Saturday, 9 July 2016

Michael Cimino Passes On

Michael Cimino, director of the Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter (1978) and the notorious Heaven's Gate (1980), died on July 2 2016. A cause has yet to be determined.

There is very little known for certain about Michael Cimino's early life. He varied in the dates he gave for his birth, including February 3 1943, November 16, 1943, and even February 3 1952. Many sources give his date of birth as February 3 1939. He grew up in Long Island, New York. Michael Cimino attended Michigan State University, where he earned a degree in graphic arts. He then went to Yale where he earned  a bachelor of fine arts degree and then a graduate degree.

After graduating from Yale, Michael Cimino went into advertising. In 1965 he shot an ad for Pepsi set at Disneyland, using the then current "Pepsi Generation" slogan. He shot a rather famous ad for United Airlines with the tag line "Take Me Along" in 1967.  He also shot commercials for Eastman Kodak, Kool Cigarettes, and L’Eggs.

After several years in advertising he left to take up screenwriting. He co-wrote the science fiction classic Silent Running (1972) with Deric Washburn and Steve Bochco and the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force (1973) with John Milius. He wrote the screenplay for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), which also marked his directorial debut. He followed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with the Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter. The Deer Hunter won five Academy Awards, including Beset Picture Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (for Christopher Walken), Best Editing (for Peter Zinner), and Best Sound.

Unfortunately, Michael Cimino's next film would very nearly end his career. Heaven's Gate ran over its shooting schedule by a year and ultimately cost four times its allotted budget. Worse yet, upon its release Heaven's Gate was almost universally panned by critics and proved to be a disaster at the box office. Costing $44 million, it only took in $3.5 million.

Michael Cimino's career never quite recovered from Heaven's Gate. He only directed a few more movies in his career. Year of the Dragon (1985), The Sicilian (1987), Desperate Hours (1990), and The Sunchaser (1996) were released to negative reviews and largely indifferent audiences. His last work as a director was the segment in the portmanteau film Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007).

Following the failure of Heaven's Gate Michael Cimino's reputation never recovered. Some critics even questioned whether The Deer Hunter deserved the Oscars it won. That having been said, I think in some respects Michael Cimino may have been judged too harshly. Oh, there is no doubt that Year of the Dragon, The Sicilian, Desperate Hours, and The Sunchaser are rather poor movies, to say the least, but then I think The Deer Hunter is still a fine movie and Heaven's Gate, for all its faults, has its good points. Quite simply, Michael Cimino had a gift for visuals. Even at his absolute worst, Michael Cimino's films are beautiful to look at. And while it does not seem quite so apparent in his later films, Mr Cimino had some talent as a screenwriter. He co-wrote Silent Running and Magnum Force, and wrote Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter. All four films could be considered classics in their genres. While Michael Cimino will probably always be remembered for Heaven's Gate, it was not the sum total of his career.

Friday, 8 July 2016

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

(This blog post is part of the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini)

There is perhaps no stop motion animator and special effects wizard as well known as Ray Harryhausen. He left movie lovers a wealth of classic films whose effects are still incredible in this era of computer-generated imagery. In his early days he worked in the genre of science fiction, creating such classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), but arguably it would be his fantasy films for which he would become best known. Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), and Clash of the Titans (1981) are today regarded as classics. The first of his classic fantasy films is also regarded by many as one of his best. Arguably The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) changed the course of Ray Harryhausen's career forever.

Curiously given its status as a classic and one of Ray Harryhausen's very best films, it would take some time for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to reach the screen. In many respects Mr. Harryhausen was an auteur, more often than not developing his own projects. Among the projects he had developed was one based upon the Sinbad the Sailor stories from  The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. It was in 1949 that Ray Harryhausen wrote a two page outline entitled "Sinbad the Sailor" and made drawings of possible sequences for the film, including Sinbad fighting a dragon and a sword fight with a skeleton. While Ray Harryhausen took the project to the various studios, he could not interest anyone in the project. Unfortunately in Hollywood fantasy was out of vogue in the early Fifties.  The project remained dormant until Ray Harryhausen mentioned it to producer Charles H. Scheer, with whom he had made It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and 5 Million Years to Earth (1957). Charles H. Schneer not only took an interest in the idea, but was enthusiastic about it. 

After having shot their first few films in black and white, it was Mr. Schneer who suggested that The 7th Voyage of Sinbad be shot in colour. As hard as it may be to believe, Ray Harryhausen was initially resistant to the idea, but Charles H. Schneer convinced him with the argument that the subject really demanded colour and that shooting it in colour would help at the box office. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad then become Ray Harryhausen's first feature film ever shot in colour.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would also mark another first for Ray Harryhausen. Beginning with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Ray Harryhausen developed his own stop-motion animation technique that allowed for better interaction between live-action subjects and stop-motion animated models. This technique would remain unnamed until The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, when it was finally given the name "Dynamation" (a portmanteau of "dynamic animation"). Although it was not the first film in which Dynamation was used, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first to use the term in its promotional materials.

Not surprisingly The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would prove to be a complicated film to make. It took Ray Harryhausen 11 months to complete the stop-motion effects for the film alone. In contrast, Charles H. Schneer had decided to shoot the live action sequences in only three weeks. Much of the film was also shot in Spain. Shooting in three weeks in Spain would make the film difficult enough to make, but The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would face yet other hurdles while it was filmed. When Ray Harryhausen and cinematographer arrived in Barcelona to begin shooting, they were told by production supervisor Luis Roberts that there was no equipment to be had--no lights, no electricals. Two cameras were coming from Los Angeles. Unfortunately when the cameras arrived it turned out that they had been damaged. Fortunately a film being shot by Paramount in the area had gone into liquidation and so they were able to get everything they needed for around  £20,000. 

Over the course of the filming of the live action there would be other problems. Wilkie Cooper had to shoot using a new Kodak stock, which presented some difficulties. Indeed, it would be some time before they could see any rushes as the negatives had to be sent to Technicolor in London. Ten minutes into shooting at the Alhambra the lights failed because someone had forgotten to get fuel for the generators. When they moved to Majorica lights and other equipment were damaged when they were unloaded from a ship. With the various accidents and a very tight shooting schedule, it was not unusual for the cast and crew to shoot throughout the night. Fortunately, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was completed on time.

The score for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was composed by the legendary Bernard Hermann. Mr. Hermann was already a well established film composer at the time, having scored such films as Citizen Kane (1941), Jane Eyre (1943), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and many others. He was already on his way to becoming the composer most identified with Alfred Hitchcock, having composed the scores to The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), and Vertigo (1958). Bernard Hermann would go on to create the scores for Ray Harryhausen's films Mysterious Island (1961), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Ray Harryhausen regarded Bernard Hermann's score for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to be the best of the scores Mr. Hermann had composed for his films.

The screenplay for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was written by Ken Kolb, drawing upon groundwork laid by Ray Harryhausen. At the time Ken Kolb had worked only in television, writing episodes of such shows as Medic, Have Gun--Will Travel, and Peter Gunn. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was his first screenplay. While the film is titled the 7th Voyage of Sinbad, it actually draws little upon the story of that title in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Instead, it draws upon bits and pieces of the various Sinbad the Sailor stories. The incident with the Cyclops would appear to be drawn from an incident with a man-eating giant in "The Third Voyage of Sinbad". The encounter with the roc (the giant bird in the film) comes from "The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad". The sword duel with the skeleton does not appear to have been drawn from the Sinbad stories at all, but instead was entirely a creation of Ray Harryhausen. Ray Harryhausen would repeat the battle with a skeleton in Jason of the Argonauts, although giving that film's heroes an entire army of them to battle.

Despite its difficulties in making it to the screen, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would prove very successful upon its release on December 23 1958. The film received overwhelming positive reviews. Indeed, today it is one of the few films to be rated 100% at the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. It also proved highly successful at the box office. Made on a budget of $65,000, it made $3.2 million at the box office.

Ultimately The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would prove very influential as well. Arguably it sparked a cycle towards fantasy films that lasted into the Sixties. In the wake of the success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad there would emerge such films as Hercules (1959) and a host of other Italian sword and sandal films, The Thief of Baghdad (1961),  Jack the Giant Killer (1962), Lancelot and Guinevere (1963), and Ray Harryhausen's own Jason and the Argonauts. The film also marked a shift in Ray Harryhausen's career. He went from making primarily science fiction movies to the fantasy films for which he is best known. Had The 7th Voyage of Sinbad not been a success, it seems certain we would not have Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans, let alone The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. The film would also have a lasting impact on various directors through they years, including Sam Raimi, John Landis, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

Given its influence there should be little wonder that The 7th Voyage of Sinbad should be considered one of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Indeed, alongside Jason and the Argonauts it is considered Ray Harryhausen's crowning achievement. It is not a simple case that it features some of the most spectacular stop motion effects on film. It also benefited from a strong screenplay and good performances from its cast. The live action sequences having been shot in only three weeks and with a budget of only $65,000, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a triumph in artistry. 


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Robin Hardy Passes On

Robin Hardy, best known as the director of the classic The Wicker Man (1973), died on July 1 2016 at the age of 86.

Robin Hardy was born on October 2 1929 either in Surrey or London (sources disagree as to which one it was). He studied art in Paris before going to work for the  National Film Board of Canada. He made educational programme in the United States, some of which would air as episodes of Esso World Theatre on National Educational Television (NET), the forerunner of PBS. He returned to Britain in the late Sixties and formed a production company that made commercials and informational films with Anthony Shaffer.

The Wicker Man grew out of Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer's desire to produce a horror film. Mr. Shaffer read the novel Ritual by David Pinner, in which a devout Christian police officer investigates the ritual murder of a girl in a small, rural village. David Pinner was paid  £15,000 for the film rights to Ritual. As Mr. Shaffer set out to adapt the novel, however, he soon discovered that a faithful adaptation would not work well on screen. He then developed a plot that was only loosely based upon the novel Ritual, drawing upon the practices of pagan Celts in Julius Caesar's account of his wars in Gaul and other works on Celtic paganism. Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer decided that the pagan practices would be portrayed objectively and with as much accuracy as possible. They also wanted their film to be more literate and intellectual than most horror movies.

Starring Sir Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle and Edward Woodward as Sgt. Howie, The Wicker Man would be severely cut upon its initial release and its distribution was spotty at best. Regardless, the film developed a cult following and would eventually see much of its footage restored throughout the years. The Wicker Man is currently considered one of the greatest horror films ever made.

In 1978 Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer published a novelisation of The Wicker Man. His novel The Education of Don Juan was published in 1981. In 1986 his second film, The Fantasist, was released. The film centred on a serial killer who lured his victims by way of the telephone. He wrote the musical Winnie, which centred upon Winston Churchill. It played in London in 1988. He co-wrote Forbidden Sun (1989) with Jesse Lasky Jr. and Pat Silver. Like The Wicker Man it touched upon the subject of paganism. His novel Cowboys for Christ was published in 2006. The book centred on the Christian pop group of the title who encounter Celtic paganism in modern day Scotland. The book was a partial sequel to The Wicker Man. Robin Hardy adapted the novel as his final film, The Wicker Tree (2011).  Mr. Hardy was working on a third film that would follow up The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree, Wrath of the Gods.

For a time after the release of The Wicker Man Robin Hardy made commercials in the United States. He was also involved in the historical theme park business for a time.

It would be fair to say that The Wicker Man overshadowed nearly everything else that Robin Hardy ever did. Given its influence that should come as no surprise. Iron Maiden based a song around the film. In 2012  the National Theatre of Scotland produced the musical An Appointment with the Wicker Man, about a theatre group trying to put on a play based on the movie. The video to Radiohead's recent single "Burn the Witch" drew inspiration from The Wicker Man. Several directors have been influenced by The Wicker Man, including Edgar Wright and Ben Wheatley. The Wicker Man has been described as "the Citizen Kane of horror films". If one must be known for only one film, then The Wicker Man would be one. While much of Robin Hardy's work remains obscure, he will always be remembered for one of the greatest British films of any genre.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Godspeed Noel Neill

Noel Neill, the first woman to ever play Lois Lane in a live action film and an actress who appeared in many B-Westerns, died July 3 2016 at the age of 95.

Noel Neill was born in Minneapolis on November 25 1920. Her father was father, David Neill, was an editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Her mother, LaVere Neill was a former dancer in vaudeville. She started performing while still young. When she was only four she was enrolled in a performing arts school. She was already appearing in local stage productions by the time she was five.  By 1929 she was appearing on radio dramas on local Minneapolis radio stations. As a teenager she toured country fairs singing, dancing, and playing banjo, often with childhood friends The Andrew Sisters. As a teenager she also had a modelling career. In the late Thirties she wrote for Women's Wear Daily, but she would not be following her father into a career in journalism.

Instead, in 1938, following her graduation from high school, Miss Neill and her mother made a road trip to Los Angeles. It was not long after her arrival that she got a job singing with Bob Crosby's band at the Del Mar Racetrack. She made her film debut in an uncredited role in Mad Youth in 1940. It was in 1941 that she signed a seven year contract with Paramount Pictures. She appeared in various uncredited roles until 1942 when she received her first credited role in the "Henry Aldrich" movie Henry and Dizzy. She continued to appear in small, uncredited roles as well as in such films as Salute for Three (1943), Henry Aldrich's Little Secret (1944), Fun Time (1944), Are These Our Parents? (1944), Here Come the Waves (1944), and The Stork Club (1945).

Noel Neill moved from Paramount to Monogram, where she found herself cast in the recurring role of Betty Rogers in producer Sam Katzman's "Teen Agers". In the films Betty was a reporter for the school newspaper. She played Betty in the films Junior Prom (1946), Freddie Steps Out (1946), High School Hero (1946), Vacation Days (1947), Sarge Goes to College (1947), Smart Politics (1948), and Campus Sleuth (1948). She also appeared in other films beyond the "Teen Agers' movies. She made her debut in a Western with Over the Santa Fe Trail in 1947, playing opposite Ken Curtis. She also appeared in the sci-fi serial Brick Bradford (1947), based on the comic strip of the same name. Miss Neill appeared in such films as College Queen (1946), Glamour Girl (1948), and Are You with It? (1948).

When Sam Katzman began casting for the serial Superman, he quite naturally thought of Noel Neill for the role of Lois Lane, her reporter character in the "Teen Agers" films being quite similar. It was then in 1948 that Noel Neill became the first woman to play Lois Lane in a live-action film. She would reprise the role of Lois Lane in the sequel to Superman (1948), Superman vs. Atom Man (1950). In both films Kirk Alyn played Superman. In between Noel Neill appeared in various B-Westerns and other films, including Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), Gun Runner (1949), The Sky Dragon (1949--the last Charlie Chan film), Forgotten Women (1949), and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949). She made her television debut in an episode of The Cisco Kid.

In the Fifties she appeared in such films as Abilene Trail (1951), Whistling Hills (1951), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Montana Incident (1952), and The Lawless Rider (1954). She guest starred on The Lone Ranger, Fireside Theatre, and Racket Squad. In the meantime, in 1952, a television series, The Adventures of Superman, debuted in 1952. The series starred George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. For the second season Phyllis Coates was not available, having committed to another project. As a result Noel Neill was once more cast in the role of Lois Lane. She played the role for the remainder of the series. Sadly, the series was unable to continue following the untimely death of George Reeves.

Following The Adventures of Superman Noel Neill more or less retired from acting. She started a career in public relations and worked in the television department at United Artists. She continued to make appearances in various Superman projects, including a brief appearance as Lois Lane's mother in Superman (1978), as well as appearing in an episode of the TV show Superboy, and the movie Superman Returns (2006). She also appeared in the comedy Surge of Power (2004).  She also appeared frequently at conventions and on the lecture circuit.

Noel Neill was the first actress to play Lois Lane in a live-action film. Indeed, for many she was the quintessential Lois Lane. She played the role with a vibrancy lacking in some of the actresses who succeeded her. Miss Neill's Lois Lane was headstrong, assertive, intelligent, and hard working. It was in  many ways a progressive role at a time when most women on television were wives and mothers who did not work outside their homes. It should come as no surprise that in interviews Noel Neill said that she had been told by many young women that they had chosen to pursue a career in journalism because of her portrayal of Lois Lane. Of course, Miss Neill played other roles beyond Lois Lane. She was in the similar role of Betty Rogers in the "Teen Agers" movies, and she played many a feisty cowgirl in B-Westerns.

I never had the opportunity to meet Noel Neill, but I know people who have. All of them have said the same things about her. She was a very nice woman with a great sense of humour. She always had time for her fans, and was always ready with a smile. If Noel Neill's fans loved her, it is probably because she loved them right back. She certainly will not be forgotten.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Happy 4th of July 2016

Before anything else I would like to wish my fellow Americans a "Happy 4th of July!" As is the custom here on many holidays here at A Shroud of Thoughts I am posting a small collection of vintage Hollywood pin ups. Without further ado, then....

First up are Susan Hayward and Virginia Dale enjoying a day of summer fun!

Next up in Anne Gwynne riding an aeroplane!

Here Myrna Dell is relaxing before a 4th of July picnic.

Piper Laurie is ready for fireworks!

Marilyn Monroe warns people about the dangers of fireworks!

And last but not least, it wouldn't be the 4th of July without Ann Miller!

Happy 4th of July!

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Late Great Scotty Moore

Scotty Moore, the guitarist who played on Elvis Presley's earliest records, died on June 28 2016 at the age of 84.

Scotty Moore was born on December 27 1931 in Gadsen, Tennessee. He learned to play guitar when he was only around 8 years old. Growing up he was a fan of both jazz and country music, in particular guitarists Les Paul and Chet Atkins. He served in the United States Navy form 1948 to 1952. After his service was over he worked at a dry cleaner by day and played music at night. He played with a country band called the Starlite Wranglers, who would be recorded by Sam Phillips of Sun Records. He also did session work at Sun Records.

It was on July 5 1954 that Sam Phillips brought Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black in to record with a newly signed singer named Elvis Presley. The session proved fruitless until late into the night when the trio recorded Elvis Presley's version of "That's All Right". In the next few days they also recorded a cover of Bill Monroe's  "Blue Moon of Kentucky". "That's All Right" was released as a single, with  "Blue Moon of Kentucky" as the B-side.

Eventually Scotty Moore and Bill Black would be named The Blue Moon Boys. They were later joined by drummer D. J. Fontana. They not only recorded with Elvis, but they also toured with him throughout the country and appeared on television with him. When Elvis Presley signed with RCA Records, The Blue Moon Boys continued to perform with him. Ultimately Scotty Moore appeared on some of Elvis's most famous records, including "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Mystery Train", "Baby Let's Play House", "Heartbreak Hotel", "Hound Dog", "Jailhouse Rock", "Surrender", "Good Luck Charm",  "(You're The) Devil in Disguise", and "Bossa Nova Baby". The Blue Moon Boys also performed in four of Elvis Presley's movies (Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, and G.I. Blues).

Unfortunately while Elvis Presley became a millionaire, Scotty Moore was not making nearly as much money. In 1956 he only made a little over $8000. He also did not get along with Colonel Tom Parker, the manager who exerted nearly total control over Elvis's career. Eventually both Scotty Moore and Bill Black left The Blue Moon Boys.

While Elvis Presley was serving in the United States Army, Mr. Moore worked at Fernwood Records and, among other things, produced the hit single "Tragedy" for Thomas Wayne Perkins. After parting ways with Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore released a solo album The Guitar That Changed the World! in 1964. He played with Elvis and D. J. Fontana one last time in 1968, on the legendary television special Elvis (informally known as the Elvis Comeback Special).

In 1977 Scott Moore released a second solo album titled What's Left. In 1997 he played on the Elvis Presley tribute album All the King's Men alongside Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and others. That same year he appeared on another tribute album, Elvis: A Tribute to the King. In 2001 he backed Paul McCartney on his cover of "That's All Right".

Scotty Moore was certainly among the most influential guitarists in rock history. He took the finger picking style of guitar playing utilised by Chet Atkins and used it for rock 'n' roll. This made him rather unique among early rock guitarists. In his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, rock critic Dave Marsh even credits Scotty Moore with having invented power chords on the single "Jailhouse Rock". While arguably the power chord was in use before "Jailhouse Rock" (it can be seen in the early Fifties in recordings by Willie Johnson and Pat Hare), there can be no doubt that Scotty Moore's use of them would have a lasting influence. Scotty Moore would have an influence on such rock guitarists as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, George Harrison of The Beatles, and Jeff Beck. Quite simply, without Scotty Moore the history of rock music would be very, very different.