Saturday, January 14, 2006

Shelley Winters R.I.P.

Actress Shelley Winters died today of heart failure at age 85. Beginning her career as a blonde bombshell, Winters became even more famous after she gained weight and became a character actress.

Winters was born in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1920. Her father was a tailor's cutter. Her mother was a former opera singer. She would follow her mother's footsteps into show business, making her debut singing at the age four at an amateur night held in St. Louis. After her family moved to Long Island, Winter enrolled in both the New School for Social Research and the Actors Studio. Her big break came in 1940 as an understudy for the Broadway show The Time of Your Life. The next year she made her first appearance on a Broadway stage in The Night Before Christmas. By 1943 she was signed under contract to Columbia Pictures. She made her film debut in Knickerbocker Holiday in 1944. Her breakout role came in 1947 as Ronald Coleman's murder victim in A Double Life. This would lead to a contract with Universal.

In many of Winters' films she was the token, buxom blonde from a bottle. This changed in 1951 with her role in A Place in the Sun, where she played a mousey factory worker. Unfortunately, she found herself typecast again, this time as a frumpish, slatternly harpy. She played such roles in both Executive Suite and Night of the Hunter, among other movies. All of this would change again when Winters took a break from making movies to return to Hollywood. Gaining weight in the interim, she returned to Hollywood as a character actress. She would henceforth play such varied roles as the clingy Charlotte Haze in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita to the racist mother in A Patch of Blue. Sadly, many of the movies she made in the Seventies were below par and often her performances were camp in the extreme.

With regards to television Winters primarily appeared as a guest on talk shows (indeed, among her most notable appearances was on The Tonight Show in which she confronted Hammer star Oliver Reed...). Among her few guest appearances were one on Wagon Train, one on Here's Lucy, and one on Laugh In. Her only recurring role on a TV series was on Roseanne, on which she played Roseanne's grandmother.

Winters worked extensively on the stage. Besides her early career, she also appeared in such Broadway shows as A Hatful of Rain and Minnie's Boys.

Winters won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie The Diary of Anne Frank and another for her role in A Patch of Blue. She was nominated for her roles in A Place in the Sun and The Poseidon Adventure.

I must admit that I always liked Shelley Winters. Indeed, I think gaining weight may have been one of the best things to happen where her career was concerned. She was capable of a large variety of roles, ranging from the slightly comedic (the clingy, lovelorn Mrs. Haze in Lolita) to the very dramatic (the bigot in A Patch of Blue. She was in some respects very much a chameleon, playing a large range of roles that other, more slender actresses never did. In fact, I think she should perhaps have been nominated for the Academy Award for Supporting Actress more times than she was (at the very least she should have been nominated for Lolita). If nothing else, Winters proved that an actress could transform herself from just another sex symbol to one of the best character actresses around.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Collapse of the Hollywood Musical

Tonight my mind is on the Hollywood musical. Here I should perhaps define what I mean by "Hollywood musical." For me a Hollywood musical is any movie musical which originated with the American studios and doesn't derive from a stage play or teleplay. Using this definiton, examples of Hollywood musicals are Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cover Girl. Musical films which are not "Hollywood musicals" using this definition are Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. While American studios had a hand in both of these movies, both of them were also based on stage plays. To me a Hollywood musical must owe nearly all of its origins to, well, Hollywood.

The Hollywood musical developed almost as soon as the talkies were born. Indeed, The Jazz Singer, the first full length feature film to use sound, featured a few songs. Despite its use of sound, The Jazz Singer was still mostly silent, but it would not be long before an all singing, all dancing movie would emerge. Released by MGM (who else?), The Broadway Melody of 1929 was the first Hollywood musical. With a score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (part of whose catalog would be used for a movie called Singin' in the Rain years later....), The Broadway Melody of 1929 was a smash hit. It raked in $1.6 million at the box office. It would not be The Broadway Melody of 1929 that would establish the Hollywood musical, but instead two films released in 1933. 42nd Street would establish Busby Berkley as the screen musical choreographer par excellence, not to mention create many Hollywood musical cliches. Flying Down to Rio would introduce the world to the dance team of Astaire and Rogers. With the success of these two musicals, Hollywood went to work churning out dozens of musicals every year. And while MGM is best known for its musicals, nearly every studio would make them (indeed, the early Busby Berkley musicals were produced by Warner Brothers, while the Astaire and Rogers movies were made by RKO).

Arguably, the genre started to go into decline just as it reached its peak. On the one hand, what is considered by some to be the four greatest Hollywood musicals were all released in a space of four years in the early Fifties: An American in Paris in 1951, Singin' in the Rain in 1952, The Band Wagon in 1953, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (possibly my favourite musical of all time) in 1954. An American in Paris would even win the Oscar for Best Picture. Unfortunately, just as the Hollywood musical had reached its peak in quality, it also seemed to be losing steam. While An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers all did reasonably well at the box office, others did not fair so well. Indeed, one need look no further than the career of Gene Kelly for a measure of the decline of the Hollywood musical. At the height of his career with the back to back triumphs of An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, it was not long before two of Kelly's films would fail at the box office--Brigadoon in 1954 and It's Always Fair Weather in 1955. It does not seem to have been the case that audiences were no longer interested in musicals. For the next twenty years Hollywood would produce several big budget adaptations of stage musicals, among them Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Fiddler on the Roof. Given the fact that audiences would still attend musical movies, one has to wonder why Hollywood stopped making musical originals of its own.

I rather suspect that there were multiple reasons. Primary amongst these was the advent of regular network television broadcasts in the United States. During World War II 90 million Americans went to the movies every week. In the years following the Korean War this number dropped to 16 million. Quite simply, people preferred to stay home and watch television rather than spend money to go the cinema. The drastic hit that television delivered to the movie industry may also have affected the sorts of musicals that were being made. Competing with television for viewers, the American studios increasingly moved towards big budget spectacles. This was the age of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Naturally, the studios may have chosen to go with "big," lavish musicals such as Oklahoma and My Fair Lady as opposed to "smaller" musicals such as Singin' in the Rain. It must also be noted that the vast majority of musicals after 1955 were based on existing properties adapted from the stage rather than original musical screenplays. I suspect there is a simple reason for this. With an existing property such as South Pacific or The King and I, there is less of a risk than there is with an original movie such as An American in Paris. Audiences have already heard of the play, so it is reasonable to assume that they will go see the movie (of course, this isn't actually true--look at the success of Brigadoon and, more recently, Rent).

Another factor in the decline of the Hollywood musical may have been the changing tastes of music in America. From 1929 to around 1955, American music actually changed very little. Oh, there was the rise and decline of the swing bands and various other musical fads, but the works of such composers as Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and so on were still widely popular. All of this changed in the mid-Fifties with the rise of rock 'n' roll. The new music swept the youth of America, making the old standards passe. With young people listening to Elvis Presley and Little Richard, I rather suspect that the audience for musicals became older than it once had been. And, for better or worse, the biggest audience for going to the cinema has usually been the youth.

Yet another factor in the collapse of the Hollywood musical was the collapse of the Hollywood studio system. With the studio system in place, American movie makers had a ready made team with which to generate original projects. They had the directors. They had the stars. They even had the composers at times. Unforutnately for the major movie makers, the studio system was in danger even at its height. As early as 1938, the Roosevelt administration had decided to put an end to the practice of "block booking," wherein the studios required theatre owners to take a number of films together (hence, a "block"). By 1949 the Supreme Court handed down the "Paramount Consent Decree," which ended block booking. The studios were also forced to divest themselves of the theatres they owned. Seriously weakened by the court's decision and weakened further by the advent of television, the studio system started to crumble. Most of the studios would eventually release their contract players. MGM even disbanded the fabled Freed unit (the unit at MGM headed by songwriter Arthur Freed responsible for their legendary musicals). Without the studio system in place, original musicals bcame less attractive to the studios. It is perhaps notable that from the late Fifties into the Seventies, the only major, original musical was Disney's Mary Poppins (even The Rocky Horror Picture Show was based on a stage play).

At any rate, the decline of the Hollywood musical would have an immediate effect on those who worked on them. Legendary hoofer Gene Kelly turned increasingly to directing and non-musical roles (one of the most memorable of which was as one of Shirley Maclaine's ill fated husband in What a Way to Go). Fred Astaire moved onto dramatic roles. Cyd Charisse, blessed with what may have been the best figure in the history of film, continued to work in movies and television in non-musical roles. Until her untimely death, Judy Garland appeared on television and in concert appearances. Individuals who were once stars had suddenly become anachronisms.

Given my love for the Hollywood musical, it is no surprise that I wished the genre would never have declined. Hollywood continued to make musicals into the Seventies, but, with few exceptions, most of them were adaptations of stage plays. And while many of these musicals number among my favourites (My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Fiddler on the Roof), for me most of them do not match the energy and sparkle of the Hollywood musicals. Most of them feature nothing of the kind of the complex dance sequences for which Gene Kelly was known. And many of them do not feature the sort of incredibly beautiful women, such as Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, that populated the Hollywood musical. And while Rogers and Hammerstein were a fine writing team, their songs do not seem as appealing to me as those of Cole Porter or the Gershwins or Irving Berlin.

Of course, the good news is that musicals may be on a comeback. The adaptions of Chicago and Phantom of the Opera were successful. And while the original musical De-Lovely (based on Cole Porter's life) did not do terribly well at the box office, it could signal a willingness on the studios' parts to make original musicals as well as adaptions. It could then be possible that the Hollywood musical could return.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Wither Star Trek?

In its first run on NBC from 1966 to 1969, Star Trek aired to absolutely abyssmal ratings. Despite this, it developed a cult following even while still airing on network television. In some respects, then, it should not have been a surprise that it would become a success in synication. It inspired a Saturday morning animated series that aired for two years starting in 1973. In 1979 it finally hit the big screen with Star Trek: the Motion Picture, the first of many movies. In 1987 a spinoff/sequel series debuted, Star Trek: the Next Generation. It would run for seven years and beget its own spinoffs--Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Eventually there would also be Star Trek: the Next Generation movies and a prequel series, Enterprise. And, of course, there was tons of merchandise, from the Mego action figures of the Seventies to the video games of the Naughts.

After nearly forty years, however, it would appear as if the franchise has finally ran out of steam. Officially, Paramount (who owns the rights to the series) has no plans for any further motion pictures or televison series. Star Trek: Nemesis did poorly at the box office and was poorly received by critcs and fans alike. Enterprise suffered from ratings even lower than the original in its final season. For some it perhaps seemed like the writing was on the wall--people were no longer interested in Star Trek. At least that is the conclusion I am guessing Paramount came to.

Of course, to be fair I think that it must be pointed out that Star Trek: Nemesis was a very bad movie. It was poorly written and poorly thought out, with gaps in logic large enough to drive a Mack truck through. As to Enterprise, I always loved the series, but in its first two seasons many of the episodes were somewhat lacklustre. Indeed, in its first two seasons the series lacked any good villains. The original series had the Klingons, Romulans, and Orions. Star Trek: the Next Generation had the Borg. All Enterprise had in its first two seasons were the Suliban, who always seemed rather lame to me. Fortunately, the last two season were among the best of any Star Trek series. Indeed, the final season may have been the best. We got to see the Romulans and even the Orion Syndicate (who should have been Archer's archnemises from the first season onwards...). Unfortunately, it seems that it was too little too late. Ratings continued to slide until UPN cancelled the show. I think it could then be debatable that people are tired of Star Trek. It could be that they simply did not like the movies and shows that were currently being made.

Indeed, as proof that people are not tired of Star Trek, one can look to the various rumours surrounding what the next Star Trek will be. At one point William Shatner pitched the idea for a series that would chronicle Kirk's adventures when he was at Starfleet Academy. Reprotedly the series would have also featured Spock and even appearances by McCoy. I always had a problem with Kirk's idea for a series in that both Spock and McCoy are older than Kirk--on the original series Bones even had a grown daughter! It would be seriously rewriting history for Spock and McCoy to be at the Academy with Kirk. Still, if properly done, a series featuring Kirk's adventures at the Academy could be appealing. Rumours of a series or movie taking place at the Academy have persisted ever since.

Another rumour that has persisted of late is of a series or movie set in the Mirror Universe, which first appeared on the original series episode "Mirror, Mirror." Personally, I think this would be a good idea. "Mirror, Mirror" was among my favourite Star Trek episodes, as was the Enterprise episode "In a Mirror Darkly." A series set in the Mirror Universe would then have interesting possiblities. Of course, I think it would be best set in the time of Archer or Kirk, when the Empire was a thriving concern.

Regardless, to me such rumours prove that there is still interest in Star Trek yet. I rather suspect that it is just a case of finding the right concept and the right scripts. Certainly another movie along the lines of Nemesis will not do. And with the various series continuing in reruns and on DVD, I think it is inevitable that there will be another Star Trek project at some point. There are some series that simply cannot be kept down.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Comfort Shows

I thought tonight that I would talk about the phenomenon of "comfort shows." For those of you who don't know what a comfort show is, it is any television series to which a viewer returns in times of stress for comfort. It is, in effect, the television equivalent of comfort food.

The first time I ever heard the term "comfort show" was early in 2002, I believe in an Associated Press story. I am not sure where it originated, but it seems to me that it may have been on a segment of PBS's McNeil/Lehrer Newshour aired around January 1, 2002. On that segment TV critic Caryn James, movie critic Stephen Holden, and music critic Jon Pareles discussed with Robert McNeil the effects of the September 11, 2001 tragedy on the entertainment industry. McNeil observed that viewers had returned to Friends because it was "comfort food for them." In response, Caryn James referred to "the comfort show," shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends that are "escapist and reassuring." This is the earliest I think that the term was ever used. At any rate, it seems to me that the phrase "comfort show" has entered common usage.

It also seems to me that the term "comfort show" is a rather broad term. Almost any show, except for news programmes and news magazines such as Sixty Minutes (which are not escapist and often not very reassuring...), can be a "comfort show." As strange as it might seem to me, for some people a show such as Fear Factor could actually be a "comfort show (although watching someone eat African cave dwelling spiders sounds nothing like comfort to me....)." Given the variety of individual tastes, individuals' comfort shows are going to vary from person to person. I doubt that there is any show that is going to universally considered a "comfort show"--what is a "comfort show" for one person may be nothing special for another.

Of course, there are going to be some shows that are much more popular as "comfort shows" than others. Given its 41 year popularity and the sheer amount of times it has been rerun, Gilligan's Island could well be the ultimate comfort show. Indeed, I swear that Bob Denver's death last year received more press and sparked more discussion on the net and around water coolers than that of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran for President of the United States! I think it is safe to say that such timeless favourites as Star Trek, I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, The Ed Sullivan Show, and other shows that have stood the test of time are among the most popular comfort shows.

It does seem to me that while the phenomenon of the comfort show may have been first observed in the wake of 9/11, it has probably existed since the days of the radio. I think it would be interesting to go back to the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbour and see if older, established radio shows rose in the ratings at that time. Somehow I think that they probably did. I suspect the same may well have held true of older, established TV shows in the weeks following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It is only human nature to seek out that which is familiar and comforting in times of stress.

For myself, I have a wide variety of comfort shows. Among those shows would number Bonanza. I have to admit that I think the series drastically declined in quality in its later years. And it had its share of bad episodes. And some of its episodes were definitely written by a formula (I swear no woman who fell in love with a Cartwright lived to see the end of an episode...). That having been said, I think it could well have been my parents' favourite show. They watched it every Sunday night. Bonanza then reminds me of my childhood and gives me an odd sense of security. Another comfort show for me is The Avengers. I discovered John Steed and Emma Peel when I was about six years old. The show immediately appealed to me (no pun intended)--it was blatantly escapist. Each week Steed and Peel faced a different bunch of diabolical masterminds, from a modern day version of the Hellfire Club to a society which had trained common house cats to kill (I never let my cats watch that episode...). While neither of my parents particularly cared for The Avengers (which may well have added to its appeal), it does remind me of my childhood and it does give me a sense of comfort.

That is not to say that every comfort show for me dates back to my childhood. Cheers is still among my favourite shows, despite the fact that I have seen its entire run probably hundreds of times. For me the gang on Cheers are familiar and comforting. I know that Norm is going to try to avoid work and joke about his wife Vera, and I know that Cliff is going to spout meaningless and, most often, inaccurate "facts." In some respects, it reminds me of various restaurants I hung out at in my teens and twenties. A more recent comfort show for me is Farscape. It is quite possibly my favourite science fiction show of all time. The show centres around John Crichton, a American astronaut goes through a wormhole and finds himself light years from Earth. To survive he must join the crew of the bio-mechanoid ship Moya: Luxon warrior D'Argo, Dominar Rygel XVI of the Hynerian Empire, and so on. Taking place far from Earth, with aliens who are truly alien (Rygel looks more like a frog or a slug than anything mammalian), Farscape is decidedly escapist. It is all the more appealing for me because it is not quite any other sci-fi series to ever air. Many episodes take cliches of the genre and simply turn them on their head. And like Cheers, its characters are familiar and endearing to me. Rygel's pompousness, Chiana's free spiritedness, Crichton's skewed sense of humour, they are comforting reminders of what it is to be human (or a slug, in Rygel's case...).

I have many more comfort shows (The Andy Griffith Show, Angel. Cowboy Bebop, and so on), too many to list here. I suppose that everyone has several shows that they would call "comfort shows." As I said earlier, it is only human nature to seek out that which is familiar and comforting, and this shouldn't hold any less true for television shows than anything else.