Saturday, October 28, 2017

Jack Benny's Halloween Episodes

The cast of The Jack Benny Show
Halloween episodes of television shows have been around since the Fifties. In fact, shows from Happy Days to Community have featured multiple Halloween episodes in their runs. Halloween episodes did not originate with television, but instead in the days of old time radio. Such radio shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Aldrich Family, The Baby Snooks Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Life of Riley, and Lum and Abner all featured Halloween episodes. Among the all-time champions when it came to Halloween episodes was Jack Benny's show (which for simplicity's sake I'll call by the name it had on television, The Jack Benny Program). The Jack Benny Program featured multiple Halloween episodes over the years. In fact, I am not certain that I have included them here (if anyone knows of any others, please let me know in comments)!

The Jack Benny Program debuted as The Canada Dry Program on May 2 1932. Over the years sponsors would come and go, so that the name would change from time to time (for example, for a while it was The Chevrolet Program and later it was The Jell-o Program Starring Jack Benny). People had been calling it  "The Jack Benny Show" informally for years, and on television it would become The Jack Benny Program. While the show would change name from time to time, its format always remained the same. It centred on Jack Benny, whose character was miserly, vain, and lacking in any talent in playing the violin despite having studied the instrument for years. Other regulars in the cast included his long suffering valet and chauffeur Rochester (played by the great Eddie Anderson), announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, and Mary Livingstone (Jack's wife on real life, her role on the show varied from episode to episode, from date to love interest).

It was as The Jell-o Show Starring Jack Benny that the show aired what could be considered its first Halloween episode. That having been said, Halloween was not at the centre of "Doc Benny's Minstrels--Romeo and Juliet". Airing on November 1 1937, the episode began with the gang discussing what they had done on Halloween. The episode then shifts to a parody of Romeo and Juliet. Although not nearly as politically incorrect as some of what appeared on radio shows in the Thirties, "Doc Benny's Minstrels--Rome and Juliet" is sadly an example of minstrelry in Old Time Radio, toned down though it may be from other possible examples from Old Time Radio. 

What most would probably consider the first true Halloween episode of The Jack Benny Program was  "Jack Throws a Halloween Party" aired on October 30 1938. The episode centred on Jack watching over Rochester's preparations for the party, with Jack consistently insisting that Rochester not make the portions of food too large. This backfires on Jack when the guests arrive and find that there is very little food. They ultimately seize the turkey Jack had been saving for Thanksgiving and cook that.

The following year saw another Halloween episode, "Masquerade Party", which aired on October 29 1939. This party turns out no better than the previous year's party. Singer Dennis Day's mother Lucretia insists on helping in the kitchen. In turn, as a joke, Mary Livingstone convinces Jack that Dennis's mother is plotting to poison him. Rochester keeps trying to spike the punch. In the end, Jack's polar bear Carmichael gets loose. 

A third Halloween episode of The Jack Benny Program aired on November 3 1940. On "Jack's Halloween Party" Jack threw yet another Halloween party. The cast wore various costumes. For example, Jack dressed as a hula girl while Mary Livingstone borrowed some of Jack's old vaudeville clothes.

The next Halloween episode would air the following year, on November 2 1941. "Halloween Celebration" would not see Jack and the gang holding a party, but instead would seem them going out to play Halloween pranks. Unfortunately for Jack, he makes the mistake of breaking one of the windows in the house of the episode's big name guest star, Basil Rathbone.

The Jack Benny Program would not have a Halloween episode in 1942. The November 31 1943 episode, "Just Before Air Time" acknowledges that it is Halloween, but much of the episode is centred on Rochester coming to the show with his niece Butterfly (played by Butterfly McQueen) and Jack being interviewed by  International News Service reported Ed Goetz (played by Frank Nelson) about a trip he is supposed to be taking overseas.

The next few years would see no Halloween episodes on The Jack Benny Program, but one of the all time classics would air on November 2 1947. "Dark Passage" was a parody of the classic film noir of the same name. Don Wilson's introduction acknowledged that Halloween was that past Friday.

On October 31 1948 another one of the all time classic Halloween episodes of The Jack Benny Program aired.  "Jack Goes Trick or Treating with the Beavers" involved Jack going trick or treating with the Beverly Hills Beavers (a group similar to the Boy Scouts). The Beavers visited the homes of Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day, bandleader Phil Harris, and Don Wilson. Here it must be pointed out that "Jack Goes Trick or Treating with the Beavers" is one of the earliest references to trick-or-treating in popular culture. Trick-or-treating emerged in western Canada in the Twenties and spread from the western United States to the East Coast in the Thirties. It was in the mid to late Forties that the new custom was finally acknowledged by many radio shows.

The Jack Benny Program would go another few years without a Halloween episode. Part of the October 28 1951 episode, "Jack Loses His Song", involved Jack going to a Halloween party held by Mr. Kitzel (played by Artie Auerbach). Mr. Kitzel cannot afford to go trick-or-treating in Beverly Hills, as it turns out his trick-or-treating haul from last year actually put him in a higher tax bracket!

The final Halloween episode of The Jack Benny Program aired on October 31 1954, although it wasn't so much a Halloween episode as a post-Halloween episode. "The Sportsmen Are Fired" was a remake of the November 3 1946 episode "Jack Tries to Break His Contract with the Sportsmen Quartet". "The Sportsmen Are Fired" begin with Jack and Rochester cleaning up after Halloween. Among other things, pranksters moved Jack's bathtub to his porch and moved his porch to Pasadena. Pranksters also stole the wheels to Dennis's bicycle, which is why he is late to work. Ultimately, the episode centres on Jack wanting to fire the Sportsmen (the singing group on the show).

The radio version of The Jack Benny Program ended its run in 1955. It was in 1950 that the television version began its run as a regularly scheduled program. Strangely enough given the number of Halloween episodes done on the radio show, the television show never featured an episode centred on the holiday. One can only guess that much of went on in the Halloween episodes of the radio show (such as Jack's polar bear Carmichael getting loose) would have been difficult to execute on television.

Regardless, the Halloween episodes of Jack Benny's radio shows would be among the best the show had to offer. They gave the cast a chance to interact in situations and settings that they would not usually have been in.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Mad Monster Party? (1967)

For many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers Mad Monster Party? (1967) was a Halloween tradition growing up. In fact, many people are convinced that it was Rankin/Bass Productions' contribution of  to Halloween television specials. In truth, it was not one of Rankin/Bass's many holiday specials. In fact, it was a feature film released to theatres. What is more, the movie is not even set at Halloween. Mad Monster Party? became a Halloween tradition largely because of the independent television stations that flourished in the Seventies and Eighties.

It was in 1965 that Videocraft International, the company owned and operated by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass (and later renamed Rankin/Bass Productions), signed a three movie deal with Joseph E. Levine and his company Embassy Pictures. The first two films in the deal were Willy McBean and his Magic Machine (1965) and The Daydreamer (1966).  The third was Mad Monster Party?. In many respects it made sense for Rankin/Bass to make a movie based around classic monsters. In 1957 many of the classic Universal monster movies were syndicated to television stations as part of Screen Gems' Shock! package. More Universal monster movies would be syndicated to television in Screen Gems' Son of Shock package the following year. The end result was that the classic Universal monsters would enjoy renewed popularity. Indeed, the Shock! and Son of Shock syndication packages sparked a monster fad that peaked around 1962-1963, and persisted well into the Seventies. Quite simply, anything dealing with monsters sold in the Sixties and sold well. In many respects, then, Mad Monster Party! made a whole lot of sense as a project.

The initial script for Mad Monster Party? emerged from meetings between writer Len Korobkin and producers Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. Harvey Kurtzman, who wrote and edited Mad in its earliest days while at E.C. Comics, was brought into rewrite the script, adding various one-liners. Because Joseph E. Levine wanted to make the movie slightly longer, Len Korobkin later had to add two scenes. Contrary to popular belief, science fiction and horror superfan Forrest Ackerman never worked on Mad Monster Party?.

Harvey Kurtzman would not be the only veteran of Mad to work on Mad Monster Party?. The characters were designed by none other than artist Jack Davis, who was among the first artists to work on Mad. It would be veterans of earlier Rankin/Bass TV specials and films who would be responsible for much of the rest of Mad Monster Party?. The film was shot using Rankin/Bass's stop-motion process called Animagic. The chief Animagic technician on the film was Tadahito Mochinaga, who had earlier served as the animation supervisor on the classic television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as well as Rankin/Bass's previous films Willy McBean and his Magic Machine and The Daydreamer. The score was written by Videocraft's music director Maury Laws, who had previously scored The Daydreamer and Rankin/Bass's Saturday morning cartoon King Kong. He would go onto work on such Rankin/Bass productions as Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and The Hobbit. The songs were written by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. Mad Monster Party? was directed by none other than Jules Bass himself. He had also directed their previous feature film The Daydreamer.

As to Mad Monster Party? itself, the film centred on mad scientist Baron Boris von Frankenstein, who as head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters calls its membership to his island to announce his latest discovery, as well as his retirement. Unfortunately, for the various monsters, Frankenstein's chosen replacement is his nephew Felix Flanken, a sweet-natured but clumsy pharmacist.

The monsters in Mad Monster Party? are largely parodies from classic literature and the classic monster movies. This presented Videocraft International with a bit of a problem, as they did not want to pay for the rights for those monsters still protected by copyright. As a result some of the monsters have different names from those with which people are familiar. The Bride of Frankenstein is "the Monster's Mate". The Creature from the Black Lagoon is simply "The Creature". The Wolfman is "the Werewolf". King Kong is simply referred to as "It". Of course, many of the classic monsters were in public domain by 1967, and so they are called by their familiar names: Dracula; Frankenstein's Monster; the Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Invisible Man; and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Throughout the movie the Monster's Mate refers to the Monster as "Fang". This is an in-joke. The Monster's Mate is made to look like Phyllis Diller and was voiced by her as well. Miss Diller often referred to her husband as "Fang" in her comedy routines.

In addition to appearances from various classic monsters, Mad Monster Party? also featured parodies of both classic movie stars and current celebrities. Baron von Frankenstein looks like Boris Karloff and was voiced by him. Frankenstein's nephew, Felix Flankin, sounds like Jimmy Stewart. Frankenstein's zombie butler Yetch looks like and sounds like Peter Lorre. The Invisible Man sounds like Sydney Greenstreet. These celebrity impersonations came courtesy of legendary voice actor Allen Swift, now best known as the voice of Simon Barsinister on Underdog. Allen Swift (credited as Alan Swift) voiced every single monster except for the Monster's Mate,  and voiced Frankenstein's nephew Felix Flankin and any incidental characters as well.

It was because of Allen Swift's incredible voice that Mad Monster Party? actually had a very small voice cast. As mentioned earlier, Boris Karloff voiced Baron Boris Von Frankenstein and Phyllis Diller voiced the Monster's Mate. Frankenstein's beautiful assistant Francesca was voiced by singer Gale Garnett, perhaps best known for the 1964 hit  "We'll Sing in the Sunshine". Even though nearly twenty characters appear in Mad Monster Party?, its cast only consisted of four people.

One mystery surrounding Mad Monster Party? is its exact title. In its opening credits the title is given as "Mad Monster Party?". In some of the promotional materials, including posters from 1967, it is given as "Mad Monster Party" without the question mark. Given that there appears to have been no consistency with regards to the title even in 1967, perhaps one should simply assume both are correct. As to the famous posters for Mad Monster Party?, the art was provided by Frank Frazetta. Now best known for his fantasy artwork, Mr Frazetta also did many movie posters, often in the more comical style of such artists as, well, Jack Davis. 

Sadly, given the amount of work that went into Mad Monster Party?, the film apparently did not meet Joseph E. Levine's expectations. He then limited its theatrical release. This is perhaps the reason it is hard to determine the film's exact release date, at least going by various online sources. Rotten Tomatoes and several other sites give its release date as January 1 1967. This seems somewhat unlikely, as "January 1" is often given as a release date when web sites are not exactly sure when a film was released. IMDB and yet other sites give the film's release date as March 8 1967 in New York City, giving no sources for the information. This also seems questionable given the date of The New York Times' review of Mad Monster Party? was March 8 1969. It seems possible that someone, knowing that the film was released in 1967 simply took the date of The New York Times review and moved it to the year that Mad Monster Party? was released. For the film to have been released on March 8 1967 and then reviewed in The New York Times on March 8 1969 would seem to be a rather big coincidence.

That having been said, it is clear that Mad Monster Party? was released in 1967. Rankin/Bass's sources give the film's year of release as 1967. Dell's comic book adaptation of the film has a cover date of September 1967. If this was not enough, Danny Miller in a reminiscence of October 31 1967 on his blog Jew Eat Yet makes reference to a movie he had seen the weekend before Halloween, Mad Monster Party?.  Between the cover date of the comic book and Mr. Miller's reminiscences, it seems possible that Mad Monster Party? received a very limited theatrical release in the autumn of 1967.

Not only would Mad Monster Party? have an extremely limited theatrical release, but its soundtrack album would not be released for years. It was planned for the soundtrack album to be released in 1967 by RCA Victor about the same time as the film . The movie's credits even state that the soundtrack album is available through RCA Victor. Sadly, the soundtrack was not released in 1967 and would not be released until August 1998 by Retrograde Records.

Fortunately, Mad Monster Party? would have a second life on the children's matinee circuit. Beginning in 1968, Mad Monster Party? was shown at children's matinees. It was at this point that the film became linked to Halloween, as many theatres in 1968 booked the movie for children's matinees around the holiday. Mad Monster Party? would further be saved by New York Times critic Howard Thompson, who discovered it at a children's matinee. His March 8 1969 review of Mad Monster Party? is absolutely glowing. He closed his review with "As directed by Jules Bass and produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. with some gifted technicians, this party should make everybody chuckle, the tots and their escorts, and even the monsters at heart."

By 1969 it was becoming clear that a good many people disagreed with Joseph E. Levine's assessment of Mad Monster Party?. More and more theatres booked Mad Monster Party? for children's matinees, particularly at Halloween. It was in 1970 that Mad Monster Party? was released to independent television stations. It was at this point that the film firmly became a Halloween tradition. Many television stations showed it each year around or on Halloween, leading many to believe that it was simply another Rankin/Bass holiday special, not the feature film originally released to theatres that it originally was.

Sadly, for years Mad Monster Party? would not be seen as it was upon its original release. The original 35mm print of the film had suffered water damage, and as a result all video releases were from an inferior 16mm print. Fortunately, a pristine 35mm print was discovered by Sony Pictures Television. This print was digitally remastered and would provide the source for DVD releases since 2009.

Mad Monster Party? would ultimately prove to be a significant film. It would be the last project associated with Frankenstein that Boris Karloff worked on. He died February 2 1969.  Its popularity on television would lead to a prequel of sorts, Mad, Mad, Mad, Monsters. Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters was a cel animated, television film that ran slightly over an hour. It aired on September 23 1972 as part of the TV series The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie.

 Mad Monster Party? would also have a lasting influence. Its impact on director Tim Burton can be seen in his films Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which he produced, but did not direct), and Corpse Bride. It would also have impact on director Henry Selick, who not only directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, but also Coraline. The film would also have an influence on several other films, including Pixar's Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University, and Sony Pictures Animation's Hotel Transylvania,

Mad Monster Party? has maintained a cult following to this day. Its appeal goes well beyond its comic portrayal of classic monsters. There can be little doubt that much of its appeal for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is that it is a product of Rankin/Bass. Its stop-motion animation is familiar from several classic television specials, and it features several likeable songs. At the same time, however, it is unlike anything else produced by Rankin/Bass. With the possible exceptions of Felix, Francesca, and a few others, the characters look nothing like most one would find in a Rankin/Bass holiday special. Indeed, as might be expected, they look like Jack Davis artwork come to life. Mad Monster Party? also differs from other Rankin/Bass products in another respect. Namely, the movie appears to have been made to appeal to a adults as well as children. Throughout the film are pop culture references, jokes, and even a few situations that probably went over kids' heads even in 1967. The movie's end is even a reference to a now classic film that had only been released eight years before. It is a movie that mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, a movie meant to appeal to adults as much to children. While Mad Monster Party? would become a Halloween tradition for many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in their childhood, it probably remains a favourite for so many because it is simply a good, fun film.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo

I am still feeling under the weather and I have not yet finished research on a planned blog post (the wait will be worth it--I promise), so tonight I will leave you with a song befitting the holiday, "Dead Man's Party" by Oingo Boingo.

"Dead Man's Party" was written Danny Elfman and appeared on Oingo Boingo's album of the same name. It was released as the second single from the album. Given how famous the song has become, it might come as a surprise that it did not chart.

The song itself centres on an individual who has just died and is attending "...a party where no one's alive." "Dead Man's Party" takes inspiration from the more macabre side of popular culture. The line "Walkin' with a dead man over my shoulder" would seem to come from the phrase, "Dead man walking", once used in American prisons for those condemned to death. The line "I was struck by lighting/Walkin' down the street" brings to mind Universal's classic horror movie Frankenstein (1931). The line "I hear the chauffeur comin' to the door/Says there's room for maybe just one more" goes all the way back to E. F. Benson's 1906 short story "The Bus-Conductor", which centred on a distubing conversation an individual has with a hearse driver. The story originated the phrase "room for one more", which would appear in numerous urban legends over the years and would provide the inspiration for the Twilight Zone episode "Twenty Two".

Without further ado, here is "Dead Man's Party".

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Making of That Was Halloween: Essays on the Holiday

I have to confess I have never cared too much for writing about my own writing. To me it has always seemed a bit self-absorbed to write about the process I go through writing any given work. That having been said, today I feel under the weather and the research for what would be my next blog post is not quit done yet. At the same time I do have a new book that I would like to promote. It was on September 24 of this year that I published the book Halloween: Essays on the Holiday. As the title suggests, it is filled with essays on Halloween, including its origins and its place in popular culture.

As to how I thought of putting out a small book on Halloween, I have to confess it emerged largely due to economic necessity. Quite simply, in August my royalties tanked. This is nothing unusual, as I see a drop in my royalties late every year. It does make sense to me, as people are having to spend money on "back to school" goods for their children, not to mention presents for the winter holidays. Anyway, it occurred to me that I could create a book that might actually sell from the late summer into the autumn. Quite simply, I had already written a few blog posts centred on Halloween. I could then simply write more essays and I would have a short book on the holiday. While my other books might not sell in September and October, a book on Halloween might. Halloween has always been my second favourite holiday after the Yuletide, and I enjoy it even to this day.

Of course, putting out a book in less than a month, even a short book, would not prove easy. It did not prove easy even reworking some of my earlier blog posts on Halloween. It was not a simple case of having to produce a good deal of new material for the book (including a long essay on the origins of Halloween). I had to produce a good deal of material during what for me is often the busiest month of the year. September has always been the start of the fall television season, so I usually have a good number of TV show anniversary posts to write for this blog during the month. This year was no different. Worse yet, the second weekend of September is when our county holds its fall fair, during which the historical society's museum is open. As historical society president I often find myself at the museum for the three days of the fair. For a good part of September, then, I spent several hours writing each day while trying to keep up with everything else. Of course, once I was through writing I had to proofread the manuscript, which is much worse than writing. I enjoy writing. I don't enjoy proofreading.

As to the title, I had a bit of trouble with that. Early on I simply referred to it as "The Halloween Book", but I knew that would be much too generic a title. I finally settled on That Was Halloween, which I drew from the song "This is Halloween" from the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

In the end I am happy with That Was a Halloween. I think it turned out well over all. I will probably write more on the holiday of Halloween in this blog, and those blog posts will probably find their way in later editions of That Was Halloween. While I definitely want it to sell well, in the end I am just happy to have written it.

That Was Halloween: Essays on the Holiday is available through Amazon and other book sellers.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jack o' Lanterns

The jack o' lantern is one of the many symbols associated with Halloween. What is more, unlike ghosts, witches, black cats, and so on, it would seem to be exclusively associated with that holiday. Precisely how pumpkins carved with faces became linked to Halloween is unclear. Many books and web sites have detailed explanations of how jack o' lanterns became part of the celebration of Halloween, but most of these books and websites provide very little in the way of documentation for these explanations. Regardless, the jack o' lantern would be firmly associated with Halloween by the 19th Century.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase "jack o' lantern" originated in the 17th Century. It was in 1663 that the phrase "Jack with the lantern" first appeared in print. Its original meaning was that of "a man carrying a lantern; a night watchman." In a few years "Jack with the lantern" would evolve into the more familiar "jack o' lantern". Both "Jack with the lantern" and "jack o' lantern" are a number of phrases in English in which "jack" was used of any man in general. Similar phrases are "jack of all trades" for someone with a wide number of skills or "Jack the lad" for a boisterous, overconfident, young man.

Also according to the Oxford English Dictionary, by 1673 the phrase "jack o' lantern" was being applied to the phenomenon of the ignis fatuus, more commonly called in English "will o' the wisp", as well. The will o' the wisp is a light that sometimes appears over marshy land, created by the combustion of gas from decomposing organic matter.

The phrase "jack o' lantern" would not be applied to carved vegetables into which candles are placed until the 19th Century. One of the earliest possible uses in print (perhaps the earliest use ) of "jack o' lantern" for a carved vegetable with a candle inside it appears in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's review of Charles Maturin's play Bertram in 1817, "The characters in this act frisk about, here, there, and everywhere, as teasingly as Jack o' Lantern lights which mischievous boys, from across a narrow street, throw with a looking-glass on the faces of their opposite neighbours." Unfortunately, while it seems like that Coleridge is referring to carved vegetables into which candles are placed, it is not entirely clear. He could easily have been referring to something else.

Fortunately William Holloway's A General Dictionary of Provincialisms (published in 1838) would be very clear on the topic. Under the entry for "jack in the lantern" he writes, "In Hampshire, boys, of a dark night, get a large turnip and scooping out the inside, make two holes in it to resemble eyes and one for a mouth, when they place a lighted candle within side, and put it on a wall or a post so that it may appear like the head of a man. The chief end (and that a very bad one) is to take some younger boy than the rest, and who is not in the secret, to show it to him, with a view to frighten him." That carved vegetables were already in use in the United States and referred to as "jack o' lanterns" by the mid-19th Century is made clear by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel House of the Seven Gables (published in 1851). In the book character suggests to another with regards to the Great Carbuncle, "Hide it under that cloak, say'st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a Jack o'lanthern!"

While it seems clear that the phrase "jack o' lantern" was being used of vegetables carved for use as lanterns by the 19th Century, it is unclear where or when the practice of doing so originated. Despite the many claims made for Ireland, the earliest references to these vegetable lanterns come from England and Scotland. In 1756 The British, Roman, and Saxon antiquities and folklore of Worcestershire by antiquarian Jabez Allies makes reference to turnip lanterns called "Hoberdy’s Lantern" he remembered from his youth.  He wrote, "In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern,” by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style ; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night." Such turnip lanterns were also being made in North America. In the November 21 issue of The Pennsylvania Packet, there is a reference to a boy's "turnip lanthorn...with a little bit of candle in it."

Of course, so far none of the sources refer to turnip lanterns or jack o' lanterns as being associated with Halloween. What could be the earliest reference to turnip lanterns and Halloween occurs in the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language by Scottish antiquarian John Jamieson (published in 1808). In the dictionary there is an entry for "Candle and Castock". The entry reads "a  large turnip, from which the top is sliced off that it may be hollowed out till the rind become transparent : a candle is then put into it, the top being restored by way of lid or cover. The light shows in a frightful manner the face formed with blacking on the outside, S. Hence the rhyme of children: 'Halloween, a night at e'en, A candle in a castock'. These, being sometimes placed in church-yards, on Allhallow eve, are supposed to have given rise to many of the tales of terror believed by the vulgar."  At least in early 19th Century Scotland, then, what was called a "candle and castock"  (what would later be called a "jack o' lantern") had an association with Halloween.

As to how turnip lanterns became associated with Halloween, it would seem there could be a simple explanation for that. The custom of pulling pranks on Halloween dates back to at least the 18th Century in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland. Both Jabez Allies and William Holloway make reference to turnip lanterns being used to frighten people. It would not take much imagination for pranksters on Halloween to decide to scare people with turnip lanterns carved to resemble a human face.

It was in North America that pumpkins would overtake turnips as the preferred vegetables for making jack o' lanterns. Pumpkins are native to North America and were cultivated by various Native American tribes. It would not be long after Europeans began colonising North America that they would also begin raising pumpkins. Pumpkins are harvested in autumn, so it was quite natural that the vegetable would become associated with the season. Not only are pumpkins harvested at autumn, but they are also much easier to carve than turnips.

Of course, while the pumpkin would become the preferred vegetable for carving jack o' lanterns, it would be some time before they would become firmly associated with Halloween. What may be the first image of a pumpkin carved as a jack o' lantern occurred in the November 23, 1867 issue of Harper's Weekly. The engraving, titled "The Pumpkin Effigy", made no reference to Halloween and that issue of Harper's Weekly came out at Thanksgiving, not Halloween.

Regardless, by the 1890s the carving of pumpkins for jack o' lanterns would be a firmly established custom at Halloween in the United States. The practice was regularly referenced in newspaper articles from the decade. By the 1900s the image of pumpkins carved as jack o' lanterns would appear frequently on Halloween postcards.  That having been said, as late as the early 20th Century people were still using other vegetables than pumpkins to make jack o' lanterns as well. In her 1912 book Games for Halloween, Mary E. Blain makes reference to jack o' lanterns "..made from apples, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc."

Of course, by the 1900s not only were jack o' lanterns appearing on Halloween postcards, but paper manufacturers were making paper decorations in the shape of jack o' lanterns. Many of these were made in Germany, but American companies were quick to jump onto the Halloween bandwagon as well. The Dennison Manufacturing Company began making paper Halloween decorations, including jack o' lanterns, in the 1900s. Their Halloween decorations proved so popular that in 1909 Dennison published its first Dennison's Bogie Book for Halloween, which was a guide for decorating for the holiday. Another Dennison's Bogie Book would be published in 1912. With the exception of the years of World War I, it would then be published annually until 1934. Another American company well known for their paper Halloween decorations, including jack o' lanterns, is the Beistle Company. Founded in 1900, the Beistie Company began making Halloween decorations in 1920. Over the years the Beistle Company has made several different Halloween decorations in the shape of jack o' lanterns.

It was in the early Fifties that plastic decorations in the shape of jack o' lanterns were introduced. The earliest of these decorations were simple jack o' lanterns with electric lights inside that would sit on a table or shelf. As time passed a wide variety of plastic jack o' lantern themed merchandise emerged. There were flashlights, lawn ornaments, candy containers, and so on.  Blow mould lawn ornaments reached their peak in popularity in the Sixties. The wide array of plastic jack o' lantern goods (many of which are still manufactured) were made by a number of companies, including Union Products, Empire Plastic Corp., Gregg Products, and others.

It was in 2001 that novelty and seasonal products company Gemmy Industries introduced inflatable lawn ornaments under the name "Airblown Inflatables". Among their first offerings in 2001 was an inflatable jack o' lantern. As inflatable seasonal decorations grew in popularity in the Naughts (and became an outright craze in 2006), other companies would make their own inflatable decorations, including jack o' lanterns. Since 2001 Gemmy Industries itself has introduced several variations on the jack o' lantern theme, including stacked jack o' lanterns and jack o' lanterns with licensed characters (such as Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Given how strongly linked to Halloween jack o' lanterns have become, it would come as no surprise that they would play a role in popular culture. One of the earliest instances of this is the character of Jack Pumpkinhead, who first appeared in L. Frank Baum's book The Marvellous Land of Oz. As his name suggests, he has a jack o' lantern for a head. While jack o' lanterns are not referenced in Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", depictions of the Headless Horseman often depict him as having a jack o' lantern in place of his severed head (a well -known example of this can be seen in Disney's 1949 adaptation of the short story). In the movie Arsenic and Old Lace Aunts Abby and Martha give jack o' lanterns to trick-or-treaters as "treats". While Charles Schulz never actually portrayed the imaginary character Linus calls the Great Pumpkin in the comic strip Peanuts or in the famous TV special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, in parodies it is often portrayed as a jack o' lantern. At any rate, appearances of jack o' lanterns in pop culture occur so frequently that it would be difficult to list every single instance.

It is impossible to say precisely where and when what would later be called jack o' lanterns emerged. It is not even clear exactly how they became identified with Halloween. Regardless, by the late 19th Century the jack o' lantern was firmly associated with the holiday and by the early 20th Century it would become one of Halloween's most popular symbols. Indeed, today it is difficult to think of a time when there was Halloween without jack o' lanterns.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Why Netflix Should Let Users Disable "Skip Intro"

The past two weeks I have been getting caught up on the original Twin Peaks on Netflix. For that reason, I watched two episodes on each of the past two Saturday nights. The Saturday before last I noticed something odd. For some reason on the second episode that I watched the opening credits were skipped. Thinking I must have hit fast forward by mistake, I simply rewound the video to the start of the opening credits. This past Saturday it did the same thing on the second episode I watched. Thinking it must be some kind of glitch, I did a search on Google. As it turns out, it seems Netflix automatically skips the opening credits of shows on some devices (such as my Samsung Smart TV) when one is binge watching them.

Now I knew that Netflix had introduced a "Skip Intro" button earlier this year for those philistines people who want to skip the opening credits of shows. For those unfamiliar with the "Skip Intro" button, it is a button that appears any time you hover over the opening credits of a show. Now I would never use the "Skip Intro" button, but I really have no strong objections to it. That having been said, I have a big problem with Netflix automatically skipping over the opening credits of shows with absolutely no input from me.

The simple fact is that I enjoy watching the opening credits of shows, even when I am binge watching them. To me opening credits are part and parcel of the television viewing experience. Opening credits tell one who stars on the show, who produces the show, and often who guest stars on the show as well (the last is particularly true of shows produced in the Sixties and Seventies). And many opening credits are works of art in and of themselves. I have actually watched the opening credits to such shows as Mission: Impossible, Mad Men, and Batman on YouTube simply because I enjoy them so much. Of course, that brings me to another thing. Quite simply, many shows have great theme songs that I dearly love. In addition to Mission: Impossible, Mad Men, and Batman, I also love the theme music to such diverse shows as The Monkees, Bonanza, Cowboy Bebop, and Cheers. Ultimately, even when I am binge watching a show, I want to watch the opening credits every single time. I do not want to "skip" the "intro".

Of course, beyond my love of TV shows' opening credits, there is also the simple fact that I think watching the opening credits of TV shows is the right thing to do. Credits sequences are a means of giving credit to those people involved in the creation of TV shows and movies. From the star of a show to the key grips who worked on it, everyone gets some recognition in the opening and closing credits. In skipping the opening credits, then, people who worked on the show (for the opening credits usually the lead actors, the producers, the creators, and sometimes the writers and directors as well) are not being recognised by a particular viewer for what they have done. Indeed, credits are a very important thing in the television and motion picture industries. The DGA, SAG, and WGA all have rules regarding credits in television shows and movies. Often the size of the name of a particular actor, director, or writer should be in the credits will be written into his or her contract for any particular movie or show. In automatically skipping intros, Netflix is then denying that opening credits, a very important thing to many in the industry (not to mention television connoisseurs such as myself), are important at all.

Anyway, this weekend I sent a complaint to Netflix about automatically skipping intros. I let them know that the "Skip Intro" button might be fine for those who want it, but those of us who want to watch the opening credits should not be forced to rewind to do so when we are binge watching a show because Netflix automatically skipped the intro. Quite simply, much like the Auto-Play feature, Netflix should have a place in settings where one can disable "Skip Intro".

I am truly hoping that Netflix will listen to me. I am sure that I am not the only viewer who likes to watch the opening credits of shows and I am sure I am not the only one who hates it when Netflix skips the opening credits automatically. Regardless, until such time as Netflix gives us a means to disable the "Skip Intro" feature, I will be rewinding to watch the opening credits every single time Netflix automatically skips them.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Pictorial Tribtue on Joan Fontaine's Centenary

It was 100 years ago today that Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, better known as Joan Fontaine, was born in Tokyo, Japan. Like her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, Miss Fontaine would become one of the major actresses of 20th Century Hollywood. Her film career began in 1935 and her last appearance was in the television movie Good King Wenceslas in 1994. She made 46 feature films and several appearances on television. A number of her movies are now considered classics.

Joan Fontaine has always been one of my favourite actresses. I wrote a lengthy post in honour of her upon the occasion of her death, so I will not go in depth on her career here. You can ready my eulogy of Miss Fontaine here. Instead here I will offer you a pictorial tribute to, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest actresses in American film history.

Joan Fontaine made her film debut in 1935 in the movie No More Ladies, in which she billed as "Joan Burfield". She would not remain Joan Burfield for long, as by her next film, A Million to One (1937), she was billed as Joan Fontaine. She took her stage name from her stepfather's surname. It was also in 1937 that Joan Fontaine had her first starring role. It was in the film The Man Who Found Himself, in which she played Nurse Doris King. Above is a promotional picture from the film of Joan with her male lead, John Beal. Signed to RKO, she would spend the next few years making films for the studio.

Sadly, most of the films Joan Fontaine made at RKO did poorly at the box office. A notable exception was Gunga Din (1939), which was her final film for the studio. Miss Fontaine played the female lead in Gunga Din. Above is a picture from the film of Joan Fontaine and one of the film's male leads, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

After RKO released Joan Fontaine from her contract, she appeared in the Richard Dix Western Man of Conquest (1939).  She then appeared in a minor role in the MGM classic The Women (1939). Fortunately, Joan Fontaine's luck would change. She was cast in the lead role as the second Mrs. de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. Rebecca (1940) would establish Joan Fontaine as a movie star, and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film. The above still is from Rebecca.

Arguably the height of Joan Fontaine's career was in the Forties. She followed Rebecca with another film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Suspicion. For her role in the film she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Above is a still from the film.

Joan Fontaine would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress a third time for her role in The Constant Nymph (1943).  Above is a still from the film featuring Miss Fontaine and Charles Boyer.

 
Through the years Joan Fontaine appeared in several period pieces. Perhaps the best known period drama in which she starred was Robert Stevenson's adaption of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre.

Although it may not be as famous as Rebecca, Suspicion, or Jane Eyre, among the best of Joan Fontaine's films is Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Today it is among the most highly regarded of her films, and is one of the very few films to have 100% approval among critics on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

Sadly, Joan Fontaine's career would begin to go into decline in the Fifties. While she continued making movies, none of them reached the heights of Rebecca or Suspicion or her other early films. Among the movies she made in the Fifties was Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor.

From the Fifties into the Sixties, Miss Fontaine increasingly appeared on television as opposed to feature films. Her final feature would be Hammer Films' The Witches (1966), released in the United States as The Devil's Own.

While Joan Fontaine's last appearance in a feature film was in 1966, she would continue to appear on television well into the Nineties. Like many classic film stars, she even made a guest appearance on the long running show The Love Boat. Here she is pictured with Gavin MacLeod as Captain Merrill Stubing.

Joan Fontaine retired following her last television appearance in 1994 in the TV movie Good King Wenceslas. She died on December 15 2013 a the age of 96 from natural causes.