Saturday, March 21, 2009

Betsy Blair R.I.P.

Actress Betsy Blair passed on March 13 at the age of 85. The cause was cancer. Best known for her role in Marty, she was later blacklisted.

Betsy Blair was born Elizabeth Boge on December 11, 1923 in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. As a child she took dance lessons. By the time she was 11 she was dancing in an amateur and performing on local radio. She was eventually hired by the John Robert Powers modelling agency. At age 16 she became part of the the chorus line at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, a nightclub where Gene Kelly was choreographer. The two would marry the following year. Blair made her Broadway debut in the chorus line of Panama Hattie in 1940. In 1941 she appeared as the lead in The Beautiful People. In 1945 she was an understudy for The Glass Menagerie.

Blair made her film debut in The Guilt of Janet Ames in 1947. She went onto appear in such films as A Double Life, The Snake Pit, Mystery Street, and The Kind Lady. She also appeared on television in episodes of The Philco Television Playhouse and Kraft Television Theatre. She also appeared on Broadway in King Richard II. Her career would stall in the early Fifties because of the Hollywood blacklist at the time. In the Forties Blair had attended a weekly Marxist study group in New York City. She would later join such leftist organisations as he Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the Sleepy Lagoon Committee, and the Civil Rights Congress. This would bring her to the attention of the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It is because of the blacklist that Blair almost did not get her best known role, that of Clara Snyder in the film adaptation of Marty. Before she could win the part, her husband of the time Gene Kelly had to ask studio head Dore Schary to intervene, with the caveat that if he did not he would cease working on It's Always Fair Weather. Blair was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Regardless, of her success with Marty, her career had still been substantially damaged by the blacklist. Blair and Gene Kelly divorced, and Blair sought work in Paris. In Europe she appeared in such films as Rencontre a Paris, Calle Mayor, and Il Grido. She would appear stateside in the movie The Halliday Brand, alongside Joseph Cotton and Viveca Lindfors.

Blair's later career would be a mixed bag. She made appearances on television in both the United Kingdom and the United States, on Goodyear Television Playhouse, ITV Television Playhouse, Shades of Greene, Tales of the Unexpected, thirtysomething, and the mini-series Scarlett. She appeared in several films in Europe, including Rencontre a Paris, I Delfini, and Mazel Tov ou le mariage. She would appear in a few Engilsh speaking films, including Lies My Father Told Me, All Night Long, A Delicate Balance, Flight of the Spruce Goose, and Betrayed.

At the age of 70 Blair earned a degree in speech therapy and spent many years as a speech therapist. She published her autobiography, The Memory of All That, in 2003.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Recording Executive Alan W. Livingston and Screenwriter Millard Kaufman Pass On

Two men recently died whose names would probably not be recognised by the average person. That having been said, both men have had a huge impact on anyone who has been exposed to popular culture. They were recording executive Alan W. Livingston and screenwriter Millard Kaufman.

Alan W. Livingston died on March 13. He was 91 years old.

Alan W. Livingston was born on October 15, 1917 in McDonald, Pennsylvania. His was the youngest of three children. His brother, Jay Livingston, would become one of the most famous composers of all time, co-writing such songs as "Buttons and Bows," "Silver Bells," and the Bonanza theme with Ray Evans. While his brother Jay took piano lessons, Alan Livingston learned to play the saxophone and clarinet. Both Jay Livingston and Alan W. Livingston attended the University of Pennsylvania. While there the two brothers made money with an orchestra which played at school and fraternity dances.

After Alan W. Livingston graduated from college, he worked for three years in advertising. During World War II he served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Following the war Alan W. Livingston was hired by Capitol Records as a writer and producer. It was in 1946 that he had the idea of combining storybooks for children with records which Livingston named Record Readers. Among the earliest Record Readers was one called Bozo at the Circus, for which Alan W. Livingston created Bozo the Clown. Other Record Readers would feature characters from Disney movies and Warner Brothers animated cartoons. Alan W. Livingston also wrote the novelty tune "I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat," performed as a conversation between Tweety and Sylvester and featuring the vocal talents of Mel Blanc.

By the early Fifties Livingston had been promoted to vice president in charge of creative operations at Capitol Records. Livingston signed Frank Sinatra, whose musical career had been ailing. Teaming the singer with arranger Nelson Riddle, Livingston relaunched Sinatra's career with such classic albums as In the Wee Small Hours (one of the earliest concept albums, Where Are You, and Come Fly With Me. In 1955, Livingston left Capitol for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). His biggest achievement there may have been signing David Dortort to produce the pilot for a new series called Bonanza. He also hired his brother Jay Livingston and his partner Ray Evans to write the show's theme.

After five years with NBC, Alan W. Livingston returned to Capitol Records. He would become president of the company and eventually its chairman of the board. He was also named to the board of Capitol's parent company, Electric and Musical Industries (EMI). While at Capitol Alan W. Livingston singed The Beach Boys, although in the end he would be remembered for signing an even bigger act. In the United Kingdom, Capitol Records' parent company EMI were releasing records performed by a group called The Beatles to fantastic success. Partially owned by EMI, Capitol had the right of first refusal of The Beatles' records. And they did refuse The Beatles, four times in a row. This resulted in Alan W. Livingston receiving a call from Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager, who asked why Capitol kept turning the band down. When Livingston confessed he had not actually heard the band (he was acting on the advice of Capitol's producers), he consented to listen to one of The Beatles' singles. Livingston did so, and he signed The Beatles to Capitol with an agreement to a $40,000 budget to promote the bands' first single. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was then released, and Beatlemania swept the United States.

Alan W. Livingston left Capitol again in 1968, and formed his own company Mediaarts, which produced music such as Don McClean's American Pie and movies such as Unman, Wittering and Zigo. Livingston eventually sold Mediaarts to United Artists. He went onto become president of 20th Century Fox Film Corporation's entertainment operations from 1976 to 1980. He was later president of president of Atalanta Investment Company. He also wrote a novel, Ronnie Finkelhof, Superstar.

For a man who did very little in the way as an artist himself, Alan W. Livingston would have an enormous impact on Anglo-American pop culture. He created Bozo, who became a star not only of records but early children's television. He signed David Dortort to create Bonanza, possibly the most popular Western TV show of all time. He signed The Beach Boys and brought The Beatles to the United States, so that he was also responsible for much of the Sixties' biggest music. Without Alan W. Livingston, the landscape of American pop culture would be very, very different.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman passed on March 14 at the age of 92. He died only two days after his birthday.

He was born on March 12, 1917 in Baltimore. He attended John Hopkins University in 1939, then served as a reporter on Newsday and The New York Daily News. In 1942 he enlisted in the United States Marines. Following the war, Kaufman moved to Los Angeles with the intent of becoming a screenwriter. He did his earliest work for animation studio UPA. It was there that he wrote the story for the short "Ragtime Bear." The short introduced to the world the near sighted, stubborn, and elderly Mr. Magoo. Mr. Magoo would become a hit and a UPA's biggest star. He also wrote one of the Fox and Crow shorts, "Punchy de Leon."

Millard Kaufman would go onto writing featuring films, although his first credit was as a front for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo--Deadly Is the Female (AKA Gun Crazy). He would go onto write screenplays for Aladdin and His Lamp, Bad Day at Black Rock, Raintree County, The War Lord, and The Klasman. His last screen credit, The Big Blow, is to be released next year. For television he wrote the telefilms The Nativity and Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb. He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay, for Take the High Ground and Bad Day at Black Rock. He served two terms on the board of the Writers Guild of America, West.

Millard Kaufman became a novelist very late in life. He published his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, in 2007 at the age of 90. His next novel, Misadventure, is set to be published this fall. He had also written the non-fiction work Plots and Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting, a primer for writing screenplays.

Millard Kaufman will always be remembered as the creator of Mr. Magoo, but he was also a phenomenal screenwriter. While he had his misfires (The War Lord is one of the worst medieval adventure movies written), Kaufman turned out some extremely original classics, including Take the High Ground (which recognised the fact that our military was integrated in the Korean War) and Bad Day at Black Rock (which dealt with the United States' attitudes towards the Japanese following World War II). Raintree Country was an American Civil War romance which avoided most of the genre's cliches. Kaufman was an original writer who brought a new perspective to film.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Natasha Richardson In Memoriam

Actress Natasha Richardson died yesterday in Lenox Hill Hospial in New York City. On Monday she had experienced a fall during a skiing lesson at the Mont Tremblant Resort in Quebec, Canada. Initially the injury to her head was not considered serious, although an hour later she complained of a headache and was taken to Centre Hospitalier Laurentien in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. She was tranferred to Hopital du-Sacre-Coeur de Montreal in critical condition then to Lenox Hill in New York City.

Natasha Jane Richardson was born 11 May, 1963 in London. She was the daughter of director Tony Richardson and actress Vanessa Redgrave. Here grandfather was the legendary actor Sir Michael Redgrave, himself a son of stage and silent actor Roy Redgrave. As a member of acting royalty, she made her film debut while very young, in an uncredited role in the movie The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her father. She attended the Lyeée Francais Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington and St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith. She trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, which both her mother Vanessa Redgrave and her aunt Lynn Redgrave had attended.

Natasha Richardson appeared in an uncredited role in La Polizia incrimina la legge assolve in 1973. Her first significant role on screen was in Every Picture Tells a Story in 1983. She started his career on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. She made her first appearance on the West End in a revival of Anton Chekov's The Seagull in 1985, for which she won the London drama critics’ award for most promising newcomer. In London she would appear in the stage adaptation of High Society (1987), Anna Christie (1992), and The Lady from the Sea. She made her debut on Broadway when Anna Christie made the trip across the Pond in 1993. On Broadway she went on to appear in Cabaret (1998), Closer (1999), and A Streetcar Named Desire. Richardson won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Anna Christie and the Tony Award for Best Actress in Musical for Cabaret.

Richardson appeared only a few times on television. Her debut on the small screen was in a minor role in the 1984 miniseries Ellis Island. She went onto appear in episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Worlds Beyond, and Tales from the Crypt. She also appeared in the telefilms Ghosts, Suddenly Last Summer, Hostages, Zelda, Haven, and The Mastersons of Manhattan.

Natasha Richardson also had a notable film career. Her first major film role was the lead, writer Mary Shelley, in Ken Russell's film Gothic in 1986. Richardson went onto appear in the films Patty Hearst (playing the title character), Fat Man and Little Boy, The Handmaid's Tale, Nell, and Evening. She starred with her aunt Lynn Redgrave in The White Countess. She won the British Independent Film Award for her role in Asylum.

I must confess that I am deeply saddened by the passing of Natasha Richardson. Much of this is because I have always had a bit of a crush on her. At the same time, I must admit that her death reminds me of her own mortality--Natasha Richardson was only a month and half younger than me. But most of all I am saddened because she has left behind a loving husband, actor Liam Neeson, and two young sons. I know that they must be in sorrow that the death of only one so young can bring about.

Natasha Richardson was not only a loving wife and mother, however, but one of the brightest stars of her generation. In her first starring role she was very convincing as Mary Shelley. And she did a great job playing Patty Hearst--it was hard to believe that she was a British actress playing an American heiress. She played alongside such actors as Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Ralph Fiennes, Gabriel Byrne, and Kenneth Branagh, and matched all of them in terms of sheer talent. In dying so young, her death effectively ended a career that was much brighter than many of her contemporaries.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Gloria" by Them

Okay, I am neither Catholic nor Irish, so I do not observe St. Patrick's Day, but I know that there are many who do. So for their enjoyment and in honour of the Emerald Isle, I thought I would post a song written and performed by Irishmen. That song is "Gloria" and the Irishmen are Van Morrison's band Them.

Van Morrison wrote "Gloria" in 1963 while he was still with The Monarchs, performing in Germany. Returning to Belfast, Ireland, Morrison formed the band Them in 1964. "Gloria" was among the first seven songs recorded in their first session in the studio. It is historic as the very first rock song to actually use two drummers on one recording. Despite this fact and the fact that it would become one of the most legendary rock songs of all time, it would originally see the light of day only as the B-side of the single "Baby, Please Don't Go (Them's cover of the Big Joe Williams song)."

While it was only released as a B-side, "Gloria" soon caught on. American garage band The Gants covered it in November 1965. A month later it was covered by Chicago band The Shadows of Knight. It became the biggest hit of The Shadows of Knight's career and perhaps the most successful version of "Gloria" on the American charts--it went to number 10 on the Billboard singles chart. "Gloria" would later be covered by everyone from Patti Smith to U2.

Here, courtesy of YouTube, is "Gloria" by Them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Silent Actor Coy Watson Jr. R.I.P.

Coy Watson Jr., who appeared in numerous silent films as a boy, passed on Saturday at the age of 96. The cause was stomach cancer.

Coy Watson Jr. was born James Caughey "Coy" Watson Jr. on November 16, 1912. He was the eldest son of Coy Watson Sr., both an early special effects technician (he created the flying carpet sequence for the 1924 version of The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks) and a horse trainer for the stars of the early Westerns. In some respects it was then perhaps natural for Coy Watson Jr. and his eight siblings to become part of the movies, especially since the Watson family lived in the early movie making colony of Edendale, California.

Coy Watson Jr. made his film debut at the age of nine months. Mack Sennett Studios, one of the three studios that made up Edendale, needed an infant for the short "The Price of Silence." Young Watson got the job for $5.00 a day. He went onto appear in around 60 movies before he turned 18, including "The Show (the classic short with Laurel and Hardy)," Stella Dallas, Buttons, Show People, and Restless Youth. He appeared in numerous Keystone Kops comedies, hence his nickname (and the title of his autobiography) "The Keystone Kid."

Coy Watson Jr. gave up acting on the screen shortly after the advent of sound. He felt that the early strictures placed upon filming the early talkies (he said in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune from 2002, "We used to have fun making pictures. But when sound came in you couldn't drop a pin."). To make a living Watson turned to photography, which was a business which ran in the Watson family. His grandfather James Watson once photographed Buffalo Bill. His uncle, George Watson, founded Acme News Pictures, an early photo news service. While still a boy, Coy Watson Jr. had built his own darkroom at home. After high school he would work for the photo news service Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc.

During World War II Watson served in the Coast Guard, running a photography unit in San Diego, California. After the war he was a cameraman for KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles, California and later for the Columbia Broadcasting System. He would also work as a cameraman for KCRA-TV in Sacramento, California and the American Broadcasting Company.

Coy Watson Jr.'s autobiography, The Keystone Kid, was published in 2001.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Facebook Does It Again

Last year, on July 21, Facebook rolled out its new design. The new design was met with outright hatred from many and caused enough controversy that various groups opposing the "New Facebook" arose. Despite this, in September Facebook did away the old design entirely, so that everyone was forced to use the new design or simply leave Facebook. While very few appear to have left Facebook, the new design had proven no more popular than when Facebook shanghaied everyone onto it last September.

Despite the fact that the new design of Facebook is only eight months old, the social networking site has already changed its home page again. The major change on the home page is the introduction of a Twitter style news feed that updates in real time. Facebook has also done away with the old News Feed preferences page. Now one controls the type of stories he or she sees on the feed through filters ranging from ones based on networks to one's Friends Lists to various applications. All stories on the news feed now include the thumbnail photo of the user pertinent to the story.

Facebook also introduced a Highlights section to the home page. The Highlights is a lot like the News Feed only it shows fewer stories and those stories are supposed the more significant ones from a longer period of time. Facebook also made changes to their Publisher. "Notes" is conspicuously absent from the Publisher. What is worse, is that there seems to be no way to add Notes, or any other application one might want on his or her Publisher. It is also harder to block applications from the Publisher (the only way I have found to do so is to block an app from all access to one's info, then to unblock it...).

The new home page was rolled out with very little fanfare. In fact, I rather suspect that only users who read Facebook's blog even knew about it. It was also rolled out gradually, with the first users being migrated over to it on March 11. Regardless, it has proven no less popular than the "New Facebook" rolled out eight months ago. Many users are complaining openly about the new homepage. Indeed, the largest protest group against the New Facebook, 1 Million Against the New Facebook, has gained 8032 Members in the past two days. As to why Facebook revamped the home page only eight months after the introduction of the New Facebook, they have not revealed their motivations for dong so. I have to wonder myself that it could be a delayed response to opponents of the New Facebook. The new home page is a bit more organised than the original home page of the New Facebook. Too, I have to wonder if Facebook is trying to make its News Feed look more like Twitter--the resemblance between the two is too uncanny to simply be coincidence.

As someone who still despises the New Facebook, I can understand why Facebook users are upset. There are things I do like about the new News Feed. I like the idea of using filters to see only the sorts of stories I want to see. And to some degree the new home page is more organised and modular, although not nearly as organised as the old Facebook. That having been said, there is a lot I dislike about the new home page. First, while I like the idea of the filters for the news feed, I would like control over what filters are present with regards to the applications. I have little reason to filter my friends on the News Feed with regards to SuperPoke, much less with regards to apps I don't even have (what is the Friend 8-Ball?!). On the other hand, I like being able to filter stories according to their activities on Flixter or WeRead (I am a movie buff and a bookworm, after all). Quite frankly, Facebook should let users decide which filters are present with regards to the News Feed.

Second, I am not sure I like the look of the News Feed. Is the thumbnail picture really necessary? And couldn't they use a slightly smaller font? The one thing I prefer about the old News Feed is that many more stories would fit on the page. Third, I think they should either do away with Highlights or let the individual decide what they consider Highlights. I mean, it really doesn't matter to me how many of my friends are using the Peeps application!

My fourth and biggest complaint is regarding the Publisher. I have always exercised strict control over my Publisher, blocking only those apps I considered necessary from it (Write, Notes, and Links--I'd block Photos and Videos if I could). Now I cannot add apps to the Publisher (I want to put Notes back on it) and I have to temporarily block apps from having access to me just to block them from the Publisher! Quite frankly, the way Facebook has, *ahem*, fouled up Publisher (I had to restrain myself from saying something very impolite there...) angers me more than when they did away with the old Facebook!

Facebook is taking feedback on the new home page (one can provide feedback at the Help Centre). Of course, whether Facebook will actually make any changes based on that feedback is difficult to say. After all, when Facebook forced everyone onto the new design last September there was plenty of outrage directed towards them (users complaining about the new design in their status, groups forming opposed to the new Facebook, stories published in blogs and the mainstream press...), and yet they have never returned to the old Facebook design. My suspicion is that that eight months from now we won't see much in the way of changes to the home page, let alone the return of the beloved, old Facebook.

Currently Facebook is the largest social networking site out there (yes, it is even bigger than MySpace). I have to suspect that it might not remain so if it keeps making changes which its users actively hate. Indeed, right now I think the only change that Facebook users might welcome is to simply return to the old Facebook. No, not Facebook before March 11, 2009--I am talking about the classic, better organised, and easier to use old Facebook from the days before July, 2008!