Saturday, 13 November 2010

TV Writer Coleman Jacoby Passes On

Television writer Coleman Jacoby, who with his partner Arnie Rosen wrote material for Jackie Gleason and later wrote for The Phil Silvers Show, passed at the age of 95 on October 20, 2010. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Coleman Jacoby was born Coleman Jacobs on April 16, 1915 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother died when he was still a child and his father deserted his family, so that Mr. Jacoby was placed in the Jewish Home for Babies and Children at age 7. He studied art and when he was 16 years old moved to New York City. He made a living painting murals for nightclubs and later started writing material for stand up comedians. It was gossip columnist Earl Wilson who suggested he change his surname to Jacoby because he thought it sounded well.

Coleman Jacoby broke into radio writing material for Bob Hope. He later wrote for Fred Allen and The Gay Nineties Review. Mr. Jacoby entered television writing for the legendary Your Show of Shows. He then teamed up with Ernie Rosen and together the two were hired to write material for Cavalcade of Stars, starring Jackie Gleason, on the DuMont network. Messrs. Jacoby and Rosen created many of Mr. Gleason's signature characters, including playboy Reginald Van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender, the Poor Soul, and others. It would be Messrs. Jacoby and Rosen who would team up Gleason and Carney, a partnership which lasted for decades. It was on the first skit featuring Reginald Van Gleason, who was being shot for a magazine advert for alcohol. In the role of the photographer, the two writers suggested Art Carney. Messrs Jacoby and Rosen continued to write for Jackie Gleason after he left DuMont for CBS.

Coleman Jacoby and Ernie Rosen would later write fifty episode of The Phil Silvers Show (AKA You'll Never Get Rich or Sgt. Bilko). The two wrote for Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine in 1962. The partnership dissolved when Mr. Rosen became producer on The Carol Burnett Show. Afterwards Mr. Jacoby produced children's television specials with his wife.

Coleman Jacboy was a gifted television writer who would have an enormous impact on the history of television. Indeed, with Coleman Jacoby and Arnie Rosen, The Honeymooners might never have come to be, as it was the two writers who first team up Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, who would go onto create the legendary series. In addition to working with Mr. Gleason, Mr Jacoby also wrote for the classic Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show. He had a natural gift for comedy, adept at creating funny situations as well as writing one liners. Because of this, he created a good deal of classic television comedy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Dino De Laurentiis R.I.P.

Movie producer Dino De Laurentiis passed on November 11, 2010 at the age of 91.

Dino De Laurentiis was born on August 8, 1919 in Torre Annunziata, Campania, Italy. The first film he produced was L'Amore Canta in 1941. During World War II he produced no films, but following the war he began movie production again with Aquila Nera (1946). It was early in his career that he began producing movies that would be part of the Italian New Wave, including Riso amaro (1949), Europa '51 (1952), Fellini's La Strada (1954), and Fellini's Le notti di Cabria (1957). Even early career as a producer, Mr. De Laurentiis' output could be diverse. While producing Italian neorealist films, he also produced comedies featuring Toto (Totò terzo uomo in 1951 and Totò a colori in 1952), as well as sword and sandal epics such as Ulysses (1954) and Attila (1954). Later in the Fifties Mr. De Laurentiis would expand into English language films, including an adaptation of War and Peace (1956) and This Angry Age (1958).

The Sixties would see Dino De Laurentiis continue to produce a variety of films. He produced such sword and sandal films as Maciste contro il vampiro (1961), Barabbas (1961), Le pillole di Ercole (1962).  He also continued to produce comedies, including The Fascist (1961), Il re di Poggioreale (1961), and Il diavolo (1963). He also produced spy and sci-fi films such as Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966), Danger: Diabolik (1968), and Barbarella (1968). In the Seventies Dino De Laurentiis moved away from Italian language films and more into English language films. He produced the films Serpico (1973), Tough Guys (1974), Death Wish (1974), Mandingo (1975), Three Days of the Condor (1976), the ill fated and ill advised remake of King Kong (1976), The Brinks Job (1978), and the cult classic Flash Gordon (1980).

In the Eighties Dino De Laurentiis; output slowed, but he still produced several films,  including Ragtime (1981),  Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), Dune (1984), Manhunter (1986-the first film to feature Hannibal Lecter), and King Kong Lives (1986). From the Nineties Mr. De Laurentiis produced such films as Army of Darkness (1992), U-571 (2000), Red Dragon (2002), and The Last Legion (2007).

Unlike many producers, Dino De Laurentiis produced a diverse number of films. He produced everything from neorealist classics (La Strada) to high camp (Barbarella). He also had his share of flops (Hurricane in 1979). He also produced films for which the critics lost no love (the most obvious example being his remake of King Kong). Regardless, he produced an extraordinarily large number of films, many of which are regarded as classics today.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Gene Shalit Retires from the Today Show

After 40 years with the show, movie critic 84 year old Gene Shalit retired from The Today Show. His run on the show is among the longest of anyone in broadcast history. Indeed, he may well have been with Today longer than any other on the air personality.

Prior to his stint with Today, Mr. Shalit had been the senior movie critic for Look magazine and wrote the "What's Happening" column for Ladies Home Journal. He joined Today in 1970, replacing Joe Garagiola at the desk in 1973. He also wrote a daily radio essay for,"Man About Anything," for NBC Radio from 1969 to 1982. Mr. Shalit did not simply review movies for Today in his "Critic's Corner" segment, but he also reviewed books and plays, as well as covering everything from professional baseball to passenger trains. Reportedly Gene Shalit is not entirely retiring, but is leaving Today  to "pursue other activities."

With his "Critic's Corner" on The Today Show, Gene Shalit became one of the most recognisable critics in the United States Even had it no been for his status as a regular contributor to Today, he would have been easily recognisable, with his curly hair, heavy glasses, handlebar moustache, and often colourful bowties.

My family having watched Today regularly when I was a child, Gene Shalit was the first movie critic to whom I was ever exposed. While I did not always agree with his reviews of movies (most notably, I disagreed with his review of Flash Gordon in 1980), I always understood why he liked or disliked any given film. And unlike some movie critics, Gene Shalit truly loves movies, a love which showed throughout every review he did for Today. He had an enthusiasm for film that only a few other critics possess. It is for this reason that I always enjoyed Mr. Shalit's reviews, as well as his extensive use of puns. While many of Mr. Shalit's puns were, well, bad, they were always funny.

Today will simply not be the same without Gene Shalit in his "Critic's Corner." And he will be a hard act to follow for any critic who takes his place. Gene Shalit was always one of the few critics whose opinion I value, and one of the few who seemed to share my love for film.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Five Classic Movies I Hate

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So too are ideas of what constitutes a good movie. It is not unusual for critics to rave about some film that many people absolutely detest, just as it is not usual for a movie which the critics universally panned to number among someone's favourites. This holds true for movies considered classics just as it does any other film. As hard as it may be to believe, there probably are people who do not like Casablanca or Bringing Up Baby. In this respect, I am no different than anyone else. Even though I can honestly say I like most classic films, there are those that I absolutely cannot stand. Here then are five classic movies I hate.

1. The Sound of Music (1965): When it comes to the general public, this could well be one of the best loved films of the Sixties. It is one of the few films from its era still shown on American network television. What is more, when it is shown on network television it always gets good ratings. At Rotten Tomatoes it enjoys an unusually high 82% among critics and 86% among users. It also happens to be one of the most commercially successful movies of all time. That having been said, I cannot stand The Sound of Music.

Oh, I will give it credit for having a great score. I love the songs from The Sound of Music. And it does have great cinematography, with striking images of the Tyrolean Alps. Unfortunately, any enjoyment I could possibly receive from the film ends there. Although allegedly based on Maria von Trapp's memoir, the screenplay for The Sound of Music might as well have been written by a computer programmed with every manipulative trick in the book to get audiences to love a film. There's the joyful nanny whom all the children love and with whom the father falls in loves. There's youthful romance. And there are villainous Nazis threatening our protagonists. All the film has enough sentimentality to keep the International House of Pancakes in syrup for years.

Now I could even forgive The Sound of Music these flaws if not for one thing. It is dreadfully boring and uninvolving, Indeed, it is one of the few films during which I have difficulty staying awake. The plain truth is that I honestly think it could be marketed as a cure for insomnia. At any rate, it amazes me that a film that is so dull could still be one of the best loved films of all time, particularly in this era when attention spans are about as short as the average television advert. I rather suspect that as time goes, The Sound of Music will decline in popularity until it is no longer considered a classic.

2. Dracula (1931): Dracula is a truly important film. A hit upon its initial release, it started the horror cycle of the early Thirties which produced such classics as Frankenstein (1931) and King Kong (1933). It also introduced movie goers to Bela Lugosi. While I know all too well the movie's place in film history, I have never liked Dracula. The film starts out well enough, with some great sequences in the Carpathian Mountains. Unfortunately, once the action shifts to England Dracula loses the momentum it had at the beginning of the film. Even for an early talkie, Dracula is, well, very talky. In fact, it feels much more like a stage play that has been filmed rather than a major motion picture. What makes matters worse is Bela Lugosi's performance. While Mr. Lugosi would give many fine performances throughout his career, this is not one of them. In much of the film Mr. Lugosi acts in such broad strokes that it is hard to take him seriously as the ancient vampire. Indeed, in the scene in which Dracula tries to hypnotise Van Helsing, Bela Lugosi is so hammy it is laughable. Dracula is truly a historic movie and must be given credit for that. Unfortunately, it is also very stagy at times and also very dull.

3. Detour (1945): I was hesitant to include this film in this list not because I have any love whatsoever for it, but because I think it is less a "classic" than it is a cult film whose reputation has been overblown given its utter lack of quality. Quite frankly, by the generally accepted standards of good story telling, Detour is a very bad film. The movie is driven primarily by coincidences so outrageous as to be impossibly absurd, not to mention an run of bad luck on the part of the protagonist as to be unbelievable. I might be able to overlook the wholly unconvincing story of Detour if not for the film's many other flaws. Indeed, there is not one good performance in the film, with every single player hamming it up. This is made even worse by the protagonist's narration, which is so wretchedly bad as to be laughable. These faults are only complicated by the exceeding low budget of Detour. The sets look fake to the point of being obvious, with some rather poor rear projection as a hopeless substitute for shooting on location. In a better film, the horrible sets and the poor special effects could be forgiveable. With Detour, they only make me hate it even more. Edgar G. UImer directed one truly great film (The Black Cat) and a very few good movies, but Detour is definitely not one of them. Indeed, I would not be surprised if it is his worst.

4. Gentleman's Agreement (1947): Gentleman's Agreement was a very important film in its time. Indeed, it tackled a controversial subject, the anti-Semitism that was all too prevalent in American society in the Forties. There can be no doubt that it was a subject that had to addressed in film at some point. Unfortunately, while Gentleman's Agreement was an important film, in my opinion it is not a very good one. The problem for me with Gentlemen's Agreement is much of the same problem I have with The Sound of Music. The story is contrived to the point of being manipulative, with situations created solely to teach the characters (and the audience as well) a lesson. And as might be expected, by the end everyone has had a change of heart and all is right with the world. In the end Gentleman's Agreement is overly preachy, beating the viewer over the head with a lesson that should be obvious--anti-Semitism is wrong.

Worse yet, every one of the of the characters in the film are one dimensional, little more than cardboard cutouts with which the movie can make its point. This is complicated by the performances in the movie. Gregory Peck, generally quite good, is a bit too earnest and serious in this film. Dorothy McGuire's character seems both shallow and naive, although this is perhaps more the fault of the script than Miss McGuire. Even the great John Garfield virtually telephones his performance in, seemingly uninvolved by the storyline. Of the actors, only Celeste Holm gives a truly good performance as the flashy, witty, fashion columnist. I do not find it hard to believe that Gentleman's Agreement won the Oscar for Best Picture. It was a very important film and I have no doubt it made an impression on Academy members in tacking a subject that had not been handled very often, but really should have been. What I find hard to believe is that Gentleman's Agreement was made by screenwriter Moss Hart and director Elia Kazan, both of whom had seen better days and would see better days still.

5. Little Women (1949): I must be frank in saying that I love the 1933 version of Little Women starring Katharine Hepburn and Spring Byington. One would think I would love the 1949 version as well. Sadly, I do not. The 1949 is somewhat effective in the first half of the film, capturing the joie de vivre of the girls, the cosiness of a Christmas spent at home, and the warmth of a close knit neighbourhood. Unfortunately, Little Women (1949) falls apart midway through the movie, slipping into the sort of weepy melodrama that the 1933 version never did, even in its darkest hours. Indeed, the pathos in the latter half of Little Women (1949) is so poorly handled that it seems artificial, simply a means to manipulate the audience to tears.

It does not help that, in my opinion, Little Women (1949) is terribly miscast. Although likeable in the first half of the movie, June Allyson has none of the steel which Katherine Hepburn possessed in the 1933 version, nor for that matter Jo in the novel. Elizabeth Taylor hardly seems convincing as the temperamental Amy, while Margaret O'Brien overacts as Beth. Worst of all is the casting of screen siren  Mary Astor as the girl's mother Marmee. Mary Astor was unhappy in this role and it shows on screen. How MGM could have cast one of the screen's femmes fatale in the role of a sweet natured mother, I will never know. At any rate, while I realised that I may be unfairly comparing Little Women (1949) to Little Women (1933), I find it very difficult to enjoy this movie.

I am certain that among these films I have listed movies that number among others' favourites. And I do hope I did not offend anyone with my reasons for disliking these films. As I have said earlier, what constitutes a good movie is largely in the eye of the beholder. One person's cinematic treasure is another person's cinematic junk. I am sure all of us have classic films that seem to be universally loved which we personally hate.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Sherlock

The past few weeks PBS aired the three episodes of Sherlock on their anthology series Masterpiece (under that show's Mystery! heading, once its own series). For those of you who have never heard of Sherlock, it is a show which updates Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to the 21st century. It aired on BBC One in July and August. This October and November it made its American debut on Masterpiece.

Of course, Sherlock is not the first time that the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have been updated to contemporary times. There was a time when nearly every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes movie was set in the modern era; then again, given Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the last Holmes story in 1927 ("The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place", only those films made in the Thirties can truly be said to be anachronistic. It would not be until 20th Century Fox's classic adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce,. that Sherlock Holmes would be placed in the Victorian milieu with which we generally identify him. Surprisingly, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would also star in the first movie in which Holmes and Watson were truly updated to the contemporary era. Beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), the classic Universal Sherlock Holmes series placed the pair to the World War II era. Since that time nearly every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, either to film or television, has placed the detective in the Victorian Era. In fact, Sherlock is the first TV show to place Holmes and Watson in a contemporary milieu.

Sherlock was developed by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both veterans of Dr. Who. Mr. Moffat had also written for the series Coupling, while Mr. Gatiss has written for The League of Gentlmen and adapted H. G. Wells' First Men in the Moon for the BBC. It was during their train trips from London to Cardiff (where production for Dr. Who is located) that the two, both Holmes fans, discussed updating the detective. Finally they discussed idea with producer Sue Vertue, Mr. Moffat's wife. The series was produced by Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, and WGBH (the Boston PBS station responsible for Masterpiece). Benedict Cumberbatch, who has appeared in films from Amazing Grace (2006) to Creation (2009) was cast as Holmes. Martin Freeman, who had played Arthur Dent in the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), was cast as Dr. Watson.

For those who may be doubtful about the success of a Holmes updated to the 20th Century, there is no need for concern. In many respects Sherlock is more loyal to the Holmes of the Canon than most of the recent adaptations in the Victoria Era. Benedict Cumberland's Sherlock Holmes is bohemian in the same way the Holmes of the Canon was, his flat at 221B Baker Street is a bit of a mess, while Holmes himself clearly dresses for comfort and practicality rather than fashion. Like the Holmes of the Canon, the Holmes of Sherlock is also sorely lacking in interpersonal skills. He is cold and unemotional, displaying little concern for his fellow man. He is forthright in his words to the point of being rude. The only thing that keeps Holmes from being an egomaniac is that he is quite right that he has a keen intellect sharper than the average police officer. At the same time, however, there can be no doubt that Holmes is a brilliant detective. In an instant he can pick up on details that the average person misses, and in a matter of no time come to a conclusion based on those details. His skill at deduction is unmatched.

Just as the Holmes of Sherlock is very much in keeping with the Canon, so too is Mr. Freeman's Watson. Just as the Dr. John Watson of the Canon, the Watson of Sherlock served in the military and was wounded in battle. Just as the Watson of the Canon was intelligent and capable, so too is the Watson of the Canon. Both tend to be much more ethical and moral in their outlook than Holmes, and both have the compassion for their fellow man that Holmes sorely lacks. Just as the Dr. Watson of the Cannon published accounts of Holmes' adventures as short stories, the Dr. Watson of Sherlock chronicles the pair's adventures on his blog.

One of the taglines of the series is "Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures," and in this respect the show is much loyal to the Canon than previous Holmes series. The three episodes aired so far adapted two of the classic Holmes stories, "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Dancing Men," while the third is an original episode that captures the flavour of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories perfectly. Each of the three stories feature a bizarre, seemingly unsolvable mystery, a nefarious plot, and villains who would make the average Bond villain seem pale in comparison. Over all, Sherlock does very well in capturing the bigger than life feel of Mr. Conan Doyle's work.

A second series of three episodes of Sherlock is set to air in the United Kingdom in autumn 2011. There is no word yet on when they will air Stateside (although that they will is pretty much a given). In the meantime the series is available to watch at PBS' Masterpiece site until December 7. The series is also available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2. If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, a fan of good mysteries, or a fan of rousing adventure stories, I urge you to check Sherlock out. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Jill Clayburgh R.I.P.

Actress Jill Clayburgh passed on November 5 at the age of 66. The cause was chronic leukaemia.

Jill Clayburgh was born in New York City on April 30, 1944. She attended Brearley School and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with a degree in theatre in 1966. She made her debut on Broadway two years later in 1968 in The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson. Miss Clayburgh would appear again on Broadway several times, in the plays The Rothschilds (1972), Pippin (1972), Jumpers (1985), Design for Living (1984), A Naked Girl in the Appian Way (2005), and a revival of Barefoot in the Park (2007).

Jill Clayburgh made her television debut on an episode of N.Y.P.D. in 1968. Her film debut was in The Wedding Party (1969). In the Seventies she appeared in such films as The Telephone Book (1971), Portnoy's Complaint (1972), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), The Terminal Man (1974), Gable and Lombard (1976), Silver Streak (1976), An Unmarried Woman (1978), Starting Over (1979--for which she was nominated for an Oscar), and It's My Turn (1980). She appeared in such shows as Medical Centre, Maude, and The Rockford Files.

In the Eighties Miss Clayburgh appeared in the movies First Monday in October (1981), I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982), Shy People (1987), and Beyond the Ocean (1990). In the Nineties she appeared in the movies Pretty Hattie's Baby (1991), Whispers in the Dark (1992), Rich in Love (1992), Naked in New York (1993), Going All the Way (1997), and Fools Rush In (1997). She appeared on the shows Law and Order and Frasier. She was a regular on the show Everything's Relative. In the Naughts she appeared in the films Never Again (2001), Falling (2001), Running with Scissors (2006), and Love and Other Drugs (2010). In the Teens she will appear in the film Bridesmaids (2011), her final film. She was a regular on the shows Leap of Faith and Dirty Sexy Money. She appeared in the shows Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Nip/Tuck.