Friday, May 10, 2019

Jim Fowler Passes On

Zoologist Jim Fowler, who was the long time host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, died on May 8 2019 at the age of 89.

Jim Fowler was born on April 9 1930 in Albany, Georgia. He grew up on a 68-acre farm, where his interest in wildlife emerged. While he was still young he made the farm a wildlife sanctuary, observing deer and snakes and training birds. He attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana where he majored in zoology. Mr. Fowler's primary interest was birds of prey. In 1955 he travelled to British Guiana to study the harpy eagle. He returned to the United States not only with a good deal of film footage and research, but three harpy eagles. This would lead to an appearance with one of the harpy eagles on The Today Show on April 27 1955. The appearance brought him to the attention of Marlin Perkins, who was then the host of the local Chicago TV programme Zoo Parade. At the time Mr. Perkins wanted to start another television programme, an idea that would become Wild Kingdom.

Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom debuted in 1963 with Marlin Perkins as host and Jim Fowler as co-host. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom proved to be very successful, running until 1971 on NBC. After the network cancelled the show, Wild Kingdom would run several more years in syndication. Its original run ended in 1987. It was in 1985 that Marlon Perkins retired, and Jim Fowler spent the last two years on the show as its only host.

Jim Fowler made several other appearances on other shows beyond Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom., He was a regular guest on The Tonight Show, first with Johnny Carson and then with Jay Leno. He was also the the official wildlife correspondent for The Today Show beginning in 1988. Over the years he appeared on such shows as The Dick Cavett Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He played himself in an episode of Seinfeld. He had cameos in two movies, Little Laura and Big John (1973) and Running Free (1994).

In 1997 he joined the cable channel Animal Planet. He hosted the show Life in the Wild and a revival of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

Today shows about wildlife and other animals are common. There is even an entire channel devoted to shows about animals, Animal Planet. In 1963 when Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom debuted, that was not the case. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom pioneered wildlife documentary shows on American television. Without it, there might not have been such shows as Wild America, Lorne Greene's New Wilderness, Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures, or many others. There might not even be the cable channel Animal Planet. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom paved the way for many wildlife documentary shows to come.

It must also be pointed out that Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom began in the early days of wildlife conservation. The show helped educate the public about wildlife and as a result encouraged wildlife conservation. There were probably a good many zoologists who entered the field simply because they had been inspired by Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom while young.

Jim Fowler was responsible for much of the success of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. There can be no doubt that his willingness to get very close to wildlife inspired and excited many youngsters watching the show. At the same time his intelligence, his knowledge of wildlife, and his enthusiasm for wildlife showed through. He was an early advocate of wildlife conservation, and over the years he was instrumental in the creation of several wildlife refuges. In fact, Jim Fowler's home for thirty years, six acres in Connecticut, would become the Silvermine Fowler Preserve. Jim Fowler played an important role in increasing awareness of wildlife conservation and in encouraging wildlife conservation.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Perry Mason and the Case of the Film Noir Connections

Raymond Burr as MacDonald from Pitfall and as Perry Mason from Perry Mason

Perry Mason is one of the most successful television shows of all time. The show ran for nine seasons and spent several years in ACNielsen's top twenty shows for the year. After it ended its run in 1966 it went onto a highly successful run in syndication. Indeed, repeats of the show are still being aired to this day. Perry Mason was based on the novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, the first of which (The Case of the Velvet Claws) was published  in 1933. In addition to Mr. Gardner's many novels, the character of Perry Mason was seen in six movies produced by Warner Bros. in the Thirties, as well as a long running radio show. The character of Perry Mason was well known by the time the TV show debuted in 1957. While Perry Mason owed a good deal to Erle Stanley Gardner's novels, it also owed a good deal to a cycle of films that was coming to an end even as the show debuted. Quite simply, Perry Mason has several connections to film noir.

To a large degree this should have been expected. While the "Perry Mason" novels were never published in the pulp magazines of the day, they owed a good deal to the concurrent pulp fiction of the time. Of course, film noir was heavily influenced by pulp fiction, in particular the hard-boiled crime fiction published in such magazines as Black Mask. Perry Mason also shared tropes in common with film noir. Both the "Perry Mason" novels and the TV series Perry Mason always involved someone wrongly accused of a crime, a trope common in film noir. And while there was no moral ambiguity about Perry Mason, his secretary Della Street, and detective Paul Drake, there could be a good deal of moral ambiguity with regards to the characters appearing in episodes of the TV shows. Of course, moral ambiguity is one of the chief characteristics of film noir. That is not to say that there were not some differences between Perry Mason and film noir. Violence often played a large role in film noir. It was much rarer on Perry Mason (the murders usually took place off screen). Similarly, the eroticism sometimes seen in noir isn't often found on Perry Mason, probably because the National Association of Broadcasters' Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters was even stricter than the Motion Picture Production Code. Perhaps the biggest difference between Perry Mason and film noir is that the cynicism often found in film noir is generally lacking on Perry Mason.

Of course, like most film noirs were, Perry Mason was shot in black-and-white (only one episode, "The Case of the Twice Told Twist" from 1966, was shot in colour). Shooting Perry Mason in black-and-white was to a large degree a necessity--colour television would not become common in the United States until the Sixties. That having been said, shooting Perry Mason in black-and-white allowed the show's directors and cinematographers to occasionally use the same techniques as film noir, including harsh lighting, extensive use of shadows, and even low angles.

While Perry Mason had a good deal in common with film noir, its strongest connections to film noir may well be its cast. In fact, of its leads only William Hopper (who played private detective Paul Drake) never appeared in film noir. While Mr. Hopper never starred in a film noir, some of his co-stars more than made up for this by appearing in several, to the point that some of them are identified with it.

This is particularly true of Raymond Burr, who appeared in numerous film noirs for much of his career. What might shock many people who grew up with Mr. Burr as Perry Mason or Robert T. Ironside (and have yet to see Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window) is that in film noir he overwhelmingly played villains. In fact, Raymond Burr played so many bad guys in film noir that it is notable when he actually played a good guy (such as Detective Sgt. Strake in 1948's Sleep, My Love ). What is more Raymond Burr didn't just play any old bad guys in film noirs, but often very bad guys, from the sociopathic gang leader Walt Radak in Desperate (1947) to the corrupt private eye MacDonald in Pitfall (1948) to narcotics smuggler Pete Ritchie in Borderline (1950). Below is a list of film noirs in which Raymond Burr appeared. I will not claim that it is complete, as Mr. Burr appeared in so many film noirs that it would be easy to miss a few.

Desperate (1947)
I Love Trouble (1948)
Sleep, My Love (1948)
Raw Deal (1948)
Pitfall (1948)
Walk a Crooked Mile (1948)
Red Light (1949)
Abandoned (1949)
Borderline (1950)
His Kind of Woman (1951)
FBI Girl (1951)
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
A Cry in the Night (1957)
Crime of Passion (1957)

While Raymond Burr largely made a career out of playing heavies in film noir, his co-star Barbara Hale (who played Perry's secretary Della Street) was a bona fide movie star, having played leads in films well before she starred on Perry Mason. In fact, she appeared in a variety of genres of film, from Westerns (West of the Pecos) to comedies (Lady Luck) to period pieces (Lorna Doone). Along the way she appeared in two film noirs, both from 1949. She appeared alongside her husband, Bill Williams, in the film noir The Clay Pigeon. In the film Mr. Williams played a former POW who awakes from a coma only to be told he is guilty of murder. In The Window Miss Hale played the mother of a boy (played by Bobby Driscoll) who witnesses a murder.

While Barbara Hale appeared in only two film noirs, like Raymond Burr, William Talman (who played District Attorney Hamilton Burger) appeared in several. And, like Raymond Burr, more often than not William Talman played a bad guy in film noir. In fact, he played one of the greatest villains in the history of film noir, psychopathic killer Emmett Myers in Ida Lupino's noir masterpiece The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Mr. Talman did play the occasional good guy in film noir, such as Police Officer Bob Johnson in The Racket (1951), but that was generally the exception to the rule. Below is a list of the film noirs in which William Talman appeared:

The Woman on Pier 13 (1949)
Armored Car Robbery (1950)
The Racket (1951)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
Crashout (1955)
Big House, U.S.A. (1955)

Like Raymond Burr and William Talman, Ray Collins (who played Lt. Arthur Tragg) also appeared in several film noirs. What is more, he would appear in one of them alongside his future Perry Mason co-star William Talman, The Racket (1951). Of course, Ray Collins had already had a long and distinguished career by the time he appeared on Perry Mason. In the Thirties he appeared in a number of the "Penrod" short subjects. He was also one of the original members of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre. By the time of the film noir era, he had already appeared in such films as Citizen Kane (1942) and The Human Comedy (1943).  While Mr. Collins played the hard-nosed, but honest Lt. Tragg on Perry Mason, he sometimes played less than savoury characters in film noir. In Hideout (1949) his character Arthur Burdette hired petty thieves to steal a diamond necklace. In The Racket he played a crooked district attorney. In yet another film he played a criminal mastermind that can't be revealed without spoiling the plot (if you have seen the film, you probably know the one I am talking about). Below are a list of film noirs in which Ray Collins appeared:

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Crack-Up (1946)
A Double Life (1947)
Hideout (1949)
The Racket (1951)
Touch of Evil (1958)

In addition to the leads, many of the guest stars on Perry Mason, were also veterans of film noir. Steve Brodie, who appeared in such film noirs as Crossfire (1947), Out of the Past (1947), and Armored Car Robbery (1950), guest starred on three episodes. Elisha Cook Jr., a mainstay of film noir (he even appeared in what many to believe to be the first film noir, 1940's Stranger on the Third Floor), guest starred in two episodes. Audrey Totter, one of the queens of film noir, guest starred on the episode "The Case of the Reckless Rockhound" from 1964. Marie Windsor, another one of the queens of film noir, appeared in no less than four episodes. These weren't the only actors associated with film noir to guest star on Perry Mason by any stretch of the imagination.

Perry Mason could hardly be described as "télévision noire." The show departs too much from many elements of film noir. That having been said, it does have a lot in common with film noir through its roots in pulp fiction. Perry Mason also owes a lot to film noir in terms of much of its direction and cinematography. Of course, Perry Mason would have a very different cast if its leads had not been drawn from the ranks of film noir actors. While Perry Mason is not exactly télévision noire, it comes closer to film noir than many television series that have aired through the years.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Barbara Perry Passes On

Actress Barbara Perry died on May 5 2019 at the age of 97.

Barbara Perry was born on June 22 1921 in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was a jazz keyboardist and conductor. Her mother was sang in the chorus of the New York City Metropolitan Opera. Barbara Perry made her stage debut very young. She was only 4 years old when she played Trouble in a Metropolitan Opera production of Madame Butterfly. Miss Perry made her film debut in Counsellor at Law in 1933. She would appear in an uncredited role in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935).

In the late Forties Barbara Perry appeared in the films An Angel Comes to Brooklyn (1945) and I Was a Male Bride (1949).  She made her television debut in 1952 in the television movie Zip Goes a Million in 1952. In the late Fifties she guest starred on the TV shows The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, The Marge and Gower Champion Show, The Thin Man, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, The Twilight Zone, Hot Off the Wire, and The Donna Reed Show.

In the Sixties Miss Perry was a regular on the sitcom The Hathaways. She was the original actress to play Buddy Sorrell's wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show (the role was later played by Joan Shawlee). She appeared in two episodes of the classic show. She also guest starred on the shows Thriller, Pete and Gladys, The Joey Bishops Show, The Fugitive, The Farmer's Daughter, Arrest and Trial, The Cara Williams Show, My Favorite Martian, The Andy Griffith Show, The Lucy Show, Perry Mason, Family Affair, Daniel Boone, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., Bewitched, Room 222, The Bill Cosby Show, and Adam-12. She appeared in the movies Period of Adjustment (1962), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), and Mirage (1965).

In the Seventies Barbara Perry guest starred on the shows My Three Sons, Needles and Pins, Joe and Sons, and Barnaby Jones. She appeared in the movie Tom (1973). In the Eighties she guest starred on the shows Trapper John M.D., Benson, St. Elsewhere, The Duck Factory, Newhart, Quantum Leap, The Magical World of Disney, Dallas, Murder She Wrote, and Murphy Brown. She appeared in the movies Trancers (1984), Trust Me (1989), Tap (1989), and Wedding Band (1989).

In the Nineties she guest starred on the TV shows Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Married With Children, Alright Already, and Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction. She appeared in the films Father of the Bride (1991) and Just Write (1997).

In the Naughts Miss Perry guest starred on the shows The Guardian and The Unit. She appeared in the films Mr. Woodcock (2007), and The Back-Up Plan (2010). In the Teens she guest starred on the shows Perfect Couples, Work It, How I Met Your Mother, Review and Baskets. She appeared in the movies Let Go (2011) and The Tango Singer (2017).

As a tap dancer Barbara Perry also headlined at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the Chez Paris in Chicago, the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, the Café de Paris in London, and other nightclubs.