Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Best Years for the Academy Awards

There are some years when it seems that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has only a few movies worthy of Best Picture to choose from. And then there are those years when they are so many great films released that I imagine choosing a winner for the Best Picture award would be very difficult. Sadly, those years don't come around very often, but they do come around.

One of those years was 1939. Just consider the movies nominated for Best Picture: Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. And these weren't the only great films released that year. This was also the year that Beau Geste and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex were released. Indeed, it is a mark of how good 1939 was that a classic like The Wizard of Oz did not take the Academy Award for Best Picture. Looking back, perhaps it should have, but then it was released the same year as Gone with the Wind, not only a classic but an outright blockbuster. Today The Wizard of Oz probably has more importance as a pop culture artefact than Gone with the Wind--I doubt there is anyone over the age of five in the United States who has not seen the movie at least once. But in 1939 Gone with the Wind was a juggernaut that could not be stopped. Indeed, for literally decades it would be the highest grossing film of all time.

Another great year for Best Picture nominees was the year 1975. That year such classics as Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest nominated. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, although looking back I think that perhaps it should have gone to Nashville. Altman's classic was one of the truly great films of the Seventies, and, as good as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was, it wasn't as nearly as good.

The next great year for Best Picture nominees followed hot on the heels of 1965. Nineteen seventy six saw a particularly good crop of movies. And while one could debate if One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is better than Dog Day Afternoon or Jaws (but not, in my mind, Nashville), I think there can be little doubt that the weakest picture won the award in 1976. That year saw such classics as All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver nominated, yet somehow the Best Picture award went to Rocky, a good movie in my mind but not Best Picture material. I can only figure that the votes were divided among the stronger pictures (let's face it, I have to admit that I have problems deciding if Network is a better film than Taxi Driver or vice versa) in a such a way that Rocky won through a plurality of votes. I certainly hope so. I would be sorely disappointed if a majority of Academy members honestly thought Rocky was better than Network or Taxi Driver!

Sadly, the cinema has not seen a year quite as good as 1976 ever since. Of course, considering that before 1975 the last really great year for Best Picture nominees was 1939, this should not be surprising. Sadly, the number of great pictures released in any given year is going to be somewhat limited. And even more sadly, not every truly great picture is going to be nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, a case in point is this year, when Pan's Labyrinth failed to get a Best Picture nod. Between the fact that only a few very great movies are released each year and the Academy sometimes failing to nominate them, I doubt we'll see years like 1939, 1975, and 1976 again.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Janet Blair R.I.P.

Janet Blair, the lively actress who starred in musicals and on television, passed on yesterday of complications from pneumonia. She was 85 years old.

Janet Blair was born Martha Jean Lafferty on April 23, 1921 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She started performing early, and by her teens she was singing with Hal Kemp's band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. She was spotted by a talent scout for Columbia and, following Kemp's death in a car crash and the subsequent break up of his band, she signed with Columbia for $100 a week.

Initially, Blair appeared in B pictures, such as Three Girls About Town and Blondie Goes to College. Her breakthrough role in the title part of the comedy My Sister Eileen in 1942 came about when she was recommended by Rosalind Russell. She would go on to play opposite Cary Grant in the comedy fantasy Once Upon a Time and the Dorsey Brothers themselves in The Fabulous Dorseys. She may have been best known for her roles in The Fuller Brush Man (opposite comic legend Red Skelton) and The Black Arrow (1948).

Unfortunately, following The Black Arrow, Blair found herself typecast and was only being offered parts as the damsel in distress. Blair left Hollywood and went on tour with the road version of South Pacific, taking the role originated by Mary Martin. She also turned to television, making her debut on the small screen in The Ford Theatre Hour episode "Joy to the World". She would go onto appear in such series as The Goodyear Television Playhouse, The U.S. Steel Hour, Climax, Burke's Law, Switch, and Murder, She Wrote. She was a regular on Caesar's Hour with Sid Caesar during the 1956-1957 season. She was also a regular on The Smith Family, playing the wife of Jimmy Stewart's Detective Sergeant Chad Smith. Blair also appeared on Broadway in 1952 in the play A Girl Can Tell.

This is not to say that Blair did not occasionally appear in movies later in her career. Among her later films were Night of the Eagle (AKA Burn, Witch, Burn), Boy's Night Out, and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.

Although not often given credit for her talent as an actress, Janet Blair was a lively, energetic presence on the screen. She was gifted as a comedienne, with nearly perfect timing. She was well suit as a foil to such talents as Red Skelton and Cary Grant. And while she took such talent to the small screen, it is perhaps sad for movie buffs that she did not continue making major motion pictures. She was a talent that will certainly be missed.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Future Was Then

It is not simply clothing that goes through various fashions as time passes. The same holds true for architecture. And when it comes to architecture, sometimes current styles don't just dictate how things might look now, but how we think they will look in the future. In the 20th century there were two design movements which shaped the way people thought the future would look. More often than not, when someone read a science fiction comic strip or watched a science fiction movie, the look of the comic strip or movie was largely determined by these movements.

The first of these was the art deco movement, popular from around 1910 to 1939. Art deco combined many of the different styles from the very early 20th century, with influences from Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Constructionism, and Modernism (with, at times a touch of the Gothic thrown in for good measure). Art deco tended towards sweeping, natural curves, stepped shapes, sunburst motifs, grill designs (much like a radiator grill), chevron type patterns, and the the aerodynamic designs of modern technology (which was part of the related Streamline movement--see below). It was an ornate style, which relied on aluminium, stainless steel, glass, and inlaid wood.

The style originated in France following the Universal Exposition of 1900, held in Paris. Its earliest practitioners had been disciples of Art Nouveau movement, including architect Hector Guimard and artist Eugene Grasset. Originally, it was called Style Moderne. Hard as it is to believe, it would not be called "Art Deco" until well after it had gone out of style. Art historian Bevis Hiller coined the term, taking it from the official name of the Exposition of 1925 (the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes), also held in Paris.

Regardless of its name, art deco soon became immensely popular as a style of design. Although today generally associated with architecture, it also influenced industrial design. Cameras (such as the Kodak Beau Brownie designed by Walter Dorwin Teague), watches and clocks (Cartier from the era), and even cars (the Nash Ambassador is an example) bore the mark of Art Deco. The movement influenced artists ranging from Georgia O'Keefe to Grant Wood (most famous for "American Gothic"). Of course, today it is best known for architecture, and several examples of Art Deco buildings survive to this day. Indeed, what may be the most famous building in the world, the Empire State Building, is a perfect example of Art Deco design, as is the neighbouring Chrysler Building. Radio City Music Hall, particularly its auditorium, is another example of Art Deco design. Radio City Music Hall wasn't the only theatre that used Art Deco--it was perhaps the single most popular style for cinemas of the era.

A movement related to Art Deco was Streamline Moderne (most often called simply "Streamline). Although not as popular as the more ornate Art Deco style, Streamline Moderne had its heyday in the late to mid Thirties. Relying on the aerodynamic look of aviation and automobiles, it used natural curves and long, horizontal lines. Examples of Streamline Moderne architecture are the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport and the Strand Palace Hotel in London. The Streamline movement was perhaps bigger in industrial design than in architecture. The 1933 Chrysler Airflow is a perfect example of Streamline design.

At the time Art Deco must have seemed very futuristic to many, and it should not be surprising that many viewed the future in terms of art deco design. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is the comic strop Flash Gordon, written and drawn by the legendary Alex Raymond. Everything from the architecture to the space ships to the clothing was Art Deco in design. Raymond would have an enormous impact on future cartoonists, to the point that art deco was appearing in comic strips and comic books well after it had gone out of fashion in the real world. In early Superman comic books, artist and co-creator Joe Schuster drew both the planet Krypton and the city of Metropolis as Art Deco masterpieces (here I should point out that even Superman's costume was influenced Raymond's clothing in Flash Gordon...). With regards to movies, the serials based on the comic strip Flash Gordon would also feature Art Deco architecture (the finest example perhaps being Ming's Imperial Palace). Metropolis, Fritz Lang's sci-fi classic, strongly relied on Art Deco architechture, as did Things to Come, the 1936 sci-fi film based on the work of H. G. Wells. Both Lost Horizon and The Wizard of Oz relied more upon the related Streamline design than Art Deco.

While it was often portrayed as the look of the future, Art Deco gradually went out of fashion. Once it became mass produced, there were many who thought that Art Deco was rather gaudy. And when World War II erupted, Art Deco suddenly became too expensive a luxury for many to afford. Ironically, today Art Deco is more associated with the past than the future. Today it brings to mind the glamour and fashion of 1930s New York City and Hollywood more than it does life in the 21st century. For a time, however, it was thought to be the way the future would look, as demonstrated by numerous comic strips (most notably Flash Gordon) and comic books from the time.

While Art Deco had gone out of style, there would arise another design movement in the very late Forties that would also give shape to the way people viewed the future. This movement is best known as Googie, although it is also called Populuxe or Doo-Wop (personally, I prefer the latter names, although they are not the ones that stuck). Googie originated in southern California, where it became a popular design for restaurants, coffee houses, motels, and bowling alleys. It is difficult to say what the first example of Googie architecture was, but it is believed to have been the Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake, California designed by Wayne McAllister in 1949. Its name is derived from a coffee shop called Googie's located on Sunset Boulevard. One day architectural photographer Julius Shulman and Professor Douglass Haskell of Yale were driving past Googie's. The two stopped there and Haskell proclaimed, "This is Googie architecture." Unfortunately, the term would become permanently attached to the design after Haskell used it in an article he wrote for House and Home magazine in 1952.

Googie or Populuxe architecture made bold uses of glass and steel, using upswept roofs, large domes, acute angles, tailfins, cantilevered structures, and starbursts. According to Professor Haskell, a chief characteristic of Googie architecture was that "...whenever possible, the building must hang from the sky." The Googie or Populuxe movement was heavily influenced both by Fifties car culture and the interest in space travel which peaked in the Sixties. To this end, Googie architecture was designed so that buildings resembled space ships, or a the very least automobiles.

Perhaps the most famous example of Googie architecture is the Space Needle in Seattle, built for the World's Fair in 1962. An equally famous example is the Theme Building at the Los Angeles Airport. In both cases, the buildings seem to defy gravity. Aside from California, Las Vegas may have been where Googie was most popular. Indeed, the Sands Hotel (now long gone) was built by the inventor of Googie, Wayne McAllister himself. The famous Las Vegas sign (complete with starburst) and the Stardust Hotel "space orb" are other examples of Googie architecture in Las Vegas.

Of course, Googie was generally an architectural movement for fast food restaurants, coffee shops, gas stations, and motels. Indeed, perhaps the example of Googie architecture with which most people are familiar are the original McDonalds restaurants. In those days the restaurants were characterised by a single, 25 foot high, parabolic arch (not the smaller, double arches on today's McDonalds signs). Other common examples of Googie architecture were many of the Big Boy restaurants, the original Dennys restaurants, and many others.

Despite the fact that Googie was generally the architecture of such low scale establishments as gas stations, coffee shops, and fast food eateries, in the Fifties it was widely regarded as the look of the future. The original Tomorrowland in Disneyland in Anaheim, California largely relied on Googie design for its architecture. Children's books about space often featured artwork using space ships and spacesuits in a Googie design (Willy Ley's Conquest of Space is an example). And just as Things to Come twenty years before it had an Art Deco sensibility, the classic 1956 Forbidden Planet had a Googie sensibility. the classic Warner Brothers short, "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century," had a decidedly Googie look, as did the Commando Cody serials(1952's Radar Men from the Moon and 1953's Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. Of course, the prime example of Googie design in a work of fiction is probably the prime time cartoon The Jetsons. The Jetsons lived in a world where every building soared into the sky like Seattle's Space Needle, where domes and arches and tailfins often appeared on even the lowliest building. In The Jetsons, every building was Googie in design.

By the mid-Sixties Googie design, which hadn't been particularly highly regarded even during its heyday, largely fell out of favour. By the mid-Sixties most fast food restaurants and gas stations were not built in the Googie style. Even science fiction TV shows and movie eschewed the Googie sensibility. Star Trek, first broadcast in 1966, featured no Googie architecture. And neither did 2001: a Space Odyssey, released two years later. Like Art Deco before it, Googie became not so much the look of the future as a style associated with the past (in this case, the car culture of the Fifties).

Neither Art Deco nor Googie would be forgotten, however, as both have their adherents to this day. Writer William Gibson even came up with a term for the architectural styles of the old sci-fi movies: raygun Gothic. The term is most often equated with Googie, although I think it more fitting of Art Deco (which is decidedly more Gothic in appearance, especially in the hands of Alex Raymond). There is even a word for enthusiasm for the ways in which people in the past pictured the future: retro-futurism. Even some relatively recent sci-fi movies have hearkened back to the look of sci-fi movies of the past, using Art Deco or Googie for their art design. Examples of such retro-futuristic movies are 1980's Flash Gordon (which used art deco designs like the original comic strip), Brazil (a futuristic, Art Deco dystopia), The Incredibles (with a good deal of Googie architecture), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (a 1939 Art Deco New York as it probably only existed in Batman comics of the era as Gotham City). It is now 2007 and the world we in which we live hardly looks like Flash Gordon or The Jetsons, but there are no doubt many of us who wish they did.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Two Pop Culture Figures Pass On

Two figures who played a pivotal role in American pop culture recently died. I doubt very many people have heard of the first, although he had an important role in modern American life. The second was somewhat more more famous.

Robert Adler, inventor of the first practical, wireless remote control for television sets died Thursday, February 15 at the age of 93.

Adler was born in Vienna, Austria on December 4, 1913. After receiving his PhD at the University of Vienna in 1937, he migrated to the United States. He joined the research division of Zenith Electronics in 1941. During World War II he did work on high frequency magnetostrictive oscillators and electromechanical filters in communications equipment for the military.

After the war, among Adler's earliest inventions was the gated beam vacuum tube. The tube simplified the sound systems of early television sets and thus reduced sound interference. In 1958 Adler would develop the electron beam parametric amplifier, which was for its time the best and most practical amplifier for UHF (Ultra High Frequency) signals.

But Adler's lasting contribution to American culture would be the development of the ultrasonic television remote control, which was first sold in 1956. Zenith had introduced the first television remote in 1950, a device called Lazy Bones which was attached to the TV set by a cable. Lazy Bones proved not to be very popular because the cable made it unwieldy. The first wireless remote was developed by Eugene Polley in 1955. The Flash-matic operated on photocells. The disadvantage of the Flash-matic is that it did not function well in open sunlight, which could cause one's television set to start randomly changing channels. Adler then developed the Space Command remote control, which operated on high frequency sound to change channels on television sets. Alder's ultrasonic remote control proved to be such a success that it would be the industry standard until the Eighties, when infrared remote controls made Adler's ultrasonic obsolete.

In all, Adler held over 180 different patents for various inventions. His most recent was one for touch screen technology, just published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this February 1. The technology Adler developed would have a lasting impact, on everything from modern day TV screens to cell phones to computer touch screens.

The other important pop culture figure to pass on also died on Thursday. Ray Evans, who most often collaborated with Jay Livingston, was an Oscar winning composer and songwriter. He was 92 years old.

Evans was born in Salamanca, New York on February 4, 1915. He earned his degree in music at the University of Pennsylvania. It was there that he met Jay Livingston. Together they formed a dance band. After the two graduated, they set out on their careers as songwriters. Evans' earliest work was for the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, although soon Hollywood soon became Livingston and Evans' ticket to fame and fortune.

Evans' first song for a film was "Times a-Wastin'" for Private Snuffy Smith in 1942. Often in conjunction with Jay Livingston, Evans went onto write many standards for the movies. Among them were "Buttons and Bows" (for the classic Bob Hope film The Palefale), "Que Sera, Sera" (Doris Day's signature tune, first sung in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much), "Silver Bells" (the Yuletide standard from The Lemon Drop Kid, "Mona Lisa" (from Captain Carey U.S.A.), and "Tammy" for Tammy and the Bachelor.

Ray Evans not only wrote songs for the movies, but he also composed some of the most famous TV themes of all time. With Jay Livingston he composed the themes for Mr. Ed and Bonanza (both often ranked among the greatest theme songs of all time).

Along with his parter Jay Livinston, Ray Evans was among the greatest composers of film and television. Indeed, he wrote many of my favourite songs ("Buttons and Bows," "Silver Bells," "Que Sera, Sera"....) and two of my favourite TV themes (you can't beat either the Mr. Ed theme or the Bonanza theme). I am then greatly saddened by his passing.