Saturday, April 9, 2005

MGM and UA Requiescat in Pace

MGM, the studio that brought us the Thin Man films, Grand Hotel, the Tarzan movies, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and even Tom and Jerry, is gone. Gone too is United Artists, the studio that brought us The African Queen the James Bond movies, the Pink Panther films, The Beatles' movies, and Annie Hall. Sony Corporation and a collection of other companies bought United Artists and MGM's assets for $3 billion yesterday. This gives Sony control of both United Artists and MGM's impressive film libraries, as well as the MGM and United Artists names. Sony will continue to release movies under those names, but the days when MGM and United Artists were independent studios are over.

MGM was formed in 1924 through the merger of three studios: Metro (founded in 1915 by the Loews family, owners of the famous theatre chain), Goldwyn (founded in 1916 by famous producer Samuel Goldwyn and Broadway producers Edgar and Archibald Selwyn), and Mayer (founded in 1917 by Louis B. Mayer). MGM became the dominant studio in the Thirties. It boasted more stars than any other studio, including such big names as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow. MGM became known for its large scale melodramas. Still later it would become the home of the Hollywood musical. From the Thirties into the Fifties, it produced such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin' in the Rain.

United Artists was founded in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford. The idea behind United Artists was simple--it was a studio owned by the artists. Unfortunately, United Artists was never as large as studios such as MGM and Warner Brothers. It met with financial problems as early as the late Forties and was bought by Arthur Krim in 1952. He sold it to Transamerica in 1967. Over the years United Artists produced more than its share of classics, such as The Front Page (1931), Scarface (1932), and Judegement at Nuremberg.

Amazingly, MGM also experienced financial difficulties in the Sixties. The studio found more and more of its films failing at the box office. By 1969 MGM was in the hands of corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian. Unfortunately, it fared no better in the Seventies. Buying United Artists in 1981 did not help either studio. Much of the MGM and UA film library was sold to Ted Turner in 1986.

I am truly saddened to hear that MGM/UA has been sold to Sony Corporation and its partners. MGM was the giant of the industry for some time, with many classic films to its credit. United Artists also produced its fair share of classics, although on a smaller scale. I have fond memories of both companies. I remember seeing the MGM logo before such films as The Wizard of Oz and the Thin Man movies, not to mention the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons. I also remember watching many a film with the United Artists logo, among them The Beatles movies and the James Bond films. It is sad to think both studios are gone.

Besides the fact that the two studios have ceased to exist beyond labels to be placed on Sony productions, there is the simple fact that now there are two less studios in existence. It seems that with each year the entertainment industry falls under the control of fewer and fewer companies. At one time there were 7 major studios and a potpourri of smaller ones. I am guessing now that number is much, much smaller. That is unfortunate, as I suspect better movies (and, for that matter, songs, TV shows, books, and so on) are more likely to arise from a diversity of sources than only a few. It is a sad day in entertainment history.

Friday, April 8, 2005

Gene Kelly and Animation

When most people think of animated cartoons, they don't tend to think of musicals as well. Despite this, animation and musicals have a long association going back nearly to the introdcution of sound to motion pictures. Walt Disney was one of the first animators to introduce music into animated cartoons. In fact, Disney's first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a musical, as were the majority of animated features Disney Studios released from the Thirties to the Eighties.

While Disney Studios may have made the most use of music combined with animation (either full animation or animation mixed with live action), they were not the only ones. MGM did its share as well, sometimes incorporating animated segments into its musicals. MGM boasted what may have been the third biggest animation studio in the industry during the Golden Age of Hollywood (only Disney and Warner Brothers may have been bigger) and also boasted two of the industry's most talented animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. MGM may also have been the biggest producer of musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was natural then for MGM to occasionally blend the two. And, naturally, it would be their biggest musical star, Gene Kelly who would work with animated characters the most.

Kelly's first encounter with animation came with the movie Anchors Aweigh. Among the highlights of the film are Kelly's famous dance with Jerry the mouse of Tom and Jerry fame. Oddly enough, initally Mickey Mouse had been wanted for the sequence, even though MGM had more than its fair share of famous cartoon characters. Walt Disney refused permission to use Mickey, so it was Jerry who got to perform the famous dance. The sequence was created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who also happened to be the creators of Tom and Jerry, MGM's most famous characters. Seeing the sequence, even Dinsey was forced to admit that it was better than anything his studio could have done during that period. Keep in mind that Disney had been one of the first animators to combine live action and animation, going all the way back to his Alice shorts of the Twenties!

Gene Kelly would again work with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera on Invitation to the Dance, in the final (and many consider the best) sequence of the movie, entitled "Sinbad the Sailor." "Sinbad the Sailor" was much longer than the Gene and Jerry sequence from Anchors Aweigh. And while the Gene and Jerry sequence involved only one animated character, "Sinbad the Sailor" involved only one live action character--Gene. The sequence begins with Gene in a United States navy uniform in a live action Arabian market place. He finds a lamp, complete with a genie, and is then transported to an animated world based on The Arabian Nights. There he encounters a dragon, woos a princess, and fights with swordsmen. The entire sequence is devoid of dialogue and set to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. While An Invitation to the Dance was one of Gene's pet projects, it did not fare well at the box office. Indeed, while it was finished in 1953, MGM did not release it until 1957. Apparently, the studio did not know what to make of it!

MGM's animation studios would close in 1957. This would not mean that Gene Kelly and the team of Hanna and Barbera would not work together again. Hanna and Barbera opend their own studio and moved into the area of producing cartoons for television. February 26, 1967, NBC aired a special called Jack and the Beanstalk. The hour long special was directed by Gene and featured himself in the role of the peddler. It also featured a good deal of animation provided by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Jack and the Beanstalk was the first work in television history to combine both live action and animation. It was also critically well received and won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Programme.

Unfortunately, this would be the last time Kelly worked with animation. Xanadu would feature an animated sequence created by Don Bluth, but Gene was not featured in that sequence.

While Disney perhaps did the most extensive work with animation and music, arguably the work Gene Kelly did with animation was among the most memorable. Both his dance with Jerry from Anchors Aweigh and "Sinbad the Sailor" from Invitation to the Dance are counted among the classic sequences in animation history. While Jack in the Beanstalk has largely been forgotten, I would suspect a release on DVD would establish it as a classic as well. In my humble opinion, Gene Kelly, William Hanna, and Joseph Barbera took animation and musicals where they had never been before.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

The Library

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
Marcus Tullius Cicero (Rome, 106 BCE-43 BCE)

Yesterday the proposed library tax passed here in Randolph County by a margin of about 60%. That makes me very happy. The library's budget has been drastically cut in the past two years. We have had to cut down on the number of books and DVDs we can buy each year. Concievably, if this tax had not passed, we may well have had to shut down branches in the coming years. Worse yet, the entire libary system could shut down. That would be a shame as I consider libarires to be very necessary to the health of any community.

Indeed, I feel that I have learned more at various libraries over the years than I did in school or university. Oh, school gave me the basics. It taught me how to read and write, but with those skills I was able to utilise the library. And it was at the library that I learned about such things as the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, television history, the histories of various religions, and so on. I cannot say that libraries are necessarily more important than schools (after all, what use is a library if one cannot read?), but I would say that they are as important. They allow people to continue their education on their own.

Libraries have existed since ancient times. The earliest library is believed to be one that existed in Babylonia circa the 21st century BCE. Libraries existed in ancient Egypt, Ninevah, and Jersualem. In 330 BCE the first public library in Greece opened. Of course, the greatest library of the ancient world existed in Alexandria. It was counted among the Seven Wonders of the World. Caius Asinius Pollio founded the first public library in Rome. Under Augustus, public libraires flourished in the Roman Empire.

In the Middle Ages most monasteries were equipped with libraries. Later the universities would follow suit. Libraries were very much a part of the Arabic world at the time, and the Arabs preserved many classic Greek works lost to Europe. Byzantium also had its share of fine libraries.

In the United States, the Boston Public Library opened in 1653. Benjamin Franklin was key in the founding of a circulation library in Philadephia in 1732. The first Public Libaries Act, passed in 1850, established libraries in teh United Kingdom. Key to the history of the library was philathrophist and millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Throughout his lifetime he donated more than $65 million to establish libraries throughout the United States. Both the Moberly Library (originally Carnegie Library, named for its benefactor) and the Huntsville Library owe their existence to Carnegie. The fact that these two libraries were the cornerstones of the Little Dixie Library System (serving Randolph and Monroe Counties) means he was responsible for it, too.

Libraries have then been around for a long time. And it is through libraries that a good many people have gained further education. I am then very happy that our library tax passed. It means we can continue our mission of serving the community for some time to come.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

LeStat the Musical?

A few weeks ago I talked about a musical based on Lord of the Rings. If you are like me, I imagine that struck many of you as rather strange. Now here is another strange idea for a musical for you: a musical called LeStat based on the works of Anne Rice. Believe it or not, just such a musical is soon going to be a reality. It won't be long before the famous vampire will be on stage.

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin are working on the musical as I write this. At the moment it it is planned for LeStat to open at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco this fall. They hope that it will make Broadway next yaar. From what I understand, the musical is based on the novels Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire LeStat, and Queen of the Damned.

Unlike Lord of the Rings, I think a musical based on Anne Rice's books could work. It is not as if musicals have not drawn upon the horror genre before. Little Shop of Horrors has been one of the most successful musicals of the past two decades. Jekyll and Hyde has been a hit and even boasts a cult following. There is also the musical based on Dracula, although I have heard it has actually lost money. While musicals have been made that were based in the horror genre and even been successful, I have my doubts about LeStat. The first problem I have with the idea is that, like Lord of the Rings, they seem to be trying to draw upon too much material. I could see a musical based on Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire LeStat, but how are they going to fit material from Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire LeStat, and Queen of the Damned into a space of less than three hours? I don't see how they could succeeed at that without it seeming rushed.

My second problem is that when I think of Anne Rice's works, I don't think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Their musical style may be suited to The Lion King and Aida, but it does not bring to mind vampires and Gothic settings. As far as musicals go, I could see, Andrew Lloyd Webber might be able to pull this off (after all, he did do The Phantom of the Opera. Ideally for me, a musical based on the character of LeStat would either have a score in the Gothic genre (Sisters of Mercy, Type O Negative) or heavy metal (Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica). I am not sure that such a musical would be a hit, but at least those genres bring to my mind vampires and Gothic horror. I then have serious doubts that John and Taupin can pull this musical off.

Anyhow, take a look at the story on Yahoo News

Monday, April 4, 2005

Three Short Lived Shows with a Difference

Every now and again a television show comes along that is different from anything that has been on before. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek are examples of such shows from the past. Lost is a current example. Often such shows are critically acclaimed. Often such shows also develop cult followings. And, unfortunately, often such shows are cancelled in a season or less.

To me the perfect example of one such show is Profit. Profit aired for all of four weeks on Fox in April 1996. Even rave reviews from critics did not save the show from cancellation. What set Profit apart from every other series before it is that its protagonist was also the villain. The series centred on Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar), born Jimmy Stokowski, who was a Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. Profit was hardly what one would call a sympathetic character. In fact, he might well have been the vilest character ever seen on television. He would literally do anything to get ahead at Gracen and Gracen. In the debut episode alone, Profit framed co-worker Walters for the "murder" of Wayne Gresham, who actually died of natural causes! What made Profit such a remarkable series was that its characters were very well developed for a TV series. Jim Profit himself was hardly a cardboard cutout, as the reasons behind his evil rest in his past. The child of an older father and a younger woman, Profit's father took very little interest in him. In fact, he even made little Jimmy sleep in a cardboard packing box! That Profit still sleeps in a box even as an adult perhaps says that he, quite simply, never grew up. Profit was one of the shows aired as part of Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled, allowing more people to discover the series. Perhaps for that reason, it makes its debut on DVD this summer--all ten episodes, even those not aired in the United States!

Another series which was decidedly different but lasted all too briefly was Nowhere Man. Nowhere Man was one of the first shows to air on UPN. Unfortunately, it only lasted 25 episodes, exactly one season (the 1995-1996 season to be exact). Nowhere Man is a hard series to sum up in a sound byte. Perhaps the best way to describe it briefly and concisely is as a cross between The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Nowhere Man centred on Thomas Veil, a documentary photographer who suddenly finds his entire life wiped out. His friends and family refuse to acknowledge him. His ATM cards and credit cards no longer work. Even the keys to his home and his studio work no more. Veil has little idea why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with photographs of an execution from a Third World country which went missing from his studio. Regardless of the reasons, some vast Conspiracy with a Hidden Agenda has erased all record of his existence. Worse yet, they are pursuing him, forcing Veil on a cross country journey to both escape them and uncover the truth about them. Nowhere Man featured starkly original plots that tended towards the cerebral side. Like The Prisoner, Nowhere Man was a thinking man's action series.

A more recent, short lived series that was decidedly different was Firefly. Created by Joss Whedon (the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Firefly centred on the spaceship Serenity, whose crew were largely outcasts. There was Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his first mate Zoe Warren (Gina Torres), who made the mistake of fighting on the wrong side in the Unification Wars. There was Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher well off the beaten track. And there was Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who was a Companion (sort of a high scale prostitute). On the surface, Firefly might sound a lot like Farscape or Blake's Seven, but the show's execution set it apart from other sci-fi shows. There were no strange aliens to be found on Firefly; only human beings appeared on the series. And the show had a definite Old West feel. Firefly treated outer space literally as a new frontier, where lawlessness often prevailed. The series boasted some very original, very well written episodes and received good reviews from critics. It also developed a loyal following. Unfortunately, Fox gave the show little chance. It was placed on Friday night, where very few genre shows have ever survived. And rather than move the show to a better time slot, Fox simply cancelled the series. Fortunately, this was not the end of Firefly. A feature film based on the series, Serenity, hits theatres later this year.

There are many other shows that were decidely different (and were actually good as well), that I could probably discuss here. It seems to me that when a show is actually different from any other series that has aired before, it often shortens the lifespan of that show a good deal. Such shows seem to take time to develop followings. And, unfortuately, from what I know of television history, it does not seem that network executives are a patient lot. They want fairly good ratings from the beginning and, if they don't get them, the series is generally cancelled. If Lost had not performed well in the ratings, it would probably be off the air by now. It can only be hoped that in the future, network excecutives will give shows that are different more of a chance. Looking back at such shows that have been given a chance (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hill Street Blues), they could well have a hit on their hands.

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Two Figures in the Television Industry Pass On

Two figures in the television industry have recently died. The first death was that of television director Greg Garrison. He passed on March 25 at age 81 from pneumonia. Garrison was tapped by legendary NBC programmer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver and producer Max Liebman to direct Your Show of Shows in 1950. He would go onto direct The Milton Berle Show, as well as many TV specials. From 1965 to 1974 he directed the show for which he is best known, The Dean Martin Show. Despite his entertainment background, Garrison also directed the pivotal, presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

The second figure from the television industry to die was also part of the music industry. Songwriter and producer Jack Keller died Friday at age 68 from leukemia.

With partner Howard Greenfield, Jack Keller wrote "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and "My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own" for Connie Frances and "Venus in Blue Jeans" for Jimmy Clanton. With Gerry Goffin, Keller wrote "Run to Him" for Bobby Vee.

Jack Keller also wrote various television themes, including the themes to Hazel and Gidget. Arugably, his most famous composition was the theme song to the TV series Bewitched. Keller was one of the producers on The Monkees' first album and the man who produced their theme song. He also co-wrote the songs "Hold On Girl" and "Your Auntie Grizelda" with Diane Hilderbrand for the band. Keller was both a talented songsmith and a talented music producer.