Saturday, July 12, 2008

Actress Evelyn Keyes Passes On

Evelyn Keyes, one of the last surviving cast members of Gone With the Wind passed on July 4 at the age of 91. The cause was ovarian cancer.

Keyes was born November 20, 1916 in Port Arthur, Texas. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. While still a teenager she danced in nightclubs. She left for Hollywood at the age of 17. She was discovered by director Cecile B. DeMille. He cast her in his 1938 film The Buccaneer. Keyes played several uncredited parts in movies, as well as more substantial parts in Sons of the Legion, Sudden Money,and Union Pacific. It was in 1939 that she was cast in the part for which she was best known, that of Scarlet O'Hara's younger sister Suellen in Gone With the Wind.

Although never a major star, Keyes would go onto several significant roles in film. She was the female lead in Before I Hang in 1940. In 1941 she starred in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. She appeared in A Thousand and One Nights, The Jolson Story, and Mrs. Mike. She appeared in several low budget films noir, including Johnny O'Clock, The Prowler, and The Big Combo. In the Fifties she appeared in The Seven Year Itch and in a small part in Around the World in Eighty Days. Keyes retired in 1956, but would make a few appearances on film and television afterwards. She appeared in Return to Salem's Lot and Wicked Stepmother, and guest starred in Murder She Wrote.

Keyes was nearly as well known for her personal life as she was her movie roles. Among others, she married directors King Vidor, John Huston, bandleader Artie Shaw, and producer Mike Todd. She wrote a popular autobiography, Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister, as well as the novel I Am a Billboard and the memoir I'll Think About It Tomorrow.

Evelyn Keyes was a fairly talented actress. She starred in a variety of films, from epics to horror. In some ways, however, she was even more talented as a writer. Her autobiography, Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister was a funny and witty look at Hollywood during the Golden Age of movies. She will probably be remembered best as Scarlet O'Hara's younger sister, but she should be remembered for more.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ride Lonesome

If I had to name my favourite Western star, it would not be John Wayne, as hard as that may be to believe. Instead, I believe I would choose Randolph Scott. He did not begin his career as a Western star. In fact, he played a rather wide variety of roles. But after World War II he would become the Western star par excellence, Most often he played the lone, hard bitten hero who lived by a code all his own.

Among the best Western movies Randolph Scott ever made were those directed by Budd Boetticher. And among the finest Westerns Scott made with Boetticher was Ride Lonesome. Directed by Boetticher from a script by Burt Kennedy, it is a movie that is often overlooked in the annals of Western films.

In fact, describing the plot of Ride Lonesome hardly does it justice. In some respects its plot even sounds somewhat typical. Randolph Scott plays ageing lawman Ben Brigade, who must protect a recently widowed woman (Karen Steele) as he transports a prisoner (James Best) to Santa Cruz to be hanged. Along the way he must contend with outlaw Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts), who wants the reward money for the prisoner for himself, and Boone's sidekick Whit (James Coburn). To make matters worse, the small group is pursued by the prisoner's brother (Lee Van Cleef) and his gang.

What sets Ride Lonesome apart is the strength of essentially a character study spiced up with plenty of action. It features some of the richest dialogue and some excellent characterisation. Ride Lonesome is very much a psychological Western. Kennedy's script is given life by one of the best casts of any of the Boetticher/Scott collaborations. In fact, Ride Lonesome is interesting to watch as a historical document alone. Pernell Roberts received third billing in this film to Randolph Scott and Karen Steele, appearing in it only a year before he would assume the role of Adam on Bonanza. James Coburn appeared in his first feature film role, only a few years before he would be a major star. James Best played in a number of movie Westerns and television Westerns, this well before he would become familiar to audiences as Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. Finally, there is Lee Van Cleef in one of his earliest roles as a Western villain.

Adding to the high quality of both the script and cast is Boetticher's use of the camera. He used CinemaScope to its full advantage here, with travelling shots and long takes. Ride Lonesome was shot entirely outdoors, and Boetticher uses the wide landscapes to give the film the feel of existing well outside of civilisation. It is almost as if the film takes place in a world all its own, a world to which Ben Brigade has been condemned.

Ultimately, Ride Lonesome is a Western at its most basic. Unlike High Noon or The Searchers, there is no social commentary to be had here. Instead it is simply a riveting look at dangerous men living in a dangerous land at a dangerous time. Strangely enough, in creating a very basic Western on a low budget, Boetticher and Scott succeeded in making a film that in many respects truly epic.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

After July 4th

I don't guess I am the only one who feels just a little down when a holiday is over. After all, holidays are a break from the everyday, workday routine. A good many of us have time off from work on holidays, They are times of celebration which families usually spend together. It is perhaps natural then for someone to hate to see a holiday go.

In some respects, I think this is more so with July 4th than most holidays. Halloween ends, only to have Thanksgiving right around the corner. Thanksgiving ends, only to have the Yuletide less than a month away. Christmas might end for many with December 25, but New Year's Day is only a week away. July 4th is a different case entirely. Once July 4th is over, there is nothing left but the long, hot days of summer. It is true Labour Day comes in September, but in my mind it's not a real holiday. It is simply a day off from work, and it is not even that for many.

It is times like these that I think the American holiday calendar may be poorly designed. Between July 4th and Halloween, there are no holidays of importance. There are no days when families gather together for celebration. No holidays with strong traditions attached to them. Most places in the United States have county fairs, but they vary widely as to when they are scheduled. For Randolph County, Old Settlers does not arrive until mid-September (there is the County Fair, but it comes too soon after July 4th, and has never really impressed me).

Sadly, I am not sure if there is much solution to this problem. There is a holiday in August that the United States could have celebrated had the English speaking world not given up many of its old festivals. Lammas was a festival celebrating the first wheat harvest of the year, traditionally held on August 1. Indeed, its name derives from Old English hlaf "loaf" and mæsse "mass." On that day it was customary to bring the first loaf of bread made from the new wheat into the church on this day. And it was traditional for tenants to present their landlords with some of the freshly harvested wheat. It was generally celebrated as the holy day of St. Peter in Chains, but given its emphasis on the harvested wheat it might actually date back to the days of paganism. Celebrating Lammas would give Americans a holiday in August.

The only question is whether or not Americans would even celebrate Lammas. The sad fact is that many modern Americans do not give much thought as to where their food actually comes from. I seriously doubt they give much thought to wheat or how the bread they eat is made from wheat grown right here in the United States. Lammas may then not be a good choice for an August holidays.

Regardless, it seems to me that there is a need for one. After all, the time between July 4th and Labour Day is rather long, and often hot, dreary, and drab. Worse yet, Labour Day is actually not much of a holiday. It seems to me that there is a real need for a real holiday that falls in August.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Character Actor Don S. Davis Passes On

Character actor Don S. Davis, who had roles on Twin Peaks and Stargate SG-1, passed on June 29 at the age of 65. The cause was a heart attack.

Davis was born in Aurora, Missouri on August 4, 1942. Davis attended Southwest missouri State University in Springfield, where he majored in theatre and art. He received a Bachelor of Science in theatre at Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield. His college career would be interrupted by a stint in the U. S. Army. He served three years in Korea. Afterwards, he received a Masters in theatre at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Davis taught at that university for seven years before receiving a Phd there. Davis would later move to Vancouver, where he taught at the University of British Columbia.

It was while he was at the the University of British Columbia that he began acting. He made his television debut in 1982, guest starring on Joanie Loves Chachi. He appeared in The Journey of Natty Gann in 1985 and made appearances on various TV movies throughout 1986. In 1987 he left academia to pursue acting full time. Davis appeared in the movies Malone, Stakeout, and Watchers. He also guest starred on The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, MacGyver, Wiseguy, and 21 Jump Street. He was a regular on the cult TV show Twin Peaks, playing Major Garland Briggs.

Davis would spend the Nineties making a number of guest appearances on such shows as Highlander, Northern Exposure, The X-Files (as Scully's father), The Outer Limits, and Profit. He was a regular on the series Madison. He appeared in the films A League of Their Own, Cliffhanger, Needful Things, Hideaway, and The Fan. It was in 1998 that Davis assumed the role he would play the longest, that of Major General George Hammond on Stargate SG-1. In all, he would spend ten years on the show. In the naughts Davis would appear in the movie Seed, The Still Life, and Woodshop.

Davis was one of the best character actors of recent years. His speciality was authority figures, playing Major Briggs on Twin Peak, Scully's father Captain Scully on The X-Files, and General Hammond on Stargate SG-1. No one could be quite as convincing in a uniform. Although best known for playing authority figures, Davis was quite capable in any role he took. Indeed, in the movie Savage Island he played Keith Young, the patriarch of a family involved in a long running feud with the Savages, a family of hillbillies who lived up to their name. Davis was a very versatile actor and one of the most talented character actors to come down the pike in a while. It is sad that he died so soon.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Different Looks of Blackhawk

Having written about Quality Comics yesterday, today I thought I would do a pictorial on what might be their third longest running title. Blackhawk debuted in Military Comics #1, August 1941. It proved to be one of Quality Comics' most popular features. Blackhawk received his own title in winter 1944.

This is Blackhawk #9, winter 1944. Although it is the first issue of Blackhawk's own title, it is numbered "9" because it took over the numbering of Uncle Sam Quarterly. It was in Jim Steranko's History of Comics that artist Chuck Cuidera explained the look of the Blackhawks' the uniforms. He said, "The Germans had designed such great costumes, we decided to use them ourselves. It was like fighting fire with fire." By this time Blackhawk was very popular, selling as much as superheroes such as The Flash and Captain America. Here I feel like I must apologise for the very stereotypical Chinese man conducting the Blackhawks. That is Chop-Chop, the Blackhawks' cook in the early days of the series and hence the squadron's sidekick. Sadly, Chop-Chop was a very typical portrayal of Asians during World War II. It is to be noted that over the years Chop-Chop would change to the point where he would also wear a Blackhawk uniform and pilot his own plane.

This is Blackhawk #57, October 1952. The Blackhawk Squadron would change very little in appearance after World War II, although Chop-Chop was drawn more realistically, even if he was still a stereotype. Their opponents did change. With the War over, they could no longer fight Nazis. Of course, an exception was made for Blackhawk's archnemesis, Killer Shark. A Nazi operative still loyal to the cause after the fall of Hitler's regime, he would return even decades after the war to fight the Blackhawk Squadron. Other than Killer Shark, however, The Blackhawks' chief opponents would now be from the Soviet Union and Communist China. It must be kept in mind that this was the height of the Cold war and the same time period as the Red Scare.

This is Blackhawk #133, February 1959. It is the first appearance of Lady Blackhawk. Even after DC Comics acquired Blackhawk, the squadron's appearance would not change for many years. DC Comics would make some other, more drastic changes. One was in the enemies they faced. For whatever reason, DC chose to no longer pit the Blackhawks against Commies, instead giving them a variety of opponents, from crime cartels to pirates. Most popular at DC Comics were science fiction menaces such as mad scientists, robotic opponents, and alien invaders. Increasingly, Blackhawk became rather silly. To a degree, this was typical of DC Comics at the time. As early as the late Forties, DC Comics would add science fiction-type plots to titles that were far from science fiction in genre, such as the frontier drama Tomahawk. In the Fifties they even did it to Batman, who had faced gangsters and supervillains in his heyday. The addition of a female character to a previously all male comic strip was also typical. This was the era when Batwoman joined the cast of Batman and Supergirl was introduced. Lady Blackhawk was Zinda Blake, a woman who wanted to become the first female Blackhawk. She continued to appear in the pages of Blackhawk until nearly the end of the book's run.

With Blackhawk #197, June 1964, the Blackhawks received new uniforms. Many fans hate these new uniforms. They prefer the original uniforms, which had a total black colour scheme, to these red, black, and green ones. Myself, I actually like them. I must confess that while I love the originals, by 1964 they were looking a bit dated. That having been said, I do not approve of the other change this issue brought. Having started as a private, paramilitary squadron, the Blackhawks were now attached to a secret government agency. Personally, I preferred them as freelancers. Despite the fact that they now worked for the government, the Blackhawks still faced silly, science fiction menaces.

Blackhawk #226, November 1966, is a case in point. This issue features the story "The Secret Monster of Blackhawk Island." That's the right. The Blackhawks have been on Blackhawk Island, located somewhere in the North Atlantic, for 25 years and they never knew they had a monster! The next two issues wouldn't be much better, featuring "The Perilous Positive-Negative Man" and "Chop-Chop the Warlock." Here I must say a few words about Chop-Chop. Although still bearing that demeaning name, he had become less of a stereotype. With Blackhawk #197, June 1964, he slimmed up, received a uniform, and was no longer drawn as a stereotype (although he was sort of a jaundice orange now). He even received his own plane!

This is it, the lowest point in the Blackhawks' history, Blackhawk #230, March 1967. Sales for the title had been declining for the past several years. Instead of realising that the pseudo-science fiction plots were probably what was hurting sales, DC Comics decided instead that the Blackhawks must become superheroes. After all, this was the era of the Batman TV show. To this end, the Blackhawks received silly powers and equally bad uniforms in what was deemed "The New Blackhawk Era." The process took three issues, beginning with Blackhawk #228, January 1967 and culminating with #230. In this three part story, the government agency was back and demanded the Blackhawks disband or become superheroes.

The silly superhero phase seriously hurt Blackhawk's sales. To save the book, DC Comics then returned the Blackhawks to their original uniforms and their status as a paramilitary group. This occurred in Blackhawk #242, August-September 1968, shown here. This issue was scheduled to feature art by Reed Crandall, who had worked on the book at Quality Comics, but he had to bow out of the project. In the story, the government agency is destroyed by the villain, the Black Mask. Their superhero costumes having also been destroyed, they become what they once were. It turns out that the Black Mask is none other than Blackhawk's brother, who was badly injured in World War II but repaired by the Nazis. Sympathetic to the Nazis and angry at his brother, he now seeks to destroy Blackhawk.

Blackhawk was cancelled with #243, October-November 1968. It returned with #244, January-February 1976. The Blackhawks had new uniforms and various new opponents, Among their new enemies were Anti-Man, a villain with anti-matter powers, and the Bio-Lord, a machine intelligence wanting to kill all humans. The Blackhawks would also face Nazis again. One was the Sky Skull, a Nazi war criminal. Of course, another was Killer Shark, who returned in Blackhawk #250, January-February 1977. Sadly, this would be the final issue of this revival. The series is important as it was the very last one in which the Blackhawks were featured in contemporary times. Every revival every since has featured them in their glory days, World War II.

Because of that, every revival has also  featured the Blackhawks in their original uniforms. There was another short lived revival in 1982, with stories by Mark Evanier. This revival was actually more successful, lasting from #251, October 1982 to #273, November 1984. In 1987 Howard Chaykin wrote a Blackhawk mini-series which was very revisionist. It gave Blackhawk a real name, Janos Prohaska. It also made him a rather vulgar drunk. A Blackhawk series followed in 1988 in Action Comics. It received its own title in March 1989. It lasted until #16, August, 1990. Since then Blackhawk has only appeared in Blackhawk Special #1, 1999. This one-shot was set in Vietnam and written by John Ostrander. Since then Blackhawk and his squadron have only made cameos in various DC titles. It is safe to say, however, that they will probably be revived again one day.