Saturday, February 18, 2006

Directors and Television

There was a time when movie directors had to start out in the movie industry and work their way up. Alfred Hitchcock started out as a title designer. John Ford started out as an assistant to his brother Francis. In the old days, if one wanted to direct films, he or she had to either work his way up to it or have a relative already in the business. Or both.

All of this changed with the advent of regular network television broadcasts in the late Forties. No longer would anyone wanting to be a film director have to start in the film industry. Now he or she could find his way into film direction by way of directing television. Indeed, several big name directors have had their start in television.

Among these was Sidney Lumet. Lumet started out as an actor, but he eventually found himself at CBS directing episodes of such series as Studio One and Danger. He broke into film in 1957 with the adaptation of a teleplay by Reginald Rose. Twelve Angry Men had first aired in 1954 as an episode of Studio One. Lumet would continue his work on television for a few more years, until he abandoned it all together after directing the movie Long Day's Journey into Night. He would go onto make such films as The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, and Serpico.

Sam Peckinpah also started in television. In fact, he started as a lowly stagehand on The Liberace Show in 1952. By 1955 he was a writer for Gunsmoke. Two years later he would create the classic Western series The Rifleman. He would both write and direct episodes of the show. He would also create the short lived series The Westerner, episodes of which he also wrote and directed. Fittingly, given his work on Western TV series, Peckinpah's break into film came with a Western--the classic Ride the High Country in 1962. Within a few years Peckinpah would be firmly established as a film director, directing the classic Wild Bunch.

Perhaps the biggest name in film direction to emerge from televison was Steven Spielberg. After serving as an assistant editor on Wagon Train and making various short films, Spielberg entered the field of direction with one of the segments for the pilot to Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He went onto direct episodes of Marcus Welby M.D., The Name of the Game, and Columbo. It was directing the telefilm Duel, however, which really got him noticed. First aired in 1971, it was one of the most successful television movies of all time. Spielberg broke into the movies in the biggest way possible. He directed one of the biggest movies of all time--Jaws. The film was the hit of 1975 and the highest grossing film of all time until it was surpassed by Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Since that time he has been one of the most successful directors in the history of film.

Since the Sixties it has not been terribly unusual for television directors to eventually make the move to film. Paul Haggis, Mike Newell, Michael Mann, and many other movie directors got their start working on television. Even Tim Burton, better known for his early animated shorts, did some work in TV. In 1982 Burton directed a special for the Disney Channel entitled Hansel and Gretel. Based on the fairy tale of the same name, it was done in the animated style of The Nightmare Before Christmas. In 1984 he directed an episode of Shelly Duvall's Fairie Tale Theatre entitled "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp." Of course, during this time Burton was also working on Disney's various animated feature films (The Fox and the Hound, for example).

There was a time long ago (the Fifties) when television was regarded by the film industry as a bitter rival. Today it is simply one of any number of media. Given the number of film stars and directors (and in some cases both in the same person--Clint Eastwood started in television) who have emerged from television, the film industry couldn't resent it for long.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez R.I.P.

Mexican American character actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez died Feburary 6 of natural causes at the age of 80.

Gonzalez was born Ramiro Gonzalez-Gonzalez in Aguilares, Texas on May 24, 1925. He came from a family of entertainers. His father was a native Texan who played the trumpet. His mother was a dancer from Mexico. He started his career in entertainment at the tender age of 7, when his parents took him along to help entertain the inhabitants of small Southwestern towns and migrant workers. He proved to be a born comedian. Gonzalez served as a driver in World War II.

His big break came when he appeared as a contestant on the game show You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx. There he proved to be one of the few contestants who could actually match wits with the legendary comedian. John Wayne happened to see Gonzalez's appearance on the show and immediately signed him to a contract. He made his first screen apperance in Wings of the Hawk in 1953 before appearing in the John Wayne move The High and Mighty. He would also appear in many other movies with the Duke, including Rio Bravo, McClintock, and Chisum. He would go on to appear in such films as The Love Bug and Support Your Local Gunfighter. He also provided the voice for Speedy Gonzales in various cartoons produced by DePatie-Freleng for Warner Brothers in the mid-Sixties.

In addition to You Bet Your Life, Gonzalez appeared on many TV series. He guest starred on several Westerns, including Gunsmoke, Laredo, and Wanted: Dead or Alive. He also appeared on many sitcoms, among them The Monkees, I Dream of Jeannie, and Mayberry R.F.D.. He also appeared in such diverse TV shows as Perry Mason, I Spy, Tarzan, and Adam-12. His last apppearance on screen was on the short lived series Land's End in 1996.

There are those that have argued that many of the characters Gonzalez played were extreme ethnic stereotypes (his character in Rio Bravo is a good example). In Gonzalez's defence, however, it must be pointed out that there were not that many roles offered to Mexican Americans in the Fifties and Sixties. In fact, it can be aruged that, regardless of how stereotypical Gonzalez's roles may have been, he did open doors for other Mexican American actors. Without Gonzalez paving the way, there might not have been careers for such actors as James Edward Olmos or Eva Longoria. Indeed, in an Associated Press article on Gonzalez's death, James Edward Olmos said that Gonzalez "inspired every Latino actor." For an actor such as Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, there can perhaps be no greater tribute.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Vikings on Film

Those who know me know that I quite naturally have a love of Germanic mythology and the history of the Germanic peoples (for those who are wondering who the Germanic peoples are, they are those peoples who speak any of the Germanic family of languages--the English, Germans, Dutch, Danish, and so on). It is then natural that I would love films based on Germanic mythology and events or situations from the history of the Germanic peoples. Unfortunately, there have been very, very few movies that have dealt with Germanic myth or history.

I rather suspect that much of the reason there have been so few films based on Germanic mythology is simply that in the mid-Twentieth Century Nazism misused many of the symbols and even many of the myths of the Germanic peoples. The image of anything Germanic was then tarnished for many, perhaps to the point that both Hollywood and European film makers shied away from anything dealing with the Germanic peoples. Indeed, it seems that only Iceland has done much in the way of movies based upon Norse myths and various sagas. Other than various films out of Iceland, it seems as if the majority of films dealing with Germanic peoples of any sort fall into the genre of "Viking movies," a genre not known for its quality.

Perhaps the greatest film based on Germanic myth came early in the history of movies, during the Silent Era. And as might be expected, it did not emerge from Hollywood either. 1924 saw the release of Die Niebelungen, a film directed by Fritz Lang . Here in the United States it was released in two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge. Contrary to popular belief, Die Niebelungen was not based on Wagner's famous operas nor was it based on The Volsunga Saga. Instead, the film's script was based on Die Niebelungenlied and would draw largely on Friedrich Hebbel's play Die Nibelungen (also based on the German poem). The sets and costumes of Die Niebelungen are not particularly authentic (it is more or less what the average person might picture when thinking "Middle Ages") and it is fairly expressionistic. But Die Niebelungen is also fairly faithful to the The Niebelungenlied. As might be expected, its strengths lie in its script, its direction, and its black and white photography. It is quite simply a masterpiece of silent film. Anyone who has not seen Die Niebelungen should by all means do so. Unfortunately, after Die Niebelungen, Lang would never again make a movie based on Germanic mythos, perhaps because Nazism (probably the most vile, evil, and reprehensible ideology of the twentieth century) had tarnished its image.

That is not to say that Die Niebelungen is the only great film based on a Germanic myth. Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel went to the myth of Amled (Shakespeare's Hamlet) from Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum (roughly "A History of the Danes" in modern English) as the source of inspiration for Amled, prinsen af Jylland, better known here in the United States as Royal Deceit. Royal Deceit was made on the cheap and it clearly shows. Yet the movie is not only faithful to the tale as told in Saxo's Gesta Danorum, but the costumes and sets are fairly authentic. The movie also has an intelligent script and some fine performances, particularly Gabriel Byrne as Feng. Anyone expecting Shakespeare's Hamlet will be pleasantly surprised. While Royal Deceit has much in common with Shakespeare's play, it is also a very different story with many surprises for those familiar with the Bard's work.

Royal Deceit was not the first time Axel looked to Gesta Danorum for the inspiration for a movie. He also did so for Den Røde kappe, based on the Hagbard and Signe tale from the 7th book of Gesta Danorum. I've never gotten to see this film, but I understand it is quite good and also quite loyal to the source material!

I'm sure that there probably are other fine movies based on Germanic material, but right now I cannot think of any off the top of my head. I have never had the opportunity to see any of the movies made in Iceland, although I have heard that some of them are quite good. As I stated above, it seems to me that most movies based on Germanic material or Germanic culture are "Viking films." There are two somewhat good Viking films out there (most of you might well know which two I am talking about), but the rest are sorely lacking in quality. One of my fond childhood movies as a child was a film called The Long Ships. The movie was about a struggle between Vikings and Moors. I enjoyed it as a child. I can't say that I have enoyed it as an adult. The film is truly horrible. It is poorly written, poorly directed, and incredibly inaccurate when it comes to its portrayal of the Vikings and the Moors. Indeed, I would say it is downright racist in its portrayal of both!

One film that is not one of my cherished childhood memories is The Norsemen, starring Lee Majors. The movie is about the Vinland expeditions. This could make interesting fodder for a film, but The Norsemen is inaccurate, badly written, badly acted, and badly directed. Even as a kid I disliked this film enormously. I can't picture even the most forgiving fan of Viking movies liking this picture.

Of course, the most famous "Viking movie" of all time is The Vikings. It is also one of two that is actually somewhat good. The Vikings is hardly an accurate reflection of Viking life. To a large degree the costumes, weapons, and architecture of the Vikings is somewhat accurate. Unfortunately, it does stray with regards to Viking culture (adulterous women would not have had axes thrown at them...). And while the costumes that the English wear are somewhat accurate, it must be pointed out that they did not live in Norman castles at this time (their housing wouldn't have looked too different from that of the Vikings)! The Vikings is very loosely based on Ragnars saga lodhbrokar, a fact that somewhat irritates me. Knowing the saga, I can't help but think they could have done a better job of the movie.

That is not to say that I dislike The Vikings. The Vikings is one of the great popcorn movies of the Fifties. It is fun in the way that other costume epics of the era are fun, regardless of the fact that they may well butcher history or the source material upon which they are based. The Vikings features some excellent photography, insidious villains, a beautiful damsel in distress (Janet Leigh at her finest), some fine looking costumes, and some fine looking sets. While I might wish that The Vikings had been a bit more authentic with regards to history and culture, it is still a very fun movie.

The same may be said of what could be the second most famous Viking movie of all time, The 13th Warrior. Based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, The 13th Warrior is loosely inspired by Beowulf, combined with the Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan's account of life among the Rus (Vikings who settled in what would become Russia). In many respects The 13th Warrior offers a more accurate portrayal of Viking culture than The Vikings, although it is also inauthentic in many ways as well. It is doubtful that the Rus were nearly as superstitious as they are portrayed in the film (in none of the sagas or history do they worry about "demons in the mist..."). Similarly, the Rus would have certainly been familiar with written language (after all, they did have the runes). That having been said, The 13th Warrior's greatest weakness is the inauthenticity of many of the weapons, armour, and clothes in the movie. Indeed, this seems to be the most common complaint about the movie!

Like The Vikings, I do like The 13th Warrior a good deal, regardless of how it might depart from the historical record. Despite the occasional inaccuracy, The 13th Warrior does present a somewhat accurate portrayal of the Rus. And while the costumes and armaments may not be accurate, the architecture is fairly authentic. Ultimately, however, The 13th Warrior is simply a great action movie. For any fan of sword play and medieval combat, there is gong to be plenty of excitement in this movie.

While there have only been a few good films based on Germanic culture in the past, I suspect this could change in times to come. At this moment it seems that we have seen the return of the epic film. There can be little doubt that The Lord of the Rings started this cycle. The Alamo, Troy, and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have continued it. I suspect that among the epics that might come out in the coming years there may be some which draw upon Germanic myth and history. Indeed, rather recently there have been two low budget films that have drawn upon Germnanic myth--a Canadian Icelandic production of Beowulf (Beowulf and Grendel) and a new version of The Niebelungenlied (titled Ring of the Nibelungs. It may then be possible that we could see films based on events from Germanic history and tales from Germanic literature. As to whether these films will be accurate or actually good, that is a different matter entirely...

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Suitable Song for Valentine's Day

I have been trying to think of a song to post for Valentine's Day and, I must admit, I was at a bit of a loss. I'd considered Ian Hunter's "All the Good Ones Are Taken" or Rod Stewart's version of "Some Guys Have All the Luck," but neither of them seemed quite right. And then it hit me. I have the perfect song for Valentine's Day. Nothing could be more fitting. Sadly, I could not find an audio file of it on the Web (beyond the short, little, sample snippets on Amazon and CDNow and their like). We'll then have to make due with the lyrics. So grab your copy of the J. Geils Band's album Love Stinks (or your DVD of The Wedding Singer, whichever is closer) and sing along....

"Love Stinks"
by Peter Wolf and Seth Justman

You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can't win
And so it goes
Till the day you die
This thing they call love
It's gonna make you cry
I've had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing's for sure

(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah

Two by two and side by side
Love's gonna find you yes it is
Ya just can't hide
You'll hear it call
Your heart will fall
Then love will fly
It's gone that's all
I don't care what any Casanova thinks
All I can say is
Love stinks

(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah

I've been through diamonds
I've been through minks
I've been through it all
Love stinks

(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah
(Love stinks)
Love stinks yeah yeah

(Love stinks)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Franklin Cover Moves On Up

Franklin Cover, best known for playing Tom Willis for ten years on The Jeffersons, passed on last Sunday of pneumonia. He was 77 yeas old.

Cover was born in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio. Although he would become best known for his work on The Jeffersons, Cover's career began on the stage. He appeared in both Henry IV and Hamlet. He appeared many times on Broadway, in such plays as Sons of Giants (1962), Calculated Risk (1962), Applause (1970), and Born Yesterday (1989). He made his television debut on an episode of The Naked City in 1962. He would make guest appearances on TV shows in the Sixties, on The Jackie Gleason Show and NYPD. He also appeared in feature films, playing a role in the original version of The Stepford Wives.

It would be The Jeffersons that would bring Cover lasting fame. Cover played Tom Willis, George Jefferson's white neighbour whose wife, Helen, was black. Willis was constantly the target of George's jokes, who took every opportunity to point out Willis' whiteness. Eventually, George and Tom would become the best of friends. Tom and Helen Willis were historic as prime time television's first interracial couple.

Following The Jeffersons Cover made several guest appearances on shows such as Who's the Boss, In the Heat of the Night, Coach, and Will and Grace (his last appearance). He also appeared in the movie Wall Street.

The Jeffersons was always one of my favourite sitcoms from the Seventies, and it wouldn't have been the same without Franklin Cover as Tom Willis. Cover was perfect as Willis who could sometimes be a bit dense, ate too much, and an enduring love for peanuts. He was one of the great comic characters of the Seventies and I don't think anyone else could play him quite as well as Cover did.