Saturday, 5 March 2016

The 75h Anniversary of M&Ms

From childhood into adulthood, M&Ms have always been my favourite candy. I am hardly alone in this, as M&Ms are the best selling candy in the United States. In 2015 alone over $1 billion worth of M&Ms were sold. What makes this even more remarkable is that M&Ms have been phenomenally popular for decades--they are hardly a new candy brand. In fact, the candy coated chocolates turned 75 this past Thursday. It was on March 3 1941 that M&Ms were born.

While M&Ms have been popular for most of their history, their creation is shrouded in legend. What we do know is that they were developed by Forrest Mars, Sr. Forest Mars was the son of  Frank C. Mars, the legendary chocolatier and founder of Mars, Incorporated. Forest Mars went to work for his father not long after graduating from Yale Industry with a degree in industrial engineering. Unfortunately Frank C. Mars and Forrest Mars did not get along particularly well. Eventually Forrest Mars left for England. There he developed the Mars Bar and Maltesers. For a time he worked for Nestlé and the Tobler company.

According to legend , Forrest Mars was in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1938 and 1939. It was there that he saw soldiers eating candy coated chocolate pellets. Forrest Mars took this idea back to the United States where he received a patent for what would become M&Ms on March 3 1941.

While this legend is often told, there are some reasons to doubt its veracity. Quite simply, even as the Spanish Civil War was underway, there was a candy being marketed in the United Kingdom that resembled M&Ms a great deal. Smarties were introduced by York based candy company Rowntree's in 1937. Even in the early days they were sold in cardboard, cylindrical tubes. It appears that Forrest Mars knew George Harris, the head of Rowntree's. What is more, it seems very likely given their introduction in 1937 that Forrest Mars was aware of Smarties. While it is possible that the legend about the Spanish Civil War is true (and, if it is, it seems possible that the candy coated chocolates that the soldiers were eating were Smarties), it also seems possible that Forrest Mars got the idea of M&Ms from Smarties. Mars, Incorporated has always strenuously denied that Smarties inspired the idea for M&Ms, preferring to accept the Spanish Civil War legend.

Regardless, Forrest Mars entered into a partnership with Bruce Murrie, son of Hershey Chocolate Company's president William F. R. Murrie, to found M&M Limited, later renamed Food Manufacturers Inc. The partnership was particularly ideal at the time, as it allowed M&Ms to be made with Hershey's chocolate, this at a time of rationing. As to the candy's name, it came from the last names of the two founders of M&M Limited--Mars and Murrie. M&Ms were originally sold in cardboard tubes (not unlike Smarties). M&Ms were originally made in the colours red. green, yellow, brown, and violet. Originally the candies were sold to the military, who had need of a chocolate candy that would not make a mess.

M&Ms proved very popular during World War II, so much so that the increased production warranted a move from their original plant at 285 Badger Avenue in Clinton Hill, Newark, New Jersey to a bigger one at 200 North 12th Street in Newark. Following the war M&Ms were finally made available to the general public. Given their popularity with soldiers serving in World War II, it should come as no surprise that they continued to be very successful.  In 1948 Forrest Mars bought out Bruce Murrie's share in the company. It was that same year M&Ms stopped being sold in cardboard tubes and began being sold in the now familiar brown bag (Peanut M&Ms would later be sold in yellow bags and other varieties in yet other coloured bags).

In fact, M&Ms were so successful that a number of imitators sprang up. To separate M&Ms from their imitators, in 1950 a black "M" was printed on them. That same year violet M&Ms were discontinued in favour of tan M&Ms. In 1954 the black "M" on M&Ms was changed to the more familiar white "M" that continues to be used to this day. That same year saw the introduction of the long running advertising slogan "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands", as well as Peanut M&Ms. With the introduction of Peanut M&Ms, the old M&Ms, which were chocolate in a candy coated shell, became known simply as Plain M&Ms. Curiously, Peanut M&Ms were originally made only in the colour tan. It was in 1960 that at last Peanut M&Ms were made in red, yellow, green, and brown as well. In 1960 Almond M&Ms were briefly introduced to the market, but they were quickly pulled. In 1964, after the death of his father, Forrest Mars, Sr. took over Mars, Incorporated and merged it with his own company, Food Manufacturers Inc.

The year 1976 would see the first major change in M&Ms in quite some time. In the early Seventies a study conducted in the U.S.S.R. linked the dye known as Red No. 2 to cancer. While it was never proven conclusively that the dye caused cancer, the Federal Drug Administration went ahead and banned its use in 1976. Even though M&Ms had never been made with Red No. 2, Mars Incorporated removed the colour red from M&Ms lest customers become concerned about the product's safety.  It was replaced with orange.

It was in 1982 that Paul Hethmon, then a freshman at the University of Tennessee, started a campaign for the return of red M&Ms as a joke. He formed the "Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms" as a parody of the sort of mass mailings that were so common in the Eighties. As it turned out, the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms took on a life of its own, and while Mr. Hethmon had meant it as a joke, there were many who seriously wanted the return of red M&Ms. The Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms received coverage in Seventeen Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and other news outlets. Paul Hethmon was even interviewed by Charles Kurault of CBS News. It was in February 1987 that red M&Ms were finally returned to store shelves. While red M&Ms were returned to the market, orange M&Ms continue to be made to this day.

The re-introduction of red M&Ms would not be the last change in colours for the candies. In 1995 tan M&Ms were replaced by blue M&Ms. Of the various colours, only brown, yellow, and green have continuously been part of the product line from the very beginning.

Over the years new varieties of M&Ms have been added. It was in 1988 that Almond M&Ms returned for the first time since 1960 as part of a limited release for only Christmas and Easter. In 1992 Almond M&Ms were added to the standard line of M&Ms. The year 1991 saw the introduction of Peanut Butter M&Ms. Crispy M&Ms were introduced in 1999, but would be discontinued in the United States in 2005 (although they continued to be made elsewhere). They were reintroduced in 2015. In 2010 Pretzel M&Ms were introduced. In 2000 Plain M&Ms were renamed "Milk Chocolate" M&Ms, although there was absolutely no change to their flavour. Over the years there have been yet other varieties of M&Ms to hit the market.

Today M&Ms are well known for their computer animated "spokecandies", anthropomorphic M&Ms.  The most famous M&Ms characters, Red and Green, were introduced in 1995, but there were precedents for M&Ms' "spokescandies" from very early in the candy's history. The 1954 television commercial introducing both Peanut M&Ms and the slogan "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands," included an animated sequence featuring an anthropomorphic Plain M&M and an anthropomorphic Peanut M&M who dived into a chocolate filled swimming pool. The original animated M&Ms differed from their modern counterparts in that their "Ms" were placed above their eyes and mouths.

In 1960, with the introduction of Almond M&Ms (which would not remain on the market long), there would be another animated commercial in which anthropomorphic M&Ms dived into a chocolate filled swimming pool. This commercial is notable in that the animated M&Ms were much closer in appearance to their modern counterparts. The late Sixties and early Seventies would see a series of commercials in which someone's hands were covered in chocolate from a candy bar. In these commercials an animated Plain M&M and an animated Peanut M&M would show up and explain to them how they could avoid "chocolate mess" by eating M&Ms, which "melt in your mouth not in your hands." Among the scenarios in the commercials were one featuring a Tarzan parody, another featuring a little boy and his mother, and yet another featuring gamblers in the Old West. What is significant about these commercials is that they featured a red Plain M&M and a yellow Peanut M&M, although their personalities were different from the modern day Red and Yellow.

In the mid-Seventies there was an ad campaign for M&Ms featuring a character called "the M&Ms Man" with a jingle set to the tune of "The Candy Man" from the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. At least one of these commercials featured an animated version of the M&Ms Man along with animated, anthropomorphic M&Ms. Starting around 1983 there would be a series of commercials featuring the slogan "All the world loves M&Ms" alongside animated, anthropomorphic M&Ms. Given red M&Ms were not being made during this period, the commercials featured M&Ms characters in other colours (for instance, a 1987 commercial featured a brown and green M&M).

The early Nineties saw more commercials featuring M&Ms characters, such as a 1993 commercial featuring anthropomorphic M&Ms at "M&Ms Chocolate Camp". Significantly the lead characters were Red and Yellow M&Ms. It was in 1995 that the modern day, computer generated M&Ms characters were introduced. The initial characters were sarcastic and cynical Red (a Plain M&M) and gullible, naive Yellow (a Peanut M&M). Jon Lovitz and John Goodman initially voiced Red and Yellow respectively, later to be replaced by Billy West and J.K. Simmons. Later in 1995 they were joined by cool guy Blue (an almond M&M), who was voiced by Phil Hartman until his death. Robb Pruitt then took over voicing Blue.

Over the years Red and Yellow would be joined by other characters. Green, the first female M&Ms character, was introduced in 1997. She has always been voiced by Cree Summer. Orange (a Pretzel M&M) was introduced in 2010 with the introduction of Pretzel M&Ms. Ms. Brown (originally a Dark Chocolate Mint M&M) was introduced in 2012. She is voiced by Vanessa Williams. The M&Ms characters have proven very popular. Not only have they appeared in commercials for over twenty years now, but there is a good deal of merchandise featuring their likenesses and they appear on packages of M&Ms.

M&Ms proved popular with GIs during World War II. They would continue to be popular after being introduced to the public in the years following the war. They are now the best selling candy in the United States and have been for some time. It seems doubtful that their popularity will decline any time soon. They will almost certainly be around for another 75 years.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Godspeed Frank Kelly

Frank Kelly, perhaps best known for playing the irascible Father Jack on the sitcom Father Ted, died on February 28 2016 at the age of 77. The cause was a heart attack. February 18 2016 marked the 18th anniversary of the death of Father Ted star  Dermot Morgan.

Frank Kelly was born on December 18 1938 in Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland. His father was Charles E. Kelly, cartoonist and founder of the satirical magazine Dublin Opinion. He attended Blackrock College and then studied law at University College, Dublin. Despite being called the bar at King's Inns, he decided to take up acting instead.  He performed at the Eblana Theatre in Dublin, as well as working in pantomime.

Frank Kelly made his television debut in an episodes of Wandely Wagon in 1968 and appeared on the TV series Pictorial Weekly. He made his film debut in a bit part in 1969 in The Italian Job. In the late Seventies he was a regular on the show Teems of Times. From the Seventies into the Eighties he appeared on such shows as Second City Firsts, The Irish RM, and Remington Steele. He appeared in the film Taffin.

In the Nineties Frank Kelly placed his most famous role, that of Father Jack Hackett on Father Ted. Father Jack, an elderly priest who was volatile, rambunctious, prone to drink, and prone to exclaim, "Feck!", "Arse!", or "Girls!" at any given moment. Father Ted proved highly successful, becoming a cult show in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. Father Jack may well have been the show's most popular character. During the Nineties Frank Kelly also appeared on the shows Screen Two, Aristocrats, and Glenroe. He appeared in the films Hear My Song (1991), War of the Buttons (1994), Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1996), 35 Aside (1996), Soft Sand, Blue Sea (1998), and Rat (2000).

In the Naughts Frank Kelly starred on the show The Running Mate, Paddywhackery, and Emmerdale. He guest starred on Lexx, Revolver,  and Val Falvey TD.  He appeared in the films Evelyn (2002), My Name Is Yu Ming (2003), Cowboys & Angels (2003), The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005), Turning Green (2005), A Day Out with Gwyn (2005), and Waiting for Dublin (2007). In the Teens he appeared in the films Music Memories (2012), Mrs. Brown's Boys D'Movie (2014), and 69 and Dead (2015).

Quite simply Frank Kelly was a genius. When he played Father Jack he was only 57.  What is more, in real life he was soft spoken, modest, and congenial. Despite this he was entirely convincing as the positively ancient, rambunctious, outrageous, and often offensive priest. Father Jack became the most popular character on Father Ted and easily the character for which Frank Kelly was best known. Of course, Frank Kelly did much more than Father Ted. In his native Ireland he was a regular on the popular satirical show Pictorial Weekly for years. He also appeared on many other shows through the years, everything from Remington Steele to Emmerdale, always playing characters who were far from Father Ted. Frank Kelly was an amazing talent and one who will be missed.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Late Great Douglas Slocombe

Douglas Slocombe, the legendary cinematographer who shot everything from such classic Ealing comedies as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)  and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) to the first three Indiana Jones movies, died on February 22 2016 at the age of 103.

Douglas Slocombe was born  in London on February 10 1913. His father was the Paris correspondent for the Daily Herald and as a result he spent much of his childhood in France. He attended the Sorbonne in Paris where he received a degree in Mathematics. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1933 where he worked for British Universal Press. With the goal of establishing himself as a photojournalist he went to Danzig where he documented the growing anti-Semitism there. It was his photograph of a synagogue draped in a Nazi flag that caught the attention of American director Henry Kline, who hired him to shoot his documentary short "Lights Out in Europe", which portrayed the events leading up to World War II. Messrs. Kline and Slocombe were in Warsaw, Poland when the German army invaded. The two men escaped by going to Stockholm, Sweden, but were able to document much of the invasion.

It was in 1941 that Douglas Slocombe went to work for Ealing Studios. He shot the films Ships with Wings (1941), Greek Testament (1943), San Demetrio London (1943), and For Those in Peril (1944) before shooting Ealing's legendary horror portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945). Along with Dead of Night the height of Mr. Slocombe's career in the Forties may have been the highly successful Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which Sir Alec Guinness played multiple roles. He also shot such Ealing films as Painted Boats (1945), Hue and Cry (1947), It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), A Run for Your Money (1949), and Dance Hall (1950).

Douglas Slocombe began the Fifties shooting the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). In the early Fifties Mr. Slocombe filmed such movies as The Man in the White Suit (1951), Mandy (1952), The Love Lottery (1954), Lease of Life (1954), Ludwig II: Glanz und Ende eines Königs (1955), and Touch and Go (1955). When Ealing Studios closed its doors in 1955 Douglas Slocombe shot such films as Sailor Beware  (1956), The Man in the Sky (1957), Barnacle Bill (1957), Davy (1958), Circus of Horror (1960), and The Boy Who Stole a Million (1960).

The Sixties saw some of Douglas Slocombe's best known works. He shot such famous films as The Young Ones (1961), The L-Shaped Room (1962), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), and The Music Lovers (1970). He won the BAFTA for Award for Best British Cinematography (Black and White) for his work on The Servant (1963).  He also shot such films as Taste of Fear (1961), The Mark (1961), Guns at Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), Fathom (1967), and Boom (1968).

The Seventies saw Douglas Slocombe receive Oscar nominations for his work on Travels with My Aunt (1972) and Julia (1977). He won BAFTA awards for The Great Gatsby (1974)  and Julia (1977). He shot the hit films Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Rollerball (1975), as well as such films as The Return (1973), The Marseille Contract (1974), The Maids (1975), Hedda (1975), The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976), Caravans (1977), The Lady Vanishes (1979), and Nijinsky (1980).

The Eighties saw Douglas Slocombe receive an Oscar nomination for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He also shot its first two sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He also filmed The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Never Say Never Again (1983), and Lady Jane (1986).

Sadly Mr. Slocombe's eyesight had begun to fail in the Eighties. An accident in a jeep on Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia damaged his sight in his left eyes. When he was shooting Pirates of Penzance the retina in his left eye detached entirely. After Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade he retired entirely. Sadly laser surgery on his right eye following his retirement went wrong and he was left nearly blind.

There can be no doubt that Douglas Slocombe was one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. He once said, "A lot of cameramen try to evolve a technique and then apply that to everything, but I suffer from a bad memory and could never remember how I’d done something before, so I could always approach something afresh. I found I was able to change techniques on picture after picture." It was that variation in technique that made Douglas Slocombe such a great cinematographer. He was as comfortable shooing a black and white Ealing comedy set in close confines as he was shooting Jesus Christ Superstar in colour and open spaces. He was a master in the use of light and shadow, and could even simulate natural light on a closed set. In fact, eventually Douglas Slocombe became so good that he could judge light simply by using his own thumb--he didn't need a light meter. Over the years Douglas Slocombe worked on many great films, including Dead of Night; Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Lion in Winter, The Italian Job, and Raiders of the Lost Ark among many others. Much of the reason those films were so great was Douglas Slocombe's sheer talent as a cinematographer.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Late Great George Kennedy

George Kennedy, who appeared in films from Charade (1963) to The Gambler (2014), died on February 28 2016 at the age of 91.

George Harris Kennedy Jr. was born on February 18 1925 in New York City. His father, George Kennedy Sr., was a bandleader and musician. He died when young George was only 4 years old. His mother, Helen (née Kieselbach), was a ballerina. George Kennedy made his stage debut when he was extremely young, appearing at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father. He was only 7 years old when he worked in radio. Despite working in show business as a child, it would be some time before he would become an actor as an adult. Upon graduating Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, he joined the United States Army during World War II. He remained in the Army for 16 years and earned the rank of captain. He opened the first United States Army office for technical assistance for movies and TV shows.

After a back injury forced him to leave the Army he became a technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show. It was on that show that he made his television acting debut, appearing in the recurring role of Military Police Sgt. Kennedy. In the late Fifties he went on to appear on such shows as Colt. 45, The Deputy, Lawman, Laramie, Sugarfoot, Peter Gunn, and Route 66. He made his film debut in a bit part in Spartacus (1960).

The Sixties saw George Kennedy's career shift increasingly towards film. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967). He also appeared in such films as Lonely Are the Brave (1962),  Charade (1963),  McHale's Navy (1964), Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), In Harm's Way (1965), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bandolero! (1968), and Airport (1970). Mr. Kennedy still appeared frequently on television, and made guest appearances on such shows as The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Skelton Show, The Untouchables, Death Valley Days, Thriller, 77 Sunset Strip, Have Gun--Will Travel, Perry Mason, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale's Navy, Bonanza, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, and The Virginian.

In the Seventies George Kennedy was a regular on the television shows Sarge and The Blue Knight. He guest starred on  Ironside. He appeared in all three sequels to the film Airport, making him the only actor to appear in every single film in the franchise. He also appeared in such films as Fools' Parade (1971), Lost Horizon (1973), Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975), Mean Dog Blues (1978), Death on the Nile (1978), Brass Target (1978), and Death Ship (1980).

The Eighties saw George Kennedy's career slow, although he still did nearly one film a year. During the decade he appeared in such films as Just Before Dawn (1981), Wacko (1982), Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984),  Bolero (1984), Radioactive Dreams (1985), Savage Dawn (1985), The Delta Force (1986), Rigged (1986), Creepshow 2 (1987), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), Death Street USA (1988), The Terror Within (1989), and Brain Dead (1990). On television he guest starred on Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. He appeared in such TV movies as The Jesse Owens Story, and The Gunfighters. From the late Eighties into the Nineties he had a recurring role on the prime time soap opera Dallas.

In the Nineties Mr. Kennedy appeared in such films as Hangfire (1991), Driving Me Crazy (1991), Distant Justice (1992), River of Stone (1994), Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), and Bayou Ghost (1997). He provided voices for the films Cats Don't Dance (1997) and Small Soldiers (1998). On television he guest starred on the TV shows Lonesome Dove: The Series and The Commish. He provided guest voices for The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.

From the Naughts into the Teens George Kennedy appeared in the films View from the Top (2003), Three Bad Men (2005), Truce (2005), Don't Come Knocking (2005), The Man Who Came Back (2008), Six Days in Paradise (2010), Another Happy Day (2011), and The Gambler (2014). He appeared in a few episode of the soap opera The Young and the Restless. 

George Kennedy wrote two novels, Murder on Location and Murder on High, as well as his autobiography Trust Me.

There can be no doubt that George Kennedy was prolific. For much of his career he appeared in multiple films per year as well as making several guest appearances on TV shows. From 1956 when he first appeared on The Phil Silvers Show to 2014 when he made his last screen appearance in The Gambler, a year rarely went by without at least one film or TV show in which Mr. Kennedy appeared. Given how prolific he was, it should come as no surprise that he appeared in multiple genres. He appeared in war movies, Westerns, comedies, horror movies, sci-film movies, and very nearly any other genre of film one could name. He appeared in classics such as Cool Hand Luke and The Dirty Dozen as well as B movies such as Ministry of Vengeance and Demonwarp.

Of course, the reason that George Kennedy was able to make so many movies and appear in so many TV shows is that he was very talented. He was best known for playing tough guys in action movies and Westerns, but he was capable of playing other roles as well. Given his stint in the Army he could easily play military personnel, but he could also play gunslingers, millionaires, airline troubleshooters, preachers, grandfathers, and even presidents. Unlike many actors he could easily play a good guy or a bad guy. He was as adept at comedy as he was drama. While George Kennedy may be best known for his tough guy roles, he was a versatile actor who could play nearly anything he chose. What is more, even when the movies in which he appeared might not be that good, he always was.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The 88th Academy Awards

Sunday night the 88th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Ratings for this year's Oscars were at an eight year low, I suspect because many people might not have been interested in this year's Best Picture race (aside from Mad Max: Fury Road there were no real blockbusters nominated in the category). While the average television viewer might not have been interested in this year's Academy Awards,  the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found a good deal of press this year after controversy over the nominees in its acting categories being entirely white for the second year in a row. The controversy over diversity in the Academy's ranks and the nominees for awards dominated much of the press regarding the Oscars as well as the Oscars themselves.

As to the controversy over the Academy and diversity I have two thoughts. The first is that I do not think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences alone can be held responsible for a lack of diversity in its nominees. Instead I would blame the American motion picture industry at large for a lack of diversity in the movies they make. For the year 2015 I can think of a whole lot of films with white leads and I can think of  a a few films with black leads. That having been said, I can think of no films with Latino leads, East Asian leads, South Asian leads, or Native American leads. Quite simply, if Hollywood at large does not cast minorities in lead roles in major films, how is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science going to be able to nominate minorities for the acting categories?

My second thought is disappointment in how the discussion on diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unfolded both in the press and at the ceremony itself. Quite simply, it seemed to me that the discussion addressed the Academy and industry's lack of diversity only in terms of black and white. Only a very few noted that Hollywood's lack of diversity is a problem that affects all minorities. As I said above,  I can think of no films made in 2015 with Latino leads, East Asian leads, South Asian leads, or Native American leads. For that matter gay, transgendered, and disabled characters are still relatively uncommon in American films as lead characters. Indeed, I have a dear friend of Pakistani descent who expressed similar disappointment in how the discussion unfolded given she almost never sees people who look like her in American films and only a few on American television. I will admit that Hollywood does need to make strides in casting black actors in lead roles, but it also needs to make great strides in casting other minorities as well.

With regards to the Academy Awards ceremony itself, for the most part I don't have any real opinion on the winners and losers. Sadly, this past year I didn't get to see any of the movies nominated for Best Picture, not even Mad Max: Fury Road. I will admit that I was surprised that Spotlight  won the Oscar for Best Picture. Quite simply, except for The Big Short, Spotlight was the nominee I had heard the least about. While I knew it had won quite a few critics' awards, I had heard much more about Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Room. Indeed, most of my friends seemed to be favouring Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Room for Best Picture. What is more, momentum seemed to be favouring Mad Max: Fury Road  and  The Revenant going into the ceremony. I was then rather surprised that Spotlight won.

Having seen none of the nominees this year, I really did not have any opinion on the Best Actor category either. That having been said, I am glad that Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar. Having been nominated three times before for Best Actor, I almost thought he was on his way to becoming the Susan Lucci of the Oscars--always nominated, never winning. While I have not yet seen The Revenant, I have to suspect he deserved the award. I have always thought Mr. DiCaprio was a very talented actor, someone who delivers good performances even when a movie in which he stars may not be particularly good (he was easily the best thing about Titanic).

While I did not have an opinion on most of the categories this year, I do have an opinion (as always) on Best Original Song. I really was not that impressed with any of the songs nominated for Best Original Song this year. While I respect the sentiment expressed in "Til It Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground and I am a Lady Gaga fan, I find the song itself somewhat bland (I blame co-writer Diane Warren for that--she is one of my least favourite songwriters). As to the other nominees, most of them were sub-par and one was downright bad. Sadly it was the one that was downright bad that won the Oscar for Best Original Song. "Writing's on the Wall" is quite possibly the absolute worst James Bond song of all time, worse even than "Die Another Day"by Madonna. Of course, with its win for Best Original Song, "Writing on the Wall" became the worst song besides "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp" and "Lose Yourself" to ever win the award.

While I am on the subject of Best Original Song, I guess I should note that Sam Smith's acceptance speech stirred up some controversy. Quite simply, in his speech he seemed to suggest that he was the first openly gay man to ever win an Oscar. Of course, this is not the case, not even for the Best Original Song category. Howard Ashman won in the category in 1989 for "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid and again in 1991 for "Beauty and the Beast" from the movie of the same name. He was nominated several other times, the first being in 1986 for "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space" from Little Shop of Horrors. Sadly he died of complications from AIDS at age 40 in 1991. In 1991 Elton John won for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from The Lion King. I won't even go into the many other categories in which openly  gay men have won Oscars well before Sam Smith....

As to the Oscars ceremony itself, I thought Chris Rock did fairly well as the host. His opening monologue was very funny, even if I wish he had included minorities other than blacks in addressing Hollywood's lack of diversity. For much of the rest of the ceremony he was  bit uneven, with some bits being very funny and some falling flat. The one major misstep Mr. Rock made was in a bit in which the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants are portrayed as Asian American children. I personally found the joke offensive, especially given the controversy over diversity that has surrounded this year's awards. A lot of people on Twitter did as well. One can't really talk about diversity and then turn around and make light of ethnic stereotypes.

As to the presenters at this year's awards, only two really impressed me. One was Priyanka Chopra, who with Liev Schreiber presented the Oscar for Best Film Editing. It wasn't anything she particularly said, just the fact that she is Priyanka Chopra... The other was Louis C.K., who was extremely funny when he presented the Award for Best Documentary Short. It was easily the best bit of the night and if he doesn't host the Oscars one day I will be surprised.  None of the other presenters impressed me quite so much, although one offended me more than even Chris Rock's joke about the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants. Sasha Baren Cohen presented the Oscar for the films Brooklyn and Room in his guise as Ali G. Not only was he extremely offensive, but he did not even give Olivia Wilde a chance to talk. I have always thought Sasha Baren Cohen was exceedingly unfunny and often offensive as well, so I am a bit surprised they even allowed him to present anything on the Academy Awards.

As to this year's In Memoriam segment, I was once more disappointed. While I thought Dave Grohl did a very good rendition of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird", once more the Academy omitted many who died the past year from the segment. Among others they omitted Patrick Macnee (best known from TV's The Avengers, he appeared in such films as the 1951 version of Scrooge, Les Girls, and This is Spinal Tap), Coleen Gray (Red River, The Killing), Martin Milner (Sweet Smell of Success), Monica Lewis (Excuse My Dust, Earthquake), Joan Leslie (High Sierra, Sergeant York), Abe Vigoda (The Godfather), Betsy Palmer (Mister Roberts) and Geoffrey Lewis (The Culpepper Cattle Co.). Now I realise that the Academy might wish to honour those who were members and contributors to the Academy before anyone else, the fact is that most people (film buffs and the general public alike) regard the Oscars as a celebration of Hollywood and the movies. The In Memoriam segment should then be used as an opportunity to honour those who have died in the past year who have made significant contributions to the movies whether they were Academy members or not. All of the people I listed made significant contributions to film. I realise the past several years the Academy has been concerned about the length of the awards ceremony, but the In Memoriam segment is not the place to make cuts. I think I can speak for many when I say that the In Memoriam segment should be much longer and much more inclusive.

Speaking of things being cut from the Academy Awards, I also have to say that for next year they should begin once more including the honorary Oscars as part of the proper ceremony. For the past many years the honorary Oscars and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award have been awarded at a separate Governors Awards ceremony. This year Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands won honorary Oscars, while Debbie Reynolds won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. To me these should have been given out at the primary ceremony itself. First, I think it is important for the Academy to remember movie history and to honour those who have contributed to it. Second, I think I can speak for most classic film buffs when I say we would rather see Debbie Reynolds than Ali G. There is a good deal of fat that can be cut from the Oscars to make room for the honorary awards.

Regardless, I am hoping that by the next Academy Awards ceremony there will be some major changes. I hope that we will see more diversity in the casting of roles this year. I also hope that next year's In Memoriam segment will be longer and much more inclusive. Finally I hope they return the honorary Oscars to the main ceremony itself.

Monday, 29 February 2016

100 Years Ago Dinah Shore Was Born

On February 24 1994, when Dinah Shore died, my mother told me, "Your singer died." At first I worried that another Beatle or another member of The Who had died. She then confirmed that it was a blonde, female singer. With some concern I asked her if it was Doris Day. She replied that it was another one, "Dinah Shore." To say it spoiled my day would be putting it mildly. Quite simply, Dinah Shore had been part of my life for as long as I could remember. She was one of those personalities who always seemed to be on television, personalities such as Betty White and Bob Barker. And like Betty White and Bob Barker I always liked Dinah Shore. She wasn't just a very good singer, but someone who always seemed so warm and friendly as well. To me Dinah Shore seemed less like a glamorous television star than one's favourite aunt. I am sure I wasn't the only member of Generation X to feel that way.

It was 100 years ago today, on February 29 1916, that Dinah Shore was born Frances Rose Shore in Winchester, Tennessee. She started singing when she was still a little girl. She made her professional debut when she was only 14, singing as a torch singer at a nightclub in Nashville. Her parents had found out about it beforehand and while they allowed her to perform that one night, it would be a few years before she could again pursue singing professionally.

In fact, it would not be until she was attending Vanderbilt University that her singing career would really begin to take off.  While still in college she made her radio debut on WSM in Nashville. During a summer break she travelled to New York City to audition for various bands. After she graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in sociology she moved to New York City permanently. During many auditions she sang the song "Dinah". When disc jockey Martin Block of WNEW in New York City could not remember her name, he referred to her as the "Dinah girl." "Dinah' then became her stage name.

Dinah Shore's big break would come when she was hired as a singer at WNEW. She went onto sing and record with Xavier Cugat's band.  In 1939 she made her national radio debut on CBS on Ben Bernie's Orchestra. In February 1940 she became the featured singer on NBC's The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. That same year she became a regular on Eddie Cantor's radio show Time to Smile. It was in 1940 that she signed a contract with RCA Victor. That same year she had her first hit single, "Yes, My Darling."

Dinah Shore proved very popular in the Forties. She had a string of hits that lasted throughout most of the decade, including four number one records  ("I'll Walk Alone", "The Gypsy", "The Anniversary Song", and "Buttons and Bows"). The majority of her singles during the decade hit the top twenty and many even hit the top five. She also proved popular as a radio star, receiving her own show, Call to Music, in 1943, while appearing frequently on other radio shows. Miss Shore also sang for the troops at Allied bases in Europe and at Normandy.

In the Forties Dinah Shore would even have a brief film career. In most of her films she appeared as herself, vocalist Dinah Shore. This was the case with her film debut Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), as well as Follow the Boys (1944) and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). She did act in two films, playing opposite Danny Kaye in Up in Arms (1944) and Randolph Scott in Belle of the Yukon (1944).

The Fifties saw Dinah Shore continue to have hit records in the early part of the decade. Sadly by the middle of the decade her singles began doing more poorly. Like many singers of traditional American pop she ran afoul of the new music genre of rock 'n' roll. Dinah Shore's career was hardly hurting, however, as she became a star in another medium: television. She made her television debut in 1949 as a guest on The Ed Wynn Show. She would go onto make guest appearances on Texaco Star Theatre, Four Star Review, The Jack Benny Program, and The Colgate Comedy Hour. It was in 1951 that she was given her own show, The Dinah Shore Show. The show proved popular, lasting until 1957. When it ended Dinah Shore would not be gone from television screens, as she already had another show. The Dinah Shore Chevy Show debuted as a special on October 5 1956. It proved popular enough that it became a regular program. Ultimately it ran until 1963. Miss Shore continued to guest star on other shows, even appearing as herself on I Love Lucy and Make Room for Daddy.

Dinah Shore continued to appear on television throughout the Sixties, making guest appearances on a Bob Hope special, The Danny Kaye Show, What's My Line?, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffih Show, The Dean Martin Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. She also appeared in her own specials and in 1970 had her own show again. Dinah's Place was a weekday talk show that aired on NBC from 1970 to 1974. It featured guests ranging from Lucille Ball to Vincent Price to Diana Rigg. It won one Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement in Daytime and was nominated one other time. It also won a Daytime Emmy for Best Host or Hostess in a Talk, Service, or Variety Series and was nominated for another three.

NBC cancelled Dinah's Place in 1974, but Miss Shore did not remain off the air for long. In September 1974 she debuted a new talk show in syndication, Dinah!. Like Dinah's Place, Dinah!  featured many well known celebrities, including Betty White, Dick Clark, Edward Asner, and even David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Dinah! ran until 1980. In the Seventies Dinah Shore continued to make appearances on other shows, guest starring on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; The Carol Burnett Show; and Alice.In the summer of 1976 she also had a summer replacement variety show, Dinah and her New Best Friends.

Dinah Shore appeared less frequently on television in the Eighties. She guest starred on episodes of Hotel and Murder, She Wrote. She made appearances on various specials, including Bob Hope's Women I Love: Beautiful But Funny, The All-Time American Songbook, and Christmas at Pee Wee's Playhouse. Beginning in 1990 she had her own talk show again, this time on the cable channel the Nashville Network. A Conversation with Dinah aired from 1989 to 1992 and featured Dinah doing one-on-one interviews with everyone from Bob Hope to President Gerald Ford.

Dinah Shore continued work to very nearly until she died. She guest starred on the variety show Vicki! in 1993 and then appeared on the TV documentary Danny Kaye: Nobody's Fool in 1994. Sadly, in 1993 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died on  February 24 1994 at the age of 77.

There can be little wonder why Dinah Shore's career lasted 55 years. She was a remarkable vocalist. In fact, in some respects she was a little bit ahead of her time. Her singing style was both smooth and cheery, presaging such later vocalists as Doris Day and Patti Page. Miss Shore was very good at singing upbeat, happy songs, but at the same time could sing a torch song with the best of them. It is little wonder that she had a string of hits spanning from the Forties to the mid-Fifties or that her songs remain popular to this day.

Of course, Dinah Shore was more than just a singer. If it could be said of anyone, she was a personality.  She was bright, warm, sweet, and funny. Miss Shore never lost her Tennessee drawl, which indubitably endeared her to many listeners and viewers (I know it did me--she sounded like the people around here). Dinah Shore had a gift for comedy as well as singing. She did quite well in the movie Up in Arms and was often the funniest person in any comedy skit in which she appeared.. Indeed, she appeared in possibly the greatest Carol Burnett Show skit of all time, "Went with the Wind!". In the famous Gone with the Wind parody Dinah Shore played Melody, a spoof on Melanie Hamilton from the film.

It was because of her natural friendliness that Dinah Shore excelled as a talk show host. Easy going and congenial, Dinah Shore was able to put her subjects at ease and thus get them to talk much more than they might have otherwise. What is more, Dinah Shore was comfortable with almost anyone, whether it was proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop or former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Ultimately I think it can be said that Dinah Shore comforted people and even made them feel happy. Unassuming, warm, and friendly, she made listeners and viewers feel better, no matter what was going on in their lives. It is little wonder that Dinah Shore would have such a lasting influence. Her singing style presaged that of female vocalists in the Fifties. She was also a pioneer in television, one of the first women to have a highly successful variety show. What is more, her career spanned five decades. If Dinah Shore seemed as if she was a mainstay of my childhood, it was probably because she was.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Nicholas Brothers

When most people are asked who the greatest dancer in film history was, they might answer "Gene Kelly", "Fred Astaire", or "Ginger Rogers". Those who are more knowledgeable might answer with "Cyd Charisse" or "Eleanor Powell". For me the greatest dancers in the history of film will always be Fayard and Harold Nicholas, collectively known as the Nicholas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers blended tap dancing with acrobatics and even ballet to create some of the most spectacular dance routines of all time. Indeed, mere words do not do their dance routines justice. They simply have to be seen to believed.

The Nicholas Brothers' talent for performing came naturally. Their mother, Viola, was a classically trained pianist. Their father, Ulysses, was a drummer. Both had college educations. They played in bands in vaudeville, forming their own band called the Nicholas Collegians in the Twenties. It was perhaps inevitable that their children would follow them into show business. With their sister Dorothy, Fayard and Harold Nicholas formed a dance team called "the Nicholas Kids". Dorothy eventually left the act and the team became simply "the Nicholas Brothers".

The Nicholas Brothers proved to be very much in demand as a song and dance team. Their radio debut was on The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour on WCAU in Philadelphia. Afterwards they performed at such local theatres as the Standard and the Pearl. It was in 1932, when Fayard was 18 and Harold was 7, that the Nicholas Brothers made their debut at the Cotton Club in Harlem in New York City. They would perform at the Cotton Club for two years.

It was only inevitable that the Nicholas Brothers would find their way into motion pictures. In 1932 they made their film debut in the short "Pie Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake and his band. Over the next five years they would appear as a speciality act in several more films, including Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Babes in Arms (1937), and Down Argentine Way (1940). The Nicholas Brothers would also appear on Broadway. They made their debut on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. In 1937 on Broadway they appeared in Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms.

The Forties would find the Nicholas Brothers very busy. They continued to be a popular speciality act in movie musicals. They appeared in such movies as The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Orchestra Wives (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and The Pirate (1948).  They toured England, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It was in 1948 that they gave a Royal Command Performance for King George VI at the London Palladium. The Nicholas Brothers would also perform for many Presidents of the United States.

Unfortunately the Fifties would see the beginning of the end for the Hollywood musical. The Nicholas Brothers' last Hollywood film was The Pirate in 1948. In the Fifties The Nicolas Brothers appeared exclusively in films made in Europe and Mexico, including Botta e risposta (1950), El misterio del carro express (1953), El mensaje de la muerte (1953), Musik im Blut (1955), and Bonjour Kathrin (1956).

Fayard and Harold Nicholas did not simply dance on screen and stage; they taught dance as well. They taught dance at both Harvard University and Radcliffe. Among their students were Debbie Allen and Dianne Walker.

Sadly, the Twentieth Century would not be a particularly good time for a black dance team, even one with the talent of the Nicholas Brothers. Race relations at the time would not permit the Nicholas Brothers to play the leads in films, something they could have easily done. Both Fayard and Nicholas were handsome and they had very good voices. Arguably their talent at dancing surpassed even the legendary Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Had opportunities for African Americans in the Thirties and Forties been greater, it is not hard to imagine that Fayard and Harold Nicholas could have been major movie stars.

For those of you who have never seen the Nicholas Brothers in action, here is a routine from Stormy Weather. No less than Fred Astaire said of this routine that it was ""...the greatest dance number ever filmed."