Friday, November 21, 2008

Irving Gertz R.I.P.

Irving Gertz, the composer who worked on such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man and It Came From Outer Space passed on November 14 at the age of 93.

Irving Gertz was born in Providence, Rhode Island on May 19, 1915. He started playing various musical instruments while very young. He attended the Providence College of Music, and was taught privately by composer and music theorist Walter Piston. He was still a young composer when the Providence Symphony Orchestra was performing his music, but a fascination with film scores led him to take a job with Columbia Pictures in 1938.

Gertz's film career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in both the artillery and the Army Signal Corps. Gertz returned to Columbia after the war. He composed music for such films as Over the Santa Fe Trail and The Counterfeiters. He then went to work for NBC Radio, composing music for radio shows. In the early Fifties, he returned to film and joined Universal-International. Arguably, the Fifties was the height of Gertz's career. He composed memorable scores for such films as It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Creature Walks Among Us, and To Hell and Back.

Gertz also worked in television, his first music for a TV show being for M Squad in 1957. He also worked on Daniel Boone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Invaders, and Land of the Giants. Gertz also composed concert music, including such compositions as Leaves of Grass and Salute to All Nations.

Irving Gertz worked in Hollywood at a time when the studios employed multiple composers on films and those composers were rarely credited. Even so, There can be no doubt that Gertz was a talented composer. His music always fit the atmosphere of the movie he was a scoring. And he had a great sense of drama when it came to scoring films. If films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man and It Came From Outer Space are still loved today, it is largely because of Gertz's music.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comedy Writer Irving Brecher Passes On

Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle in vaudeville and such comedy movies as At the Circus (starting the Marx Brothers) and The Life of Riley passed on November 17 at the age of 94. He had experienced a number of heart attacks last week.

Irving Brecher was born in the Bronx on January 17, 1914. He was raised in Yonkers. He was 19 years old when he took a job as an usher and ticket collector when a critic from Variety told him he could make money by writing gags for comedians. He then took an advertisement in Variety which read, "Positively Berle-proof gags. So bad not even Milton will steal them," capitalising on Berle's reputation for stealing jokes. Naturally, Milton Berle hired him.

In 1937 Brecher left vaudeville for Hollywood. There he would be one of the uncredited screenwriters to work on The Wizard of Oz. He would go on to write or co-write the Marx Brothers Movies At the Circus and Go West, the Red Skelton vehicle Ship Ahoy, Du Barry was a Lady, Meet Me in St. Louis, Ziegfield Follies, The Life of Riley, and the movie version of Bye, Bye Birdie. For television he wrote episodes of The Life of Riley and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. He directed the movies The Life of Riley, Somebody Loves Me, and Sail a Crooked Ship. He also worked in radio, on such shows as The Gillette Original Community Sing and The Life of Riley (which he also created).

Milton Berle once said in tribute to Brecher, As a writer, he really has no equals. Superiors, yes." Berle was only joking, as Brecher probably had few, if any superiors when it came to comedy writing. As a tribute to his talent, it must be pointed out that Irving Brecher was the only writer in the history of film to received sole credit on a Marx Brothers movie (At the Circus). He was one of the funniest men to ever write in Hollywood, and worked with such legends as Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and Henny Youngman, in addition to the Marx Brothers and Milton Berle. He also wrote some of the best films ever made. Irving Brecher had no equals. It is doubtful whether there were many, if any, writers superior to him.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The 40th Anniversary of the "Heidi Game"

It was forty years ago today that NBC ended the broadcast of an American Football League game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets to join a scheduled broadcast of the television movie Heidi, starring Maximillian Schell and Jennifer Edwards. When NBC left the game, the Jets were leading 32 points to 29 points with 65 seconds to go. After NBC left the game the Raiders would come from behind with 14 points, to win the game with 43 to 32. At the time, the fact that NBC left the game enraged many football fans. In fact, the whole situation would be come a bit of a controversy. The game itself has since become known as "the Heidi Game."

In 1968 the American Football League (AFL) had become the only start-up league to rival the well established National Football League. It was immensely popular, enough that the intense competition for both fans and players would lead the two leagues to announce a planned merger on June 8, 1966. As of November 17, 1968, however, the AFL was still its own league. It would not merge with the NFL until the 1971 football season. As might be expected, the AFL's games generally attracted many viewers to television on Sunday afternoons.

As to NBC, it had been originally decided that whether the game was over or not, the network would join their scheduled broadcast of Heidi at 7:00 PM EST/6:00 PM CST. Even before 7 PM EST, however, fans were flooding NBC with phone calls to demand the network to stay with the game. The network then decided, with seven minutes to go, to stay with the game and air Heidi in its entirety afterwards. Unfortunately, NBC had received so many calls that the network's switchboard was completely blown. Network executives could not reach NBC broadcast operations supervisor Dick Cline to tell him not to leave the game. As a result, NBC would leave the game between the Jets and the Raiders, even though it had been decided that the network would remain with it. When network executives finally reached Cline, they demanded he return to the game, but by that time the video link to the game had ended and to restart it would require AT&T to call numerous telephone switching stations around the United States, something which time simply would not permit. The technology at the time then made returning the game impossible.

It was 8:20 PM EST that a crawl announced the game's ending and its outcome. This only enraged football fans even more, who called NBC, their local affiliates, various newspapers, and even the telephone company. In reaction, NBC's president Julius Goodman issued a statement referring to it as "...a forgiveable error committed by humans who were concerned about children expecting to see Heidi..." ninety minutes after the incident. Afterwards NBC would also buy ads in several major newspapers with great reviews for the TV movie Heidi. The incident would still be talked about the next day, making the front page of many newspapers (including The New York Times) and being mentioned not only on NBC's own news shows, but rival network ABC's evening the next day

The Heidi Game would be a turning point in both the history of American broadcast television and American football. Afterwards the NFL would insert a clause requiring the networks to show games in their entirety into their contracts with them. As to any television programming that aired afterwards, over the years the networks would handle these situations different. During the Seventies into the Eighties, it was typical for the networks to join programmes scheduled after NFL games "already in progress," meaning that viewers could miss the first part of many shows. If games ran an hour or more overtime, TV shows scheduled afterwards could be pre-empted entirely. This sometimes resulted in angry viewers. In 1975 NBC remained with a game between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders even though it ran over by 45 minutes. As a result, the network joined the very heavily promoted  network broadcast premiere of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory "already in progress" in the Eastern and Central time zones. The end result of NBC's decision was an unusually large number of angry calls from parents. By the Eighties, the networks started airing programmes in their entirety following NFL games that ran overtime, no matter how long that might be. I can only guess that the networks had tired of receiving calls from viewers angry that they had missed several minutes of their favourite programme or, worse yet, it had been pre-empted entirely, by a football game gone into overtime.

Sadly, the situation would not seem to be entirely favourable for many shows airing on Sunday evening. NFL games that ran overtime would result in low ratings for some shows, such as Malcolm in the Middle, and would be blamed in the demise for yet others, such as Futurama. Admittedly, the networks are in a bit of a no win situation given football games that run overtime. If they leave an NFL game before its conclusion, they risk angering football fans. But if they remain with the game, they risk losing viewers anxious to see their favourite shows. I must admit, Iwas not very happy with the networks back in the days when the networks would outright pre-empt shows for the conclusion of NFL games gone overtime--not unless the St. Louis Cardinals were playing in the game (now I am a Rams fan--I didn't watch NFL football at all when St. Louis didn't have a team...).

At any rate, although it might seem like a tempest in a teapot now, the Heidi Game was a watershed in television history. Reactions to NBC leaving the game would not only alter the networks' broadcast practices on Sunday evenings, but it signalled the growing popularity of American football in the United States. Since that time, professional football has remained the most popular sport in the country. The Heidi Game would not only transform American broadcast television, but American professional football as well.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Suspension of Disbelief in Movies

(Warning: Here there be spoilers!)

The term suspension of disbelief was coined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. It is used of the individual's willingness to accept the basic assumptions of a work of fiction as real. More simply put, it is refers to the person's willingness to suspend disbelief in a work of fiction. Suspension of disbelief is necessary for the success of movies as much as any other medium. If a film fails to convince the viewer of the reality of its world, then that film has failed for the viewer.

Of course, that in which one is willing to suspend his or her disbelief is going to vary from individual to individual. Having raised on a steady diet of comic books, old pulp magazine novels, and fantasy movies, I am more than willing to believe that a man can fly or that Hyrda's teeth when sown will turn into an army of skeleton warriors. On the other hand, my mother was not--it is for this reason she hated science fiction and fantasy movies. It is then not necessary for any film to suspend the disbelief of every single person in the world, as this is probably not possible. But then, a movie must be able to suspend the disbelief of its prospective audience to succeed.

Suspension of disbelief will also vary according to individuals based on their knowledge of any particular subject. This is especially true of period pieces. What might convince the ordinary person might not convince an expert historian. Being a history buff myself, I have had a problem with a few movies in this regard. One of these is The Da Vinci Code. Not being Christian, I have no theological objections to the idea that Jesus could have married and had children. That having been said, I have a difficult time believing that if he did, we would have heard about them by now. Granted, we know little about Jesus's life, but a wife and kids would have been a hard secret to keep for centuries. A bigger problem I have with the premises of The Da Vinci Code is that it supposes the Merovingian line nearly died out (for those who do don't know who the Merovingians were, they were a Salian Frank dynasty who ruled what would become France and parts of Germany from fifth to eighth centuries. Now as any good genealogists knows, the Merovingian line did not die out. In fact, their descendants probably number in the millions (I am one myself)! While I might be able to accept the idea of Jesus having offspring, I cannot accept the idea that the Merovingians nearly went extinct! Of course, The Da Vinci Code has nothing on Braveheart when it comes to historical inaccuracy--its inaccuracies are so glaring and so plentiful (and some amount to outright slander) that I actively loathe that film.

Of course, these films are enjoyed by many people who don't know much about history. But I can think of other instances in which something in the movie is so outlandish or unbelievable, that it ruins the whole movie for people. A perfect example of this for me is the Bond film Die Another Day. In my humble opinion, Die Another Day could have been one of the better Bond movies. It featured one of the better Bond villains (Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves) and one of the best Bond girls (Halle Berry as Jinx). That having been said, I have one major problem with the movie that ruins it for me. As bit of a Bond connoisseur, I have always thought that the gadgets 007 uses should have some basis in reality. After all, for me the Bond series is not science fiction or fantasy, but a series of exaggerated spy dramas. What ruined the movie for me was the invisible car. In an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I might be willing to accept such a gadget (it was, after all, science fiction), but this is Bond--the gadgets and the plots have to have a little basis in reality. Given that invisibility is impossible with today's technology--I suspect it may be impossible, period, the invisible car made me unwilling to suspend my disbelief in Die Another Day. And I am not alone. Bond fans all over the world agree the invisible car is the worst gadget in the history of the series.

Another example of a movie which ultimately failed to suspend my disbelief is The Shadow. Now I was predisposed to really like this movie. I have loved the character of The Shadow since childhood. I have read many of the pulp novels and listened to episodes of the radio show. And this film looked like it would be good. I thought the casting was perfect--Alec Baldwin as The Shadow and John Lone as his archenemy Shiwan Khan. Indeed, I must say I enjoyed most of the film, probably the first three fourths of it, but then the movie postulated something so outlandish that it destroyed my willingness to suspend disbelief. In the film, not only does The Shadow have the power to cloud men's minds, but so does Shiwan Khan. The movie then has the audacity to claim that for literally years Shiwan Khan has used his ability to control the minds of others to cloak his skyscraper headquarters from view--quite simply, he virtually made the building invisible. I have several problems with accepting this idea. First, Shiwan Khan would have to have been nearly godlike in power to have masked a building for years without its discovery, especially when he would have been busy doing other things as well (controlling his crime interests, plotting to conquer the world, eating, sleeping). If Shiwan Khan was this powerful, then why didn't he simply use his powers to mind control millions of people to become his willing servants? It would seem to be a lot quicker route to world conquest than atom bombs and invisible skyscrapers! Second, like The Shadow, Shiwan is only able to cloud men's minds and make them "think" they don't see something--it isn't really invisible. While Shiwan Khan's skyscraper may not have been seen by the human eye (or more accurately, the human mind), it could still be captured by film cameras and still picture cameras, both of which were plentiful in the Thirties. At some point in the first few months someone would have surely taken a picture or filmed the vacant lot, the picture or movie of which would reveal it wasn't vacant at all! Third, where the skyscraper was supposed to be appeared to the human mind to be an empty lot. It would seem likely that at some point someone would have literally stumbled into the building. It could have been as simple as kids wanting to play ball in the lot or a wino looking for a place to sleep, but at some point someone would have tried walking into the lot only to bump into a very solid, if unseen, building. The building was invisible to the human mind, but presumably not to its physical presence--it could still be touched and felt! While The Shadow could have been an enjoyable film for me, the invisible building ruined it for me.

These are both examples of films that, for me at least, failed to convince me to suspend my disbelief. There are many other examples. From the above examples one can see that even one little thing can destroy suspension in disbelief. This is why sceenwriters and directors must insure that everything within their film is realistic to the milieu they are portraying. Those making period pieces must make sure that everything is historically accurate. Those making sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy movies must insure that everything they portray fits the premises of the milieus they are portraying. In fact, I think suspension of disbelief may be more difficult on film than it is in literature or any other medium save perhaps television. Because movies can capture reality on film or even simulate reality on film, I suspect the average viewer demands much more realism from them than they might, say, a book or a graphic novel. It is then much easier for a director or screenwriter to make a misstep that could result in the movie failing to suspend the viewer's disbelief. When that happens, the entire movie is usually ruined for the viewer.