Saturday, July 22, 2006

Jack Warden R.I.P.

Character actor Jack Warden died Wednesday at age 85 in a New York hospital. He was best known for playing gruff characters, whether they were cops or coaches.

Jack Warden was born John H. Lebzelter on September 18, 1920 in Newark, New Jersey. He was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Warden worked various jobs as a young man. He worked as a professional boxer, a bouncer, and a tugboat deckhand. Eventually he joined the Navy in 1938. Following the Navy he was part of the Merchant Marine, but left it to serve in the Army. It was following World War II that he took up acting.

Warden made his screen debut in 1951 in an uncredited part in You're in the Navy Now. He would go onto have several more roles in motion pictures. He appeared in 12 Angry Men, Run Silent, Run Deep, Shampoo, All the President's Men, and Used Cars. His best known movie role was perhaps in 1978's Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan). He was twice nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, once for his role in Shampoo and once for his role in Heaven Can Wait.

Warden also appeared on stage. He made his debut on Broadway in the play Golden Boy in 1952. He also appeared in A View from the Bridge (1955), The Man in the Glass Booth (1969), and Stages (1978).

Despite his work on film and stage, it was perhaps from television that Warden was best known. He made his debut on television on The Philco Teleivison Playhouse in 1948. He was a regular on numerous series, including Mr. Peepers (on which he was the coach), Norby, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, The Asphalt Jungle, N.Y.P.D., Jigsaw John, and Crazy Like a Fox (on the last two series he had the lead role). He guest starred on an incredible number of TV series over the years, including Studio One, Climax, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Route 66, Bewitched, The Fugitive, and Ink. Warden was nominated twice for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on Crazy Like a Fox. He had earlier won the Emmy in 1972 for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Drama for his role in the TV movie Brian's Song.

I must admit that I always liked Jack Warden. Like most people I was first exposed to him through his many guest appearances on television. I also remember watching Jigsaw John (a rather well done, but short lived police mystery series). Of course, later I would get to see his roles in various movies, such as Shampoo and All the President's Men. When it came to playing either comedy or drama, Warden was flexible. He was convincing in a drama as Washington Post editor Harry M. Rosenfeld in All the President's Men, yet at the same time he could do equally as well with comedy as twins and rival car dealers Luke Fuchs and Roy L. Fuchs in Used Cars (which remains one of the funniest movies I've ever seen). I think there is little doubt that Jack Warden was one of the greatest character actors of his time, certainly no one played gruff characters quite as well as him. He will certainly be missed.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fad TV

For many of us living in the United States, the good news is that the heat wave of the past week has finally broken. Here in Missouri today has been relatively cool for the season (highs in the eighties). It also has been a bit gloomy, which suits me fine. These days I'd still feel gloomy even if it was sunny. Anyhow, I suppose I should get on with a real blog entry.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word fad as "A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze." Given its ephemeral nature, television may naturally be given to fads. The various cycles, such as the one towards Westerns in the Fifties and the one towards police procedurals in the Naughts could well be considered minor fads in and of themselves (at least within the television industry itself). This having been said, television has produced its own fair share of fads that have extended beyond the small screen. Like any other fad, a "fad show" is one that sparks intense interest for a short time before going out of fashion.

Indeed, regular network broadcasts had only been around for less than ten years when the first, full blown television fad emerged. Many baby boomers may have fond memories of the craze surrounding the five Davy Crockett segments which aired on Disneyland in the mid-Fifties. The first episode, Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter aired on December 15, 1954. Two more epsiodes featuring Fess Parker as the frontier man aired in short order. They proved so successful that Disney produced two more adventures featuring Crockett, the last one airing on December 14, 1955. The episodes were even edited together as a motion picture and released to theatres where the resulting film did very well. But the Davy Crockett segments did something nothing else on television had before--it became an outright craze among youngsters. Merchandise, from coonskin caps to the episodes' theme song ("The Ballad of Davy Crockett") to bath towels, flew off store shelves. In the end $300 million worth of Davy Crockett related merchandise was sold. Despite the intense interest on the behalf of the nation's youth and the incredible sales of its merchandise, the Davy Crockett phenomenon was truly a fad. By 1956 the Davy Crockett had played itself out. Whereas coonskin caps had been in huge demand the previous year, they were just languishing on store shelves by 1956.

Of course, technically the Davy Crockett segments on Disneyland were a mini-series (perhaps the first on American television), not a TV series proper. Most television fads have centred on TV shows. And perhaps the quintessential fad show was the Sixties live action TV series Batman. By the mid-Sixties ABC had consistently been in third place among the networks. Desperate for a hit, they took notice of the renewed interest in comic book superheroes and the current Pop Art fad (in which "serious" artists turned pop culture artefacts, including comic book pictures, into "art") and struck upon the idea of a show centred upon a superhero. The superhero they chose was Batman, a character who had been around for over 25 years and was second in popularity only to Superman. To produce the series they looked to television veteran William Dozier, who had been a programmer at CBS and production head at Screen Gems. Dozier decided the best route to go as afar as a Batman TV show would be comedy. Essentially, the series would work on two levels--as high adventure for children and outright comedy for adults. To this end, the TV show was highly stylised. The show's direction was often unusual, including Dutch tilt angles (a shot in which the horizon of the frame is not parallel with the bottom of the frame--it was often used on the show when the villains were scheming). The fight scenes were littered with animated "Pows" and "Whams." And with the exception of some of the villains, the acting was always played dead serious, no matter how ludicrous the situation. Further setting Batman apart from anything that had gone before it, it was perhaps the only comedy on American television at the time without a laughtrack.

While many ABC executives had little faith in the new show, ABC put a good deal of promotion into Batman. It was advertised on other ABC shows prior to its debut and ABC even went so far as to hire a skywriter to create the words "Batman is coming" above the Rose Bowl. Even so, it was a bit of a shock even to ABC when Batman debuted on Janurary 12, 1966 with almost a 50 percent share of the audience. The ratings for the series continued to be phenomenonal for the rest of the season. In the end, Batman (which aired twice a week) ranked twice in the top ten shows for the 1965-1966 season--the Wednesday night airings ranked #10 and the Thursday night showings ranked #5. Furthermore, there was an incredible demand for Batman merchandise. Everything from toy Batmobiles to toy Batphones to record albums emerged as merchandising for the series. Indeed, as a very young child I can remember that the Montgomery Ward catalogue had around two or three pages dedicated to Batman merchandise. In its first season alone, Batman produced around $75 million in merchandise. Further demonstrating the show's success, in the summer of 1966 a feature film based on the series was released. No surprise, it was a success at the box office. The show was covered in major magazines from Life to The Saturday Evening Post.

Unfortunately for ABC and William Dozier, the craze soon ended. The show's ratings declined in the second season to the point that ABC seriously considered cancelling the show. It was saved only by the addition of Batgirl. This was not enough, however, as the show's ratings continued to fall in the third season. In its first season Batman attracted 55 percent of the audience, with about 66 percent of the viewers being adults. By the third season, only ten percent of Batman's audience were adults. As a very expensive show with dwindling ratings, ABC chose to cancel the series. It left the air on March 14, 1968. It almost received a reprieve when NBC expressed interest in picking up the show provided the sets were still standing. Unfortunately, they weren't. Only a little over two years after its debut, Batman had left network airwaves.

Of course, Batman was not the first fad show of the Sixties. Before Batman, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were the men of the hour. Unlike many fad shows, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not a hit from the very beginning. Debuting in the fall of 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. suffered from such poor ratings that it was not even on NBC's tenetative 1965-1966 schedule as of December 1966. In an effort to turn the show's fortunes around, its producers launched a publicity campaign. At the same time there was a lot of good word of mouth on the part of the show's loyal viewers. By May 1965, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had become an outright fad. In its second season The Man From U.N.C.L.E. hit its peak, regularly ranking in the weekly top ten TV series. It produced a lot of merchandising, from games to toy U.N.C.L.E. guns to clothing. At its peak, the show received 10,000 fan letters a week. Like Batman later, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be covered by many major magazines.

Unfortunately, the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not to last. While its ratings had been phenomenal in its second season, they plummeted in the third season. Much of this may well have been due to the dramatic shift in the series from tongue in cheek adventure to outright comedy in its third season, but much of it might also have been due to the fad simply having run its course. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. returned for a fourth season, when it once more returned to serious spy drama, but it only lasted until mid-season. It last aired on any network on January 15, 1968.

If the rises and falls of Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seem dramatic, they are perhaps nowhere as dramatic as that of Twin Peaks. Created by famous director David Lynch, Twin Peaks was hyped heavily by ABC prior to its debut. And while it rarely beat its rival on NBC (the classic Cheers), Twin Peaks did very well in the ratings in its first season. It was also the most talked about show on American television at the time. Twin Peaks was covered in many major magazines, from People to Newsweek. Unfortunately, its success would not last. In its second season, ratings for Twin Peaks fell dramatically. In February of 1991, it ranked 85th out of the 89 shows then on the air in primetime. That April Twin Peaks was placed on an indefinite hiatus. Its final episodes would not air until that June. Twin Peaks, the most talked about series of the 1989-1990 season, had left the air after only a little over a year. It only lasted from April 1990 to June 1991.

Of course, there have been other "fad shows" than these. The Monkees, Charlie's Angels, and many reality shows could be argued to have been fad shows. Fad shows usually have a good deal in common. In most cases (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an exception), fad shows are hits from the beginning. Batman, Charlie's Angels, Twin Peaks, and many other fad shows received phenomenal ratings upon their debut. Many fad shows (Twin Peaks was an exception to this rule) also to tend to appeal to both children and adults. This was particularly true of Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Another phenomenon seen with many fad shows is that eventually they become cult shows as well. Both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Batman had relatively short network runs, but they lasted in syndication and developed strong cult followings. Unlike the pet rock or mood rings, most fad shows seem to survive cancellation (that is, the official end of the fad) to become lasting parts of pop culture.

Beyond anything else, the one thing that nearly all of them have in common is that they lasted only briefly, achieving phenomenal ratings in a relatively short time before dropping in the ratings to the point that they are cancelled. It is true that there are other factors that probably played a role in the cancellation of most fad shows. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took a turn towards comedy in its third season, as well as an overall drop in the quality of its episodes, that probably shortened its run. In its second season Batman fell into a formula in which one episode differed very little from another. In its third season it was cut back to one night a week. Both of these things were probably factors in their demise. As to Twin Peaks, it was a serial when serialised dramas were not popular, it mixed genres (everything from comedy to science fiction) to a degree unseen in most shows before, and ABC moved the show all over its schedule. What was probably the major contributing factor in the demise of these and other fad shows, however, is simply that people tired of them. All fads have a limited lifespan, generally of about a year or less. Furthermore, the lifespan of any fad is usually related to the intensity with which that fad is taken up. At its peak, over one hundred million hula hoops were sold, yet the fad lasted less than a year. That the intensity of any given fad usually reflects the brevity of its lifespan is shown in how short the runs of many fad shows are. Batman lasted only a little over two years. Twin Peaks only lasted a little over a year. Quite simply, like any other fad, people eventually became burned out on them.

It seems to me that since the Sixties there have been fewer and fewer shows which have become fads. I suspect most of this is due to the fact that network television's influence had delined in the intervening decades, largely due to competition from cable television, video games, personal computers, DVDs, and other technological developments. Obviously people still take an intense interest in TV shows, as the success of both Lost and Desperate Housewives demonstrate. That having been said, it remains to be seen if Lost and Desperate Housewives are simply fad shows that last only a few seasons or shows that will have long network runs.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

The past few days have found me unhappier than I have been in some time. The fact is that I think I might never be happy again. There are certain things that can happen in a man's life that will insure that happiness never again crosses his path, and I fear one of those tihngs has happened in mine.

Anyhow, today I thought I would discuss one of my favourite novels, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (for those who have not read it or seen any of the movie adaptations, I have to warn you that there are spoilers ahead). Its title comes from the two cities in which the novel is set--London and Paris. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, and Dickens pulled no punches in describing the horrors committed by both the revolutionaries and the French government (he drew upon The French Revolution: a History by Thomas Carlyle). Set in a two cities in a tumultuous time A Tale of Two Cities centres on two men who are nearly exact doubles in appearance, but quite unlike in personality. Sydney Carton, arguably the hero of the novel, is a cynical English lawyer with a bit of a drinking problem. Charles Darnay is a romantic French noble with as much elegance and class as Carton lacks. It is their misfortune that they both fall in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette, daughter of the prominent Doctor Manette.

The central theme of A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps duality. This is even seen in its opening words, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." It can be seen in the two settings of the book, London and Paris. London is the relatively peaceful, civilised centre of the British Empire. On the other hand, Paris is positively in chaos, this being the height of the Reign of Terror. It is also seen in the two primary female characters. Lucie Manette is gentle caring, and loving, while Madame DeFarge is the French Revolution personified--brutal, sadistic, and vengeufl. The theme of duality becomes much more obvious in the book with the introduction of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two men who look very much alike but differ in their characters. Initially, Carton seems to be the inferior of the two. Although he could have been a truly great man (and one has to wonder if he wouldn't have been had he won Lucie), as a lazy, alcoholic barrister Carton seems a stark contrast to Darnay's honour and courage. Ultimately, however, it is Carton who performs the ultimate act of heroism in the novel. When Darnay is captured by the revolutionaries and sentenced to the guillotine, it is Carton who takes his place and ultimately dies in in his place (his final words, "Tis a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done..." are perhaps the most famous final words of any character in any medium). There have been those who have read into Carton's sacrifice a continuation of the novel's themes of redemption and renewal. They interpret Carton in his sacrifice as having become a Christ-like figure dying for the happiness of others and in effect becoming immortal himself. I disagree. Carton's act was not so much Christ like as it was romantic. Carton died at the guillotine to insure the continued happiness of the woman he loves; his sacrifice was the ultimate expression of his love for her. In the case of Carton's death, Dickens was using the theme of redemption and renewal to show how even the most pathetic charcter (in this case, Sydney Carton) can be transformed by love into something more.

Carton is not the only character who experiences redemption and renewal in the novel, and the theme of redemption and renewal runs throughout the work. Dr. Manette is impisoned for eighteen months, during which time he has very nearly become a vegetable. Once released, however, Manette once more becomes a respected citizen and a man of distinction. Indeed, emphasising the theme of redemption and renewal in the novel, one character makes the statement that Manette has been "...recalled to life."

Another theme in the novel is that acts of evil can sometimes be committed in what otherwise just causes. Dickens clearly had some sympathy for the French people of the time. The evil Marquis Evremonde is clearly the sort of corrupt noble who thinks of nothing of the exploitation of the common man. It is not only nobles like Evremonde who commits atrocities, however, as Dickens also portrays the degradation commmitted by the revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. Madame DeFarge is the personification of these atrocities. She thinks of nothing of sending innocents to the guillotine, simply because they are part of the aristocracy. In many ways, she is Evremonde's double--as sadistic and overbearing as he is.

A Tale of Two Cites is arguably one of Dickens' greatest novels and it was a change of pace for him. While many, if not most of Dickens' novels were set in his present day, A Tale of Two Cites is a historical novel set at the time of the French revolution. It is also one of Dickens' most tragic works--there is no happy ending to behad in A Tale of Two Cites. It is certainly well worth reading.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mickey Spillane, Creator of Mike Hammer, Dies

Mickey Spillane, the creator of hard boiled detective Mike Hammer, died today at the age of 88. He wrote thirteen novels featuring Hammer, as well as a dozen other books.

Mickey Spillane was born Frank Spillane in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918. As an infant Spillane had the singular experience of being christened in two different churchs. His father was a Catholic, so he was christened with the middle name "Michael" in the Catholic Church. His mother being Protestant, he was also christened with the midlde name "Morrison." It would be the name "Michael" that would win out, however, so that he would forever be remembered as "Mickey."

Spillane began his writing career in comic books and pulp magaznes. He wrote stories for such characters as Captain Marvel, Captain America, and the Human Torch. His writing career was interrupted by World War II, when Spillane enlisted in the Air Corps. Once back in the States he created a new comic book character, detective Mike Danger. Comic book publishers initially rejected the character, and no Mike Danger stories would be published until 1954 when they were published in Crime Detector #3 and 4. The character would later be revived in comic books in the Nineties by writer Max Allan Collins.

In the meantime, however, Spillane would change the character's last name to "Hammer" and write a novel around him. Although it bombed in hardback, I, the Jury was a resounding success in paperback. Mike Hammer was very much in the tradition of hard boiled detectives. Where he differs from such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, however, is that he is often brutal and almost always filled with rage. Where Spade or Marlowe might bend the rules at times, Hammer was not below outright breaking the law to see that justice was served. The success of Mike Hammer in print led to several movie adaptations (among them I, the Jury in 1953 and Kiss Me Deadly in 1955), three TV series (a syndicated Fifties series starring Darren McGavin, an Eighties CBS series starring Stacey Keach, and a Nineties syndicated series), a newspaper comic strip, and radio shows. Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of Mike Hammer is that it can be argued that the character was an influence on such future characters as Dirty Harry, Mel Gibson's character in Lethal Weapon, and many others.

Spillane wrote more than the Mike Hammer novels. He also wrote a dozen other books, among them The Day The Sea Rolled Back, a novel for young adults which won a Junior Literary Award. He has also been honoured with awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America.

Spillane was undeniably a controversial writer. The Mike Hammer novels were often accused of being overly violent, encouraging vigilantism, and misogynistic. Spillane was also an outspoken conservative and that conservativism sometimes showed up in his books. Spillane's Mike Hammer novels were never the darlings of the critics, who even disliked his writing style. That having been said, the Mike Hammer novels are a sort of guilty pleasure. They are set in a world that is utterly black and white, where there is a clear line between good and evil. What is more, evil doers always got their just deserts in the Mike Hammer series. While I must admit that I find much that is objectionable in the Mike Hammer books (and keep in mind that I am an afficanado of pulp fiction and hard boiled detectives), I cannot deny there is an appeal in books where there is a clear difference between good and evil, and where the bad guys always pay for their crimes in the end. While I know that I probably disagreed with Spillane on a good many things, I can't help but thing that the world would be poorer without his books.