Saturday, May 10, 2008

Winnie the Pooh

One of my fondest memories from childhood is Winnie the Pooh. Like most Americans my age I remember the Disney featurettes that were aired from time to time on television. And like many worldwide I also remember the books. It is safe to say that in a list of the influential characters in children's literature, Winnie the Pooh would rank in the top ten.

Although Winnie the Pooh's home of the Hundred Acre Wood would seem to be in England (which is, after all, where author A. A. Milne was born and lived), his origins can ultimately be found in Canada. It was during World War I that Lieutenant Harry Colebourn and other Canadian soldiers were being transported to eastern Canada, to be shipped from there to Europe. It was in White River, Ontario that Lieutenant Colebourn bought a small she-bear for $20 from a hunter. Colebourn named the bear "Winnepeg" after his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The bear was called "Winnie" for short.

Winnie accompanied Colebourn's brigade to England and she remained their mascot until they had to leave for France. It was then that Colebourn lent Winnie to the London Zoo. In December 1919, Colebourn officially gave Winnie to the zoo. At the zoo Winnie proved a popular attraction for children, among them Christopher Milne, the son of A. A. Milne. Christopher even spent time in the cage with Winnie and there is even a photograph of him feeding Winnie milk. It was not long before Colebourn took to calling his teddy bear "Winnie."

As to how Winnie became "Winnie-the-Pooh," that goes back to a swan that A. A. Milne and his son Christopher had encountered while on holiday. They referred to the swan as "Pooh the Swan." Winnie then became "the Pooh" in honour of the swan. The other characters in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories were also drawn from real life. Christopher Robin was a fictionalised version of his own son, whose middle name was "Robin." Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, and Roo were all based on other stuffed animals Christopher Milne owned. Owl and Rabbit were apparently based on real animals. Even the setting of the Hundred Acre Wood had its basis in reality. It was based upon Milne's home of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, outside of which lies an actual Five Hundred Acre Wood.

Winnie-the-Pooh (the hyphens originally being part of the name) made his first appearance in a story that London's Evening News commissioned for Christmas. Other stories would appear in other venues, such as Vanity Fair. It was on October 14, 1926 that Methuen published Winnie-the-Pooh. The book was illustrated by political cartoonist E.H. Shepard. In Milne's two poetry books published in 1927 (When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six) he included some poems mentioning Winnie-the-Pooh. A second book, The House at Pooh Corner, was published in 1928.

Winnie-the-Pooh was popular from the very beginning, but it would be the work of one man who would bring the fuzzy, little, cuddly bear to new heights of fame. It was in 1930 that American radio/television/film producer and licensing pioneer Stephen Slesinger bought the American and Canadian merchandising, recording, radio, and television rights to Winnie-the-Pooh (Slesinger may best be known as the creator of Red Ryder). It was Slesinger who would largely shape the modern image of Winnie-the-Pooh, giving him his familiar red shirt. For years the character of Winnie-the-Pooh appeared on radio, children's recordings, advertisements, and even the theatre (Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters from the Hundred Acre Wood appeared on Broadway in the Thirties as part of Sue Hastings' Marionettes). When Slesinger died, his wife, Shirley Slesinger, took over her husband's business. It would be Shirley Slesinger Lasswell who would make a move that would bring Winnie-the-Pooh even greater fame. Not only did she design much of the merchandise, everything from toys to clothing, she actually went door to door to the top department stores selling Winnie the Pooh merchandise.

Walt Disney had read the Winnie the Pooh stories to his children and it occurred to him that they would be ideal to be adapted to animation. It was then in 1961 that Stepehn Slesinger, Inc. licensed the rights to the character to Disney in exchange for royalties. That same year A. A. Milne's widow, Daphne Milne, licensed the motion picture rights to Disney. It was in 1966 that Dinsey released its first featurette based on Milne's work, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. It was followed by other featurettes: Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, (1974), and Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore (1983). Disney would combine the first three featurettes into the feature film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh released in 1977. Since then they have released several more Winnie the Pooh features. There have also been four different TV series, holiday specials, and even video games. Here I should point out that it was Disney who dropped the hyphens from Winnie's name.

Sadly, Disney and Stephen Slesinger Inc. would find themselves at odds over royalties on the Pooh Bear, with Stephen Slesinger Inc. alleging that Dinsey shortchanged them oon rotyalities in violation of their 1983 agreement. The lawsuit would drag on for literally years. It was in 2007 that Disney lost a bid in court to void the rights to the Winnie the Pooh and Milne's other characters held by Stephen Slesinger Inc. As a result the court could then ignore the question of who owns Winnie the Pooh and concentrate on the question of whether Stephen Slesinger Inc. was shortchanged when it came to royalties.

Winnie the Pooh has been around for nearly eighty three years now. While many today are probably most familiar with Winnie the Pooh from the Disney cartoons, A. A, Milne's books are still very popular. Winnie the Pooh was even translated into Latin by Alexander Lenard in 1960. Winnie Ille Pu remains the only book in Latin to ever hit The New York Times bestsellers list. It is estimated that Winnie the Pooh merchandise outsells Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Pluto merchandise combined. What started with a real bear purchased in Canada would has then become one of the most lasting and successful characters in the history of pop culture.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Fifty Years of Vertigo

It was fifty years ago on this date that Alfred Hitchcock's movie Vertigo premiered in San Francisco, the city in which it was set. The movie received decidedly mixed reviews at the time, and it only did middling at the box office. As the years have passed, however, it has come to be regarded as as a classic and one of Hitchcock's best films.

The film was based on the novel Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts (translated into English as Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was in 1955 that Paramount Pictures bought the rights to novel and that same year that Hitchcock would begin what would be the long process of adapting it to the screen. From the beginning Hitchcock had decided to move the plot from Paris, as in the novel, to San Francisco, a city he thought had good visual possibilities. At first he hired playwright Maxwell Anderson, perhaps best known for the plays What Price Glory and Mary of Scotland, to adapt the novel. Hitchcock found Anderson's adaptation, entitled Darkling I Listen, totally unsuitable. He then turned to Angus MacPhail, who wrote the screenplays for Spellbound and The Wrong Man (and with whom is also credited coining the term "MacGuffin," a plot device which advances a story), to write the screenplay. Unfortunately, MacPhail's alcoholism got in the way of him accomplishing much work on a script.

Hitchcock then went to Alec Coppel, who had written films from The Black Knight to Obsession. While Coppel receives a screenplay credit for the film, nothing of Coppel's work remains in the film. After working together for months on the screenplay, Hitchcock found Coppel's resulting script unacceptable. Hitchcock tried to bring Maxwell Anderson back to revise Coppel's script, with no real results. It was then that Hitchcock brought in Samuel A. Taylor, who had previously adapted Sabrina for the big screen and who also had an intricate knowledge of San Francisco. Taylor wrote an entirely new screenplay, that drew nothing from Coppel's script and very little from the original novel. It was only because of Writer's Guild arbitration that Coppel received any credit at all.

Casting the film proved difficult as well. Initially, Hitchcock wanted to cast Vera Miles as the lead actress. Miles was pregnant at the time, however, and Hitchcock did not want to put off production of the movie. He then cast Kim Novack in the part. Novack had to complete some film commitments to Columbia Pictures, so that the time she became available Miles had already given birth. Regardless, Novack remained cast as the movie's female lead.

Bernard Herrmann had written the score for Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. He would later write the famous score for Psycho. In the case of Vertigo, Herrmann wrote the score in only a little over a month. It would be the only score which Herrmann composed but did conduct the orchestra for. A musicians' strike in the United States meant that the score would be recorded in London until the English Musicians' Union decided to support their American counterparts in the strike. Recording the score was then moved to Vienna.

Upon its release on May 9, 1958, Vertigo received mixed reviews from critics. Reviews in both The New York Times and The New Yorker labelled the film as "far-fetched." At the box office Vertigo hardly flopped, but it did not exactly do well either. Hitchcock resented the cool reception Vertigo had received from both critics and audiences. Ultimately, he blamed actor James Stewart for the film's failure because of "looking old." While Stewart had been one of Hitchcock's favourite actors (they had worked together on Rope, Rear Window and the Fifties version of The Man Who Knew Too Much), the two never worked together again.

Vertigo was one of the films whose rights Hitchcock bought back. Along with the movies The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry, it was removed from circulation in 1973. Vertigo was at last re-released to theatres in October 1983 and then on home video in October 1984. Upon its re-release Vertigo was re-evaluated by critics and came to be regarded as one of his best films. It also did remarkably well at the box office for a film that was then nearly thirty years old.

It was in the early 90s that Universal Studios started restoring Vertigo. Heading up the project were James C. Katz, head of Universal Classics, and film historian Robert A. Harris. The entire process took nearly three years. Among other things, they restored Vertigo to its original VistaVision. Shot in VistaVision, the film had been "reduction-printed" to widescreen 35mm for showings at cinemas. The restored Vertigo was shown in special presentations in eight major cities before being released on VHS and DVD.

Vertigo is now regarded as a masterpiece and one of Hitchcock's best films. In 1989 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It ranked at #61 on the American Film Institute's 1998 "100 Greatest Movies" list. Ten years later, in 2008, it came in at #9. It now consistently ranks in lists of the greatest films of all time.

Hitchcock was disappointed in the reception Vertigo had received from audiences and critics in 1958. Over the course of fifty years it has gone from being regarded as one of his lesser to works to one of his very best. It is definitely one of those films that have stood the test of time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hazel Creator Ted Key Passes On

Ted Key, best known as the creator of the comic strip Hazel, passed on May 4 at the age of 95.

Ted Key was born Theodore Keyser born in Fresno, California on August 25, 1912. His father, a Latvian immigrant, had born Simon Katseff, but changed his name to Keyser and then changed it to Key during World War II. Ted Key attended the University of Berkley, California. Following graduation, his illustrations were published in a variety of publications. In 1937 he was an associate editor of Judge. From 1943 to 1946 Key served in the army.

His most famous creation, Hazel, made its debut in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. The strip followed the misadventures of a wry, independent maid. The strip ran in the magazine until it ended publication in 1969. Hazel was then picked up by King Features Syndicate and syndicated to newspapers around the nation. Reprints of Key's old comic strips are still being published. A TV series based on the comic strip, starring Shirley Booth as Hazel, ran from 1961 to 1964,

In 1961 Key's comic strip Diz and Liz debuted in Jack and Jill magazine. It ran until 1972. Key also created the "Peabody's Improbable History" segment for Jay Ward's classic cartoon Rocky and His Friends (later known as The Bullwinkle Show). In addition to the talking, time travelling dog Peabody, Key also created a variety of other animal characters, among them a duck that laid golden eggs (the basis for the Disney movie The Million Dollar Duck); a football kicking mule (the basis for the Disney movie Gus), a cat from outer space (from the movie The Cat From Outer Space), and Phyllis, a sparrow who built her nest in the Philadelphia Phillies ball park. Ted Key also wrote for radio during its Golden Age. One of his radio plays, "The Clinic," was chosen for Max Wylie's Best Broadcasts of 1939-40 anthology. He also wrote a number of children's books, including the aforementioned Phyllis and So'm I ( about a bow legged, knock kneed colt).

While I do not ever remember reading the comic strip Hazel, like most Americans my age I was exposed to the work of Ted Key. Growing up I enjoyed The Peabody's Improbable History segment of The Bullwinkle Show. I also watched the movies The Cat From Outer Space, The Million Dollar Duck, and Gus. And while I never read Hazel (no newspapers around here carried it), it seems to me that it was fairly successful for a comic strip, even producing a TV series. Indeed, the old Hazel comic strips are still in print. When it comes to cartoonists in the 20th century, Ted Key was one of those who made the most impact.

Monday, May 5, 2008

What Happened to Headbanger's Ball

One of my fondest memories of Saturday nights in the Eighties was watching Headbangers Ball on MTV. Headbangers Ball was the block of heavy metal videos that MTV aired every Saturday night. It debuted in 1987 and at its peak lasted three hours long. While MTV had a tendency to show far too many hair metal bands (pop metal acts such as Helix and Poison) on Headbangers Ball, one could also see some truly good stuff, such as the latest from Metallica or Queensryche. Sadly, with the decline in the popularity of metal also came a decline in the ratings for Headbangers Ball. It was cancelled in 1995.

Fortunately, it was in 2003 that Headbangers Ball returned on MTV2. Not having MTV2, I did not have the opportunity to see it again until this weekend, when I was visiting a friend. Sadly, I somewhat regret having watched an hour of it, as it was not the Headbangers Ball I knew. It started out well enough, with the latest video from Avenged Sevenfold. Unfortunately, I was then made to suffer through a straight hour of death metal and black metal. Among others, they played videos by Behemoth, Arch Enemy, Obituary, Opeth, and Job for a Cowboy. And while the bands may have had different names, they all sounded essentially the same, with those incomprehensible "Cookie monster" vocals (also known as the "death growl"). The very worst was perhaps the video "At The Left Hand Ov God" by Polish death metal band Behemoth. It looked for all the world like the trailer for a live action version of the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse. Acccording to their website, apparently after I switched Headbangers Ball off they did play videos by Unearth, Gwen Stacy, and Mars Volta, but that was after what was over a solid hour of death metal.

Now while I will admit that I do not keep as good a track of the latest heavy metal bands as I once did, I am not entirely out of the loop. And among the things I know is that death metal is hardly the most popular subgenre of heavy metal in America. In fact, it remains largely unknown to the general public and has an extremely small following among metalheads. I know several long time metal fans besides myself who actively hate the subgenre. I am then mystified as to why Headbangers Ball played over an hour's worth of death metal. Okay, they would play over an hour's worth of the hair bands back in the Eighties, but at least they were popular (there is sometimes no accounting for tastes...). Death metal is not popular at all.

I am truly hoping that this past Saturday's installment of Headbangers Ball was an anomaly and that they don't play over an hour's worth of death metal every week. If not, I certainly won't be tuning in again. And given how many agree with me on the subject of death metal, I rather suspect that their ratings will soon be in the toilet.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

There was a time when the average movie buff had little reason to have high expectations for superhero movies. The truly good ones, such as the first two Superman movies and the first two Batman movies (discounting the 1966 one with Adam West), were few and far between. Fortunately, times have changed and the past several years has seen the first two Spider-Man movies and Batman Begins. To this list one can now add Iron Man.

In fact, short of Batman Begins, Iron Man might be the best superhero movie ever made. Of course, it must be admitted that director Jon Favreau and screenwriter John August had a lot to work with. As comic book characters go, Tony Stark is a rather complex character. He is a multi-billionaire manufacturer of munitions. He is egotistical. He is a playboy. And he is an alcoholic. In many respects, Stark is the most complicated character to originate in mainstream comic books, short of Bruce Wayne (The Batman) himself.

It is the fact that director Favreau and screenwriter August use the demons which haunted Stark in the pages of Iron Man as the centrepiece of the movie. What is more, Favreau and August expanded upon those demons, exploring the guilt that would haunt a munitions manufacturer with the opportunity to see firsthand what his products have accomplished, as well as the motivations for a billionaire playboy to become an armour suited superhero. What emerges in the end is a character who is more complex than Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies and every bit as complex as fellow billionaire Bruce Wayne.

Of course, all of this would have failed had the role of Tony Stark not been perfectly cast. My best friend had earlier commented that casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, an egotistical, alcoholic playboy was typecasting. It was also, however, a brilliant piece of casting, as Downey breathes life into Stark as perhaps no other actor could. Downey's Stark is arrogant, flippant, and ultimately tormented, as he goes from being the carefree head of a successful weapons company to the Golden Avenger. What is more, Downey is not the only bright spot in the cast. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfect as Pepper Potts, Stark's administrative assistant who is intelligent, grounded, and devoted to her boss. Similarly, Terrence Howard is also well cast as Colonel Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes, Stark's much put upon liaison to the military. Jeff Bridges also turns in a good performance as Obadiah Stane, Stark's second in command at Stark Industries.

It is through what because of what could the best cast of any superhero movie that the screenplay of Iron Man is so well translated to the screen. This is an intelligent action movie, running the full gamut from some very serious dramatic scenes to some rather humorous ones. Fans who grew up with the comic books will appreciate many of the in jokes, as well as what may be Stan Lee's best cameo in a Marvel film.

Of course, any superhero movie must have its share of action, and there is no shortage of it in Iron Man. The climax alone (which I will not spoil for you here) is one of the best of any superhero movie. This is helped a great deal by the movie's rather incredible special effects. It is often hard to believe that Iron Man's suit is largely a CGI creation, as it looks entirely real.

This weekend Iron Man brought in $100.7 million. As great as the movie is, I rather suspect that repeat viewing and good word of mouth will bring in quite a bit more at the box office. And while there are many summer blockbusters that don't deserve to make hundreds of millions of dollars, I can honestly say that Iron Man is worth every dollar it earns.