Sunday, 31 December 2017

Farewell to 2017

I think I can speak for many when I say that 2017 was not the best of years, and for many reasons. As to myself, it was this past October that we had to put our old cat George down, as he was going into kidney failure and there was nothing more we could do for him. That is not to say that 2017 was all bad. With regards to myself, I published two short books this year (That Was Halloween: Essays on the Holiday and Country Comedies: The Rural Sitcoms of the Sixties). I also finally broke down and got a smart phone, although I mostly use it for posting to Instagram. One of the best things about last year is that I started reading more last year. I have always read a lot of non-fiction, but most of it the past many years has been as research for my writing. This year I started reading fiction regularly again. I read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon this year, which has been a goal of mine since childhood.

With regards to popular culture, 2017, like previous years of late, saw the deaths of several important figures in pop culture. For classic film buffs this usually would mean the passings of beloved actors from the Golden Age. That having been said, I think this it is safe to say that for most classic film buffs, at least those who are fans of Turner Classic Movies, the death that had the most impact was the passing of TCM host and film historian Robert Osbourne. Robert had been with Turner Classic Movies from the beginning and was much loved by the channel's fans. Quite simply, he was the face of the channel. Always congenial when meeting fans, he was a much loved figure among TCM fans. Even those of us who never met him thought of him as a friend or even a dear uncle. While some truly big names died in 2017, I don't think any of them saw the outpouring of grief among TCM fans that Robert's death did.

At any rate, 2017 could be a truly brutal year at times with regards to the deaths of beloved actors and actresses. The week of January 22 saw the deaths of Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Hale, Mike Connors, Sir John Hurt, Emmanuelle Riva, and yet others. It was a particularly rough week for me. Like many men my age I'd had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore since I was toddler watching her in reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I saw the entire run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as it originally aired. She was a true television pioneer. Of course, as much as it hurt to lose Mary Tyler Moore, it hurt me even more to lose Barbara Hale the following day. Like many I first took notice of Miss Hale as Perry Mason's intelligent, efficient, and beautiful secretary Della Street. It was as an adult that I learned that she had also been a bona fide movie star. Seeing her in many interviews over the years, I have to confess I was always a little bit in love with Barbara Hale. She wasn't simply beautiful, but intelligent, warm, and filled with an enthusiasm for life that shined from her. Like many fans I also mourned the loss of Sir John Hurt, who only died a few days later. A true chameleon, he played many different roles in his career and played all of them well.

Mary Tyler Moore wasn't the only veteran of The Dick Van Dyke Show to die this year. Rose Marie died only a few days ago. She was a true pioneer with a career that spanned nine decades. She began performing as a toddler and never really retired. While best known as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, as Baby Rose Marie she had been a superstar on vaudeville and radio in the Thirties. Mary Tyler Moore and Rose Marie were not the only icons from my childhood to die this year. Indeed, some of my boyhood heroes also died. Many might best remember Sir Roger Moore as James Bond, but for me he will always be Simon Templar on The Saint. In fact, he played the role so well that I honestly can't see anyone else in the role. Like many, Adam West was the first actor I ever saw as Batman. And while many have since played the character, often in movies that were more faithful to the comic books than the classic Sixties TV series, when I picture Batman in my head it is always Adam West I see. Martin Landau played another one of my childhood heroes, master of disguise Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. Of course, he was an extremely versatile actor who played many other roles as well, including Commander John Koenig on Space 1999, Leonard in North by Northwest, Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanours, and many more.

While many notable musicians died in 2017, the two that had the most impact on me were Tom Petty and Pat DiNizio. Like many people my age, Tom Petty provided much of the soundtrack for my teens and young adulthood. Pat DiNizio was the lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter for one of my all time favourite bands, The Smithereens. Of course, 2017 saw some true music legends die. An argument can be made that Chuck Berry and Fats Domino invented rock 'n' roll. Chris Cornell was the lead vocalist of one of my favourite bands of all time, Soundgarden. Malcolm Young also belonged to one of my favourite bands of all time, AC/DC. Over the course of 2017, we lost such music legends as Pete Overend Watts of Mott the Hoople, J. Geils of The J. Geils Band, George Young of The Easybeats, and singer Della Reese.

Several other celebrities who meant a good deal to me died this year: June Foray (possibly the greatest voice artist of all time), Professor Irwin Corey (comic and activist often billed as "The World's Foremost Authority"), actor Powers Boothe, Anne Jeffreys (who made many movies, but may be best known as ghost Marion Kerby on Topper), Robert Guillaume (a versatile actor best known as TV's Benson), Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.), and David Cassidy (forever Keith Partridge for many of us). The death of character actor Brent Briscoe was a bit personal for me. He was only a few years older than me and a native of Randolph County. While I did not know Brent well, I had spoken to him from time to time, and I was always happy to see him on screen. Not only was he a terrific actor, but he was a truly nice guy as well.

Ultimately 2017 saw the deaths of so many it would be difficult to summarise them all in one article. There were deaths of movie stars (Bill Paxton, Clifton James, Jeanne Moreau, and Harry Dean Stanton), television stars (Francine York, Dick Gautier, Miguel Ferrer, Lola Albright, Tim Pigott-Smith, Jay Thomas, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Richard Anderson, Bernie Casey, and John Hillerman), comedians (Bill Dana, Dick Gregory, and Don Rickles), comic book legends (Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson), and more.

With regards to television, I think 2017 saw viewers move further away from the broadcast networks, and more towards cable channels and streaming services. This year most of the new shows I watched were either on Netflix, Hulu, or some cable channel. While I continued to watch old favourites on the networks (the DC superhero shows on The CW, Superstore, and The Good Place), I didn't watch anything new on them. I don't know if my viewing habits reflect those of the average viewer, but if they do, the networks could be in trouble.

As to movies, I have to confess I saw no new movies in theatres this year. It's not that I don't want to see movies in the theatre. It is a simple case that ticket prices are such that I often cannot afford to go. For that reason I really can't address any of the new movies that came out this year. I am hoping I can actually start attending movies again regularly in 2018.

Over all I don't think 2017 was a very good year for many of us. I think I speak for many when I say that I hope 2018 will be much better.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

New Year's Movies

When it comes to Christmas Day, movie buffs have many movies to choose from, everything from inspirational films like It's a Wonderful Life (1946) to action films like Die Hard (1988). Unfortunately, when it comes to New Year's the pickings can be a bit more slim. With that in mind, here are five movies that I have always found suitable for viewing on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. Here I must stress they are in order of release, not preference.

After the Thin Man (1936): This is the first sequel to the wildly successful The Thin Man (1934). In fact, it takes place immediately after the events depicted in The Thin Man. Since The Thin Man was set during the Yuletide, After the Thin Man takes place at New Year's Eve. In fact, the movie begins with Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy) returning home to find a New Year's Eve party unfolding in their house! Like all of the "Thin Man" films After the Thin Man is a good deal of fun. What is more, it features Jimmy Stewart in an early role (and a role like no other he ever played before or since at that)!

The Apartment (1960): I tend to think of The Apartment as a Yuletide movie (my favourite, in fact), but while Christmas plays a central role in the film, it actually takes place over a month. Indeed, the climax takes place at New Year's. This makes it perfect for a New Year's Eve movie. Of course, in my humble opinion, The Apartment is suitable viewing for any time of year. It has one of the best casts ever assembled for a film, from the leads (Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray) to the supporting cast (Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, David Lewis, David White, and more). It also has an incredible script by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Billy Wilder made some truly great films, but in my humble opinion, The Apartment is his very best, movie-wise.

Ocean's 11 (1960): For me this is the New Year's movie. It's not necessarily the best New Year's movie out there (although it certainly numbers among them), but it is the one I most identify with the holiday. In fact, Ocean's 11 could not possibly take place at any other time of year. Quite simply, Ocean's 11 centres on 82nd Airborne veterans (played by members of the Rat Pack) who plot to rob five different Las Vegas casinos (Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, the Flamingo, the Riviera, the Sahara, and the Sands) on New Year's Eve. The film obviously has a great cast and it is a whole lot of fun. It even features performances by the two coolest members of the Rat Pack, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972): I am not a big fan of those all-star disaster movies of the Seventies, but The Poseidon Adventure is one of the best in the genre. The film centres on the ageing luxury liner Poseidon, which is capsized by a tsunami on New Year's Eve. Both the crew and the passengers must then find their way to safety. What lifts The Posideon Adventure above most disaster movies of the era is a solid script by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes (based on Paul Gallico's 1969 novel of the same name) and the direction of Ronald Neame.

When Harry Met Sally (1989): I will fully confess that not many films made after 1970 number among my favourites, but When Harry Met Sally is one. The film actually takes place over several years' time, but the climax is set at New Year's Eve. I cannot see how many classic film buffs cannot love this film. It owes much more to movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood than the rom-coms of the Eighties and Nineties, and it draws inspiration from films from It's a Wonderful Life to The Apartment.

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Late Great Rose Marie

Rose Marie, who achieved stardom on vaudeville and radio while still a child and later gained fame as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, died yesterday at the age of 94.

Rose Marie Mazetta was born on August 15 1923 in Manhattan, New York City. She was the daughter of vaudeville performer Frank Mazzetta, who used the stage name Frank Curley. Even as a toddler she had a fully developed voice that sounded like it belonged to an adult. She started performing when she was only three years old, using the name "Baby Rose Marie". In fact, she was only three when she made her first appearance on radio, singing on Atlantic City radio station WGP. Later in the year she made her national debut, performing on NBC.

Rose Marie made her film debut in 1929 in the Vitaphone sound short "Baby Rose Marie the Child Wonder". Starting in July of 1931 she had her own, regular radio show on New York City station WJZ. In 1932 her show went nationwide, airing on the NBC Blue network. It lasted until 1934. She appeared in several movie short subjects in the Thirties, including "Rambling 'Round Radio Row #3", "Sing, Babies, Sing!", "Rambling 'Round Radio Row #10", and "Flippen's Frolics". She also appeared in the feature film International House (1933). It was when she was 11 that she stopped being billed as "Baby Rose Marie" and started being billed simply as "Rose Marie". In the early Thirties she continued to perform live, including a national tour organised by NBC in which she sang at RKO theatres across the United States.

Rose Marie retired briefly from show business to finish high school. From March 21 1938 to February 20 1939 she had her own show on the Blue Network. Over the years she would make several appearances on Old Time Radio, including such shows as The Radio Hall of Fame, Command Performance, The Jimmy Durante Show, Club Hollywood, and The Bing Crosby Chesterfield Show. She made several appearances on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. She also sang at various nightclubs around the country. In 1946 she was a headliner at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. 

Rose Marie made her television debut in 1950 singing on an edition of Cavalcade of Stars. In the Fifties she appeared on various variety shows as a comedian, singer, or, often, both. She appeared on Toast of the Town, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Red Skelton Show, Texaco Star Theatre Starring Milton Berle, Four Star Revue, The George Jessel Show, and Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Rose Marie guest starred as an actress Gunsmoke, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, M Squad, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. She had a regular role on The Bob Cummings Show and My Sister Eileen. On Broadway she appeared in Top Banana with Phil Silvers. She appeared in the 1954 film adaption of Top Banana, as well as the movie The Big Beat (1958).

Rose Marie began the Sixties with her best known role, that of comedy writer Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Dick Van Dyke Show took time to build an audience, but when it did it proved to be one of the most successful shows of the early Sixties. Except for its first season, it ranked in the top twenty every season it was on, reaching a peak of no. 3 for the year in its third season. It won 15 Emmy Awards and was nominated for many more. Rose Marie was nominated for three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actress for her role as Sally.

Later in the decade and into the Seventies Rose Marie was a regular on The Doris Day Show. She also regularly appeared as a panellist on Hollywood Squares, appearing on both the first and last edition of the show's original incarnation. She guest starred on such shows as Occasional Wife; The Monkees; Hey, Landlord; The Virginian; My Three Sons; and My Friend Tony. She continued to appear on such variety and talk shows as The Steve Allen Playhouse, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Don Rickles Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Della. She appeared in the movies Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title (1966) and Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966).

In the Seventies Rose Marie guest starred on such shows as Adam-12, Petrocelli, Kojak, Get Christie Love Chico and the Man, Flying High, and The Love Boat. She had a recurring role on S.W.A.T. She appeared in the films Memory of Us (1974), The Man from Clover Grove (1974), and Cheaper to Keep Her (1980). 

In the Eighties Rose Marie guest starred on The Love Boat, Cagney & Lacey, Hail to the Chief, Brothers, Remington Steele, Duet, Mr. Belvedere, and Murphy Brown. She appeared in the films Lunch Wagon (1981) and Witchboard (1986). In the Nineties she was a regular on the show Hardball. She guest starred on such shows as The Man in the Family, Scorch, Herman's Head, Wings, and Caroline in the City. She was a guest voice on the animated series Freakazoid!, The Blues Brothers Animated Series, and Hey Arnold! She appeared in the films Sandman (1993) and Lost & Found (1999). She was the voice of Mrs. Bates in the 1998 remake of Psycho.

In the Naughts Rose Marie guest starred on the shows The Hughleys and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. She appeared in the Dick Van Dyke Show reunion movie The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited. She was also the voice of a secretary in the animated special The Alan Brady Show. Into the Teens she provided additional voices for The Garfield Show. This year a documentary about Rose Marie's career, Wait for Your Laugh, was released.

In the past many years Rose Marie was active on social media, where she interacted with her many fans.

There are probably very few performers who had a career as long as Rose Marie. She began performing when she was still a toddler and never retired. There should be little wonder that she would have a career that long. Rose Marie had a good singing voice, a wonderfully dry wit, and a warm personality One could help but love Rose Marie. It was something that was clear on social media. She had over 125,000 followers on Twitter. What is more, Rose Marie clearly loved her fans back.

The fact that her fans loved her and she loved her fans explains how she was so successful her entire life. Starting at age three she saw phenomenal success as Baby Rose Marie. She continued to be successful as an adult, peaking once more with her performance as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Rose Marie worked very hard to please audiences. In a 2011 interview with historian Kliph Nesteroff, Rose Marie told how she was visited backstage by Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas, who were looking to hire her for what would be The Dick Van Dyke Show. They asked, "Don't you ever bomb?" She told them, "I try not to."

Indeed, in many ways Rose Marie was a pioneer. Before Carol Burnett, even before Lucille Ball, Rose Marie was entertaining audiences. She was a star of vaudeville and radio as a child. As a young adult she played major nightclubs and continued to appear on radio. On television she played a pivotal role on one of the greatest shows ever made, The Dick Van Dyke Show. I don't think it is an overstatement to say that Sally Rogers was a pioneering character. Before Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she was a single woman working in a job usually occupied by men. What is more, her co-workers, Rob (played by Dick Van Dyke) and Buddy (played by Morey Amsterstam), treated her as an equal. And while Sally was always on the lookout for a possible husband, there was no sign that she planned to give up comedy writing after she married.

The word "legend" is often bandied about these days with regards to performers, but in the case of Rose Marie it is truly applicable. She was a legend, one whose career spanned vaudeville, radio, film, television and the stage. If she had a far longer career than most performers, it is quite simply that she was that good.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Animator Bob Givens Pases On

Bob Givens, who worked as an animator for Walt Disney, Warner Bros., UPA, and DePatie–Freleng Enterprises, among other studios, died on December 14 2017 at the age of 99. The cause was acute respiratory failure. Among other things, he redesigned Bugs Bunny before he made his official debut in the animated short "A Wild Hare" (1940).

Bob Givens was born on March 2 1918 in Hanson, Kentucky. He was a twin. To improve their father's health, the family moved to Southern California. An artist from a young age, not long after graduating from high school he got a job at Walt Disney as an animation checker and in-betweener, primarily working for Grim Natwick. Mr. Givens was one of the team that worked on the groundbreaking animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). He later attended night classes at the Chouinard Art Institute and the New York Art Students League.

From Walt Disney he moved to Leon Schlesinger Productions, the company that provided Warner Bros. with its cartoons. Bob Givens had not been with the studio long before Tex Avery asked him to redesign a rabbit character developed by director Ben Hardaway and character designer Charles Thorson, thinking the character "too cute." Mr. Givens redesigned the rabbit to something much closer to the modern day Bugs Bunny. Bugs would make his debut in "A Wild Hare" in 1940 and later would be further refined by Robert McKimson. Mr. Givens continued to work at Leon Schlesinger Productions until 1942, when he was drafted into the United States Army. His last short before military service was "The Draft Horse". During World War II he worked with fellow Leon Schlesinger Productions animator Rudolf Isling making military training films.

Following the war Bob Given went to work for Warner Bros. Cartoons (Warner Bros. having bought out Leon Schlesinger), primarily working with Robert McKimson and Chuck Jones. He remained with the studio until the mid-Fifties, afterwards working for a variety of studios. He animated the short "The Talking Dog" (1956) for Walter Lantz Productions, and then did the first of his work in television. Mr. Givens worked as a layout artist for Hanna-Barbera on Quick Draw McGraw starting in 1959. The following year he worked as a production designer on UPA's television series Mister Magoo and King Features Syndicate's new batch of "Popeye the Sailor" shorts made specifically for television. In the Sixties he worked as a layout artist on the Saturday morning cartoons The Super 6, Here Comes the Grump, and Doctor Dolittle. He was a storyboard artist on the animated series Linus! The Lion Hearted. In the Sixties he returned to Warner Bros. Cartoons where he worked on the last of the studio's output for some time and later the theatrical shorts produced by Depatie-Freleng Enterprises for Warner Bros.

In the Seventies Bob Givens worked on a variety of animated TV shows, including The Houndcats, Yogi's Gang, The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, and Heathcliff. He worked on the TV special The Cat in the Hat. He also worked on Depatie-Freleng theatrical shorts early in the decade. In the Eighties he worked on such TV shows as The Puppy's Further Adventures, Saturday Supercade, Dragon's Lair, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Ghostbusters, She-Ra: Princess of Power, and Garfiled and Friends, as well as various TV shows and specials featuring the Warner Bros. characters. He also worked on two Warner Bros. theatrical shorts.

In the Nineties Bob Givens worked on the TV shows Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, The Angry Beavers, and The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries. He also worked on the Warner Bros. animated short "Another Froggy Evening". His last work in animation was the direct-to-video feature Timber Wolf in 2001.

Bob Givens also provided animation for television commercials, including work on a long-running campaign for the insecticide Raid.

Bob Givens's career spanned over sixty years. Even if he hadn't been responsible for the redesign of Bugs Bunny that eventually made it to the screen, he would be notable as an animator. Over the years he worked on a large number of Warner Bros. shorts from the late Thirties to the Nineties. He also worked on some of the earliest television animation, including Mister Magoo, Linus! The Lion Hearted, and The Super 6. He worked for most of the major animation studios at one time or another, including Warner Bros. Cartoons, Walter Lantz Productions, UPA, and Depatie-Freleng Enterprises. He also worked with some of the biggest names in animation history: Grim Natwick, Tex Avery, Rudolf Isling, Robert McKimson, and Chuck Jones. He had enormous talent, particularly when it came to layout and character design. If Bob Givens had a long career, it was just because he was that good.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Martin Ransohoff R.I.P.

Martin Ransohoff, co-founder of Filmways and movie producer, died on December 13 2017 at the age of 90.

Martin Ransohoff was born on July 7 1927 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He went to Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut. He attended Colgate University in Hamilton Village, New York, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in history in 1948. He worked at various odd jobs before getting a job at Caravel Films in 1950 where he worked as a salesman, writer, and producer.

In 1952 he co-founded Filmways with Edwin Kasper. Mr. Kasper would leave the company after five years. Initially Filmways produced commercials before moving into television show production in 1959 with 21 Beacon Street. In 1961 the company produced their first hit show, Mister Ed. Filmways would go onto produce some of the most successful shows of the Sixties, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Addams Family, and Green Acres. In 1962 Martin Ransohoff entered film production, producing films for both MGM and Filmways (whose films were distributed by MGM) and later Columbia and Paramount. In the Sixties Mr. Ransohoff produced such films as Boys' Night Out (1962), The Wheeler Dealers (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Castle Keep (1969), and Catch-22 (1970).

It was in 1972 that Martin Ransohoff left Filmways. He continued to produce movies throughout the Seventies, including Fuzz (1972), Save the Tiger (1973), Silver Streak (1976), Nightwing (1979), and A Change of Seasons (1980).  In the Eighties Mr. Ransohoff produced such films as American Pop (1981), Hanky Panky (1982), Class (1983), Jagged Edge (1985), The Big Town (1987), Switching Channels (1988), Physical Evidence (1989), and Welcome Home (1989).  In the Nineties he produced the films Guilty as Sin (1993) and Turbulence (1997).

As both the head of a television production company and as a movie producer Martin Ransohoff was in many ways brilliant. It is notable that while president of Filmways, the company produced some of the most successful shows of all time. In fact, episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies still rank among the highest rated television programmes in the United States. It was after Mr. Ransohoff left Filmways that the company's fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse. As a movie producer Mr. Ransohoff also saw a good deal of success, producing such films as Boys Night Out, The Americanization of Emily, Ice Station Zebra, Catch-22, and Jagged Edge. Even when one of Martin Ransohoff's films did not initially see success, such as The Loved One and The Fearless Vampire Killers, they might later develop cult followings. Martin Ransohoff certainly had a knack for knowing what audiences wanted to see.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour

It was fifty years ago tonight that The Beatles' television special Magical Mystery Tour premiered on BBC1. The special was given a prime spot at 8:35 PM on Boxing Day. The Beatles were fresh from their success with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had just been released that June. Sadly, while Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band received dozens of accolades, Magical Mystery Tour would leave viewers baffled and television critics incensed.

The origins of the television special go back to a song Paul McCartney had written in early 1967 titled "Magical Mystery Tour". The song had been planned for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but ultimately Paul McCartney decided it did not quite fit the album and as a result "Magical Mystery Tour" was not included on it. It was when The Beatles were discussing how to proceed following the death of their manager Brian Epstein that Paul McCartney came up with the idea for the film Magical Mystery Tour.

Paul McCartney got the idea from essentially two sources. In the Sixties tours by bus to various English seaside towns were quite popular (such as ones taken from Liverpool to see the Blackpool Illuminations every autumn). Many of these bus tours were "mystery tours", whereby people on the tour did not know their destinations until they actually arrived there. The other source was Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, who toured the United States by bus in 1964. The Merry Pranksters' adventures were later chronicled in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Paul McCartney's plan was simple: hire a bus, set out on a mystery tour, and film it. For that reason, Magical Mystery Tour never had a proper script, only a handwritten hodgepodge of ideas and sketches.

To this end The Beatles hired extras and chartered a bus. Shooting took place from September 11 1967 to September 25 1967. Unfortunately, the small amount of planning for Magical Mystery Tour would make shooting difficult at times. It was not long after filming began that The Beatles discovered the bus was being followed by a rather large contingent of reporters and photographers. Worse yet, the bus sometimes found itself caught in traffic jams and work stoppages were a regular occurrence.

The Beatles had meant to film some of the interior sequences at  Shepperton Film Studios, but no one had thought to book the studios. Ultimately several sequences, including the one for the song "I Am the Walrus", were shot around the airfield RAF West Malling in Kent. The climactic sequence for the song "Your Mother Should Know" was shot in an unused hangar there. The psychedelic sequence for the instrumental "Flying" was created by production assistant Dennis O'Dell, using footage from outtakes of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Mr. O'Dell had worked on the film).  Shot in black and white, the footage was colourised for its use in the television special. The sequence in which The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band perform "Death Cab for Cutie" was shot at the Raymond Revuebar in London. The sequence for "Fool on the Hill", with Paul McCartney simply singing the song, was not shot in England at all. Instead it was shot on a hill near Nice, France.

While Magical Mystery Tour took only two weeks to film, it took eleven weeks to edit. The filming had ultimately produced around ten hours worth of footage, of which only 52 minutes would be in the television special. The film was edited by Roy Benson and The Beatles at Norman's Film Productions in London. Much of the reason the editing took so long was The Beatles themselves. As Tony Bramwell (George Harrison's childhood friend, The Beatles' road manager, and later CEO of Apple Records) said, "Paul would come in and edit in the morning. Then John would come in, in the afternoon, and re-edit what Paul had edited. Then Ringo would come in..."

Magical Mystery Tour debuted on BBC1 on Boxing Day 1967. Although the special was shot in colour,  it was broadcast in black-and-white as BBC1 had not yet converted to colour. It was viewed by 15 million people, a huge audience for any programme on the BBC. Unfortunately, Magical Mystery Tour would receive a poor reception from both the audience and television critics. Reportedly the BBC's switchboards were filled with callers complaining about the special, many of who thought it was incomprehensible. If anything, the reaction of television critics was even worse than that of the average viewer. James Thomas of The Daily Express wrote, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And what a fall it was..." The Daily Mirror referred to Magical Mystery Tour as, "Rubbish!...Piffle!...Nonsense!" James Green of The Evening News wrote, "I watched it. There was precious little magic and the only mystery was how the BBC came to buy it."

The sheer vitriol British critics directed at Magical Mystery Tour would have a direct impact on how long it would be before the special would be seen in the United States. NBC, CBS, and ABC had each been negotiating to air Magical Mystery Tour for a reported $1 million. After the harsh reviews the special received in the United Kingdom, all three American networks withdrew their offers for the film. Magical Mystery Tour would be shown in colour on BBC2 on January 5 1968. Unfortunately, this would be too little, too late.

Indeed, Magical Mystery Tour would rarely be seen in the United States for the next two decades. On August 11 1968, at a fundraiser for the Liberation News Service, the Filmore East in New York City showed it twice. In 1974 New Line Cinema acquired the American distribution rights and it had a limited theatrical release. It would not be until 1987 that Magical Mystery Tour would get widespread exposure in the United States when it was syndicated to local television stations around the nation. In 1988 it would be released on VHS and Laserdisc. In 1997 it was released on DVD for the first time. Magical Mystery Tour would later be restored. The restoration aired on October 6 2012 on BBC Two and BBC HD, along with a documentary on the special. In the United States, the restoration aired on PBS as part of their series Great Performances on December 14 2012. It was also in 2012 that Magical Mystery Tour was first released on Blu-Ray and released on DVD again.

In some respects today it is easy to understand the British critics' reaction to Magical Mystery Tour in 1967. Portions of Magical Mystery Tour looks amateurish, not unlike a home movie that first year film students might have shot. The editing is sometimes choppy at best. Some sequences run too long and others don't run long enough. That having been said, what the critics missed in 1967 is that Magical Mystery Tour does have its share of assets. The musical sequences would seem to justify the special having been made at all. The "I Am the Walrus" sequence is actually better than some of The Beatles' promotional films for their songs shot by professionals. The sequence for "The Fool on the Hill", simple though it may be, also stands out.  The sequences for "Blue Jay Way" and "Your Mother Should Know" are a good deal of fun. Of course, while the television special Magical Mystery Tour might seem amateurish at times, the music The Beatles composed for the special certainly does not. "Magical Mystery Tour", "The Fool on the Hill", and "I Am the Walrus" number among their best songs. It must also be noted that The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's "Death Cab for Cutie" (best described as Elvis performing a teen tragedy) is a welcome part of the film.

Indeed, while the special Magical Mystery Tour was ill-received by both viewers and critics, the music from the special received a warm reception. An LP entitled Magical Mystery Tour was released by Capitol Records in the United States on November 27 1967.   Side one consisted of songs from the special, while side two consisted of such Beatles singles as "All You Need is Love". The album received good notices and hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. An EP entitled Magical Mystery Tour was released in the United Kingdom on December 8 1967, consisting only of songs from the special. It received good notices in the UK and topped Record Retailer's EP chart.

Historically Magical Mystery Tour has been regarded as The Beatles' first failure since the onset of Beatlemania in the United Kingdom in 1963. It was perhaps particularly noticeable given that it came on the heels of what was regarded as one of their greatest successes, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, that summer. Since its debut in 1967 Magical Mystery Tour has been re-evaluated. While there are very few who  would consider Magical Mystery Tour a masterpiece even today, it is not considered the catastrophe that it was in 1967. Indeed, as pointed out above, the musical sequences in the special may well have made the whole thing worthwhile.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Merry Christmas 2017

If you are a regular reader of A Shroud of Thoughts, then you know that I celebrate certain holidays by posting classic pinups. This Yuletide is no different, so without further ado here are this year's pinups.

First up is English actress Shirley Anne Field, who is making sure to post her presents early so they reach their destinations by Christmas!

Next up is Debbie Reynolds, who has fallen in love with her snowman!

Next up is Peggy Castle and an old Santa Claus decoration!

Here is Virginia Grey and her presents under her tree!

And this present is a real doll, Arlene Dahl!

And, finally, it wouldn't be the Yuletide without Ann Miller!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

All That Tinsel in Classic Christmas Movies...

Any classic film buff who has seen the majority of classic Christmas movies from the Thirties to the Sixties soon learns one thing. Tinsel was a very popular Christmas tree decoration. For those of you who are unfamiliar with tinsel, it is a decoration, originally made of metal, meant to mimic the appearance of ice. It was first developed in Nuremberg, Germany in the 17th Century. Originally silver was used, although later other metals were utilised to make tinsel. It was in the early 20th Century that aluminium tinsel was developed, reducing the price of tinsel greatly. It was perhaps for that reason that tinsel proved popular as a Christmas tree decoration for much of the 20th Century.

Indeed, an early example of  the use of tinsel in a classic movie can be seen in Nick and Nora Charles's Christmas tree in The Thin Man (1934), which prominently features tinsel. In sharp contrast, the Christmas tree in Holiday Inn (1942) had no real tinsel.

The tree in Holiday Inn
Holiday Inn appears to have been one of the exceptions with regards to Christmas trees in holiday films of the Forties. The trees in Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1947), and especially The Bishop's Wife (1947) all had tinsel.

The tree in Christmas in Connecticut
The tree in It's a Wonderful Life
The tree in The Bishop's Wife
Tinsel continued to be popular in the Fifties. An example of this is the tree in Desk Set (1957). Not unlike the tree in The Bishop's Wife, it was absolutely drenched in tinsel.

The tree from Desk Set
While I cannot say for certain, it seems to me that the popularity of tinsel started to decline in the Sixties. At least in many of the Christmas variety specials made during the era, not to mention the various animated holiday specials, most trees did not appear to have a whole lot of tinsel.

Much of the decline in tinsel's popularity may have been due to the fact that for much of the 20th Century a good deal of tinsel was made using lead foil. As the dangers of lead poisoning became evident, lead tinsel was phased out following the Sixties. While other materials would be developed to make tinsel, the popularity of tinsel has never quite recovered from it had been in the Forties and Fifties. At the very least, I know my family never used much in the way of tinsel on our trees. Regardless, it seems to me that if one wants his or her tree to look like it came from a Christmas movie from the Forties, he or she would be wise to cover it in tinsel....

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Animated Christmas Television Specials of the Seventies

When the average American thinks of Christmas television specials, he or she will most likely think of something that was made in the Sixties. Admittedly the most successful animated holiday specials were made during that decade. Indeed, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), and Frosty the Snowman (1969) are the only animated Christmas specials to have aired annually without interruption on network television since their debut. While the Sixties produced by far the most successful animated Christmas television specials of all time, the Seventies actually produced more of them. Surprisingly, it would be towards the end of the Seventies that would see the most animated Christmas specials debut.

Perhaps fittingly, the first Christmas television special of the decade was based on a classic, namely Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol. This animated version of A Christmas Carol was directed by Richard Williams with Chuck Jones as executive producer. It premiered on ABC on December 21 1971. The 1971 animated version of A Christmas Carol is notable for utilising two actors from the classic A Christmas Carol (1951), also known as Scrooge. Quite simply, Alastair Sim provided the voice of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Michael Horden provided the voice of Marley's Ghost. It is also notable for having been subsequently released theatrically, which led to it winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for 1972. There were some in the industry who were unhappy that a short originally made for television had won an Oscar, and as a result the criteria for shorts were changed so that no short originally aired on television would qualify.

Chuck Jones would also have a hand in the second animated Christmas special to air in the Seventies. He directed A Very Merry Cricket, which was a sequel to the 1973 television special based on the popular children's book The Cricket in Times Square. It debuted on December 14 1973 on ABC.

The second animated special to air in 1973 would see some success. The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas premiered on NBC on December 17 1973. It featured a fairly big name cast, with Tom Smothers as Ted E. Bear (the bear of the title), Barbara Felton as Patti Bear, Arte Johnson as Professor Werner von Bear, and Casey Kasem as the narrator. It proved successful enough to air annually into the Eighties. A stuffed toy of Ted E. Bear would even be sold in stores in the early Eighties, and a Halloween sequel, The Great Bear Scare, aired in syndication in October 1983. 

The 1974 holiday season would see no less than three holiday animated specials debut, two of them from the studio best known for their holiday specials. The first of the three was Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, a cel animated special based on the famous letter written by a young girl named Virginia to the editor of The New York Sun in 1897.  The special was directed by Bill Melendez, best known for the many Peanuts specials, and featured Jim Backus and Louis Nye among its voice talent. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special.

The next holiday animated special to debut in 1974 was from Rankin/Bass, who had produced the classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman in the Sixties. This special would not see the success of those three. Today 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is largely forgotten. A half hour special done in cel animation, the special actually owed very little the classic poem of the same name. Instead the plot centred around a small town which finds itself boycotted by Santa after a mouse writes him a nasty letter. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas would not see the repeated airings of other Rankin/Bass specials.  It premiered on CBS on December 8 1974.

The third animated holiday special to premiere in 1974 was also from Rankin/Bass, and over the years has developed a rather large cult following. The Year Without a Santa Claus was based on the novel by Phyllis McGinley and more featured Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus (he had also voiced Santa in Rankin/Bass's 1970 special Santa Claus is Comin' to Town). The special's plot centred around a sick and disenchanted Santa, who considers calling off his usual Yuletide trip around the world. It premiered on December 10 1974 on ABC. While The Year Without a Santa Claus would not become an annual tradition the way that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman did, over the years it has proven to be one of Rankin/Bass's most popular specials, largely because of the Miser Brothers (Dick Shawn as Snow Miser and George S. Irving as Heat Miser). In 2006 NBC aired a live action remake of the special that was considerably different from the original. For the past many years it has aired on ABC Family (now Freeform), which shows it multiple times during the holiday season.

The first and only one of two animated specials to debut in 1975 is now largely forgotten. The Tiny Tree was produced DePatie-Freleng, and was part of the irregularly scheduled series Bell System Family Theatre. The special involved some rather big names. Buddy Ebsen, Paul Winchell, Allan Melvin, and Janet Waldo numbered among the cast. The songs in the special were composed by none other than Johnny Marks, the writer of the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". It premiered on NBC on December 14 1975 and ran into the Eighties, although it has not been seen much since.

The second new animated holiday special of 1975 was another Rankin/Bass production. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow was not the story of Jesus's birth, the title referring instead to a Christmas pageant put on by children in the special. it premiered on December 19 1975 on NBC, but would later find a home on CBS for several years.

The 1976 holiday season would see the debut of no less than three Rankin/Bass holiday specials. Unfortunately, all three of them were sequels to previous specials. The first was Frosty's Winter Wonderland, which debuted on December 2 1976 on ABC. Made in cel animation like the original, the plot introduced the character of Jack Frost as well as a wife for Frosty. As the title indicates, it included the song "Winter Wonderland."

Rudolph's Shiny New Year was the second to debut, on December 10 1976 on ABC. The special centred upon Rudolph seeking out the next Baby New Year before midnight on New Year's Eve. Rudolph was the only character from the original to appear in this sequel. Even more curious is the fact that, while Rudolph was portrayed as an adult reindeer at the end of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, in Rudolph's Shiny New Year he is once more portrayed as a youngster. Rudolph's Shiny New Year would not become the Yuletide tradition which the original was.

The final Rankin/Bass sequel to premiere in 1976 was The Little Drummer Boy Book II. Although not quite highly regarded as the original, it is perhaps regarded more highly than the other sequels which Rankin/Bass made. The special included characters from the original and, furthermore, the characters looked as they did in the original. Like The Little Drummer Boy, The Little Drummer Boy Book II was based on a song, in this case "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." It premiered on NBC ond December 13 1976. Sadly, it would not be repeated every year for literally years as other Rankin/Bass specials have been.

It should come as no surprise that the only  new animated special to air in 1977 was from Rankin/Bass. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey has largely been forgotten today. It was made in the stop-motion process called Animgaic for which Rankin/Bass was known. It centred around Nestor, a donkey who winds up in the stable in which Jesus is born. Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey first aired on December 3 1977 on ABC. Although now highly regarded by some Rankin/Bass fans, it did not become an annual Yuletide tradition.

The 1978 holiday season would see several new animated specials debut. It also saw the beginning of a trend that would last into the Eighties, whereby animated Christmas specials would be based on popular characters from well-established franchises. To a degree this was nothing new. The very first animated Christmas special was Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, which featured the popular star of animated theatrical shorts, Mr. Magoo. A Charlie Brown Christmas used the characters from the popular Peanuts comic strip. That having been said, starting in 1978 there was an absolute rush to create animated Christmas specials starring already established characters from various franchises, to the point that sometimes the majority of new animated holiday specials starred characters from comic strips, children's books, and so on.

In fact,the first animated special to premiere in 1978 was an example of this trend. Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper starred the popular children's book characters as they try to thwart a wolf who wants to take over Santa's workshop. The special was written and directed by animation legend Chuck Jones, and featured the voice talents of June Foray, Daws Butler, and Les Tremayne. It premiered on CBS on November 30 1978.

The second animated special to debut in 1978 also featured a well established character. The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas featured the well-known star of theatrical shorts and the opening credits of the Pink Panther movies. The special featured the Pink Panther as being homeless and wandering around a large city during the holidays. It premiered on December 7 1978 on ABC.

The third new animated special of 1978 was one of the most unique Rankin/Bass productions ever made. In December 1956 the anthology series The Alcoa Hour aired a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol entitled "The Stingiest Man in Town", featuring songs with lyrics by Janice Torre and music by Fred Spielman. Rankin/Bass made a cel-animated adaption of this episode of The Alcoa Hour, retaining the title The Stingiest Man in Town. The hour long special featured some well known voice talent, including Walter Matthau as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Theodore Bikel as Marley's Ghost, Robert Morse as a young Scrooge, Dennis Day as Scrooge's nephew Fred, and Paul Frees as the voices of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. The special premiered on ABC on December 23 1978. Despite being some of Rankin/Bass's best work, it would not become an annual tradition the way that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman did.

Nineteen seventy nine would see the trend towards using characters from established franchises in animated Christmas specials continue. As the title suggests, The Little Rascals Christmas Special used characters from the classic "Our Gang" theatrical shorts of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties. With the exception of Darla Hood (who played a mother in special), it used none of the actors who actually appeared in the "Our Gang" shorts. The Little Rascals Christmas Special premiered on NBC on December 3 1979.

Also premiering on December 3 1979 on NBC was The Berenstain Bears' Christmas Tree. Based on the popular "Berenstain Bears" children's books, the special centred on the Berenstain Bears getting their Christmas tree. The special had originated with the authors of the books, Stan and Jan Berenstain, themselves, who first pitched their idea for a holiday special in November 1978.

The next new animated special of 1979 was yet another special produced by Rankin/Bass. Titled Jack Frost, it centred on the character of Jack Frost, who had appeared previously in Frosty's Winter Wonderland and the theatrical feature film Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (which itself would later be aired regularly on television). Jack Frost gave the character centre stage. Shot in Animagic, the plot centred around Jack Frost falling in love with a mortal woman. It first aired on December 13 1979 on NBC.

The final new animated special of 1979 was A Family Circus Christmas, based on the comic strip The Family Circus. It had been preceded by another animated special based on the comic strip, A Special Valentine with the Family Circus, in 1978. It premiered on NBC on December 18 1979.

The decade of the Eighties would close with the cycle towards holiday animated specials featuring well-established characters well underway. Both of the new animated specials that debuted that year used already established characters. The first was a Rankin/Bass production, Pinocchio's Christmas. . The first television series the company had ever produced was The New Adventures of Pinocchio, so with the special Pinocchio's Christmas they were not only using a well-known character, but one they had used before. The special involved the puppet's efforts to earn money for present for Gepetto. Pinocchio's Christmas first aired on December 13 1980 on ABC.

The final new holiday special to debut in the decade used a famous fairy tale character. A Snow White Christmas had absolutely no connection to the classic Disney movie. Instead the special was something of a sequel to the original fairy tale itself. It was produced by Filmation, well-known for their Saturday morning cartoons of the Sixties and Seventies. It premiered on December 19 1980 on CBS.

None of the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies would match the classics of the Sixties (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman) in lasting popularity. In fact, perhaps the only animated holiday special of the Seventies that would have any real lasting power was Rankin/Bass's The Year Without a Santa Claus. That most of the animated holiday specials of the Seventies would not see the lasting success of the classic of the Sixties had very little to do with the quality of the specials themselves. While some of the Seventies Christmas animated specials were poorly made, there were others that stand up quite well today. This was certainly true of Richard Williams's 1971 adaption of A Christmas Carol, Rankin/Bass's A Year Without Santa Claus, and Rankin/Bass's The Stingiest Man in Town.

Instead the lack of lasting power on the part of most of the Seventies Yuletide animated specials was most likely due to other factors. Among these was the fact that in the Seventies there were just so many of them. Not only were new specials in competition with the classics from the Sixties, but also with the many other holiday specials that were debuting during any given season. By the end of the Seventies there would seem to have been an outright glut of animated holiday specials on network television, so there should be little wonder that many fell by the wayside.

Another reason that the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies did not last may have been that later in the decade the production companies and networks began to rely more on established properties than original material. Even Rankin/Bass produced sequels to their earlier specials. Sadly, the sequels generally did not match the originals in terms of quality.

Yet another factor in most of the Seventies animated Christmas specials not lasting is the fact that in the Eighties animated holiday specials began to lose favour with the networks. While the Eighties began with many being produced each year, as the decade progressed there would be fewer and fewer new animated holiday specials being made each year. To make matters worse, some of the well-established, once extremely popular, holiday specials began to fall by the wayside. Such once popular Christmas specials as Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, and Santa Claus is Comin' to town ceased airing regularly on the networks in the Eighties and the Nineties. While many of these specials would later return to the networks, many of the specials produced in the Seventies did not.

Regardless, while the most successful animated Christmas specials emerged in the Sixties, it would seem that the Seventies actually produced many more of them. And for all that many have been forgotten, there are others that are still fondly remembered to this day. Although little is heard about it today, given it success I am guessing many have fond memories of The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas. As to The Year Without a Santa Claus, it long ago became well enough established in American pop culture that most Gen Xers probably know who the Miser Brothers are. While most of the animated Christmas specials of the Seventies would not see the success of the classics from the Sixties, many of them remain fondly remembered to this day.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Christmas Movies of 1947

Arguably the Forties were the Golden Age of Christmas movies. Many of the holiday films released during the decade are now counted among the greatest ever made. Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), It's a Wonderful Life (1946) were all released during the decade. The peak of this cycle towards Christmas movies may well have been 1947. Not only were several holiday films released during that year, but among them were movies considered among the best ever made.

Indeed, a Christmas movie was in theatres even as the year began, for some the Christmas movie. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) premiered in New York City on December 21 1946. It would premiere in other cities over the coming days and on January 7 1947 it was released across the country. As odd as it might seem now, It's a Wonderful Life was not originally meant to be released during the holiday season. Originally its distributor, RKO, had planned to release it on January 30 1947. Its premiere was moved forward when Technicolor could not produce enough prints of Sinbad the Sailor, which was meant to be RKO's big holiday release.

If it seems odd that RKO had planned to release It's a Wonderful Life in late January, it certainly was not unusual with regards to movies with holiday themes to be released at other times of the year during the Forties. This was certainly the case with most of the Christmas movies released during the Forties. Only two would be released any time close to the holiday season.

Indeed, the first movie with the holidays as a backdrop would be released on January 23 1947. Of course, it wasn't a typical Christmas movie by any stretch of the imagination. Lady in the Lake starred Robert Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe, who finds himself involved in a murder investigation (as might be expected). Raymond Chandler's original novel, The Lady in the Lake, was actually set during the summer, but the setting was changed in the movie to Christmastime.

A much more traditional Christmas movie would be released only a little after Easter in 1947. Even though it is now regarded as one of the holiday movies by many, It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released on April 19 1947. It was the first film released by Allied Artists, a division formed by Monogram Pictures in order to make big budget films. Today a holiday movie released in spring might not do that well, but It Happened on Fifth Avenue actually did fairly well at the box office. It would also prove popular on television until around 1990, when for some reason it disappeared for nearly twenty years. In 2009 Turner Classic Movies started showing it and since then It Happened on Fifth Avenue has become a favourite of many.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not the only Christmas movie released in the spring of 1947. In fact, the most famous Christmas movie of 1947 (and possibly the most famous movie of all time, short of It's a Wonderful Life) was released on June 4 1947. Miracle on 34th Street often tops polls of favourite holiday movies, and is still considered among the greatest holiday movies ever made. As to why it was released on June 4, that was the doing of 20th Century Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck. He was so impressed with the film that he thought it would be better if it was released during the summer movie season, when he assumed more people would be in theatres. As it turned out, Mr. Zanuck's instincts turned out to be right. The film did well at the box office and was still playing in theatres when the holidays did roll around.

At least in the United Kingdom, yet another Christmas movie would be released in the summer. Of course, given the movie is set in Australia, technically it was set in the summer, although if it was December. The Rank Organisation formed Children's Entertainment Films to make children's movies to be shown in theatres in the United Kingdom. Among these films was Bush Christmas. The movie centres on five children's efforts to retrieve a horse belonging to one of their fathers that has been stolen. While the film was released in the summer in the UK, it was released closer to the holidays in both the United States and Australia. It was released on November 25 1947 in the U.S. and on December 19 1947 in Australia. As might be expected, it proved to be a huge success in Australia.

The remaining Christmas movies of 1947 would premiere closer to the holidays. Christmas Eve was released on Halloween of 1947, October 31. The movie is a black comedy centred on a wealthy eccentric's nephew who wants to have her declared incompetent so he can get control of her riches, but includes three other, interconnected plot lines as well. Unfortunately, Christmas Eve did not do particularly well at the box office, making only around $1 million.

The final Christmas movie of 1947 would be one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time. The Bishop's Wife premiered on December 9 1947 in New York City. It opened in Boston, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California on December 25. It went into wide released on February 16 1948. The Bishop's Wife did very well at the box office and was still being run in theatres into the Fifties. Today it is one of the films that approach It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in terms of popularity.

The cycle towards Christmas movies would continue into the early Fifties, although arguably 1947 marked its peak. With one holiday film still in theatres as the year opened and six more debuting throughout the year, 1947 saw more holiday films than most years of the cycle. What is more, some of the films released during the year (It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop's Wife) are now regarded as numbering among the greatest of holiday classics. There would never be another year that produced quite so many classic Christmas movies.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

70 Years of The Bishop's Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife (1947) numbers among the best loved Christmas movies of all time. In fact, it often tops polls of individuals' favourite holiday films, alongside such heavyweights as It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The movie just turned 70 years old this month, having premiered on December 9 1947 in New York City. Surprisingly for a film now considered a classic, The Bishop's Wife's path to the big screen was not a smooth one.

For those of you who have never seen it, The Bishop's Wife featured David Niven as a bishop, Henry Brougham, who is having trouble getting funds to build a new cathedral. In answer to a prayer for guidance, the angel Dudley (played by Cary Grant) arrives. While Henry is obsessed with getting the new cathedral funded, however, Dudley insists on helping Henry with his life in general, as well as the lives of those around him. Among these people is Henry's beautiful wife Julia (played by Loretta Young), who became quite fond of Dudley (never realising that he is an angel), as well as his old friend Professor Wutheridge (played by Monty Woolley).

The Bishop's Wife was based on the 1928 novel of the same name by Robert Nathan. Primarily known for his fantasy fiction, Robert Nathan's most famous novel was probably Portrait of Jennie, which would be adapted as the highly successful film Portrait of Jennie (1948). Reportedly Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to The Bishop's Wife for $200,000, with an eye to it being his next big film.

To adapt the novel as a screenplay, Samuel Goldwyn hired Leonardo Bercovici, who had previously wrote the screenplays for such films as Racket Busters (1938) and The Lost Moment (1947). Mr. Goldwyn was not satisfied with Mr. Bercovici's work, feeling that it lacked the whimsy of the novel. To help with the project, Samuel Goldwyn looked to director and screenwriter William Wyler, who had worked with the producer on several films, including Dodsworth (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). William Wyler turned Samuel Goldwyn down, and instead joined Frank Capra's new production company, Liberty Films. To direct The Bishop's Wife Samuel Goldwyn then brought in director William A. Seiter, who had begun his career as a stunt double and bit player at Keystone and went on to direct such films as Sons of the Desert (1933), Roberta (1935), and Room Service (1938).

Even casting The Bishop's Wife would not always go smoothly. According to news in The Hollywood Reporter at the time, David Niven was to play the angel Dudley, while Cary Grant was to play Bishop Henry Brougham. Obviously this changed. According to the biography David Niven: The Man Behind the Balloon by Michael Munn, Cary Grant decided that he was better suited for the role of the angel Dudley. David Niven was not happy that he would not be playing the bishop, but Cary Grant was the bigger star and so the two of them switched roles. The roles of Dudley and the bishop would not be the only ones that would be recast. Initially Teresa Wright, now best known for her roles in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), was cast in the title role of the bishop's wife, Julia. She remained in the role for as long as William A. Seither remained the director, which would not be long.

Quite simply, the film had only been shooting for about a week when Samuel A. Goldwyn decided he was unhappy with William A. Seiter's direction and fired him as director. At about the same time, Samuel Goldwyn then hired screenwriter and playwright Robert E. Sherwood to rework the script. Mr. Sherwood already had a sterling record as a screenwriter, having written such films as Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Rebecca, to improve the script. He had already worked with Samuel Goldwyn, having written the screenplays for such films as The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938) and Mr. Goldwyn's big hit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It was also at this time that Samuel A. Goldwyn decided that the sets for the bishop's residence had to be redone, and so the sets were entirely rebuilt. In all, both the delay in shooting and building new sets cost Samuel Goldwyn around $700,000 to $800, 000.

The delay would result in changes to the cast, with various supporting actors having to leave the production because of prior commitments. Among these was Elsa Lancaster, who played the Broughams' housekeeper, Mathilda. She was replaced by Edit Angold. Fortunately, the delay was long enough that Miss Lancaster was able to complete her other commitment and return to The Bishop's Wife to play Mathilda. The biggest change in the cast would be with regards to the leading lady. During the delay Teresa Wright learned that she was pregnant and would not be able to appear in The Bishop's Wife. She was replaced by Loretta Young, who was already one of the biggest names in the business. Of course, The Bishop's Wife would also have a new director. Henry Koster had directed such films as Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939) and It Started with Eve (1941).

Even with a new director, shooting on The Bishop's Wife would not always go smoothly. Cary Grant and Loretta Young had previously worked together on Born to Be Bad (1934) and gotten along well, but they did not always get along well on The Bishop's Wife. An example of this was one scene in which they were to be shot in profile and both actors insisted that his or her left side was his or her best side. Henry Koster eventually had to alter the scene in such away that would please both Cary Grant and Loretta Young. As to David Niven, shooting on The Bishop's Wife began not long after his wife, Primmie, had died from a fall that fractured her skull at the home of Mr. Niven's friend Tyrone Power. David Niven, then usually happy and cheerful, was then still in mourning while the film was being shot.

The film's problems would continue once it was previewed for audiences. At previews for The Bishop's Wife, audience's reactions to the movie were generally middling. Samuel Goldwyn then looked to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett as to how to improve The Bishop's Wife. The two of them identified a few scenes and that should be reworked. They spent an entire weekend writing and the sequences were reshot that Monday. Samuel Goldwyn offered them $25,000 for their work, but given California's tax code at the time, they decided they would rather not be paid at all.

The Bishop's Wife premiered in New York City on December 9 1947. It opened in Boston, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California on Christmas Day, December 25 1947. It opened across the United States on February 16 1948. Early in its run The Bishop's Wife did not do particularly well at the box office. Research showed that audiences apparently thought the film was a religious movie. To improve the box office take, then, in some markets posters and advertisements for The Bishop's Wife were changed to read Cary and The Bishop's Wife.  By adding Cary Grant's name to the title in promotional material, the box office was increased by 25% in some markets.

Ultimately, The Bishop's Wife would do fairly well at the box office, grossing $3,527,000. That having been said, I have not been able to determine if The Bishop's Wife actually made any money in its initial run as I was unable to find out what its budget was. That having been said, knowing what kind of money the delay  and building new sets cost Samuel Goldwyn (not to mention how much he paid for the novel's rights), I have to wonder if it made any money at all in its original run. Of course, The Bishop's Wife would still be shown in theatres into the Fifties, so that it probably made a tidy sum after its original run, even considering all the money that had spent to make it.

Regardless, The Bishop's Wife received generally good notices from critics. It also received several Oscar nominations, including nominations for Best Director; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and Best Picture. It won the Academy Award for Best Sound for sound director Gordon Sawyer.

The Bishop's Wife would be adapted as a radio play several times. The Screen Guild Theatre aired a radio adaption of the movie on March 1 1948 with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven reprising their roles from the film. Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film three different times, the first being on December 19 1949 and the last on March 1 1955.

It was in the mid-Sixties that The Bishop's Wife began airing regularly on local television stations. If anything broadcasts of the film would increase in the Seventies, so that by the Eighties it was something of a holiday tradition for many television stations around the United States. While counted among the major classic Yuletide movies, interestingly enough TV stations sometimes showed The Bishop's Wife at other times of year than the holidays. Even in the Eighties it was sometimes shown at such odd times as February, March, and even September!

The continued popularity of The Bishop's Wife would lead to a remake in 1996. The Preacher's Wife  was directed by Penny Marshall and was released on December 13 1996.  The film received moderately positive reviews and made $48 million at the box office.

Of course, for many no remake could ever replace the original. It would appear that the various difficulties it took to make The Bishop's Wife were well worth. Playing in theatres well after its first run, the film would later become standard holiday fare on television. It has since become regarded as one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, to the point that it is often ranked alongside It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in popularity. The Bishop's Wife may not have been a particularly easy film for Samuel Goldwyn to make, but it remains one of his best known.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A Pictorial Tribute to Audrey Totter on Her 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that Audrey Totter was born in Joliet, Illinois. Fans of films noir are familiar with Miss Totter, who appeared in some of the best known movies of the genre, usually, but not always, as a femme fatale. In the Fifties she began a career in television that continued into the Eighties.

Audrey Totter began acting while still young, appearing in various school plays while in high school. After graduating from high school she worked in radio on such soap operas as Painted Dreams, Ma Perkins, and Bright Horizon. She acted in both Chicago and New York City before moving to Los Angeles, where she signed a seven year contract with MGM. She made her film debut in Main Street After Dark in 1945.

Miss Totter's second film was Dangerous Partners (1945), in which she was the second highest billed actress. She played the singer Lili Roegan. Above is a publicity shot from the film.

Following Dangerous Partners, Audrey Totter played bit parts in various movies. She had a small, but very significant role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). It was with Lady in the Lake (1947) that she was received top billing as an actress for the first time. She played a publishing executive who hires Philip Marlowe to locate her boss's wife.

Following Lady in the Lake, Audrey Totter would appear in several more films noirs. While she was best known for her "bad girl" roles in noir, she was not a femme fatale in every single movie in which she appeared., A perfect example of this is one of her best known films noirs, High Wall (1947). She played psychiatrist Dr. Ann Lorrison. Here she is pictured with Robert Taylor.

Miss Totter also played a sympathetic role in the boxing film noir The Set-Up (1949). She played Julie, the wife of boxer Bill "Stoker" Thompson. Here she is with star Robert Ryan.

While Audrey Totter did play sympathetic roles, it must be admitted she may be best known for her bad girls. In Tension (1949), she played one of the worst of her bad girls. Miss Totter's character in the film, Claire Quimby, is as selfish and self-serving as they come.

With film noir no longer in fashion, Audrey Totter was eventually released from her contract with MGM. The movies in which she appeared in the Fifties were not of the same quality as the classic films noirs she had made. She increasingly began appearing on television. Over the years she guest starred on such shows as Four Star Playhouse, Wagon Train, The Red Skelton Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Virginian. During the 1958-1959 season she was a regular on the single season Western Cimarron City. Here she is in a photo from the set of that show, along with Hank Mann, Snub Pollard, and Matthew McCue, who played bit parts on the show.

In addition to Cimarron City, Audrey Totter had a recurring role on Dr. Kildare and was one of the leads on the sitcom Our Man Higgins. In the Seventies she was a regular on the show Medical Centre. Here she is is as head nurse Wilcox from that show. During this time she also guest starred on such shows as Hawaii Five-O and Police Story. Her last work was a guest appearance on Murder, She Wrote.

Audrey Totter died on December 12 2013, not long before her 96th birthday. She left behind a legacy of fine performances and remains one of the actresses best known in film noir. Born only a few days before Christmas, she was truly a present to movie lovers everywhere.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Miracle on 34th Street Turned 70

Of all things, this past spring saw the 70th anniversary of one of the most iconic Christmas movies. As hard as it might be to believe now, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was released on June 4 1947. Despite its holiday theme, the movie turned out to be a true summer blockbuster, doing brisk business clear into the Christmas season.

For those few of you who have never seen Miracle on 34th Street, it centres on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn) who believes he is the one and only Santa Claus. When Kris is hired as Santa Claus for Macy's department store, he creates complications for Macy's event director Doris Walker (played by Maureen O'Hara) and her neighbour, lawyer Fred Gailey (played by John Payne).

Miracle on 34th Street originated with a story by writer Valentine Davies. It was while Mr. Davies was standing in line in a department store during the holidays that he realised that Christmas had become overly commercialised. It was this thought that inspired Mr. Davies to come up with the idea that would become Miracle on 34th Street. Mr. Davies took his idea to director and screenwriter George Seaton, who then wrote a screenplay based on Mr. Davies' story, initially titled The Big Heart.

20th Century Fox was so enamoured of the script that they wanted to begin work on the film right away. One hurdle faced by the film is that real life department stores Macy's and Gimbels play a large role in its plot. In order to release the film at all, 20th Century Fox would have to get permission from both companies to use their names. The studio chose to go forward with shooting the movie without Macy's or Gimbels's permission, although it made both stores aware that it was being produced. Ultimately the two department stores would have to give their approval only after they had seen the film. This was a huge gamble for 20th Century Fox, because large parts of the film would have to be reshot if either store withheld their approval. Fortunately, both Macy's and Gimbels gave the film their blessing.

The fact that 20th Century Fox wanted to get the movie out quickly also meant disrupting its lead actress's plans. For the entirety of World War II, Maureen O'Hara had to remain in the United States, unable to return to her native land of Ireland. She was in Ireland when she got the call from 20th Century Fox to return to the United States immediately to begin work on The Big Heart. Miss O'Hara was not happy at having to cut her visit to her homeland short to shoot a movie about Santa Claus. Her anger subsided when, upon returning to the States, she read its script. She already knew the studio had a hit on its hands.

Maureen O'Hara was not only happy with the script but with the cast with whom she would be working as well: John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood. John Payne had previously appeared with Miss O'Hara in Sentimental Journey (1946). He would be playing her love interest, attorney Fred Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street. Edmund Gwenn, already a legendary English actor, would be playing Kris Kringle. Natalie Wood was a child actress on the rise, having already appeared in a few films. At the time that Miracle on 34th Street was being shot, she was also shooting The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Natalie Wood played Maureen O'Hara's character's daughter in Miracle on 34th Street.

Of course, much of the reason 20th Century Fox was in a rush to begin shooting on Miracle on 34th Street was to take advantage of shooting on location in New York City at the actual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that November. Macy's had given the studio permission to shoot during the parade with the understanding that the parade would not be delayed in order to permit shooting. Director George Seaton then shot as much as he could and as swiftly as he could at the parade.

Not only were scenes from the parade shot on location, but so too were scenes shot inside the actual Macy's store at Herald Square in New York City. Shooting was done that December inside the store at night so as not to disrupt the day to day operations of Macy's. Much of the rest of the film was also shot on location in Ne York City. In the opening scenes Kris walked down Madison Avenue. Also in the opening he looks in a store window that belonged to an actual store at 19 East 61st Street. A house at 24 Derby Road served as a house that Natalie Wood's character, Susan, had wished for. Other scenes were shot at 20th Century Fox's Stage 3 in Los Angeles, California.

The film finished shooting in March 1947. It was subsequently screened for both Macy's and Gimbels, both of who gave their approval. The film also had a new name. In the United States it would not be released as The Big Heart, but instead as Miracle on 34th Street. As to 20th Century Fox, they were impressed with the film. In fact, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was so impressed with the film that he thought it was too good to hold back for the holiday season. Thinking that more people went to the cinema in the summer, he decided that Miracle on 34th Street would be released on June 4 1947 in the United States. The British would have to wait until closer to the holiday season for the film. Retaining its original title of The Big Heart there (presumably Brits would not know where 34th Street was), it was released on December 12 there.

Of course, while Darryl F. Zanuck had faith in Miracle on 34th Street, that did not mean that 20th Century Fox didn't take precautions to hide the fact that this film released during the summer movie season was actually a Christmas movie. The trailers very artfully avoided revealing what Miracle on 34th Street was about, while still enticing movie goers to watch the film. The posters centred on Maureen O'Hara and John Payne, with no hint that Edmund Gwenn was essentially playing Santa Claus (in the posters he just looked like a kindly old man). Both the trailers and the posters are notable in that make they absolutely no reference to Christmas.

Fortunately, 20th Century Fox's shrewd publicity campaign paid off. Miracle on 34th Street, one of the quintessential Christmas films, proved to be a huge hit in the summer of 1947. In fact, it was still playing in theatres when the holiday season of 1947 rolled around. Not only was the movie a hit with audiences, but critics as well. Miracle on 34th Street received generally favourable reviews. It also did well at the Academy Awards. It won the Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Edmund Gwenn; Best Writing, Original Story for Valentine Davies; and Best Writing, Screenplay for George Seaton. It was nominated for Best Picture, as was fellow Christmas classic The Bishop's Wife, but both lost to Gentleman's Agreement.

Amazingly enough for a beloved classic that was also a smash hit upon its initial release, Miracle on 34th Street has been remade several times. The first remake was a television episode of the anthology television series The 20th Century Fox Hour. The 20th Century Fox aired abbreviated versions of films released by the studio. Its December 14 1955 was an adaption of Miracle on 34th Street with Thomas Mitchell, best known as Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life, as Kris Kringle. It would later be show under title "Meet Mr. Kringle". In 1959 there was another television adaption, with Ed Wynn playing Kris Kringle. Miracle on 34th Street was again remade as a television movie that aired in 1973. This time Sebastian Cabot, best known as Mr. French on the sitcom Family Affair, played Kris. It was in 1994 that a big budget remake of Miracle on 34th Street was released. Macy's refused to allow its name to be used in the film, with Macy's spokesman Laura Melillo stating, "We feel the original stands on its own and could not be improved upon." Macy's place in the film was taken by a fictional store called "Cole's". It was perhaps just as well that Macy's denied use of its name (or its parade for that matter), as the remake would receive dismal reviews, with but a few exceptions. For myself, I think the only redeeming things about the movie are Richard Attenborough, Baron Attenborough and Mara Wilson.

In addition to television and film remakes, Miracle on 34th Street has been adapted to other media as well.  In 1947 Lux Radio Theatre adapted the film as a radio play with the original cast. Lux Radio Theatre did another radio version in 1948, although without Natalie Wood. Screen Directors Playhouse also did two radio adaptions, with Edmund Gwenn appearing as Kris Kringle in both. In 1963 it was adapted was adapted as the Broadway musical Here's Love by Meredith Wilson.

Over seventy years since it was first released, Miracle on 34th Street continues to be one of the most popular holiday films ever made. To this day Miracle on 34th Street continues to top polls of favourite Christmas movies, at times beating even It's a Wonderful Life. Despite being remade several times, there can be no doubt that audiences will still be watching the original 70 years from now.