Saturday, June 14, 2008

David Mitton, Creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, Passes On

David Mitton, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, died May 16, at the age of 69.

David Mitton was born February 27, 1939 near Edinburgh. After attending Strathallan School in Perth he joined the Royal Air Force. In the early Sixties he joined Gerry Anderson's AP Films where he worked on special effects for Anderson's supermarionation series. He worked on the smash hit Thunderbirds, as well as Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions, and Joe 90. The cause was a heart attack.

It was in the Eighties that Mitton joined forces with Ken Turner, one of the directors Anderson's supermarionation shows, to form Clearwater Films. Clearwater Films made a name for itself making stop-motion adverts. It was these commercials that brought Clearwater Films to the attention of writer and producer Britt Allcroft, who had acquired the rights to Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine Stories. She approached Mitton about developing a TV series based on the stories. Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends debuted in 1984 and became an immediate hit. It would eventually make its way to the United States,initially as Shining Time Station, where it repeated its success. In 1989 the success of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends led to a similar series produced by David Mitton, Tugs, about competing tug boat fleets.

I must confess that I have spent time watching many of Gerry Anderson's supermarionation shows. And while I was well into my adult years by the time Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends made its way to the United States, I must admit that it is one of the few recent children's shows that is actually viewable by adults and being enjoyed. With Britt Allcroft, David Mitton made quite an achievement. He created a children's show that teaches life lessons and values without being overly preachy, while still being enjoyable for any adults who happen to watc it was well.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert R.I.P.

Tim Russert, long time moderator of Meet the Press and a regular on NBC's election coverage, died today at the age of 58. He had collapsed in the Washington bureau of NBC. The cause was a sudden heart attack.

Tim Russert was born May 7, 1950 in Buffalo, New York. He attended Canisius High School in Buffalo. He received a Bachelor of Arts from John Carroll University. He received his juris doctor from Cleveland State University Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. From 1977 to 1982 he was special counsel to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. From 1983 to 1984 he was a counsellor to Governor Mario Cuomo of New York.

It was in 1984 that Lawrence K. Grossman, at that time president of NBC News, convinced Russert to join NBC News. His first job for NBC was as an executive working on special news projects. Among other things, he arranged for Pope John Paul II's first interview on American television. He was promoted to NBC's Washington Bureau Chief in 1988. He would eventually be made a senior vice president of NBC News. It was in 1991 that Russert became moderator of Meet the Press. He held the post until his death, serving a total of 17 years. He was moderator of Meet the Press longer than anyone else.

There are so many reasons that Tim Russert was a giant of television. More than anyone else, he could make politics simple for the average person to understand. A perfect example of this was the plain, simple memo board he used on the election night of 2000 to explain the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Russert also carefully prepared for each episode of Meet the Press. It was always clear that he did in depth research for each and every show. And Russert did not shy away from tough questions. Politicians who went onto Meet the Press could expect some sharp questioning from him. What is more, while other political commentators and hosts often wear their political affiliation like a badge, Tim Russert was always tough on both Democrats and Republicans. In the past he had directed hard questions to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney. One could never really accuse him of taking sides. I think it is very safe to say that Sunday mornings just won't be the same without him.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Kung Fu Craze of the Seventies Part Three

Magazines, Television, and Other Media

Today what people seem to remember the most about the kung fu craze that seized the United States from 1973 to 1974 are the various Hong Kong kung fu movies released during that time (well, that and the song "Kung Fu Fighting..."). This is slightly inaccurate, as the kung fu craze was a fad that actually affected several media. I have already discussed the kung fu craze in comic books of the period, now I wish to discuss the kung fu craze in magazines.

With the arrival of the kung fu craze in 1973, there also rose a number of magazines devoted to kung fu. Some of these were serious magazines dedicated to the study of the martial arts. Others were essentially fan magazines dedicated to kung fu movies and TV shows. Some could be described as being somewhere in between. Regardless, there were an inordinately large number of kung fu magazines on newsstands in 1973 and 1974. And while a few were relatively short lived, a few remain with us today.

Of course, magazines dedicated to the martial arts are nothing new. The karate magazine Black Belt was first published in 1961. Karate Illustrated has been published since 1969. In fact, it was the publisher of these two older martial arts magazines who would publish one of the new magazines in 1974. Mito Uyehara first published Black Belt in 1961. He would later launch Karate Illustrated in 1969. First published in early 1974 was a new magazine from the Uyehara publishing empire--Fighting Stars. Fighting Stars differed from both Black Belt and Illustrated Karate in that it focused upon celebrities and their involvement with the martial arts. And often these were not celebrities one would expect. Not only were Bruce Lee and later Sonny Chiba often the subject of articles, but so too were Dean Stockwell, William Shatner, Elvis Presley, and many others.

Another new magazine which arrived during the period was Inside Kung Fu, which is still published to this day. It was first published in December 1973. As it remains today, Inside Kung Fu was a magazine dedicated to the serious study of the martial arts. Even the British were not left entirely untouched by the kung fu craze and there would be martial arts magazines that arose in the United Kingdom at the time. Kung Fu Monthly would be the first major success for Dennis Publishing Ltd, Currently they publish Maxim, The Fortean Times, Blender, and several other titles.

Of course, many kung fu magazines during the period were strictly fly by night affairs, lasting only one or two issues at most. An example of this is one published by Marvel Comic's "Curtis Magazines" imprint. Lasting exactly one issue, The Deadliest Heroes of Kung Fu featured instructional articles by Frank McLaughlin, an article on the film Enter the Dragon, an article comparing Bruce Lee and David Carradine, and various other articles. Unlike Marvel's other black and white titles, it featured no comic book stories.

Such was the power of the kung fu craze that it even received coverage in mainstream periodicals. The April 1974 issue of Oui featured an article entitled, "How the Master of Oriental Martial Arts Brought Hollywood to Hong Kong." The June 11, 1973 issue of Time featured a profile on Run Run Shaw of the Shaw Brothers Studio. The New York Times published an article on the Hong Kong kung fu films in their June 16, 1973 issue.

While the world of magazines embraced the kung fu craze, television ignored the phenomenon for the most part. This is strange, given the fact that it was on television that the show which sparked the fad, Kung Fu, debuted. And while Kung Fu was a popular show, the networks did very little to actually capitalise on the kung fu craze. Beyond Kung Fu itself, only one prime time show of the period ever featured martial arts to any extent. That was the TV show Get Christie Love, which debuted as a made for TV movie on January 22, 1974 and became a regular series on September 11 of that year. Get Christie Love was as close as television would ever get to blaxploitation. Teresa Graves played Christie Love, a tough undercover cop who was more inclined to use martial arts than her gun. Get Christie Love only lasted one season. Its failure may have been due to the fact that blaxploitation was on its way out by the end of 1974, not to mention the fact that network standards at the time forced Get Christie Love to be much tamer than most blaxploitation movies at the time.

Prime time television's only other flirtation with kung fu would be a failed television pilot that aired as a TV movie on March 20, 1974. Men of the Dragon featured a group of kung fu experts fighting to save one of their number from a white slavery ring in Hong Kong. The movie was produced by Barney Rosenzweig. who had produced episodes of Daniel Boone and later produced Cagney and Lacey.

While the networks never capitalised on the kung fu craze in prime time, they did have one considerable success on Saturday morning. Indeed, short of Kung Fu itself, Hong Kong Phooey may well be the most famous American TV show touching upon the martial arts. It premiered on September 7,1974. Hong Kong Phooey was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon featuring the irrepressible Scatman Crothers as Penrod Pooch, the mild mannered janitor at the police station. When danger called, Penrod Pooch would become Hong Kong Phooey, a superhero who depended upon his skill in kung fu to fight evil. Hong Kong Phooey would battle such villains as The Claw, Dr. Nowhere, Grandma Goody, Professor Presto, and Dr. Disguiso. Sixteen episodes of the series were made and it ran a total of two seasons. It would return again for a season of reruns in 1980.

Of course, kung fu naturally appealed to young boys, so many toys sought to capitalise on the craze. Many of these were cheaply, quickly produced products. I can remember the Christmas of 1973 among the toys I received was an action figure of a kung fu fighter whose right arm would perform a "karate chop" when his back was pressed (I have no idea who manufactured it). Not every kung fu toy manufactured in 1973 and 1974 were cheap knock offs simply meant to capitalise on the craze, as some fairly well known companies would jump on the bandwagon as well.

Indeed, no less than Hasbro decided to capitalise on the kung fu fad with their "Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe," issued in 1974. The Kung Fu Grip G. I. Joe had hands made of a softer, more pliant plastic that allowed him to grip objects better or, for that matter, imitate kung fu moves. In 1974, Matchbox/Lesney Products was then manufacturing their Fighting Furies pirate action figures. Among the playsets they included was one called "Kung Fu Warrior (I guess they figured the pirates might visit Far Cathay at some point...)."

Mattel also sought to capitalise on the kung fu craze. In 1974 their major action figure was "Big Jim," an action figure initially devoted to sports. The original Big Jim could be dressed as a football player, a baseball player, a basketball player, and so on. As a sports oriented action figure, among the earliest outfits made for Big Jim was a karate ghi. It should come as no surprise then that in 1974 Mattel issued a Kung Fu Studio for Big Jim, Of course, as time passed Big Jim would focus less on sports and more upon adventure. Later in 1974, then, Dr. Steel was introduced as an opponent for Big Jim. Dr. Steel was an Asian action figure with a dragon tattoo on his chest and a silver right hand. He was obviously meant to be a martial artist of some sort. Later, when Big Jim became a superhero with his own superteam, "Big Jim's P.A.C.K. (Professional Agents Crime Killers")," Dr. Steel would become a member.

The kung fu craze was truly a multi-media phenomenon, affecting movies, comic books, television, magazines, and, ultimately, even music. Singer Carl Douglas had recorded the song "I Want to Give You My Everything," meaning to use it as his next single. In need of a B-side for the single, he wrote the song "Kung Fu Fighting." "Kung Fu Fighting" was recorded in only ten minutes, with the thought that it was only going to be the B-side. His label would have other ideas, however, as they made "Kung Fu Fighting" the A-Side of the single and "I Want to Give You My Everything" the B-Side. Released in late 1974, "Kung Fu Fighting" made it all the way up the Billboard Hot 100 to the #1 spot on December 7, 1974. It remained in the top spot for two whole weeks. Carl Douglas attempted to follow up his success with another martial arts themed song, "Do the Kung Fu," to no avail. It peaked at #48 on March 1975. "Kung Fu Fighting" would be a one-hit wonder. As it was, when it was released, the kung fu craze was in decline.

The End of the Kung Fu Craze

The kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974 did not end all at once, as some fads do. Instead it gradually faded away, as the topic of kung fu ceased to be the centre of attention of one medium after another. The first to be affected may well have been the medium in which the craze had been its strongest, motion pictures. For the majority of 1973 Hong Kong kung fu movies could be found in the top fifty of Variety's box office charts. By February 1974, no Hong Kong kung fu movies remained in the top fifty. This would hold true for the entire year of 1974, with one notable exception. The Bruce Lee movie Way of the Dragon was released in the United States as Return of the Dragon on August 7, 1974. It became another smash hit. Throughout 1974 a few American and British movies, primarily blaxploitation films, continued to capitalise on the kung fu craze. In the end, however, by late 1974 and early 1975, the kung fu craze could be said to be over with regards to motion pictures.

The comic book industry was slower to let go of the kung fu craze than other media. Their earliest kung fu oriented characters emerged around December 1973, although new martial arts oriented characters would continue to debut until well into 1975. While the comic book industry embraced the kung fu fad wholeheartedly, the television industry very nearly ignored it. And what few signs on television that there had ever been a kung fu craze would be gone by 1976. Kung Fu, the TV show that had started it all, and Get Christie Love would both leave the air in 1975. Hong Kong Phooey would remain for another year, ending its initial network run in 1976.

While the exact causes of the kung fu craze, like any fad, cannot wholly be known and are probably very complex at any rate, the reason for its end is easy to guess. Quite simply, in the years 1973 and 1974 Asian martial arts suffered from a serious case of overexposure. From March to December 1973 around 15 different Hong Kong kung fu movies hit the top fifty of Variety's box office chart. And then one must consider that beyond the imports from Hong Kong, martial arts often figured in blaxploitation movies made at that time and a few other action movies as well. On the newsstands there were magazines and comic books dedicated to kung fu. And the entire time Kung Fu could be seen each week on ABC. The simple fact is that in all likelihood the average American simply became burned out on the entire topic of kung fu.

Of course, the end of the kung fu craze did not mean the end of martial arts in movies. Considered somewhat passé by 1974, martial arts would make a slow comeback in the late Seventies. In 1978 Chuck Norris starred in his first film, Good Guys Wear Black. It grossed $18,328,000, a very respectable amount for that time. The Circle of Iron, based on a concept by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant, was released in January 1979 and did respectively well at the box office. By the early Eighties martial arts films had made enough of a comeback for a new craze to emerge. Starting in 1981 with the cheap, B-movie Enter the Ninja, many in the United States would be gripped by an absolute furore for ninjas. Still later, earlier in this decade, the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would start a short cycle in which wuxia films were being imported to the United States.

Ultimately, however, the greatest impact of the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974 has not been in the various martial arts fads and cycles which have followed it, but in the way in which it would change the American entertainment media forever. Prior to World War II Asian martial arts appeared so little in American and British films that instances of such can almost be counted on one hand. Following World War II, during the Fifties and Sixties, Asian martial arts were featured more frequently in films, although they were almost always portrayed as exotic and deadly arts known only to a few experts. Following the kung fu craze of the Seventies, it would not be unusual to see martial arts appearing in mainstream, American and British films, from The Karate Kid to The Matrix. New martial arts stars would emerge in the United States, such as karate champion Chuck Norris, aikido expert Steven Seagal, and karate champion Jean-Claude Van Damme. Asian martial arts stars, such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li, would repeat their success in the United States.

While television felt little of the impact of the kung fu craze when it was unfolding in 1973 and 1974, it would ultimately feel that impact nonetheless. Just as Asian martial arts found their way into mainstream action movies, so too did they find their ways into mainstream TV shows. The Master was a short lived, 1984 series starring Lee Van Cleef that attempted to capitalise on the ninja craze of the time. Walker, Texas Ranger brought Chuck Norris's karate expertise to the small screen. Martial arts movies began to fill late night and weekend television schedules in the way that cheap horror movies and exploitation movies once did. Buffy the Vampire Slayer often utilised Asian martial arts in its fight scenes. At one time The USA Network aired Kung Fu Theatre every Sunday afternoon. Even Saturday morning shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers,Xiaolin Showdown, and others, would incorporate Asian martial arts in some form. In fact, Asian martial arts would become so much an established part of Hollywood action movies and TV shows that Walker, Texas Ranger could exist in a world where every single law enforcement officer and criminal was a martial arts expert and not have it questioned by most TV viewers.

The kung fu craze would also alter the nature of comic books forever. Prior to the kung fu craze characters who knew some form of Asian martial arts were few and far between. Following the kung fu craze superheroes such as Batman and Daredevil would become masters of kung fu and, generally, other martial arts as well. In fact,the change in the character of Batman alone could be seen in the contrast between the fighting techniques he used in the old, Sixties, Adam West Batman TV show and the 1989 movie Batman. In the Sixties TV series, Batman simply used old fashioned, Western fisticuffs against supervillains. In the 1989 movie, Batman delivered kicks and punches to criminals that were obviously influenced by Asian martial arts.

Although it would only last for a relatively brief period, the kung fu craze of the Seventies would ultimately have an impact that few fads ever do. In the end it would change American films, TV shows, and comic books in ways that few crazes or cycles ever have before or since. While many of the movies, magazines, and other paraphernalia from the era may have been forgotten by the average person, the influence of the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974 is still being felt.
While my knowledge of kung fu movies and comic books is fairly good, this multi-part article did require more research than most I have written. I am then indebted to the following sources for a good deal of information.

The web site Kung Fu Cinema, which features a wonderful, multi-part history entitled "The Origins of Kung Fu Cinema" by Jean Lukitsh

"The Kung Fu Craze: Hong Kong Cinema's First American Reception" by David Desser, from The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity, edited by Poshek Fu and David Desser. (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

As usual, various issues of The New York Times, Time, and Variety. And as always, The Internet Movie Database (IMDB)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Kung Fu Craze of the Seventies Part Two

Kung Fu Dominates the Box Office

While other studios would eventually distribute kung fu movies of their own in the United States, it was Warner Brothers who was largely responsible for starting the craze. Warner Brothers' motivation for bringing Hong Kong kung fu movies was very plain and simple--the box office. As of 1972 Warner Brothers was on the brink of bankruptcy. The studio was then on the lookout for hits. They would have a huge one in 1972 in the form of the blaxploitation movie Super Fly, which coincidentally featured a good deal of Asian martial arts. Looking for easy money to make, it was perhaps natural that Warner Brother would look towards the Hong Kong cinema. By 1972 a few Hong Kong kung fu movies had made their way into Western countries, from Argentina to Lebanon. And wherever these movies played, they generally performed very well at the box office. Warner Brothers then guessed that such success could be repeated in the United States as well.

Beyond the box office that Hong Kong kung fu movies drew in many Western countries, there were other factors that would play a role in Warner Brothers' decision to import kung fu movies to the United States. Among these was the success of their TV series Kung Fu. Although hardly a smash hit in terms of the ratings, the show was very popular, particularly with young men. The success of Super Fly also demonstrated an interest in Asian martial arts, particularly among urban black audiences. In 1972 President Richard Nixon visited China, the first president to do so in decades. This stirred interest in the country here in the United States. For Warner Brothers the kung fu movies of Hong Kong may well have seemed like a sure bet.Warner Brothers would then fuel the kung fu craze at the box office more than any other studio.

Here I should perhaps dispel some commonly held misconceptions about the kung fu craze of the mid-Seventies. First, kung fu movies did play in the United States prior to 1973--King Boxer (better known here by its American title, 5 Fingers of Death) was not the first kung fu movie released in the United States by any means. Prior to 1973 kung fu movies, undubbed and unedited, were common fare in theatres in the various Chinatowns in major cities. That having been said, King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) would be the first kung fu movie to receive distribution from a major studio in the United States. And the first to become a certified hit here as well. Second, as must be obvious given the above, Bruce Lee did not spark the kung fu craze at cinemas in the mid-Seventies. In fact, besides King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death), two other films would be imported before Bruce Lee ever made his first appearance in a lead role in American movie theatres. That having been said, Bruce Lee was certainly responsible for making the kung fu craze even bigger than it might have been.

Regardless, Warner Brothers began importing Hong Kong kung fu movies in 1973, the first being King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death). King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) had been produced by the Shaw Brothers and released in China in 1972, where it performed remarkably well at the box office. Warner Brothers picked up the distribution for King Boxer (retitling it 5 Fingers of Death in the process), initially releasing it to the European market before doing so in the United States on March 21, 1973. Word of mouth would send King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) through the roof with regards to the American box office. Ultimately, King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) would remain in the top ten movies of Variety's box office chart for very nearly three months. Ultimately it would take in $3.8 million in rentals in the United States.

If the TV series Kung Fu kick started the kung fu craze, King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) brought the craze to full throttle. That this was the case can be seen in the May 16, 1973 box office chart for Variety. That week saw no less than three kung fu movies at the top of the American box office. At number three was King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death), still in the top five almost two months after its release. At number two was Deep Thrust--the Hand of Death, distributed by American International Pictures and taking its American title from a certain, then popular pornographic film. At number one was a film then called in the United States Fists of Fury, but now better known by its original title in Hong Kong, The Big Boss. Produced by Golden Harvest and distributed by Warner Brothers, The Big Boss was the first movie Bruce Lee ever made in Hong Kong. Its American debut marked Lee's debut in a leading role on American movie screens. Variety's box office chart for May 16, 1973 seems unprecedented for two basic reasons. First, it is perhaps the first time in American history that three foreign films topped the American box office. Second, it also marked the first time that the American box office would be dominated by kung fu movies.

Regardless, in 1973 the box office chart of May 16, 1973 would not be a singular event by any means. In its box office chart for June 20, 1973 Variety shows how huge the kung fu craze had grown. There were no less than five kung fu movies in the top fifty. Deep Thrust--the Hand of Death and The Big Boss (under its then American title of Fists of Fury) were still on the chart, having been joined a few weeks earlier by another Bruce Lee movie (Fist of Fury under the American title The Chinese Connection). That week would see two more kung fu films join them in the top fifty--Duel of the Iron Fist and Kung Fu: the Invisible Fist. As the summer of 1973 passed yet more kung fu movies would enter the top fifty of Variety's box office chart. The Chinese Boxer (known in the United States then as The Hammer of God) was the number one movie for the week of June 27, 1973. The Chase (then titled Shanghai Killers in the U.S.) and Fearless Fighters would both be released in August and see similar success.

With no less than two movies in the top fifty of the box office chart of Variety in June 20, 1973, it is clear that even then Bruce Lee was the king of the newly popular (at least here in the United States) movies. In fact, Warner Brothers had expressed interest in Lee from the moment they decided to import kung fu movies to the United States. Even as King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) was first released in American theatres, Warner Brothers was signing a deal to co-produce Enter the Dragon with Golden Harvest, making it the first kung fu movie in history to be produced by a Hollywood studio. And while Bruce Lee was the undisputed star of kung fu cinema in both the United States and Hong Kong in 1973, it must be pointed it took him quite some time to become such.

Bruce Lee had been a child actor in China, making as many as twenty five films before he was 18. It was in the United States that he decided to pursue martial arts rather than acting. Cast in the 1966 series Green Hornet, Bruce Lee found himself in front of a camera once more. Sadly, the series only lasted one season. Afterwards Lee would guest star on various TV shows and make his memorable appearance in Marlowe. Lee would eventually become dissatisfied with receiving only supporting roles in the United States and returned to Hong Kong in 1971. Learning that he had a cult following there due to the success of The Green Hornet (there called The Kato Show), Lee signed with Golden Harvest to make movies. His first film, The Big Boss proved to be the biggest movie in Hong Kong of 1971. This success was followed by Fist of Fury (AKA The Chinese Connection) and Way of the Dragon (initially released as Return of the Dragon in the United States). In fact, it was largely the box office of Bruce Lee's movies worldwide that led Warner Brothers to decide to import kung fu movies from Hong Kong and led them to co-produce Enter the Dragon. During the summer of 1973, then, Bruce Lee was the star. And he died just when his success was at its peak, on July 20, 1973.

Enter the Dragon would be released on August 17, 1973, a little under a month later. With fans still reeling from Bruce Lee's death and the kung fu craze in full swing, it was a guaranteed hit at the box office. Even in limited release it ranked in the top twenty of the box office chart in Variety. When it went into wide release, it would become the number one movie on Variety's box office chart for the week of September 5, 1973. It stayed in that spot until September 19, when it dropped to number 3. It would remain in the top ten of Variety's box office chart for nine weeks, with eleven weeks total in the top twenty. In all it earned an estimated $25 million at the American box office.

Of course, Enter the Dragon was hardly alone in being at the top of the box office. Hapkido (then known in the United States as Lady Kung Fu) topped the charts in September. Fist to Fist (then known in the States as Fists of the Double K--it was directed by a young man named John Woo) and Outlaws of the Marsh (then known as Seven Blows of the Dragon) made the top fifty that same month. The Opium Trail (then known as Deadly China Doll in the States) topped the charts in October. That same month Thunder Kick made the top fifty of the box office chart.

Amazingly given their success in the summer of 1973, the dominance of the box office by Hong Kong kung fu movies would end abruptly. Beginning around mid-November of 1973, no kung fu movies could be found in the uppermost reaches of Variety's box office chart. Still, kung fu movies would remain in the top fifty until January 1974, but by February 1974 they were gone. While Hong Kong kung fu movies would continue to make their way to the United States throughout the Seventies, they would increasingly become fodder for grindhouses and drive in theatres.

Of course, the end to the box office dominance of Hong Kong kung fu movies did not mean the end of the kung fu craze. The Hong Kong kung fu movies had proven exceedingly popular among urban, black audiences. Warner Brothers in particular, but other distributors as well, would often book their kung fu movies in inner city theatres, often double billed with the latest blaxploitation movie. While Hong Kong kung fu movies may have been on their way out in February 1974, Asian martial arts then found a place in many blaxploitation movies. Cleopatra Jones (released July 1973), Black Belt Jones (released January 28, 1974), Bamboo Gods and Iron Men (AKA Black Kung Fu, released the same month), Three the Hard Way (released June 26, 1974), Black Alley Cats (released September 1974), and many other blaxploitation films involved Asian martial arts in some way, shape, or another. By late 1974 and early 1975, the blaxploitation cycle would also end.

Martial arts would also be blended with yet other genres. The Stranger and the Gunfighter was an Italian spaghetti Western blending kung fu and the old West, starring Lee Van Cleef and Lieh Lo of King Boxer. Hammer Films and the Shaw Brothers Studio would team up to blend horror and kung fu in the movie Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, released in 1974 (it was butchered--I mean, "re-edited"--for its American release and retitled The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula). Another Hammer/Shaw co-production, Shatter (released in 1974), blended kung fu with a plot involving an international hitman.

Not only would the kung fu craze not completely end when the dominance of Hong Kong imports ended in January 1974, but it would continue for a time in other media, chief among them comic books.

The Kung Fu Craze in Comic Books

To a small degree martial arts were not entirely new to comic books in 1973. The Golden Age, Harvey Comics superhero The Black Cat was skilled in judo. One can probably guess which martial art in which Charlton Comics' Silver Age character, Judomaster was skilled. The Karate Kid first joined the Legion of Superheroes in July 1966, years before the kung fu craze. Still, Asian martial arts would remain a rarity in comic books (Batman was still relying on old fashioned, American fisticuffs as late as 1970) until the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974.

For those familiar with comic books in the Seventies it should come as little surprise that the industry would embrace the kung fu craze wholeheartedly. At that point in their history both Marvel and DC Comics had a tendency to follow the latest fads in society. When the cycle of blaxploitation movies began in 1971, Marvel Comics was swift to introduce its own blaxploitation character, Luke Cage, in the pages of Hero for Hire. He would not be the last by any extent. Quite naturally, then, when the kung fu craze arrived in 1973, both Marvel Comics and DC Comics would follow suit with their own martial arts oriented characters.

The most important of these may well have been Marvel Comics' Shang-Chi, whose adventures were published in The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. Having purchased both the rights to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu and the television show Kung Fu, Marvel Comics blended the two for Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi was the son of Fu Manchu (here it must be noted he does not appear in Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories, but was created specifically for the comic books) who rebelled against his father's evil. Skilled in kung fu, he allied himself with Fu Manchu's traditional enemy, Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Shang-Chi proved to be a very popular character in the Seventies, so popular that his magazine The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu ultimately outlasted the kung fu craze. Debuting in December 1973, it lasted until June 1983.

Another Marvel Comics martial arts character created during the kung fu craze was Iron Fist, who first appeared in May 1974. Iron Fist was Daniel Rand, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur who was lost on an expedition to the mystic city of K'un L'un while still a child. Taken to the city, he was trained in their martial arts. When his father and mother were murdered, he left K'un L'un to become the superhero Iron Fist to avenge their deaths. Iron Fist appeared in ten issues of Marvel Premiere before going on to 15 issues of his own magazine. Afterwards he teamed up with Luke Cage, whose magazine was retitled Power Man and Iron Fist, where he appeared for another 58 issues. Like Shang-Chi, then, Iron Fist survived the kung fu craze.

Ultimately, during the kung fu craze Marvel Comics would create several characters devoted to the martial arts, including Mantis (who appeared for a time in The Avengers), the detective team of Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, and the Sons of the Tiger. Under their imprint for their black and white comics magazines, they would also publish Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. First published with a cover date of April 1974, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu included stories featuring such characters as Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, and the Sons of the Tiger, among others. Sometimes it would even include articles related to kung fu as well. Deadly Hands of Kung Fu would outlast the kung fu craze, but not by much. It ended its run in 1977 after 33 issues.

Being more conservative, DC Comics was never as swift as Marvel Comics was in jumping on the bandwagon of the latest craze. Perhaps for that reason, DC's first martial arts oriented character created while the kung fu craze was under way really wasn't a new character at all. Detective Comics #437, October-November 1973, saw the debut of a revamped version of the Golden Age character called Manhunter. Re-envisioned by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simsonson, Manhunter was given a new costume and a newly found skill in martial arts. Among the weapons at his disposal were shurikens, a katar or "bundhi dagger," and a Bolo Mauser. Manhunter would appear in his back up feature in Detective Comics until issue #443, Oct-Nov 1974.

Another important DC martial arts character would not debut until the kung fu craze was nearly over, in Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter #1, April-May 1975. Richard Dragon had first appeared in the novel Dragon Fists by Denny O'Neill and Jim Berry in 1974 and was later adapted by O'Neill for comic books. As a young sneak thief in Japan, Dragon was trained in kung fu after he attempted to break into a Chinese dojo as a teenager. Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter would last for 18 issues.

It was also largely because of the kung fu craze that the Karate Kid of the Legion of Superheroes, after being around for literally years, would receive his own title, albeit pretty much after the craze died down. The Karate Kid was portrayed as having travelled back in time to settle in the 20th century for the 15 issue run of The Karate Kid, which debuted with a cover date of March/April 1975.

While many of the characters created during the craze would survive for years, ultimately the kung fu craze would come to an end in the world of comic books as well. The craze more or less having ended for the rest of society in 1974, it would end in comic books around 1975. After that year we see fewer new martial arts oriented characters appearing and, when they did, it was almost never as the stars of their own magazines. The kung fu craze would leave its mark on comic books in more than just popular characters. Martial arts became an established part of the skills of many superheroes, from Batman to Daredevil.

Of course, the kung fu craze was a fad that cut across many media. In 1973 and 1974 there weren't only movies and comic books dedicated to the subject, but there would be magazines, toys, and even songs as well.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Kung Fu Craze of the Seventies Part One


I am sure that many who watched Kung Fu Panda at the cinema this weekend probably felt a strong sense of deja vu. Many may have simply remembered the first time they saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Others may have recalled the first time they saw a Jackie Chan movie. But for many others, myself included, Kung Fu Panda may have taken them back to the years of 1973 to 1974, when the United States was gripped by a literal mania for anything related to kung fu. There were kung fu movies, kung fu comic books, kung fu magazines, and even a kung fu song ("Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas). In those years in the mid-Seventies, one nearly had to be living in a cave not to be exposed to Asian martial arts.

The Roots of the Fad

To trace the origins of the kung fu craze of 1973 and 1974, one must look to the East and China. Literature about kung fu or, more properly, wushu (almost literally "martial arts), in China dates all the way back to the 3rd or 2nd Centuries BCE. The earliest full length novel in the genre, Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh (among other titles), dates to the 14th Century CE. Such early tales of kung fu or wushu would evolve into the genre known as wuxia, a semi-fanasy subgenre of martial arts literature, perhaps best known to Westerners from movies such as Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Wuxia would become for China what the Western is for the United States or the chanbara is for Japan, tales of a legendary past. Quite naturally, when film making emerged in China in the early 20th Century, wuxia movies and other martial arts films were among the first to be made. In fact, Robbery on a Train, perhaps the first kung fu movie ever made, dates all the way back to 1919. By the mid-Twenties wuxia and other martial arts films dominated the Chinese cinema. Forty to sixty different studios were involved in making them. In 1928 the wuxia genre would have its first certified hit. The Burning of Red Lotus Temple broke box office records and was so successful that it had 17 sequels.

Despite the fact that kung fu or wushu and even literature related to kung fu or wushu has a long history in China, Western exposure to Asian martial arts has been relatively recent. Judo may have been the first, brought to the United States by Yamashita Yoshiaki in 1903 (among his students was President Theodore Roosevelt). By 1932 judo was familiar enough in the West that a demonstration was given at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The West was also introduced to jujutsu during roughly the same time period, with Tanaka Yoshimatsu teaching the art to American servicemen in Hawaii as early as the late 1800s. It would be World War II, a war in which Americans came into direct contact with Far Eastern culture, that opened the floodgates to Asian martial arts in the United States. It was in 1945 that Robert Trias opened the first karate dojo in the U.S. By the Fifties and Sixties, karate dojos were scattered across the country.

Just as Asian martial arts were slow to make their way to the United States, martial arts received very little exposure in Hollywood movies until the Sixties. An example can be seen in the 1937 Cary Grant comedy The Awful Truth, in which a Filipino houseboy uses jujutsu to throw Cary Grant's character to the ground. Mr. Moto, the lead character of five popular movies in the late Thirties (played by Peter Lorre), was an expert in judo. In the 1945 film Blood on the Sun James Cagney's character utilised judo. The 1949 gangster movie White Heat has Edmund O'Brien's character utilising judo in the film. If there was a turning point in Western cinema with regards to Asian martial arts, it was probably the 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock. In the movie Spencer Tracey plays a wounded World War II veteran who also happens to be skilled in judo. The 1959 movie The Crimson Kimono would not only include judo, but karate as well. By the Sixties the appearance of martial arts in American movies and television shows would no longer a novelty. In fact, it would almost become commonplace.

The Beginnings of the Fad

The Sixties saw the appearance of Asian martial arts in more and more films and television shows made in the West. The reasons for this were twofold. The first was that interest in the martial arts had exploded in the United States, with most major cities being able to boast schools devoted to either judo or karate. Bruce Lee himself would open schools dedicated to kung fu at the University of Washington and later in Oakland, California. With this growth in interest in Asian martial arts in the United States, they naturally found greater exposure in the cinema and TV shows of the West. The second was a spy craze that started in the United Kingdom and would soon engulf the United States as well. At that time considered exotic and deadly, Asian martial arts would increasingly become one of the many tools at the disposal of the average superspy or his opponents.

With regards to television of the West, Asian martial arts may have received their first exposure in a 1960 episode of The Detectives entitled "Karate." In that episode (written by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry), karate is suspect in a string of unsolved murders. Captain Matt Holbrook (played by Robert Taylor) even learns some of the art himself. Later that same season Wanted Dead or Alive, the Western starring Steve McQueen, featured an episode entitled "Black Belt". In "Black Belt" bounty hunter Josh Randall was on the trail of a martial arts expert accused of murder.

As to what may be the first TV show made in the West to regularly feature Asian martial arts, that honour may well go to the British cult classic The Avengers. In 1962. during the second season of the series, John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) received a new partner in the form of Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman), who just happened to be an expert in judo. The show's producers had chosen the art as a means of explaining how Mrs. Gale could dispose of male opponents, who were often times bigger than she was. Quite naturally, the average episode would feature Mrs. Gale dispatching enemies with judo. While Mrs. Gale left the series in 1965, this did not mean that Asian martial arts would no longer appear on the show. Steed's new partner, Mrs. Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg), was skilled in both karate and kung fu. In fact, The Avengers may have marked the first time that kung fu received exposure in a TV show made in the West!

Mrs. Gale and Mrs. Peel were not the only television superspies skilled in Asian martial arts. Robert Conrad had been a student of Bruce Lee. When he was cast as Secret Service agent James West in the Western spy drama The Wild Wild West (which debuted in 1965), kung fu naturally became part of the arsenal of weapons at West's disposal. Kung fu would receive even more exposure, perhaps more than it had in any TV show or film before), in a most unexpected place, the 1966 TV series based on the classic radio show hero The Green Hornet. Bruce Lee was cast in the role of Kato on the series, primarily because of his fighting skills. Among the highlights of every episode would be spectacular fight scenes in which Kato would take out several men with kung fu. Lee would later guest star on both Ironside and Longstreet.

Of course, Asian martial arts were not only found in TV shows in the Sixties. They also appeared in films. The 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate is a notable example. Among the film's highlights is a karate fight between Major Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw's Korean valet Chunjin. The James Bond movies Goldfinger (featuring Goldfinger's henchman Oddjob, a master at karate) and You Only Live Twice (set in Japan, it featured ninjas for the first time in a film made in the West) both featured Asian martial arts prominently. Derek Flint, the hero of the movies Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, counted Asian martial arts among his many skills. The 1969 movie Marlowe featured a hilarious scene in which Bruce Lee literally destroys Philip Marlowe's office.

While interest in Asian martial arts in the United States was rapidly growing in the United States and United Kingdom in the Sixties, leading to greater exposure in TV shows and movies, events would unfold in Hong Kong that would further set the stage for the kung fu craze of the mid-Seventies. Throughout much of the Fifties and Sixties Chinese cinema had been dominated by wuxia movies. It was in the early Seventies that there was a shift away from wuxia films towards martial arts movies set in contemporary times and featuring much more hand to hand combat than swordplay. Leading in the move away from wuxia and towards more contemporary kung fu movies was the Shaw Brothers Studio. Released in 1970, the Shaw Brothers film Chinese Boxer would prove to be a hit, starting a cycle of kung fu movies that would dominate Hong Kong cinema well into the early Eighties.

While Chinese cinema was undergoing a revolution in terms of martial arts film, events would unfold in the United States that would result in the kung fu fad of the mid-Seventies. Among these was the release of the independent film Billy Jack. The character of Billy Jack had figured in the 1967 film Born Losers, in which he fought a biker gang. Born Losers had done well enough that its creator, Tom McLaughlin, decided to make a sequel. Lack of funding prevented McLaughlin from finishing the movie until 1971. When he did finish it, he found he had no one to distribute the movie. McLaughlin then distributed Billy Jack himself in 1971. The movie was successful enough that eventually Warner Brothers took up its distribution. Billy Jack was a part Native American, former Green Beret and a veteran of Vietnam. He also happened to be skilled in hapkido karate. The success of Billy Jack would increase interest in karate and Asian martial arts in general in the United States. It was also a harbinger of things to come.

Indeed, Warner Brothers would not only distribute Billy Jack, but they would become the studio largely responsible for launching the kung fu fad. It would not be a movie that would start the fad, however, but a television series instead. In 1970 Ed Spielman had developed an interest in Chinese martial arts and the history of China. It occurred to him that the exploits of a Shaolin priest wandering China might make for a good TV series. He bounced the idea off his partner, Howard Friedlander, who suggested that instead they move the milieu to the Wild West. The concept would become the TV show Kung Fu.

Kung Fu followed the exploits of Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Kaine, who was forced to flee China after killing his teacher's murderer (who just happened to be the Emperor's nephew). Wandering the Old West, he searches for his American half brother Danny Caine. Pursued by bounty hunters and facing injustice along the way, Caine often found himself forced to use his kung fu to defend himself and others. Produced by Warner Brothers, Kung Fu debuted as a television movie on ABC on February 22, 1972. The movie proved successful enough that Kung Fu would become a monthly series on ABC that fall. The series would prove successful enough that ABC would soon make it a weekly series. While Kung Fu never broke into the Top 25 in the Nielsens, it developed an exceedingly large and loyal following, particularly among young men. It was also Warner Brothers' first volley in a campaign to bring kung fu to movie screens across America. It would not be long before the United States would be in the midst of a kung fu craze.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Celebrites Don't Die in Threes...

There is an old wives tale that proclaims that celebrities always die in threes. A swift look at my posts on this blog for the past two weeks will prove that this is certainly not the case. It sometimes seemed as if every day one or more celebrities died. Even given the strictest definition of the word "celebrity," including only the absolutely most famous individuals, it seems rare to me that three celebrities die at once. Sometimes only one celebrity will die, to be followed by no others. Other times several may die at once, as was the case in the past three weeks.

Of course, given that this blog is dedicated to pop culture in all its forms, I like to eulogise those who have contributed to pop culture. In fact, I feel nearly duty bound to do so. And sadly, writing tributes to the recently deceased seems to be what I am best known for in this blog. Unfortunately, there are times I must admit I find myself hard pressed to keep up with everyone who has died. The past two weeks are a perfect example. A list of those who died and were eulogised here includes Dick Martin, Sydney Pollack, Earle Hagen, Harvey Korman, Alexander Courage, Joseph Pevney, Bo Diddley, Robert H. Justman, and Mel Ferrer. That is certainly quite a list.

Given the number of celebrities that can die during any given week (or even day, for that matter), I must say that I have set down some ground rules for who is eulogised here. The first is that they must have had some significant impact on or contribution to pop culture. This is why I generally do not eulogise sports figures. As I see it, the average sports figure is a celebrity of the moment. Once they are dead, their names will generally be remembered only by sports fans. Think about it. For those of you who aren't huge baseball fans, just how many baseball players from the Thirties can you name? I would guess at best only two or three.

Second, their sole claim to fame must not be that they were a politician or religious figure. Arguably, both politicians and religious figures do contribute to popular culture after a fashion. After all, where would comedians like Bob Hope or Jay Leno be without politicians? That having been said, I like to keep this blog free of controversy, and both politics and religion can be touchy subjects for most people. That means avoiding any posts on politics or religion in this blog, including eulogies of politicians and religious figures. Now, notice that I said that politics or religion must be their sole claim to fame. As governor of California, Arnold Swarzenegger is obviously a politician, but he is one who had a long and successful acting career beforehand. Fred Thompson is also obviously a politician who was an actor. If either of them died, I would eulogise them, although I would focus on their achievements as actors, not politicians. In fact, had this blog been entirely up and running when Ronald Reagan died (he died when it was only a day old), I would have eulogise him, even if as a former president he was obviously a political figure.

Finally, since this is my blog, the individual must have an impact upon me as a person. This is why I have never eulogised country singers, even though I cannot deny that people such as Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, and Eddy Arnold all had a huge impact on American pop culture. Not being a fan of country music, none of them have ever had an impact upon me personally (now those who know me might point out that I am a Johnny Cash fan, but the Man in Black was a folk singer, in my humble opinion, not a country singer...). Over the past few years there have been numerous authors, artists, singers, and so on whom I never eulogised, either because I had never heard of them or because, even if I had, they had no significant impact on me. I suppose some might think it unfair of me to eulogise some celebrities and not others, but then it is my blog.

Here I must go on record on saying that while I put a lot of work into my tributes to those who passed on, it has never been something I have enjoyed doing. In fact, writing tributes to the recently dead is probably my least favourite thing about this blog. The fact is that before I can even write a tribute, someone must have died. And more times than not that will be someone whom I liked and or admired. Still, while I take no real pleasure in writing eulogies and there are times when so many fill this blog that it begins to resemble a newspaper's Obituaries page, I feel that it is something I must do. When someone who has had an impact upon our lives dies, we all like to remember them in some way. For me that way is to pay tribute to them in the best way I know how, in words. While I don't like to write tributes and there are often so many celebrities who die that it is hard to keep up with them all, I will continue to pay tribute to those who pass on in the pages of this blog.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bob Anderson, the Young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, Passes

Bob Anderson, who billed as "Bobbie Anderson" played George Bailey as a boy in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, passed on Friday, June 6, at the age of 75. The cause was melanoma.

Anderson was born Robert J. Anderson on March 6, 1933 to a family deeply involved in the film industry. His father was Gene Anderson, an assistant director who worked on such films as Penny Serenade and the 1943 serial Batman. His uncle was the prolific director William Bodine, who directed movies from 1915's Diana of the Farm to 1966's Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and TV shows from 1954's Treasury Men in Action to 1966's Green Hornet. Bobby Anderson first appeared on the big screen at the age of 7, in the movie Maryland in 1940. His first role of any importance was in the Shirley Temple vehicle Young People that same year.

Anderson would go onto small parts in movies such as The Officer and the Lady, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Gentleman Joe Palooka before being cast in the role for which he would become best known, that of the young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. He would go onto parts in The Bishop's Wife, Silver River, Samson and Delilah, and A Place in the Sun. He appeared on the The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty in the supporting role of Terry Moore.

Anderson served a stint in the U.S. Navy, then went onto become an assistant director, production manager, and producer.

As an actor Robert J. Anderson did not have a long career. And his only role of any importance would seem to have been laying young George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. That having been said, in appearing in a major part in that film, he secured his place in film history and pop culture. That Anderson was a very talented actor can be seen in his performance as young George. In many films which feature flashbacks to an individual's childhood, it is often hard to believe that the actor playing the character as a child could have possibly grown into the actor playing the character as an adult. Not so with Anderson's peformance as young George. He does such a good job that we willingly believe he will grow up to be the George Bailey that Jimmy Stewart plays as an adult. And this despite the fact that the two really didn't resemble each other that much! Robert J. Anderson may not have had a long acting career, but he certainly did leave a legacy in film.