Saturday, 15 September 2012

Bank Holiday (1938)

There is a tendency today for film buffs to think of The Lady Vanishes (1938) as the film that propelled Margaret Lockwood to stardom. This is certainly true here in the United States, where The Lady Vanishes was the first film in which Margaret Lockwood starred to capture a significant American audience. That having been said, it hardly holds true of Miss Lockwood's native United Kingdom, where she had become a star not long before the release of The Lady Vanishes. In the United Kingdom it was not The Lady Vanishes that made Margaret Lockwood a star, but an early Carol Reed film called Bank Holiday (1938) instead.

Bank Holiday was a particularly British variation on the "Grand Hotel theme," in which a film follows a number of different characters in story linked by a specific place or activity (Dinner at Eight from 1933 and Stagecoach from 1939 are other examples of the genre). In the case of Bank Holiday, the film centred on various characters who visit a seaside resort (a thinly veiled Brighton) for the August Bank Holiday. Margaret Lockwood plays a nurse from London who has consented to spend the weekend with her fiancĂ© (Hugh Williams), something over which she does feel a good deal of guilt. At the same time Miss Lockwood's character is worried about a seriously distraught widower (John Loder) of one of her patients who had just died in childbirth.  Among the other plots in Bank Holiday are one involving a Cockney family with somewhat unruly children (Arthur, played by Wally Patch, and May, played by Kathleen Harrison), and another involving Doreen (Rene Ray), who is competing in a beauty contest, and her best friend  Milly (Merle Tottenham).

Bank Holiday premiered in London on 27 January 1938 and opened to very good reviews. Margaret Lockwood in particular was singled out for the quality of performance, which was entirely naturalistic and free of the sort of  artificial speaking common to British stage and even film actors of the time. While the critics loved Bank Holiday, it took some time for it to become a hit at the box office. It started somewhat sluggishly, but eventually through word of mouth did quite well. In the end, Margaret Lockwood had become one of the new stars of the British screen, a position that would be solidified by her next film (The Lady Vanishes).

In the United States Bank Holiday would run afoul of Hollywood's Production Code of the time, under which even an engaged couple such as Margaret Lockwood and Hugh Williams' characters could not spend the night together, let alone a weekend. While Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, thought Bank Holiday was "a very, very good picture," he thought that it could not possibly be recut so as to be acceptable for American audiences. Gaumont British would have Bank Holiday viewed again, after which they they agreed that Larry Darmour, Gaumont's man in Hollywood, would an editor who would remove anything objectionable from Bank Holiday. In the end 1450 feet of film (about five minutes) was cut from Bank Holiday, after which it was finally passed by the Production Code Administration. It was released in the United States on 1 June 1938 under the title Three on a Weekend (presumably Americans would not know what a "bank holiday" was). Here it should be pointed out that the Untied States was not the only place where Bank Holiday faced censorship. In the Republic of Ireland several cuts had to be made before the film could be released there, and the censor said of Bank Holiday, "This was a difficult film to deal with anyhow..."

For the most part Bank Holiday holds up very well when viewed today. In some respects it is at its most effective when dealing with its secondary plots. I thought the plot involving the Cockneys Arthur and May and their family was particularly well done, a good balance of comedy and seriousness. I thought the same held true of the plot involving beauty queen Doreen and her best friend Millie. If Bank Holiday has a weak point, it could well be its central plot line. While Margaret Lockwood gives a very good performance as the nurse Catherine, the material is not quite up to par. While I enjoyed the plot involving her fiancé and her reticence at spending an illicit weekend with him, I thought the whole plot involving her concern for the distraught widower was a bit too weepy and melodramatic, not to mention on the whole unrealistic. Indeed, the whole plot involving Catherine and the overly grieving widower seems a bit out of place among the other, more naturalistic plots of the film.

While the modern viewer may or may not find fault with the plot involving Catherine and the husband who has just lost his wife, I suspect most would find Bank Holiday enjoyable. Indeed, the film works on multiple levels. Its most basic appeal is that it gives the viewers slices of English life as it might have been in the late 1930's. In fact, in the various secondary stories the viewer might find things that hold true not only today, but in the United States at that. At the same time, Bank Holiday also acts as a commentary on English society at the time. Bank Holiday examined the changing sexual mores of the times (something that would not be acknowledged by Hollywood for nearly another twenty years), the classism of English society, and the monetary constraints of the middle and working classes, among other things.

While Bank Holiday is hardly on par with many of Carol Reed's later works, one can already see the promise of things to come in his handling of the film. Several sequences of the film are very impressive, from the early scenes at Victoria Station to the mass of individuals on holiday sleeping on the beach (for lack of funds or available rooms at a hotel). Bank Holiday was only Carol Reed's sixth film, but already he was demonstrating a good degree of mastery in his handling of framing scenes.

Bank Holiday would be a pivotal film in Margaret Lockwood's career and somewhat important in the career of Carol Reed as well. While the film has its flaws, it is a very enjoyable movie over all and one that is well seeking out. Viewers might not particularly care for portions of the central storyline of Bank Holiday, but they will certainly enjoy the many other plots the film has to offer.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Lance LeGault Passes On

Lance LeGault, perhaps best known for playing Colonel Decker on The A-Team, died on 10 September 2012 at the age of 75.

Lance LeGault was born in Chicago, Illinois on 2 May 1937. He started work while very young, working for the railroad when he was only 13. He made his film debut in uncredited roles in the Elvis Presley movie Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962). He would also have uncredited parts in Kissin' Cousins (1964), Viva Las Vegas (1964), and Roustabout (1964).  His first credited role was in The Swinger in 1966. In the late Sixties and Seventies he would appear in such films as The Young Runaways (1968), Sweet Charity (1969), Catch My Soul (1974), The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Coma (1978), and French Quarter (1978). He appeared on such TV shows as Land of the Giants, Gunsmoke, Petrocelli, The Rockford Files, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Battlestar Galactica, and The Dukes of Hazzard.

It was in 1983 that Lance LeGault was cast in the recurring role of Colonel Decker on The A-Team. Colonel Decker was an Army officer assigned to try to capture The A-Team, who had been falsely accused of robbing a bank in Vietnam. He appeared in the role for three years. He also played a brief, recurring role on Dynasty, a recurring role on Magnum P.I., and a regular role on the short lived show Werewolf. In the Eighties he also appeared on such shows as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Voyagers, Knight Rider, T. J. Hooker, Airwolf, Sledge Hammer, Murder She Wrote, Paradise, Star Trek : The Next Generation, Dallas, and L.A. Law. He appeared in the films Stripes (1981), Amy (1981), Fast-Walking (1982), Iron Eagle (1986), and Kidnapped (1987).

From the Nineties into the Naughts Lance LeGault appeared in such shows as Major Dad, Columbo, Renegade, L. A. Heat, and Crusade. He appeared in such films as Shadow Force (1992), The Silencers (1996), Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), Scorpio One (1998), and Stuntmen (2009).

Not only was Colonel Decker on The A-Team perhaps Lance LeGault's best known role, but he played many military men over the years. With a gravelly voice and eyes that could be described as sharp looking, he was perhaps ideal for such roles. That having been said, Mr. LeGault could play more than military men. On Werewolf he played a very different role, that of bounty hunter Alamo Joe Rogan, who would have been more at home in a Western than he would have been a military base. His recurring role on that of Dynasty was that of a mobster's henchman. Although he is best known for playing military men, then, Lance LeGault could play a good deal more.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The New British Invasion of American Television

British television shows are certainly no stranger to American television. It was in 1955 that The Adventures of Robin Hood made its debut on CBS and became the first real hit of British origin on American shores. The Sixties may well have been the heyday for British programmes airing on American television. During the decade such British series as The Avengers, Danger Man (under the title Secret Agent), The Saint, and many others aired on the American broadcast networks. Sadly, the late Sixties would see a decline in the number of British shows airing on American television. The American commercial broadcast networks stopped buying British shows, so that those British programmes that did come to the United States either did so through PBS or syndication.

While many of these shows would develop large followings, British television shows remained very much a niche market in the United States for the next several decades. For all that Monty Python's Flying Circus, Are You Being Served and Red Dwarf may have had devoted followings, they were still hardly part of mainstream American television.  It was a rare thing when a British show, such as Upstairs, Downstairs, would capture the attention of the United States as a nation. In the past several years, however, this appears to have changed. Much as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Avengers were in their day, it can now be said that there are British television shows that are part of mainstream American television, even if they do not air on the commercial broadcast networks.

One of these shows is actually rather old and was a mainstay of British television for literally decades. Doctor Who debuted in November 1963 and would remain on the air until 1989. The show first came to American television in 1972, failing to create much interest. It was in 1978 that Doctor Who became a regular on PBS for years. Sadly, the BBC would cancel the programme in 1989 and efforts to revive it (such as the 1996 television movie) failed. Fortunately, in 2005 Doctor Who was successfully revived and has remained on the air since. In the United States it has aired on BBC America, where it has proven to be its most popular programme. Indeed, its debut earlier this month drew 1.6 million viewers, which is small compared to most broadcast network series, but very good for a series airing on a cable channel in the United States. If there is any doubt that Doctor Who, long a favourite of American sci-fi fans and Anglophiles, has become a part of mainstream American television, the fact that it appeared on the 25 July 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly should dispel that.

Another mainstay of British television has also become something of a mainstream success in the United States. The original version of Top Gear debuted in 1977.  The original series would come to an end in 2001, only to be revived in 2002. It has been running ever since. The new version of Top Gear debuted on BBC America in 2007, where it has become one of the cable channel's most popular shows. The show has been popular enough to inspire home grown versions in Australia, Korea, Russia, and even the United States. While an American version airs on the History Channel, it is the original British version of the show that remains the most popular. On the surface it would appear unlikely that a British automotive show as well known for its controversies as its discussions about cars would have mainstream success in the United States, but it appears to have done exactly that. The long running news magazine 60 Minutes did a profile of the series, and it has been covered by such American publications as Time. 

Both Doctor Who and Top Gear are older programmes, but a fairly recent British show has also seen a good deal of mainstream success. Indeed, Downton Abbey may have seen more success in the United States than either Doctor Who or Top Gear Downton Abbey debuted on ITV on  26 September 2010. It made its American debut on PBS' series Masterpiece on 9 January 2011.  Downton Abbey delivered very good ratings for PBS upon its American debut, and in the months that followed its run on PBS it gathered more and more viewers through the internet and DVD release. When its second series aired on Masterpiece in January and February it performed even better, with an average of 5.4 million viewers, making it more watched than some lower rated shows on the commercial networks. In fact, Downton Abbey would accomplish something no programme on PBS ever had before it--it came in second to the Super Bowl in ratings for the night of 5 February 2012. Downton Abbey received coverage in American newspapers, magazines, and television news programmes in a way that few British television shows have before. Even if one could argue that Doctor Who and Top Gear have not seen mainstream success in the United States, it would be very difficult to argue that Downton Abbey has not.

Downton Abbey would not be the only British show that has recently proven to be a hit on PBS. Sherlock, which updated Sherlock Holmes to the 21st Century, debuted on BBC One on 25 July 2010. The series made its American debut on Masterpiece on PBS on 24 October 2010. Its first series received fairly good ratings in the United States, but like Downton Abbey its Stateside following would grow after its initial run in America. When the second series debuted on Masterpiece on 6 May 2012, it garnered 3.2 million viewers. In other words, it actually performed better than such hit cable series as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It has been covered in such newspapers as The Chicago Sun-Times and such magazines as Entertainment Weekly. If that were not enough to prove Sherlock as a mainstream success in the United States, many suspect that the new CBS series Elementary (also dealing with Sherlock Holmes in modern times, although it is set in the United States rather than Britain) was inspired by the success Sherlock, although CBS denies this.

While these are the most successful recent British shows airing in the United States, those that have broken into the mainstream, there are yet other British shows that have developed followings in the U.S. in recent years. The supernatural drama Being Human proved to be popular on BBC America and even has an American counterpart that airs on Sy-Fy. While Gordon Ramsay has had hit series made here in the United States, his British series continue to be popular on BBC America. Although not as wildly popular as Doctor Who, the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood continues to have a following here in the United States. Its last series aired on the premium channel Starz. It proved popular enough that Starz would consider another Torchwood series provided producer Russell T. Davies has the time.

As to why British TV series would return to prominence in the United States for the first time since the Sixties, the reasons are probably many. Primary among these is simply the fact that for the past many decades PBS has relied on British imports  for Masterpiece and Mystery, while its local stations have relied on British shows to fill their schedules. Series ranging from Cadfael to Jeeves and Wooster have aired on Masterpiece and Mystery. At the same time local PBS stations aired many British shows over the years, including Monty Python's Flying Circus, Are You Being Served, All Creatures Great and Small, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, Keeping Up Appearances, Doc Martin, and many others. In combination with the British shows that had aired on the American commercial networks in the Fifties and Sixties, many of which would continue to be popular in syndication, the British programmes that aired on PBS would create an audience in the United States for British programming.

Another reason that British shows would gain mainstream popularity in the United States would be the expansion and increasing specialisation of cable television from the Seventies to the Nineties. Starting in the mid-Seventies, cable television expanded rapidly in the United States, resulting in the creation of several cable channels, such as TBS and the USA Network. By the Eighties cable channels started to become much more specialised. A&E originally centred on arts and entertainment, while MTV originally aired only music videos and other musically oriented programming. The creation of specialised cable channels in the United States has continued to this day. With specialisation emerging in cable channels in the United States, it was inevitable that a cable channel specialising in British programming would arise. It was then on 29 March 1998 that the British Broadcasting Corporation launched BBC America. BBC America not only aired programmes made for the BBC, but also shows from other British broadcasters, such as ITV and Channel 4. Like PBS, BBC America played a large role in creating an audience for British programming.

Of course, BBC America would not be the only cable channel to air British programmes. In the days when A&E was still devoted to arts and entertainment, it aired many shows of British origin. Some of these were shows that had aired on the commercial networks in the Sixties, such as The Avengers. Others, such as Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders, had originally aired in the United States on PBS. Still others, such as Hornblower and The Scarlet Pimpernel, made their debut on A&E. Like PBS and BBC America, A&E did its part in creating an audience for British television.

Another reason that British programming has once again come to prominence nay be that for much of the time since the Seventies the American commercial broadcast networks have demonstrated little variety in their programming since the Seventies. For most of those decades the American commercial broadcast networks appear to have been content to continually air the same old things. This has been no different in the Naughts and the Teens than it was before. While the past decade did see cycles towards police procedurals, reality shows, and talent competition shows, it also saw yet more medical dramas, standard police dramas, sitcoms, and, even though they have a massive failure rate, legal dramas. It is notable that the most successful British shows in the Untied States tend to be of the sort of genres that  have been rarely seen on American television: science fiction (Doctor Who), mystery (Sherlock), Edwardian period pieces (Downton Abbey), and so on. The sameness of the programming on the American commercial broadcast networks may also explain the success of such cable shows as Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad. Viewers bored with the shows on the American broadcast networks might tune in to shows elsewhere, some of which might just happen to be British.

It is difficult to determine whether British programmes will continue to see mainstream success here in the United States. In the Sixties, when The Adventures of Robin Hood was still in reruns and shows such as The Avengers and The Saint were airing on the commercial broadcast networks, it must have seemed like British shows would remain a prominent part of American programming. Sadly, by the early Seventies they could only be found on PBS and in syndication. Despite the success of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who, then, it could be that in several years one might hear little of British shows in the United States beyond PBS and BBC America. With any luck this will not be the case, and we continue to see British programmes prove to be hits here in the United States.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Dorothy McGuire R.I.P.

Dorothy McGuire of the singing group The McGuire Sisters, died 7 September 2012 at the age of 84. The McGuire Sisters were one of the last bastions of standard American pop before rock 'n' roll took over, with a string of hits from 1954 to 1964.

Dorothy McGuire was born  13 February 1928 in Middlestown, Ohio.  Her father was a steel worker, while her mother was a pastor at a local church. Dorothy McGuire and her sisters sang at the church. While modern, secular music was banned in the household, the McGuire Sisters would listen to it in secret. It was in 1950 that agent and band leader Karl Taylor visited their mother's church and heard the McGuire Sisters sing. He made them an offer that they could work for him if they ever want to sing popular music. It was then a month later that the McGuire Sisters made their debut with Karl Taylor's band at a hotel in Dayton, Ohio.


The year 1952 would prove to be a pivotal one for the McGuire Sisters. That year they appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. That same year they signed with Coral Records. They would have their first major hit, "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite," in 1954. It went to #7 on the Billboard singles chart. The McGuire Sisters would follow it with several more hits, including  "Sincerely (which went to #1 on the singles chart in 1955), "Something's Gotta Give," "He," "Sugartime," and "May You Always." The McGuire Sisters also appeared frequently on television in the Fifties and Sixties, appearing on such shows as The Jackie Gleason Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, The Garry Moore Show, Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, The Arthur Godfrey Show, The Hollywood Palace, and The Dean Martin Comedy Hour.

As the Fifties progressed and  rock 'n' roll began to dominate the charts, The McGuire Sisters would find hits fewer and farther between. Their last top forty hit would be in 1959. It was  fittingly called  Just For Old Time's Sake." In 1968 The McGuire Sisters retired as a group. While Dorothy and Christine McGuire retired to spend time with their families, Phyllis McGuire continued to perform for a time as a solo act. The McGuire Sisters reunited as a singing act in 1986. They continued to play the night club circuit until the mid-Naughts.

I cannot say that I was ever a huge fan of The McGuire Sisters. Indeed, to this day I still think of "Sugartime," perhaps their biggest hit,  as "old people's music." That having been said, even as a child I liked a good number of their songs. To their version of "Sincerely" remains the definitive version. I have also always enjoyed their renditions of "Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite" and "Goodnight My Love." What made The McGuire Sisters so listenable was that they had rather good voices and a gift for being able to sing in three part harmony. They could have easily been a low rent version of The Andrew Sisters (and they were sometimes accused of imitating them), but they did a very fine job of differentiating themselves. While The Andrew Sisters excelled at lively, swing and jump blues songs, The McGuire Sisters area of expertise was slower paced love songs. While their career faded with the advent of rock and roll, the group's songs will be remembered for a long time to come.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Letterboxd

It would seem that since social networking sites emerged in the Naughts they have become increasingly specialised. An example of this is the web site Letterboxd. Letterboxd is essentially a social network for film buffs. The site takes it name from the means of preserving the aspect ratio of widescreen films on a standard television screen.  Essentially the site is meant for people to share what films they have been watching and what they think of those films.

While Letterboxd is meant to be a social network, for me the primary attraction of the site is not particularly social at all. One can keep a diary of the films one has watched. I have found this feature particularly enjoyable. It is interesting to look back at the films one has watched over the last several months, to determine if there are any patterns in what one has been watching (Do they belong to a particular genre? Do they belong to a particular era?). While perhaps I should not speak for other Letterboxd users, if they are like me it is the feature they enjoy the most.

I suspect the other feature that will appeal to film buffs is the ability to rate and review films. One can rate movies anywhere from one to five stars, as well as provide reviews of those movies. There are appears to be no real limit on the length of reviews. They can be only a few words to several paragraphs. As might be expected, reading the reviews of others can be interesting and even illuminating with regards to various motion pictures.

In addition to being able to keep a diary of the films one has watched and being able to rate and review films, one can also make lists of films at Letterboxd. For example, I created a list of British rock musicals. List can vary greatly. I've seen lists of everything from alien invasion movies to the greatest Westerns of all time. Lists can be particularly useful if one wants to start watching movies in a particular genre (let's say "Thrillers"). All one has to do is find a list of the greatest thrillers of all time and start watching movies.

Of course, Letterboxd is a social network. Like Twitter one can follow other users, see what movies they are watching and what one thinks of them. This can be useful in learning what films one might want to watch. If one of your friends gives a particular movie a good review, one might then be more inclined to check it out.

Now there is a downside of Letterboxd. It relies on The Movie Database for its film entries. For those who don't know what The Movie Database is, it is a database of films not unlike IMDB. The problem is that The Movie Database (or TMBD as it is also called) is not nearly as comprehensive as IMDB, which means that one might actually have to add lesser known films. Now I expected that I would have to do this with Gonks Go Beat, a 1965 British rock musical based around gonks, a toy that was a bit of a fad in the United Kingdom in the mid-Sixties. I did not think I would have to add Bank Holiday (1938), a Carol Reed film starring Margaret Lockwood that is hardly obscure, yet I did.

Regardless, Letterboxd is an enjoyable site for anyone interested in films. While it is not a web site one will necessarily find himself or herself spending hours upon, it is certainly interesting to visit for minutes at a time. And it is also a  great way to keep track of the movies one has watched in the past several months.