Saturday, August 23, 2008

Scrabble's 60th Anniversary

Scrabble has to be one of the most popular board games of all time. I rather suspect that it is the most popular word game of all time. It is estimated one million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide. It is also estimated that a Scrabble set is found in one out of every three American homes. It is sold in 121 countries and in 29 different languages. This year Scrabble celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Scrabble's roots actually go all the way back to 1938. It was in 1938 that Alfred Mosher Butts, an out of work architect, set out to invent a board game. He decided upon a word game based roughly upon crossword puzzles. In formulating the game, he studied the frequency of letters in the English language. Initially called Lexico, Butts settled upon the name "Criss-Crosswords." Butts tried selling the game to major game makers, but failed. He did manufacture a few of the games himself.

It was in 1948 that James Brunot, who had owned one of the original Criss-Crosswords games, bought the rights to Criss-Crosswords, giving Butts a royalty on every set sold. Brunot left most of the game unchanged, although he did simplify the rules and rearranged the premium squares on the board. Brunot changed the name of the game to "Scrabble," a word meaning "to scratch frantically." It was in 1949 that Brunot's family starting manufacturing sets.

Scrabble would receive its big break in 1952 when the game came to the attention of Jack Strauss, president of Macy's, while he was on vacation. Strauss ordered several sets to be sold at Macy's. It was not long before Scrabble reached the level of a fad, with sales so strong that sets actually had to be rationed to stores. The Brunot family soon realised they could not keep up with demand and sold manufacturing rights to Selchow and Righter.

Over the years the rules of the game have changed slightly. In 1953 it was clarified that words could be created using letters already on the board and that one could create a word parallel and immediately adjacent to an existing word as long as all crosswords created were valid. In 1976 it was clarified that blank tile beats an A when drawing to see who goes first and it was established that a player could pass his turn.

Scrabble would also change ownership over the years. Having manufactured the game for nearly twenty years, Selchow and Righter bought the trademark in 1972. In 1986 Selchow and Righter sold the rights to the game to Coleco. Coleco would declare bankruptcy in 1989, its properties being bought by Hasbro. Currently Scrabble is manufactured by Parker Brothers, which was bought by Hasbro in 1991.

As one of the most popular board games of all time, Scrabble would have a large impact on pop culture. A game show based on the game, called Scrabble, aired on NBC daytime from July 1984 to March 1990. It had a second run from January 1993 to June 1993. It was hosted by Chuck Woolery.

Beyond the game show, Scrabble has also been frequently mentioned on TV shows and in movies. In fact, one of the earliest references to Scrabble was in a 1954 episode of I Love Lucy. It would also be mentioned on such varied American and British TV shows as Steptoe and Son, The Critic, The Simpsons, Red Dwarf, Friends, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos. Scrabble has also been mentioned in various movies. The game appeared in the movie Foul Play and played an important part in the movie Sneakers (which centres around a top secret device to decrypt codes). It was also mentioned in the movies Rosemary's Baby, Black Hawk Down, and Charlie's Angels. The documentary Word Wars centred on Scrabble tournaments.

The first official Scrabble tournaments arose in the United States in the mid-Seventies, with the first National Scrabble Championship being held in 1978. The first World Scrabble Championship was held in 1991. There are also several Scrabble clubs worldwide.

There have also been several computer and video game versions of Scrabble over the years. The first Scrabble programme may have been one created by Stuart Shapiro and Howard Smith in 1977. Since then versions of Scrabble have been released for many different platforms, including PC, Commodore 65, Amiga, Mac, Nintendo DS, PlayStation, and Game Boy, among others.

Scrabble has been manufactured for sixty and has remained one of the most popular board games for most of that time. It has faithful players across the world, some who are absolutely fanatical about the game. Growing up, my brother and I enjoyed several hours of playing Scrabble. There can be little doubt that it will continue going strong for another sixty years.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Feline Follies: the First Felix the Cat Cartoon

It was on November 9, 1919 that Felix the Cat made his debut in the animated short "Feline Follies." Produced by Pat Sullivan's studio and distributed by Paramount Pictures, in his initial outing Felix did not bear the name by which he would become famous. Instead, he would was named "Master Tom." Regardless, "Feline Follies" proved successful enough that another cartoon featuring "Master Tom" was produced. "The Musical Mews" was released hot on the heels of "Feline Follies," on November 16, 1919. "Musical Mews" also proved to be a hit. It was in Felix's third animated short, "The Adventures of Felix," that he finally received the name that would make him famous. Felix would go on to become the most popular animated character of the Twenties. Among other things, the figure of Felix the Cat provided the first giant balloon to ever appear in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And a Felix the Cat doll was one of the first images ever broadcast on television, in an experiment by W2XBS New York. Felix was also the subject of several songs written in the Twenties, including "Felix! Felix! Felix the Cat!" by Paul Whiteman and "Felix Kept on Walking" by Ed E. Bryant and Hubert W. David.

Here, courtesy of YouTube, for your viewing pleasure is that first Felix the Cat cartoon, "Feline Follies."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

When it comes to movies, everyone has their share of guilty pleasures. These are movies that we realise are bad and so we feel guilty about watching them, but we enjoy them nonetheless. And often people will list their guilty pleasures in their blogs, but sadly I have to wonder if many times these are truly that person's guilty pleasures. After all, such lists often include films that are admittedly left of centre, but are good nonetheless. For instance, if I was going to make such a list, I might include Phantom of the Paradise, Motel Hell, and Phantasm, even though all three films are rated "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. What I have chosen to do instead is to list what are truly my guilty pleasures, movies that are truly so bad that I feel guilty enjoying them. I do hope that your opinion of my critical judgement does not suffer from knowing that I like these movies...

The Silencers (1966): The Silencers was the first of the short lived series of Matt Helm movies featuring Dean Martin in the lead role. And even from an adaptation of the Matt Helm novel, it fails. Italian descended Dean Martin is horribly miscast as Matt Helm, who was fiercely proud of his Nordic heritage. And it should be pointed out that Matt Helm was not exactly a spy. Technically he was a counteragent for the United States government, the man whose job it was to neutralise or kill enemy agents. More simply put, he was a government assassin. Needless to say, the movie departs a good deal from the novel. The novel centres around Helm, sent to Mexico to extract an agent, who then finds himself involved trying to save a group of American scientists and Congressmen.

In the movie Matt Helm is more or less a straight forward secret agent. As to the plot of the movie, it centres on Helm's efforts to stop an evil organization called "Big O" from detonating an atomic bomb over New Mexico. Further distancing the film from the novel is its style. The Matt Helm novels are very gritty and realistic--they actually have more in common with hard boiled detective stories such as those of Philip Marlowe than the bigger than life adventures of James Bond. On the other hand, the movie is done in a tongue in cheek style.

From all appearances, The Silencers was contrived simply as a vehicle for Dean Martin to act like, well, Dean Martin. He womanises. He boozes. There are even a few of his songs. The rest of the cast are merely window dressing, from beautiful women like Stella Stevens to the villain Victor Buono. The plot is paper thin and many of gadgets and technology are simply downright silly. The film is even outright racist, with Victor Buono in yellowface.

Still, I cannot deny to enjoying this movie every time I see it. I have always loved Dean Martin. He is one of my favourite actors and singers of all time. And I have always loved to see him going through his schtick--boozing, womanising, and making easy going jokes. The silliness of much of what goes on only adds to my enjoyment. So much of the movie is so unbelievably silly that I cannot help but laugh. As a Matt Helm adaptation and a serious spy drama, The Silencers fails miserably. As an unintentional comedy, it succeeds admirably.

Casino Royale (1967): In the Sixties it was Charles K. Feldman who owned the rights to the first James Bond novel Casino Royale. Unfortunately, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman beat him to the punch with a 007 movie, namely Dr. No. Feldman went to EON Productions with the goal of a joint production of a movie based on the first 007 novel. Having experienced difficulties with Kevin McClory (the screenwriter, director, and producer who had collaborated with Fleming on various draughts for proposed Bond TV and movie projects) in the production of Thunderball, EON Productions was a bit nervous about collaborating with anyone else. For this reason, they turned Feldman down. This is how Feldman's adaptation of Casino Royale began.

Feldman believed he could not possibly compete with Broccoli and Saltzman's series of James Bond movies, so he hit upon the idea of spoofing 007. Sadly, the production would be troubled from the beginning. Peter Sellers was cast as Evelyn Tremble (the poor schmuck who was assigned to impersonate Bond), and Sellers took it in his head that he wanted the movie to have a more serious tone. Sellers would pressure for rewrites on a screenplay that had already been written by three men. In the end, Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, John Law, Wolf Mankowitz, Michael Sayers, Terry Southern, and Billy Wilder would all contribute to the screenplay. For that matter, the movie would have no less than five different directors: Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish.

The movie Casino Royale departs from the novel in many ways beyond being a spoof. In fact, only Bond's card game against Le Chiffre in the Casino Royale is retained from the book, although in the movie it is actually Evelyn Tremble who plays against him and not Bond (the genuine article being played by David Niven). As to the movie's plot, putting it politely it is a mess. Written by eight different writers, the movie is wildly uneven, with some rather dramatic shifts in style and tone. At times the humour also seems a bit scattershot and haphazard. Some jokes are uprorious. Others fall flat on their face.

Still, I find Casino Royale to be a very fun movie. Uneven it may be, the movie does have its share of golden moments. In many way the movie acts quite effectively as a commentary on the whole spy craze that was taking place at that time. And many of the performances are actually quite good. David Niven is sterling as always as the one, the only, the original James Bond. And Woody Allen Allen is not a mere parody of the villains typical to the official Bond franchise, but a demonstration that ultimately such megalomaniacs are merely psychologically and sexually frustrated losers. Casino Royale is not a great film. I won't even say it's a good one. But it is fun movie.

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987): There are many who write this off as merely another slasher film, particularly since it is a sequel to the atrocious Prom Night. That having been said, beyond its name, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is absolutely no relation to Prom Night. And it is hardly a slasher film. The movie centres around a prom queen (the Mary Lou of the title) murdered in the Fifties who returns to her old high school in 1987 to exact revenge. In this respect is is very derivative, drawing not only upon Carrie and The Exorcist, but Nightmare on Elm Street as well. And I must confess the movie does tend to give out in the end, with a rather standard ending that is a let down. But up to that point it is one fun ride.

Derivative it may be, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is incredibly inventive in the way it uses the material from its various sources. The movie features some truly creative horror scenes, and it has a great sense of the Grand Guignol. Wendy Lyon, who plays the innocent teen who becomes possessed by Mary Lou's ghost, give a great performance, easily slipping between teenage innocence and Mary Lou's controlled evil. The movie moves at a good pace and it has a very well developed plot, offering more exposition than the average horror film. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II has always received bad reviews, but it should not. It is one of my few guilty pleasures I can truly say is good.

Hudson Hawk (1991): When it was first released, Hudson Hawk received horrible reviews. In fact, it still receives horrible reviews. Bruce Willis plays Hudson Hawk, a master cat burglar who times his heists by signing songs, has just been released from prison and no intention of going back. Unfortunately for Hawk, he finds himself wrapped up in a truly Bondian plot. If Hudson Hawk received some truly atrocious reviews, it may well have been because of the absurdity of it all. The movie features clockwork technology of the sort seen in Our Man Flint, and makes free use of a mixture of mysterious history, secret societies, and conspiracy theories. And the whole thing climaxes in a remote castle. What is more, the film makes free use of surreal humour, complete with cartoon-style slapstick and sound effects. For many critics there can be no doubt that this was all too much.

Now from my standpoint, I must admit that there are times when the film meanders, with characters sometimes going off in pointless directions. And the film can at times be confusing. It is also rather uneven, with some of jokes falling flat. That having been said, Hudson Hawk has a wonderfully over the top quality that I can't help but love. While there is much about the film that doesn't work, there is much about it which does. In fact, it comes off as a wonderful cross between a Sixties spy spoof and a Thirties screwball comedy, with quite a bit of irreverence thrown in for good measure. If critics did not get Hudson Hawk, then perhaps it is because they took it as a serious attempt at an action movie than what it really is: a perfect piece of high camp. Not very good in some ways, but very enjoyable.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995): Most reviews I read of Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight either said it was a movie made for fifteen year old boys, that it was a tad dull, or both. I cannot deny that fifteen year old boys would love the movie. Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight was not based on any story from the classic E. C. Comics--the screenplay is wholly original--but the story that unfolds is truly in the spirit of the comics. It is unabashedly gory and possessed of its own strict code of morality, just like the classic E.C. stories.

Indeed, while I will admit that the movie can move slow at times, it has a whole lot going for it, particularly a very original premise and its very own mythology. Quite simply, it revolves around a artefact called the Key (as in the Key to the gates of Hell) which for millennia has been guarded by a series of Demon Knights. It seems that to keep the Key from falling into the wrong hands, God arranged to have the Key filled with the blood of Jesus and then guarded by the Demon Knight. This takes us to the present day American West. The latest Demon Knight, Frank Brayker, is old and on his last legs. Worse yet, he is being pursued by the Collector, a high level demon charged with getting the key. Brayker must appoint his successor, who turns out to be a young thief named Jeryline (played by a young Jada Pinkett Smith), and turn the Key over her while keeping it out of the Collector's hands.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight benefits not only from a wonderfully complex mythology, but from some very frightening scenes and some great action sequences. And for those who love gore, there is plenty of gore to be had. Jada Pinkett Smith gives a sincere performance, and does quite as an action hero. In all, the movie feels what it might have been like had E.C. Comics decided to issue a superhero title, but one crossed with Tales from the Crypt. This is a movie that fifteen year old boys would enjoy. But I think it is also a fun film that horror fans of any age would enjoy as well.

The Last Legion (2007): Okay, the history portrayed in The Last Legion is about as far off the mark as one can get. And the movie is admittedly made on the cheap. The performances range from the fairly good (Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley) to the simply awful. And I have to admit that the script can be rather goofy at times.

Still, for me The Last Legion works. Goofy and silly it may be. The acting may not always be the best and the direction can be workmanlike, but ultimately it works as a good, old fashioned, Saturday matinee movie. It reminds me of those sword and sandal movies Hollywood and Italy churned out by the scores in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It has its fair share of exciting fight scenes. And it knows when not to take itself too seriously (it is a lot more fun than the somewhat staid King Arthur). And where else will one get to see the sexy and beautiful Aishwarya Rai kick arse?

Well, there you have it. My list of five guilty pleasures. I hope that you have not lost respect for me now and that you will still pay some attention to my film reviews. I can promise you this. My tastes have not grown so bad that now I now count John Hughes as one of my favourite directors (now there's a man whose movies may be guilty, but they're hardly pleasures)....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Advertising Spokemen Go Bad

There have been many advertising spokesmen who have pitched their products for years. Mr. Whipple (played by Dick Wilson) warned customers, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin..." for 24 years and 504 commercials. Madge the Manicurist had her customers soaking in Palmolive dishwashing liquid for a full 26 years. Mrs. Olson sold Folgers Coffee for a full 22 years. But other advertising spokesmen aren't so lucky. Their careers are measured only in a few years or even a few months. Sometimes it is because they are utterly unpopular. Other times they may have started out popular, but people grew sick of them. Yet other times they find themselves in a scandal that makes them unsuitable for use as an advertising spokesmen.

Perhaps no greater example of an advertising spokesman who failed than Herb of the short lived Burger King campaign of 1985. For several years the J. Walter Thompson agency seemed incapable of developing a successful advertising campaign for Burger King. Slogans such as "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now?" and "The big switch (referring to Burger King's broiling burgers versus MacDonalds frying them)" fell on deaf ears. The J. Walter Thompson agency then fell upon what they thought was a surefire winner. Herb would be a nerd, the only person in the United States who had never tasted a Whopper. J. Walter Thompson sank an enormous amount of money in the campaign, a whopping $40 million.

The campaign began with a teaser campaign that consisted of cryptic messages in newspapers and banners at football games. The introductory spot itself was scheduled to debut on all three networks on November 24 1985. That first commercial explained how Burger King was launching a nationwide search for Herb, the one man who had never eaten a Burger King burger. In following commercials Herb's friends and family urged Herb by all means to try a Whopper. They even offered a 99 cent special on the Whopper to everyone except Herb. All one had to do is say, "I'm not Herb (or if your name was Herb, then "I'm not the Herb you're looking for."). At last, in a commercial aired during the Super Bowl, Herb was revealed. He was a balding man in glasses, a loud jacket, pants that didn't reach his ankles, and white socks, played by actor John Merrick. And it would seem that he finally tried a Whopper and loved it! Herb would go onto make an appearance on the Today show and as a guest timekeeper on Wrestlemania II. Burger King also plastered Herb's image on a wide array of merchandise: T-shirts, posters, pinback buttons, and so on.

Burger King also announced a contest. Herb now loved Burger King so much that he would visit one in each of the fifty states. Anyone who found Herb in a Burger King would be awarded $5000. Every $5000 winner would be entered in a contest to win $1,000,000. As it turned out, however, only one person ever claimed a $5000 prize. The whole time that the campaign had been going on, Burger King had not noticed that among the general public there were only two basic reactions to Herb. People were either utterly indifferent to him or they actively hated him. In fact, during the entire run of the campaign, Burger King's sales plummetted. The commercials had been set to run over a year. As it turned out, Burger King pulled the plug on the campaign after only four months. As to actor John Merrick, he was never heard from again. As to the J. Lee Thompson agency, immediately following the Herb debacle, Burger King fired them.

At least the Taco Bell chihuahua had a somewhat longer run. While played by a female chihuahua, the Taco Bell chihuahua was ostensibly male and spoke with a male voice. He made his debut in a test spot in September 1997 in the Northeastern United States. That first commercial started out making it look as if the dog was approaching a female chihuahua when, in truth, he was running up to a man eating Taco Bell. Sitting at the man's feet, the Taco Bell chihuahua looked up at him and said, "Yo quiero Taco Bell." The ad received such a good response in the Northeast, that Taco Bell took it nationwide. The ads had been created by the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency.

The spot proved successful enough that Taco Bell would soon run a whole series of ads featuring the canine. In another popular spot he hovered under a person eating a Taco Bell chalupa, imploring "Drop the chalupa!" In a promotional tie-in with the American movie Godzilla, the Taco Bell chihuahua was running around New York City with a bag calling, "Heeeere, Lizard, Lizard." Upon seeing the size of this lizard (the American version of Godzilla), he exclaims, "Uh-oh, I think I need a bigger box." In the beginning the Taco Bell chihuahua would prove immensely popular. Both "Yo quiero Taco Bell" and "Drop the chalupa!"became catchphrases in the late Nineties. His image adorned posters and t-shirts. Taco Bell sold tons of Taco Bell chihuahua plushes.

Even in the beginning, however, all was not well. Hispanic groups complained that the chihuahua was a thinly veiled Mexican stereotype. And while the Taco Bell chihuahua had initially been a bit of a phenomenon, as time went on, he became less and less popular. There were many who actively hated the little dog. Perhaps worst of all, Taco Bell's sales dropped. In the end, Peter Weller, president of Taco Bell, was replaced by Emil Brolick, a veteran of Wendy's. Taco Bell dropped the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency and returned to Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide for all its advertising. As to the Taco Bell chihuahua, she was fired. While there have been reports that the chihuahua campaign was ended due to pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups, it is equally likely that the low sales also played a role.

The Taco Bell chihuahua never appeared in another commercial for Taco Bell. The dog appeared as one of those auditioning for the role of GEICO spokesman, along side the gecko, in a 2002 commercial. He also appeared in an episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Other times it is not dwindling popularity that dooms an advertising spokesman, but a simple, old fashioned scandal. This was the case of the Dell Dude. For those of you with short memories, the Dell Dude, whose official name was "Steven," was the zoned out, zany techno-geek who pitched computers for Dell. And while the actor who played him, Ben Curtis, could be considered Generation Y at best, the character of the Dell Dude was a purely Gen X archetype. His spiritual ancestors were Jeff Spicoli, the resident stoner in 1982's classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Wayne and Garth from Wayne's World, and Bill and Ted from the movies Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. One gets the feeling that the Dell Dude would have no problem hanging out with Jay and Silent Bob from Kevin Smith's movies. Well, quite simply, the Dell Dude was yet another in a long line of Gen X slackers, but while Wayne, Garth, Bill, and Ted got off on music, and Jay and Silent Bob got off on comic books (well, and grass as well...), Steven the Dell Dude got off on Dell Computers.

The first commercial featuring the Dell Dude debuted during the holiday season of 2000. It featured Steven making a videotaped plea to his parents to get him a Dell Computer for Christmas. That first commercial was so successful that Steven the Dell Dude was featured in more commercials. He might be lurking anywhere, in an electronics store convincing customers to buy a Dell, visiting neighbours, as a high school graduate making a speech before his class, and even as Santa's little helper in a department store. The ads resulted in a number of catchphrases, such as "We're getting a Dell, dude!" or "You're getting a Dell, dude!" Whenever a customer bought a PC with which he was disappointed, Steven might chastise them with "You could have got a Dell, dude."

Steven the Dell Dude became a veritable phenomenon. Dell sold baseball caps, T-shirts, notepads, book packs, and CD cases. Steven the Dell Dude even had his own web site for a time. If there was any doubt of the success of Steven the Dell Dude, one need only look at the sales of Dell. Since the start of the Dell Dude campaign their sales had risen 16.5 percent. That was more than double the previous years.

Unfortunately, in October 2002 the end was near. Dell launched a series of ads that focused not on Steven the Dell Dude, but on the interns at Dell headquarters. The Dell Dude would at least appear in one of those commercials. And Dell made it clear that they were not ending their relationship with actor Ben Curtis or his character. There were then plans for Steven to continue to appear from time to time in Dell ads.

All of that would change one fateful night on February 9 2003 when actor Ben Curtis was arrested at Ludlow and Rivington on Manhattan's Lower East Side on a charge of misdemeanour marijuana possession (as it turns out, maybe Steven the Dell Dude did hang out with Jay and Silent Bob....). Initially Dell maintained that despite the arrest, they still had a relationship with Curtis. Soon afterwards, however, Ben Curtis's employment with Dell was terminated on grounds of "unspecified violations of company policy." Steven the Dell Dude has never again appeared in a commercial for Dell.

I could probably name other instances in which advertising spokesmen have gone bad. Most often it seems to me that it is a case similar to that of Herb, in which a character is just plain unpopular (if not quite that extreme). Almost as often it is a case of a character who was once popular, but eventually started getting on people's nerves, such as the Taco Bell chihuahua. It seems to me that commercial spokesmen being dismissed due to some scandal is actually very, very rare. Off the top of my head I can think of only one other group of commercial spokesmen who were dismissed due to a scandal. Old Milwaukee Beer's spots featuring the Swedish Bikini Team resulted in a lawsuit from female employees of the Stroh's Brewery (who made Old Milwaukee) maintaining that the ads were misleading and helped foster a work environment of sexual harassment. The ads ended immediately.

Regardless, it is clear that not every commercial spokesman can be the Maytag Repairman (who has been around since 1967, played by Jesse White, Gordon Jump, Hardy Rawls, and Clay Jackson) or even the Brawny Lumberjack. There will always be a Herb or a Baby Bob (gods, he was creepy).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hellboy Turns 15

It was on this day in 1993 that the character of Hellboy debuted at the San Diego Comic-Con. He first appeared there in the pages of San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2. The creation of writer and artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy is a demon brought to Earth during World War II as a child and raised Professor Trevor Bruttenholm to use his powers for good. As an adult Hellboy would first fight demons, goblins, and other critters that go bump in the night with the U.S. government's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence. The appeal of Hellboy isn't simply that he is a demon who uses his powers for good, but rather he comes off as an average, working class joe. He can be gruff, nonchalant, and unflappable, yet he shows unswerving loyalty to his friends and family. He loves cats (in fact, he owns dozens of them), smokes cigars (which he lights with a Zippo), and uses a rather huge gun with bullets especially made for supernatural menaces (it is named the Samaritan in the first Hellboy film). His other weapon is his right hand, huge and made of stone, often called "the Right Hand of Doom." Supposedly, its purpose is to serve as the catalyst for Armageddon.

Although the character is owned by Mike Mignola, Hellboy has been published by Dark Horse Comics for his entire history. In fact, he might be their most popular character. In 1993 He apepared in Next Men #21, December 1993. Nineteen ninety-four would see Hellboy titles finally appear, with the mini-series
Hellboy: Seed of Destruction
(it was this miniseries that was the basis of much of the first movie). In all Hellboy would appear in around ten miniseries and several individual stories, not counting guest appearances in other magazines.

The popularity of Hellboy would naturally result in the merchandising of the character. Even before the film, there were Hellboy T-shirts, licence plates, a lunchbox, two Zippos (the BPRD Zippo and the Hellboy zippo). Of course, once the first film came out, there would be even more Hellboy merchandise.

It is perhaps a mark of Hellboy's success that, even though the character was only eleven years old at the time, he had a major motion picture based upon him. Hellboy's path to becoming a film star was not smooth. Guillermo del Toro had long wanted to direct a feature film based upon Hellboy, but could never secure studio approval or a sufficient budget. Fortunately, the success of Blade II finally gave him the chance to direct Hellboy. The film proved moderately successful at the box office and sold very well on DVD. This would result in a sequel, although it would be delayed for a few years. Revolution Studios, the original studio which had produced the first film, had planned to do a sequel, but went out of business before they could do so. Universal Studios would then pick up the project. Hellboy II: the Golden Army came out this past summer.

There have also been animated features for televison based upon Hellboy that have come out. In 2005 IDT Entertainment announced that they had licensed the rights to develop Hellboy animated content for television. The first feature, Sword of Storms, aired on the Cartoon Network in 2006 and was released on DVD shortly thereafter. Mike Mignola co-wrote the script, while Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Doug Jones provided the voices of their characters from the movie. A second feature, Blood and Iron, debuted in 2007 on the Cartoon Network and was released on DVD not long thereafter. Mike Mignola once more co-wrote the script. The actors from the movie once more provided voices for their characters, including this time around John Hurt as Professor Bruttenholm. A third animated feature, The Phantom Claw, has been announced.

In a mere fifteen years Hellboy has risen to heights that few comic book characters of recent vintage ever have. In fact, he may be one of the few comic book characters whose name is recognised by the average person, although it is probably due to the movies more than anything else. He has a large readership when compared to other comic book characters. In fact, his following can aptly be described as a cult following. There is one thing for certain. Hellboy will be around for many years to come.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mr. Bubble

It was in the Fifties that Madison Avenue finally took notice of children. There had been some marketing to children before then. For instance, breakfast cereals had long featured premiums to catch children's eyes. Ultimately, however, it was in the Fifties and later the Sixties that marketing to children really caught fire. The breakfast cereal companies not only rushed to create animated characters to attract children, but even created cereals to specifically appeal to them. The toy industry grew at a phenomenal rate in the Fifties. And now toys were being marketed directly to children through the miracle of television. Of course, the reason for Madison Avenue's sudden awareness of the very young is not hard to find. This was the era of the Baby Boom (1945 to 1960) when more children were born at any other time in the United States. With so many youngsters about it was impossible not to take notice of them.

Among the things first marketed to children in the early Sixties (particularly the years 1960 and 1961) were bubble bath products. In the United States Charlie Eaton seems to have started it all with Bub, marketed shortly before 1959. Colgate manufactured the Bubble Bath Soaky, a bubble bath whose bottles were shaped like various popular characters (in 1965 there were even four Beatles Bubble Bath Soakies). Among the most popular of the new products, however, was Mr. Bubble.

Mr. Bubble was invented by Harold Shafer, of Gold Seal Company. It was in 1942 that he founded the company with Gold Seal Floor Wax. It was in 1945 that he introduced Glass Wax. The company went national in 1948 and saw phenomenal success with Glass Wax and Snowy Bleach (introduced in 1950). It was in 1960 that he introduced Mr. Bubble.

Mr. Bubble was obviously created to be marketed to children. It was promoted by a character called Mr. Bubble, who was essentially an anthropomorphic bubble. The character of Mr. Bubble also appeared in often humorous, animated commercials from the beginning. One of the more popular taglines of the Sixties was "Mr. Bubble gets you so clean your mother won't know you." It was perhaps because of the character of Mr. Bubble and the commercials that Mr. Bubble became a hit.

Originally, Mr. Bubble was in a powered form, which was the reason for the warning on the package "Keep Dry." This was ridiculed at the time by comic Don Novello (best known as Father Guido Sarducci), who wrote them letters under the pen name Lazlo Toth. He published the letters in the book The Lazlo Letters. The warning to "Keep Dry" a product meant to be used in water must have seemed ridiculous to Novello. A liquid version of Mr. Bubble was later introduced.

Mr. Bubble would prove to be a very successful product from the Sixties well into the Seventies. The product was so successful that there was even a wide array of Mr. Bubble merchandise. There have been T-shirts, caps, keychains, boxer shorts, earrings, and a number of other items.

Of course, Mr. Bubble hasn't always had it easy. In 1985 Harold Schafer sold Gold Seal Company to Airwick Industries. In 1998 Mr. Bubble was obtained by Playtex Products Inc. Platex Products was later acquired by Ascendia Brands Inc. Beyond changes in ownership, the sales of Mr. Bubble would falter in the Eighties. It was then that Cosrich Group Inc. first licensed the use of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Their licensing deal would also include Disney movies, such as Beauty and the Beast. They would later manufacture bubble baths based on the Sesame Street characters as well. In the end Cosrich would go into licensing in a way that Colgate never had with its Soakies. And sadly, this hurt Mr. Bubble's sales.

Fortunately, Mr. Bubble's salvation would come from the most unexpected places. It was a furnishing store, Restoration Hardware, known for reviving the furnishings of the past. Looking to revive old, established brands, they naturally took an interest in Mr. Bubble. They conducted a study and found that there was still public interest in the character, particularly on the part of mothers, who liked both the simplicity and the price of Mr. Bubble. Restoration Hardware began selling Mr. Bubble, and his revival was under way.

Sadly, the revival was not to last. Ascendia Brands Inc. had racked up a lot of debt in the past few years. Much of the debt was secured by liens against the company's assets. Worse yet, many of their acquisitions did not sell as well as might be expected. It was on August 6, 2008 that Ascendia Brands Inc. filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. They are currently looking for a buyer for the company.

It is hard to say what the future holds for Mr. Bubble. As a well established brand, I think it would be safe to say that whoever buys Ascendia will probably continue manufacturing it. It would be a shame for Mr. Bubble to go the way of such brands as Burma-Shave, Chewels gum, and Brim Coffee. Mr. Bubble was the bubble bath of choice for many mothers of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. I have fond memories of taking baths in the stuff myself. Somehow I just cannot see Cosrich's licensed bubble baths ever quite taking the place of Mr. Bubble.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Watchmen Trailer

Of the films being released next year that I am eagerly anticipating, I am probably looking forward to none more than Watchmen. The film, directed by 300 director Zack Snyder, is being released March 6 (only four days before my birthday).

For those of you who don't know, the movie Watchmen is based on the 1986-1987 graphic novel of the same name by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. The graphic novel takes place in an alternate reality circa 1985 where superheroes actually came into being in the late Thirties and early Forties. The United States is closer to ever to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon is still president. Costumed adventurers (as the heroes call themselves) were banned under the Keene Act of 1977, but the murder of The Comedian triggers a series of events that will soon involved all of them. Along with The Dark Knight Returns and V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, it is counted among the greatest graphic novels of all time.

Here then I present to you, courtesy of YouTube, the trailer to the movie Watchmen.