Thursday, September 13, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle Passes On

One of the greatest authors of books for young adults passed on last Thursday, September 6. Madeleine L’Engle was 88 years of age. She is perhaps best know for the classic A Wrinkle in Time.

Madeleine L'Engle was born in New York City on November 28, 1918. Her father was writer Charles Wadsworth Camp, author of such works as the nonfiction History of the 305th Field Artillery and the novel House of Fear. Her mother, Madeleine Camp, was a pianist. L'Engle took an interest in writing at a very young age, writing her first story at the age of five. By eight she was keeping a journal. As a child she attended a number of different boarding schools. She attended Smith College.

Madeleine L'Engle published her first novel, The Small Rain in 1945. The book was semi-autobiographical in nature. She followed it with the novel Isla in 1946 and Camilla Dickinson in 1951. She published novels regularly between 1957 and 1962. It was that year that the work for which she would be remembered, A Wrinkle in Time was published. Amazingly, the book had been rejected 26 times before it was finally accepted by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It won the Newberry Medal and has been in print ever since. She followed A Wrinkle in Time up with several more books set in the same world, spanning two generations.

L'Engle was also known for her series centred around the Austin family, beginning with Meet The Austins in 1960 and followed by four more books. Among her other series were the Katherine Forrester series (the first book of which was The Small Rain, the Crosswicks Journals and The Genesis Trilogy. She also published several individual novels, as well as volumes of trilogy and such nonfiction works as Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and other Spiritual Places and The Rock That Is Higher: Story as Truth.

I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was junior high and immediately fell in love with the book. I immediately read the next two books in the series featuring the Murry family, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. They were among the best books I had ever read. She was a truly gifted writer, giving her works a sense of wonder lacking in much young adult fiction. She was also capable of explaining scientific concepts in such a way that the layman could understand. Anyone who has read A Wrinkle in a Time will understand what a tesseract is. She was easily one of the best authors of children's books of the Twentieth Century. And I have no doubt people will continue to read her books a hundred years from now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Stop Worrying! Help! is on the Way

Help!, The Beatles' second live action film, is set for reissue on DVD on October 30. The classic film was previously issued on DVD in 1997 and again in 2000. It has long been out of print (I had to get my copy a few years ago on eBay). The 1997 edition was only available in full screen format and nearly a bare bones relese--the only extra was the theatrical trailer. I have never seen a copy of the 2000 edition, but I understand it was little better.

Because the earlier DVD issues of Help! left a bit to be desired, new of its reissue is made all the better in that it will finally receive the two disc treatment it deserves. The Standard Edition of the DVD will include the restored version of the film on one disc and the other disc will featuring a half hour long documentary on the making of the film, mini features on the making of the film, and a missing scene. There will also be a Deluxe Collector's Edition, which will include a reproduction of the original script director Richard Lester used and a 60 page hardback book with photos from the making of the movie.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I am a huge Beatles fanatic. And Help! is easily one my favourite movies of all time. It is about as close to the spirit of Swinging London that any movie had ever gotten. I don't know about anyone else, but I know I am already pre-ordering my copy on Amazon....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jane Wyman R. I.P.

Jane Wyman died yesterday at the age of 90. She is perhaps best know for her role in Johnny Belinda, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress.

Wyman was born Sarah Jane Mayfield in St. Joseph, Missouri. She attended Lafayette High School there and in her teen years began her singing career on radio under the name "Jane Darnell." She attended the University of Missouri. Upon graduation, she moved to California and worked various jobs before she finally started getting small parts in movies. Her first appearance on screen was in an uncredited part in The Kid From Spain in 1932. By 1939 she finally received her first starring role, in Torchy Plays with Dynamite. She appeared in many films throughout the Forties, among the more notable being The Yearling, The Lost Weekend, and Magic Town. In 1947 she appeared in her Oscar winning role in Johnny Belinda.

She continued to appear in films in the Fifties, starring in such movies as Stage Fright, Magnificent Obsession, Let's Do It Again, and Holiday for Lovers. Increasingly her career turned towards television. She appeared on such series as General Electric Theater, Summer Playhouse, and Lux Playhouse. She was also the host of her own anthology series, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre. Not only did she host the series, but she appeared in many of its episodes.

By the Sixties her career had slowed down. She appeared in such films as Pollyanna, Bon Voyage!, and How to Commit Marriage. She also guest starred in the shows Checkmate, The Investigators, and Wagon Train. From the Seventies to the Nineties her career was almost entirely spent on the small screen. She guest starred on such shows as The Sixth Sense, The New Doctors, Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Love Boat, and Charlie's Angels. She played the matriarch of the Channing family on Falcon Crest. Her last appearance on screen was in a guest appearance on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, where she played Dr. Quinn's mother Elizabeth.

Jane Wyman was truly one of the great actresses of the screen in the Twentieth century. She could play any number of roles and be convincing in any of them. It is no surprise that she did well with the role of the deaf and mute Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda. Wyman was also a class act. Her marriage to one day President Ronald Reagan naturally elicited questions about the man. But Wyman always refused to say anything. Even though she could made big money doing so, Wyman never kissed and told. She was a truly great actress, and one of the most talented people to ever emerge from the state of Missouri.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Return of Led Zeppelin?

Once again rumours of a Led Zeppelin reunion are flying. Fortunately, this time it is with good reason. Talking to NME.Com, lead singer Robert Plant said that reported that the remaining members had met to discuss a possible one-off gig. According to NME.Com, a source reported to them that the reunion will be part of a charity concert at London's O2 Arena organised by promoter Harvey Goldsmith.

Unfortunately, an official announcement has not been made yet, so the reunion is probably not an absolute certainty yet. It certainly seems possible, however, given the fact that November 13 will see the release of Mothership, a two disc set featuring tracks chosen by the remaining band members. November 20 will the reissue of the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same on November 20, complete with previously unreleased material. It would be reasonable for the remaining members of the band to reunite, even for simply a one-off gig, in order to promote both Mothership and the reissue of The Song Remains the Same on DVD. The fact that the event would also contribute to charity could be even more justification for Led Zeppelin to reunite. Since their break up following drummer John Bonham's death, the band has only reunited twice--one of which was for Live Aid in 1985.

I certainly hope that Led Zeppelin does reunite, even if it is for a one time only performance. Naturally, I have seen The Song Remains the Same several times. I also watched them, via MTV, perform at Live Aid, in which Phil Collins inadvertently introduced them as "Led Zeppelin (they had wanted to be introduced as 'Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones')." Given that half The Beatles are dead (making a reunion impossible) and The Rolling Stones have never broken up, a Led Zeppelin reunion would be the music event of the decade. I know I'll certainly look forward to it.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Family Sitcom Cycle from 1968-1972

The 1968-1969 season saw the return of a genre that had been largely absent from the networks for much of the Sixties, that of the family sitcom. I myself have always defined a family sitcom as any sitcom in which the focus is on a family and the humour on the series derives from typical family situations. While some might be tempted to define I Love Lucy as a a family sitcom after the addition of Little Ricky, I would not, for the focus of the series remained on Lucy and Ethel's crazy schemes. By the same toke, while both The Addams Family and The Munsters focused on families, the humour did not derive from typical family situations (indeed, the humour derived from the fact that the Addamases and the Munsters were not typical families).

By 1968 American network television had been dominated by two, interconnected cycles of sitcoms. One cycle was towards what Sherwood Schwartz termed "imaginative comedies" in his book Inside Gilligan's Island. These were comedies which either had fantastic premises (a mortal man married to a witch in Bewitched and astronauts thrown back in time in It's About Time) or regularly employed fantasy elements in their episodes (Schwartz's own Gilligan's Island and The Monkees are examples of this). Another cycle concurrent with the one towards imaginative sitcoms was one towards spoofs or parodies. This cycle somewhat overlapped with the one towards imaginative sitcoms, in that often times the spoofs and parodies utilised fantasy elements in their episodes. The perfect example of this is Get Smart. A parody of such spy dramas as the James Bond movies and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it naturally featured elements of science fiction in its plots from time to time. Other spoofs and parodies that aired during this era were F Troop, Pistols 'n' Petticoats, and The Hero. Between the many imaginative comedies and spoofs of the era, there was little room for family sitcoms in the mid-Sixties.

Of course, it must be pointed out that family sitcoms were not entirely absent from American prime time in the mid-Sixties. My Three Sons, having debuted in the Fifties ran throughout the decade and into the Seventies. Debuting in 1961, Hazel, based on the newspaper comic strip of the same name, ran until 1966. Please Don't Eat the Daisies, based on the Jean Kerr book and 1960 Doris Day movie of the same name, debuted in 1965. Centring on the Nash family, it also incorporated some of the zaniness of other sitcoms in the period (in one episode the children thought their father was a spy--it included a guest appearance by Robert Vaughn of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). It ran two seasons. Debuting the following season, Family Affair was a bit of an anachronism. While the family was rather atypical in structure (Uncle Bill, a bachelor played by Brian Keith, had to care for his nephew and nieces), it could have easily aired in the Fifties. The children not only obeyed their Uncle Bill without question, but even placed him on a pedestal. The show also avoided any controversy or anything suggestive, to the point that the deaths of the children's parents was almost never brought up! Perhaps because it offered a very idealised, even unrealistic view of family life during a period of social unrest and societal change, Family Affair ran for five years.

By 1968 the imaginative sitcoms and spoofs had run their course. Many of them had already went off the air, while those that remained were not receiving the ratings they had once had. It is perhaps reasonable, then, that the networks would return to a tried and true genre, the family sitcom. That having been said, the family sitcoms of this era differed in some ways from those of earlier eras. Traditional families in which there was both a father and a mother were exceedingly rare. Most of these shows followed the formula of Bachelor Father and My Three Sons, in which a single parent is raising children on his or her own. Even when there was a father and a mother present on the show, the family might be far from traditional. As most are well aware from the theme song, The Brady Bunch featured a man and a woman who had both been previously married and had children of their own, perhaps making it the first American series to feature a "mixed" family.

As to why single parents predominated the 1968-1971 family sitcoms, I rather suspect that it was the simple that divorce had dramatically increased in the Sixties and, as a result, there were more single parents. Of course, at that time divorce was very nearly a forbidden subject on prime time network television. It is perhaps for that reason that every one of the single parents in this era (and before that, for that matter) were referred to as being widowed. In fact, it is possible that the climbing divorce rate played a role in the creation of The Brady Bunch. The Brady Bunch represented an increasingly new phenomenon, in which previously married parents would remarry, each spouse bringing their own children into the new family. Of course, since divorce was a tabbo topic on network prime time television at the time, Mike and Carol were referred to as having been widowed.

Many of the family sitcoms of the era also differed from previous family sitcoms in that they often combined other genres with that of the family sitcom. An example of this is Nanny and the Professor, in which the nanny to Prof. Everett's children is portrayed as having psychic, even magical abilities. To a degree Nanny and the Professor resembled earlier imaginative sitcoms such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, although the focus of the series remained on the family and the comedy on the series usually emerged from typical family situations rather than Nanny's abilities. Another family sitcom which combined genres was The Partridge Family. Based very loosely on the career of singing family The Cowsills, The Partridge Family centred on a family who was also a band (every member of the family having a part). The TV show featured a song in every episode, much the same way as The Monkees once did. That having been said, it was a very different show in that the comedy generally emerged from typical family situations (at least, typical for a family band).

Despite the fact that most of the family sitcoms of this era differed in structure from earlier family sitcoms, the majority of them were very much like them in spirit. They were anachronisms much as Family Affair, in which the children were well behaved and the plots were very basic. Despite the fact that most of them dealt with single parents, then, the various series were very much a throwback to the family sitcoms of the early Fifties and the Sixties.

The cycle began in the 1968-1969 season with the emergence of three different family sitcoms. Two of them focused on single mothers. The Doris Day Show underwent many changes in format over the seasons, but in its first season it was firmly a family sitcom. Star of stage and screen Doris Day played Doris Martin, a widow with two sons who lived on a farm with her father Buck (played by Denver Pyle). In format, it owed something to the rural sitcoms of the era (such as The Andy Griffith Show). The other show featuring a single mother to debut that season would be historic. Julia was the first American TV show to feature an African American in the lead role. It centred on Julia Baker (played by Diahann Carroll), a nurse whose husband had died in the Vietnam War. The show was very much in the mould of the light hearted family sitcoms of this and earlier eras. It never dealt with anything suggestive, political, or controversial.

While The Doris Day Show and Julia were somewhat typical family sitcoms, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir had something of a spit personality. Based on the 1947 movie of the same name, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir centred on Carolyn Muir, a widowed mother who rents a house haunted by the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg. While its premise put it in the same genre as My Favourite Martian and Bewitched, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir could not make up its mind whether it wanted to be a zany imaginative comedy or a more quiet family comedy. Episodes would vary from imaginative plots in which Captain Gregg must face off against a ghost hunter to more family oriented plots such one dealing with Mrs. Muir's son Jonathan and his problems in little league baseball. In many respects, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir could be considered a transitional show, one marking a shift between two cycles (from one towards imaginative comedies to one towards family sitcoms).

Although it produced some well known shows (The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Courtship of Eddie's Father), this particular cycle was not a particularly prolific one. It produced three sitcoms in its first season, two more in its second season, and its three more in its third season. By its fourth season, the 1971-1972, the cycle had clearly run its course. That season saw the debut of only one more sitcom. Curiously, it was one which focused on a more or less traditional family. The Jimmy Stewart Show featured the famous actor as an older, small town professor and father of a young son, whose grown up son and family moves in with him and his wife. Even with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role, it only lasted briefly. for one season.

It is difficult to say why this particular cycle towards family sitcoms began. It is clear that the imaginative comedies and spoofs from earlier in the decade had run their course, leaving the networks to fill time slots with something else. The family sitcom was an old, tried and true genre, dating back to the days of radio, making it a safe bet to please viewers. Indeed, the antiquity of the genre may have well have played its role in its revival. The Sixties were a time of social upheaval and dramatic changes in society. The sexual revolution was well underway, as was the Women's Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement had been ongoing since the late Fifties. The Vietnam War was well under way and was proving very unpopular with much of the public. In the Sixties, the news was often filled with anti-war protests and even riots of various sorts. With so much social unrest taking place, many viewers may have wanted to find solace in the idealised world of family sitcoms. Indeed, it is significant that almost all of these family sitcoms eschewed controversy of any kind, even to the point of ignoring current events (even though Julia Baker's husband had died in Vietnam, Julia never made references to the unpopularity of the war or protests against it).

As to why the cycle ended, that reason is easier to pinpoint. On January 12, 1971, a show debuted that would usher in a new era of sitcoms. Rather than ignore what was taking place at the time, All in the Family openly dealt with social problems and political issues, with a protagonist (Archie Bunker) who was conservative, working class, loud mouthed bigot. Although its ratings were nothing to write home about when it debuted, by the summer it was doing very well in the ratings. With its second season it was a bona fide hit. The success of All in the Family would create a cycle towards socially relevant sitcoms that would mark the end of the simple, quiet, idealised family sitcoms that had preceded them. Indeed, the family sitcom would not return until the Eighties, with the success of The Cosby Show. And even then, with but few exceptions (Full House is an example), they would never again be quite so idealised.