Saturday, April 11, 2009


This time of year generally brings to mind rabbits. For many this might bring to mind Bugs Bunny or perhaps Peter Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily Longears for the more literary minded. Myself, I think of a rabbit named Harvey. If you have never heard of Harvey, then you have obviously never heard of the play or the movie of the same name.

The play Harvey centred on Elwood P. Dowd who had a most interesting friend--a six foot, three and 1/2 inch tall rabbit named Harvey that apparently only he can see. This naturally causes his sister Veta to have him committed. In the sanatorium, however, the affable Elwood and his invisible friend have a most unexpected effect on his physicians and nurses. There are hints in the play and its adaptations that others, including Elwood's sister Veta and the sceptical Dr. Chumley, see Harvey on occasion. And while Elwood does drink and there is a possibility he is mad, Elwood has another explanation for Harvey--he is a pooka (a fairy of Celtic myth capable of taking animal shape).

Harvey debuted on Broadway on Nov 1, 1944, starring Frank Fay as Elwood P. Dowd and Josephine Hull as his sister Veta. It proved to a huge hit, ultimately running five years. It also its playwright, Mary Chase, the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This success would naturally mean that it would be adapted as a motion picture, which was released in 1950. The screenplay was co-authored by Mary Chase herself, Oscar Brodney, and Myles Connolly. Josephine Hull reprised her role as Veta, although in the film Elwood P. Dowd would be played by Jimmy Stewart. Hull would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film. Stewart would receive a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actor. The film has since become regarded as a classic and Elwood P. Dowd would be regarded as one of Stewart's signature roles.

Indeed, the movie was not the last time Stewart played Dowd. He returned to the role in a revival of Harvey on Broadway in 1970. He played Dowd again in a television adaptation of the play in 1972. Helen Hayes, who played his sister Veta in the 1970 Broadway revival of the play, reprised the role in the television movie.

The 1972 television adaptation was not the only one ever made. The play was adapted for an episode of The DuPont Show of the Month in 1958, with Art Carney in the role of Elwood. In 1998 Harvey would again be adapted for television, this time with Harry Anderson of Night Court fame as Elwood.

While I am partial to the 1950 movie, I must confess that I have enjoyed Harvey in all of the incarnations I have seen (namely, the 1972 and 1998 television movies). Much of this is because it is a genuinely funny comedy, particularly in the hands of Jimmy Stewart. He was perfect in the role of Elwood P. Dowd. In fact, I dare say that beyond George Bailey, it is the role with which I most identify him. Beyond being a very funny comedy, however, I think there is another reason I love Harvey. In many respects it is a paean to the individual. Elwood is the only one who can see Harvey and most people think he is crazy because of that. And yet in the end he wins most people over. Harvey is in many respects a argument for being oneself, even when being oneself means seeing a six foot, three and 1/2 inch tall rabbit.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Stratemeyer Syndicate: How Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys Were Born

For much of the 20th century an incredible number of literary series for youngsters emerged from one source. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was a book packager responsible for the best known names in juvenile literature, including Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Beyond being one of the most successful book packagers of all time, the Stratemeyer Syndicate was the first book packager whose target audience was children rather than adults.

The origins of the Stratemeyer Syndicate are to be found in writer Edward Stratemeyer. Edward Stratemeyer had been an editor for Street and Smith's Good News. He had already written full length novels when he met with his first big success. The Rover Boys series centred on Tom, Sam, and Dick Rover, students at a military boarding school. Tom, Sam, and Dick were adventurous and mischievous boys who found themselves at odds with criminals and even the authorities. The series was written entirely by Edward Stratemeyer under the pseudonym of "Arthur M. Winfield." Today the Rover Boys are largely forgotten, remembered perhaps only by animation buffs as the source material which Chuck Jones' classic Warner Brothers short "The Dover Boys at Pimento University" or "The Rivals of Roquefort Hall" parodied. In their day, however, they were enormously popular. Thirty Rover Boys books were published between 1899 and 1926. Even after the series had ended, the books remained in print for years. More importantly, they provided the blueprint for for every other Stratemeyer Syndicate series which followed.

Perhaps because of the success of the Rover Boys, Edward Stratemeyer realised that there was a huge demand for juvenile novels. To this end he formed the Stratemeyer Syndicate around 1905. The purpose of the Stratemeyer Syndicate was simply to mass produce books for children meant purely for entertainment. Stratemeyer would create a very rough outline for a novel, sometimes only a title, then hand it off to one of the Syndicate's writers to flesh out. All of the writers (including Stratemeyer himself) wrote under pen names and every one of them was expected to remain unknown as the writers of the books. Stratemeyer kept the copyright on all titles, while the writers were simply paid a flat fee.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate's initial successes would come technically before the Syndicate actually existed. The Rover Boys series had been around for six years when the Syndicate was formed. Stratemeyer's next successful series would be a year old when the Syndicate came about. It is thought that Edward Stratemeyer himself wrote the first Bobbsey Twins novel, under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope, in 1904. The series was then taken over by Lillian Garis, the wife of Howard Roger Garis (more on him in a bit). Like many of Stratemeyer's writers, Mrs. Garis was a journalist, having worked for the Newark Evening News. She would write the next twenty four novels. The Bobbsey Twins followed the adventures of two sets of fraternal twins, an older pair Bert and Nan, and a younger pair Flossie and Freddie. The Bobbsey Twins would prove incredibly resilient through the years. Launched in 1904, the series would last until 1979 and a total of seventy two books. Indeed, the phrase "Bobbsey Twins" is to this day applied to two people who seem inseparable.

The books in the Stratemeyer Syndicate series were written and published according to certain guidelines. The chapters would end in the middle of situations, so as to keep the reader's interest. The books would all be around the same length. They would look as much like adult books of the time as possible. In the earlier days of the syndicate such characters as the Rover Boys and Tom Swift would be allowed to age and even marry. When Edward Stratemeyer figured out that sales dropped afterwards, he decided that his characters would never marry. In fact, it appears that they ceased ageing. The Bobbsey Twins were perpetually twelve and six. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were perpetually teenagers.

In the wake of the Rover Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, the Stratemeyer Syndicate came out with yet more series, such as Dave Fearless and The Great Marvel. None would see the success of either the Rover Boys or the Bobbsey Twins, at least until a character called Tom Swift came along. Tom Swift was created by Edward Stratemeyer and first appeared in 1910. Although he outlined the first few books, they were written by Howard R. Garis under the pen name Victor Appleton. If the name "Howard R. Garis" sounds familiar, it is perhaps because he also created Uncle Wiggily.

Tom Swift was a young inventor who used his ingenuity to get out of scrapes. Most of his adventures centred around some breakthrough in technology, and a good deal of them dealt with vehicles. The very first book was Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle, to be followed by such titles as Tom Swift and His Airship, Tom Swift and His Sky Racer, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, and so on. The series proved enormously successful, running forty titles until 1941. That would not be the end of the Tom Swift. In 1954 the Stratemeyer Syndicate began a new series, The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures, in which Tom Swift was all grown up and his son has various adventures. The series would run for thirty three books, until 1971. A third Tom Swift series had a short run from 1981 to 1984. While the previous Tom Swift series took place in the present, this one was set in a futuristic world with Swift exploring the universe. The series had a loose connection with the others. This Tom Swift is said to be the son of the "great Tom Swift" and Swift Enterprises, Swift Sr.'s company in the previous series, plays a role. A third series ran briefly from 1991 to 1993, with Tom Swift set in the present again. A fourth series ran even more briefly, in a series of paperback published from 2006 to 2007. It is the only Tom Swift series which lasted less than ten volumes.

Although Tom Swift did not have the continuous publication history of either the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, he would have a huge impact on American pop culture. The full name of the Taser, the electroshock weapon used by many police departments, is an acronym of Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle--a reference to the weapon Swift developed in the tenth book of the first series (here it must be pointed out that Tom's middle name is never mentioned in the series). In the Seventies computer engineer Lee Felsenstein, who played a pivotal role in the development of the home computer, was developing what he called "the Tom Swift Terminal," a means of turning an ordinary television screen into a computer terminal (it was never completed). Curiously, like most of Stratemeyer's characters, Tom Swift never made it to the big screen. He was teamed up with another Stratemeyer character, Linda Craig (a short lived series from the Sixties) in an unsold pilot titled The Tom Swift and Linda Craig Mystery Hour, which aired on July 3, 1983 on ABC.

Another early Stratemeyer series which would achieve some success was Bomba the Jungle Boy. The series centred on Bomba, a boy who grew up in the South American jungle. After the first ten books, the action was shifted to Africa, perhaps to take advantage of the success of the Tarzan movies. There were 20 volumes in all of Bomba the Jungle Boy, published from 1926 to 1938. The series would later provide the basis for the series of Bomba the Jungle Boy movies starring Johnny Sheffield (who had played Boy in the Tarzan movies). Starting with Bomba the Jungle Boy in 1949, Monogram would make twelve Bomba movies until 1955. From 1967 to 1968 DC Comics published seven issues of Bomba the Jungle Boy.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate published eighty one different series until 1930 alone. Such success did not go unnoticed, and a rather large movement against juvenile literary series arose. From the 1910s until World War I, The American Library Association, the American Bookseller's Association, various local PTAs, the Boy Scouts of America, and so on opposed the various books series as being poorly written and produced in assembly line fashion. It was not unusual for libraries to ban the books outright.

Such criticisms did not hinder the success of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and eventually they would subside. In fact, the Syndicate's greatest successes were yet to come. In 1926 Edward Stratemeyer created a series about two teenage brothers who were also amateur detectives. The Hardy Boys centred on Frank and Joe Hardy, sons of private eye Fenton Hardy, who spend their free time solving mysteries. The series was first published in 1927 with the title The Tower Treasure. Under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon, nineteen of the first twenty five Hardy Boys books were written by Leslie McFarlane. Leslie McFarlane was a Canadian newspaperman who took the job of writing The Hardy Boys Mysteries primarily for extra money. In addition to the Hardy Boys, McFarlane wrote other Stratemeyer series, as well as stories for the pulp magazines. Later he would become a writer for both CBC Radio and CBC Television, write novels under his own name, episodes of The U.S. Steel Hour and Playdate, and documentary films.

The Hardy Boys would prove wildly successful. The Hardy Boys Mysteries was the Stratemeyer Syndicate's longest running series, lasting until 2005 with 190 volumes published. From 1987 to 1998 it would run concurrent with another series, The Hardy Boys Casefiles. A new series, Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers, would begin in 2005. From 1991 to 2007, Applewood Books published facsimile editions of the books in the original series. On television the Hardy Boys would appear in a series on The Mickey Mouse Club in the Fifties, an animated series on ABC Saturday morning from 1969 to 1971, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977 to 1979, and a short lived Canadian series in 1995. Curiously, they never made it to the big screen, although they will in the comedy The Hardy Men (featuring Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller as the now grown up Hardys) to be released in 2010. There have also been comic books, games, and even video games based on the Hardy Boys.

The success of the Hardy Boys would lead to Edward Stratemeyer's most successful creation. Created by Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew first appeared in 1930. She was a teenage girl with a penchant for solving mysteries, the daughter of attorney Carson Drew. She was usually assisted by her best friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne (who is a girl, named after her grandfather). Nancy Drew was written under the pen name Carolyn Keene, although twenty three of the first twenty five books were written by Mildred Wirt Benson. Like many of Stratemeyer's writers, Wirt Benson was a journalist by trade. In fact, she worked in newspapers for 58 years and was still writing a weekly column at the age of 96 when she died. She was very much like Nancy Drew herself, an independent and strong willed woman who was a skilled xylophone player, diver, and aviator. In fact, she often came to heads with Edward Stratemeyer's daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams over the novels. It was not unusual for Wirt Benson to have Nancy ordering police officers and doctors around. Stratemeyer Adams insisted that Nancy be a bit more polite. Mildred Wirt Benson would go on to write the Penny Parker mystery novels under her own name, as well as the Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories.

Nancy Drew proved wildly successful, even more so than the Hardy Boys. The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories lasted from 1930 to 2003 with 175 volumes. Another series, The The Nancy Drew Files, ran concurrent with the original from 1987 to 1997. A new series, Nancy Drew Girl Detective, was begun in 2004. Like The Hardy Boys Mysteries, Applewood Books would publish facsimiles of the original series. So successful was Nancy Drew that she did something few other Stratemeyer characters ever had. She made it to the big screen. Beginning with Nancy Drew: Detective (released in December 1938) and continuing until Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (released in November 1939), Bonita Granville starred as Nancy Drew in four movies. Some have criticised the films as not being true to the books, although Mildred Wirt Benson herself enjoyed the films. More recently, Nancy Drew appeared in the film of the same name released last year, starring Emma Roberts in the title role.

Nancy Drew would also make it to television. She appeared in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977 to 1979. A new Canadian series, Nancy Drew and Daughter, was being made in 1989. It starred Margot Kidder as an adult Nancy Drew. Kidder was injured in the first episode and the series never came into being. In 1995 a Canadian series, Nancy Drew, lasted one season. ABC aired a telefilm starring Maggie Lawson (Juliet on Psych) as the title character. Nancy has also appeared in board games and computer games.

Unfortunately, Edward Stratemeyer would never see Nancy's success. He died twelve days after the publication of the first Nancy Drew novel. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was inherited by his daughters Harriet Stratemeyer and Edna Stratemeyer Squier. It was only after a few years that Edna Stratemeyer Squier sold her interest to Harriet Stratemeyer. With Harriet Stratemeyer Adams in charge, such new series as the Dana Girls, Kay Tracey, and Tom Swift Jr. were introduced. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams at one time took credit for writing the Nancy Drew Mysteries. While it is now known that she did not, she did apparently write some of the novels (as well as novels in The Hardy Boys Mysteries series) and provide outlines for many of the books.

It was Harriet Stratemeyer Adams who would oversee a project begun in 1959 to update the early novels in the Stratemeyer Syndicate series. The earliest novels contained obvious anachronisms such as references to horses and carriages and such terms as "roadster." More seriously, racial stereotypes and words that would be considered racial slurs today were also removed. In some instances, the novels were rewritten to such a point that they could hardly be considered the same book. There has always been some debate on the revisions among fans. Particularly among Nancy Drew fans, there are those who maintain that Nancy lost her independence, going from a strong willed young woman to something less.

The revisions were in part an effort to keep the Stratemeyer series up with the times. Indeed, the Stratemeyer Syndicate sometimes went with the times in creating new series. The popularity of science fiction on both television and motion picture screens in the Fifties may well have led to the creation of Tom Swift Jr. The Christopher Cool series featured a teenage secret agent, the Syndicate's attempt to capitalise on the spy craze of the Sixties. It was not a success, lasting only from 1967 to 1969.

For most of its history the Stratemeyer Syndicate had operated in relative secrecy, maintaining the illusion that The Hardy Boys Mysteries were indeed written by the non-existent Franklin W. Dixon and The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories were indeed written by the non-existent Carolyn Keene. From nearly the beginning their novels were published by Grosset & Dunlap. By 1980, however, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had grown very unhappy with Grosset & Dunlap, in large part because the company had wholly ignored the 50th anniversary of the Hardy Boys in 1977. She then switched publishers to Simon and Schuster. In response Grosset & Dunlap sued both the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Simon and Schuster on grounds of "breach of contract, copyright infringement, and unfair competition." Harriet Stratemeyer Adams countersued, claiming Grosset & Dunlap's suit was frivolous and that she had written the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories herself and thus owned the rights to them. Ultimately, the lawsuit revealed the existence of the Stratemeyer Syndicate to the general public and its extensive use of ghostwriters (including the fact that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had not written most of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories). The court ultimately ruled that while Grosset & Dunlap could continue publishing the titles that they had published in the past, the Syndicate was free to take subsequent volumes elsewhere.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams died in 1982. It was in 1987 that Simon and Schuster bought the Stratemeyer Syndicate from her heirs and renamed it Mega-Books. It would continue handling the publication of new volumes in the various Stratemeyer series. It is in this form that the Syndicate continues to this day.

In the end the Stratemeyer Syndicate would prove to be one of the most successful producers of juvenile literature in literary history. By 1926 a study conducted by the American Library Association revealed that 98% of all children considered a book produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate to be their favourite. The Syndicate would publish over 1200 different books in 125 different series in its long history. Arguably, few book packagers would meet with this kind of success. The success the Syndicate had with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew alone would make many other publishers envious. Their legacy continues even to this day, with each new Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book. It will probably continue for a long time to come.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The First Cartoons on Television in Prime Time

When most people are asked what the first animated series on American network prime time television was, they will most likely say The Flintstones. As it turns out, they would be wrong. The Flintstones was not the first animated series to air in American prime time. In fact, it wasn't even the first animated series on American television aimed at adults. That honour would go to another series.

That series was CBS Cartoon Theatre. In 1955 Paul Terry, founder and owner of the animation studio Terrytoons, retired. He sold the studio (home to such characters as Mighty Mouse and the team of Heckle and Jeckle) lock, stock, and barrel to the Columbia Broadcasting System, even though 20th Century Fox would continue to distribute Terrytoon's theatrical shorts. CBS put Gene Deitch, late of UPA, in charge of the newly acquired studio. Deitch would not last long at Terrytoons, as he clashed with many of the studio's old timers, but he would breath new life into the studio. Namely, it was on his watch that a new animated series, "Tom Terrific," was created for the then young series Captain Kangaroo, as well as such characters as Gaston Le Crayon and Sidney the Elephant were created. Among the young talents he brought to the studio was Jules Feiffer.

CBS itself would put the old Terrytoon theatrical shorts to good use. The first thing they did was to make history with the first Saturday morning animated series, Mighty Mouse Playhouse. Mighty Mouse Playhouse was essentially an anthology series consisting of Terrytoons' old theatrical shorts. It proved to be a roaring success. Not only did it pave the way for all Saturday morning cartoons to come, but it would last eleven seasons itself. It debuted on December 10, 1955.

Like Mighty Mouse Playhouse, CBS Cartoon Theatre was a collection of old Terrytoons shorts. Unlike Mighty Mouse Playhouse, it would not be successful. CBS was eager to capitalise on the success of ABC's Disneyland, so they created a somewhat similar show. CBS Cartoon Theatre was hosted by a young comedian named Dick Van Dyke, who hosted the show from an office setting not unlike Walt Disney on Disneyland. Van Dyke would interact with Terrytoons' various animated characters, such as Heckle and Jeckle and Gandy Goose, in the live action opening segments and bridge segments. The major difference in the formats of the two shows was that Disneyland primarily aired live action, while CBS Cartoon Theatre was purely an anthology of animated shorts. While CBS Cartoon Theatre marked the first time an animated series, albeit an animated anthology series made of previously released material, aired on network prime time television, it would not be a success. CBS Cartoon Theatre only lasted thirteen weeks and was not picked up for the fall. Apparently CBS Cartoon Theatre could not compete with Disneyland, not even in reruns. It debuted as a summer replacement on Wednesday, June 13, 1956 at 7:30 PM Eastern Time.

That would not be the end of Terrytoons on CBS's schedule by a long shot. They would follow up the success of Mighty Mouse Playhouse with The Heckle and Jeckle Cartoon Show, which debuted on Saturday morning on October 1956. The Mighty Heroes, created by Ralph Bakshi, would air for one season on the network in the 1966-1967 season.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that The Flintstones wasn't even the second animated series to air in prime time. In 1956 CBS debuted The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, a collection of UPA theatrical shorts. It was narrated by radio announcer Bill Goodwin and aired on Sunday evenings at 5:30 Eastern Time. Ultimately the series proved too expensive to produce and was cancelled after three months. It would be rerun during the summer of 1957 in prime time on Friday nights, making it the second animated series to air in prime time.

Both the Terrytoon shorts and especially the UPA shorts (which could be fairly sophisticated) were made with adult audiences, rather than children, in mind. After all, these theatrical shorts were meant to be run before feature films which had been made for adults or, at least, audiences of all ages. The Flintstones was then not even the first animated series aimed at adults.

That having been said, The Flintstones does have a firm place in history as the first animated series composed of entirely new material to air in prime time. Both CBS Cartoon Theatre and The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show were anthology series consisting of previously released, theatrical shorts. The Flintstones was an entirely new series produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions. It would prove more successful than either CBS Cartoon Theatre or The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, lasting a total of six seasons.

Of course, even the success of The Flintstones would not guarantee that animation would be regularly seen on network prime time television. After a very brief cycle towards prime time cartoons in the early Sixties which spawned both The Jetsons and Jonny Quest, it would not be until the Nineties that a significant number of animated series would debut on network prime time television. Even after the success of The Simpsons (set to become the longest running scripted primetime series with continuing characters after this season) and King of the Hill, animation in prime time is a rare thing. Regardless, it all started with a collection of Terrytoon shorts hosted by Dick Van Dyke.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Good News for Beatles Fans

Apple Corps Ltd. and EMI Music announced today that the original Beatles catalogue has been digitally remastered and will be released worldwide on CD on September 9, 2009. The release will coincide with the release of the video game The Beatles: Rock Band. The packaging for every CD will include the original United Kingdom album art, booklets with both the original and brand new liner notes, rare photos. A brief documentary film will be embedded on each CD (except for Past Masters) for a limited time only.

This mass release includes all twelve of The Beatles' albums in stereo, Magical Mystery Tour, and the collections Past Masters Volume I and Past Masters Volume II. Past Masters Volume I and Past Masters Volume II will be combined as one. A new box set, The Beatles in Mono, will collect all of The Beatles recordings mixed for monophonic release. According to EMI and Apple Corps, The Beatles' catalogue will have the "...the highest fidelity..." "...since its original release..."

The albums were remastered over a four year period by by a team of engineers at EMI's famous Abbey Road Studios. Recording equipment from The Beatles era alongside state of the art equipment was utilised in the process to insure that the integrity of the original recordings would be maintained.

With regards to making the catalogue available online, EMI and Apple Corps stated, "Discussions regarding the digital distribution of the catalogue will continue. There is no further information available at this time."

The announcement itself can be read at The Beatles.Com.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The "Road" Pictures

When people think of the highest grossing comedy teams in the history of movies, they might think of the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello. They might even consider Martin and Lewis or Laurel and Hardy. Among the highest grossing grossing comedy teams in movie history would certainly be the duo of Hope and Crosby. Along with Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would make seven "Road" pictures together. Starting with Road to Singapore in 1940, they would become among the most successful comedies in history. Not only did they make a good deal of money, but they would prove to be very influential. They would often be imitated, but never matched.

Contrary to popular belief, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did not team up for the first time on the "Road" movies. The two had actually operated as a team much earlier. It was October 14, 1932 on the street near the Friar's Club in New York City that already successful crooner Bing Crosby was introduced to up and coming comedian Bob Hope. It was six weeks later that the two played a live show that opened for The Mask of Fu Manchu starring Boris Karloff. Their bill at the Capitol Theatre only lasted from December 2 to December 8, but it was enough for Hope and Crosby to gel as a team. The two would go onto do a few more shows together.

That brings us to a few years later. According to Turner Classic Movies nobody is certain how Road to Singapore came to the screen, although they offer the most likely explanation. Quite simply, Paramount had purchased an adventure story from Harvey Hervey entitled Road to Mandalay, which was transformed into a comedy vehicle for the team of Burns and Allen. The couple turned it down, according to George Burns because Gracie Allen thought it was "silly." It was then reportedly offered to Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie who also turned it down, although neither could recall any of this happening later.

As to where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were during all of this, in the years since they had met their success in their individual careers had grown. Bing Crosby was the biggest selling vocalist of the time, with a successful radio show of his own. Bob Hope was the star of the popular radio show The Pepsodent Radio Show Starring Bob Hope and had just had his first bona fide hit on the big screen in the form of the horror spoof The Cat and the Canary. On the radio the two friends had developed a comedic rivalry, not unlike that of Jack Benny and Fred Allen. It was in 1937 that Bing Crosby invited Bob Hope to reprise their routines at the opening of the Del Mar racetrack near San Diego, California. There a Paramount executive caught their act and sought the right script to showcase their routines. It was found in Road to Mandalay, soon rechristened Road to Singapore. Dorothy Lamour, already known for her appearances on film in a sarong, was added as the love interest. Crosby and Lamour being the bigger stars at the time both received billing over Bob Hope.

Road to Singapore would provide the template for the other "Road" pictures to come. It had a minimal plot centred on friends and rivals who inadvertently find themselves on an adventure in some exotic location. Although Hope and Crosby played different characters in every film, they nearly always had the personalities first developed in Road to Singapore. Bing Crosby was nearly always a playboy or even con artist of some sort. Bob Hope was the lecherous, wisecracking coward he played in nearly all of his movies. Only Dorothy Lamour as the love interest would vary somewhat, although in nearly every film she spent most of her time singing or setting up lines for the guys.

As in all of the "Road" pictures, the emphasis in Road to Singapore was on Hope and Crosby's routines, Hollywood in jokes, and songs. Perhaps the most famous routine, the "patty cake" routine in which the fellows would play patty cake before distracted opponents until they could get in a good punch, was introduced in this film. Road to Singapore also got a good deal of mileage out of the rivalry between Hope and Crosby. Much of this was no doubt due to their "feud" on radio. Like all of the "Road" movies, Road to Singapore spoofed adventure films of the time, which often featured a rivalry between the two leads.

Although scripts were written for all of the "Road" pictures, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby would do away with the script's lines and simply extemporise their lines or utter something written by their gag writers. In her autobiography Dorothy Lamour wrote about how on her first day on the set of Road to Singapore she became convinced there was no point in memorising her lines, as Hope and Crosby would not stick to the script. Instead she prepared herself with a good night's sleep in order to cope with this next day's round of improvised lines.

For those who have never seen Road to Singapore, it must be pointed out that Singapore does not even appear in the movie. Instead, on their way to Singapore Hope and Crosby, as characters Ace and Josh, wind up on the fictional island of Kaigoon (where the native language is apparently Esperanto, if the song "Kaigoon" is any indication...). Dorothy Lamour plays the beautiful dancer named Mima, who escapes from her overly jealous dancing partner (played by a young Anthony Quinn) with the two fellows.

Road to Singapore would prove to be an enormous hit, raking in $1,600,000 at the box office. As a result, Paramount decided to team Crosby, Hope, and Lamour in another "Road" movie. Some time earlier Paramount had shelved a story called Find Colonel Fawcett because they believed it was too similar to MGM's Stanley and Livingstone (1939). Find Colonel Fawcett was then rewritten as the next "Road" movie, featuring characters very similar to those Hope and Crosby had played in Road to Singapore. If anything Road to Zanzibar would be even more lavish than Road to Singapore. So many plants were used in the movie's jungle scenes that set decorators exhausted the studio's greenhouses and had to buy plants from places as distant as Arizona. Over 300 extras were used for the slave auction scene.

As with Road to Singapore, Hope and Crosby continued to extemporise their lines or simply say lines written by their gag writers. Road to Zanzibar would introduce what would become part of every "Road" movie afterwards--the characters would break the "fourth wall" to speak to the audience. It occurs in only one scene, in which Hope and Crosby's "patty cake" routine fails to work on an opponent. Hope comments that their opponent must have seen the last picture (referring to Road to Singapore). The movie also sees a change in the sort of character Dorothy Lamour played. While she played a bit of an innocent in Road to Singapore, in Road to Zanzibar she plays an outright swindler--the sort of character she would play in many of the future "Road" pictures. Road to Zanzibar would also see a change in the credits, reflecting the shifting careers of the three stars. Since Road to Singapore Bob Hope's star had risen yet higher, having another hit in the form of The Ghost Breakers. This time around, he was billed above Dorothy Lamour, but not Bing Crosby.

Road to Zanzibar found Hope and Crosby playing Hubert "Fearless" Frazier and Chuck Reardon, two men once again on the run, this time in Africa. They encounter Brooklyn girl Donna Latour (Dorothy Lamour), who convinces them to finance a safari to find her lost brother. In truth, it is actually a ruse to find a rich millionaire whom she wants to marry. Taking place in Africa, modern viewers might be shocked at the stereotypes of African natives which appear in the film. Here it must be kept in mind that the movie parodies the sort of jungle adventures at the time, which often featured such stereotypical natives. Indeed, Road to Zanzibar even features a "gorilla" that is blatantly a man in a suit.

Road to Zanzibar prove such a success that another "Road" picture was guaranteed. Indeed, Road to Morocco is often considered the best of the series. In many respects it was quite similar to the first two films. It once more featured Hope and Crosby as friendly rivals pursuing Dorothy Lamour. Hope and Crosby once again departed from the lines in the script. It was once again placed in an exotic location. But Road to Morocco departed from Road to Singapore and Road to Zanzibar in that the fourth wall was not only broken in the film, it very nearly did not exist. The stars speak to the audience and even Paramount Pictures (as when Hope begs the studio to make more "road movies" so he can keep his job). Not only was the fourth wall shattered and were there more in jokes than ever, but Road to Morocco was surreal in a way that the first two entries were not. Hope appears as the ghost of Hope's Aunt Lucy to remind Crosby's character of his obligations. A camel actually speaks, saying, "This is the screwiest picture I was ever in." During the reprise of "Moonlight Becomes You," Hope, Crosby, and Lamour actually switch voices. The humour in Road to Morocco became even more irreverent, with Crosby even joking about eating Hope within the first few minutes of the film.

In Road to Morocco Hope and Crosby played Orville "Turkey" Jackson and Jeff Peters, who find themselves shipwrecked on the African coast. On the way to Morocco, Jeff sells Turkey into slavery. Jeff soon feels guilty about this, setting off to find his friend. As it turns out, however, Turkey doesn't really need rescuing. He is engaged to the beautiful Princess Shalmar (Dorothy Lamour).

Road to Morocco proved extremely successful. Not only did it generate huge box office receipts, but it was also nominated for two Oscars. This naturally guaranteed another film in the series. Like Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia would be considered among the very best of the "Road" pictures. From Road to Singapore, Road to Utopia kept the rivalry between Hope and Crosby, and kept Dorothy Lamour as a love interest. Like Road to Morocco, Road to Utopia broke the fourth wall repeatedly and included in jokes, incredible sight gags, and some truly surreal moments. In other respects, however, Road to Utopia is as unique a film as Road to Utopia is, if not more so.

Indeed, Road to Utopia is the only "Road" Picture that does not include a real place in its title, although the Alaskan frontier is referred to as "Utopia" a few times in the film. It is also the only "Road" Picture which does not take place in the present day, set instead during the days of the Klondike gold rush. It is also the only "Road" Picture which features a narrator, namely famous humorist Robert Benchley. On and off throughout the movie, Benchley appears in the corner of the screen to clarify plot points and to make asides about the film. On a disappointing note, it is also the only "Road" picture in which Hope and Crosby do not do their famous "patty cake" routine.

In Road To Utopia Hope and Crosby this time play Chester Hooton and Duke Johnson, a song and dance team and con artists trying to avoid the cops in 1890s San Francisco. They soon find themselves on a steamer headed for Alaska. There they run afoul of two criminals. Miraculously defeating them, Chester and Duke assume the criminals' identity and steal their map to an Alaskan gold mine. As it turns out, however, the criminals had murdered the father of a beautiful woman named Sal (Dorothy Lamour). Believing Chester and Duke to be the actual killers, she sets out to get the map from them using her feminine wiles.

Even though Road to Utopia started shooting in December 1943 and was completed in March 1944, it would not be released until March 1946. It is uncertain as to why Paramount waited so long to release the movie. In her autobiography Dorothy Lamour theorised that the release of Road to Utopia may have been delayed so as not to jeopardise Bing Crosby's chances of winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Going My Way. Another theory is that Road to Utopia was delayed simply because Road to Morocco (released in 1942) was still going strong in theatres. Regardless, the wait appears to have been well worth it. Road to Utopia was a hit at the box office and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

It was then a given that there would be another "Road" Picture. After the series had reached its pinnacle with Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia, it shifted gears with Road to Rio. Road to Rio would be much more plot driven than the previous "Road" pictures. The humour would also be less outrageous. While the fourth wall did not exist for all practical purposes in either Road to Morocco or Road to Utopia, it is only broken once in Road to Rio. Road to Rio also featured far fewer in jokes. It would also be the longest "Road" picture, at 100 minutes in length.

Road to Rio also reflected the shifting careers of its stars. On Road to Rio both Bing Crosby and Bob Hope received a share of the film's profits. Dorothy Lamour, who contributed as much to the series as the boys, was still working for a salary. Sadly, while in 1947 when Road to Rio was released Hope and Crosby were still at the peak of their careers, Dorothy Lamour's career had declined from what it was in 1940. In many respects, Road to Rio signalled the end of the series.

In Road to Rio Crosby and Hope play out of work musicians, Scat Sweeney and Hot Lips Barton who must escape on a Rio bound ship after starting a fire at a circus. There they become involved with the distraught Rita (Dorothy Lamour), who turns out to have been hypnotised to go through with a marriage purely for money. Never ones to walk away from a damsel in distress, the boys find themselves trying to save Rita before it is too late.

Road to Rio would be successful enough to guarantee a sequel, although it would be five years before the next "Road" picture would be released. Initially known as Road to Hollywood during its production, Road to Bali would be the only "Road" picture ever shot in colour. It was also the first "Road" picture to feature cameos of Hollywood stars, including Jane Russell, Humphrey Bogart, and the team of Martin and Lewis. While being shot in colour and featuring cameos from some of the biggest stars of the day, Road to Bali also marked a return to the outrageous humour of Road to Morocco and Road to Utopia. Indeed, the movie even features a volcano which speaks (perhaps topping Road to Morocco's talking camel).

Sadly, Road to Bali would be the last "Road" movie produced by Paramount. Paramount already had another successful comedy team in the form of Martin and Lewis, who already had successful films under their belt when they appeared in Lamour's dream sequence in Road to Bali. While Hope and Crosby were still successful in their careers, it may well have seemed apparent to some that their days were numbered. As to Dorothy Lamour, she was at the end of her film career. When Road to Bali was shot, her contract with Paramount was coming to an end and the studio made no offer to renew it. It should then be no surprise that while Hope and Crosby once more got a share of the profits in the movie, Lamour once more worked for salary. She tried to negotiate for a share in the profits of the movie's soundtrack album, but only found herself replaced on the record by an up and coming young singer named Peggy Lee. For Dorothy Lamour, sadly, it was the end of the road.

Road to Bali found Hope and Crosby this time playing vaudevillians Harold Gridley and George Cochran, fleeing the prospect of marriage by way of a deep sea expedition in the South Pacific. There they meet Princess Lalah (Dorothy Lamour) and find treasure that others want for themselves.

For many Road to Bali must have seemed like the end of the "Road..." pictures. Ten years after Road to Bali, however, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were reunited in a film that would be distributed by United Artists rather than Paramount Pictures. The Road to Hong Kong would be the last "Road..." picture, as well as the only one which included "The..." in the title. It is the also the only one which did not feature Dorothy Lamour as one of the leads. Even though Lamour was a full eleven years younger than both Hope and Crosby, she was considered too old for the romantic interest in the movie. Instead, that role would go to the younger Joan Collins. Lamour was only offered a cameo in the film. Naturally Lamour baulked at this. As the movie's financial backing depended upon her inclusion in the movie, her role was expanded, although she still only appears long enough to help the boys out and sing one song.

Even without Lamour as one of the leads, The Road to Hong Kong was very much in the same vein as the previous "Road..." movies. In jokes proliferated in the film and once more the fourth wall was utterly shattered. It also followed in the footsteps of Road to Bali in featuring a number of cameos, including Dean Martin, David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Frank Sinatra.

Although part of a series which had begun in 1940, The Road to Hong Kong incorporated such Sixties motifs as space travel and spies. This time around Hope and Crosby play Chester Babcock and Harry Turner, an out of work song and dance team travelling through India trying to hock an "Interplanetary Fly-It-Yourself Space Kit." After being knocked on the head and developing amnaesia, Chester is taken by Harry to a Tibetan lamasery where he is not only cured, but gifted with infallible memory. This brings him to the attention of beautiful superspy Diane (Joan Collins) and an organisation called "The Third Echelon."

The Road to Hong Kong would not repeat the success of the previous "Road..." movies. Every previous "Road..." movie had ranked in the top films of their years. This was not the case with The Road to Hong Kong. It would seem that Hope, Crosby, and Lamour's long, strange trip was over. In 1977 there were plans for another "Road..." picture, one which would reunite Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. It was to be titled Road to the Fountain of Youth. Unfortunately, the film never even made it into pre-production. On October 14, 1977, Bing Crosby died of a massive heart attack. Without Crosby, there could not be another "Road..." picture.

Although the "Road..." pictures had ended, they would not be forgotten. Television would guarantee that they would continually be introduced to new generations. They were released on VHS and then DVD. What is more, they would inspire other films. The notorious bomb Ishtar, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, was meant as an homage to the films. John Landis would direct his own homage to the series, Spies Like Us, starring Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. The Dreamworks animated film The Road to El Dorado was another homage to the "Road..." pictures, albeit one set in the 16th century. On television, The Family Guy has made several episodes which serve as tributes to the series.

Seen today there can be no doubt that the "Road..." pictures were politically incorrect. While no stereotypes as blatant as Willie Best (famous for the line "Feet don't fail me now....") in The Ghost Breakers appear in any of the "Road..." pictures, stereotypes do appear in the movies (the African natives of Road to Zanzibar being a perfect example). And throughout the series Asians, Arabs, South Pacific island peoples, et. al. are played by European Americans. Today's audiences should perhaps keep two things in mind with regards to the "Road..." pictures. The first is that they were made at a time when ethnic stereotypes were prevalent in the media, many of them much more offensive than those which appeared in the "Road..." pictures. Second, the "Road..." pictures were spoofs of the adventure movies of the days, which were rife with such stereotypes. In fact, in spoofing the adventure movies of the day and the stereotypes they used, in some respects the "Road..." pictures pointed out the ludicrousness of such stereotypes. At any rate, like all films, the "Road..." pictures were products of their time.

Of course, audiences viewing the "Road..." movies today might also fail to grasp their place in history. There was a time when genre spoofs were rarely found among feature films, and rarely were they major motion pictures. Road to Singapore and its sequels were among the earliest genre spoofs and every single one of them were major motion pictures. Indeed, the production values seemed to increase with each succeeding movie until the Technicolour lavishness of Road to Bali. In many respects this should come as no surprise, as Bob Hope was a pioneer in the field of genre spoofs. His first hit, The Cat and the Canary, and its follow up, The Ghost Breakers, spoofed horror movies. Even as he made the "Road..." movies, Bob Hope continued to make other genre spoofs, including My Favourite Blonde (spoofing spy movies), The Princess and the Pirate (parodying swashbucklers), My Favourite Brunette (spoofing film noir), and The Paleface (spoofing Westerns). In many respects Bob Hope pioneered the genre spoof, and the "Road..." pictures he made with Crosby and Lamour were among the most influential in establishing the genre. Quite simply, without Road to Singapore, there might not be Blazing Saddles or the "Austin Powers" series.

While the "Road..." pictures were among the earliest genre spoofs that were major motion pictures, they were also unique in another way. From the Thirties well into the Fifties, most series films were simply programmers or B movies. Although often well written and well acted, the films in such series as "Blondie," "The Falcon," and so on simply did not have the budgets or production values of major motion pictures. There were two series that were notable exceptions to this rule. One was "The Thin Man" series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. The other was the "Road..." pictures. Starting with Road to Singapore, the films all had good budgets and very good production values. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, if anything else the films grew even more lavish until perhaps reaching a peak with Road to Bali.

Even being politically incorrect today and nearly seventy years old, the "Road..." series still stands up today. What makes the movies are not the way out sight gags, in jokes, or even moments of surreality. It certainly isn't the plots, which were more often than not paper thin. What makes the "Road..." movies are the interplay between Crosby, Hope, and Lamour's characters. The funniest moments in the "Road..." movies are more often than not the quieter ones, when Hope, Crosby, and Lamour are flinging one liners at one another. The reason the "Road..." pictures were hits to begin with, and the reason they hold up today, is that they remember what many comedies today forget--good comedy starts with good characters.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

CBS Dims The Guiding Light

Wednesday, April 1, CBS announced that it was cancelling The Guiding Light. It will air its last episode on September 18. Like nearly all soap operas, its ratings had been steeply declining in the past several years.

Procter & Gamble, who own The Guiding Light, have announced that they will try to find The Guiding Light another home. The same thing was attempted with the NBC soap opera Passions, which moved to DirectTV's channel The 101 after the network cancelled it. There it only survived about another year.

The cancellation of The Guiding Light by CBS is historic in that it is the longest running scripted programme in broadcast history. It debuted as a 15 minute radio show on NBC on January 25, 1937. The series was created by Irma Phillips, who would go onto create Days of Our Lives, As the World Turns, and Another World as well. Even then it was owned by Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of Ivory soap and similar products. Procter & Gamble would produce so many shows of this type that the whole genre became known as "soap operas." The Guiding Light moved from NBC to CBS on June 30, 1952, where it began life as a television soap. The Guiding Light was the first soap opera to introduce African American characters, which it did in 1966. It would also provide employment for actors who would soon be famous early in their careers, including James Earl Jones (who appeared on the show in 1966), Cicely Tyson (who also appeared on the show in 1966, Billy Dee Williams (who also appeared on the show in 1966), and Kevin Bacon (who appeared on the show in 1985).

Ironically, CBS might replace The Guiding Light with a show from another daytime staple that was seeming extinct on network daytime schedules. For years The Price is Right has been the only game show on network daytime schedules. Last week Entertainment Weekly announced that CBS was considering replacing The Guiding Light with revival of The $25,000 Pyramid.

While I have never been a fan of soap operas and I have never even seen an episode of The Guiding Light, I must admit that I am saddened by the passing of the show. The series lasted 72 years, longer than any other show in American broadcast history. Its cancellation ends a run that will probably never be matched by any other series. In fact, it was one of the last remaining links on the air between radio and television. Its cancellation is literally the end of an era.