Friday, August 13, 2004

Action Figures and Merchandising

I am still thinking about action figures. One thing I have been pondering is whether G. I. Joe can be considered the first action figure. It is true that the marketing people at Hasbro invented the term "action figure" for G. I. Joe, but it seems to me that action figures may have existed even before there was a word for them. Off the top of my head, I can think of two toys that could be considered "action figures" prior to G. I. Joe. The first was a Popeye "doll" made in 1932. The "doll" was jointed and made of wood. There was also a Superman "doll" made in 1939 by Ideal. It was made of wood, with cloth cape. And the joints at the elbows and knees were articulated. In both cases, I would assume that boys, rather than girls, were expected to play with these "dolls." They also displayed a degree of articulation seen in the "action figures" of the Sixties and Seventies. I would then say that these were indeed action figures that were simply created before there was a term for them. It is quite possible G. I Joe was not the first action figure, but simply the first one to be termed such.

Another thing I was thinking is that long before Star Wars, licensing went hand in hand with action figures. One story has it that G. I. Joe was created as a possible tie in with Gene Roddenberry's show The Lieutenant. Television also apparently played a role in the creation of Marx's Johnny West line. Marx had intended to create a series of action figures based on various characters from TV Westerns. They had planned to create action figures with the likenesses of Fess Parker (Daniel Boone), James Arness (Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) and so on. Unfortunately, the licensing proved too expensive for Marx to afford. They then went ahead with a Daniel Boone action figure (as a historical figure he was in public domain). And while their deals to procure the rights to produce action figures based on various TV Westerns fell through, Marx went ahead with the successful Johnny West line.

Given the fact that G. I. Joe may have originated as a tie in to a TV show and Johnny West originated out of the failure to procure such a tie in, it was an eventuality that someone would produce action figures based on a TV show or movie. In the wake of G. I. Joe's success. I have no idea what the first such company to produce an action figure as a tie in to a movie or TV show was. I do know one of the earliest was Gilbert, which produced a James Bond action figure in 1964. A year later they produced one of Oddjob, the heavy from the movie Goldfinger. In all they produced ten figures, including Miss Moneypenny, M, Dr. No, Emilio Largo (from Thunderball), Auric Goldfinger, Oddjob, Domino (the girl from Thunderball), and three different versions of 007. They also released several playsets.

Of course, James Bond was not the only spy on the block in the mid-Sixties. A veritable spy craze had overtaken both the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the airwaves of both countires were filled with them. In America, the most successful such series was perhaps The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. The makers of the James Bond line of action figures, Gilbert, also produced action figures based on the heroes from The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in 1965. Another licensing tie-in for the Gilbert company was the Honey West action figure. Although Honey West was not a spy, she was a detective who used many of the same gadgets.

In 1966 The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was spun off from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. This added one more spy to the airwaves and one more action figure to store shelves. Marx manufactured an April Dancer figure in 1966.

Marx also issued action figures based on the popular show Rat Patrol. Rat Patrol followed the adventures of a jeep patrol as they fought their way across North Africa during World War II. Marx made two figures based on the series, Sgt. Sam Troy and Sgt. Jack Moffitt.

Even though spies had overwhelmed the airwaves, Westerns continued to be popular on televison. In fact, the number one show for many seasons was Bonanza. In 1966, then, American Character released action figures based on the characters of the successful show: Ben (Lorne Greene), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon). Reportedly, there was to have been an action figure based on Adam (Pernell Roberts), the eldest son of Ben Cartwright. Roberts left the show just as the figures were going into production. American Character simply added a moustache to his action figure to create a generic "Outlaw."

Of course, Ideal's entry into the action figure field, Captain Action, totally relied on licensed characters. He could be dressed as Aquaman, Batman, Buck Rogers, Captain America, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Sgt. Fury, Spider-Man, Steve Canyon, or Tonto. When it came to licensing, Captain Action must have been a logistical nightmare...

In the days before Star Wars, it was Mego that was the king of character tie-ins. In the wake of the failure of Action Jackson, they created the World's Greatest Superheroes line in 1972. The initial action figures included Batman, Superman, Captain America and Spiderman. The line soon grew to include many more heroes. Mego followed the success of the World's Greatest Superheroes with more tie ins.

In 1974 Mego started a successful line based on Star Trek. There were action figures based on the bridge crew (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and so on) and various aliens from the show (a Klingon, a Romulan, and so on). That same year Mego started a line of Planet of the Apes action figures. They issued figures based on astronauts Burke and Verdon (from the short lived TV series), as well Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, Galen, General Urko, Zira, and others.

Mego relied heavily on licensing for most of their products, with action figures based on Starsky and Hutch, The Wizard of Oz, the rock group KISS, Happy Days, and others. Unfortunately, licensing would play a role in Mego's downfall. They procured the rights to movies and series that proved to be flops, such as the movie The Black Hole and the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Mego filed for bankruptcy in 1982.

Mego's failure hardly stopped other companies from pursuing the licensing of characters. In the time that Mego spiralled downward, Kenner had introduced the Star Wars with resounding success. With the success of Kenner's Star Wars line, companies sought even more licences for movies and TV series. And with those licences came even more action figures...

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Action Figures BSW (Before Star Wars)

Earlier this summer, G. I. Joe celebrated his 40th birthday. Joe and other action figures are a fond memory from my childhood. I never have come upon a satisfactory definition of "action figure," what makes an action figure different from a "doll." I know that the term was coined by the marketing team at Hasbro (short for Hassenfeld Brothers) because they feared that boys would not play with a "doll." As to the creation of Joe himself, there are two stories. One is that Stan Weston, a toy developer, went to Hasbro with the idea of poseable soldier toy. The second story is that Weston came to Don Levene, then Vice President of Marketing at Hasbro, with the idea of a poseable soldier toy based upon the show called The Lieutenant (the first show produced by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry). For whatever reason, nothing ever came of the tie in with The Lieutenant, although Hasbro went ahead with the idea of G. I. Joe, creating one of the most successful toys of all time.

In the wake of Joe's success came other action figures. One of the earliest was the line of Johnny West action figures put out by Marx. As the name implies, the Johnny West figures drew upon the popularity of Westerns at the time. Johnny West proved fairly successful, and the line ran in some form or another for over ten years. I can remember the Johnny West action figures quite well, as I had cousins and a neighbour who had nearly complete sets. In fact, they may have been the first action figures I ever played with.

I also remember Marx produced a line of medieval knight action figures called Noble Knights. There was Sir Brandon (the Blue knight), Sir Cedric (the Black knight), Sir Gordon (the Gold Knight), and Sir Stuart (the Silver knight). They even had a castle playset! They also produced Viking action figures: Erik the Viking and Odin the Viking (never mind that no Viking in ancient times would be named for a god...).

There was also Ideal's answer to G. I. Joe, Captain Action. Like G. I. Joe, the idea of Captain Action originated with Stan Weston. Captain Action could be changed into various heroes. Provided a boy had the proper costumes for the figure, Captain Action could be dressed as Aquaman, Batman, Buck Rogers, Captain America, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Sgt. Fury, Spider-Man, Steve Canyon, or Tonto. Ideal added another action figure, Action Boy, who could be costumed as Aqualad, Robin, or Superboy. A villain was also added, Dr. Evil (not to be confused with the Austin Powers character of the same name...), although oddly enough Dr. Evil could not be dressed as different bad guys... Captain Action proved less than successful. The line was started in 1966 and then abruptly ended in 1968. That may be why I don't remember Captain Action at all. I would have been all of about five when the line ended.

I do remember Major Matt Mason, Mattel's entry into the action figure sweepstakes. Major Matt Mason was introduced in 1967 to capitalise on popularity of the American space programme at the time. Major Matt Mason was an astronaut. Naturally, there were a number of accessories available to him: a Space Sled, a Jet Pack, a Space Suit, a space station, and so on. Eventually, Mattel's "Man in Space" was joined by Sgt. Storm, Doug Davis, Jeff Long, and even an alien, Callisto. Given how many of my friends had Major Matt Mason figures, I would have thought the line was very popular, but it only lasted 3 years. In 1970 Mattel cancelled the line, I am guessing due to declining interest in the space programme at the time.

Regardless, my first action figure was one called "Action Jackson." This was the first action figure produced by Mego, later famous for successful lines of action figures based on superheroes, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and so on. There were a number of accessories and vehicles available for Action Jackson: a camper, a dune buggy, a foot locker, a helicopter, a horse, a jeep, a water scooter, and many more. There were also playsets, the Adventure Set, the Lost Continent, and so on. But despite the accessories, vehicles, and playsets, Action Jackson was a failure. Introduced in 1971, he was gone by 1973. Despite this, Action Jackson was one of my favourite toys as a child and I enjoyed many hours playing with him. As for Mego, they recovered quite nicely with the World's Greatest Superheroes line.

After Action Jackson, I got G. I. Joe and a score of Mego superheroes, as well as the Star Trek action figures. My brother got Big Jim, an action figure put out by Mattel. Big Jim didn't prove very successful, as Mattel kept changing his image. Originally the Big Jim line focused on athleticism and sports. The line then shifted to an emphasis on the outdoors and camping with the addition of a Big Josh figure (essentially Jim with a beard). Finally, they tried to make Big Jim a superhero. He was the leader of Big Jim's P.A.C.K. (Professional Agents/Crime Killers). Other figures in the P.A.C.K. line were Dr. Steel (a martial artist with a "steel" hand), The Whip (an expert with the whip and other weapons), and Warpath (a Native American who was expert with the bow). The line still failed to sell and was discontinued in 1977.

It wasn't very long after I was too old for toys that action figures essentially shrunk in size. G. I. Joe and the various Marx figures were about 12" high. Action Jackson and the other Mego figures were about 8". With Kenner's line of 3 3/4 inch Star Wars figures, no one wanted larger action figures any more. Perhaps because I grew up with the larger action figures, I always liked them better. But then when the Star Wars figures came out, I was too old to play with toys and it was out of my hands.

I suppose it is a cliche that men never outgrow their love of toys. At least it does hold true of myself. If I had the money I probably would collect them. And, probably, when no one was looking, I would even play them...

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Mom and Pop Restaurants

I don't eat out terribly often, primarily because Huntsville (and Moberly, for that matter) do not boast a wide array of restaurants. More often than not, if I do eat somewhere other than home, it is usually at a fast food chain restaurant. Despite this, I must say that I prefer locally owned restaurants myself. It is often the case that local, "mom and pop" restaurants have better tasting food and more varied menus than chain restaurants. And often their prices are actually not that much higher than chain restaurants. Regardless of the quality of the food or the prices, it has been my experience that the one thing that local restaurants have that most chain restaurants lack is atmosphere.

If I had to pick a favourite restaurant in Randolph County, it would probably be the Sub Shop. I don't even know if it is still open, but I used to eat there all the time in the Eighties. Their sandwiches were fairly good and they served the best chili in town. The place also had great atmosphere. A ceiling fan was in the dining area and potted plants were scattered about. Old movie pictures and photos of stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood covered the walls. This gave the Sub Shop a rather old time feel, as if it belonged more in a black and white movie than the 1980's.

Of course, when I eat at a local restaurant it is usually because I have gone to Columbia for shopping or to visit friends. In downtown Colubmia there are two of my favourite places to eat. One is Ernie's Cafe and Steakhouse, a little place on Walnut Street. Ernie's has been open since 1934 and it is easy to see why. They fix some of the best hamburgers and steaks in Boone County. The place is decorated with a Dick Tracy theme, complete with original, autographed drawings by Chester Gould himself. I also seem to recall it has a few autographed drawings by Mort Walker--no surprise as the creator of Beetle Bailey attended the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The other downtown restaurant I love is the Heidelberg. The Heidelberg is right on the edge of the UMC campus. As a result it has been popular with students since it opened (I believe it has been arond in some form or another since the Twenties). Unfortunately, the Heidelberg burned last August. That is a shame as it was a beautiful, old restaurant and bar. Their food was fairly good, with everything from cheeseburgers to steak. And the place was beautiful. It reminded me of the the bars and restaurants one might see in old time movie, with ceiling fans and brick walls and dim lighting. I do believe that they plan to rebuild, but I have not heard if they have reopened yet.

Those are just a few of the restaurants that I have enjoyed. As far as I am concerned, a good restaurant should combine good food, low prices, and a good atmosphere. This is something that many "mom and pop" places accomplish. It is not something that the average chain restaurant does. While their food may be good and while their prices may be low, they often lack the unique atmosphere of local restaurants.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Red Adair and August

World famous fire fighter Paul "Red" Adair died in Houston, Texas a few days ago. He was 89. I don't remember seeing it on any of the national newscasts, nor did I read it on the paper. I only know because my sister told me and she had heard it on KWIX radio. That seems very sad to me, as in my opinion Adair was a true hero. He was a firefighter who specialised in fighting oil well fires and founder of Red Adair Company Inc. He often risked his life to save the lives of others. And he took special pride in never having lost one of his crew. Among the fires he put out were "the Devil's Cigarette Lighter (the fire at a gas field in the Sahara in 1962)," the exposion at the Piper Alpha platform on the North Sea in 1988, and the Kuwiat oil well fires in 1991. Adair's exploits were the basis for the John Wayne movie Hellfighters. Quite frankly, I think that Red Adair would be a much better role model for the youth of America than many sports figures and movie stars. Unfortunately, maybe if he had been a sports figure or a movie star, his death would have been front page news.

Today our high temperature was only in the seventies. That is unusually cool for August. August is usually cooler than July in Missouri, but the average temperature this time of year is still around 89 degrees. I am happy that the temperatures are cooler than usual. It makes August much more pleasant.

I remember as a child that I was not particularly fond of August. First and most importantly, it was the month when we went back to school. Since I was not particularly fond of school, I was not particularly fond of August. Second, except for the Sidewalk Bazaar in Moberly and the State Fair in Sedalia (which I have never been to), nothing was going on in August. There were no holidays or anything. I thought of August as just a hot, drab month which meant school would be in session. My opinion has changed since I became an adult. I don't mind that there are very few events in August and I don't have to worry about school. Of course, I still despise the heat, but, then again, it isn't July...

Monday, August 9, 2004

The Late, Great Fay Wray

"Whatever happened to Fay Wray?
That delicate satin draped frame?"

("Fanfare/Don't Dream It" (Richard O'Brien, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show)

Fay Wray died yesterday in her Manhattan home at age 96. She was best known as the "beauty," Ann Darrow, with whom the "beast," Kong, fell in love in the classic 1933 feature film King Kong. King Kong was the mega-hit of 1933, topping the box office for that year. It also became a part of American pop culture, with the image of Kong grasping Wray atop the Empire State Building (just completed in 1931--it was only two years old at the time) etched into the minds of people across the world. So successful was the film single handedly that it saved RKO Studios from bankruptcy.

While Fay Wray would forever be identified with King Kong, she did have a fairly good career both before and after her paths crossed with the giant ape. Her film career began n 1923 with Gasoline Love. She would go onto appear in a number of major motion pictures, among them the 1929 version of The Four Feathers, Doctor X, The Vampire Bat, the 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game, and Mystery of the Wax Museum, before King Kong. After King Kong she would appear in such films as Viva Villa! and Bulldog Jack. Her career slowed down in 1950 after her then husband, Robert Riskin (writer of the Capra classic It Happened One Night) had a stroke. She appeared less in movies and more in television. She played the mother in the 1953 TV series Pride of the Family (on which Natalie Wood also had an early role) and appeared in many TV shows, among them Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, and Wagon Train. Her last feature film was Dragstrip Riot. Her last TV guest appearance was on Perry Mason in 1965. In 1980, after 15 years away from the screen, she made a final appearance in the TV film Gideon's Trumpet opposite Henry Fonda.

Perhaps because King Kong throws such a large shadow over her career, Fay Wray never was listed among the great actresses. And yet, I think she was very good when it came to acting. This can even be seen in her most famous film, King Kong. Wray's Ann Darrow is independent yet vulnerable. Although initally frightened by Kong, she eventually realises the giant ape means her no harm. Wray was convincing in other roles as well. She played an elegant Mexican aristocrat in Viva Villa!, the strong willed female lawyer in Ann Carver's Profession, and the temptress Louise Loring in Woman in the Dark.

I was always enamoured of Fay Wray. I think most young boys have been at one point or another. Petite, beautiful, and blonde, she became part of our pop culture. Indeed, tonight they are going to dim the lights of the Empire State Building in her honour. I think that's a fitting salue for a woman who helped make the skyscraper famous.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Songs for the Decades

I'm sure this has happened to everyone. One hears a song and it takes him or her back to a certain time or place. I cannot say I am an exception to this rule. In fact, there are certain songs that when I hear them, I think of a particular decade. These songs are not necessarily the best songs of their decades. They are not necessarily the most popular sons of their decades. But they are songs that sum up those decades for me perfectly.

I was only 7 years old when the Sixties ended. It is then difficult for me to really say what the Sixties were like. When I think of the Sixties, I tend to think of various rock groups, TV shows, movies, and fashions. I am sure that an older person might think of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, anti-war protests, and so on, things a kid would not necessarily remember. Regardless of my admittedly dim memories of the decade, there are two songs that bring to mind the Sixties for me. One is "For What It's Worth" (Stop, Hey, What's That Sound) by the Buffalo Springfield. Released in 1967 and written by Stpehen Stills, the song had some of the folk rock sound that would later characterised Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young. The song's lyrics are essentially a warning of the violence and paranoia of the times and a call to action to prevent that violence and paranoia from entirely consuming individuals. This sentiment seems particularly characteristic of a decade when protests and political unrest were the rule of the day.

The other song that makes me think of the Sixties is "Get Together" by The Youngbloods. Like "For What It's Worth" (Stop, Hey, What's That Sound), "Get Together" was orignally released in 1967. It did not perform particularly well on the charts at that time. The song may well have been forgotten had the National Conferance of Christians and Jews used as part of their promotion for "Brotherhood Week." The song then climbed to #5 on the Billboard Singles charts. The song's lyrics are essentially a call to choose love and brotherhood over fear. Again, this is another sentiment characteristic of the decade of the Sixties.

When it comes to the Seventies, I can think of only one song: "Slow Ride" by Foghat. By the time of the Seventies, the social activism of the Sixties had given way to the hedonism of the Seventies. "Slow Ride" was on the album Fool for the City released in 1975. It was the first Foghat song to hit the top forty and Fool for the City was their first album to go platinum. The song's rather simplistic (and repetitive) lyrics appear to about a rendevous with a "slow ridin' woman." As such, I suppose that "Slow Ride" is essentially a timeless song. Still, being a song essentially about seeking pleasure and the fact that it was a major hit in the middle of the decade, "Slow Ride" characterises the Me Decade for me perfectly, a song about pleasure from a decade obsessed with it. I have always liked "Slow Ride," although I tend to tire of the song easily. I did not like the Seventies and tired of them almost immediately.

Like the Sixties, the Eighties have two quintessential songs where I am concerned. One is "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell. Even though Soft Cell's version of the song is arguably the most famous, it was not the first. The original version was recorded in 1964 by soul singer Gloria Jones. At that time the song did not do well. After having moved to the UK and married T. Rex Front man Marc Bolan, she recorded a new version of the song in 1975. Although it was not a major hit, it did well on the dance club circuit. In 1981 Soft Cell released their synthesizer version. It went to number one on the UK charts and number 8 in the U.S. In the United States it stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for a record 43 weeks. The lyrics to "Tainted Love" are essentially timeless--they are the plea of a wronged lover in an essentialy toxic relationship. Still, with the synth sound that was popular at the time, Soft Cell's version seems to me to be irrevocably tied to the Eighties.

The other song I identify with the Seventies is "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by the Eurythmics. The song was the sixth single of the Eurythimics and their biggest hit. Written by the Eurythmics (Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart), "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" is a cynical statement on the human condition and what "sweet dreams" are made of. For me "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" is in many ways the perfect song for the "Greed is Good" mentality of the Eighties. Unfortunatley, its lyrics would seem to hold true for many of the "get rich quick" individuals so common in that decade. It was also a synth pop song like "Tainted Love." Curiously, Marilyn Manson remade both songs.

There really isn't a song I identify with the Nineties. I can't say why. I tend to think of the entire Grunge movement as characterising the decade, but there is not an individual song with which I identify it. Similarly, there are no songs I identify with the Naughts either, but then this decade is not over yet. I'm sure that given time I will think of the quintessential Nineties song and the quintessential Naughts song.