Saturday, March 1, 2008

Doc Savage's 75th Anniversary

"Let me do right to all, and wrong no man." (Doc Savage, from his own personal code of conduct)

Doc Savage #1 was dated March 1933 and went on sale on February 15, 1933. This means that whether one goes by the magazine's cover date or when it hit the newsstands, Doc Savage has entered his 75th year of existence. Regardless of which date one relies upon as Doc's official "birthday," it would seem to be reason to celebrate. Doc Savage was not only one of the most successful pulp characters with his own magazine, but he also proved to be one of the most influential as well.

It is perhaps a bit simplistic to credit the creation of Doc Savage to Lester Dent. While the man from La Plata, Missouri played such a pivotal role in shaping the Man of Bronze that he can rightfully be called the creator of Doc Savage, in truth the idea for the Archenemy of Evil originated in the offices of Street and Smith Publications. Street and Smith had seen incredible success with The Shadow and decided that perhaps they should follow it up with a new character. Street and Smith's business manager Henry Ralston and editor John Nanovic then wrote a broad outline for a new character they called "Doc Savage." Doc may have in part been inspired by a real person. Nanovic told pulp magazine historian Will Murray about a man named Richard Henry Savage, a latter day renaissance man who had been a diplomat, engineer, lawyer, military officer, and writer. As a writer some of Savage's books were published by Street and Smith, just when a young Henry Ralston had started working for the firm at the tender age of 17.

While Ralston and Nanovic wrote the broad outline that provided the basis for Doc Savage, it was writer Lester Dent who expanded on the character to the point that he should perhaps be considered the character's primary creator. Born in La Plata, Missouri, Lester Dent was a prolific pulp writer who had written for magazines ranging from Top Notch to Detective-Dragnet Magazine. In fact, Dent wrote a series of stories centred around a gadget laden detective named Lynn Lash for Detective-Dragnet Magazine. It was a Lynn Lash story, "The Sinister Ray." which caught the attention of Street and Smith and led the publisher to consider Dent as the primary writer on Doc Savage. As a trial Dent was asked to write a Shadow novel. The end result, "The Golden Vulture," met with Street and Smith's approval, although it would not be until The Shadow #154, July 15, 1938 that it would be published after having been revised by The Shadow's scribe Walter Gibson. Having passed Street and Smith's test, Dent was officially assigned to Doc Savage.

And while it was Henry Ralston and John Nanovic who initially came up with the concept for Doc Savage, it would be Lester Dent who fully realised the Man of Bronze. Quite rightfully, Doc Savage could be considered one of the earliest superheroes. Clark Savage Jr. was literally raised from birth to fight crime. While he was still a child, his father gathered together a team of experts and scientists to teach him and train him in nearly every human endeavour. From childhood he underwent rigorous mental and physical conditioning. Every single day he underwent two hours of two hours of mental and physical exercises to keep his mind and body in shape. As a result Doc was a genius with a photographic memory, nearly superhuman strength, and incredible endurance. And while Doc was first and foremost a doctor, he was also an expert in such diverse fields ranging from chemistry to law to gymnastics to the martial arts. Even his senses were more acute than the average human being.

Even without having been trained to be the ultimate crime fighter, Doc Savage would have probably been an impressive specimen. Although his exact height in never revealed in any of the novels, Doc is described as being tall, but so well proportioned that this is not apparent unless he is standing next to someone else. His skin was a natural bronze colour, and his hair was a darker shade of bronze. His eyes were flecked with gold and had a hypnotic quality to them.

Doc's physical and mental prowess would seem to be sufficient for him to fight crime, but Doc also happened to have limitless wealth coming from a gold mine his father owned in the country of Hidalgo. With such wealth Doc Savage could get everything he needed to fight crime. He made his base in the 86th floor of a skyscraper in New York (thought by some to be the Empire State Building). Connected to Doc's HQ by a tunnel were hangers and warehouses labelled "the Hidalgo Trading Company," where he kept his vehicles. In the Arctic, Doc owned a fantastic structure called the Fortress of Solitude, where he sometimes went to be alone in order to develop new inventions, undergo further training, and so on.

With a genius IQ, almost superhuman strength, and nearly limitless wealth, one would not think Doc Savage would have need of anyone to assist him. Despite this, Doc was assisted by a group of men who came to be called "the Fabulous Five" in the Sixties (when Bantam began reprinting the Doc Savage) novels. These were five men, all top experts in their fields, whom Doc had trusted for years. There was Andrew Blodgett Mayfair, better known as "Monk." Monk's nickname came from the fact that he was "half a man tall and two men wide," with arms too long from his frame. Despite his appearance, Monk was an expert chemist. He owned a pet pig called Habeas Corpus, so named as a jab at his best friend and verbal sparring partner's profession, law. Monk's best friend and sparring partner was Theodore Marley Brooks, also known as "Ham." Ham's nickname stemmed from his service in the Great War and an incident involving the theft of some hams. Ham was an extraordinary lawyer and a skilled fencer (he always carried a sword cane). Monk and Ham were engaged in an ongoing battle of words (particularly when in the company of a pretty girl), although in truth they were the closest of friends. Ham owned an ape (usually thought to be an orangutan) which he named "Chemistry" as a jab at Monk's profession. Ham and Monk are the only two members of the Fabulous Five to appear in every single Doc Savage adventure.

Besides, Monk and Ham, there was also John Rennwick, known as "Renny." Renny was nearly as impressive as Doc physically. He stood six foot four and had enormous fists, which he could easily drive through the average door. Renny was also the world's greatest engineer. William Harper Littlejohn, also called "Johnny," constantly looked as if he was near death's door. Despite his frail appearance, Johnny was actually very strong. He was also one of the world's greatest geologists and archaeologists. Thomas J. Roberts, also known as "Long Tom," was the group's electrical expert. He could build a radio from scratch, as well as more novel gadgets. Long Tom's pet project was an electrical device which would kill insects, which he detested.

At times Doc was also assisted by his cousin, Patricia "Pat" Savage. Like Doc, Pat also had bronze skin and dark bronze hair. And like Doc she was extremely intelligent and well versed in many fields of endeavour. Despite this fact, Doc usually disapproved of her becoming involved in his adventures, feeling they were too dangerous for women. Of course, given that Pat was also very beautiful and charming, the Fabulous Five never objected to her presence (especially Monk and Ham).

While Doc was an expert marksman with a gun, he very much preferred using gadgets to firearms (much of this was probably due to the fact that Doc had sworn never to take human life). Among the various gadgets Doc used in the course of his adventures were tiny, glass balls which contained a powerful sleeping gas, infrared and ultraviolet goggles, periscopes, and so on. And while Doc disliked guns himself, he equipped the Fabulous Five with his own, specially built Super Machine Pistols--small, hand held, automatic weapons. Doc used so many gadgets and so often that he even sometimes wore a special vest with pockets and other compartments in which to store them.

Doc Savage would prove to be a roaring success for Street and Smith, ultimately becoming the most most successful Hero Pulp besides The Shadow. Such success naturally meant that Doc Savage would be adapted to other media. Strangely enough, Street and Smith gave the rights to Doc Savage in film, radio, and television to Lester Dent. It was in late 1933 that Dent made a deal with the Knox Company of St. Louis for a Doc Savage radio show. Debuting in February 1934 and reaching national syndication in October 1934, the Doc Savage radio show was 15 minutes in length. With so little time, Doc's supporting cast consisted only of Monk and sometimes Ham as well. In all 26 episodes were made. Sadly none have survived and we only have Lester Dent's scripts to get an idea of what the show was like. There would be another, short lived Doc Savage radio show in 1943, although it owed more to the comic book version of Doc than the pulp magazine (see below). Like the first series, only the scripts have survived. In 1985 NPR would air yet another Doc Savage radio show. Thirteen episodes were produced, adapting the novels Fear Cay (Roger Rittner wrote the radio play) and The Thousand-Headed Man (Will Murray, the legendary pulp expert, wrote the radio play).

Doc Savage would also have a career in comic books. Street and Smith moved into the comic book field early in the Golden Age of Comic Books, adapting both The Shadow and Doc to the medium. Doc Savage made his first appearance in a comic book in The Shadow Comics #1, March 1940. He would receive his own comic book, Doc Savage Comics, cover dated July 1940. Originally the comic books adapted Doc faithfully from the pulps. It was with Doc Savage Comics #5, August 1941 that the comic book version of Doc departed from the original. In the story "The Angry Ghost" Doc crashed Tibet where a mystic gave him a magical blue hood with a ruby embedded in it. The hood gave Doc even greater strength (as if he wasn't already strong enough) and hypnotic abilities (as if he wasn't already skilled in hypnotism). The "blue hood" version of Doc Savage, upon which the 1943 radio show was based, would last for the remainder of the run of Doc Savage Comics (cancelled in 1943) and one issue of The Shadow Comics. Fortunately, a more faithful version of Doc was featured in the remainder of his appearances in The Shadow Comics (which ran until 1949). In addition to comic books, in the Thirties Lester Dent tried to sell a newspaper comic strip based on the Man of Bronze.

When Bantam Books began reprinting the original pulp novels in the Sixties, there was renewed interest in Doc Savage. Naturally this would mean more comic book adaptations of the Man of Bronze. Gold Key issued a one shot Doc Savage cover dated November 1966; it had grown out of an aborted film project (more on that later). Starting in October 1972, Marvel Comics would publish nine issues of a Doc Savage comic book (one of which was giant sized). Beginning in August 1975 they would publish eight issues of Doc Savage in their larger, comic book format.Starting in November 1987 DC Comics would publish twenty four issues of a Doc Savage comic book which updated the character--it was not received well by fans. Millennium would publish Doc Savage comic books from 1991 into 1992, as well as a Pat Savage comic book. Theirs is considered to be by far the most loyal adaptation. In 1995 Dark Horse would publish two comic books featuring Doc Savage, including one which teamed the Man of Bronze up with The Shadow.

Curiously, while The Shadow was adapted into both feature films, movie serials, and even two unsold television pilots, it would be decades before Doc Savage was finally adapted to film. In the Thirties and Fortiesinterest was expressed in making Doc Savage serials. The projects fell through because Lester Dent, who owned the film and television rights to the Man of Bronze, insisted on writing the screenplay despite the fact that he had no experience in writing for the movies. In the Fifties there was interest in a Doc Savage TV series. The project again fell through because Dent insisted on writing the script. The Sixties would see no less than two film and TV projects featuring the Archenemy of Evil fall through. Goodson-Todman Productions, best known for producing game shows ranging from What's My Line to The Price is Right, planned to produce a Doc Savage movie in the wake of the success of Bantam Books' reprints of the classic pulp novels. It would have featured Chuck Connors as Doc Savage and was based on the novel The Thousand-Headed Man from Doc Savage #17, July 1934. The film was slated for release in 1966. Unfortunately, both Goodson-Todman Productions and Condé Nast Publications (who had bought out Street and Smith in 1959) had failed to secure the rights to make the film from the estate of Lester Dent. In the end all that would come out of the project was Gold Key's comic book adaptation of the film that was never made. In the Sixties The Adventures of Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey proposed a Doc Savage animated series, but it never went beyond the planning stages.

It was in the Seventies that producer George Pal secured both the film and television rights for Doc Savage from the estate of Lester Dent. His plan had been to launch an entire series of Doc Savage films and perhaps eventually a television series. The screenplay was based upon the first novel, The Man of Bronze, and written by Pal and Joe Morhaim. Michael Anderson, director of such classic films as The Dam Busters and The Quiller Memorandum, was hired to direct. Ron Ely, who had played Tarzan in the NBC Sixties TV series, was cast as Doc Savage. While Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze was visually faithful to the pulp novels, including the Fortress of Solitude, the 86th floor headquarters, and the various gadgets, it departed from the pulp novels in that it was played mostly for camp. Warner Brothers had initially slated the film for a spring 1974 release date, then shifted it to an Easter 1975 release date. When it was released, it was to generally scathing reviews. Doc Savage fans were largely disappointed with the movie's campy approach. Ultimately, the film bombed at the box office. A sequel Doc Savage: Archenemy of Evil (which would have been based on the novel Death in Silver from Doc Savage #16, October 1934) was announced on screen at the end of Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, and both the screenplay and some filming had been completed upon it. With the failure of Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, the sequel was never made.

Since then there have been other attempts to bring Doc Savage back to film. In 1999 Castle Rock Entertainment announced its intent to make a Doc Savage movie starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with a screenplay by Brett Hill and David Johnson. Nothing ever came of the project. More recently, Sam Raimi announced plans to make projects featuring both Doc Savage and The Shadow.

While the last issue of Doc Savage was published by Street and Smith in 1949, the classic pulp novels would find a new lease on life in the Sixties. Starting in October 1964, Bantam Books began reprinting the novels in paperback at the rate of about one of month. Not only would Bantam publish every single Doc Savage novel (and a previously unpublished Lester Dent novel--The Red Spider), but it would also start publishing new Doc Savage novels in 1991 by writers such as Philip Jose Farmer and Will Murray. Earlier in 1935 The Ideal Library would publish the first three Doc Savage novels in hardback. In 1975 Golden Press published six of the novels in hardback. Starting in November 2006 Nostalgia Ventures began reprinting the Doc Savage novels again.

Perhaps a greater measure of Doc's success than adaptations into other media and the reprinting of the classic novels is the lasting impact he has had on pop culture. Not only was Doc Savage was one of the earliest characters who could be described as a superhero, but he would be a direct source of inspiration for Superman. It was in an issue of The Shadow that Jerry Siegel saw an add for a new pulp magazine, whose copy read "SUPERMAN..Doc Savage--Man of Master Mind and Body...." Naturally, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster would buy that first issue of Doc Savage, and its influence can be seen on Superman. Both Doc and Superman share the first name "Clark." And while Doc is the Man of Bronze, Superman is the Man of Steel. And while Doc had his Fortress of Solitude, as early as Superman #17, July 1942 the Man of Steel had his own "Secret Citadel" built into a mountain near Metropolis. By 1958DC Comics would outright plagiarise Doc Savage's Fortress of Solitude, giving Superman his own Fortress of Solitude in Action Comics #241, June 1958.

Superman is not the only comic book superhero who may owe something to Doc Savage. While the primary inspiration for Batman would seem to be pulp heroes such as The Shadow and The Spider (with a bit of Zorro thrown in), the Dark Knight. would seem to owe some things to the Man of Bronze. Detective Comics #29, September 1939, introduced Batman's utlity belt, more than a bit reminiscent of gadget laden vest. The Batcave, introduced in the 1943 movie serial The Batman and in comic books in Detective Comics #83, January 1944, seems reminiscent of both The Shadow's sanctum and Doc Savage's penthouse HQ. In addition to Superman and Batman, Doc Savage has influenced numerous other characters, from Buckaroo Banzai to Sam Beckett of the TV series Quantum Leap.

Doc Savage has been immensely successful. He has had a lasting influence on pop culture, inspiring many other characters. He has been referenced in everything from Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood to the Big Audio Dynamite song "No. 10 Upping St." He still has a huge following 75 years after the publication of the first issue of Doc Savage. Doc Savage has most likely lasted 75 years because of what he stands for. It is not his genius I.Q. or nearly superhuman strength to which fans are drawn, but rather it is to the Man of Bronze's integrity and sense of honour. He truly did seek to do right and to wrong no human being. I've no doubt he'll last another 75 years.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Two Music Legends of the Sixties Pass On

Two men who contributed to the musical landscape of the Sixties, albeit in very different ways, have passed on. One was the lead vocalist for one of the best known British Invasion bands. The other was a drummer for one of psychedelia's most legendary performers.

Mike Smith, the lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, passed yesterday at the age of 64. The cause was pneumonia. Smith had sustained injuries to spinal cord in 2003 that left him paralysed below his ribs. Sadly, he died just two weeks before the Dave Clark Five were to be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Smith was born in Edmonton, Middlesex, England on December 3, 1943. From an early age he was drawn to music, learning to play the piano at the age of five. When he was 13 he passed the entrance exam for London's Trinity College of Music. Despite this, Smith's destiny lay with rock 'n' roll rather than classical music. He had first met Dave Clark when they both played for the football team for the St.George Boys Club. When Clark's band lost their lead singer, he asked Smith to join as their new lead vocalist. Smith's first record with the Dave Clark Five was "I Knew It All The Time," released in June 1962. The Dave Clark Five would finally crack the British charts with the song "Do You Love Me," released in October 1963, which peaked at #30 on the UK charts. With the song "Glad All Over," released the following month, they would have their first bona fide hit. The song went to #1 in the United Kingdom and #6 in the United States as well. With a sound that was strong on percussion, the Dave Clark Five rivalled The Beatles in their early days. In addition to singing lead vocals and playing keyboards, Smith also co-wrote many of the Dave Clark Five's biggest hits, including "Glad All Over," "Bits and Pieces," and "Try Too Hard."

Unfortunately by 1967 the Dave Clark Five was no longer hitting the charts as they once had. They broke up in 1970. Smith continued to work with Clark for time after the Dave Clark Five disbanded. Afterwards he worked as a music producer for artists such as Shriley Bassey. He also wrote jingles for such companies as British Airways and Volvo. He eventually formed the band Mike Smith's Rock Engine and toured the United States in 2003.

Mike Smith was arguably one of the best lead singers of any British Invasion band. He had an very good vocal range, and could shout better than almost anyone. His voice was certainly fitting for a band driven by both guitars and a remarkably powerful drumbeat, Even singers of some considerable talent could not have matched Mike Smith when he was the Dave Clark Five.

Buddy Miles, the drummer for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, died Tuesday at the age of 60 from congestive heart disease.

Miles was born George Allen Miles, Jr. on September 5, 1947 in Omaha, Nebraska. He took to music young, so much so that one of his aunts gave him the nickname "Buddy" after legendary drummer Buddy Rich. At the age of 12 he started playing drums in his father's band, The Be-Bops. While still a teenager Miles played with such big names in the rhythm and blues world as Ruby and the Romantics, The Ink Spots, and Wilson Pickett. Moving to Chicago in 1967, he formed the band Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield (once guitarist for the Butterfield Band). Electric Flag would reach their peak with the album A Long Time Comin' in 1968. Unfortunately, conflicts between Miles and Cooper would pull the band apart before it could have any further success.

Buddy Miles would then form another band, The Buddy Miles Express. He had met Jimi Hendrix when the two of them were still sidemen playing for various rhythm and blues groups. After Hendrix had disbanded the Jimi Hendrix Experience and formed the Band of Gypsys, he naturally invited Miles to join. Following his work with Hendrix, Miles recorded with his own band under the name "Buddy Miles." He would also work with Carlos Santana, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, and George Clinton.

Miles would serve time in prison on grand theft in the late Seventies and again for auto theft in the early Eighties. Following his time in prison he became the lead vocalist of the Claymation advertising characters, the California Raisins.

Buddy Miles was a remarkable drummer. While his style arguably lacked finesse, Miles made up for it with the sheer power of his drumming. With Miles at the drum kit, drums were not simply a back up instrument--they were the driving force of a song's rhythm. Miles was also a gifted singer, with an expressive, tenor voice. Although he saw only a little success in his musical career, he was certainly a great talent.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

David Watkin Passes On

Cinematographer David Watkin, who worked on films ranging from Help! to Catch 22 to Moonstruck, passed on February 19 at the age of 82. The cause was cancer.

David Watkin was born in Margate, Kent on March 23, 1925. Watkin served in the British Army during World War II. Following the war he worked as a camera assistant for the Southern Railway Film Unit. The unit became part of British Transport Films (BTF) in 1950, following which Watkin began his rise from a cameraman to Director of Photography at BTF. Watkin received his first credit as Cinematographer on the film The Long Night Haul in 1956. In 1960 he began working in commercials, It was on the set of one of Watkin's projects that he met director Richard Lester, who had just finished directing A Hard Day's Night. Lester hired him to direct his next film, The Knack ...and How to Get It. He would work with Lester again on the films Help, How I Won the War, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and Robin and Marian. Over the years Watkin was cinematographer on the 1968 version of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Catch-22, The Devils, To the Devil a Daughter, Moonstruck, Memphis Belle, and the 1990 version of Hamlet. His only work on television was for the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. He won the 1986 Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Out of Africa.

Watkin was not simply a grate cinematographer, he was also an innovator. He was one of the first cinematographers to use a bounce light, lamps which are directed at walls and ceilings to create soft lighting. He also utilised the "Wendy" light (Wendy being his nickname), which featured 200 bulbs mounted on a crane at heights up to 150 feet. Essentially, the "Wendy" light simulates the appearance and shadows of natural lighting.

David Watkin won an Oscar for his work on Out of Africa and many articles have cited his work on Chariots of Fire, but I think his best work was done on other films. Indeed, I think some of his best cinematography came early in his career, in The Knack...and How to Get It and Help! In The Knack...and How to Get It he used high contrast, black and white photography and a freewheeling use of the camera to capture Swinging London perfectly. In Help! he brought the same unimpeded style to colour photography, shooting The Beatles through various filters and from often odd angles. In other films Watkin proved himself a master of light, relying on the natural lighting for his photography on Lester's Three Musketeers, Four Musketeers, and Robin and Marian. Watkin was one of the truly great cinematographers, an innovator willing to experiment who was master when it came to light sources. There are certainly few directors of photography who were ever his match.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Television Writer Richard Baer R.I.P.

Richard Baer, who wrote for such sitcoms as Bewitched and F Troop, passed last Friday at the age of 79. The cause was complications from a heart attack.

Baer was born April 22, 1928 in New York City. He attended Yale where he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and the University of Southern California where he earned a master's degree in cinema. Baer's maternal uncle, David Sarnoff (founder of the NBC and the head of RCA for much of its history) got Baer into the television business. Reportedly, he order an NBC vice president at the early hour of six in the morning to find Baer "...a job by 9 o'clock."

Baer broke into television writing episodes for the 1953 sitcom The Life of Riley (the version starring William Bendix). Later in the Fifties he would write episodes for shows such as Life Begins at 17, Leave to Beaver, and Have Gun Will Travel. The Sixties were arguably Baer's heyday as a TV writer. For the dramedy Hennesy, about a Navy doctor, he wrote 34 episodes alone. He also wrote episodes for such series as Bewitched, The Munsters, Petticoat Junction, F Troop, and That Girl. The seventies saw Baer write for shows such as M*A*S*H, Archie Bunker's Place, Turnabout, and Adam's Rib. He also wrote the TV movies Playmates, and Poor Devil. His last work for television was on the sitcom Who's the Boss.

Following his career in television, Baer wrote the play Mixed Emotions. Debuting in Los Angeles, it eventually played on Broadway.

Richard Baer was arguably one of the more talented writers to work on classic sitcoms. Among the episodes he wrote were "Driving is the Only Way to Fly" for Bewitched, in which Samantha tried to learn how to drive, and "Wilton the Kid" for F Troop, in which a vicious killer is the spitting image of Captain Parmenter. Baer had a gift for the sort of comedy that grows out of unusual, even bizarre situations. It is a gift not many television writers seem to have today.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The 80th Annual Academy Awards

Last night was the 80th Annual Academy Awards, better known to one and all as the Oscars. I must say that for once I was pleased with the Oscars. Many of the films and actors I wanted to win did so. There were a few surprises. There was Amy Adams. And this year's ceremony was short as Oscar ceremonies go.

Of course, the big treat for me (well, besides seeing Nicole Kidman and Amy Adams) was watching No Country For Old Men take Best Supporting Actor (for Javier Bardem) Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (for the fabulous Coen Brothers), and Best Picture. For those of you who read my review of the film, this should come as no surprise. It was easily my favourite film from last year.

In fact, for the most part I have to say I was happy with all the winners this year. This might well be the first Oscars I can say that about! I was very happy to see The Golden Compass win for Best Visual Effects. The movie does have some very dazzling effects, much more so than even Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. I was also happy to see La Vie en Rose win in Best Makeup--it must have taken some work to transform Marion Cotillard (who was another high point of the ceremony...) into Edith Piaf. Of course, much of the reason I was so happy that La Vie en Rose won makeup was the alternative...Did any of us want to see Norbit win an Oscar? I was also very happy that "Falling Slowly" from Once won Best Song. I only recently heard the song for the first time (thanks to Beth and YouTube), but it is utterly lovely.

Of course, that brings me to what may have been the best part of the ceremony (even better than Nicole Kidman and Amy Adams). After Glen Hasard of The Frames gave his acceptance speech for winning Best Song, his co-writer Marketa Irglova stepped up to the microphone to say her piece and was drowned out by conductor Bill Conti and the orchestra. I was at Row Three's live Oscar discussion and the reaction was unanimous--we all thought they should have let her speak. Thankfully, after the commercial break, Jon Stewart escorted the shy Miss Irglova out and she gave what was one of the most touching speeches I've ever heard in an Oscar ceremonies. Indeed, I have to say I admire her very, very much. After being drowned out by the orchestra, I would have been very tempted to have been catty about myself!

Another high point in the ceremony was the Lifetime Achievement Award given to production designer Robert F. Burke. I think they really did this one right. Not only was his award presented by the beautiful Nicole Kidman (she can present awards to me any day....), but they treated the audience to a montage of some of his best work. I must confess, I never realised how great Boyle was until I saw those clips from North by Northwest, The Birds, Fiddler on the Roof, and many other films, all together. And he gave the best acceptance speech of the night. I only hope I am that eloquent when I am 98!

Of course, another high point for me was Amy Adams. I enjoyed her performance of "A Happy Working Song" from Enchanted. And I enjoyed seeing her present the award for Best Score. Actually, I enjoyed seeing Amy Adams, period. I have a feeling she is this year's "It" Girl (the guys over at Row Three apparently agree...).

There were some surprises at last night's Oscars, too. I was certain that the Best Supporting Actress award would go to either Ruby Dee for American Gangster or Cate Blanchett for I'm Not There. I was rather surprised when it went to Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton. While I thought she was great in the role, I didn't think she had a chance. I was also surprised at the Best Actress category. I thought for certain that either Julie Christie for Away from Her or Ellen Page for Juno would win. I was rather surprised when Marion Cotillard won for her role in La Vie en Rose. Again, I didn't think she had a chance.

Over all I am very happy with this year's Oscars. True, many of Jon Stewart's jokes fell flat. True, I could have done without that song from August Rush. But in the end it I must confess that most everyone I wanted to win did so. Not to mention I got to look at Amy Adams....

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Variety of Programming on American Broadcast Television

If there is one complaint I have had about the American broadcast networks is that for much of the history of American television there has not been a whole lot of variety in the types of TV shows we see. In fact, with but few exceptions, it seems to me that from the Seventies to the Nineties most network television shows fell into only a few genres: sitcoms, police dramas, medical dramas, and mysteries. It has only been relatively recently that we have seen anything approaching diversity in the sort of shows we see on the American networks.

It wasn't always this way. I was born in the Sixties. And while my memories of television in that decade is a bit vague as I was so young, I remember enough to know that there were more different types of shows aired in that decade than there would be in following decades. My knowledge of television history confirms this. Consider the year 1966 alone. There were science fiction shows (the classic Star Trek and the not so classic Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, and Time Tunnel). There were Westerns (Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Virginian, among others). There were adventure shows (Tarzan, The Green Hornet, and others). And the networks still aired variety shows, from the legendary Ed Sullivan Show to the classic Red Skelton Hour. The '66-'67 was the height of the spy boom, and there was no shortage of spy dramas, from British import The Avengers to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Of course, there were sitcoms, but they were a much more varied lot in the Sixties than they were in any other decade. There were rural comedies like The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. There were imaginative sitcoms (comedies with a more fantastic bent) such as Gilligan's Island, The Monkees, and Bewitched. Spoofs and parodies were very much in fashion, as evidenced by Batman, Get Smart, and F Troop. There were family comedies like Please Don't Eat the Daisies and Family Affair. There were even shows that defied classification, such as The Wild Wild West (Is it a spy show? A Western? A sci-fi show?). In the 1966-1967 the broadcast networks (of which there were only three at the time) aired a greater variety of different sorts of shows in prime time. Indeed, I haven't even listed all the genres of shows aired at the time!

Sadly, as the Sixties became the Seventies, American broadcast television would see a decrease in the variety of genres of shows they aired. The spy boom would end, taking with it the many spy dramas of the decade. Variety shows would persist into the Seventies, although most of the variety shows which debuted that decade were short lived. Sitcoms would still vary a bit, ranging from socially relevant shows like All in the Family to dramedies like M*A*S*H to screwball comedies like Three's Company. And there was a cycle towards mysteries during the decade, ranging from Columbo to Cannon. There were also a few family dramas, such as The Waltons. Sadly, in the end it would seem that the Seventies would largely be dominated by medical dramas and police dramas.

The Eighties would fare no better, with even less variety in the sort of shows aired on the networks. The variety show had finally gave up the ghost after dying a slow death in the Seventies. While a few sitcoms off the beaten track, such as Cheers and Night Court, aired during the decade, for the most part the Eighties were dominated by a return of the family comedy, of which The Cosby Show is a prime example. There were a few nighttime soaps (Dallas and Dynasty), but most hour long shows in the decade tended to be either police dramas, medical dramas, or legal dramas.

The Nineties would be even worse than the Eighties. The decade would again be dominated by police dramas, medical dramas, and legal dramas. Indeed, it is the prevalence of legal dramas in the latter part of the Nineties I have always found curious. Usually cycles on American television continue because of the success of a certain type of show. ER was a hit in the Nineties, so naturally other medical dramas followed. N.Y.P.D. Blue was a hit, so naturally there were other police dramas. But the only legal drama in the late Nineties to have any sort of success was Ally McBeal which, quite frankly, wasn't that successful. Now to be honest, there were shows well off the beaten track that did air in the Eighties, but it seems as if they were confined to the younger networks. After all, this was the decade that The X-Files premiered on Fox and Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB. Unfortunately, it seems as if the older networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC) were content to air police dramas, medical dramas, and yet more legal dramas.

The early Naughts would be no different, only this time the legal dramas and medical dramas would be replaced by police procedurals, reality shows, and talent competitions. To be honest, police procedurals and talent competitions had not been seen on network television for some time. Unfortunately, the networks went overboard with them in the same way they went overboard with Westerns in the Fifties. The 2002-2003 season would see eleven different police procedurals on the air. I won't even talk about how many reality shows aired in any given season. While many good shows aired in the early Naughts, at the same time the early part of this decade saw the networks airing much the same sorts of shows every night.

Fortunately, it seems as if the past few seasons have seen the American broadcast networks expand with regards to the various genres of shows they air. It is true, many police procedurals are still on the air. It is true, reality shows have not completely left network television (one can only hope one day they do). Ultimately, however, even the older networks are airing more different sorts of shows. Perhaps due to talent shows such as American Idol and the success of Deal or No Deal, the game show has returned to prime time. Similarly, the success of Lost and Heroes has seen the debut of shows that, if not outright science fiction or fantasy, are at least well left of centre. There's the wonderful Pushing Daisies on ABC (easily the best new show of the season), vampire drama Moonlight on CBS, spy dramedy Chuck on NBC, The Sarah Connor Chronicles on Fox, and Reaper on the CW. In some respects it was Fox and ABC that led the way in broadening the networks' view. Early in the decade Fox had debuted 24 and ABC had debuted Alias, two spy dramas. Later the two networks between them would debut such left of centre shows as Lost, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, and House (the medical drama that isn't a medical drama). The fact that all of these shows were hits probably opened the eyes of NBC and CBS, who realised they would have to change their programming if they were to compete.

Of course, there is no telling how long this current spate of variety in programming on the American broadcast networks will last. The Sixties produced a diverse number of shows in different genres, yet it gave way to the Seventies, which had considerably less variety. It could well be that once shows such as House and Pushing Daisies have run its course, we will simply see more sitcoms, police dramas, medical dramas, and, worst of all, legal dramas. The debut of Eli Stone, a rather standard legal drama that wants to be quirky but isn't, could be a very bad sign of things to come. One can only hope that it isn't and the networks will continue to air a wide variety of different sorts of show. Who knows? Perhaps the variety show will return yet....