brothers went ahead and retained other members of the Broadway cast in the movie: Pert Kelton as Marian's mother, Paul Ford as Mayor George Shinn (which he had taken over from David Burns),  and the Buffalo Bills (the barbershop quartet in River City, Iowa). Shirley Jones, who had appeared in the film versions of both Oklahoma and Carousel, was cast as Marian the Librarian. Ron Howard, then playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, was cast as her stuttering younger brother. Comedian Buddy Hackett was cast as Hill's associate, Marcellus Washburn.

Perhaps because Morton Da Costa directed both the Broadway play and the film, the movie remained very loyal to the stage musical. In fact, every single song from the Broadway play was retained except for "My White Knight," which was replaced by the new song "Being in Love." The reason for this is unclear. At the time it was claimed that the new song was written to more suit Jones' range. According to an possibly apocryphal story, the actual reason was that "My White Knight" had been written by Frank Loesser (the one song not written by Meredith Willson) and he refused to sell the rights to Warner Brothers.

The movie would not be filmed with at least one complication. Shirley Jones learned she was pregnant only after the movie had started shooting. She worried that she might start showing as the shoot continued. Her worries were abated by Morton Da Costa, who assured her that her pregnancy could be hidden by costumes and, if necessary, by camera angles. In fact, during the shooting only one member of the cast realised Shirley Jones was pregnant. It was during the romantic sequence on the footbridge when Harold Hill kisses Marian that Robert Preston realised Jones was pregnant. Jones' son Patrick actually kicked hard enough that even Preston could feel it!

Of course, The Music Man would ultimately require musical instruments, which were made by the Olds Instrument Company. For the climax, both the marching bands of the University of California and the University of Southern California were hired, as well as local junior high students from southern California. The climax ultimately took eight hours worth of shooting over two days to complete.

Fittingly, The Music Man would have its world premiere in Mason City, Iowa (Willson's hometown and the city upon which the fictional River City was based). It would also repeat on the silver screen the success it had seen on Broadway. The Music Man received shining reviews over all, from Bosley Crowther at The New York Times, form The Chicago Tribune, from Variety, and many other newspapers and magazines (only Time magazine gave the move a bad review, and it is noticeable that its critic did not even sign his name to the review....). Audiences loved The Music Man as well. It was the fourth highest grossing movie of 1962, raking in $8,100,000 at the box office. The Music Man also did well at the Oscars, picking up six nominations, including Best Picture. It would only win one, however, for Best Musical Score (adaptation or treatment).

For myself it is easy to see why The Music Man was a hit both on Broadway and on the big screen. As I pointed out earlier, it is not simply about Harold Hill conning the residents of River City into buying instruments that do not exist. Instead it is actually about how Harold Hill, a grifter has gone from town to town conning folks out of money, suddenly found himself seduced instead by River City, particularly Marian the Librarian. It is the budding romance between Harold Hill and Marian that lies at the heart of the most central conflicts in The Music Man. Harold Hill finds himself torn between taking River City's money and running, as he has done so many times before, and remaining to start a new life with Marian. Marian finds herself torn between revealing Harold Hill as the fraud he is and falling desperately in love with him. These conflicts are only strengthened by the book written by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey for the musical, with its sincere dialogue, and the performances of Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. In the end it makes The Music Man, a musical comedy, much more romantic than many so called dramas that are called "romances." Indeed, I honestly think that when it comes to both stage musicals and movies, The Music Man is one of the all time, great romances.

Of course, another reason I love The Music Man is that it seems true to the spirit of Iowa, particularly as it must have been in 1912. This should come as no surprise, as the fictional River City is based on Meredith Wilson's hometown of Mason City. Indeed, the River City residents capture the rather strange and charming combination of stubbornness and friendliness I have found in most Iowans I have known. There are also a number of period references which make the viewer feel as if he or she actually is in the year 1912, from Dan Patch (the famous racehorse) to Sen-Sen (a breath freshener poplar in the early 20th Century) to Strangler Lewis (a popular wrestler of the time). A few anachronisms did creep into the musical. Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, referenced in the song "Trouble," would not be published until 1919 (it was sort of the Twenties version of The National Lampoon or Mad, and the first magazine published by Fawcett Publications). Bevo, the non-alcoholic "near beer" manufactured by Anheuser-Busch, also referenced in "Trouble," would not be first produced until 1916. Still, these anachronisms do not distract from the movie at all, so well did Meredith Willson capture the spirit of Iowa in 1912.

The Music Man has seen two revivals on Broadway since its first run (one in 1980 and one in 2000), as well as a 2003 television adaptation. While I had no opportunity to see either revival on Broadway and I did enjoy the 2000 television adaptation, for me it will always be Robert Preston I picture as Professor Harold Hill and Shirley Jones as Marian the Librarian. There had already been many Broadway musicals that had made their way onto film before The Music Man and there have been many since, but to me it will always remain one of the best film adaptations of a Broadway musical that was ever made, if not the best. It certainly has few equals.

Friday, 14 May 2010

The Underdog Theme

This week at work was long and hard and today was no different. For that reason I do not feel up to a full fledged blog post. I will then instead leave you with some different versions of "The Underdog Theme"

Of course, "The Underdog Theme" originated as the theme song to the classic animated series. The theme song was written by Chester Stover, W. Watts Biggers, Treadwell Covington, and Joseph Harris. The lyrics are as follows:

There's no need to fear, Underdog is here.

When criminals in this world appear,
And break the laws that they should fear,
And frighten all who see or hear,
The cry goes up both far and near for
Underdog,
Underdog,
Underdog,
Underdog.

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder,
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog, Underdog.

When in this world the headlines read
Of those who's hearts are filled with greed
And rob and steal from those in need.
To right this wrong with blinding speed goes
Underdog,
Underdog,
Underdog,
Underdog.

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder,
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog, Underdog.

The theme song was featured in three different openings for Underdog. The one which appears below featured Simon Barsinister in one of his many deadly machines. Another featured Riff Raff committing a robbery, while yet another featured an unnamed giant menacing a city. Of course, in each of the openings, the villains were foiled by Underdog.






Unlike many cartoon theme songs of the Sixties,  "The Underdog Theme" has not only been remembered over the years, but it has also been remade several times. The earliest remake I can remember was by The Butthole Surfers for the tribute album Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits from 1995. Below is a video to their version someone made using clips from the show (including the openings).





A cappella group The Blanks (which includes actor Sam Lloyd of the TV show Scrubs, on which they've appeared multiple times) performed their own version on the Scrubs episode "My Hero." An extended version (with lyrics added to the original) was released on their album Riding the Wave in 2004.




Power pop band Plain White T's remade "The Underdog Theme" for that aberration of a movie I call Disney's Underdog, released in 2007. Here is the only decent part of the movie, which includes clips from the original series and "Underdog Rocks (as the Plain White T's' remake is known).




Sadly, the Plain White T's version has never been released, although Disney saw fit to release a travesty of a "remake" performed by one of their TV stars. Quite frankly, if Disney was going to make a wretched film very loosely based on the classic cartoon, they could have at least let us have the only good thing to come out of the movie....

Finally, Ted Kooshian and his Starndard Orbital Quarter recorded a jazz instrumental version of the song, included on their 2009 album Underdog and Other Stories. You can hear it on their web site here.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Actress Adele Mara Passes On

Actress Adele Mara, who appeared with John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima and TV shows such as 77 Sunset Strip, passed on May 7 at the age of 87.

Adele Mara was born Adelaide Delgado on April 28, 1923 in Highland Park, Michigan. She started dancing when she was very young. At the age of 15 she was discovered by Xavier Cugat. Her parents then moved to Philadelphia so that she could perform with Xaviar Cugat's band. It was when Cugat brought Miss Delgado to New York City that she was seen by a Columbia talent scout, who signed her to a contract. Adele Mara made her movie debut in Honolulu Liu in 1941, although her scenes were deleted. She spent much of her career in film in the Forties appearing in programmers such as Blondie Goes To College (1942), Alias Boston Blackie (1942), Riders of the Northwest Mounted (1943), Crime Doctor (1943), The Vampire's Ghost (1945), and Robin Hood of Texas  (1947). For much of the Forties she only appeared in one major feature film, You Were Never Lovelier in 1942. The late Forties would see Miss Mara appear in two major feature films, both opposite John Wayne: Wake of the Red Witch (1948) and The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).

The Fifties saw Adele Mara appear in Don Siegel's Count the Hours (1953), Back From Eternity (1956), Curse of the Facelss Man (1958), and The Big Circus (1959). From the Fifties onwards, however, most of her career was spent on television. She made her television debut on an episode of The Adventures of the Falcon in 1954. She went onto guest star on The Lone Wolf, Studio 57, The Millionaire, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Casey Jones, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Maverick, and 77 Sunset Strip. From the Sixties into the Seventies she guest starred on such shows as Dante, The Red Skelton Show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Thriller, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Having married television producer Roy Huggins (creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, and The Rockford Files) in 1953, she retired in 1962 to raise her family. Her only appearances afterwards were guest shots on Cool Milllion in 1972) and the miniseries Wheels in 1978.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Late, Great Frank Frazetta

Renowned fantasy artist and comic book artist Frank Frazetta passed yesterday at the age of 82. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Frank Frazzetta (he later dropped the second "z") was born on February 9, 1928 in Brooklyn. Beginning when he was only 8 years old, Mr. Frazetta attended the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts. The school closed when he was 16, forcing him to look for work. He found work assisting science fiction artist John Giunta. He was only 16 when his first work appeared in Tally Ho.

In the late Forties Frank Frazetta worked on comic books at Fiction House for a time, cleaning the art of artist such as George Evans, Graham Ingels, and Bob Lubbers. He later moved to Nedor (also known as Standard) Publishing, where he worked primarily on humour titles such as Barnyard Comics and Happy Comics. In 1946 he moved to Prize Publications (also known as Crestwood Publications), where he did his first solo work on Treasure Comics.

By the late Forties and early Fifties Frank Frazewtta was very much in demand. For National Periodical Publications he did work on All Star Comics, on the "Shining Knight" in Adventure Comics, and Tomahawk. He worked at Magazine Enterprises on such Western titles as Ghost Rider, Straight Arrow, and Tim Holt, and the crime title Manhunt. For Magaizne Enterprises he created the character Thun'Da, King of the Congo in 1951 (adapted as  serial in 1952). He ghosted for Dan Barry on the Flash Gordon newspaper strip. He also did work at EC Comics on such titles as Weird Fantasy and Shock Suspenstories.


Frank Frazetta created the comic strip Johnny Comet, which he sold to the McClure Syndicate and made its debut in January 1952. It was later renamed Ace McCoy. Sadly, under any title it lasted only two years. In need of money, Mr. Frazetta went to work as an assistant for Al Capp on Li'l Abner in 1953. He would work for Mr. Capp until 1961. After he left Al Capp, Mr. Frazetta expanded beyond comic books and comic strips. He created illustrations for such men's magazines as Gent and Dude. He also worked for a time as Harvey Kurtzman's assistant on the Little Annie Fanny feature published in Playboy.

 It was in the years 1963 to 1964 that Frank. Frazetta's career would shift dramatically. It was during this period that Mr. Frazetta began illustrating the covers of  paperbacks such Edgar Rice Burroughs novels as those in the "John Carter of Mars" series, the "Carson of Venus" series, and the "Tarzan" series for Ace Books.  It was in 1964 that Mr. Frazetta did his first work for Warren Publishing, on the very first issue of Creepy. Over the years he would contribute work to many of Warren's publications, including Eerie, Blazing Combat, and Vampirella. It was in 1964 that Frank Frazetta did a parody illustration of Ringo Starr of The Beatles for Mad magazine. The illustration caught the eye of United Artists, who hired him to illustrate the poster for the movie What's New Pussycat (1965).

The period from 1965 to 1973 saw Frank Frazetta thrive as a painter of paperback covers and movie posters. Mr. Frazetta continued to illustrate covers for Ace Books' various editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. It was in 1966 that he illustrated his first cover for a Robert E. Howard, Conan the Barbarian paperback, Conan the Adventurer. He did the art for several movie posters, including The Secret of My Succcess (1965), Hotel Paradisio (1966), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Mad Monster Party (1967),  Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968), and The Gauntlet (1977). It was in 1972 that Mr. Frazetta did his first album cover, Hard Attack  by Dust. He would go onto create covers for Nazareth's Expect No Mercy (1977), Molly Hatchet's self titled debut album (1978), Molly Hatchet's Flritin' with Disaaster (1979), and Molly Hatchet's Beatin' the Odds. By the late Seventies into the Eighties Frank Frazetta did a series of private portfolios (Kublai Khan, Lord of the Rings). He also continued to create paperback covers, although to a lesser extent than he had before.

It was in 1982 that animator Ralph Bakshi collaborated with Frank Frazetta on the fantasy film Fire and Ice. Frazetta worked extensively with Mr. Bakshi on the film, which was released in 1983. His painting Death Dealer from 1973 would not only serve as the cover for Molly Hatchet's first album, but would be featured in a series of novels by James Silke and a comic book miniseries published by Image/Frazetta Comics in 2004.

Frank Frazetta was arguably one of the greatest artists of the late 20th Century. His work in comic books is legendary, although his career in the medium was short when compared to other artists say, Jack Kirby). As a painter of paperback covers he revolutionised the medium. Alongside such artists as James Bama, Mr, Frazetta turned  paperback illustration into a true art form. And while it is the robust heroes and barely clad princesses that come to most people's minds when they think of his art, Mr. Frazetta was also capable of creating more whimsical images. This can be especially seen in his work for movie posters, creating humorous artwork such films as What's New, Pussycat and Mad Monster Party. Mr. Frazetta's work ranged from the ruggedly adventurous (his many Conan covers) to the subtly erotic (his poster art for The Fearless Vampire Killers) to the outright comedic (The Night They Raided Minsky's). Indeed, it is because of his versatility that Frank Frazetta worked in more media than most comic book artists ever had. He was a truly creative artist whose work has often been imitated, but rarely matched.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Late,Great Lena Horne

Singer and actress Lena Horne passed yesterday at the age of 92.

Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917 to an upper middle class, family. Her parents separated when she was two. Until she was six she was raised by her paternal grandparents, after which her mother took her back. She was only 16 when her mother took her out of school to audition for the chorus at the Cotton Club in Harlem. It was only a year later she made her debut on Broadway in a small part in Dance of the Gods. It was in 1938 that she appeared in her first film, as the female lead in The Duke is Tops, a quickie musical for which she was never paid.

In 1938 she returned to Broadway in the musical revue Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939. She had been performing at the Café Society, a nightclub in Manhattan, for some time when Felix Young hand picked her as the star of his new nightclub in Hollywood, the Trocadero. At the time Hollywood did not allow African Americans to live there, so Felix Young signed the rental contract for the house as if he planned to live there. While there were those in the neighbourhood who did not want Miss Horne to live there, she found a powerful champion in her neighbour from across the street, Humphrey Bogart. He let it be known to Miss Horne that if anyone bothered her to let him know.

Composer and arranger Roger Edens had been to the Café Society when Lena Horne was performing there, and went to see her at the Trocadero as well. He convinced Arthur Freed, the producer of many MGM musicals, to go to the nightclub to hear her sing. Mr. Freed insisted that Louis B. Mayer also listen to Miss Horne sing. In the end Miss Horne was signed to a seven year contract with MGM. She appeared in her first film for MGM, Panama Hattie, in 1942. Over the next few years she would appear in several of MGM's films. Miss Horne was the female lead in Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), and  the musical short Boogie Woogie Dream (1944). She appeared in the films Thousands Cheer (1943), I Dood It (1943), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Ziegfield Follies (1945), Til the Clouds Roll By (1945), Words and Music (1948), Some of the Best (1949), and Duchess of Idaho (1950). At the same time she had a successful recording career. scoring  a hit with the single "Stormy Weather" and recording three albums in the Forties. Miss Horne also toured with the U.S.O.

Miss Horne's contract with MGM ended in 1950. While Miss Horne would only appear in one film throughout the Fifties (1956's Meet Me in Las Vegas), she appeared frequently on television. She made her television debut on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951 and went onto appear on Your Show of Shows, Music '55, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, What's My Line, and The Steve Allen Show. She also appeared in the musical Jamaica on Broadway in 1957. She performed at nightclubs in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York City. Miss Horne also recorded six albums.

The Sixties saw Miss Horne continue to perform at nightclubs, as well as appear on television. She appeared on such shows as The Dupont Show of the Week, Password, The Jack Paar Programme, The Judy Garland Show, The Perry Como Show, The Andy Williams Show, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. She recorded twelve albums. In 1969 she appeared in the film Death of a Gunfighter. In the Seventies she appeared on such shows as Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show, The Bruce Forsyth Show, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and The Tonight Show. On Broadway she appeared in her own show with Tony Bennett entitled Tony and Lena Sing in 1974. She recorded three more albums. She played Glinda the Good in The Wiz in 1978.

From the Eighties into the Naughts Miss Horne appeared in many awards shows, including ones for the Tony Awards, Essence Awards, and the Grammy Awards. She guest starred on The Cosby Show, Reading Rainbow, and A Different World. She was narrator and co-host for That's Entertainment III (1994). In 1981 she appeared on Broadway for the last time, in her own show entitled Lena Horne"The Lady and Her Music." She recorded six more albums.

Lena Horne was certainly a ground breaker. While she was not the first black actress ever signed to a movie studio, she might well have been the first black, female movie star. Indeed, it must be pointed out that Miss Horne had the very qualities that would make her a perfect movie star. Not only was she beautiful, but she was arguably one of the greatest singers of all time and a very good actress. It is unfortunate that most of the time MGM only allowed to sing one or two songs in a film, without allowing her to interact with the characters. She was also a tireless fighter for civil rights. During World War II, while touring with the USO, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. When the United States Army refused to integrate the audiences, she performed for African American soldiers and German POWs. Miss Horne took part in the March of Washington and worked alongside Eleanor Roosevelt to pass laws against lynching. She often spoke and performed on the part of the NAACP. Lena Horne was not simply a talented woman, but she was a very remarkable one as well.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Late, Great Peter O'Donnell

Peter O'Donnell, creator of the comic strip Modesty Blaise and novelist, passed on 3 May at the age of 90. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease for many years and had recently had a stroke.

Peter O'Donnell was born in Lewisham, London on 11 April, 1920. His father, Bernard O'Donnell was  crime reporter and author. It was not unusual for young Peter to and his brother to wake up of a morning to find his father having a criminal over for breakfast. As a teenager he drew his own comic strips. He left school in the late 1930's and began his career as a professional writer at the age of 16.

During World War II he served in the British Army in the Royal Signals deployed in Persia. His unit was later assigned to Syria where he took part in the British 8th Army's campaign against Rommell. He later served in Italy and still later Greece.

Following the war Peter O'Donnell began to write comic strips for such newspapers as The Daily Mirror and The Daily Sketch. From 1953 to 1966 he was one of the writers on the British science fiction comic strip Garth (created by Steve Dowling, not Mr. O'Donnell as reported elsewhere). It was in 1954 that he created the comic strip Romeo Brown, about a private eye and ladies man, for The Daily Mirror. He wrote the strip until 1962. It was also in 1954 that Mr. O'Donnell created the comic strip Tug Transom, about a captain of a merchant ship. He wrote the strip until 1966. He also wrote the comic strip adaptation of Ian Fleming's Dr. No, which ran from 23 May, 1960 to 1 October, 1960.

It was in 1962 that the editor in charge of comic strips at The Daily Express, Bill Aitken, called Peter O' Donnell and asked him if he would create and write a comic strip for his newspaper. Mr. O'Donnell asked him what kind of comic strip he wanted and Mr. Aitken replied that he could write the kind of comic strip he wanted to. At the same time that Mr. O'Donnell had been writing about such strong, male heroes as Garth, Tug Transom, and Romeo Brown, he had also been doing work for women's magazines. He also remembered an encounter he had with a remarkable young woman when he had been serving in the Middle East during World War II. Mr. O'Donnell had then given thought to the idea of a woman who could do the same sort of heroics as these male characters. At the same time in the wake of  TV shows such as Danger Man and The Avengers and the movie Dr. No. Mr. O'Donnell then created Modesty Blaise, a young woman with a criminal background who would become involved in all sorts of intrigue. Her sidekick was Willie Garvin, her right hand man and confidant.

Unfortunately, after Peter O'Donnell had created Modesty Blaise, the whole project was cancelled. It would never appear in The Daily Express. Bill Aitken then offered the comic strip to The London Evening Standard. Fortunately, The London Evening Standard decided to publish the comic strip. It debuted on 13 May, 1963. Modesty Blaise was an immediate hit, so much so that it was not long after its debut that British Lion Films announced they would make a Modesty Blaise  movie written by Sidney Gilliat (who had written such screenplays as Hitchock's The Lady Vanishes). The movie never materialised. It was in 1966 that a very loose adaptation of Modesty Blaise, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Monica Vitti as Modesty and Terence Stamp as Willie was released. Even though Peter O'Donnell wrote a scenario for the film, the movie ultimately used none of it and actually owed very little to the strip.

Peter O'Donnell was use the scenario he had written for the movie as the basis for the first novel featuring the comic strip's characters, entitled Modesty Blaise. In all he would write eleven Modesty Blaise novels, the last being Dead Man's Handle, published in 1985. He also wrote several short stories featuring Modesty Blaise, which would be collected in two anthologies: Pieces of Modesty (1972) and Cobra Trap (1992). Mr. O'Donnell would start writing Gothic romance novels and adventure novels set in the Victorian Era using the pen name Madeline Brent. The first , Tregaron's Daughter, was published in 1971. The last, Golden Urchin, was published in 1986. In all, Mr. O'Donnell would write nine books as Brent.

In 1982 a pilot for a proposed Modesty Blaise TV series was made. The action was moved from London to Hollywood, while Blaise and Willie were made Americans. Ann Turkel played Modesty Blaise and Lewis Van Burgen as Willie. It was on 11 May, 2001 (Mr. O'Donnell's birthday) that Modesty Blaise ended its long run as Peter O'Donnell elected to retire. As the comic strip was still popular, many newspapers elected to reprint the comic strip. Regardless, Mr.O'Donnell asked that no one write sequels to Modesty Blaise. 

This did not mean that there would not be another film based on the comic strip. In 2002 Miramax produced a film based on Modesty Blaise, primarily to continue holding the film rights. The film, entitled My Name is Modesty, chronicled Modesty Blaise''s early years and starred Alexandria Staden as Modesty. Curiously, Willie Garvin does not appear, making it the only story about Modesty Blaise in any medium not to feature Willie. My Name is Modesty was never released to theatre, but was released to DVD in Europe in 2003 and in North America in 2004. Quentin Tarantino has expressed interest in a Modesty Blaise move and at one point Neil Gaiman was even set to adapt the 1967 Modesty Blaise novel I, Lucifer. Sadly, nothing ever came of it.

Very prolific, Peter O'Donnell also wrote six episodes of the TV series Take a Pair of Private Eyes in 1966, as well as the screen play for The Vengeance of She (1968).

I rather suspect that Peter O'Donnell was always been rather under appreciated by many during his lifetime. I do not think he was ever given credit for creating one of the most iconic characters of post-war Britain, Modesty Blaise. It is true that Mrs. Cathy Gale of The Avengers pre-dates Modesty, but she was among the earliest strong female heroes to appear in any medium. She has inspired many imitators over the years, and has had considerable influence on every female superspy to appear ever since.

It must be pointed out that while Mr. O'Donnell received few kudos for the Modesty Blaise novels, they are among the best pulp fiction and spy novels written in the late 20th Century. There are others of more fame than myself who agree with me on this. Novelist and critic Kingsley Amis actually sent Mr. O'Donnell a handwritten note thanking him for the Modesty Blaise novels. Quentin Tarantino has consistently expressed his admiration for the novels. Beyond the novels, it must be noted that the comic strip was among the best written adventure strips of all time. Indeed, between the storylines included in the comic strip and stories in comic books and the graphic novel published for DC Comics, there would be 99 Modesty Blaise storylines in all. In the end I think Peter O'Donnell will be remembered as more than the creator of  Modesty Blaise. I think he will be remembered as one of the best comic strip writers and best pulp writers of all time.