Saturday, October 2, 2004

The Golden Age of Horror Movies

Most people would agree that in 1931 a Golden Age of the horror film began with the releases of Dracula and Frankenstein that year. Individuals can debate when that Golden Age ended. Some would end it in 1936 with the release of Dracula's Daughter. Others would end it in 1946, with the release of Abbot and Costello Meet Frakenstein. Regardless, there is almost no debate as to when it began.

For that matter there is almost no debate as to where it began either. Universal Studios was founded in 1912 by German immigrant Carl Laemmle. As early as 1913 the studio was making horror movies--The Werewolf and a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1920s Universal made a number of horror movies and near horror movies with Lon Chaney, the most famous being the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Carl Laemmle himself was not that fond of the genre, although his son, Carl Laemmle Jr., loved horror movies. When Carl Laemmle Jr. took over the company in 1929, he then naturally turned to the horror genre. It was Universal that made the first horror talkie, Dracula, released on Valentine's Day in 1931.

With Dracula, Universal had a huge hit. Its star, Bela Lugosi, became a household name. In the process he was typecast forever. It also arguably set the tone for Universal horror movies to come. The opening, set in Transylvania and eventually winding up at Castle Dracula, would have a lasting influence on Gothic horror films to come. I personally don't think the film has stood the test of time too well. The plot seems to bog down once the action moves to England and the film seems terribly talky, even for a film of its time. And while Lugosi handles the role of Dracula quite well in many parts of the movie, there are a few scenes where he just seems to overact (particularly the scene where Dracula tries to mesmerise Van Helsing). Regardless, it is still considered a classic by many. In fact, it is one of the oldest talkies that is still shown commercially.

The success of Dracula led Carl Laemmle Jr. to seek out other classic horror movies which could be adapted to the screen. He eventually settled on Frankenstein, the classic novel by Mary Shelley. Universal acquired the screen rights to the 1927 British play Frankenstein: An Experiment in the Macabre. Initially, Robert Florey was set to direct the movie and Bela Lugosi would play the Monster. Eventually, Florey was replaced by James Whale. As to Lugosi, not particuarly being thrilled with working in make up (he feared he would not be recognised), he was not cast as the Monster. Instead, James Whale cast veteran actor Boris Karloff in the role. Karloff had been acting in movies for literally years, usually playing heavies, when he got the role that would make him famous.

Frankenstein, released in late 1931, proved to be an even larger hit than Dracula. It was literally the Titanic or Star Wars of its day. And it is undeniably a classic. From James Whale's direction to Karloff's performance as the Monster to the art direction of the film, it is nearly perfect. Perhaps no other horror film would ever have the impact or the influence of Frankenstein. It success insured that Universal would make even more horror films in the years to come.

One of these horror films would be The Bride of Frankenstein, the first sequel to the 1931 Frankenstein, released in 1935. It would be one of the few sequels in the history of film to actually surpass the original movie in quality. The Bride of Frankenstein successfully combined frights, humour, philosophical content, and strong characterisation in one film. It is arguably the greatest horror film of all time, its influence perhaps surpassed only by the original Frankenstein.

Of course, Universal made more movies than those featuring Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula. Throughout the early Thirties they made a variety of horror movies, often with Karloff, Lugosi, or both in lead roles. The Old Dark House, released in 1932, was directed by Frankenstein director James Whale himself. It is a combination haunted house movie, comedy of manners, and horror movie spoof, with Karloff playing the forebear of all creepy butlers to come. It was during this era that Universal also did its first werewolf movie, The Werewolf of London, released in 1935. While not nearly as successful as the Frankenstein and Dracula movies, Werewolf of London is a very interesting movie. Eschewing the raveous beast portrayal of a werewolf, the movie plays out like a cross between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Universal's The Wolf Man.

Of course, other studios followed Universal's lead in producing horror movies during this period. Paramount produced two of the best horror movies of the time. One was a new version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and released very late in 1931. This version of the story featured Frederic March in the lead role, a role for which March would later receive the Oscar for Best Actor. Many consider this film to be the quinessential version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Another Paramount horror film of the period is perhaps one of the greatest horror films of all time, although it is largely forgotten now. Island of Lost Souls was based on H. G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau and featured Charles Laughton as the mad Dr. Moreau. Released in 1933, the movie caused considerable controversy in its day with its tale of Dr. Moreau crossing animals and men--particularly controversial was Moreau's none too subtle hints to the hero (Edward Parker played by Richard Arlen) that he breed with half panther/half woman Lota (played by Leila Hyams). Viewing the movie today it is no surprise that it would cause controversy--it is an intense film even today.

Surprisingly, another controversial horror film was produced by MGM, better known for musicals and costume dramas. Released in 1932, Freaks was directed by veteran horror director Todd Browning (who, among other things, had direced Universal's Dracula). The movie centred around the scheme of a trapeze artist (Cleopatra) and her strong man lover (Hercules) to rob a midget (Hans) of his fortune and the consequences which stem from their actions. Browning chose to cast actual freaks and carnival performers in many of the roles, which led to part of the controversy regarding this film when it was first released. The other part of the controversy stemmed from the violence in the movie. Indeed, even today Freaks is a disquieting film to watch.

None of these movies had the lasting impact that Universal's horror movies did, with the exception of a movie produced by RKO. King Kong would be the smash hit of 1933. Its star, the giant ape called Kong, would become as well known as any of the Universal's monsters. Its lead actress, Fay Wray, would forever be remembered as the beauty who "killed the beast." For its day, King Kong was absolutely revolutionary. For one thing, its effects were state of the art. With King Kong, stop motion animation took a giant leap forward. For another, it was one of the first horror movies (along with the Frankenstein films) to evoke sympathy for the antagonist (in this case, Kong). Many viewers truly felt saddened with the great ape fell from the Empire State Building. Even today, in the age of CGI, King Kong still holds up.

Of course, not every horror film of the era was produced by a major studio. Released in 1932, White Zombie was produced by the Halperin brothers, Edward and Victor (Victor also directed). The movie featured Bela Lugosi in one of his bigger roles, as Legendre, a man who turns people into zombies. Although made on a shoestring budget, the movie definitely has atmosphere and is still somewhat effective today. Indeed, it paved the way for all voodoo/zombie movies to come.

By 1936, two events happened that would prove pivotal in the Golden Age of the horror film. First, the Laemmele family lost control of Universal Studios. The stockholders, unhappy with Carl Laemmele Jr., voted them out. Universal continued making horror movies even after the removal of the Laemmele, although not for long. That same year the United Kingdom banned all horror movies. This caused a considerable dip in Universal's overseas revenue, as well as that of any other studio which made a horror movie. On top of this, horror movies had been declining in revenue Stateside as well. Quite simply, horror movies weren't economical to make any more.

It is for that reason that Dracula's Daughter, released in 1936, would be the last horror film Universal would make for three years. Although hardly remembered now, the first sequel to Dracula is an effective film and, in my opinion, superior to the original. It possesses a strong hint of eroticism rarely found in films of that era, as well as a strong sense of atmosphere. And in Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Krueger) and his secretary, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), it had two of the best developed protagonists in horror movies of the era.

Because it would be three years before Universal would make another horror movie and no other studies were making horror films either, many consider the release of Dracula's Daughter to be the end of the Golden Age of the Horror Film. Or, at the very least, the end of the First Golden Age of the Horror Film. Universal would not make another horror movie until Son of Frankenstein in 1939. While Universal had stopped making horror movies in 1936, it re-released both Frankenstein and Dracula in 1937 to big box office. That success led the studio to reconsider making horror films and led to Son of Frankenstein. The success of Son of Frankenstein would lead to a new round of Universal horror movies, as well as RKO's classic Val Lewton chillers, and horror movies from other studios. Whether this was a continuation of the Golden Age of Horror or a Second Golden Age or even a Silver Age, I suppose, is a matter for debate...

Friday, October 1, 2004

The One Hit Wonderful Eighties

Yesterdy KSDK played "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell. I have always loved the song. In fact, I view as the quintessential Eighties song. That having been said, Soft Cell was also a prime example of a one hit wonder in the Eighties. I don't have any statistics at my access, so I can't be sure, but I think the Eighties may have produced more one hit wonders than any decade save the Sixties.

Another prime example of an Eighties one hit wonder was Dexy's Midnight Runners, who produced a smash hit with "Come On, Eileen." The song went all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts. The video was in heavy rotation on MTV. But Dexy's Midnight Runners' album bombed. And the group never had another hit. Another example of a one hit wonder was British band Cutting Crew. They had a huge hit "I Just Died in My Arms" even if it wasn't as huge as either "Tainted Love" or "Come On, Eileen." The band never really had another hit after that.

Of course, in some cases I have to wonder if artists considered one hit wonders really can be. Norwegian band A-Ha is usually counted as a one hit wonder. Their song "Take On Me" was a huge hit. But they actually did have one other hit song. The group did the theme to the Bond movie The Living Daylights. The song didn't do spectacularly well on the charts, but well enough that I don't think they can be considered a one hit wonder. A two hit wonder, maybe...

I really don't know why one hit wonders happen. I suppose in many cases it is just a case of an unextraordinary group coming up with a song with mass appeal. But in other cases, one hit wonders appear to have real talent, yet they still only manage to produce one hit in the whole of their career. I can only guess that a large part of success in the record industry is luck. True, I believe that a lot of success in the record industry is due to hard work and talent, but it seems to me that at least part of it is due to sheer luck. I mean, how else can one explain a group like the Fountains of Wayne, who have been around for years, having only one hit single ("Stacy's Mom") to their name? At any rate, I am guess that the Naughts will have their fair share of one hit wonders too...

Monday, September 27, 2004

Fifty Years of Tonight on NBC

Tonight it will have been fifty years since Tonight has been on NBC. Two men were largely responsible for this late night institution. One was the legendary Sylvester "Pat" Weaver. Weaver was the head of NBC programming in the late Forties and early Fifties. He was also arguably the most innovative network executive in the history of television. He invented the "special (called the "spectacular" in the early Fifties)." He developed Today (aka The Today Show). He developed the "participation advertising," in which many different advertisers might buy time on any one show (during the Fifties, shows were usually sponsored by one company). Weaver also invented late night television.

Pat Weaver was convinced that programming at 10:00 PM CST could draw viewers. To this end, Broadway Open House debuted in 1950. Broadway Open House had a show with a vaudeville/burlesque format (rather common in the Fifties). On Mondays and Fridays it was hosted by Morey Amsterdam (later of The Dick Van Dyke Show) and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays it was hosted by Jerry Lester. Broadway Open House saw the first of its cast changes when Morey Amsterdam left a few months into its run; it would not be the last. Jerry Lester took over hosting chores full time, only to eventually obtain a co-host in the form of Dagmar, a statuesque blonde who had started as a bit player on the show. Lester resented Dagmar's growing popularity and a feud erupted between them. Lester left the show and the show left the air not long afterwards. In all, Broadway Open House only lasted two years.

Despite Broadway Open House's failure, Weaver had not given up on his idea of late night programming. This brings us to the other man responsible for Tonight. On WNBT, NBC's flagship station in New York City, there was a late night show hosted by announcer Steve Allen. The show had the format that has more or less been that of The Tonight Show for the past fifty years. It featured sketch comedy, interviews and games with audience members, interviews with guests, and musical performances. Weaver thought that if the show was successful in New York City, it might be successful nationwide. Tonight debuted on NBC on September 27, 1954.

Allen remained with Tonight until 1956, after which NBC transformed Tonight into Tonight! America After Dark. While Steve Allen's Tonight was a comedy/variety/talk show, Tonight! America After Dark was essentially a night time version of Today. Critics hated it. Viewers stayed away. After 7 months, (January 1957 to July 1957), NBC was forced to return Tonight to its original format. They found a new host in Jack Paar, a televsion veteran who had one time had co-hosted The Morning Show on CBS. While Allen's strong point was sketch comedy, Paar's strong point was interviewing and it was Paar who brought interviews to the show's forefront. It was also Paar who introduced the monologue, with which each show was begun, to The Tonight Show. Paar was a smash hit, so much so that the show was eventually renamed The Jack Paar Show. Paar was possessed of a dry wit and he was overly emotional. He was also positively brilliant. Jack Paar left the show in 1962.

Paar was replaced by Johnny Carson. Carson had been a writer for Red Skelton and had even stood in for Skelton on his show when Skelton had been injured. He had hosted several game shows at CBS and ABC and substituted for Jack Paar on The Morning Show. In some respects, Johnny Carson was a combination of both Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Like Allen, he was cool headed and good at sketch comedy. Like Paar, he was an excellent interviewer. Johnny Carson proved to be the most successful host in Tonight Show history. He hosted the show from 1962 to his retirement in 1992. Since that time, Tonight has been hosted by Jay Leno.

Both Steve Allen and Jack Paar hosted Tonight before I was even born. Fortunately, through the miracles of kineoscope and film, I have been able to see clips from their shows. I have also seen Allen and Paar on many other shows through the years. I always loved Steve Allen. He always seemed well spoken, erudite, and very funny. He impressed me as a renaissance man, as capable of writing a book and acting in a comedy sketch. As to Jack Paar, I think he must have been postively brilliant. From the clips of his shows and his guest appearances on various late night shows over the years, he seems to me to have been witty, informed, and possessed of a dry, but sharp, wit. Of course, once I was able to stay up past 10:30 PM CST, I was able to wach Johnny Carson host Tonight. In many respects, Carson reminds me of my favourite comedian of all time, Jack Benny. Carson was self deprecating and possessed of a biting wit. He could create laugther with a mere look. I think Paar may have been a better host than Carson, but Carson was definitely a great host. As to Jay Leno, I think he has improved a good deal after a somewhat rocky start on the show. I don't know that he will ever be quite as good as his predecessors, but then I think Leno would agree that those are some really big shoes to fill.

At any rate, Tongiht is the longest running late night show of all time. It is a record that I doubt will ever be matched. Having been on for half a century now, I think it is impossible that it will ever be cancelled. If a host on the show proved less than popular, NBC would simply replace him. After four hosts (not counting Jack Lescoulie and Al Collins from Tonight! America After Dark and the various substitutes), it seems that the man behind the desk may not be as important as the institution of Tonight itself.