Saturday, November 19, 2005

Harold J. Stone R.I.P.

Veteran character Harold Stone, whose career stretched from the forties to the eighties, has passed on. He was 92 years old. Although hardly famous, his face is probably recognisable to most people, having made guest appearances in over 150 TV show episodes, appeared as a regular in 5 TV shows, and movies ranging from Hollywood blockbusters to genre B movies.

Stone was born into a family of actors and made his debut at a young age on stage. He had considered going into medicine, even going so far as to get a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Buffalo's medical school. Instead of becoming a physician, however, Stone found himself drawn into the family business. Stone made his debut on Broadway in 1939 in The World We Make. He would appear in the next year in The Morning Star. Over the years Stone would appear on the Broadway stage several times, in such plays as A Bell for Adano (1944), Irma La Douce (1960), and a revival of Charley's Aunt (1972).

Stone made his movie debut in an uncredited part in The Blue Dahlia in 1946. Over the years he appeared in numerous movies. He appeared in such classics as The Wrong Man, The Harder They Fall, and Spartacus. A character actor through and through, he made his share of B movies: The Invisible Boy, Girl Happy (yes, that's right--an Elvis movie...), and X: the Man with the X Ray Eyes (the AIP classic).

Stone's biggst impact as an actor may well have been on television. He was seen regularly on the small screen throughout the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. He made guest appearances on such varied shows as You Are There, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Have Gun Will Travel, Gilligan's Island, Hogan's Heroes, The Rockford Files, and Charlie's Angels. He was a regular on The Hartmans, The Goldbergs, The Walter Winchell File, The Grand Jury, My World and Welcome to It, and Bridget Loves Bernie. He earned an Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on the 1962 medical drama The Nurses.

I don't think it can be said that Harold Stone was a great actor. That having been said, he did seem to have a wide range. With a Romanesque nose and a strong jaw, his features naturally lent themselves to playing heavies, although he had his share of sympathetic parts as well. Over the years he played everything from con men to military officers to police officers to kindly grandparents. It was Stone's flexibility that allowed him to have a career that lasted over 40 years. As a familiar face from a number of movies and TV shows from my childhood, I must say I am saddened by his death.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Brides of Dracula

This past weekend I had the opportunity to watch The Brides of Dracula again. It has always been one of my favourite Hammer films. In my humble opinion it is one of the best films they ever made.

In 1958 Hamer released Dracula (known in the United States as The Horror of Dracula), featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. The film's success naturally begged for a sequel. Unable to secure Christopher Lee as Dracula, Hammer elected to do the unthinkable--to make a Dracula film without Dracula! The Brides of Dracula has Van Helsing (again played by Peter Cushing) face off against another vampire, who this time has an entire girl's school to prey upon. Van Helsing even gets the closest thing to a love interest he ever had in the Hammer films in the form of French school teacher Marianne (played by Yvonne Monlaur).

Indeed, in The Brides of Dracula, Peter Cushing is the star. He gives by far the best performance of any of the cast (perhaps the best performance of any Hammer film). What is more is Van Helsing is given so much more to do in this film. He is far more physical than in any of the other Hammer Dracula movies--swinging from ropes and dropping from windmills. My theory is that it was the presence of Marianne. Plato once said that at the touch of love all men become poets. I suppose in Hammer horror films at the touch of love all men (even Van Helsing) can become an action star. The rest of the cast also do quite well. David Peel is alternately charming and sinister as Baron Meinster, while Martita Hunt gives a suitably tragic performance as the baron's mother. Freda Jackson turns a great performance as the baron's overly protective, half-crazed nurse.

The Brides of Dracula also happens to be one of the creepiest (and in some ways strangest) films that Hammer ever made. It contains some scenes that will make one's skin crawl, among them Marianne's initial trip through the woods of Transylvania and Freda Jackson's demented nurse tapping on a coffin to awaken a newly spawned vampire.

The Brides of Dracula also boasts some of the best set design ever seen in a Hammer film. Castle Meinster is a truly breathtaking, at the same time beautiful yet frightening. The colour in the film is also incredible. Lush, Victorian hues fill the movie. It could well be one of Hammer's best looking films.

Even Terence Fisher's direction stands out. I always thought of Fischer as a competent director, whose direction was not truly outstanding. This is not the case with The Brides of Dracula. Fisher does some truly remarkable things with regards to camera angles and even transistions from scene to scene.

The Brides of Dracula is a film that any Hammer afficanado, any fan of vampire movies, or any fan of horror movies should see. Although not necessarily a perfect film, it is entertaining, original, and, best of all fun. It is definitely one of the best movies that Hammer ever made.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Vine Deloria Jr.

Author and Native American Vine Deloria Jr. died of complications from an aortic aneurysm Sunday. He was 72. He is arguarly the best known Native american author and scholar. He was the author of Custer Died for Your Sins, God is Red, and many other books. In all, he wrote over 20.

Deloria was born in Martin, South Dakota. He served in the United States Marine Corp. He also received three degrees--a Bachelor of Science from Iowa State University, a Master's Degree in Theology from the Lutheran School of Theology, and a law degree from the Univesity of Colorado. He was a professor at the Univesity of Arizona and later the University of Colorado. He served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1964 to 1967.

Deloria has been called the "Martin Luther King Jr. of Native Americans," and with good reason. He built the organisation into a force with which to be reckoned. In 1965 he wrote the editorial "Now is the Time," helping to galvanise the Native American movement.

It was in 1969 with the publication of Custer Died For Your Sins, however, that brought him fame. The book was essentially an attack on the stereotyping of Native American peoples perpetuated over the years. It established Deloria as both a voice for Native Americans and a successful author. He would go onto write over 20 more books. Deloria would also collect several awards, among them the the 2005 American Indian Visionary Award, the American Indian Festival of Words Author Award, the Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996 Native American Writers Award, and the 1999 Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year Award.

Among other things, the publication of Custer Died For Your Sins resulted in the first ethic panel on artefacts and tribes held by the American Anthropological Association.

I have always admired Vine Deloria Jr., even when I have disagreed with some of his views. Arguably, he has done more for Native American rights and for the recognition of Native Americans than any other person currently living. Even when I disagreed with his views, I could not argue that his points were not well thought out and well written. Indeed, I must say that God is Red has had a lasting effect on my life. I am truly saddened by his death.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Roald Dahl's Critics

This summer saw the release of another adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The first was the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971. The new movie is also in the long line of movies based on Dahl's works, among them The BFG, The Witches, Mathilda, and James and the Giant Peach. Given Dahl's continued popularity with children and adults alike, it may not seem remarkable that so many of his works have made their way to the big screen. What does make it remarkable is that Dahl is perhaps the most controversial children's writer of all time. His works are certainly politically incorrect. Indeed, Dahl has more than his fair share of his critics.

Perhaps no work Dahl ever wrote is as controversial as his best known book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are many who see a nasty streak throughout the work in the comeuppances dished out to the naughty children. Augustus Gloop gets sucked into a tube for extracting chocolate. After chewing Wonka's latest experimental gun Violet Beauregard is turned into a giant blueberry. Veruca Salt (perhaps the most unpleasant of the lot) is deemed a "bad nut" by Wonka's squirrels and tossed in the garbage. Mike Teavee gets broadcast over television and shrunk. While the children do make it out of Wonka's factory none the worse for wear, many adults find these comeuppances to be very objectionable. Indeed, the fact that Wonka takes a bit of enjoyment out of the children's predicaments makes the book all the more objectionable for many grown ups. While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps Dahl's tour de force when it comes to dishing out punishments to unpleasant people, it is not the only book in which he does so. In James and the Giant Peach Aunt Spoker and Aunt Sponge wind up smashed by the peach of the title. After torturing various birds and monkeys, Mr. and Mrs. Twit find themselves glued upside down by the very animals they mistreated in The Twits. Similar comeuppances are dealt out to vile individuals in Mathilda, The Witches, and many, perhaps most of, Dahl's works.

Personally, I have always found the objections to the retribution Dahl inflicts on bad people in his books to be without merit. The way I see it, Dahl's books are essentially modern day fairy tales, albeit somewhat twisted ones. His world is one which is black and white, where the good characters (Uncle Joe, Miss Honey, the grandma in The Witches, and so on) are truly good and the bad characters (Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, Trunchbull, and so on) are truly bad. It is also a world where the just, no matter how oppressed they may be for a time, will eventually get their reward, while the evil will suffer the consequences of their actions. It is indeed a fairy tale world. And it is a world where the comeuppances which the wicked suffer are often not so severe as those faced by the wicked in fairy tales.

Of course, here I must point out another one of the appeal of the comeuppances in Dahl's books. Often the comeuppances are dealt out to adults who mistreat children. Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, the Trunchbull, Mr. and Mrs. Twit, and the Witches are all adults who abuse children. Much of the appeal for children in Dahl's books may be in seeing such unpleasant adults get their just rewards. In a sense, then, Dahl is a champion for children against those who would mistreat them.

This brings us to another accusation levelled at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a 1972 issue of The Horn Book children's author Eleanor Cameron launched an open attack on the book. Not only did she feel that it was about candy, but that it was essentially candy for the brain. While the book is highly critical of television, she felt that it delivered the same kind of vicarious thrills with its fast pace and shock filled plot. No less than sci-fi author Ursula LeGuin agreed with her. She thought that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provided "a genuine escape experience, a tiny psychological fugue, very like that provided in comic books."

As both a fan of comic books and Roald Dahl's works, I have to disagree with both Cameron and LeGuin. It is true that nearly all of his works are written in a brisk, almost conversational tone. It is true that in many of his works the thrills come fast and fuious. That having been said, this does not mean that they are mere escapism or that they are empty of merit. In fact, not only can Dahl's works be seen as modern day fairy tales, but as modern day morality tales as well. As I pointed out above, in his works the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Perhaps this does not always reflect reality, but I feel it is still a good message for children to read nonetheless. In showing children that good can triumph, Dahl effectively encourages them to be good. Quite simply, he wants them to be Charlie Bucket and not Veruca Salt.

Another accusation hurled at Dahl is that his works are sexist. Many feminists have pointed to the portrayal of the aunts in James and the Giant Peach, his portrayal of the Trunchbull in Mathilda, and his statement in The Witches that witches are always female as signs that Dahl was a misogynist. Of all the accusations hurled at Dahl, I feel this one to be the most unwarranted and, indeed, even unjust. Many feminists ignore the fact that while Dahl tells us all witches are female in The Witches, he adds that all ghouls are male. Here Dahl is not espousing sexism, but rather creating his own mythology in which there are demonic beings of both sexes. As to the aunts in James and the Giant Peach and the Trunchbull in Mathilda, it must be pointed out that there are probably as many unpleasant men in Dahl's works as there are unpleasant women (maybe more). Mr. Twit in The Twits enjoys torturing animals. Mathilda's father in the book of the same name is a particulary despicable character. Speaking of Mathilda, I guess I should point out that one in of the good adults that book is a woman--gentle and caring Miss Honey. Miss Honey is not an anomaly in Dahl's works either. The grandmother in The Witches and Charlie's mother and grandmothers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are other examples of postive portrayals of women in Dahl's works. Indeed, it must be pointed out that in both Mathilda and The BFG, the heroes are little girls. If Dahl was a sexist and misogynist, his misogyny would certainly extend to little girls as well as adult women.

So far I have dismissed (or at least disgreed with) most of the criticism levelled at Dahl. There is one, howevever, that I cannot really argue with--the thought that the original portrayal of the OompaLoompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was essentially racist. In the original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the OompaLoompas were pygmies taken from the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa. Curiously, no one noticed anything racist about this until Cameron's article was published in The Horn Book in 1972. Among the many attacks Cameron made on the book was that the portrayal of the OompaLoompas was essentialy racist. The bitter irony is that while she only mentioned this in passing, it is the one thing in Dahl's work that has generated the most controversy in the past 23 years.

Quite frankly, I have to agree that the earlier portrayal of the OompaLoompas is essentially racist. In the original work, the OompaLoompas can be seen as the very stereotype of an African native. Indeed, they live in a very uncivlised fashion, surviving on a diet of beetles, catepillars, eucalyptus leaves, and the bark of the bong-bong tree. It takes Willy Wonka, the white colonial imperialist, to save them from this wretched life by employing them in his factory. To me there is a subtext that European culture is essentially superior to others--at the very least to that of the OompaLoompas. Dahl himself eventually decided that his portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, and in the 1973 edition they were revised so that they had pink skin, golden hair, and came from Loompaland rather than Africa. While I love Dahl's works dearly and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory most of all, I cannot deny that I find his original portrayal of the OompaLoompas somewhat repugnant. I must not be the only one. Even before Cameron published her attack on Charlie and the Chocolate Facotry, the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory changed them from African pygmies to orange skinned, fantasy creatures.

Ultimately, whether Roald Dahl's works can truly be considered objectoinable can only be answered by the question of whether they harm children or not. As someone who grew up on his works, I have to say that I do not believe they do. I do not think that I am sexist or racist. And I have yet to crush any adults I don't like under a giant peach or chuck spoiled brats into a garbabe chute. A whole generation has grown up with Dahl's children books (James and the Giant Peach being published in 1961) and yet we have not seen a dramatic increase in crime or juvenile deliquency in that time. While many may object to Dahl's works, ultimately I do not think they are harmful to children. Indeed, using myself as an example, they encouraged me to read more and hence to learn more. Certainly, Roald Dahl is one of the those writers who can be credited with making me a writer as well.