Thursday, July 21, 2005

Scotty Journeys to His Final Frontier

James Doohan, best known for playing Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott on Star Trek, died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 85. Doohan had suffered from Parkinson's disease for many years and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last August.

James Doohan was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on March 3, 1920. At age 19 he enlisted in the Canadian military, eventually rising to the rank of Captain in the Royal Canadian Artillery. During World War II he led forces at D-Day, where he was wounded in the leg and finger. Following World War II, Doohan attended the veteran's school in London, Ontario. He won a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Among his classmates were Richard Boone (later famous for Have Gun--Will Travel), Tony Randall (best known for the TV series The Odd Couple), and fellow Canadian Leslie Nielsen.

Doohan's gift for dialects and voices made him very much in demand as an actor. He appeared in films, radio, and television in both Canada and the United States. Perhaps fittingly, his first significant television appearance was on a science fiction series, appearing in an episode of Tales of Tomorrow in 1952. Also perhaps fittingly, his first regular role was on a science fiction series; he played Phil Mitchell on Space Command. Doohan's first film role was in the 1957 Canadian film Strike in Town.

James Doohan made many guest appearances in television before receiving the role of Scotty on Star Trek. Among the shows he appeared on were Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Viriginian, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Bewitched. He appeared in the films The Wheeler Dealers, Jigsaw, and Pretty Maids All in a Row.

In 1966 James Doohan auditioned for Gene Roddenberry for the role of the engineer on Star Trek. Doohan did several different dialects for Roddenberry, including a Scottish brogue. Roddenberry asked Doohan which dialect he preferred and Doohan said that he always thought that all the world's greatest engineers had been Scottish. The character of Lt. Commander Montogery Scott, also known as "Scotty," was then born. Initially, Scotty was conceived as a semi-regular. This changed very soon when it became apparent that many of the series' plots required action on the part of the Chief Engineer. Scotty not only became a regular, but third in command of the starship Enterprise. Doohan not only played Scotty on the original run of Star Trek, but in the animated series and seven of the movies based on the show. On the animated version of Star Trek, Doohan not only provided Scotty's voice, but many other voices as well.

Following the original run of Star Trek, Doohan continued to make guest apperances on television, including a memorable appearance as Scotty on Star Trek: the Next Generation. He was a regular on the Saturday morning TV series Jason of Star Command. On August 31, 2004, James Doohan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I am very, very sad to hear of James Doohan's death. I have alwyas thought it was regrettable that following Star Trek he was somewhat typecast as the Scottish engineer. Before playing Scotty on Star Trek, he was a guest star on many TV series, playing a variety of roles. He even played heavies and played them well. There can be little doubt that much of the reason Scotty was such an interesting and three dimensional character was due to the talent of Doohan. Doohan portrayed Scotty as a fantastic enginner, yet at the same time very eccentric and very human. Besides McCoy, Scotty was always my favourite charaacter on Star Trek. Quite simply, James Doohan was one of the most gifted character actors on televison.

Doohan's last wish was for his ashes to be sent into space. Space Services Inc. will be sending Doohan's ashes into Earth's orbits aboard a Falcon I rocket. Given that Doohan was most famous for playing the engineer of a starship and his devotion to space exploration, I find this very fitting. At any rate, James Doohan will most certainly be missed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ice Cream

On hot, July days like today, I think there can be only a few things better than a nice, cold bowl of ice cream. I'm probably not alone in this, as it appears to be one of the most popular treats in the English speaking world (and probably much of the non-English speaking world as well).

The origins of ice cream are obscure. From all appearances it dates back to the 1600s. It is known that the ill fated Charles I of England enjoyed ice cream prepared by his chef. It is also known that by the 1700s much of the nobility and the rich ate ice cream. Recipes for ice cream accompanied the Colonists to the New World. Indeed, it seems to have been a favourite with the founding fathers of the United States. One summer George Washington paid $200 for ice cream. Thomas Jefferson paid a pretty penny for a recipe for vanilla ice cream. Ice cream was also served at James Madison's second inaugural ball. Throughout the 1700s, for the most part ice cream remained a treat that only the rich and the nobility could enjoy.

All of this changed in 1846 when a woman named Nancy Johnson invented the world's first hand cranked ice cream maker. The ice cream maker, not terribly different from hand cranked ice cream makers today, required lots of ice, salt, cream, and hand cranking. Nancy Johnson patented her ice cream maker, although she sold the rights to one William Young for a mere $200. While it would be William Young who would make all the money off the revolutionary device, it would be named for its inventor--"Johnson Patent Ice-Cream Freezer." Growing up on the farm, my parents owned an old ice cream maker (I believe it belonged to my maternal grandfather). I can remember many a hot summer evening spent turning the crank on the maker to be rewarded with nice, creamy, vanilla ice cream in the end. It was one case where something home made actually was better than the stuff bought in a store.

Speaking of store-bought ice cream, it was developed not long after the hand cranked ice cream maker. In 1851 milk dealer Jacob Fussell figured out a way to turn his cream into ice cream using a larger version of the hand cranked ice cream maker and a number of ice houses. Despite Fussell's ingenuity, it would be a number of years before store-bought ice cream would be common place. Indeed, it would take the invention of refrigeration before ice cream could be found in stores throughout North America. Once refrigeration had been invented, the production of ice cream took a quantum leap--from only 5 million gallons in 1899 to 150 million gallons in 1919.

One significant event in the history of ice cream was the development of the ice cream cone. Popular legend has it that it was invented at the 1904 St. Louis Fair by Ernest Hamwi, although this does not actually seem to be the case. A resident of New York City, Italo Marciony, filed a patent for an ice cream cone on September 22, 1903. He received that patent on December 15, 1903. This pre-dates Hamwi's claim to having invented the ice cream cone at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. That having been said, it is perhaps fair to say that Hamwi improved upon the ice cream cone (his cones resemble modern day cones more than those of Marciony) and that he popularised the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Ice creem parlours started opening in the United States in the 19th century. The number of ice cream parlours would greatly increase with the invention of refrigeration. Ice cream was often served at soda fountains as well, often at the neighbourhood drugstore. Eventually there would develop chains of ice cream stores. In 1925, in Massachussetts, Howard Johnson bought a soda fountain. He did not particularly care for the way their vanilla ice cream tasted, so he replaced it with his own recipe. He met with such success that he eventually opened more stores and sold franchises to the "Howard Johnson" name. The Howard Johnson stores would also expand beyond ice cream to become full fledged restaurants. Eventually they would expand into the area of motor lodges as well. By 1970 there would be nearly 1000 Howard Johnson restaurants across the United States.

It was in 1940 in Joliet, Illinois that the first Dairy Queen was opened by Sherwood Noble, who had worked in dairy products all his life. By 1941 there were 10 Dairy Queen stores. By 1947 there would be 100. Not only was Dairy Queen one of the earliest companies to go into food franchising, they are also arguably one of the most successful. Another succes story is that of Baskin Robbins. The company was founded in 1946 in Glendale, California. Today there ae more than 2500 Baskin-Robbins stores across the United States.

Of course, with the chains of ice cream parlours also came innovations in ice cream flavours. Originally, there were only a few flavours of ice cream--vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry being most familiar. Howard Johnson would expand the number of choices to 28. Baskin Robbins went even further, making literally hundreds of different flavours. In fact, they had enough flavours to have a "Flavour of the Month." The past many years they have even developed new flavours associated with movies (the Shrek Sundae being an example). Nautrally, as the ice cream chains developed new flavours, new flavours of ice cream also became available in grocery stores. Today people have hundreds of different flavours of ice cream to choose from.

As a treat for the nobility and the wealthy, ice cream has been around for hundreds of year. It has been a treat that the common man could enjoy for over 150 years. I seriously doubt that ice cream will ever fall out of favour with the masses, especially on hot, summer days. I rather suspect that there will always be people somewhere in the world eating one of the hundreds of flavours of ice cream.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Billy Wilder's Golden Age

Billy Wilder is one of my all time favourite screenwriters and directors. Indeed, I doubt very many critics and film buffs would disagree with me when I say that he was one of the greatest directors of all time. By 1957 he had already co-written and directed a number of films now considered classics: Double Indemity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, and Sabrina. By that time he already had a clutch of Oscars for The Lost Weekend (Best Director and Best Screenplay) and Sunset Blvd. Even so, I believe that in 1957 Wilder entered his best period, when every single movie he co-wrote and directed was a classic.

Nineteen fifty seven saw the release of the first film which Wilder co-wrote with I. A. L. Diamond, Love in the Afternoon. Love in the Afternoon was a romantic comedy featuring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. Set in Paris, it centred on a rich playboy (Gary Cooper) who falls in love with the daughter (Audrey Hepburn) of the private eye hired to investigate him. Love in the Afternoon had all the hallmarks of Wilder and Diamond's comedies: sharp, witty dialogue; realistic characters; and impeccable timing. And Cooper and Hepburn's performances were great.

Although well known for his comedies, Wilder's next film would be a courtroom thriller. Released in 1958, Witness for the Prosecution was based on the Agatha Christie play of the same name. The movie was Tyrone Powers' last film, in which he played the alleged murderer whose only alibi is his wife. Witness for the Prosecution has one of the best casts for a film of its type, with Marlene Dietrich as the wife of Power's character, Charles Laughton as the defence attorney, and Elsa Lancaster as the nurse.

It would be with his next film, however, that Billy Wilder would reach the peak of his career. Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot was a comedy set in the Roaring Twenties, co-written by I. A. L. Diamond. It centred on two musicians (played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who have the bad luck to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. To avoid being killed, the duo dress in drag and join an all-girl band with a performance scheduled in Miami. Quite simply, Some Like It Hot is one of the funniest movies ever made. The comedy does not have a slow moment, with some of the best dialogue Wilder and Diamond had ever written. Curtis and Lemmon's performances are priceless, assisted quite well by one of the best casts ever assembled for a comedy. Indeed, Some Like It Hot topped the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Comedies in American film.

Some Like It Hot would seem to be a difficult movie to top, but somehow Wilder and Diamond did it. Released in 1960, The Apartment featured Jack Lemmon as C. C. Baxter, an insurance company employee who loans his apartment to the company's executives for their various romantic rendevous. Unfortunately for Baxter, this set up (which had naturally gotten him in good with the higher ups) is complicated when he falls in love with elevator girl Miss Kublik (played by Shirley Maclaine). In m humble opinion, The Apartment is not only one of the funniest movies of all time, but one of the most romantic as well. Lemmon and Maclaine have a great rapport as Baxter and Kublik. and Fred Macmurray plays one of his few bad guys, the older, oily head of the company, Mr. Sheldrake. The Apartment boasts great dialogue, convincing performances, and a realistic plot that mixes comedy and drama. It's no wonder that it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and so on.

Wilder's next film, One, Two, Three, released in 1961, would not match The Apartment, but it was inspired nonetheless. It featured James Cagney (in his last role until Ragtime) as a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who winds up taking care of the company president's daughter. The comedy came at a rapid pace, with more and more outrageous situations developing one on top of the other. The dialogue is some of Wilder and Diamond's best, with great lines coming almost non-stop and plenty of pop culture references. I have always thought that One, Two, Three was one of the funniest films of the Sixties.

With One, Two, Three, Wilder's streak of classic films came to an end. His next film, Irma La Douce, was released in 1963. An adaptation of the Broadway musical without the music, it is not equal to the films he had made in the previous years. Even reteaming Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine didn't spark the ususal Wilder magic.

Billy Wilder would create a few more classic films in his career, among them Avanti! and the 1974 version of The Front Page, but it seems to me that his career peaked from 1957 to 1961. It was during that period that he created five of his greatest films, all in a row. To me this was a most remarkable feat, perhaps matched only by Alfred Hitchcock in the Fifties and Stanley Kubrick in the Sixties. It is perhaps all the more remarkable given that Wilder co-wrote nearly all of his films (not that many screenwriters have written five classics in a row either...). I very seriously doubt that any director will match the run of classic films Billy Wilder made from 1957 to 1961 any time soon.