Saturday, April 18, 2009

Actors Maxine Cooper and Jody McCrea Pass On

While the average person might not recognise their names, two actors died recently who left a lasting mark on American pop culture. Maxine Cooper will be forever remembered as Mike Hammer's secretary Velda in the classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly. Jody McCrea, son of Joel McCrea, appeared in many Western movies and TV shows and was a regular in American International Pictures' "Beach Party" movies.

Maxine Cooper passed on April 4 from natural causes at the age of 84.

Maxine Cooper was born in Chicago on May 12, 1924. It was while she was attending Bennington College in Vermont that she developed an interest in the theatre. She completed her acting training at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. In 1946 Cooper went to Europe where she performed for the American troops still stationed there after World War II. She remained in Europe and made her television debut on the BBC in an adaptation of The Front Page in 1948.

Cooper returned to the United States in the early Fifties and made her television debut in an episode of the syndicated series "The New Adventures of China Smith in 1954. In 1955 she appeared in an episode of The Star and the Story. Cooper also acted in theatre. In fact, it was because of a performance in the play Peer Gynt in Los Angeles that she received her most famous role. Director Robert Aldrich saw her in the play and cast her in the role of Velda in Kiss Me Deadly.

Maxine Cooper appeared somewhat frequently on television in the Fifties. She made guest appearances on Studio 57, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Millionaire, Four Star Playhouse, Maverick, Perry Mason, Peter Gunn, The Twilight Zone, and Wanted Dead or Alive. She also had roles in the movies Autumn Leaves, Zero Hour, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

Cooper married screenwriter Sy Gomberg in 1957 and retired from acting to raise her family in the early Sixties. She also became an activist, organising the Hollywood community to march with Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama in the Sixties. She also organised protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear arms.

Although her acting career was short, there can be no doubt as to Maxine Cooper's talent. While the part of Velda, Mike Hammer's secretary, has been played by at least eight different actresses, for many it is Maxine Cooper who will be Velda. This was the sort of actress Maxine Cooper was--she could take a role which originated on the printed page and had first been played by someone else (Margaret Sheridan in I, the Jury) and make it wholly her own.

Jody McCrea, son of Joel McCrea and star of Westerns and "Beach Party" movies passed on April 4 at the age of 74. The cause was a heart attack.

Jody McCrea was born Joel Dee McCrea on September 6, 1934 in Los Angeles, California. He was the son of actor Joel McCrea and actress Frances Dee. He majored in theatre arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. While there he threw the javelin on the university's field and track team. McCrea also served in the United States Army. While in the Army he hosted Country Style, USA, a recruiting programme produced by the Army in Nashville. He made his film debut in a small part in the movie Lucy Gallant in 1955. In the Fifties he would go on to appear in the movies The First Texan, Naked Gun, The Monster That Challenged the World, and The Restless Years. He also appeared on television in such shows as Studio One, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and Kraft Television Theatre. He was a semi-regular as Deputy Ben Matheson on the 1959-1960 Wichita Town, on which he played opposite his father Joel McCrea.

The Sixties saw Jody McCrea appear in such films as All Hands on Deck, Force of Impulse, The Broken Land, and Young Guns of Texas. He appeared in the first "Beach Party" movie, Beach Party, in 1963, as Deadhead. McCrea played nearly the same character (called either Deadhead or Bonehead) in six of the the seven "Beach Party" movies. He continued to appear in other films as well, including Law of the Lawless, Young Fury, Major Dundee, The Glory Stompers, and Cry Blood, Apache. He also appeared on television in such shows as Death Valley Days and Wagon Train.

In the mid-Seventies Jody McCrea retired from acting to take up ranching.

I have always thought the acting talent of Jody McCrea was somewhat underestimated. This can be proven simply by looking at some of his better known roles. On Wichita Town he played the young, somewhat serious Deputy Marshal Ben Matheson. In the "Beach Party" movies he played the near total idiot variously called "Bonehead" or "Deadhead." In The Glory Stompers he played the tough biker gang leader Darryl intent on revenge on rival biker gang leader Chino (played by Dennis Hopper). These three roles could not be more different, and yet McCrea did well in all of them. Indeed, he actually held his own playing opposite Dennis Hopper! McCrea clearly inherited his talents from his parents, and it showed in every role he played.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

D&D Co-Creator Dave Arneson Passes On

Dave Arneson, who co-created the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, passed on April 7 at the age of 61. He had fought cancer for two years.

Dave Arneson was born on October 1, 1947 Hennepin County, Minnesota. He grew up around St. Paul and attended the University of Minnesota. He had developed an interest in war games after his parents had bought him a copy of Avalon Hill's Gettysburg in the early Sixties. He became a avid player of naval war games, and in the late Sixties began playing war games with the Midwest Military Simulation Association in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. While playing with the Midwest Military Simulation Association, Arneson took the first steps in the development of role playing games.

It was in August 1969 that Dave Arneson attended the second annual Gen Con, a national gaming convention. There he met Gary Gygax, who had co-created the medieval miniatures war game called Chainmail with Jeff Perren. Together the two of them would develop a naval war game, Don't Give Up The Ship. It was in 1970 that Arneson started developing a medieval miniatures game based around the exploration of castle dungeons. Originally resolving combat through the simple method of rock/scissors/paper, Arneson eventually adapted the Chainmail rules and rules from naval war games (from where the idea of Armour Class came) to his own ends. He also developed his own rules as he went along.

The game would eventually become Blackmoor, the setting of which would eventually become a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. Arneson and his friends would demonstrate their game for Gary Gygax. By phone and mail the two worked together on the game. After play testing, Arneson and Gygax tried to sell what was then called "the Fantasy Game" to both Avalon Hill and Guidon Games. Both companies rejected it.

With funding provided by Brian Blume, Gary Gygax and Don Kaye founded Tactical Studies Rules (later TSR Inc.) in 1973. The company published Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. While Dungeons & Dragons may not have been the first role playing game, it was the first to be widely available. In role playing games, players create their own fictional characters, each with their own personalities, pasts, and motivations separate for their own. An individual called a Game Master(GM for short) referees the game. He or she also controls the imaginary environment in which the player characters exist, creating everything from the setting to the adventures to non-player characters(NPC). In many respects role playing games are simply a variation of such childhood games as "cops and robbers."

While Arneson co-created Dungeons & Dragons, he would not formally be a part of TSR until he joined as their Director of Research in 1976. Arneson did not remain with TSR for long. He left towards the end of the year to pursue his own career as an independent game developer. Heritage Models published Arneson's Dungeonmaster's Index in 1977. In 1979 he released the role playing game Adventures in Fantasy, co-created by Richard L. Snider. It was also that year that he filed his first of five lawsuits against Gary Gygax and TSR Hobbies Inc. over royalties and credit on the adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The suits would eventually be settle out of court in 1981. As a result Dave Arneson had been credited as a co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons ever since.

Afterwards Dave Arneson founded Adventure Games, which published the games Johnny Reb, Harpoon. While Adventure Games would be successful, it would also create a considerable workload for Arneson. He eventually sold out to Flying Buffalo (publishers of Tunnels and Trolls). After Gary Gygax became president of TSR, Arneson returned to TSR in the Eighties and developed several adventures for the Blackmoor campaign setting. After Gary Gygax left the company in 1985, Arneson's association with TSR was terminated.

Dave Arneson then founded the computer company 4D Interactive Systems, Inc. He also consulted with other computer companies. It was in the Nineties that he started work at Full Sail University, a university in Winter Park, Florida geared towards the business of entertainment. There he would be a professor computer design. Arenson and Dustin Clingman would found Zeitgeist Games with the goal of updating Blackmmoor. The new version of Blackmoor was published in 2004.

Dave Arneson was pivotal in the history of role playing games. Quite simply, without Dave Arneson D&D and all the role playing games which followed it would not exist. According to Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of D&D, he "...developed many of the fundamental ideas of role playing: that each player controls just one hero, that heroes gain power through adventures and that personality is as important as combat prowess." Dave Arneson then did not merely co-create Dungeons and Dragons, but developed the most basic principles of the role playing game.

When I was young I would play a good deal of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games. And I do believe I owe a good deal to the role playing games I which I played. I believe that they helped exercise my imagination, helped develop my ability to create plots, and improved my ability to develop characters. Role playing games made me a better writer. While I no longer play role playing games, I do owe them a great debt. I then also owe Dave Arneson a great debt, without whom role playing games could not exist.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Turner Classic Movies Turns 15

Today Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is celebrating its fifteenth birthday. The cable channel, devoted to showing classic movies commercial free, first took the air on April 14, 1994. Since that time it has become the favourite cable channel of many a movie buff.

The beginning of Turner Classic Movies is to be found in the Turner Broadcasting System, a company consisting of such cable channels as TBS (originally the broadcast station WTBS), TNT, CNN, the Cartoon Network, and so on. It was in 1986 that Ted Turner, founder and head of the Turner Broadcasting System, acquired MGM/UA. This also meant that Turner acquired MGM's film library. While the amount of debut that the Turner Broadcasting System was then carrying forced Ted Turner to sell MGM/UA, he kept the MGM/UA library. In obtaining the MGM/UA library, Ted Turner also obtained the old Warner Brothers library (consisting of pre-1950 films and pre-1948 animated shorts). Warner Brothers had sold their pre-1950 films and pre-1948 shorts to Associated Artists Productions in the late Fifties. The company was bought out by United Artists in 1958. It was in the Sixties that RKO sold its library to United Artists. By the late Eighties, then, Ted turned controlled the films made by MGM prior to 1986, the Warner Brothers prior to 1950, and the RKO library. This included such classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and King Kong.

After acquiring these libraries, many classic films would show up on TNT, albeit with commercial interruptions. Here it should perhaps be pointed out that Ted Turner was not particularly well loved by film buffs. It was also in the late Eighties that Ted Turner aggressively promoted the colourisation of classic black and white films. During this period Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, It's a Wonderful Life, and other classic films were all colourised. This naturally resulted in considerable outcry against Ted Turner. Fortunately, by the mid-Nineties the colourisation process had proven too expensive and Turner ceased colourising films.

It could well have been the success of classic films aired on TNT that led to the founding of Turner Classic Movies. It was advertised that April The channel would be "...uninterrupted, uncolorized and commercial-free!" The date April 14, 1994 was chosen because it was supposedly the 100th anniversary of the first movie to be shown publicly in New York City. The first movie ever aired on the channel was Gone With the Wind.

Then, as now, Robert Osborne was the host on Turner Classic Movies. Osborne had been a contract player for Desilu when he was young, appearing in a small part in The Californians and guest starring on Whirlybirds and The Beverly Hillbillies. It was Lucille Ball herself who advised Osborne to combine his interest in entertainment and journalism. In 1977 he became a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter. In 1983 he started writing the lead column of the paper, "The Rambling Reporter." He had also written several books on film prior to his hosting duties on TCM.

As might be expected, from the beginning much of TCM's programming came from the MGM, UA, RKO, and Warner Brothers libraries. Their programming is not limited to films from these libraries, as they also show films under licence from other studios, such as Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Walt Disney Productions.

Turner Classic Movies would not remain the only classic movie channel for long. Only a few months later, on October 1, 1994, the channel received competition in the form of American Movies Classics (AMC). In the beginning AMC was much like TCM, airing classic films commercial-free and uninterrupted. This would eventually change. In 2000 AMC started airing ten minutes worth of commercials per hour. In October 2002 it changed its format so that it would air more recent films in order to appeal to a broader audience. In 2003 it would deemphasise the name American Movie Classics in favour of AMC. It seems possible that AMC simply could not compete with TCM in the realm of classic movies.

The same month that AMC opened its doors, TCM's other primary competitor also went on the air. The Fox Movie Channel began as fXM--Movies from Fox on October 31, 1994, changing its name to the Fox Movie Channel in 2000. The Fox Movie Channel airs movies from the entire history of 20th Century Fox, the studio having retained its library all these years. Like TCM the Fox Movie Channel is commercial free.

Turner Classic Movies was only two years old when the conglomerate Time Warner acquired the Turner Broadcasting System. As a result, TCM now had access to all Warner Brothers movies made after 1950, as well as films from libraries which Warner Brothers had bought (including the National General Pictures and Saul Zaentz libraries).

In 1996 TCM launched Now Playing, the channel's viewing guide. Not only does Now Playing feature the channel's complete schedule for a month, but photos, trivia, and articles about classic movies.

While the cable channel's various promos have changed over the years, TCM's programming largely has not. To this day the bulk of the channel's programming consists of classic films. That is not to say that TCM has not had its own original programming. Over the years TCM has shown many documentaries on film, including Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, Lana Turner: A Daughter's Memoirs, Billy Wilder Speaks, and many others. In 2000 it debuted the series The Essentials. Each week The Essentials spotlights a classic film, complete with an introduction and a discussion of the film after it has aired. It was originally hosted by director Rob Reiner and later Sydney Pollack and Peter Bogdanovich. Since 2006 it has been hosted by Robert Osborne and a co-host (currently Alec Baldwin). In October 2006 TCM debuted TCM Underground, hosted by Rob Zombie and dedicated to various cult films (primarily in the horror genre).

Every year in February Turner Classic Movies shows the film festival called 31 Days of Oscar, which looks back at various films which have won or have been nominated for an Academy Award. Every August TCM holds it Month of Stars, with each day dedicated to a single star. Since 2000 TCM has held the annual Young Composers Film Competition, in which young composers must score a restored, feature-length silent film.

I believe I can speak for all fans of classic films when I say that Turner Classic Films has been a godsend to movie buffs. By the Nineties most local TV station had ceased to show older films, if they showed movies at all. Similarly, the various cable channels tended to favour more recent films. There were becoming fewer and fewer venues where a film buff could watch classic movies. Turner Classic Movies then came about at precisely the right time, when it was becoming a rare thing for one to see classic movies on television. What made all of this better is that not only did TCM actually show classic movies (and almost nothing but classic movies), but it showed them uninterrupted, commercial-free, and usually in their original screen format (even today it is rare to see films in letterbox on television). What is more, TCM sometimes shows movies that are not yet available on DVD, giving viewers the chance to see films that they might not otherwise get to. If TCM has lasted 15 years, it is perhaps because it is because it is simply giving people what they want and what they see nowhere else--classic films.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Falling Hare" Starring Bugs Bunny

Today being a holiday, instead of a full fledged post I thought I would leave you with a suitable cartoon. In this case, it is the classic "Falling Hare" starring Bugs Bunny.

"Falling Hare" was directed by Bob Clampett. Clampett worked on Warner Brothers cartoons for literally years, directing many of the best. After leaving Warner Brothers he would gain even more fame as the creator of the early television puppet show Time for Beany and the animated series Beany and Cecil based upon it.

Falling Hare was released on October 30, 1943 and draws heavily upon the ongoing World War II for its plot. It is set at an Army Air Force base in which Bugs matches wits with a gremlin. It refers to rationing, a fact of life during the war. As might be expected of a Bob Clampett cartoon, it contains a few pop culture references, among them the novel Of Mice and Men and one time presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Here, without further ado, is "Falling Hare," courtesy of YouTube.