Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Godspeed Frank Vincent

Frank Vincent, who appeared in the film Goodfellas (1990) and the TV show The Sopranos, died on September 12 2017 at the age of 80. The cause was complications from heart surgery following a heart attack.

Frank Vincent was born Frank Vincent Gattuso Jr on April 15 1937 in North Adams, Massachusetts. He grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey. He worked as a drummer playing in nightclubs. He also played drums on records by Paul Anka and Trini Lopez.

He made his film debut in 1976 in The Death Collector. Martin Scorsese was impressed by his performance in the film and as a result he was cast in Raging Bull (1980). In the Eighties Mr. Vincent appeared in such films as Dear Mr. Wonderful (1982), Baby It's You (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Stiffs (1985), Wise Guys (1986), Lou, Pat & Joe D (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and Goodfellas (1990). He guest starred on the TV show The Paradise Club.

In the Nineties Frank Vincent appeared in the films Jungle Fever (1991), Men Lie (1994), Federal Hill (1994), Animal Room (1995), Casino (1995), She's the One (1996), Made Men (1997), The Deli (1997), Entropy (1999), and The Crew (2000). He guest starred on such shows as Civil Wars; The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles; Walker, Texas Ranger; Cosby; New York Undercover; Law & Order; and NYPD Blue.

In the Naughts he appeared in such films as Snipes (2001), A Tale of Two Pizzas (2003), Coalition (2004), The Last Request (2006), and The Tested (2010). He provided a voice for the animated film Shark Tale (2010). On television he played Phil Leotardo on the show The Sopranos. He guest starred on Stargate: Atlantis. He provided the voice of mob boss Salvatore Leone in the series of video games Grand Theft Auto.

In the Teens he guest starred on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit He provided a voice on the animated show Mr. Pickles. He appeared in the film Spy (2011).

Throughout his career Frank Vincent played mobsters. And there can be no doubt that he was very good at playing mobsters. There should be little wonder that his best known roles are from Goodfellas and The Sopranos. That having been said, he could play other roles as well. He played a Catholic bishop in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. It wasn't the first time he played a man of the cloth either. He was Father Brice in the comedy The Last Request. In Jungle Fever he played a father who has mixed feelings (to put it mildly) about his daughter's interracial romance. Frank Vincent was certainly good at playing mobsters, but he had the talent to play other roles as well.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Late Great Harry Dean Stanton

Character actor Harry Dean Stanton died on September 15 2017 at the age of 91.

Harry Dean Stanton was born on July 14 1926 in West Irvine, Kentucky. During World War II he served in the United States Navy in the Pacific Theatre. After the war he attended the University of Kentucky. He dropped out of college after three years and moved to Los Angeles, California. In California he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Harry Dean Stanton made his television debut in an episode of Inner Sanctum in 1954. He made his motion picture debut in an uncredited role in Revolt at Fort Laramie in 1956. During the Fifties he appeared in the films The Wrong Man (1956), Tomahawk Trail (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), Voice in the Mirror (1958), Pork Chop Hill (1959), The Jayhawkers! (1959), and A Dog's Best Friend (1959). In the Sixties he guest starred on such TV shows as Suspicion, Panic!, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Man with a Camera, Disneyland, Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, The Man from Blackhawk, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In the Sixties Harry Dean Stanton appeared a good deal on television. He guest starred on such shows as The Roaring 20s, Zane Gray Theatre, The Untouchables, The Lawless Years, Have Gun--Will Travel, Combat!, Laramie, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Fugitive, The Big Valley, The Wild Wild West, The Andy Griffith Show, The Virginian, The High Chaparral, Mannix, Gunsmoke, Daniel Boone, Adam-12, and Petticoat Junction. He appeared in the films Hero's Island (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), The Man from the Diners' Club (1963), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), A Time for Killing (1967), The Hostage (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Day of the Evil Gun (1968), The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968), The Rebel Rousers (1970), and Kelly's Heroes (1970).  As the Sixties progressed the size of Mr. Stanton's roles grew larger. He played the lead role in the short "Lanton Mills" (1969).

Harry Dean Stanton continued to get larger roles in the Seventies, and his career shifted from television to film. He appeared in such films as Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cisco Pike (1972), Cry for Me, Billy (1972), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Dillinger (1973), Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), Zandy's Bride (1974),  The Godfather: Part II (1974), Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), Rancho Deluxe (1975), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Wise Blood (1979), Alien (1979), The Rose (1979), Death Watch (1980), and Private Benjamin (1980). On television he had a recurring role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and guest starred on Young Maverick.

The Eighties saw Harry Dean Stanton go from supporting roles in films to more central roles, including the occasional lead. He played the lead in the cult classic Repo Man (1984) and the same year played the lead in the classic Paris, Texas (1984). He also appeared in the films Escape from New York (1981), One from the Heart (1981), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Christine (1983), The Bear (1984), Red Dawn (1984), UFOria (1985), One Magic Christmas (1985), Fool for Love (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Slam Dance (1987), Stars and Bars (1988), Mr. North (1988), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Dream a Little Dream (1989), Twister (1989), Stranger in the House (1990), The Fourth War (1990), and Wild at Heart (1990). On television he guest starred on Laverne & Shirley, Faerie Tale Theatre, The French as Seen By (1988), The Jim Henson Hour, and Beyond the Groove.

In the Nineties Mr. Stanton appeared in the films Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Man Trouble (1992), Cruise Control (1992), Gentleman Who Fell (1993), Blue Tiger (1994), One Hundred and One Nights (1995), Never Talk to Strangers (1995), Nothing to Believe In (1996), Playback (1996), Down Periscope (1996), Midnight Blue (1997), She's So Lovely (1997), Fire Down Below (1997), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), The Mighty (1998), Ballad of the Nightingale (1999), The Straight Story (1999), The Green Mile (1999), and The Man Who Cried (2000). On television he guest starred on the show Hotel Room and appeared in the mini-series Dead Man's Walk.

In the Naughts Harry Dean Stanton appeared in the films The Pledge (2001), The Animal (2001), Sonny (2002), Ginostra (2002), Anger Management (2003), Chrystal (2004), The Big Bounce (2004), The Wendell Baker Story (2005), Alpha Dog (2006), Alien Autopsy (2006), You, Me and Dupree (2006), Inland Empire (2006), The Good Life (2007), Open Road (2009), On Holiday (2010), and Athena (2010). On television he was the star of the show Big Love. He guest starred on Two and a Half Men as himself, and also guest starred on Chuck.

In the Teens Mr. Stanton was the voice of Balthazar in the animated film Rango (2011). He appeared in the films This Must Be the Place (2011), Marvel's The Avengers (2012), Seven Psychopaths (2012), The Last Stand (2013), 9 Full Moons (2013), Carlos Spills the Beans (2013), The Pimp and the Rose (2014), Sick of it All (2017), and Lucky (2017). On television he guest starred on Getting On. He reprised his role as Carl Rodd from the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the revival of Twin Peaks.

I was aware of Harry Dean Stanton before he attained fame in the Eighties, although into the late Sixties he was usually billed as "Dean Stanton" in order to avoid confusion with Harry Stanton (the actor who played Dr. Zenta in When Worlds Collide). He was a frequent guest star on many of the reruns I watched as a child and he could play nearly anything. He could play a hillbilly in the midst of a feud, as was the case with the Gunsmoke episode "Love Thy Neighbour". On The Lawless Years he played a mob hitman. On Adam-12 he was an abusive husband. Over the years he appeared on many TV Westerns, appearing eight times on Gunsmoke, four times on Rawhide, and twice on Bonanza alone.

The variety of roles Mr. Stanton played were also seen in his film career. Even his best known roles were a varied lot. He was the engineering technician Brett in Alien. In Escape from New York he played Brain, a genius and the advisor to the Duke. In Repo Man he played Bud, the "repo man" of the title. Perhaps the best role of his career was in Paris, Texas, in which he played an amnesiac drifter attempting to rebuild his life. Harry Dean Stanton was an extremely talented actor who could play a wide variety of roles and play all of them well. Over the years he played cowboys, military officers, preachers, doctors, and police officers. Even when he was young he had a bit of a weather beaten look that would have kept him from playing romantic leads, but was perfect for various character roles. Harry Dean Stanton was a prolific actor who continued acting until his death. His career spanned over sixty years. If he was always in demand, it was perhaps because he was just that talented.

Friday, 15 September 2017

My Margaret Lockwood Blog Posts

Margaret Lockwood is one of my all time favourite actresses. Because of that I have written several posts about her here at A Shroud of Thoughts and even a guest post on the Margaret Lockwood Society's blog. Since today would have been her 101st birthday, I thought it might be a good idea to collect all of them here for you in one place. Below are links to the various blog posts I have written about Margaret Lockwood over the years.

"A Game of Love and Death: Margaret Lockwood and The Lady Vanishes (1938)"

"Justice Starring Margaret Lockwood"

"Bank Holiday (1938)"

"The Slipper and the Rose Guest Post on The Margaret Lockwood Society's Blog"

"Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers: Two Great British Actresses"

"The Wicked Lady: The British Film Censored by Americans and How It Changed the English Language"

"Jassy (1947)"

"The 70th Anniversary of The Wicked Lady (1945)"

"The Centenary of Margaret Lockwood's Birth"

"The Man in Grey (1943)"

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The 60th Anniversary of Have Gun--Will Travel

Sixty years ago today a Western debuted on television that would be unlike any that has debuted before or since. It was a sophisticated and intellectual Western, to the point that in some ways it had more in common with the anthology shows that had proliferated only a few years before it than it did its fellow Westerns airing at the time. Its hero could handle a gun, but he was not a lawman or gunslinger, and he preferred to use his gun only when he absolutely had to. It was on September 14 1957 that Have Gun--Will Travel debuted.

Have Gun--Will Travel centred on the man known only as Paladin (played by Richard Boone). On the surface Paladin appeared to be little more than a playboy with a taste for the finer things in life. He made the luxurious Hotel Carlton in San Francisco his home. He wore only the latest fashions and had a keen appreciation for a good cigar, a well prepared meal, fine brandy, and beautiful women. Paladin was equally adept at both cards and chess. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of art, music, poetry, and literature.

Despite this Paladin was no idle man of leisure. He was also a high priced gun for hire, who advertised his services with a card that read, "Have gun--will travel. Wire Paladin, San Francisco" and bore the logo of the white chess knight. Paladin was no mere assassin, however, but a man with his own personal code of honour. If Paladin learned that an employer's motives were less than noble, he would see to it that his former employer was brought to justice. On occasion Paladin would even forgo payment for his services to see that justice was served. While on a case Paladin looked very different from the playboy he appeared to be at the Hotel Carlton. He dressed entirely in black and wielded a long barrelled, hair trigger Colt .44. It is little wonder that his opponents, upon seeing Paladin, believed the Angel of Death had come for them.

Throughout the series Paladin remained a mystery, with very little revealed about his past. He was born to wealth and graduated from West Point. During the Civil War he served in the Union cavalry. At no point was his given name ever revealed. Paladin had been given his nom de guerre by a man named Smoke, whom an evil land baron had led Paladin to believe was a vile outlaw. Needless to say, when the newly dubbed Paladin learned the truth, he went after the evil land baron (this was related in the sixth season episode "Genesis").

Throughout the entire run of the show there were only two other recurring characters. For most of the show's run Kam Tong played the Hotel Carlton's bell hop Hey Boy. During the fourth season Kam Tong was working on the TV show Mr. Garland, so his place was taken by Lisa Lu as Hey Girl (explained to be Hey Boy's sister). Kam Tong returned as Hey Boy the following season, Mr. Garland having been cancelled.

Have Gun--Will Travel was developed by Sam Rolfe (who would later develop The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Herb Meadows (who would later create The Big Valley). Originally Paladin was conceived as private eye in modern day New York City. This should come as no surprise, as "private detective" is probably the best way to describe Paladin's chosen profession. Indeed, to a small degree Paladin resembles Philip Marlowe, who had his own strict code of honour. The character of Paladin may also owe a good deal to the mystery men of pulp magazines and comic books, such as The Shadow and Batman (who in turn owe a great deal to the original mystery man of the West, Zorro).  Like Paladin these heroes lived as playboys when not fighting crime, although unlike Paladin they did not charge a fee for their work.

Although Have Gun--Will Travel obviously has its roots in American pop culture, the show's creation was the subject of controversy. A rodeo performer and construction worker named Victor DeCosta filed a lawsuit against CBS asserting that he had created the character of Paladin in the Forties. According to DeCoasta, he adopted the name "Paladin" for his rodeo act after an Italian man referred to him as a "paladino"at a horse show. He even claimed that he started using the phrase "Have gun--will travel" after an individual yelled it at him at a rodeo. As "Paladin" DeCosta dressed in black and even handed out cards with the phrase printed on them.

DeCosta won his case in a federal court in 1974, only to have the decision overturned by the court of appeals the following year. The court of appeals felt that DeCosta's claim had little merit as it was unlikely DeCosta's "Paladin" (who was simply DeCosta in a costume) would be confused with the "Paladin" of Have Gun--Will Travel. DeCosta persisted in filing appeals until he was awarded a settlement of $3.5 million in 1991. That same year DeCosta died at the age of 83, before he could receive the settlement. The settlement was overturned in 1992. Whether the series was inspired by DeCosta as he alleged may never be known for certain.

At any rate it is perhaps a moot point, as Richard Boone is the man the public will always remember as Paladin. As hard as it is to believe, he was not CBS's first choice for the role. The role was originally offered to Randolph Scott, who turned it down as he did not want to do television. It was then that the producers looked to Richard Boone, perhaps then best known for the role of Dr. Konrad Styner on the groundbreaking TV series Medic.

Scheduled before Gunsmoke on Saturday nights, Have Gun--Will Travel was a success from the beginning. In its first season it ranked number 4 out of all the shows in prime time for the year. In following seasons, from 1958 to 1960, Have Gun--Will Travel ranked number 3 in the annual ratings. For its last two seasons Have Gun--Will Travel dropped in the ratings, although it still ranked a respectable number 29 for the year each of those seasons.

It was a measure of its success that Have Gun--Will Travel would be one of the few TV shows to make the transition to radio. From 1958 to 1960 a radio show based on the popular TV series aired on CBS radio. Have Gun--Will Travel also conquered other media as well. In 1959 Whitman published a young adult novel, written by Barlow Meyers and illustrated by Nichols S. Firfires, based on the series. In 1960 a novel for adults by Noel Lomis was published. This was followed by A Man Called Paladin by Frank C. Robertson in 1963. It was based on the Have Gun--Will Travel episode "Genesis", essentially Paladin's origin story. Dell Comics also published several issues of a Have Gun--Will Travel comic book. The theme song of Have Gun--Will Travel ("The Ballad of Paladin"), written by Johnny Western, Sam Rolfe, and Richard Boone and performed by Johnny Western, even made the music charts. Duane Eddy's version of "The Ballad of Paladin" reached no. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.  As might be expected, there was even a Have Gun--Will Travel lunchbox.

As shown by the ratings above, Have Gun--Will Travel was still doing well after five years on the air. It was at that point that Richard Boone wanted to leave the series. CBS convinced him to remain for one more year and Have Gun--Will Travel ended its run after six seasons on the air.

Unfortunately Have Gun--Will Travel would have a sporadic run in syndication over the years. While it did well as a syndicated rerun for much of the Sixties, the late Sixties and early Seventies would see concern grow over the effects of television violence. As a result many series considered "violent" saw their syndication revenue shrink overnight. Have Gun--Will Travel would then be seen rarely in the Seventies. Complicating matters was that, later in the Seventies, local programme directors developed a bias against shows shot in black and white. Many series previously successful in syndication (The Dick Van Dyke Show is a prime example) disappeared from local stations entirely because their entire runs were shot in monochrome. Finally, Victor DaCosta's lawsuits would keep Have Gun--Will Travel off the air for a good portion of the Seventies and Eighties. Fortunately the Nineties would see Have Gun--Will Travel once more appearing often on television screens. TV Land aired the Western that decade. It would also air on the Hallmark Channel, Encore Western, and the classic TV broadcast network ME-TV. The entire run of Have Gun--Will Travel is also out on DVD.

The level of intelligence often seen in Have Gun--Will Travel set it apart from many other Western series of the time. Through the adventures of Paladin the series explored various ethical and philosophical questions. Have Gun--Will Travel portrayed a world in which individuals and situations could not always be viewed in terms of black and white--there were always plenty of shades of grey in between. What is more, Have Gun--Will Traveli often explored issues that were very much relevant to the late Fifties and early Sixties. Over the years the show dealt with lynching, racism, prejudice, class conflict, and even the fear of modern medicine. Have Gun--Will Travel was far from a simple shoot 'em up.

The overall quality of Have Gun--Will Travel must rank it as one of the greatest Western TV series of all time. It brought to television a sophisticated Western hero with a strong sense of honour and placed him in a world where right and wrong weren't always what they seemed. Though its run it examined several important issues as well as the human condition in general. At the same time, however, there was never a shortage of excitement. Have Gun--Will Travel could be enjoyed as a straight shoot 'em up. It is perhaps for this reason that sixty years after its debut and a less than stellar syndication run that Have Gun--Will Travel is remembered. There can be little doubt that Have Gun--Will Travel will be remembered for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Just a Preview of Tomorrow

I've been busy all week, but I wanted to give you a preview of the subject of tomorrow's post. If you're familiar with this song, chances are you will know what tomorrow's post will be about...


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Carol Burnett Show

Yesterday it was 50 years ago that The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS. In many respects it can be considered the last great variety show on American television. There would be several variety shows that would debut after it, but none of them would last as long and none of them would have the impact that The Carol Burnett Show did. In total it ran for 11 seasons. For most of those 11 seasons it ranked in the top thirty shows for the year.

Carol Burnett was a well established performer by the time of The Carol Burnett Show. She was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Stanley. In 1957 she achieved a large degree of fame with the comedy song "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles". From there she became a regular on the game show Pantomime Quiz, and she performed on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. In 1959 she received what may have been her highest profile gig up to that point; she became a regular on The Garry Moore Show on CBS. Carol Burnett proved very popular on The Garry Moore Show, so much so that after she left the variety show in 1962 CBS signed her to a ten year contract that required she make two guest appearances a year as well as a special every year. Included in the contract was an option for Miss Burnett at any time to decide to make a variety show.

It was in 1967 that Carol Burnett called Mike Dann, head of CBS programming, and informed him that she wished to exercise her option for her own variety show. Mike Dann tried to dissuade her, maintaining that variety shows are a "man's genre". Instead Mike Dann tried talking her into a sitcom titled Here's Agnes. Miss Burnett had no interest in doing a sitcom and insisted that CBS stick by the terms of their contract. Because of the contract, CBS was obligated to put The Carol Burnett Show on the air.

The Carol Burnett Show debuted on September 11 1967. It proved somewhat successful from the beginning, ranking no. 27 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. The first guest on the show was Jim Nabors, who would be the first guest on the first show of every season. Quite simply, Carol Burnett considered him her good luck charm. As to the regulars that first season, they included a young singer named Vicki Lawrence (who had written her noting their resemblance), Harvey Korman (who had been a regular on The Danny Kaye Show), and Lyle Waggoner (who had auditioned for the lead role in the hit TV show Batman).

Ultimately The Carol Burnett Show would see very little turnover in its regulars given how long the show ran. Vicki Lawrence remained with the show for its entire run. Harvey Korman remained for ten seasons. Lyle Waggoner left after seven seasons. Tim Conway had been a very frequent guest star on The Carol Burnett Show during its first eight seasons. He joined the show as a regular in its ninth season and remained with it until its end. Dick Van Dyke was briefly a regular on the show during the first part of the eleventh season. Dick Van Dyke left the show amicably.

The format of The Carol Burnett Show never really varied over the years. It generally featured two guest stars and a musical act. Among the musical acts to appear on the show were Cass Elliot, Eydie Gorme, Mel Tormé, and many others. It would be for its comedy sketches that The Carol Burnett Show was best known. Over the years the show did several parodies of movies, including Airport, Beach Blanket Bingo, Double Indemnity, Jaws, Mildred Pierce, Showboat, and Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the most famous movie parody on the show (indeed, the most famous comedy sketch) was their parody of Gone with the Wind. Titled "Went with the Wind!", it featured Carol Burnett as Starlett, who at one point takes a curtain from a window to make a dress, not bothering to take the curtain rod out.

Over the years The Carol Burnett Show would feature several recurring sketches. Among these was "As the Stomach Turns" (a parody of As the World Turns and soap operas in general), "George and Zelda" (with Miss Burnett as nasal voiced Zelda and Harvey Korman as her husband), "The Old Folks" (with Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman as an elderly couple), and "Alice Portnoy" (which featured Carol Burnett as a  little girl who is a member of  the Fireside Girls of America). Perhaps the best known and most influential of the recurring sketches was simply called "The Family". "The Family" sketches began in the show's seventh season. They featured Carol Burnett as  Eunice Higgins, a temperamental woman given to dreams of success. Eunice's dreams of success are pretty much squashed by both a lack of any real talent and the fact that she has to take care of her mother. Mama, played by Vicki Lawrence, tends to be belligerent and easily annoyed, and is given to making sometimes unkind wisecracks. Harvey played Eunice's husband Ed, who was as ill-tempered as Eunice and not terribly bright. Both Mama and Eunice regularly attacked him for his lack of success.

"The Family" sketches proved extremely popular. Eventually they would lead to the 1982 television movie Eunice. Eunice would in turn to lead the TV series Mama's Family, starring Vicki Lawrence as Thelma "Mama" Harper. Due to various circumstances, Carol Burnett did not appear in Mama's Family beyond the show's first season.

From its very first season The Carol Burnett Show was nominated for several Emmy Awards each year. Over the years it won several off the awards, including ones for Special Classification Achievements - Individuals (Variety Performances) for Harvey Korman, Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for Ernie Flatt, Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music, Outstanding Variety Series - Musical, Outstanding Achievement by a Supporting Performer in Music or Variety for Tim Conway, and Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music for Vicki Lawrence.

While The Carol Burnett Show never ranked in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for the year, it did perform consistently well in the ratings. The show reached its peak in the ratings in the 1969-1970 season, when it ranked no. 13 for the year. For its first nine seasons it always ranked in the top thirty shows for the year. It was in its tenth season that it slipped to no. 44 for the year. The following season, its eleventh and last, it slipped to no. 66.

Despite receiving respectable ratings for most of its run, CBS did move The Carol Burnett Show around its schedule over the show's run. It spent its first four seasons on Monday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central. In its fifth season it moved to Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 Central. It remained there for the following season before CBS moved it to Saturdays at 10:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central. It remained on Saturday nights for the rest of its run.

While ratings for The Carol Burnett Show had fallen from what they once were, CBS still wanted to renew the show for a 12th season. That having been said, Carol Burnett had tired of making the show each week and wanted to explore acting. The Carol Burnett Show then ended its run after eleven years. It would be revived after a fashion as the summer replacement show Carol Burnett & Company, which aired on ABC from August 18 to September 8 1979. In 1982 "The Family" sketches led to the TV movie Eunice. This in turn led to the sitcom Mama's Family. CBS revived The Carol Burnett Show in 1991. Unfortunately it failed in the ratings and lasted only nine episodes.

The Carol Burnett Show proved to be the last great variety show. Other variety shows would debut in its wake. For example, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour would prove very popular. But none of the other variety shows to debut after The Carol Burnett Show lasted nearly as long, nor did they prove nearly as memorable.  To this day people can recall many of the sketches that aired on The Carol Burnett Show. What is more, it has proven somewhat successful in syndication, a rarity for variety shows, although the syndicated shows are edited to a half hour and include only the comedy sketches. In the end, The Carol Burnett Show remains one of the most popular variety shows of all time.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Jessica Mitford's Centenary

“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”--Jessica Mitford

It was 100 years ago today that journalist, author, and activist Jessica Mitford was born at Asthall Manor in Gloucestershire. In the United Kingdom she may be most famous as the author of the memoir Hons and Rebels and one of the legendary Mitford sisters, "the Communist Mitford". In North America she may be most famous for her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. In fact, aside from her eldest sister, novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford, Jessica Mitford (called "Decca" by one and all) may be the most famous of the Mitford Sisters in all of the United States. Regardless, she would have a lasting impact both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

If anything else could be said about Jessica Mitford, it is that she always marched to the beat of her own drum. While most of the Mitford family tended to be politically conservative (and sisters Diana and Unity were Fascists), not only were Decca's political beliefs at the far left of the political spectrum, but she was a member of the Communist Party for much of her life. She was only 19 years old when she ran away with her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain and the two of them got married. The two of them would later emigrate to the United States. With the outbreak of World War II, Esmond Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Sadly, on November 30 1941 he went missing in action. Jessica Mitford remained in the United States and later married civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft.

In the United States, Jessica Mitford continued to be politically active. In the early Fifties she was the executive secretary of the Civil Rights Congress. She was active in the civil rights movement even then and fought to prevent the execution of Willie McGee, an African American accuse of raping a white housewife. Her first bit of real writing came about through her political activity. In 1956 she published the small booklet Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man, a parody both of her sister Nancy Mitford's famous essay on "U and non-U English" as well as the many clichés used by her fellow leftists.

It was in 1960 that Jessica Mitford's first professionally published book, Hons and Rebels, came out. A memoir of her childhood and youth, the book proved to be a best seller. Among other things, it helped fuel the public's fascination with the Mitford sisters ever since. Despite the success of Hons and Rebels, Decca's future as a writer lay not in biography, but in muckraking journalism. For Esquire magazine she wrote "Whut They're Thanking Down There", an article on attitudes in the American Deep South. To research the article she travelled to Montgomery, Alabama and wound up caught in a riot when the Ku Klux Klan rushed civil rights activists. Afterwards she attended a rally led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her article was published in the May 1962 issue of Esquire.

A political cartoon from the October 27 1963 issue of
The Chicago Sun-Times referencing The American
Way of Death
and Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring
It would be another article that would lead to what would be Jessica Mitford's most successful written work. As a lawyer her husband Bob Treuhaft often worked on the estates of members of unions. Over time he noticed that the union death benefits were more often than not eaten up by funeral expenses. Decca took up the cause and ultimately wrote the article "Saint Peter Don't You Call Me", which was published in Frontier magazine. The article would result in Jessica Mitford appearing on a local television programme alongside representatives from the funeral industry. The reaction to her appearance on television led Decca to think there was enough interest for a whole book on the subject. The American Way of Death was published in 1963. It almost immediately leapt to the top of the best seller list, where it remained for months. It also sent shock waves throughout the American funeral industry, who branded Decca "public enemy number 1". Eventually the book would result in new regulations regarding the funeral industry throughout the United States.

Following The American Way of Death, Decca would continue to work as a muckraking journalist. In the article "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers", published in the 1970 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she exposed the shady business practices of the Famous Writers School. In her 1970 book The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchel Goodman, and Marcus Raskin, she wrote about the Boston Five, who, after signing the manifesto “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority", were arrested for conspiracy to violate draft laws. Her 1973 book Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business dealt with the American penal system, while her 1992 book The American Way of Birth dealt with the high cost of giving birth.

Of course, Decca wrote other books beyond her muckraking exposés. Her 1977 book A Fine Old Conflict was a memoir of her life in the Communist Party that poked a good deal of fun at the Far Left. Her 1988 Grace Had an English Heart: The Story of Grace Darling, Heroine and Victorian Superstar was about Grace Darling, the legendary lighthouse keeper's daughter who rescued survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838.

Jessica Mitford was certainly not alone among the Mitford sisters in being a writer. Nancy Mitford's claim to fame is as a novelist and biographer. Her sisters Diana Mosley and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire both wrote books, although they did not see the success that Nancy and Decca did. That having been said, Jessica Mitford would do one thing that her sisters never did; she recorded songs. She was the leader of Decca and the Dectones, essentially a cowbell and kazoo band. Decca and the Dectones recorded versions of The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and 'Grace Darling". With her dear friend Maya Angelou she recorded a version of "Right, Said Fred". Decca even opened for Cyndi Lauper on the roof of the Virgin Records store in San Francisco.

Jessica Mitford died at age 78 from lung cancer on July 22 1996. As might be expected, her funeral was fairly cheap. It cost only  $533.31. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea, the cremation costing only $475. She left behind a legacy whose impact is still being felt to this day.

While the Mitford Industry may well have come into being without it, arguably Decca's book Hons and Rebels was key in spurring the interest that have surrounded the sisters ever since. Beyond furthering the legend of the Mitfords, it would also have a lasting influence in other ways. J. K. Rowling, the creator of "Harry Potter" and author Christopher Hitchens both count Hons and Rebels as an influence.

In many respects her book The American Way of Death would have an even greater impact. It turned the high cost of American funerals into a cause célèbre in the mid-Sixties. This would eventually lead to changes regarding the regulation of funeral costs throughout the United States. It would even have an impact on popular culture. While the film The Loved One (1965) was very loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, its treatment of the funeral industry was informed to a large degree by The American Way of Death.  Following The American Way of Death, American writers, producers, and directors were no longer hesitant about poking fun at the American funeral industry or engaging in some rather dark humour regarding death.

While none of Decca's other works would quite have the impact that The American Way of Death did, her other works of investigative journalism would have an impact. Her exposé of the Famous Writers School would eventually lead to it filing bankruptcy. Over the years Jessica Mitford set her sights on a variety of shady targets, from expensive weight loss programs to American television network censorship to over-priced tourist traps. Even if Decca's articles and books didn't always get results, she always succeeded in embarrassing the guilty.

Arguably Jessica Mitford was among the most successful investigative journalists of the 20th Century. Her success was due to the number of factors, not the least of which was a rebellious streak that had begun when she very young. Like her sisters she also happened to be highly intelligent and possessed a wicked sense of humour. Other investigative journalists were often ineffective because their works were simply dry accounts filled with statistics and testimonials. Decca's books were not only informative, but also very funny. One has to suspect that The American Way of Death was such a success because it not only addressed an issue that had long been of concern to the average American, but because it was also very entertaining. In the end Jessica Mitford would have an incredible impact that is still being felt to this day.