Saturday, May 21, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith was easily the most anticipated movie of this year, especially by Star Wars fans. It was also probaby the most dreaded movie of this year, especially by Star Wars fans. Why the most dreaded? Well, a look at the first two movies in this trilogy provides the answer. The Phantom Menace was a major disappointment which provided us with the most annoying Star Wars character of all time (Jar Jar Binks). Attack of the Clones was better over all, but was hampered by stilted love scenes that were bereft of emotion and full of wooden dialogue. While Star Wars fans eagerly awaited Revenge of the Sith, there was also the nagging thought--what if it was no better than the first two Star Wars episodes?

Fortunately, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is better than the first two episodes. Indeed, George Lucas has finally brought a sense of the epic back to Star Wars. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is a Star Wars movie not seen since The Empire Strikes Back was released twenty five years ago. It seems that George Lucas has not lost his touch after all.

Indeed, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith has one of the strongest screenplays of any of the Star Wars movies. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit clunky here and there, but for the most part each scene plays out perfectly. Here the characters are not simply going through the motions demanded of them by the plot. Each and every character has his or her own motivations which dictate his or her actions throughout the film. Indeed, even the love scenes between Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) seem genuine and from the heart, a far cry from the stiff romance seen in Attack of the Clones. Furthermore, in a movie that would seem to hold few surprises (we all knew Anakin was going to go over to the Dark Side, after all...), Lucas actually delivers a few. This is a movie that draws one inside its particular world and doesn't let one go.

The screenplay for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is greatly enhanced by something the previous two prequels lacked, some truly great performances. Ian McDiarmid delivers what could be the best performance of his career, raising Sentaor Palpatine/Darth Sidious to the ranks of the truly great screen villains. Ewan McGregor gives Kenobi the sort of depth not seen in the role since he was played by Sir Alec Guiness in A New Hope. As to the star of the film, Hayden Christensen proves that he has the makings of a great actor. He effectively portrays Anakin as a young man on the edge, a young man who ultimately makes the wrong choices for the right reasons. With Revenge of the Sith, Darth Vader has truly become a tragic figure.

As a director, Lucas has proven that he is still at the top of his game with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The movie features some of the most moving scenes of any of the Star Wars movies. The scenes between Anakin and Obi-Wan are touching as they should be. The scenes between Anakin and Sidious are chilling as they should be. The battle and fight scenes are simply amazing. In fact, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith features what may be the greatest fight scenes in either of the two Star Wars trilogies (I imagine the reader can guess what one of them is....).

And it is here that I must add a word of warning. with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Lucas pulls no punches. This is an intense film with a fair amount of violence (alhtough not graphic) and a lot of emotional angst. It may not be particularly suitable for younger children. I can honestly say it earned its PG-13 rating (it is the first Star Wars to be so rated).

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is not a perfect movie. At times so much is going on that the film does seem a bit rushed and a bit crowded. And as I said earlier, there are those moments of clunky dialogue. Still, despite its few faults, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is, as I also said, a movie that draws one in and does not let him or her go. At long last, George Lucas has produced a Star Wars film that is also great cinema.

Some Midday Music

Okay, while I have always been a heavy metal fan, I have to admit that I never cared much for pop metal. Most of the Eighties hair bands, like Winger and Slaughter, just left me cold, but there is the occasional song that I like. For whatever reason I have always had a weakness for "Send Her to Me" by Autograph. And for some reason I am in the mood for the song right now.

I have to warn you. The RealAudio file linked below is not streaming. That means you'll have to download it if you want to listen to it.

"Send Her To Me"--Autograph

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Passing of Two Legends

Two legends in their respective fields have passed on. The first to die was Joe Grant, designer and story developer for Disney during its Golden Age of the Thirties and Forties, as well as more recent years. He died of a heart attack at age 96 while working at his drawing board.

Grant first worked for Disney in 1933 when he was asked by Walt Disney himself to create celebrity caricatures for "Mickey's Gala Premiere." It was the beginning of an association with the studio that would literally last decades. He worked on many of the studio's shorts, including those made during World War II, such as the Oscar winning "Der Fuhrer's Face," and other shorts such as "Reason and Emotion" and "Education for Death."

With regards to Disney's feature films, Grant designed the Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and provided character design on Pinnochio as well. For The Reluctant Dragon Grant wrote the segment "Baby Weems." Alongside Dick Huemer, Grant helped develop the story for Fantasia. Huemer and Grant also wrote the classic Dumbo. He was among the writers who worked on Alice in Wonderland. With his wife he provided the story which would later be the basis for Lady and the Tramp.

Grant left Disney in 1949, only to rejoin the studio forty years later as a consultant. Grant contributed to several recent Disney films, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan.

As one of the men who made Disney one of the best animation studios in the Golden Age of animation (not to mention the masters of the feature length animated film), animation fans certainly owe a large debt to Joe Grant. Indeed, Dumbo and Fantasia both number among the greatest animated films of all time.

The other legend to recently pass on was impressionist and character Frank Gorshin. Gorshin died Tuesday at age 72 after a long battle with lung cancer. He is perhaps best known for his role as The Riddler on Sixties Batman series, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Gorshin's show business career goes back to his years in high school when, as an usher at the Square Theatre, he began doing impressions of stars of the silver screen. By age 17 he was so good at impressions that he won a local talent contest, the prize for which was a one week stint at the Carousel night club.

Draughted into the United States Army in 1953, Gorshin soon found himself performing for the USO. This would eventually result in Gorshin meeting Maurice Bergman, then casting director for Universal-International. With Bergman's connections, Gorshin's movie and television career began. He appeared briefly in the film The Proud and the Profane in 1956. On television he made his first appearance in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Decoy."

Gorshin soon landed his first major role, as Flattop in the B movie Hot Rod Girl in 1956. Gorshin appeared in a few more B movies, such as Invasion of the Saucer Men and Night of the Quarter Moon before appearing in his first major motion picture, Bells Are Ringing. Among Gorshin's film credits were Where the Boys Are, Batman (the 1966 feature film based on the TV series), Meteor Man, and Twelve Monkeys.

Gorshin also appeared quite frequently on television. Aside from The Ed Sullivan Show and Batman, he also made guest appearances on Combat!, Star Trek, The Dean Martin Show, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. His last guest appearance and final performance was on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (in fact, the episode airs tonight, May 19, 2005).

Gorshin also performed on stage. In 1970 he starred in Jimmy, receving good notices. He toured with such shows as Guys and Dolls, Peter Pan, and Promises, Promises. He played George Burns in the one man show Say "Good Night, Gracie", for which he won both an Outer Critics Circle Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award and received a Tony nomination. He also headlined in Las Vegas many, many times.

Frank Gorshin was easily one of my favourite performers growing up. Like many I first encountered Gorshin in his role as The Riddler on the old Batman TV Show and the 1966 feature film based on the series. Later I would see him in various guest appearances (including his Emmy nominated appearance in the Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield") and his various movies (I think the first one I saw may have been That Darn Cat). On the various variety shows of the Seventies, I got to see his various impressions and comedy routines. Gorshin was fantastic.

For one thing, he was one of the greatest impressionists I have ever seen. He could give impressions of everyone from Kirk Douglas to Bobby Darrin. In fact, his impression of Dean Martin may have been the best that any impressionist ever did.

For another thing, he was a fantastic actor. Gorshin brought an energy to his roles that few other characters did. As a testament to his acting, it must be pointed out that The Riddler was only a very minor villain prior to the debut of the Sixties Batman TV series. He had only appeared maybe two or three times since his first appearance in Detective Comics #140 (October 1948). Largely based on the strength of Gorshin's maniacal performance as The Riddler, the villain entered the big leagues alongside such names as The Joker, Catwoman, and The Penguin.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that The Riddler was the sum total of Gorshin's career. Gorshin was a truly gifted performer who worked well on stage, on television, and on film. I must say that he is one performer I will truly miss.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Sci-Fi Shows Part Two

The Eighties saw almost no sci-fi series airing on any of the networks. This did not mean that there would be no sci-fi series whatsoever to air during the decade. Indeed, 1987 saw the debut of Star Trek: the Next Generation in syndication. Like the original Star Trek, Star Trek: the Next Generation was created by Gene Roddenberry. And like the original series, Star Trek: the Next Generation followed the exploits of the crew of a starship called Enterprise as they explored strange new worlds. Essentially, Star Trek: the Next Generation was a sequel to the original Star Trek, set 95 years after the five year mission of the original Star Trek.

While I know that there are many who would disagree with me, I have always thought that Star Trek: the Next Generation was inferior to the original Star Trek. In the first season it seemed to me that many of the characters were very underdeveloped. In many cases they might as well as have been cardboard cutouts. At the end of the first season, I believe only Picard, Worf, and Data could be described as fully developed characters. Now this would change over the seasons, although some of the characters remained underdeveloped until the end of the series' run. It also seemed to me that while Star Trek: the Next Generation produced many of the best episodes of any Star Trek series, its best episodes were still not as good as the best episodes of the original series. This would not be so bad, save that Star Trek: the Next Generation's absolute worst episodes were the very worst of any Star Trek series before or since. Over all, I do think Star Trek: the Next Generation turned out to be a very good series, although it is of a lesser quality than the original.

Regardless, Star Trek: the Next Generation proved very successful enough to produce a spinoff of its own. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek series not to be created by Gene Roddenberry. It was also the first not to be set on a spaceship, being set on the space station Deep Space Nine instead. I always thought its characters were better developed than those of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I also thought that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produced some of the best episodes of any Star Trek series, while at the same time its worst episodes were not nearly as bad as the worst episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I think in overall quality it could be the best Star Trek series since the original.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was followed by Star Trek: Voyager in 1995, the first Star Trek series to air on a network since the original (in this case, the fledgeling UPN network). Star Trek: Voyager utilised the classic "lost in space" theme. The series found the U.S.S. Voyager flung to the far away Delta Quandrant, the crew trying to make their way home to Earth. I always thought that, like Star Trek: Deep Space, Star Trek: Voyager had very well developed characters (the best perhaps being the holographic Doctor). And while its best episodes sometimes fell short of the best episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, its worst episodes were not nearly as bad either

Star Trek: Voyager was followed by Enterprise (later renamed Star Trek: Enterprise) in 2001. Enterprise differed from the previous three Star Trek spinoffs in that it was not a sequel to the original series, but a prequel set even before the founding of the United Federation of Planets. It followed the first warp powered Earth vessel Enterprise as it explored the galaxy. I have always thought that Enterprise shared the same advantage of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager of having well developed characters. Unfortunately, it also seems to me that it produced only a very few remarkable episodes in its first two seasons.. While its worst episodes were not nearlly as bad as any of those of the previous series (including the original), it had fewer truly outstanding episodes. Enterprise improved dramatically in its third and fourth seasons, producing some of the best episodes of any Star Trek series. Unfortunately, it was too late. Enterprise had the worst ratings of any Star Trek series since the original. It was then cancelled by UPN.

Star Trek: the Next Generation did not simply pave the way for more Star Trek series. It also accomplished two other things. First, it proved that original, hour long TV series could be successful in syndication. As a result, the Nineties saw a number of original, hour long series, from Hercules: the Legendary Journeys to Highlander: the Series. Second, it paved the way for more science fiction series. Among these was another successful series in syndication, Babylon 5. Babylon 5 was set on the space station of the same name. The space station was the result of the Babylon Project, which sought to provide a meeting place where the various planetary nations could negotiate and work out their differences. In many ways, it was an interstellar United Nations. Four Babylon stations had been attempted prior to Babylon 5, each meeting with disaster either before or at completion. Fortunately, Babylon 5 was completed.

Created by J. Michael Straczynski and debuting in 1995, Babylon 5 was unlike any sci-fi show before or since. The series was conceived as a single story spread out over five years. In many respects, it could be considered the ultimate mini-series. Because Babylon 5 was conceived as one, long story, it differed from previous sci-fi shows in other ways as well. Characters died. Characters married. Characters were given new assignments that took them away from Babylon 5. Moreso than other sci-fi shows, the lives of Babylon 5's characters changed as the series proceeded. Of course, all of this would have been for nought if the series had not been successful. And it would not have been successful if it had not been good. I honestly believe that Babylon 5 was one of the best written sci-fi shows of all time. Not only were the characters well developed, but the series often followed the consequences of their actions to their logical conclusion and examined the effects those actions had on others. It was a very complex show. Beyond the very quality of the series, I also liked Babylon 5 because it did not pretend that the 20th century never happened. On the Star Trek series it often seemed as if pop culture ended with Arthur Conan Doyle. Not so on Babylon 5. There would be a few pop culture references from the 20th century scattered throughout the series. Indeed, security chief Garibaldi was an unabashed fan of classic Warner Brothers cartoons!

While the occassional pop culture reference from the 20th century would appear in episodes of Babylon 5, pop culture references were rampant on Farscape. Farscape debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1999 and went onto become its own most popular show. Farscape centred on 21st century astronaut John Crichton, who entered a wormhole while testing an experimental spacecraft and found himself hurled across the galaxy. Emerging amdist a space battle, Crichton must join a group of escaped prisoners and an exiled Peacekeeper officer (Aeryn) simply in order to survive.

Alongside Babylon 5, Farscape is one of the best written sci-fi series of all time. In fact, it may be the best written sci-fi series of all time. It may also be the single most character driven sci-fi series of all time. Over time the characters change and grow. Relationships begin and end. Characters even die. Indeed, one of the great things about Farscape was its sheer unpredictability. One never knew just how an episode might turn out and often the end result would be totally unexpected. Farscape also benefited from a keen sense of humour and plenty of pop culture references from Crichton (who may well have watched too much television as a kid). Another thing that always appealed to me about Farscape is that it may well have been the only sci-fi series with truly alien aliens. On most sci-fi shows the aliens are all humanoid, with perhaps only a few variations. This was not the case with Farscape. Produced by Jim Henson Productions and Hallmark Entertainment, the Jim Henson Creature Shop produced aliens that looked nothing like human beings. Indeed, one of the continuing characters, Dominar Rygel XVI (who was also my favourite character), resembled an amphibian more than a human being!

Farscape developed an extremely loyal cult following. Unfortunately, it never brought in the ratings that the Sci-Fi Channel wanted. The series was cut down in its prime in 2003. A follow up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, was aired in 2004. To me the Sci-Fi Channel's cancellation of Farscape was one of the worst mistakes that cable channel ever made. While its ratings were not particularly high, it did have a fanatically loyal following. This made Farscape a sure thing, as it was certain that there would always be someone tuning in to watch the show. Beyond which, I rather suspect that if Farscape had been given a bit more exposure (for instance, if it had been aired on the Sci-Fi Channel's parent channel, the USA Network), its ratings may well have risen appreciably.

It is difficult to say what the future will bring with regards to sci-fi shows. On the one hand, the older networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox) have not shown much interest in the genre for the past thirty years, which in some ways makes it seem unlikely to me that any new sci-fi channels will debut on those venues. UPN having long been the home of the Star Trek series and the WB having aired such genre shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel would seem much more likely to consider new sci-fi shows. On the other hand, the success of Lost and Desperate Housewives have proven that viewers are willing to watch shows that are off the beaten track. If the success of those two shows generate a desire on the parts of the older networks to experiment more, then we could possibly see another sci-fi show of the quality of a Star Trek, a Babylon 5, or a Farscape airing on one of the older networks. Of course, the cable channels (in particular the Sci-Fi Channel, obviously) are a different matter. New sci-fi shows have emerged from time to time on the various cable channels and will probably continue to do so. At any rate, one can only hope that we will not see another repeat of the Eighties, when sci-fi shows were few and far between.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sci-Fi Shows Part One

I am not sure when I first saw Star Trek. I know that it wasn't while it was in its first run on NBC, although I know I had to be very young. I am thinking that it may have been a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1971, when one of the St. Louis or Kansas City stations were showing it. I do believe that the episode I saw was "The Doomsday Machine." Regardless, I was hooked. I would become a Star Trek fan and eventually a sci-fi fan. And over the years I would wind up watching a lot of science fiction TV shows.

Of course, Star Trek was not the first sci-fi show I ever watched. That dubious honour would probably go to Lost in Space. Well, that is if Lost in Space can even be described as a sci-fi show; it might better be considered outright fantasy. Lost in Space concerned the Robinson family, who, following an act of sabotage, found themselves lost in space aboard their spaceship Jupiter II. The Robinsons were a fairly bland bunch, so it should be no surprise that the star of the show became Dr. Zachary Smith (played to perfection by Jonathan Harris), technically the villain of the show. Smith was self centred, cowardly, greedy, and scheming, although oddly enough possessed of a fondness for his fellow passengers. A product of Irwin Allen, Lost in Space was pretty bad as science fiction goes. The Robinsons and Smith encountered cowboys, pirates, magicians, et. al. with little explanation of how such individuals got to the deep reaches of space. Neither logic or science played a major role in Lost in Space episodes! Still, the show could be quite enjoyable on the level of a comedy. Indeed, I think it may well qualify as camp--something that is so bad that it is good. Regardless, Lost in Space initailly did well in the ratings and ran from 1965 to 1968.

While Lost in Space was apparently made for children or simply made for laughs (it is hard to tell which), Star Trek was a serious attempt at a science fiction series. Indeed, the reason that Star Trek has a place in television history is that it was the first science fiction show with continuing characters, aimed at adults, which focused more on the characters than the science or technology. On the surface, Star Trek was not particularly original. As everyone knows, it followed the exploits of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a heavy cruiser in the Starfleet of the United Federation of Planets. Spaceships on exploratory missions had long been a fixture in science fiction literature, perhaps the most notable work being The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt. Even in motion pictures, the classic movie Forbidden Planet portrayed a spaceship that explored the galaxy. Regardless of any lack in originality in its format, the fact that Star Trek was aimed at adults and centred on the characters rather than science made it a revolutionary TV series for 1966.

Of course, none of this would have mattered if Star Trek had not actually been good. Although the creation of Gene Roddenberry, much of the credit for the high quality of the show must go to producer Gene L. Coon and script consultant Dorothy Fontana. Between the two of them they provided the show with much of its mythos, including their archnemeses the Romulans and the Klingons. It also helped that Roddenberry sought out top writers to write many of the episodes. Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison all contributed episodes to the series.

Despite the quality of the series in its first two seasons, Star Trek performed miserably in the ratings. There has been much speculation as to why this happened. Some have argued that the show was ahead of its time. I have always disagreed with this for two reasons. The first is that in the United States of the Sixties there was a craze for anything space oriented. Toys, comic books, even food often had a space theme. Star Trek would seem to be simply another manifestation of the American space craze of the Sixties. Second, to a large degree Star Trek was another in a long line of American action series in the Sixties, such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West. In each of these series the heroes were generally young men in their Thirties (somewhat reminiscent of John F. Kennedy): Napoleon Solo, James West, and James T. Kirk would all appear to be cut from the same cloth. In most episodes of these series, there would usually be a beautiful damsel for the heroes to rescue. If anything, Solo, West, and Kirk had very active love lives! And each of these series had formats that permitted the use of guest stars in every episode, often guest stars with very big names. Joan Collins, Janet Leigh, Jack Palance, Agnes Moorehead, and others all guest starred in various episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Star Trek. It seems to me that Star Trek was not ahead of its time, but very much a show of its time. A more likely explanation for its failure in the ratings in its original run is simply bad time slots. In its first season Star Trek faced My Three Sons on CBS and Bewitched on ABC. Its second season saw it opposite Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. on CBS. Against such high rated, well established series, it would be hard for any young TV show to do well in the ratings, let alone one as different as Star Trek was.

While Star Trek failed in the ratings during in its original run, it did spectacularly well in the ratings when its reruns entered syndication. It proved to be one of the biggest success stories in television history. This success led to an animated series, major motion pictures, and four spinoffs. I have always preferred the original to its spinoffs myself. The best episodes of the original Star Trek always seemed to me to be better even the best episodes of any of those of its four spinoffs. And in the case of Star Trek: the Next Generation, it seemed to me that many of its characters were little more than cardboard cutouts, as opposed to the original series in which even peripheral characters like Sulu and Chekhov were fairly well developed.

One would think that with the success of Star Trek, sci-fi series would have taken a quantum leap in quality. This was not the case, as Battlestar Galactica is a prime example. For those unfamiliar with the series, Battlestar Galactica was a 1978-1979 series aired on ABC. The series was the creation of producer Glen Larson, who was very prolific during the Seventies, although not particularly well known for the quality of his work.

Battlestar Galactica centred on a ragatag fleet of refugees from human colonies who were fleeing the Cylon Empire, a robotic race intent on destroying humanity. Led by the battlestar (sort of a space going aircraft carrier) Galactica, the fleet was searching for the lost 13th colony Earth (or maybe it was the homeworld--they were never really clear on that...). The series was very expensive for its time. The pilot alone cost $7 million and the average budget for episodes was somewhere around $1 million. Battlestar Galactica also created a bit of controversy, when George Lucas sued Universal Studios, claiming that Battlestar Galactica plagiarised Star Wars. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1980 as being without merit. Indeed, the average person viewing Battlestar Galactica would notice very little resemblance to Star Wars. Star Wars centred upon a rebellion againt an evil empire, while Battlestar Galactica centred upon refugees fleeing a hostile, foreign power.

Regardless of whether Battlestar Galactica was a Star Wars rip off or not, it only lasted one season. The series received somewhat respectable ratings, but was cancelled by ABC, probably due to its exceedingly high costs. The cancellation sparked protests from fans and even an effort to save the show. It was perhaps because of this that a spinoff was aired in 1980 called Galactica 1980, in which the fleet had discovered Earth. Galactica 1980 only lasted a few episodes and was considered by many fans to be largely inferior to the original series.

Not that the original series was actually very good, in my humble opinion. I watched Battlestar Galactica loyally as a youngster. I never missed an episode. A few years ago I was able to see it again when the Sci-Fi Channel held a Battlestar Galactica marathon. I watched one episode and thought, "This is horrible (well, actually, I thought something else, but this blog is supposed to rated PG-13....)." I then thought, "Well, every series has its share of bad episodes. Maybe this was just one of Battlestar Galactica's poorer episodes." So I watched another episode. And another. After the fourth episode, I came to the conclusion that as much as I had loved the show as a kid, Battlestar Galactica just wasn't very good. One thing I do have to say for Battlestar Galactica. At least it was better than Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, an update of the classic comic strip which debuted not long after Battlestar Galactica went off the air. Even as a kid I did not like that show... Regardless, a substantially different revival of Battlestar Galactica is currently airing on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Throughout the early Eighties there would be very few science fiction series on any of the networks. For a time it seemed as if television had largely given up on the genre. All of this would change in the late Eighties with the debut of a spinoff/sequel to the original Star Trek, Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A Brief Look at Breakfast Cereals

Ready to eat breakfast cereals have been a part of American life for so long that is hard to picture a time when they did not exist. Indeed, they are one of the few foods that has not only become a part of Americana, but even a part of American popular culture itself. After all, it seems to me a rare thing that people hold long discussions on brands of bread or cake mixes. On the other hand, it seems to me that people can spend hours talking about the breakfast cereals they ate as children.

Ready to eat breakfasts cereals emerged because of the efforts of two health reformers in the late 19th century. In Battle Creek, Michigan Dr. John Harvey Kellog ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a hospital and health spa where the rich and famous would go to get well. Dr. Kellog's brother, W. K. Kellogg, was constantly on the look out for a breakfast food that would not only be nutritious, but would taste good as well. It was in 1894 that W. K. Kellog developed a baked wheat flake, the first modern ready to eat cereal. W. K. Kellogg would form the Sanitas Food Company in 1898 and go onto create Corn Flakes. By 1906 he would found the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company, which would become the Kellogg Company in 1922.

The other pivotal figure in the history of ready to eat cereals was C. W. Post. Like Kellogg, Post was concerned with health. And like Kellogg he wanted to develop a tasty but nutritious breakfast food. Much of this was spurred by Post's own ill health. Indeed, he even spent time in the Kellogg's sanitarium. In 1895 Post invented a hot cereal drink called Postum. In 1897 he introduced his own ready to eat cereal, Grape Nuts, a brand which is still around today. Not only was Post a pioneer in breakfast cereals, but a pioneer in advertising as well. As early as 1895, Post started a massive advertising campaign in the local, Battle Creek newspapers. It was not long before he started the first nation wide, advertising campaign in America. He was also one of the earliest manufacturers to use coupons to help sell his product.

Both Kellogg and Post's ready to eat breakfast cereals proved successful enough that competitors soon entered the market. In 1902 Ralston-Purina introduced Ralston Wheat Cereal, which would eventually evolve into the well known Chex brand. General Mills would enter the ready to eat cereal market in 1924. Ever since Kellogg and Post first developed ready to eat breakfast cereal, there have always been a number of smaller companies in the field beyond the big names (Kellogg's, Post, General Mills, Ralston Purina, and Quaker Oats).

As pointed out above, from the beginning advertising has played a big role in the promotion of ready to eat breakfast cereals. Indeed, mascots to promote ready to eat breakfast cereals were introduced very early in their history. This should come as no surprise. Even before ready to eat breakfast cereals were invented, the Quaker Oats man was the first character trademarked by an American company in 1877. Once ready to eat breakfast cereals were invented, it was only a matter of time before they would develop their own characters. One of the earliest was Sunny Jim, a grandfatherly cartoon character created in 1902 to promote H-O Oats Force Flakes in the early 1900s. Both the cereal and the character Sunny Jim have been forgotten, although the name "Sunny Jim" would enter the English language as a popular sobriquet. Strangely, both the cereal and Sunny Jim would be more succesful in the United Kingdom than the United States. Snap, Crackle, and Pop, the cartoon elves used to promote Kellogg's Rice Crispies, are also among the oldest cereal mascots. They first appeared in 1933, making them the oldest breakfast cereal characters still in use. Indeed, they would be the first cereal mascots to be animated for a TV commercial. While breakfast cereal characters have been around nearly as long as ready to eat breakfast cereals, it was with the advent of television that they really began to proliferate. In 1952 Kelloggs held a poll to see which of four characters would promote their new cereal, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. People could choose from Elmo the Elephant, Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Tony the Tiger. As history shows, Tony won.

The success of Tony the Tiger in promoting Frosted Flakes is probably what led to the proliferation of ready to eat breakfast cereal characters in the Fifties. The Fifties and Sixties would see the introduction of Tucan Sam (Kellogg's Fruit Loops), Lucky the Leprechaun (Lucky Charms), and Sugar Bear (Sugar Crisp). As large a role as cartoon characters played in the marketing of ready to eat breakfast cereals, it should come as no surprise that a company would actually think to develop the cereal's mascot before they even developed the cereal! In 1963 Quaker Oats commisioned Jay Ward Studios (creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle) to create a character for a new cereal. That character was Cap'n Crunch. Jay Ward Studios created an entire mythos for Cap'n Crunch. He sailed on the Milky Sea in his ship the Guppy with his crew, Alfie, Brunhilde, Carlyle and Dave. Jay Ward would laer create two other cartoon characters for Quaker Oats, Quisp and Quake. Quisp was an alien from Planet Q with a propellor atop his head. Quake was a muscular superhero from the centre of the earth. They had a rivalry over whose cereal was best, although in truth the two cereals were indistiguishable from each other. Capn' Crunch, Quisp, and Quake were not the only ready to eat breakfast cereal characters with a distinguished lineage. The Trix Rabbit was created in 1959 by Joe Harris to promote Trix cereal. Joe Harris would go onto create both Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog.

Indeed, at least one breakfast cereal character proved popular enough to get his own Saturday morning cartoon. Linus the Lion Hearted was the spokesman for Post Krispy Kritters cereal. In 1964 he got his own cartoon, The Linus the Lionhearted Show. The series not only featured Linus, but virtually every other Post cereal character (Sugar Bear, Lovable Truly the postman, Billy the Bird, and so on). The cartoon proved fairly successful. In fact, its run was ended only when the FCC ruled that characters in children's programming could not appear in commercials during the show. Linus the Lion Hearted then went off the air. Of course, a further mark of Linus's success was that he may have been the first breakfast cereal character to have a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, first appearing in 1964.

Of course, cartoon characters were not the only things used to promote breakfast cereals. From the beginning breakfast cereal companies have offered a number of giveaways and premiums to sell their products. As far back as 1909 Kelloggs offered the Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Booklet for buying any two of their cereals. Over the years a number of different freebies have been given away with breakfast cereals, from premiums gotten with a specific number of boxtops to freebies right inside of the box. One of the most popular giveaways of the Forties were pinback buttons featuring cartoon characters (Dick Tracy, Superman, and so on) that were included in each box of Pep. The premiums and giveaways often used to promote cereals have long been a source of ire for parents. I remember an old neighbour of mine telling how he would coax his parents to buy Pep cereal simply because he wanted the model planes that he could get with it. A note must be made that he did not even like Pep cereal! I know my father often complained that my brother and I would simply buy cereals for the toy dinosaurs or wild animals or cars or whatever was to be found in the box. Indeed, I had an entire collections of Freakies characters from the cereal of the same name, even though the cereal did not taste particularly good (it had a slight metallic taste to it...). I also remember in the early Seventies many Post cereals would include a Monkees record that could be cut out from back of the box.

Ready to eat breakfast cereals have been a part of the American cultural landscape for over 100 years now and I suspect that they will be for a long time to come. The average sales for breakfast cereals and related products are nearly $9.8 billion in the United States alone. With the lifestyles of Americans being busier than they ever have been before, it would not surprise me if that number were to increase in years to come. It seems that W. K. Kellogg and C. W. Post's invention will be with us for a long time to come.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Celebrity Obsession

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are getting a divorce. Now Brad Pitt is dating Angelina Jolie. Britney Spears is pregnant. Jennifer Garner is also pregnant, by Ben Affleck no less. These are stories I have seen over the past few months reading the entertainment news. Never mind that I read the entertainment news for news on movies, TV shows, and music, not the stars' private lives. Never mind that I am not interested if Brad and Jennifer are divorcing or if Brad is now dating Angelina. I still see these sort of stories everytime I read the entertainment news. It simply confirms my theory that our society is becoming more increasingly obsesessed with celebrities.

Not that celebrity obsession is anything new. The first gossip column appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette way back in 1880. Other newspapers followed suit, so that people could read all about the private lives of Lily Langtry and the British royal family. The fan magazines of the Twenties often covered the silent movie stars' private lives more than they did the movies they starred in. In the Fifties magazines like Confidential and Uncensored took invasion of the stars' privacy to new levels. Not that it mattered, what they could not find out they would outright make up. In the late Sixties the National Enquirer switched from such shocking stories as mothers eating their own children to covering the stars. Other tabloids, such as The Star followed suit. Since then there has been People and such "entertainment news" shows as Entertainment Tonight and The Insider. While I think society has always been obsessed with celebrity to one degree or another, it seems to me that it is more so now than ever before.

Indeed, the past year it seems to me the major entertainment stories have not dealt with movies or TV shows, but with the private lives of the stars themselves. Everyone remember how the media covered every aspect of the relationship between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez? It seemed one could not go a day without hearing about "Ben and Jen." Never mind that most people I knew were not interested in the couple's relationship. Never mind that many people thought that the relationship was doomed from the start. The media still insisted on covering it. Since then they have insisted on giving us the scoop on everything from Ben's relationship with Jennifer Garner to Britney Spears' marriage. In fact, it seems to me that the only thing that is being covered heavily at the moment in the entertainment news that is not related to some celebrity's prviate life is the release of Revenge of the Sith. I suppose even celebrity obsession cannot outperform Star Wars....

Indeed, it seems to me that society may be so celebrity obsessed that we have to invent celebrities out of whole cloth. For evidence of this just look at the phenomenon of people who are famous just for being famous. I suppose this is nothing new either, as Zsa Zsa Gabor was famous long after her movie career had ended, not that she had ever really made the sort of films one becomes famous for anyhow. Perhaps the perfect example of someone who is famous just for being famous is Paris Hilton. Her career so far seems to have consisted of some modelling, a reality series, House of Wax, some TV guest appearances, and that notorious sex tape. I suppose being a beautiful, blonde heiress is now enough to warrant news coverage that formerly only royalty and big time movie stars would get! Another person who seems to me to be famous for just being famous is Jennifer Lopez. It seems to me that while her movies have done respectably well at the box office, none of them have been smash hits. The same is true of her recording career. Her singles and albums do respectably well, but they are nothing to write home about. Despite this it seems to me that she has received the sort of coverage one would only expect of someone like Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, or Julia Roberts. Never mind that her career has never been nearly as successful as any of those stars. Between Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez, I think it can be argued that we have indeed become so celebrity obsessed that we have had to start inventing celebrities based on little if nothing at all!

Given that I am not terribly interested in whether Brad is dating Angelina or Jennifer is carrying Ben's baby, I must admit that I don't quite understand society's obession with celebrities. I have to wonder if part of it isn't born out of escapism. That is, by reading about the private lives of the stars, people can forget about their own concerns and worries. Indeed, this may be why negative stories about celebrities often receive more coverage than postive ones. There may actually be people out there who enjoy seeing big stars fail. Perhaps it gives them a feeling of superiority. I also have to wonder if there aren't people who don't live vicarously through the private lives of the stars. That is, there could be individuals who have drab lives who want to date a beautiful actress or handsome actor. Since they cannot do so in real life, they must live out their fantasies through their favourite stars.

I suppose that there are those that would argue there is little harm in being obsessed with celebrities. I suppose there are some that would argue that with fame and fortune one should expect to lose a bit of his or her privacy. I really don't buy that myself. Many corporate executives make as much, if not more, than many actors and musicians, and yet no one wants to know about their private lives. Many sports figures make more than many movie stars and rock singers, and yet one only rarely sees their private lives hit the news. It seems to me that celebrities have the right for their privacy to be respected just as anyone else does, regardless of how famous or how much money they make. Indeed, it seems only fair to me. I mean, just think, how many of us would like to see our private lives sprawled all over the tabloids?