Saturday, August 2, 2008

Playwright and Screenwriter Luther Davis Passes On

Luther Davis, playwright and screenwriter who wrote the musical Kismet and the movie The Hucksters, passed on July 29 at the age of 91.

Davis was born August 29, 1916 in Brooklyn. He attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana and later Yale. \

Davis broke into Broadway providing production ideas for Crazy with the Heat in 1941. He received his first screen credit for having written the article upon which the 1942 movie The Mayor of 44nd Street was based. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, rising to the rank of major.

Upon his return, Davis resumed writing. He wrote the play Kiss Them For Me, which debuted on Broadway in 1945. Two years later, he provided the screenplay for the Clark Gable movie The Hucksters. Thereafter Davis divided his time between the stage and screen. He worked on such films as Black Hand, Kismet, Lady in a Cage, and Across 110th Street. He worked on such plays as Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1952, Kismet (for which he won a Tony), Timbuktu, and the stage musical version of Grand Hotel. Starting in 1953 with an episode of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, he began working in television. Davis wrote episodes for such series as Bourbon Street Beat, 87th Precinct, Combat, and Ironside.

Luther Davis was a brilliant writer. Kismet stands as one of the more unique musicals to come down the pike, blending The Arabian Nights with Broadway kitsch. His episodes of Combat rank among the best of that series. He was also a prolific writer, writing five Broadway plays, several movies, and many television episodes. Even if he had only written Kismet, he would taken his place in history. As it is, he did so much more.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Answers to the Sixties TV Quiz

Here are the answers to the Sixties TV quiz from July 15:

1. What was the name of the road (and hence the TV series) down which Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock travelled in a classic Corvette?

Route 66

2. On what Sixties sitcom was one of the local eateries the Bluebird Diner?

The Andy Griffith Show

3. What was the name of the Cartwrights' cook on Bonanaza?

Hop Sing

4. What was the name of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin's superior on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?

Mr. Alexander Waverly

5. What Sixties series made in Britian centred on superspy John Steed and whomever was his partner of the moment?

The Avengers

6. What 1966 sitcom featured a beach house located at either 1334 N. Beechwood or 1438 N. Beechwood (the number of the house mysteriously changed at one point)?

The Monkees

7. What Dr. McCoy's first name on Star Trek?


8. How did Ironside become confined to a wheelchair on the show of the same name?

A sniper's bullet paralysed from his from the waist down.

9. On what series was a character only known as Number Six imprisoned in a place known only as The Village?

The Prisoner

10. On Laugh In what was the award which Dan Rowan and Dick Martin gave for dubious achievements in business, government, or by famous people?

The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The 50th Anniversary of NASA

It was fifty years ago today that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act which established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA. NASA would be responsible for the space programme, as well as civilian and military aerospace research.

The creation of NASA was the result of the Soviet Union's own space programme, which had successfully launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The United States Congress felt that this presented a threat to the U.S.'s status as the world leader in both defence technology and aerospace technology. For that reason President Eisenhower and his advisors decided that the creation of a new agency dedicated to space travel and aerospace research was needed. NASA would begin operations on October 1, 1958. The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was on.

In its early days NASA had its share of failures and successes. An example is NASA's Pioneer unmanned spacecraft meant to make flybys of the moon, collecting data and taking pictures. Pioneer 1, Pioneer 2, Pioneer 3, and Pioneer 4 never reached their intended destinations, although at least . Pioneer 4 provided NASA with important information on tracking objects through space. Of course, eventually NASA would have more than its share of successes.

Indeed, it would not be long before an absolute space craze would sweep the United States. On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy gave his historic speech before a joint session of Congress in which he not only urged Congress to provide the space programme with more funds, but set the goal of landing a man on the moon. It was a little less than a year later, on February 20, 1962, that John Glenn would orbit Earth three times in Friendship 7. Between President Kennedy's speech and John Glenn successfully orbiting Earth, the United States was overcome by a mania for anything that had to do with space. In fact, the space craze of the Sixties could be NASA's biggest contribution to pop culture.

This is reflected in American broadcast television in the Sixties. The number of sitcoms which aired space oriented episodes is incredibly huge. Gilligan's Island was visited by a robot built by NASA for space exploration and Russian cosmonauts. The Monkees thwarted an alien invasion. Herman Munster thought he was talking to Martians on a ham radio (actually, it was a couple of kids). On Bewitched Aunt Clara inadvertently summoned aliens to Earth. And there there were sitcoms that either had space as a theme or touched upon space in some way: My Favourite Martian (on which a Martian became stranded on Earth), I Dream of Jeannie (on which Jeannie's master, Major Tony Nelson, was an astronaut), and It's About Time (in which two astronauts travel back in time to the Stone Age). The spy dramas would also touch upon space occasionally, as in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Love Affair (in which Solo and Kuryakin must thwart a THRUSH plot to build a spaceship)." There were also the science fiction series Star Trek and Lost in Space, which featured individuals travelling through space in the future.

Space would even play a role in commercials. The most obvious example of this is perhaps Tang. Around since 1957, the drink did not really become a success until it was used on the Gemini flights in 1962. Quite naturally, commercials for Tang mentioned that it was the drink of astronauts, using space oriented themes in their adverts well into the Seventies. Pillsbury developed "Space Food Sticks" for NASA, which it then sold to the general public. In 1965 Quaker Mills introduced the breakfast cereal called Quisp, whose spokesman was an alien with a propeller atop his head, named, appropriately, Quisp. The cereal itself was shaped like little saucers. Even products not associated with NASA or space used space themes in their commercials. In the late Sixties there was a commercial for Fritos in which the Frito Bandito attempted to con astronauts on the moon out of their Frito Corn Chips!

Quite naturally, space oriented toys were very popular throughout the Sixties. Perhaps the best known were Mattel's line of Major Matt Mason action figures. Introduced in 1966 to capitalise on the space craze, Major Matt Mason was phenomenally popular. The line of toys were produced until the early Seventies, ended by Mattel not because they had declined in popularity, but because Mattel felt that the space programme had. Marx produced their own line of astronaut action figures under the name "Johnny Apollo," from 1968 to the early Seventies. Colorforms manufactured a line of Outer Space Men, figures of aliens from outer space. Eldon produced an astronaut figure for younger kids called Billy Blastoff which only lasted a couple of years. There were also many toy robots. In 1968 Ideal produced a line of four battery powered robots called Zeroids. Topps produced a line of humorous toy robots called Ding A Lings, which also sold only for a couple of years. There were also many, many battery operated, tin robots on the market, such as the Horikawa Astronaut battery operated toy robot.

Motion pictures had gone through a cycle of science fiction films in the Fifties that even included such space oriented entries as Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and Forbidden Planet. Perhaps for that reason the movie industry did not embrace the space craze as other media had. Still there were a few films that either touched upon space or centred upon space, one of which was very influential. The 1963 sequel to The Mouse That Roared, The Mouse on the Moon featured the tiny country of Grand Fenwick attempting to beat both the Americans and the Soviets to the moon. In The Glass Bottom Boat Doris Day's character worked at NASA. Planet of the Apes used space travel as a means of throwing its hero into the far future. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most influential, space movie of the Sixties was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in 1968, it became a smash hit which would have a lasting influence on all science fiction films to come. Marooned, released in 1969, centred on three astronauts stranded in space. Doppelganger (AKA Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) was a live action film made by Supermarionation master Gerry Anderson and centred on a mission to a planet in Earth's orbit, but on the exact opposite side of the sun.

Of course, the space craze of the Sixties was perhaps when NASA was most popular. The broadcast networks covered both the rocket launches and splashdowns live in those days. And both always did very well in the ratings. During the Sixties the astronauts were household names. Indeed, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard are still well known. There was enormous support for NASA in these days and the agency had little difficulty receiving funding.

Sadly, in the early Seventies, after Apollo 11, interest in the space programme died down. NASA would make even more achievements in the coming decades: Skylab, the Viking unmanned spacecraft to Mars, the space shuttle, the Mars Exploration Rovers, and others. Despite this, the average American probably rarely thinks of NASA or the space programme, and pays little attention to the agency's missions except in case of disasters such as Challenger and Columbia. Astronauts are no longer household names. Even Tang no longer mentions the space programme in its advertising. NASA has achieved much in its fifty years, but sadly it is not as popular as it was in its heyday of the Sixties.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Archie Andrews Radio Show

Most Americans have grown up with Archie comic books. If one is a younger Baby Boomer or older Gen Xer he or she might even remember the Archie cartoons that aired throughout much of the Seventies. But long before those cartoons, Archie appeared in his own radio show called Archie Andrews, also known as The Adventures of Archie Andrews.

Archie first appeared in Pep Comics #22, December 1941. The creation of Bob Montana, Archie is the archetypal seventeen year old, living in Riverdale and attending Riverdale High. Archie proved to be such a success that he would eventually share the cover of Pep Comics with the magazine's star The Shield and would eventually shove him off the cover completely. Archie would receive his own title in Winter 1942, only a year after his first appearance. Eventually MLJ would change its name to Archie Comics and would even discontinue their superhero line entirely. Archie would even receive his own newspaper comic strip in 1946. A radio show was a natural extension of this success.

Archie Andrews debuted as a 25 minute, five day a week show on NBC's Blue Network on May 31, 1943. This was a mere 18 months after the character's debut in Pep Comics. The initial incarnation of Archie Andrews only lasted until December 24, 1943. The show was not off the air for long, however, as it returned on the Mutual Broadcasting System as a 15 minute programme on January 17, 1944. This incarnation only lasted until June 2, 1944. This time Archie Andrews would be off the air for an entire year, returning on June 2, 1945 as a 30 minute show that was broadcast once a week on NBC. This time the show lasted until September 5th, 1953.

Over the years Archie was played by a number of different actors. Charles Mullen played Archie in the initial Blue Network run. Jack Grimes played the role while it was on Mutual. Grimes would later provide the voice of Goofy in a few cartoons and later Jimmy Olsen on the Sixties Superman cartoon and additional voices on Speed Racer. At some point Burt Boyar played Archie, but I don't know if that was late in the Mutual run or early in the NBC run. I definitely know that on the NBC run Bob Hastings played Archie. Hastings would have a long career in television, guest starring on shows from Gunsmoke to Murder She Wrote. He played Lt. Elroy Carpenter on McHale's Navy and Tommy Kelsey on All in the Family. He was the voice of Commissioner Gordon on Batman: the Animated Series.

In all, counting the various breaks in its run, Archie Andrews would run about a total of nine years. This was a very healthy run for a radio show. Ultimately, it was one of the most successful radio shows based on a comic book character (although not nearly as successful as The Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1940 to 1951).

Having listened to a couple of episodes from the NBC run of Archie Andrews, it is easy to see why it was a success. It is a very funny show. Archie Andrews is a classic situation comedy, starting out with a situation (Archie wants to get Veronica a bottle of bubble bath for her birthday, Archie's father is trying to stay cool during a heat wave), upon which complications are piled until everything reaches a head in a very hilarious climax. If you are a fan of old time radio or of Archie, I recommend you give the radio show a listen sometime. Archie Comics has several episodes available on their official site.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Phenomenon That is The Dark Knight

This weekend The Dark Knight made another $75,630,000. Its total now stands at $314,245,000. That broke the record the biggest 10 day opening. It is also just short of the summer's highest gross so far, that of Iron Man, which stands at $314,905,000. In other words, in a day or two The Dark Knight will be the top grossing movie of the summer.

The question of course is why The Dark Knight is doing so phenomenally well. Many will point to the death of Heath Ledger. And there can be no doubt that has played a major role in the success of the film. Heath Ledger was a wildly popular star. His death made headlines for days. It would be a surprise if the film featuring his last completed role would not be a roaring success.

That having been said, I am not sure that accounts for The Dark Knight being a veritable phenomenon. Consider this, Rebel Without a Cause was released less than a month after James Dean's death. And the film did very well at the box office. And yet it wasn't even the top grossing film of 1955, which was Lady and the Tramp, which took in a whopping $93,600,000. Dean's final role would appear in the film Giant, released in 1956. The film also did very well, grossing $35,000,000. And yet it was only the third highest grossing film of the year, after The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days. If we were to expect The Dark Knight to follow the same pattern as the movies made by James Dean released in the wake of his death, then it seems to me that it would not be nearly as successful as it is.

It would then seem to that there are other factors at work behind the phenomenon of The Dark Knight. Among these I believe is the intrinsic appeal of the character of Batman. Unlike Superman, Batman is a mere mortal. He can wounded. He can be killed. This makes him more accessible to the averager person who is not a comic book fan and thus easier for them to identify with than the Man of Steel and other superheroes. Not only is The Batman physically vulnerable, but in some respects he is also psychologically and emotionally vulnerable. The Dark Knight has his share of inner demons. Indeed, his parents were brutally murdered in a mugging which he saw with his own eyes. The tragedy gave young Bruce Wayne not simply the desire to fight crime, but nearly a compulsion to do so. While it is true that other superheroes have had tragedies that started their careers--Spider-Man's Uncle Ben was similarly murdered--but Batman was the very first. As a hero born of tragedy, he is then all the more easier for the common man to sympathise with and identify with.

Indeed, the phenomenon of The Dark Knight is nothing new. In 1966 the TV show Batman debuted to phenomenal ratings and resulted in an absolute craze for the Caped Crusader. In 1989 the film Batman became the top grossing film of the year and still ranks number nine in the list of worldwide top grossing films when adjusted for inflation. It too resulted in Batmania. In many respects, then, history is simply repeating itself.

Of course, The Dark Knight would not be the phenomenon it is if it was not for the fact that it is a great film. Had it been absolutely horrible, it would probably still be a success, but it would not be the success it is. Indeed, The Dark Knight features some of the best performances not only of any superhero film, but of any film in recent history. Most notable is Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker, which is chilling in a way that even Hannibal Lector was not. Although Ledger has received the most praise, every one of the cast turned in great performances. Indeed, Christian Bale's turn as Batman is easily the best of his career.

Similarly, the script is wonderfully complex, adding depth to the characters and addressing deeper issues than any superhero film before it. Not only does the film address the themes of good and evil found in many superhero movies, but it also addresses such issues as the delicate balance between order and chaos, the fragility of human nature, and even to what extremes the fight to defeat evil itself can itself become an act of evil. These deeper themes no doubt speak to many viewers.

That is not to say that the film cannot be enjoyed as an action movie. The Dark Knight has some of the most spectacular action scenes ever seen on film. In fact, Christopher Nolan shows an outright gift for such scenes. Of course, over all Nolan's direction on the film is the best of his career. Parts of the film were shot using the IMAX process, and Nolan put it to good use. There are wide angle shots, hand held shots, and virtually every other camera shot known to man. Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister deserve kudos for a job well done.

The fact that The Dark Knight is a great film probably does owe to a lot of its success. Viewers see the movie and then often see it again. There can be no doubt that The Dark Knight is receiving a lot of repeat business. Many viewers will no doubt tell others about the movie, with the result that many will go see The Dark Knight who might not otherwise see a superhero movie. Word of mouth is then probably driving much of the film's business. While the quality of a movie does not always mean it will be a success, it can certainly help in being so.

The Dark Knight is then a phenomenon for more than the fact that Heath Ledger died. Much of its success may be due to the intrinsic appeal of The Batman, a character who perhaps appeals more to the average person than other superheroes. Its success is also due to the fact that it is a great film, with standout performances, great action scenes, and outstanding direction. Had The Dark Knight been a lesser film, then, it might not be breaking box office records.