Saturday, October 7, 2006

The Late Great Buck O'Neil

I have never written about sports in A Shroud of Thoughts. This is not because I don't like sports. I am a Rams fan and a Cardinals fan, as any good Missourian is. Rather it is because A Shroud of Thoughts is a pop culture blog and I have never really thought of sports as being a part of pop culture. In this instance, however, I feel I need to write a sports figure, not just because he was a great player, but because he was also a truly good man.

Buck O'Neil was a legend of Negro League baseball and the first African American coach in major league baseball. He was central in seeing that Negro League players were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died last night, October 6, 2006, at the age of 94 of congestive heart failure. He had been hospitalised since September 17 with extreme fatigue.

O'Neil was born John Jordan O'Neil on November 19, 1911 in rural Florida. With only four high schools for African Americans in Florida at the time, he was able to attend high school only by going to live with relatives elsewhere in the state. He began his baseball career in 1934 when he started playing semi-pro, "barnstorming" games. By 1937 he would signed to the Memphis Red Sox of the newly formed Negro American League. A year later he would find his home with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs (for whom Satchel Paige also played). During World War II he interrupted his baseball career for a stint in the U. S. Navy.

In 1948 O'Neil became the manager of the Monarchs. With O'Neil as manager they won two league championships. In 1956 O'Neil went to work for the major leagues, becoming a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He signed baseball legends Lou Brock and Joe Carter. In 1962 he became the African American coach in the major leagues, for the Chicago Cubs. In 1988 he became a scout for the Kansas City Royals

In 1990 O'Neil helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and was its honourary chairman until he died. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee for many years and was central in seeing to it that negro league players were admitted into the Hall of Fame.

O'Neil was the oldest man to ever appear at the plate in a professional baseball game. In July of this year he played for both the Kansas City T-Bones and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (in the same game, at that).

O'Neil missed being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by one vote. That having been said, he was long ago inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He also narrated the segments on the negro leagues of Ken Burns' baseball documentary.

O'Neil was not simply a great baseball player, but a remarkable man as well. Despite the discrimination he faced in his life, O'Neil chose to forgive those who oppressed him. He once said that he hated cancer and AIDs, but he could never hate a human being. This is not to say that O'Neil condoned the discrimination he had faced all of his life. In 1993, when the major leagues showed interest in licensing Negro League apparel, he stated that he thought the major leagues should have nothing to do with licensing such apparel as they were responsible for keeping African Americans out for many years. Regardless, O'Neil's positive attitude and happiness were contagious to anyone who saw him or heard him speak. If the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a success, it is largely due to O'Neil. O'Neil would not want others to mourn him, but I know that many will.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Beta Blogger

Well, you wouldn't notice it from looking at the blog, but I made the switch to Beta Blogger just a day ago. The link for making the transition had appeared on my Dashboard quite some time back, but I had put off doing it for fear that my template might look strange in Beta Blogger, my comments might suddenly disappear, or, worst of all, every single entry might be lost. Fortunately, none of those things happened and A Shroud of Thoughts made the transition safe and sound. In fact, the only real difference in the blog is that now I log in with my Google Account.

Beta Blogger has several new features not found in the old Blogger. Probably the most revolutionary of these is the Layouts feature. With the new Layouts feature one can simply click, drag, and drop various parts of his or her blog wherever one wants them. This allows bloggers a greater freedom in the layout of their blog. Beta Blogger also makes it easier for users to manipulate the fonts and colours on one's blog. There is a Fonts and Colours tab under Template which allows bloggers to easily change, say, the font and colour of one's headers. Basically, what these new features accomplish is that they make it easier for those who are not skilled in HTML or CSS to make their blog look the way they want it to.

Of course, one can still opt to go with a "classic template," in which case the new features of Layouts and Fonts and Colours won't be available. This is what I chose, as I really don't want to change my template. I am not sure it can be called "classic," as it is actually cobbled together from a variety of sources and my own sketchy knowledge of CSS, but at any rate it isn't compatible with the new features. That doesn't bother me at all, as I already know how to change the colours and fonts on the various elements of my blog anyhow (not that I have any intention of doing so anytime soon).

From what I have read there have been a few bugs in Beta Blogger. For a while people using Beta Blogger couldn't post comments on blogs using the old Blogger. For a while the link to a blog's comments feed wouldn't show up on blogs using Layouts (those using classic templates weren't affected), but I think this has been fixed now. And there are some blogs that simply cannot switch yet (those with over 1000 entries, mobile blogs, et. al.). Still, from what I have seen so far, most of the bugs that would affect the average blogger have been corrected. I think I can safely reassure anyone, then, who had their doubts like me that their blog would survive the transition to Beta Blogger. While I can make no guarantees, I don't think one will lose every single one of his or her entires on his or her blog.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Dick Tracy Turns 75

Seventy five years ago today, on October 4, 1931, the comic strip Dick Tracy made its debut in the Detroit Mirror. And while Dick Tracy would almost literally be an overnight success, its creator, Chester Gould, was not. Since 1920 Gould had tried to sell several ideas for humour comic strips. His fortunes would improve considerably when, on one fateful evening, he was reading a newspaper in which there was a story about yet another gangland killing. In 1931 Al Capone was still very much in control of Chicago. Dutch Schultz was still active in New York. Gangland violence was very much a part of the headlines in the early Thirties. Gould thought that perhaps he should create a character who combat the gangsters.

Gould modelled his new character largely after Sherlock Holmes, whose stories he had read voraciously as a child. He decided that if Holmes had lived in present day America, he would probably wear a trenchcoat and a fedora. The name "Tracy" came from Gould's thought that he should be able to "trace" down clues. Most of all, Dick Tracy would be stand for everything that was honest and good. Dick Tracy was then a product of its time, a response to the gangland violence that had taken hold in many of America's cities in the Twenties and early Thirties.

Dick Tracy proved to be a roaring success. Within five years of its debut it was carried in over 700 newspapers. Initially, there was a good deal of violence in the comic strip. It was not unusual for gun battles to break out within its panels. At the same time, however, Gould placed a good deal of emphasis on police procedure and forensic science. In some respects, Dick Tracy can be seen as the forerunner of both Law and Order and CSI. The archetypal, Dick Tracy story arc would be one in which a criminal is seen committing a crime and then Tracy's efforts to catch him.

Gould not only focused on Dick Tracy and the police, however, but on the criminals themselves as well. For Dick Tracy Gould created one of the greatest rouge's galleries of all time. Tracy's archnemesis is arguably Flattop Jones, a hit man with a head that is flat on top. In their first confrontation Flattop was hired to kill Tracy by black marketeers for an exorbitant fee. Among Tracy's other opponents were The Brow (a Nazi spy with a pronounced brow), Pruneface (an engineer with a deformed face who worked for the Nazis), and Mumbles (a con man who never speaks, but only mumbles). Gould did not want to glamourise Tracy's opponents, so he intentionally made them grotesque--not that the lives of the criminals were very glamourous to begin with. Often the criminals' scheme would spin out of control, with one thing after another going wrong. And treachery was part and parcel of being a criminal. It was not unusual in the panels of Dick Tracy for bosses to kill henchmen, for henchmen to turn on their boss, and so on. The rouge's gallery Gould created for Dick Tracy would have a lasting impact on the medium of comic books which would develop a few years after the strip's debut. Indeed, Batman's rogue's gallery perhaps owes a lot to that of Dick Tracy (The Joker, Two Face, The Penguin, and many of Batman's other opponents are physically deformed in some way).

Over the years Dick Tracy would change and evolve. While violence would always be a part of Dick Tracy, it would subside from what it was in the strip's early years. In 1949 Dick Tracy finally married Tess Trueheart. In the Fifties, then, the comic strip took on soap opera elements, with a good deal of time spent on Tracy's personal life. An equally big change in the comic strip came in 1946 when Gould introduced advanced technology into the strip with the 2-Way Wrist Radio (which would give way to the 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964). In 1947 the close circuit TV police lineup would first appear in the comic strip. With the Sixties Dick Tracy would very nearly become a science fiction comic strip. The invention of the Magnetic Space Coupe would take Tracy to the Moon many years before Apollo 11. There he would encounter an advanced civilisation which would exchange technology with Earth. This would result in even more gadgets, such as the famous air cars (roughly cone shaped vehicles that could fly through the air). Dick Tracy's dalliance with space came to an end not long after the Apollo 11 mission really took men to the moon, although much of the advanced technology (the air cars and so on) and characters who entered the strip as a result of Tracy's trips to the Moon would remain a part of the strip for years.

The Seventies saw Gould made attempts to give Dick Tracy more appeal to a modern audience. In 1973 Tracy actually began riding a motorcycle. In 1977 he actually gave Dick Tracy a moustache. The moustache proved unpopular with readers, and only lasted a short time. It was that same year, in December, that Chester Gould retired from the comic strip, staying on as a creative consultant. Dick Tracy was then taken over by mystery writer Max Allan Collins and Gould's assistant, artist Rick Fletcher. Collins would bring Dick Tracy back to its roots, erasing the remnants of the space stories of the Sixties and concentrating on police procedure and forensics. He made it a policy to bring back at least one classic Dick Tracy villain a year. Since then the strip has passed through various hands. Currently Dick Locher, who had once been one of Gould's assistants, both draws and writes it.

Nearly a success since the beginning, Dick Tracy was naturally adapted for other media. In 1937, Dick Tracy, a 15 chapter serial based on the comic strip, was released. It was followed by more serials: Dick Tracy Returns in 1938, Dick Tracy's G-Men in 1939, and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. in 1941. The serials departed from the comic strip in that they featured none of the continuing characters beyond Tracy and Tracy was portrayed as an FBI agent rather than a police detective. In all of the serials, Ralph Byrd played Tracy, and he would play the detective again in both feature films and a TV series. Curiously, Byrd did not play Dick Tracy in the first feature film based on the comic strip. That honour went to Morgan Conway. Released in 1945, the movie was much more loyal to the comic strip than the serials, featuring both Tess Trueheart and Chief Brandon. Conway would play Tracy again in the second feature film based on the comic strip, Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball, released in 1946. For the third and fourth feature films Dick Tracy's Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome(which featured Boris Karloff as the villain), both released in 1947, Ralph Byrd returned to the role. Dick Tracy would eventually get a big budget treatment in 1990 with Warren Beatty's adaptation of the Dick Tracy. Sadly, the movie failed at the box office, despite a bit name cast and being fairly loyal to the comic strip.

Dick Tracy was also a success on radio. The radio series started on NBC in 1934. It would run at various times until 1946 on CBS, Mutual, and ABC. Bob Burlen originated the role on radio, to be followed by Barry Thompson, Ned Wever and Matt Crowley. Sadly, Tracy never saw the success on television that he did in radio. From 1950 to 1951 there was a short lived syndicated series once more featuring Ralph Byrd in the role. The series featured many of Tracy's classic villains, including Flattop, The Brain, Pruneface, and The Mole. In 1961 there was a syndicated, animated series called The Dick Tracy Show. Sadly, Dick Tracy saw no action on the series, simply giving out orders to such cartoon characters as Heap O'Calory and Go Go Gomez. The series has not been seen very often since the Sixties because many of the characters (such as Go Go Gomez and Joe Jitsu were ethnic stereotypes. In 1967 William Dozier (best known for the Sixties Batman) series produced a pilot for a Dick Tracy series featuring Ray McDonnell in the lead role. The pilot was done in the camp style of the Batman series, but was otherwise fairly loyal. Sadly, it failed to sell. Dick Tracy's final appearance on television was in 1971 as a segment of Archie's T. V. Funnies. These segments were fairly loyal to the Dick Tracy stories of the time.

In addition to appearing on film, on radio, and on television, Dick Tracy has also been the subject of comic books, Big Little Books, and video games. The character has been parodied endless times, most notably by Al Capp in the comic strip Li'l Abner, which featured a comic strip about a tough detective called "Fearless Fosdick."

Dick Tracy continues to be published to this day. It is still running in 52 newspapers across the United States and in many other countries as well. The comic strip would have a lasting impact on American pop culture. It was among the earliest examples of the police procedural so popular on television today. The villains often featured in its panels would have a lasting impact on comic books, influencing the supervillains seen there. Alongside Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon, it would start a cycle towards adventure strips would last throughout the Depression. Although Dick Tracy may not be as popular as it once was, there can be no doubt that it made its mark on history. And I rather suspect it will be around for a long time to come.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

White Zombie

Today is the first day of October, the month of Halloween. With that in mind I thought it might be fitting to talk about a horror film from Hollywood's First Golden Age of Horror--White Zombie.

Hard as it might be to believe, zombies have not always been a fixture of the American/European horror genre. In fact, the word zombie would not come into common usage until after the publication of the book The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook, which detailed the author's observations of Haitian voodoo (or, more properly, voudon). The book proved to be a bestseller and fueled interest in the United States in voodoo and zombies. In 1932 in New York City, Kenneth S. Webb's play Zombie debuted. And then independent movie producers Victor and Edward Halperin hit upon the idea of doing a movie to capitalise on public interest in zombies. White Zombie drew upon The Magic Island for much of its information. It also took elements from the stage play Zombie, a situation which would result in Kenneth S. Webb unsuccessfully suing the Halperin brothers for copyright infringement.

With zombies having only recently entered the consciousness of America, White Zombie would prove to be a historic film. It would be the first movie to deal with zombies. As such it would establish many of the lasting cliches of the zombie subgenre. As state earlier, many of these cliches were taken from Seabrook's book. When a zombie is created, he or she must be removed from his or her grave as soon as possible, lest the body begins to rot. Zombies are both mindless and obedient, making them ideal slaves for menial tasks (in the film they work in Murder Legendre's sugar mill). Even a scientific explanation for zombies is provided, as missionary Dr. Bruner explains his theory that zombies aren't really dead, only mindless slaves created through potions (a theory later explored by botanist Wade Davis in his nonfiction books). Of course, the Halperins did not only borrow from Seabrook's work, but also created a few things of their own that would become staples of the genre. Legendre is able to control his zombies from a distance. And while Seabrook says that zombies cannot be given their lives back (something we now know not to be true), in White Zombie it is said that they can.

While White Zombie would have a huge influence on the horror genre, it is not quite a horror classic in the sense of Universal's Frankenstein, Twentieth Century Fox's Island of Lost Souls, or MGM's Freaks. The film does have its flaws. Even when it was first released, White Zombie was attacked as a rather old fashioned movie. Much of the acting is rather broad and the dialogue sometimes melodramatic, reminding one much of the early silent films. As an independent movie made outside the studios on a shoestring budget, its production values are a far cry from The Bride of Frankenstein. For many modern viewers unaccustomed to early talkies, its pace might sometimes seem a bit too deliberate. And as the film that created many of the cliches of the zombie subgenre, many viewers might find it to be old hat. That having been said, White Zombie does have a good deal to recommend it.

Perhaps its strongest point is the performance of Bela Lugosi. While he may have hammed it up in Dracula, Lugosi is amazingly restrained in this film, giving the movie's best performance as Murder Legendre, the evil voodoo practitioner and creator of zombies. In fact, there are those who believe this is Lugosi's best performance of his early years as a horror actor. Another of the movie's strong points is Victor Halperin's direction. Although his direction is simple and basic, Halperin endowed the movie with a dream like quality, even with a few remarkable shots thrown in. White Zombie contains little in the way of frights of the sort one will see in Universal's Frankenstein films or Todd Browning's Freaks, but it is nonetheless effective as a horror film. Indeed, it can at times be disturbing, as when a zombie falls into Legendre's sugar mill and the other zombies continue working around him as if nothing happened.

Amazingly for its era, White Zombie presents a fairly balanced view of voudon. While Murder Legendre is presented as an evil necoromancer, it is made clear that he is not typical of the Haitians, nor is his like even accepted among them. There is even a good voudon practitioner in the form of Pierre (Dan Crimmins). Sadly, the film does not make it clear that voudon is essentially a syncretic religion combining native African and Roman Catholic beliefs. Indeed, it would be years before Hollywood would portray voudon as anything but a rather exotic form of witchcraft.

Although highly successful (it even produced a sequel, the atrociously bad Revolt of the Zombies from 1936), White Zombie would disappear for a time. For years it was thought lost until it resurfaced in the Sixties. Even then legal disputes between distributor Frank Storace and the survivors of Stanley Krellberg (who had provided the money to the Halperin brothers to make the film) kept the film from being fully restored for many years. Fortunately, it has since been restored and is again widely available.

Here I should point out that while most often referred to as "zombies," the living dead of George Romero's films (the first being the classic Night of the Living Dead) and their myriad imitators are technically not zombies. Strictly speaking, zombies are individuals whose souls have been stolen (that is, they are dead) by a necromancer, whose obedient servants they then become. Indeed, in many respects the living dead of Romero's movies and their imitators more resemble the ghouls of Arabic legend (shapeshifting demons who feed on dead bodies) or the draugar of Norse myth (the basis for Tolkien's barrow wight) than they do proper zombies.

As I said earlier, White Zombie is not a classic in the same sense as many of the Universal films. And it might not be suited to many of those with more modern sensibilities. But it is also a historic film and one that would prove important to the horror genre.