Saturday, February 9, 2008

Two Writers Gone

Two writers have passed on, one a novelist and the other a television writer.

Phyllis A. Whitney was a well known novelist who wrote mysteries for both adult and young adult audiences. She died yesterday at the age of 104.

Phyllis A. Whitney was born on September 9, 1903 in Yokohama to missionary parents. Most of her young life was spent in the Far East, in Japan and China. She was thirteen years old when she became a fan of mystery novels. Her parents eventually returned to the United States, where Whitney graduated from Chicago's McKinley High School. Her first novel, A Place for Ann was published for the juvenile market in 1941. She published her first book for adults, Red is for Murder, in 1943. In addition to writing, Whitney had a variety of careers. She was a children's book editor for both the The Chicago Sun and the The Philadelphia Enquirer. She taught writing for children at Illinois' Northwestern University and New York University.

For most of Whitney's early career, she wrote books written not only for children, but more specifically for girls. This would change with the publication of The Quicksilver Pool in 1955, whereupon she started writing more often for adult audiences. Many of her works were period pieces, such as Skye Cameron, set in 1800's New Orleans, and The Quicksilver Pool, set in Staten Island during The War Between the States. Her last novel, Amethyst Dreams, was published in 1997.

Over the years Whitney won several awards. including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel for The Mystery of the Haunted Pool in 1961 and Grand Master Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Mystery Writers of America. She also served as President of the Mystery Writers of America for some time.

Given that most of her books were either written for young girls or women (she was once dubbed "Queen of the American Gothics" by The New York Times), I never have read any of Whitney's books. Having an interest in the history of the mystery novel, however, I am familiar with her work. There can be no doubt that she was a very accomplished writer. She has a loyal following and many of her books remain in print to this day. Indeed, the longevity of her career (56 years) must be ascribed to more than her long life.

Television writer and former UCLA instructor of playwriting and theatre arts Robert Guy Barrows died January 31 at the age of 81. The cause was complications from intestinal cancer.

Burrows was born February 9, 1926 in Fort Collins, Colorado. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. He graduated from the University of Colorado of Boulder in 1950 with a degree in English literature. He received a master's degree from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1954. He taught at New York University from 1957 to 1962, and at UCLA from 1964 to 1970.

Burrows broke into television in 1964 with an episode of the short lived Western series Destry. For the next several years he wrote episodes for such series as The Fugitive, The Green Hornet, The Big Valley, Mission: Impossible, The Man Who Never Was, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and Bonanza.

Burrows also became of some repute in 1968 when he produced Beat poet Michael McClure's play The Beard. The play, portraying a fictional meeting between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow, was filled with obscenities and included a climax that was essentially simulated sex. Burrows, McClure, and actors Richard Bright and Alexandria Hay were arrested twelve different times for lewd conduct. Burrows himself was charged with producing a play without a police permit. The charges that Burrows produced the play without a police permit were eventually dropped. In 1970 the California Supreme Court ruled that theatrical performances were protected by the First Amendment and thus could not violate the lewd conduct law.

Although I would not say he was one of the all time great writers for television. Burrows was quite capable of churning out fairly good episodes for TV series. A case in point is his episode for Mission: Impossible, "Snowball in Hell," in which the IMF must neutralise a former prison warden from the tropics who has a substance which would make it possible to create inexpensive nuclear weapons. Not only was it one of the more interesting episodes of Mission: Impossible, but it was also one of the more original.Although he was hardly prolific as a television writer (his career in TV lasted only through the Sixties to 1971), he was a competent writer who deserves to be remembered.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Pigeons and a Song

I must apologise, but I do not feel up to a full fledged blog entry tonight. We had a very busy day at work, with non-stop calls and customers who at times bordered on psychotic. My plan at the moment is to simply relax with some Jack and Coke and a movie (preferably a violent one). I'll leave you, then, with two videos.

The first is the FedEx "Carrier Pigeons" commercial which debuted during Sunday's Super Bowl. I think it is one of the funniest commercials I've seen in some time.

Carrier Pigeons - FedEx

The second is an old clip from American Bandstand featuring Roy Orbison performing one of my top ten favourite songs of all time--"Oh, Pretty Woman."

Oh, Pretty Woman - Roy Orbison

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kevin Stoney Passes On

British actor Kevin Stoney, perhaps best known for playing villains in three popular Dr. Who serials and a number of other British genre series, passed on January 20 at the age of 86. The cause was skin cancer.

Kevin Stoney was born in 1921. He entered acting in repertory theatre. His career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served a stint in the RAF in the Middle East. Following the war he returned to the theatre, appearing in West End productions. Although an accomplished stage actor, he would perhaps be best known for his many appearances in British TV shows. He made his television debut in 1955 on BBC Sunday Night Theatre: The Voices. He made his film debut two years later in a bit part in How to Murder a Rich Uncle. Over the next several years he would appear in such TV series as William Tell, Armchair Theatre, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

It would be in the Sixties that Kevin Stoney would come into his own as a television actor. The United Kingdom was in the grip of a spy craze that would eventually spread to Canada and the United States. As a result, Stoney was very much in demand as a villain or other ominous characters. He made guest appearances on The Saint, Danger Man, The Avengers, and Man in a Suitcase. He made a notable guest appearance on The Prisoner as Colonel J. in "The Chimes of Big Ben." Perhaps his best known role in the Sixties was playing Mavic Chen on Dr. Who in "The Daleks' Master Plan" and later Tobias Vaughn in "The Invasion (which featured Dr. Who's other archnemeses, the Cybermen)." He also appeared in a few movies, including Strongroom, Murder at the Gallop, The Blood Beast Terror, and Contract to Kill.

In the Seventies Stoney would be a regular on the TV series Spy Trap, playing the role of Trent. He would make a return appearance on Dr. Who, this time playing Tyrum in Revenge of the Cybermen. He also made appearances on Space 1999, The New Avengers, and Quatermass Conclusion. He played Thrasyllus in the serial I Claudius. In the Eighties he appeared on such series as Blakes 7, The Hammer House of Horror, Hannay, and All Creatures Great and Small. He had a notable role on Bergerac, playing "Horatio" Nelson.

Kevin Stoney was one of the many character actors who made British television so great in the Sixties. He could play a domineering villain such as Mavic Chen on Dr. Who with ease, then turn around and play Number Six's rather less threatening former boss on The Prisoner. He could play a heavy on Danger Man and an oracle on I Claudius equally with ease. Few actors were quite as versatile as Kevin Stoney. He certainly deserved to be remembered for his talent.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Barry Morse R.I.P.

Barry Morse, who played Lt. Gerard on The Fugitive and Dr. Bergman on Space 1999, passed on Saturday at the age of 89.

Morse was born in the East End of London on June 10, 1918. By age 15 he had dropped out of school and was working as an errand boy when he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He appeared in his first play as a professional actor, in If I Were King, before he had even graduated. After graduation he toured with various companies, making his debut on London's West End in School for Slavery in 1941. Morse played in such West End productions as The Assassin, A Bullet in the Ballet, Crisis in Heaven, and Escort. Morse also had a career in radio, starring as Paul Temple in the radio show Send for Paul Temple Again among many other shows.

In 1942 Morse made his film debut in a part in The Goose Steps Out. Over the next few years he would appear in such films as Thunder Rock, Late at Night, Mrs. Fitzherbert (where he played Beau Brummell), Daughter of Darkness, and No Trace. In the early Fifties Morse and his family moved to Canada. There he wrote, produced, and narrated the CBC radio series A Touch of Greasepaint. Morse also appeared so frequently on Canadian television that one critic in the Fifties called him "...the test pattern for the CBC."

While Morse appeared on stage, in movies, and on radio, it is probably from television that most viewers know him. In the Fifties he was the host of the Canadian show Haunted Studio and appeared other Canadian shows such as On Camera and Hudson's Bay. In the United States he appeared on Playhouse 90 and The Dupont Show of the Month. In the Sixties his television career would flourish. He was the star of the Canadian series Presenting Barry Morse and appeared in such shows as Way Out (the infamous anthology series based on the stories of Roald Dahl), The U.S. Steel Hour, The Twilight Zone, Sir Francis Drake, The Untouchables, and The Invaders. IT was in the Sixties that he would be cast what may be his best known role. Morse played Lt. Philip Morse, the police officer who pursued wrongly convicted Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Although the character only appeared in 37 episodes, he made a big impression on viewers.

The Seventies saw Morse play major roles in three British series. The first was The Adventurer, in which he played Mr. Parminter, the man in charge of secret agent Gene Bradley (played by Gene Barry). He also played the role of Alec 'The Tiger' Marlowe in The Zoo Gang. Perhaps his best known television role was that of Professor Victor Bergman in one season of the cult series Space 1999. From the Eighties to the Naughts Morse worked less in television than he earlier had, although he appeared in such miniseries and telefilms as The Martian Chronicles, The Winds of War, Hoover vs. the Kennedys: The Second Civil War, and Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story.

Of course, Morse continued to appear in movies throughout his career. In the Sixties he appeared in such films as Lord Durham, Kings of the Sun, and Justine. In the Seventies he appeared in such films as The Telephone Book, Running Scared, Welcome to Blood City, and The Shape of Things to Come. From the Eighties into the Naughts he appeared in such films as The Changeling, Murder by Phone, Memory Run, and Taxman.

Morse also had a flourishing stage career. Besides appearing on the West End, he also appeared on Broadway. He appeared in Hide and Seek (1957) and Hadrian VII (1969). He directed the play Staircase in 1968.

It is a measure of the talent of Barry Morse that most Americans probably did not realise he was a Cockney who spent most of his life in Canada. Particularly in the Sixties, most English actors found themselves playing English caricatures (examples are Sam's father Maurice on Bewitched and Colonel Crittendon on Hogan's Heroes), Morse was playing the very American Lt. Gerard on The Fugitive. Beyond the determined police lieutenant, Morse played a variety of roles on American television, ranging from a devious Frenchman on The Untouchables to a Martian on The Outer Limits. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater proof of Morse's talent than the fact that he is remembered so well as Lt. Gerard on The Fugitive, even though he only appeared in a minority of the show's episodes. There can be no doubt that he will be rememberd for a long time.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Bowl Commercials 2008

People all over the world know about the Super Bowl. It is that curious American custom wherein the nation's advertisers roll out their best commercials and air them in a head to head competition on television. Oh yes, and the commercials are occasionally interrupted by a football game (the game itself is of little importance unless the St. Louis Rams are playing).

The quality of any given Super Bowl's commercials tend to vary from year to year, but fortunately this year's crop seemed particularly good. I did not watch the game itself, but fortunately through the miracle of the Internet I was able to view them at IFilm. Here is my list of my favourite Super Bowl commercials from 2008.

Audi "Godfather:" As indicated by its title, this commercial is a takeoff on the movie The Godfather, but it is not a horse's head which Moe Brown awakes to find in his bed. Vintage car lovers can probably sympathise with his pain....

Bridgestone "Get the Most out of Your Car:" In this commercial a driver has the choice of avoiding a doe, Alice Cooper, and Richard Simmons. You can probably guess which one he almost decides to hit....

Bridgestone "Screams:" In this advert an entire woods full of animals screams as a squirrel is saved from becoming road kill by the efficiency of Bridgestone Tyres.

Bud Light "Breath of Fire:" This commercial proudly announces that the ability to breathe fire has been added to Bud Light, although Anheuser-Busch apparently did not foresee the possibly catastrophic results.

Bud Light "The Wheel:" A group of cavemen find it difficult getting their Bud Light to a party, only to strike upon a novel solution--the wheel. Sadly, they haven't quite gotten the knack of using it quite yet....

Chase "Secret Agent Man:" Shot in black and white and reminding me of an old Danger Man episode, a man in a tuxedo must fight his way to save his credit card from fraud. Technically this commercial debuted before the Super Bowl, but I've got to love any commercial that uses the song "Secret Agent Man...."

Coca-Cola "Balloons:" In this commercial the famous Underdog balloon and the Stewie balloon (that's the baby from The Family Guy) compete for a balloon in the shape of a classic Coke bottle. I have to love any commercial featuring the Underdog balloon...

FedEx "Pigeons:" A company decides to solve their delivery problems by using some very special pigeons, with some unexpected results. By far the best and funniest of the commercials to air this year, I predict this one will be regarded as a classic.

GoDaddy "Spot On:" This commercial, featuring Danica Patrick unzipping her uniform, is simply a teaser to get you to go to GoDaddy.Com to see the real commercial (rejected for the Super Bowl). The real commercial is hilarious (and not suitable for people under 18...), although Danica Patrick doesn't ever fully unzip her uniform. Still, I have to love any commercial featuring Danica Patrick....

GoDaddy "White Light:" In this commercial a group of people watches the Super Bowl while their nerd friend visits GoDaddy.Com. Of course, the nerd is unexpectedly rewarded. You have to give GoDaddy credit for the sheer audacity of their commercials....

The Iron Man Trailer: Besides The Dark Knihgt, this is my must see movie for this summer. And this trailer only makes me want to see it more.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian Trailer: Okay, I think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a bit overrated. I thought it was a good film, but not a great one. Still, I have to admit that the trailer for Prince Caspian makes me anxious to see the next entry to the series.

So those are my favourite commercials from this year's Super Bowl. I encourage all of you go to IFilm and check them out. All of them (especially FedEx's "Piegons") are well worth watching.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Super Bowl

Most of you have probably noticed that I don't write much about sports in this blog. The reason for that is simple. I don't consider sports to be a part of pop culture and this is a blog dedicated to pop culture. That having been said, the Super Bowl would seem to be an exception. Long ago Super Bowl Sunday practically became a national holiday here in the United States. And for quite some time the Super Bowl has generally been the highest rated event on American television. While I won't be watching this year's game (if the St. Louis Rams aren't playing, then I simply am not interested), I know that many Americans will be.

As to how the Super Bowl became such a major event, that is a rather long story. As the National Football League (NFL) has existed since 1920, quite obviously the Super Bowl was not the first incarnation of the NFL Championship. The first official NFL championship was held in 1933. That year the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants 23 to 21. It would be the founding of the American Football League (AFL) in 1959 that would lead to the transformation of the NFL Championship into the Super Bowl. Formed after the NFL declined to add expansion teams, the AFL proved to be a successful rival to the older, better established NFL. The intense rivalry between the two leagues would create problems for both the AFL and NFL, problems that they finally decided to resolve through a merger. As part of the merger agreement, it was decided that they would play an AFL-NFL World Championship Game each year (with the merger made official in 1970, the game would be come the NFL Championship, with the teams of the AFL becoming the American Football Conference of the NFL). It was Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt who coined the term "Super Bowl." Noticing his daughter's Super Ball one day (another fad courtesy of Wham-O), he decided that the "Super Bowl" would be a good term for the championship game. Needless to say, the name stuck.

Of course, none of this explains how the Super Bowl became an American tradition. As might be expected, the game has always garnered high Nielsen ratings. Super Bowl I held in 1967 received a Nielsen rating of 40.3 (it was also the only Super Bowl simulcast on two networks--both NBC and CBS). The ratings for the Super Bowl would remain good throughout the early Seventies, but if there was a year when one could truly say that the Super Bowl became an outright phenomenon, it might well have been 1978. That year around 78,940,000 viewers tuned into the game, up from 62,050,000 the previous year. From that point the Super Bowl would only grow in the number of viewers who watched it, reaching an all time high in 1996 when 94,080,000 viewers watched the game.

Another indicator of the Super Bowl's growing influence in American society could be its halftime shows. The first Super Bowl's halftime show simply consisted of the University of Arizona and University of Michigan marching bands. Marching bands would remain the norm at Super Bowl halftime shows until 1970 when Carol Channing performed. For many years afterwards the Super Bowl halftime shows would consist of performers ranging from Louis Armstrong to Up with People to Chubby Checker. The turning point when Super Bowl halftime shows truly became what they were today was perhaps 1991, when the New Kids on the Block and various Disney characters performed. This halftime show is unique in that it was the only one which was not broadcast live. Because of coverage from Desert Storm, the show was recorded and shown in edited form in the post game show. Since then performers ranging from Gloria Estefan to Michael Jackson to U2 to Paul McCartney to The Rolling Stones have performed at the Super Bowl halftime show. Of course, the most notorious halftime show was probably the one performed at Super Bowl XXXVIII. It was during that halftime show that an alleged "wardrobe malfunction" resulted in one of Janet Jackson's breasts being exposed.

Another signpost of the growing popularity of the Super Bowl over the years is that commercials aired during the Super Bowl have become a phenomenon unto themselves. For the first Super Bowl the price for commercials was only $40,000--that's $245,350 in 2007 U.S. dollars. By 1983 that amount would be $400,000, or $824,936 in 2007 U.S. dollars. By 1995 the amount charged for Super Bowl ads would break the million mark. As to the commercials themselves, the first truly interesting Super Bowl ad would air in 1973, when Farrah Fawcett would lather Joe Namath up with Noxzema Shaving Cream. If there was a point when Super Bowl adverts took on a life of their own, it was perhaps in 1984. It was that year that Apple's commercial for the then new Macintosh computer aired during Super Bowl XVIII. Directed by Ridley Scott and taking a good deal from George Orwell's 1984, it became one of the most iconic commercials of all time. Advertising Age named it the Commercial of the Decade for the Eighties, while TV Guide named it the greatest television commercial of all time in their 50 Greatest TV Commercials.

Since then there have been several notable Super Bowl Commercials. Anheuser-Busch introduced their first Bud Bowl spot in 1989, in which beer bottles and cans played their own game. Anheuser-Busch would make history again in 1995 when they introduced the controversial Budweiser Frogs (who would be later accused by some of encouraging children to drink...). Nissan also turned to animals to sell their Maxima in 1997. The advert featured a flock of pigeons plotting to, um, air bomb a Maxima, constantly missing their mark until they slam into a car door. It was in 2000 (that was the Super Bowl that the Rams won) that one of my favourite Super Bowl commercials of all time aired. It was a commercial for Electronic Data Systems (EDS) featuring cowboys who herd cats. Hundreds of cats. Among the scenes in this hilarious advert are cats being herded across streams, being retrieved from trees, and so on. One cowboy, showing off his scratches from the felines, pointed out that cat herding is dangerous work. Another was shown rolling up a ball of yarn. Another Super Bowl commercial I liked was a 2002 Pepsi spot in which various people, including Bob Dole, become transfixed by Britney Spears. Now I don't like Pepsi (I am a Coke drinker) and I am not a Britney fan, but I must say I love any commercial in which Bob Dole is in lust with Britney Spears... Another commercial I love is another Pepsi ad, this one from 2003, in which Ozzy Osbourne has his ultimate nightmare--meeting Donnie and Marie Osmond. I also loved GoDaddy's 2007 Super Bowl commercial, in which it is revealed that their marketing department consists of many sexy, party girls--it takes audacity to be that blatant in using sex to sell one's product (here I must point out that one of their 2006 Super Bowl commercials, "Steamy Car Wash," was rejected for being too sexy). At any rate, Super Bowl commercials have become such a phenomenon that many believe that they might be a bigger attraction than the game themselves. I have to admit, I have thought of simply recording the game and fast forwarding to the commercials (that's if the Rams aren't playing).

It seems to me that while it garnered huge Nielsen ratings from the very beginning, the Super Bowl did not become a national event overnight. Instead, I think it happened gradually over time. First, the Super Bowl's ratings had to go from simply being great to downright fantastic. This had happened by the late Seventies. Second, the commercials would have to become something different from the typical advertisement. This was achieved in 1984 with the commercial for Apple's Macintosh, with such special commercials becoming common by the early Nineties. Finally, the Super Bowl's halftime shows would have to start using big name, even legendary performers. This was also achieved in the early Nineties. It seems to me, then, that the Super Bowl did not virtually become a national holiday of sorts until around 1991 or 1992. It was at that point that all of the factors necessary to turn it into a national celebration were in place: the halftime show, the commercials, and, of course, the game itself.

Of course, while no one can deny the importance of the Super Bowl on the American calendar, there will always be those of us for whom it is no big deal. As I have said earlier, I will only watch the Super Bowl if the St. Louis Rams are playing (which sadly means I have only watched two in the past many years...). This year is no different (I have had TV Land on all day). I must confess, however, that I will take part in the Super Bowl celebration after a fashion. Sometime I will swing over to IFilm and watch this year's crop of Super Bowl commercials. And to think, some people actually think the Super Bowl is about the game....