Friday, July 13, 2007

Jack Odell R.I.P.

Not many Americans probably recognise the name of Jack Odell, but they might well have played with a toy invented by him as children. Jack Odell was the inventor of the Matchbox car. Odell passed on July 7 at the age of 87.

Odell was born John William Odell on March 19, 1920 in London. Prior to World War II he had a number of different jobs. He drove a van, worked in a cinema as a projectionist, and worked as an estate agent. During World War II he served in Africa with the British Army. Following the War, Odell worked as a die casting engineer, the profession which would eventually bring him everlasting fame.

It was in 1947 that Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (who were not related despite sharing the same last name) founded a die casting company, which they named Lesney by combining their two first names. As a die casting engineer Odell found employment with Lesney not long after it was founded. By 1948 the young die cast company moved into the toy market with a die cast model car not unlike those put out by Dinky in the United Kingdom at the time. Although entering the toy market, Lesney continued to manufacture other die cast goods as well. It would be Jack Odell's daughter who, after a fashion, would take the company further into toy production. His daughter Anne complained to him that her school would only allow the children to bring toys to school that could fit in a matchbox. Odell used his skills as a die cast engineer to then build a matchbox sized model of the Aveling Barford that Anne could take to school. It was in 1952 that Lesney released the first series of Matchbox toys. One was the Aveling Barford, while the other two were a dump truck and a cement mixer. The toy vehicles were sold in boxes that resembled actual matchboxes and so Matchbox was adopted as the line's name. Eventually other Matchbox models were introduced and the series saw unprecedented success in Britain. With the success of the Matchbox toys, Lesney concentrated on the toy market and no longer manufactured other die cast goods. And by 1956 Matchbox toys would be sold in the United States, where the line repeated its success once again.

Jack Odell would eventually take over from Rodney Smith when Smith left Britain for Australia. Leslie Smith and Jack Odell divided their duties between them. Smith would handle the marketing and day to day running of the company itself, while Odell watched over the design and manufacturing of Lesney's products. By 1968 Rodney Smith and Jack Odell would be designated OBEs (Office of the Order of the British Empire). Lesney would hit hard times with the introduction of stiff competition from American toy manufacturer Mattel with their Hot Wheels line. Despite this, the company would continue and Matchbox models have been manufactured to this day. Jack Odell retired from the company in 1973.

Jack Odell would continue in the toy business, even returning to Lesney for a time. Until he developed Parkinson's Disease, Odell remained a supporter of the toy industry and even of toy collectors.

Matchbox toys were probably the first die cast toy cars I ever played with. At any rate, I remember owning Matchbox cars before I ever owned my first Hot Wheels. My first Matchbox cars were a Ford Mustang and a Dodge Dump Truck. My brother's first Matchbox cars were a Greyhound coach and a Volkswagen Beetle. Over the years we bought more Matchbox cars, even after we discovered Hot Wheels. What made Matchbox cars so enjoyable is that they were very detailed and very durable. This was largely due to Jack Odell's perfectionism. He always made sure that every single model manufactured by Lesney was as good as it possibly could be. Jack Odell was a rarity in the toy business, perhaps any other business for that matter. He was a man who genuinely cared about the quality of his product.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Total Television (TTV)

By the late Fifties the television industry learned that there was money to be made from cartoons. Earlier in the decade many theatrical cartoons were released to television and these cartoons soon filled afternoon schedules. With the debut of Mighty Mouse Playhouse, a collection of old Terrytoon theatrical shorts, on Saturday morning in 1955, cartoons found their way to Saturday morning. With the profits to be made from cartoons, there was soon a demand for original cartoons made for television. As a result new studios, such as Hanna-Barbera arose.

Among those new animation studios to arise was one called Total Television Productions or more simply TTV. TTV would be active throughout the Sixties, producing some of the most memorable cartoons of that decade and at least one undisputed classic. Among the shows they created were King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and the classic Underdog. All of Total Television's cartoons were produced in conjunction with Leonardo Productions. The actual animation was done by Gamma Studios in Mexico, who also animated many of the Jay Ward cartoons.

The beginnings of TTV can be traced back to the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency in New York. In the late Fifties Dancer Fitzgerald Sample handled an account for General Mills. The account was largely the responsibility of three men. W. Watts "Buck" Biggers was the account executive for General Mills. Joseph "Joe" Harris was the supervisor of animation for General Mills (he created the Trix Rabbit for them). Chester "Chet" Stover was the copy supervisor on the account. The three men were approached by their superior who told them that General Mills wanted to sponsor a television programme for children. Biggers put Stover in charge of writing the copy for the project. He put Harris in charge of the art. To produce the new programme, they formed a new company called Total Television Productions Inc. or TTV for short.

From the beginning it was decided that their cartoons would be shot in colour. Even though the majority of network programming was still in black and white, Biggers, Harris, and Stover realised that the change to colour was inevitable and did not want their cartoons to become obsolete. The expense of animating a full season of a Saturday morning cartoon was one hurdle. In order to keep costs down, they went to Gamma Studios in Mexico, who had worked with Jay Ward's studio. Gamma Studios did not even have paint to do the animation cels, so they simply bought paint at a paint store and used that to paint the cels.

The first cartoon produced by Total Television was King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. The primary cartoon on the series centred on Leonardo, the king of Bongo Congo, who was constantly in danger of being over thrown by his evil brother Itchy and his gangster henchman Biggie Rat (who sounded a lot like Edward G. Robinson). Fortunately, their plots were always foiled by Leonardo's advisor, a wiley skunk named Odie. Another segment on the show was Tooter Turtle, a cartoon which centred on the title character who was constantly being sent to different setting by the lizard called Mr. Wizard. In the end Tooter would get himself into some trouble and beg, "Mr. Wizard, get me out of here!" Another segment was The Hunter, which followed the adventures of the title character, a bloodhound detective out to stop a criminal fox. The Hunter was voiced by Kenny Delmar, who played the character Senator Claghorn on The Fred Allen Show on radio. It was for this reason that The Hunter sounds a lot like the Warner Brothers character Foghorn Leghorn, whose voice and personality was inspired by Senator Claghorn! Another segment was about Twinkies the Elephant, which was primarily an advertisement for General Mills' Twinkies cereal. This segment was removed when the show was syndicated.

King Leonardo and His Short Subjects debuted on NBC on October 15, 1960. It was a replacement for Hanna-Barbera's Ruff and Reddy. The new series became a hit, no doubt encouraging the networks to schedule more cartoons on Saturday morning.

Total Television's next series grew out of FCC Chairman Newton N. Minnow's famous "Vast Wasteland" speech from 1961. Minnow not only announced that the television landscape was a vast wasteland, but that it should also seek to be of a higher quality and that it should seek to educate as well as entertain. To this end, Total Television decided that their next cartoon should be educational. Indeed, the main cartoon of Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales did seek to educate as well as entertain. Tennessee Tuxedo was a penguin whose best friend was a walrus named Chumley. Together they lived at the Megapolis Zoo, under the watchful eye of zookeeper Stanley Livingston. The series centred on Tennessee's various adventures at the zoo, as well the occasions on which he escaped. When in trouble the pair would go to Professor Phineas J. Whoopee (voiced by Larry Storch of F Troop fame), who would lecture the two on various educational topics (hence the educational aspect of the cartoon). Tennessee Tuxedo was voiced by Don Adams, the second such time he used his famed William Powell impersonation for a TV character (the first was for The Bill Dana Show, which debuted a week prior to Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales and featured Adams as hotel detective Byron Glick). He would later use the same voice for Maxwell Smart on Get Smart. Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales was filled out by The World of Commander McBragg, which featured the voice of Kenny Delmar as a Munchausen styled world explorer, and Klondike Kat, a feline Canadian Mountie locked in constant battle with the criminal mouse Savoir Faire. Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales debuted on CBS on September 28, 1963.

The next cartoon Total Television produced would be their greatest and most lasting success. The idea for Underdog emerged after Chet Stover had watched the episode of I Love Lucy on which George Reeves had guest starred as Superman. At one point, fearing Superman would not show up for a kid's party, Lucy dressed up as the Man of Steel herself. The next day Stover suggested to Biggers and Harris that they create a superhero who was a dog. The end result, scripted by Biggers and Stover and animated by Joe Harris was Underdog. Underdog was Shoeshine Boy, a mild mannered boot black who whenever he took a super energy vitamin pill (contained in a ring on his finger) became the super powered Underdog. A romantic interest was provided in the form of Sweet Polly Purebred, a canine reporter for station TTV. Underdog had no shortage of enemies to overcome. His archnemesis was mad scientist Simon Barsinister, voiced by Allen Swift in his best Lionel Barrymore imitation. Perhaps his second greatest opponent was the lupine gangster Riff-Raff, voiced by Allen Swift in an imitation of George Raft. Underdog's other opponents included the superhuman Overcat, the Electric Eel, and the planet of Zot.

Like the other Total Television shows, Underdog also included other segments. The Hunter and The World of Commander McBragg were reused on the show. When Underdog made the move from NBC to CBS, The Hunter and The World of Commander McBragg were replaced by Klondike Kat and a new cartoon, Go Go Gophers (with The Beagles, the last cartoon produced by TTV). Go Go Gophers centred on a Native American tribe of gophers constantly at odds with a cavalry made up of two coyotes. Underdog debuted on NBC on October 3, 1964. In 1966 it made the move to CBS where it aired for two seasons (one on Sunday mornings) before returning to NBC in 1968. In its second run on NBC, all four parts of an Underdog episode would be shown in one half hour, with the only other segment being The World Of Commander McBragg). In all, Underdog ran for nine entire seasons on network television. It was by far Total Television's biggest success. Much of its success may have been because with Underdog TTV was a bit ahead of the time. Underdog was the first superhero created for Saturday morning television. Within two years of the show's debut, Saturday morning would be filled with superheroes, from Birdman to Super Chicken.

The success of TTV's cartoons naturally meant that their reruns would be syndicated. For instance, King Leonardo and His Short Subjects entered syndication as soon as it left the air in 1963. In the mid-Sixties, then, Total Television combined episodes of Underdog (which was still airing on network television), Tennessee Tuxedo, and The World of Commander McBragg to create the syndicated package called Cartoon Cut-Ups. Many of the elements that would eventually find their way into the syndicated version of Underdog originated on Cartoon Cut-Ups. This included a brief outro in which George S. Irving would intone, "Looks like this is the end, but don't miss our next Cartoon Cut-Ups show (when Underdog entered syndication, this would be redubbed to say 'our next Underdog Show' instead)" and the Cartoon Cut-Ups closing music. Many of the Underdog shows which aired in syndication in the Seventies and Eighties originated, in fact, as Cartoon Cut-Ups shows.

Total Television's next original cartoon would not be nearly as successful. The Beagles were a musical duo composed of two dogs, Stringer and Tubby. They were managed by Scotty, a Scottish terrier whose love in life was cold hard cash. In fact, it was generally Scotty who got The Beagles involved in their adventures by having them perform increasingly dangerous publicity stunts! With The Beagles TTV was one again slightly ahead of the times. Each episode would incorporate one of their British Invasion style songs into the action. In this respect, The Beagles was a precursor to such cartoons as The Archie Show, The Groovy Ghoulies, and similar cartoons that aired in the early Seventies. Like previous TTV shows, The Beagles featured additional cartoon segments, in its case The World of Commander McBragg and Klondike Kat.

The Beagles debuted on CBS on September 10, 1966. An album of their songs entitled Here Come The Beagles was released on Columbia Records in 1966 (another way in which the show presaged The Archie Show). It was Total Television's first failure and its final original production. It ran only one season on CBS. ABC picked the series up for the 1967-1968, but it aired on Sunday instead of Saturday. Sadly, it seems that much of this series is lost. Joe Harris in a message to the Toon Tracker web site told how when the editor on the show, who had the masters, died and his wife threw The Beagles masters out. Harris inquired of Golden Books (who then owned the TTV characters) about any possible masters for the show and they found nothing. More recently, however, black and white copies of The Beagles opening and part of an episode have surfaced on YouTube.

While it was their last original production, The Beagles was not TTV's last show. Go Go Gophers graduated to its own show on CBS on September 14, 1968. This series was apparently made up entirely of reruns of the Go Go Gophers segments from Underdog. On its own Go Go Gophers aired for only one season.

Total Television was working on yet another show in the late Sixties, one that never aired. The Colossal Show would have centred on a family in an ancient Rome which had Roman equivalents of modern day technology. In effect, it was a Roman version of The Flintstones, a concept which Hanna-Barbera used in the 1972 cartoon The Roman Holidays. The Colossal Show would never air, although Gold Key put out a comic book based on the series dated July 1969.

The reason that The Colossal Show never got beyond the planning stages was simply that General Mills, who sponsored Total Television, pulled the plug in 1969. Without General Mills to provide it with money, Total Television simply could not continue. Regardless, Underdog would continue to air on Saturday mornings until 1973, after which it would have a healthy syndication run. The King and Odie (the syndicated title of King Leonardo and Friends) and Tennessee Tuxedo would continue in syndication. Only The Beagles would fade into obscurity.

One rather strange footnote to the history of Total Television is that it is often confused with Jay Ward Productions. Indeed, I have actually seen Underdog, TTV's most popular creation, credited to Jay Ward! In some respects the confusion is understandable. Both Jay Ward Productions and TTV were sponsored by General Mills. As a result, segments of Jay Ward cartoons might appear in TTV shows in syndication and vice versa. In one instance a TTV cartoon appeared as a segment in a Jay Ward cartoon in its first run! The Adventures of Commander McBragg sometimes appeared on episodes of The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper when it aired on ABC from 1964 to 1967. In syndication Jay Ward's Aesop and Son and Fractured Fairy Tales would appear in episodes of Tennesse Tuxedo, while TTV's Tooter Turtle and The Hunter would turn up on episodes of Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right Show. It must be pointed out that Jay Ward Productions and Total Television also had similar house styles, due largely to the fact that both relied on Gamma Studios for their animation.

While there appears to be some confusion between Jay Ward Productions and Total Television, there are some significant differences. Nearly all of the Jay Ward cartoons feature a good deal of political and topical satire, something that is largely absent from TTV's cartoons. Indeed, Rocky and His Friends and its continuation The Bullwinkle Show were largely based around the Cold War. Jay Ward's cartoons also relied heavily on parody. An episode of The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper parodied The Twilight Zone with an episode entitled "The Traffic Zone," in which the characters were turned into vegetables. An episode of Super Chicken (a segment of George of the Jungle) pitted the superhero against a parody of Robin Hood. While Jay Ward Productions relied on topical satire and parodies, TTV tended to rely more upon situations of the sort found in the old radio comedies. An example of this is Phineas J. Whoopee's overstuffed closet on Tennessee Tuxedo, reminiscent of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet on the radio show Fibber McGee and Molly. Indeed, The Hunter, voiced by Kenny Delmar, is more or less Senator Claghorn from The Fred Allen Show as a bloodhound. Another difference is that Total Television often designed their characters with a specific actor or character in mind. Tennessee Tuxedo was created around Don Adams's particular brand of wisecracks. Simon Barsinister was meant to sound (and to look a bit like) Lionel Barrymore. Although both studios created very three dimensional characters (let's face it, Bullwinkle and Underdog are remembered to this day for a reason), an argument can be made that TTV was more character driven. Finally, TTV's sense of humour was a bit gentler than that of Jay Ward's. While TTV engaged in its share of parody (Underdog is pretty much a parody of Superman), I can recall no instance in which it engaged in political satire.

Oddly enough, while they were often confused, there was apparently no love lost on Jay Ward's part towards TTV. General Mills was the sponsor of Jay Ward Productions beginning with Rocky and Friends in 1959, before TTV was even founded. Ward then felt that TTV was trying to get in on his action where General Mills was concerned. He also felt that they were copying his house style, something which could be attributed to Gamma Studios animating both Jay Ward and TTV cartoons. Eventually Ward would have all of his animation done in Los Angeles (where both The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper and George of the Jungle were animated).

Even though Total Television closed down in 1969, their cartoons have continued to be popular throughout the decades. Indeed, they have had a lasting impact on pop culture. Underdog ranked #23 on a list of the 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters put out by TV Guide a few years ago. A balloon based on the character would debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in 1965 and would be a parade regular for nearly 20 years. References to Underdog can be found in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to the TV shows Will and Grace, Friends and Scrubs. It is quite possible that the character Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show was named for the Underdog villain. In less than a month a feature film very loosely based on the cartoon will be released.

Although not as famous as Underdog, other TTV characters have also had a lasting impact. Tooter Turtle's line, "Mr. Wizard, get me out of here!" is quoted in the movie The Matrix. Go Go Gophers was referenced in episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is a hip hop artist called Klondike Kat and an R & B artist named Savoir Faire (who even uses the mouse's catchphrase, "Savour Faire is everywere!"); I don't know if they are sworn enemies... The Simpsons has made some references to TTV characters. In the episode "Lisa's First Word" Tennessee Tuxedo's line "Phineas J. Whoopee, you're a genius!" is paraphrased as "Homer J. Simpson, you're a genius!" Commander McBragg also made a guest appearance on in the episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story."

TTV's cartoons still air today and many of their episodes are available on DVD (albeit Classic Media has not yet seen to release them in complete season collections, totally uncut...*grumble*). It is safe to say that they won't be forgotten anytime soon. I doubt even a horrible, live action movie adaptation will ever ground Underdog.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Now We Are Here... In Xanadu

Even as I write this, an adaptation of the 1980 movie Xanadu is playing on Broadway. In part this interests me because of the novelty of what is widely considered a notoriously bad movie being made into a Broadway musical. It also interests me for another reason. You see, I have a horrible confession to make. Xanadu was the first musical, ostensibly made for adults, which I ever saw in a movie theatre. What's worse is that I actually enjoyed it.

Now in my defence I must say that I was still a teenager and my tastes in movies hadn't quite developed yet. Furthermore, I was (and still am) a huge fan of the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), who provided half the movie's soundtrack. At the time I would have gone to see a movie directed by Ed Wood if it featured the music of ELO. I must also say that back then I had a huge thing for Olivia Newton-John (I still do). I would have gone to any movie which starred her (except for Grease--even back then I must have had some tastes...). I was also even then a fan of Gene Kelly. I'd first been exposed to the man's work as a very young child when he directed and acted in the critically acclaimed TV special Jack and the Beanstalk. Between my lack of tastes at the time and various other factors, I was then predisposed to like what I would later realise was not a very good movie.

If anyone is ultimately to blame for Xanadu it is perhaps Joel Silver. The man has gone onto bigger and better things. He would produce both Die Hard and The Matrix, among many other films. In the late Seventies, however, it was Silver's goal to produce an old time musical. To be more specific, he wanted to produce an updated version of Down to Earth, the 1947 movie featuring Rita Hayworth as the muse Terpsichore. Originally Xanadu was meant to be a straight forward roller disco movie, but two quickie B movies on the subject, Skatetown U.S.A. and Roller Boogie beat Xanadu to the punch. This is one reason (another being Silver's desire to produce an old time musical) that the movie combined elements of both the Forties and the Eighties, as well as emphasised fantasy. And while I don't know if this played a role in the development of the movie or not, by 1979 the popularity of disco was already in decline. I rather suspect that this is the reason that the music in the movie is not disco. The songs were written by Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra and pop songwriter John Farrar (who wrote songs for Olivia Newton John), and performed by ELO and Olivia Newton-John. Ultimately, it seems circumstances would shape Xanadu into a rather strange film: a pop/rock musical with elements of old time musicals in a roller disco setting.

From the beginning Xanadu was plagued by problems, not the least of which was casting the film. Fresh from her success with Grease, Xanadu was seen as the vehicle from which to launch Olivia Newton-John's career as a solo star. Gene Kelly was already a legend and was cast in the role of Danny McGuire (the same name as his character in Cover Girl, in which he played opposite Rita Hayworth). Kelly realised the project held little promise, but took it in order to be close to his family at home. While Newton-John and Kelly's parts were easily cast, the casting of the film's leading man proved a bit more complicated. Initially Andy Gibb was cast in the lead, but he soon backed out of the project. Olivia Newton-John has said that she wanted yet-to--be famous Australian actor Mel Gibson for the lead, but the producers vetoed him as not being well known enough. Ultimately, Michael Beck, who played the lead in the classic gang movie The Warriors (Joel Silver's first job as a producer), was cast in the lead.

Xanadu had far worse problems than casting its leading man. Even as the movie started shooting, its script was not finished. It was written as the movie was being filmed. The special effects presented another hurdle for the film. Much of the difficulty with the effects in Xanadu was the fact that the movie was shot in naturalistic settings--street scenes, the interiors of buildings, and so on. As a result the film had to rely on some fairly complex matting effects. Worse yet, Joel Silver, director Robert Greenwald, and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper wanted more effects and more impressive effects as well. This became a problem when Universal moved the movie's release date from the Christmas season of 1980 to August 8, 1980.

Given the problems Xanadu experienced in its production, it is perhaps little wonder that it received universally bad reviews. Variety called it "...a stupendously bad film whose only salvage is the music." Roger Ebert was much more charitable. Of the film he said, "Xanadu is a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes," but admitted that Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, the soundtrack, and the fact that it wasn't as bad as Can't Stop the Music (the notoriously horrible Village People musical released the same year) were some of the very few reasons to see it. Perhaps the most notorious review was also the shortest--"Xana don't (I wish I knew who said that one)." Indeed, it was a 99 cent double feature of Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music which inspired John Wilson to create the first ever Razzie awards. Xanadu took only one award away from that first Razzies, one for Robert Greenwald as Worst Director (Can't Stop the Music won the "Worst Picture" category). The reputation of Xanadu as a bad film has followed it to this day. At Rotten Tomatoes it has only a rating of 25% among critics--with users it fares even worse at only a 22% rating. The reputation of Xanadu had dire consequences for its stars. After Xanadu Olivia Newton-John would only receive top billing on a movie if she was co-starred with someone else. Things were worse for leading man Michael Beck. He once stated "The Warriors opened a lot of doors in film for me, which Xanadu then closed." He never again played the leading man in a movie. The fact that Xanadu was considered a bad movie was probably made all the worse by the fact that it was widely considered a box office dud (in fact, it still is).

Here I must challenge the idea that Xanadu is both an atrociously bad film and the idea that it was a total bomb at the box office. Don't get me wrong, in my humble opinion Xanadu is a bad movie, but like Roger Ebert I can see some good things in the film. Xanadu does have a truly great soundtrack. Indeed, the soundtrack album went to #4 on the United States' Billboard album charts and to #2 on the UK's album charts. The Electric Light Orchestra did some of their best work for the movie--"The Fall" is my favourite ELO song of all time. And while John Farrar's songs aren't what I would usually listen to, as sung by Olivia Newton-John they are enjoyable in the context of the movie. This sets Xanadu far above some musicals from the past forty years, such as Dr. Dolittle (1967), the 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Can't Stop the Music. Not only were these films incredible bores, but they feature some truly horrible songs ("Talk to the Animals" from Dr. Dolittle being an exception).

And I must also agree with Roger Ebert on some other points as well. With the exception of Michael Beck, its lead characters are enjoyable to watch. Gene Kelly is as charming as ever and gives the movie some of its best moments. And not only is Olivia Newton-John very pleasant to look at, she also has an energy that is absolutely contagious. The film also features an animated sequence from Don Bluth set to ELO's "Don't Walk Away." While Don Bluth has committed myriad indiscretions with regards to animated features (I've never quite forgiven him for All Dogs Go to Heaven), this splendid sequence is not one of them. Over all, Xanadu is not as horrendous as some would have it. Indeed, it is a far sight better movie than such turkeys as Cocktail, The Specialist, The Saint, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, and Catwoman.

I also have to question that Xanadu was the bomb at the box office we've been led to believe it was. Xanadu cost an estimated $20,000,000 to make. In its initial release it grossed $22,762,571. To put thing into perspective, when adjusted for inflation for 2007, that would be around $56,000,000. Although this means that Xanadu did do poorly at the box office, it must also be kept in mind that it did make a profit. And it was not nearly as big a dud as many other movies, examples of which are The Wiz, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, The Alamo (2004), The Island, and The Black Dahlia. While Xanadu was a box office flop, it was a box office flop that made a profit and didn't do nearly as badly as some movies have. It is hardly one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.

While I submit that Xanadu isn't nearly as bad as some have claimed and that wasn't as big a bomb at the box office as some would have it, Xanadu is a bad movie nonetheless. The script would seem to be the primary culprit with regards to the movie's poor quality. Xanadu absolutely drags in places, making it a very difficult movie to watch. Worse yet, the movie features some truly atrocious dialogue. While there is magic while Olivia or ELO are singing, there are times this can turn to abject horror for viewers the moment the characters open their mouths to speak. And while Michael Beck displayed some talent in The Warriors, it is totally absent in Xanadu. He might as well have been a cardboard cutout. Xanadu also had dire lapses in good taste, as in the "dress up sequence" over which ELO's "All Over the World" played. Of course, I guess where fashions are concerned, Xanadu has very little in the way of taste in many instances....

While Xanadu is a bad movie whose reputation has seemed to worsen over the years, strangely enough it has also become a cult film. Xanadu has made the midnight movie circuit. And while I enjoyed the movie as a horny, teenage male with a thing for Olivia Newton-John in 1980, for whatever reason it has a strong following among gay audiences. It is then little wonder that Xanadu would make its way to Broadway. It was Robert Ahrens, late of Paramount Pictures, who came up with the idea of Xanadu on Broadway after seeing an unauthorised stage version of the notorious film. Ahrens bought the stage rights to both the movie and the songs of ELO. He then set about persuading Tony Award winning playwright Douglas Carter Beane to write the musical's book. Just as the movie had its difficulties in getting to the screen, so too has Xanadu on Broadway had its problems. Original leading lady Jane Krakowski, a Tony award winner, opted out of the production because of her commitment to the TV series 30 Rock. Original leading man James Carpinello sprained his ankle in a rollerskating accident. They were replaced by Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson. At last Xanadu on Broadway made its debut in the Helen Hayes Theatre. And surprisingly it has received largely good reviews, from such sources as The New York Times, Variety, The Gothamist, The Globe and Mail, and The Philadelphia Daily News.

That Xanadu could provide the source material for what appears to be a good Broadway musical seems to me to be proof one of one of two things, or perhaps even both. One is that Douglas Carter Beane has more talent than any of us originally suspected. The other is that perhaps Xanadu wasn't nearly as bad a film as many had previously thought. Let's face it, the concept of a muse coming to Earth not only provides the basis for Xanadu on Broadway, but for Down to Earth, the passably enjoyable movie upon which Xanadu was based. It seems possible to me that if Xanadu had a better script (if only a screenwriter of some talent had finished it before shooting) and a better leading man, it might not have the reputation it does today. As it is, rather than one of the worst movies of all time, I think Xanadu is better regarded as a bad movie with some good points. At any rate, it is certainly better than Can't Stop the Music, Catwoman, and their ilk.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Three Passings

Three more people of some fame have passed. Two were writers, the other an actor. And all three had a fairly big impact in their respective fields.

I very seriously doubt that a lot of my readers have heard of Lois Wyse, but they have probably heard her work. As a woman Wyse was a pioneer in the field of advertising, making a career in a field largely dominated by men. She was also a prolific writer, who wrote more than 60 books, both fiction and nonfiction. Mrs. Wyse died July 6 at the age of 80 from stomach cancer.

Lois Wyse was born Lois Wohlgemuth in Cleveland, Ohio. She entered the field of journalism while only 17, working for The Cleveland News and The Cleveland Press. At age 18 she wrote an article for Life, working with legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstadt. She also wrote for Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

Lois Wohlgemuth married Marc Wyse. Together the two would found Wyse Advertising in Cleveland. The agency won the account of a small Ohio company which manufactured jam, jelly, and preserves, for which Wyse developed the slogan which would bring them national success: "With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good." When they won the account of a chain of domestic merchandise stores called Bed and Bath, it was Wyse who gave them the name by which they would become known: Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The success of Wyse Advertising led them to open a New York City branch in 1966. Wyse would work on accounts for American Express and Revlon.

Wyse's talent with words was not limited to advertising slogans. In 1963 her first book, The I Don't Want to Go to Bed Book for Boys, was published. Although prolific, she would not have a bestseller until her 47th book, Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Grandmother, a humourous book of observations on how grandmothers had changed over the years.

Wyse also founded City and Company, which published books on New York, She also wrote the book for the Broadway musical Has Anybody Here Found Love and a weekly column for Good Housekeeping. She was also the first woman to serve on the board of Consolidated Natural Gas Company and the Higbee Company. She was one of the founders of both the Committee of 200, an organisation for female executives, and Catalyst, a women's research organisation.

Lois Wyse was a talented pioneer in the field of advertising, chairman and CEO of Wyse Advertising until this year. She also had a gift for words and a sharp sense of humour. She was certainly a good role model for women in the Twentieth Century.

Fantasist Fred Saberhagen, whose Berserker and Dracula series brought him fame, died at age 77 from prostate cancer.

Fred Saberhagen was born May 18, 1930 in Chicago. Saberhagen worked in the Air Force as a civilian electronics technician. He also wrote science and technology articles for Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1967 to 1974.

Saberhagen began writing science fiction and fantasy in the Sixties. His first novel, The Golden People was published in 1964. But it would be a short story published in 1963 that would bring him lasting fame. "Without a Thought" was the first story in the Berserker series, a series in which humanity finds itself locked in war with sentient, space faring machines bent on the destruction of all life. In the end the series would span 17 books, comprised of both anthologies of the short stories and entire novels.

While the Berserker series is most definitely science fiction, it would be incorrect to think of Saberhagen as a science fiction writer. He also worked in the genres of horror and fantasy. In fact, he may well be as famous for his Dracula novels as he is the Berserker series. The first novel in the series, The Dracula Tapes was a retelling of the classic novel Dracula from the vampire's point of view. It set the pace for the rest of the series, which was revolutionary at the time in positing that vampires were as morally complex as human beings. Throughout the novels Dracula would interact with such characters as Sherlock Holmes (in the best book of the series, The Holmes-Dracula File), Merlin, Napoleon, and many others. Beyond the Berserker series and Dracula series, Saberhagen also wrote the fantasy series known various as the Earth End series and the Swords series.

I have always loved Fred Saberhagen's work. For me he was one of those writers who developed in the mid-Twentieth century who kept the style and flavour of the pulps alive (the other is Philip Jose Farmer), all the while drawing upon both history and pop culture for inspiration. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, Saberhagen wrote both the definitive Dracula and Sherlock Holmes novel, The Holmes-Dracula File. It is safe to say that he will not be forgotten.

Most readers probably won't recognise the name of Charles Lane, but if you've watched television or movies you will certainly recognise his face. Charles Lane was a character actor with a career that spanned 75 years. He died yesterday at the age of 102.

Lane was born Charles Gerstle Levison on January 26, 1905 in San Francisco. He was working in insurance and only dabbling in theatre productions when, in 1929, legendary director Irving Pichel suggested that Lane go into acting. He started out by playing Shakespeare and Checkov at the Pasadena Playhouse. By 1931 he appeared in his first film, an uncredited part as a hotel desk clerk in Smart Money. He played several uncredited, bit parts throughout the Thirties, appearing in such films as 42nd Street to Mr Deeds Goes to Town. A more substantial role came in 1934 in Twentieth Century, in which Lane displayed his talent as stage manager Max Jacobs. He also played the tax man Wilbur G. Henderson in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, in which he had a chance to spar with the great Lionel Barrymore. In the early days Lane would often work on as many as three movies in one day.

In the Forties Lane would appear in such films as Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace (in which he played a reporter at the Marriage Licence Office, Tarzan's New York Adventure (playing a lawyer), and a bar patron in Mighty Joe Young. But his most recognisable role in the Forties was perhaps as Potter's rent collector in It's a Wonderful Life.

With the Fifties Charles Lane entered a new medium, television. Having made friends with Lucille Ball in the Thirties, Lane's first appearance was in the sitcom I Love Lucy. He often appeared there in the role of the stern bureaucrat who must try to keep Lucy in line. In fact, he appeared as an expectant father in the episode in which Little Ricky was born, at the time the highest rated episode of any TV series. Lane would appear in such shows as Topper, Perry Mason, and The Real McCoys. He was also a regular on the sitcom Dear Phoebe (as Mr. Fosdick). Of course, Lane's movie career also continued. In the Fifties he appeared in such films as The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Teacher's Pet, and The Mating Game.

In the Sixties Lane played what may have been his most recognisable role as Homer Bledsoe, the scheming railroad executive who wanted to retire the Hooterville Cannonball, on Petticoat Junction. Besides being a semi-regular on Petticoat Junction, Lane was also a regular on Dennis the Menace, as Mr. Finch, and a regular on The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl. He also appeared in the series The Twilight Zone, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, F-Troop, and The Wonderful World of Disney. He also appeared in the movies It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Wheeler Dealers, The Ugly Dachshund, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Seventies saw Lane's career still going strong. He appeared in such shows as Soap, Bewitched, The Odd Couple, Chico and the Man, and Maude. He appeared in the films Get to Know Your Rabbit and Movie Movie. With the Eighties Lane's career slowed down, although he still appeared on television in shows such as L.A. Law, Hunter, St. Elsewhere, and Mork and Mindy. He was also in the films Strange Behaviour, Date with an Angel, and Murphy's Romance. In the Nineties Lane appeared in the revival of Dark Shadows and the TV movies Acting on Impulse and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Lane's last appearance was in the film The Night Before Christmas in 2006 (he was 101 at the time).

Lane also acted in more than 100 plays over the years, most often at the Pasadena Playhouse where his career began. In 1967 he appeared in the Broadway play Love in E Flat. On the occasion of his 100th birthday Charles Lane received an award from TV Land for his remarkably long career. Upon accepting his award he announced in his still strong, crisp voice, "If you're interested, I'm still available!" With a career much longer than many actors, he acted until the very end. Before his death he was working on a documentary on his long career entitled You Know the Face.

Charles Lane was also a founding member of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. When he turned 100, the Academy honoured him as its longest surviving member.

If Charles Lane had a long career, it was not simply because of his longevity. He was a very talented actor. Although often cast as stern, short tempererd bureaucrats, Lane was capable of much more. His talent was easy to see in his roles in such films as Twentieth Century and You Can't Take It With You. Indeed, although often cast in mean spirited roles, everyone who knew him always said he was kind hearted, warm, and funny. He certainly had a gift for comedy, with impeccable timing. Aside from a remarkably long career, I doubt we'll ever see another actor like him.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Changing Face of American Television

Many of you may remember this past May the many news stories trumpeting this spring as American television's worst spring in recent years, perhaps of all time. More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching television than at the same time in 2006. Lost had, well, lost nearly half its audience from its glory days, nearly 10 million viewers. NBC recorded a new record for its least watched week in twenty years. What was worse is that the audience was not down for the broadcast networks alone. The cable channels were hurt hard as well.

Both the networks and various pundits offered several different theories as to why the television audience had dropped so. Some believed that it was Daylight Saving Time starting earlier (beginning this year on March 11). Others believed that it was a simple case of the networks airing too many reruns in March and April. Yet others chalked the drop in viewership up to simply bad shows. I personally think that these particular theories carry little weight. As to Daylight Saving Time starting earlier, I did not notice anyone "taking advantage" of the sun setting later according to the clock. And I have a very simple explanation as to why they didn't. First is the simple fact that in many areas of the United States it can often be a bit chilly in mid-March to think of doing anything outdoors. Maybe people in California went out and frolicked among the daisies on March 12, but I rather suspect folks in Maine were still safely indoors with the heat running. Second is the fact that everyone I knew took longer this year to adapt to the change in time than in previous years. Quite simply, we were too tired to do much of anything beyond watch television, read books, or listen to music! If anything, I think television viewership would have increased.

As to there being too many reruns this spring, I honestly don't see that as a valid reason for people watching less television this year. Let's face it, network television in March and April has been filled with reruns since the Eighties. I honestly don't think there were necessarily more reruns airing this spring than there were last spring, or even in the spring of 2000. It seems to me that if people weren't watching television this spring because of reruns, then we would have seen a similar drop in viewership at the same time last year and the year before that. As to people turning off their TV sets simply because of bad shows, I could only agree with that if the year was 1979 (when there were a lot of bad shows on the air). The truth is that the past ten years have seen better shows than had aired in the Eighties or Nineties. Let's just look at what aired on the networks this past television season: 24, 30 Rock, Everybody Hates Chris, House, How I Met Your Mother, the Law and Order shows, Lost, My Name is Earl, The Office, and so on. The fact is that I can remember years when I couldn't even name four good shows on American television, let alone the number of them that I just did. There really isn't a shortage of good shows on the networks right now, let alone cable. Not every TV show is According to Jim or Grey's Anatomy (if they were I'd cease watching network television entirely).

While I think these theories as to the drop in viewership can be easily dismissed, there are others that I think are right on the spot. The first is the development of the digital video recorder or DVR. DVRs are basically devices which record things in digital format to a hard disk or something similar. The feasibility of this sort of recording was examined as early as 1965, when CBS examined their use with regards to freeze-frame and rewind for sports broadcasts. Ampex came out with the first hard disk video recorder in 1967. That early hard drive recorder could only record 60 seconds of information. In 1985 David Rafner, an employee of Honeywell’s Physical Sciences Center, described a drive based video recorder which could be used in the home. He filed a patent for this in 1988 and the patent was published in 1990.

It would not be until the Nineties, however, that DVRs would reach the public. In 1999 at the annual Consumer Electronics Show both Replay TV and TiVo were introduced. By 2003 DVRs would have the capacity to record two programmes at the same time. This year 17% of all Americans own DVRs. What DVRs have given viewers is more freedom towards time shifting, the recording of a programme in order to watch it later. Of course, time shifting existed before the introduction of DVRs. With the introduction of VCRs in the Seventies, the average television viewer gained the ability to time shift for the first time ever. The amount of time shifting anyone could do with VCRs was naturally limited by both the number of videocassettes one could buy at any given time and the number of VCRs and TV sets one could own. The DVR gives viewers more flexibility to time shifting than they ever had before. While the average videocassette could hold at most eight hours worth of viewing, some DVRs can hold up to 300 hours worth of television at basic quality.

While DVR ownership is growing, Nielsen has seemingly failed to keep up with the technology. It is only this year that Nielsen started measuring viewership in homes with DVRs, and even then they only count them in the ratings if they watch a programme they recorded within 24 hours of it being aired. It is safe to say that many viewers often wait more than 24 hours to watch material they recorded, whether through a VCR or DVR. This would not present any particular problems if the number of people who do record shows on DVR wasn't significant. A case in point is the episode of The Office which aired April 5. According to Nielsen 5.8 million people tuned in to the show that night. Within the week, however, those watching the show later on DVRs increased its total viewership by 32%, up to 7.6 million viewers. And the fact is that some shows tend to be more popular with DVR owners than others. For the week of April 2 to April 8, Nielsen estimated that House and Lost were the most popular shows to be recorded on DVRs.

While Nielsen has made an effort towards rating shows watched later on DVR, they have no way of measuring the number of shows that are watched on computers, whether through streaming video or downloading them from something like ITunes. Although its ratings were down this year, Lost remains the single most downloaded show on ITunes. I have no hard statistics as to how many people watch Lost on streaming video at ABC.Com, but the numbers could be appreciable. I know that when I was still working nights and my old VCR refused to record Lost, I turned to both options at different times to watch the latest episodes. Between people time shifting through either DVRs, downloading the show, or watching them on streaming video, the number of total viewers could be much greater than the Nielsen ratings would reflect.

Of course, I did not hear anyone offer yet another possible theory as to the drop in ratings the networks experienced this spring. Both my best friend and myself know people who no longer watch TV shows when they first air, nor do they record them on a DVR to watch later or download them from ITunes or even watch them on streaming video. Instead these people wait for the latest season of their favourite shows to come out on DVD. I have no hard numbers as to how many people do this, but I have no doubt that they would not be reflected in the Nielsen ratings. As in the case of DVRs, downloads, and streaming video, the numbers could be substantial.

Given the number of people who now own DVRs, the number of people who download TV shows, the number of people who possibly watch shows on streaming video, and those who simply wait and buy the shows on DVD, it is quite possible that a substantial number of people simply do not watch TV shows when they air for the first time on network television. To me this reflects not a drop in viewership for the networks, but instead a change in the way people watch television. Indeed, I can tell this by the changes in the way I watch television from when I was young. When I was in grade school, I had to watch TV shows when they aired, if I wanted to watch them at all, for the lack of any means to record them. By the time I was in my twenties, I could simply record the shows on a VCR. Now, if I miss a show, I can simply watch it on streaming video or download it on ITunes (my brother and I have done both). I don't own a DVR, but my best friend does. And he has kindly recorded shows I wanted to watch but couldn't do so when they aired. As an average American, I rather suspect that I am no different from other viewers. I rather suspect that only those who are technologically challenged are probably the only ones who haven't taken advantage of the new technology that allows us to time shift TV shows. Given this, it seems to me that rather than panic over lost viewers, both A. C. Nielsen and the networks need to consider more than the ratings of a particular show at any given time. Instead they also have to concider the total number of viewers who watch shows on DVRs, download them on computers, and watch them on streaming video, not to mention watch DVD sales closely. It is only through taking into account all of the means through which people watch shows now to know how popular any given show is.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Monster House

It is often the case that the best animated films will go overlooked. Such appears to have been the case in 2006. While Monster House received generally good reviews, it did not do spectacularly well at the box office. And although nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it lost the award to the greatly inferior Happy Feet.

This is a shame as Monster House was easily the best animated film of 2006. Unlike fellow Academy Award nominee Happy Feet, it does not bang the viewer over the head with a preachy moral. And unlike its other fellow nominee, Cars, Monster House has no slow periods. Instead Monster House presents a realistic portrait of friendship against a backdrop of very unusual circumstances. And its fairly original plot moves at a very nice pace.

Of course, animation is essential to any animated feature. In this respect Monster House stands up well even against a big name like Pixar. Much of the animation's quality can be attributed to the use of performance capture, pioneered by The Polar Express, in which the entire body (from facial express to the hands to the body itself) is captured at once. Of course, the Monster House itself was not created through performance capture, and yet it is as realistic as any of the human characters in the film. Indeed, it is the personality of the characters as created through animation and the vocal performances of the actors (which include Steve Buscemi and Kathleen Turner) that in part make Monster House so good.

Monster House will definitely appeal to adults over the age of 30 rather than the younger set. It features the sort of small town, juvenile society that existed in America for much of the Twentieth Century, until the Nineties. It was an era when children could roam about their neigbourhoods without fear, and often knew every little thing that went on in those neighbourhoods. Indeed, Monster House would appear to be a period piece set in the Eighties, even though no date is ever given. In the movie cassettes are still a source of music rather than CDs. Beepers are in use rather than cell phones. Heavy metal is still popular, and video game arcades still exist in small towns. There are even references to such Gen X artefacts as Shrinky Dinks, Pixie Stix, and Slinky. I rather suspect that much in this film will seem alien to many kids, but to adults nearly everything will seem eerily familiar.

Monster House was easily a cut above most of the animated films released in 2006. I personally think it was a shame that it was overlooked in its first release. It is definitely a movie that deserves to be seen.

Speaking of movies, I just had my blog re-rated. This time out I received a PG rating. I guess it was writing about Erin Esurance that did it....

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