Saturday, October 24, 2009

Horror By the Decade: The Golem: How He Came Into the World

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the first post in this series, featuring a movie from the Twenties).

When the subject of silent horror movies comes up, most people tend to think of Nosferatu or Universal's 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. Those a little more in the know might think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. If someone mentions Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World), it is generally a sign that he or she is either a true aficionado of silent film or horror movies. Although not well known today, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is one of the most important horror movies in the history of the genre.

It was in 1915 that actor, writer, and director Paul Wegener and writer and director Henrik Galeen adapted the novel Der Golem by Gustav Meyrink into a feature film. Der Golem was not the first horror film, but it would prove to be very influential. It was among the earliest horror movies in which an individual either creates or revives a monster, only then to have that monster run amok. It was also possibly the first horror movie in history to spark its own franchise. It was in 1917 that Wegener followed up Der Golem with Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Made over thirty years before Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Der Golem und die Tänzerin may well have been the first horror comedy, Wegener spoofing his own film Der Golem in a plot in which a young man dresses up  as the Golem to frighten a dancing girl he loves. Sadly, only bits and pieces remain of Der Golem, while Der Golem und die Tänzerin is feared to be entirely lost. Fortunately, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam has survived in tact.

While it was the third film in the series, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam was  a prequel to Der Golem and Der Golem und die Tänzerin. Not only is the film based on a figure from Jewish folklore (a golem being a creature made of clay who is then brought to life by magic), but it is based on the most famous legend regarding a golem, in which Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in 16th century Prague created the golem to protect the Jewish community there. Set in Prague in the 16th century, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam told how the Emperor Luhois issued a decree which expelled all Jews from the ghetto. In response Rabbi Loew created the golem as a mean of saving the Jews in Prague. Unfortunately, as might be expected, the golem later goes on a rampage.

Although it is dated, anyone with a knowledge of film history will recognise Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam as a very sophisticated film for its time. Given the individuals who worked upon the film, this should come as no surprise. Henrik Galeen, who had co-written the screenplay of Der Golem with Wegener and co-wrote Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam, would go onto write the screenplay to Nosferatu. Noted architect Hans Poelzig designed the sets for the film. In part the cinematography was provided by the legendary Karl Fruend, who would later be the cinematographer on Metropolis, Dracula (1931), The Great Ziegfield, and the TV show I Love Lucy, as well as the director of such films as The Mummy and Mad Love (1935).Paul Wegener himself handled the bulk of the direction, although some scenes were supposedly directed by Carl Boese.

As said above, seen today Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is slightly dated. Even with Karl Freund behind the camera, there are scenes were it was clear that the only camera direction was "point and shoot." Still, in many ways Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is a remarkable film and even a very sophisticated one. Although clearly influenced by German expressionism, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is not as relentlessly expressionistic as Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, released the same year. Instead expressionistic techniques are used to heighten the film's atmosphere. A very emotive use of light and sets that are sometimes skewed are utilised to endow Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam with a suitably ominous feel. Overall this gives Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam a very striking look, to the point that it is easy to see its lasting influence on horror movies to come.

It is must also pointed out that the screenplay of Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam would prove to be influential on future horror films as well. Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam was one of the first movies to feature what would become an archetypal horror plot: an individual creates a monster, only to have that monster throw off his influence and go on a rampage. Most people will recognise this not only as the plot of Universal's classic Frankenstein, but of many other horror movies as well. Not only was the film's plot influential, but Paul Wegener's performance as the golem was also influential. Many might be tempted to see Wegener casting himself as the golem as hubris, but in truth it was a case of perfect casting. Wegener stood six foot six inches tall and was a talented veteran of the stage. While Wegener's sheer size makes the golem a fearsome creature, it is Wegner's talent which endows the golem with a sense of pathos as a creature who ultimately does not have a life of  his own. It is easy to see how Karloff's portrayal of the Creature in Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein was influenced by Wegener's portrayal of the golem.

Over the years many academics have alleged that Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is essentially anti-Semitic. There have been those that have accused its portrayal of Jews as particularly stereotypical. To be honest, I have trouble finding anything blatantly anti-Semitic in the film. Wegener treats the Jews with sympathy, sensitivity, and respect. And at no point does Wegener belittle the Jewish people or their beliefs. If anything, it is the court at Prague which comes off the worst. When as part of his entertainment for Emperor Luhois, Rabbi Loew offered up a vision of the history of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, he warned the court not to laugh or talk. It should come as no surprise that the imperial court does not heed the rabbi's advice. It is difficult to say why accusations of anti-Semitism have been hurled at Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam over the years. I often suspect that it is simply because it was a film made in Germany in 1920, a time and place where even then anti-Semitism was not uncommon.

Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is not a perfect film. It has its fair share of awkward moments and there are times when it seems terribly dated. As mentioned earlier, there are times when the direction seemed little more than "point and shoot." Still, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam is not simply a historic movie. It is still an entertaining film with some very striking visuals and an enjoyable plot. Although not as well known, Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam holds up quite well alongside other such silent horror classics as Nosferatu and Phantom of the Opera.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Soupy Sales R.I.P.

Comedian and children's show host Soupy Sales passed on October 22 at the age of 83.

Soupy Sales was born Milton Supman in Franklinton, North Carolina. Growing up, neighbours pronounced his last name "soupman," so that he was given the nickname "Soup Bone," later shortened to "Soupy." Following his graduation from high school in 1944, Sales joined the United States Navy and served aboard the U.S.S. Randall in the South Pacific. Following World War II, he enrolled in Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia, from which he graduated with a degree in Journalism. It was while he was in college that he began performing in night clubs as a comedian. Following his graduation, Sales worked as a DJ on radio stations in Huntington and later Cincinnati. He made his television debut on WKRC in Cincinnati on the show Soupy's Soda Shop, a dance programme, and Club Nothing, a late night comedy/variety show. By that time he adopted "Sales" as part of his stage name, after comedian Chic Sale.

Following the cancellation of his shows, Sales moved from WKRC to Cleveland and then in 1953 to WXYZ in Detroit. It was there that his daily children's show Lunch With Soupy debuted. Starting in 1959 it was broadcast nationally by ABC for a brief time. In 1960 Sales moved, with his show, to Los Angeles. It was in 1964 that Soupy Sales and Lunch with Soupy moved to WNEW in New York. It was syndicated nationwide during the 1965-1966 season. The series ended its run in 1967.

Soupy Sales appeared on other shows than his own. He guest starred on such prime time series as The Rebel, Ensign O'Toole, Burke's Law, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Carol Burnett Show. Sales was a regular on What's My Line from 1968 to 1974.  Sales hosted the game show Junior Anything Goes during the 1976 to 1977 season. In 1978 The New Soupy Sales Show was syndicated nationally. Sales went onto make guest appearances on such shows as True Blue, Wings, Boy Meet World, and Black Scorpion. He also appeared in such films as The Two Little Bears, Critic's Choice, Bird's Do It, Palmer's Pick Up, Behind the Seams, This Train, and  The Innocent and the Damned.

I must confess I only remember Soupy Sales from his guest appearances and his appearances on game shows ranging from Match Game to The $10,000 Pyramid. Regardless, I always found him a likeable character, and I fully realise his stature as a children's show host. In the mid-Sixties Lunch with Soupy was among the most popular children's shows on the air. Indeed, he was perhaps the only children's show host whose programme featured guests ranging from Frank Sinatra to The Supremes. For many, many Baby Boomers, there can be little doubt that he is the children's show host they remember best.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wanted: Dead or Alive

There was a time when movie stars emerged from the ranks of actors on stage or were simply discovered by some talent agent. This changed in the United States with the emergence of regular, network television broadcasts. From that time forward there would be movie stars who would emerge from the small screen. Paul Newman, James Dean, and Warren Beatty all got their start on television. Among these actors also numbers the King of Cool, Steve McQueen himself. The show that made him a star was Wanted: Dead or Alive.

The story of Wanted: Dead or Alive actually began with another show. Trackdown was a Western starring Robert Culp as Texas Ranger Hoby Gillman. It was on the twenty first episode of its first season, entitled "The Bounty Hunter," that Gillman teamed up with a bounty hunter named Josh Randall and played by Steve McQueen. At the time McQueen had been trying to break into feature films, an area in which his prospects seemed to be disappearing fast. Fortunately, Jack H. Harris, producer of The Blob (1958), highly recommended him to Dick Powell (the chief at Four Star Productions, the company which produced Trackdown). Powell asked to see a rough cut of The Blob and afterwards McQueen was hired.

"The Bounty Hunter" would prove to be the most popular episode of Trackdown, so much so that Four Star Productions decided to spin John Randall off into his own series. Despite the success of "The Bounty Hunter," Four Star had some difficulty selling the show. Movies and later television series had long portrayed bounty hunters as unsavoury characters, making the networks look askance at any show which featured a bounty hunter as it hero. It was then decided that Randall would give most and sometimes even all of his earnings to people in need, more often than not families of the murder victims of the criminals he captured. This made Wanted: Dead or Alive much more palatable to CBS, who bought the series. It debuted on September 6, 1958.

Wanted: Dead or Alive followed the adventures of Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in the Old West. His weapon of choice was a sawed off Winchester 1892 Model carbine known as "the Mare's Leg." During the War Between the States, Randall served in the Army of the Confederate States of America. Unlike many bounty hunters, Josh Randall had his own code of honour. He would not kill unless he was absolutely forced to do so, preferring to bring in even the most vicious killers alive. What is more, he would actively try to prevent other hunters from killing their bounties. Randall would even help those he went to capture if they had been wrongly accused. He never judged people on their appearances and was always willing to give anyone a chance. And as mentioned above, Randall donated much of his earnings to the needy.

Wanted: Dead or Alive was not an intelligent Western in the same way that Have Gun--Will Travel was (Josh Randall did not quote Shakespeare and Shelley the way that Paladin did), but it was an intelligent Western nonetheless. While there was never a shortage of action on Wanted: Dead or Alive, characters on the show were always well developed and never caricatures or stereotypes. It was very much a character driven show. What is more, at a time when many Westerns tended to stereotype both Mexicans and Native Americans, Wanted: Dead or Alive treated them as dignified human beings. In many ways this should not be surprising. Like most shows produced by Four Star Productions, Wanted: Dead or Alive was written by some of the best writers in television: Tony Barrett (a veteran of Peter Gunn), Charles Beaumont (who would go onto become one of the writers on The Twilight Zone, Fred Freiberger (who would go onto produce Ben Casey and The Wild Wild West), Frank D. Gilroy (who would go onto create Burke's Law), and Samuel A. Peeples (a veteran of many TV Westerns who would go on to write for Star Trek).

Wanted: Dead or Alive would prove to be a smash hit, becoming one of the few spinoffs in American television history which would be more successful than the show from which it was spun off. Steven McQueen became one of the most popular television stars of the day and, as a result, began getting movie offers. Unfortunately, coordinating the shooting of movies with the shooting schedule of Wanted: Dead or Alive would prove difficult. When McQueen was offered the role of Vin in The Magnificent Seven, he was initially unable to because of the show's schedule. Fate intervened when McQueen crashed his car, allowing him to shoot the film while he was out "sick."

It would effectively be The Magnificent Seven which would bring an end to Wanted: Dead or Alive. The film turned Steve McQueen into a movie star, and as a result he was getting several offers for motion pictures. After three seasons and ninety four episodes, Steve McQueen left the show to pursue his motion picture career. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although today it is known primarily as the show which turned Steven McQueen into a star, Wanted: Dead or Alive was a very well crafted show worth remembering on its own merit. Indeed, it must be pointed out that while other movie stars would get their start in television, their shows would not be nearly as well remembered. Wanted: Dead or Alive would go onto a healthy run in syndication. All three seasons would eventually be released on DVD. Wanted: Dead or Alive would also inspire a movie sequel. In the 1987 movie Wanted: Dead or Alive, Rutger Hauer played Nick Randall, the grandson of Josh Randall, a bounty hunter in Los Angeles in the Eighties.

Wanted: Dead or Alive turned Steve McQueen into a star. Much of this was because McQueen's acting talent was already on display in the series, endowing Josh Randall with a personality that few heroes in television Westerns had. At the same time, however, it must be pointed out that McQueen's performances on the show would not have been nearly so good if he had nothing to work with. It was ultimately the show's writers, directors,and producers who gave McQueen the perfect vehicle on which to display his talent. While it was probably inevitable that Steve McQueen would be a star, he probably would not have become one so soon without Wanted: Dead or Alive.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Filmmakers in Classic Films

"All of life's riddles are answered in the movies." (Davis in the 1991 film Grand Canyon)

There is perhaps no medium as self-reflexive as motion pictures. It is true that writers sometimes feature writers as protagonists in their novels and short stories. Songwriters do write songs about singers and even songwriters. And there have been television shows about, well, television shows. That having been said, it would seem that none of these media refer to themselves nearly as frequently as motion pictures. Not only have there been movies about movie theatres, movies about movie stars, and movies about movies, there have often been movies about movie making. As a result, there have been several films which feature directors as central characters.

Indeed, movies about movie making go all the way back to the silent era. Behind the Screen featuring Charlie Chaplin as an overworked stage hand at a movie studio was made all the way back in 1916. The 1923 animated short Felix in Hollywood featured Felix the Cat as the companion of a down on his luck actor who goes to Hollywood. The 1926 Mervyn LeRoy comedy Ella Cinders starred Colleen Moore as the title character, a beauty queen who goes to Hollywood to make a career in pictures, based loosely on the fairly tale Cinderella. Given that movies about movie making had existed since the silent era, it should come as no surprise that one of the earliest talkies would feature a movie director as the impetus for its plot. It should also come as no surprise that it is one of the famous movies of all time, regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time.

That film was King Kong. Among its primary characters is director Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), who also appears in its sequel, Son of Kong. It is Denham who sets the plot of King Kong in motion. It was Denham who decided to make a film on Skull Island, having heard legends of Kong and deciding that they must be based on fact. It was also Denham, after having been told his movies would have made more money if they had a love interest in them, found and cast Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in his film. Quite simply, without Carl Denham, King Kong would not have been made.

As a director Carl Denham made documentaries, most often set in the jungle and other primitive areas of the world. He had no problem with putting himself in danger, and hence his cast and crew in danger as well. Despite his devotion to documentary film making (he objects to the notion that his films need a love interest), Carl Denham apparently had no objections to  staging scenes--aboard the ship he had Ann rehearse the scene when she first sees Kong. He was also a consummate showman. In Kong he saw not simply a wondrous animal, but a means to put on a good show and hence make a good deal of money. In Son of Kong Carl Denham, burdened with lawsuits from the damage caused by Kong, fled New York City with Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), the skipper of the ship which made the original trip to Skull Island. The two men once more found themselves back on Skull Island, this time in search of treasure. Of course, in the process they would meet what was ostensibly the son of King Kong.

To a large degree Carl Denham was based on the the director of the original King Kong, Merian C. Cooper himself. Before they started making narrative films such as The Four Feather and King Kong, Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack made documentaries such as Grass and Chang. Like Denham, Cooper and Schoedsack frequently put themselves in danger. And like Denham they had no objections to combining staged scenes with actual, documentary footage (a prime example being the elephant stampede at the end of Chang).

Carl Denham in the original King Kong epitomised the sort of filmmaker who would risk anything to get his film made. This is also true of the director Carl Denham (Jack Black) in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake. In fact, it may even be more true of Denham in the 2005 remake. For the most part Carl Denham in the original version was honest with people--he would not lie or cheat to make a movie. In the remake Carl Denham did  not have such limitations. He stole the film stock that technically belonged to his investors. He wrote cheques to both Captain Englehorn of the  tramp steamer Venture (Thomas Kretschmann) and screenwriter Jack Driscoll that will more than likely bounce. Still, the remake's version of Denham has more in common with the original version than Denham than simply an extreme devotion to movie making. He willingly put himself in danger to get his movie made and even to capture Kong!

An extreme devotion to filmmaking can also be seen in the lead character in Sullivan's Travels, movie director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea). John L. Sullivan had made several successful comedies which he considered shallow, among them Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and So Long Sarong. He had decided that he wants to do an important, message film, a tale of the downtrodden based on the novel  O Brother Where Art Thou by Sinclair Beckstein. His studio boss, Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick) would much rather Sullivan do another comedy. Despite this, Sullivan insisted on going ahead with his plan to make O Brother Where Art Thou. What is more, he is so dedicated to the project that he had decided to take up the life of a hobo so that he can know the life of the downtrodden first hand. Not only was Sullivan a dedicated filmmaker, he was also an idealist who wants to do something important, to make a film that is substantial and had a message.

To a degree John L. Sullivan grew out of a conflict within the movie's director and writer, Preston Sturges himself. Sturges was a very successful director of such comedies as The Great McGinty and The Lady Eve. He was disturbed by a trend in comedies at the time which seemed to him to be downright preachy, putting social messages ahead of the laughs. At the same time, however, Preston Sturges was very much a man with a social conscience. It is notable that, among many other things, Sullivan's Travels is among the first Hollywood films to feature African Americans in a dignified, non-stereotypical manner (for which he received a "thank you" letter from the secretary of the NAACP). To a degree, then, John L. Sullivan is based on Preston Sturges himself, as well as those directors who insisted on preaching in their comedy movies.

While directors are central to both King Kong  and Sullivan's Travels, they are only peripheral to The Bad and the Beautiful.  This is perhaps to be expected, as the movie is about corrupt movie producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), after all. This does not mean that directors are absent from the movie. At  the beginning of his career, Shields teamed with Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) to make B movies together, with Sheilds as producer and Amiel as director. Unfortunately, Shields decided to back stab Amiel when the two received their first big project--the adaptation of an epic novel largely considered unfilmable. Despite this, Amiel goes onto become a very successful director. While the early part of Jonathan Shields' career, while he was partners with Fred Amiel, is based on Val Lewton's career as a horror producer at RKO, the character himself would seem to be based on David O. Selznick. It is difficult to say if Fred Amiel is based on any director, although he began as an assistant director and stunt man on B Western and was directing what appeared to be a thriller at the start of the film. Two other directors who appear briefly in the film are clearly based on real life directors. British director Henry Whitfield, played by Leo G. Carroll, is clearly based on Alfred Hitchcock. German director Von Ellstein, played by Ivan Triesault, is clearly based on Fritz Lang.

While The Bad and the Beautiful only touches upon filmmaking, filmmaking rests at the heart of Singin' in the Rain. Indeed, it could be one of the most self-referential movies of all time. Set at the time that Hollywood was making the transition from silent movies to sound, Singin' in the Rain even drew upon real life incidents from that period for some of its plot. What is more, many of the characters were based loosely upon real life people. Among these character was director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley), who was based on Busby Berkeley. Like Berkeley, Dexter tended to direct using rather broad examples.

Both Carl Denham and John L. Sullivan had their difficulties with making movies, but niether of them had the problems that Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) had in 8 1/2. Quite simply, Anselmi was working on his next movie, a post apocalyptic, science fiction film, when he was hit with a sudden onset of "director's block." Not only does Anselmi suddenly find his creativity suddenly gone, but everyone in his life is making demands upon him--his producer, his cast, his crew, his wife, his mistress, his press, and even his fans. The film chronicled Anselmi's quest to recover his creativity and get control over his life.

Just as Carl Denham was loosely based on Merian C. Cooper and John L. Sullivan was loosely based on Preston Sturges, Guido Anselmi was based on Federico Fellini. In fact, 8 1/2 is filled with veiled autobiographical references, including the "director's block" from which Anselmi was suffering. It had been in 1960 that La Dolce Vita had been released, becoming his most successful film up to that time. It even became a hit in the United States, where foreign films traditionally have not done well. In the face of such success, Fellini was at a loss as to what to do next. At last he hit upon the solution--turn his "director's block" into a movie. Not only is 8 1/2 somewhat autobiographical and not only is it a movie about making movies, but it is self-referential with regards to Fellini's career as well. Even its title is self-referential, 8 1/2 being Fellini's 8th and half movie (Luci del varietà from 1950 was co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, so that it is the "1/2" of the title). Not only did Federico Fellini base Guido Anselmi upon himself, but he obviously identified with him--he once said "I am Guido."

For most of movie history the directors featured in narrative films were fictional, even if they might be loosely based upon real life directors. More recently there has been the phenomenon in which movies have featured directors who actually existed. This is the case with Ed Wood, Tim Burton's 1994 film based on the life of the man who may have been the worst director of all time. In the film Burton portrays Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) as constantly optimistic and a bit of an idealist. He constantly moved forward with his films, even though each one flopped and he worked with budgets that were less than a shoestring. He also idolised Orson Welles, who, like Wood, was also a producer, screenwriter, and director. This is to a degree an entirely accurate portrayal of Wood's life. Unlike other directors of exploitation films, Ed Wood seems to have honestly believed in what he was doing. As hard as it is to believe, Wood did not realise that he was simply creating rubbish.

A much more talented director was the focus of the 2000 movie Shadow of the Vampire. Shadow of the Vampire is a highly fictionalised account of the making of Noseferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau. In the film Murnau (John Malkovich) is portrayed as egoistical, manipulative, dictatorial, and wholly devoted to the craft of filmmaking. In fact, in many respects, Murnau is even more Machiavellian than the villain of the film (whom I won't name here so as not to spoil the film). To a large degree this is an accurate portrayal of Murnau, who may well have originated the stereotype of the German director as a tyrannical egomaniac supremely devoted to his craft.

The films I have mentioned here are only a few of the movies which have featured directors in central roles. There have been many, many more. And while the characters of the directors may vary in these films, and while some may be entirely fictional and others portrayals of actual directors, there are some commonalities. One of the things that Carl Denham, John L. Sullivan, Rosco Dexter, Guido Anselmi, F. W. Murnau, and even Ed Wood have in common is a devotion to filmmaking.  Indeed, often this devotion to filmmaking takes the extreme. Carl Denham thought nothing of putting himself, his cast, and his crew in imminent danger. John L. Sullivan was so devoted to his vision of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou that he decided to live the life of a tramp so he could experience what it was to be downtrodden. It would seem that most directors in films are dedicated to Elbert Hubbard's quote, "Art is not a thing; it is a way." Another thing common to directors in films is that most of them have rather large egos. John L. Sullivan think himself above the comedies he has been directing; he believes that he has to direct an important film with a message. In Shadow of the Vampire F. W. Murnau does not need his films to be successful to know he is a great director; he already knows it. Of course, while most directors in films do tend to be egoists, they also tend to have their fair share of neuroses and anxieties as well. Guido Anslemi experiences "director's block" and is tormented by his past. Carl Denham loves nature and the unexplored regions of the world, but he cannot help but commercialise it and hence destroy it in the end.

Of course, the reason the directors portrayed in movies have so much in common is not that all directors are alike. Rather I believe it is instead that many of these movies express the uncertainties and crises all of us go through in our own lives. The self doubts and difficulties that accompany filmmaking reflect those self doubts and difficulties that all of us have had. To a degree, then, 8 1/2 is not simply about filmmaking. It is about life. In portraying Anselmi's "director's block," Fellini was then dealing with the uncertainties and low points that all of us experience. It is then perhaps for this reason that there have been so many films about directors and filmmaking.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crooner Al Martino and Rock 'n' Roll Artist Michael English

Al Martino

Baritone crooner Al Martino passed on October 13 at the age of 82. His career has spanned fifty years.

Al Martino was born Jasper Cini on October 7, 1927 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During World War II he joined the United States Navy and took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima. Injured there, he was returned home. It was in 1947 that he moved to New York City in hopes of a singing career. He was a winner on the TV show  Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. His exposure from the show led to a recording contract with the small BBS label in Philadelphia. It was in 1952 that he had his first hit, "Here in My Heart," which went to #1 both in the United States and the United Kingdom. This led to a recording contract with Capitol Records. Martino would have three more hits in the United States in 1953 alone. Until the Sixties, top forty hits would be sparse for Martino in the United States, although he did quite well in the United Kingdom. There he had four more hits between 1953 and 1955.

Rock 'n' roll would take its toll on the crooners, and this was as true of Al Martino as anyone else. Although his once successful career in the United Kingdom languished, Martino once more hit the charts in the United States in 1963. For the remainder of the Sixties into the Seventies he had twelve more top Forty hits in the United States, including "I Love You Because," "Spanish Eyes," "Mary in the Morning," and "Volare."

Al Martino would appear in a few films, most notably The Godfather. There he played Johnny Fontane, a crooner loosely based on Frank Sinatra who pleads with Vito Corleone to help him in his career. He also appeared in The Godfather Part III, the mini-series The City, and the comedy short Cutout.

Al Martino continued to perform and record up until his death. In fact, he had just been in the studio recording a new album the Monday before he died.

Al Martino may not have numbered among the most famous of the crooners, but he still numbered among the best. He possessed a smooth baritone that was particularly suited for American pop standards. It was because of this that he was able to survive the arrival of rock music and because of this that his career lasted over fifty years. In many respects, his passing signals an end of an era.

Michael English

Michael English, an artist who created posters for bands ranging from Pink Floyd to Soft Machine, passed on September 25 at the age of 68.  He had struggled with bone marrow cancer for five years.

Michael English was born in Bicester, Oxfordshire, on September 5 1941. He attended Ealing School of Art in West London. After graduating, English embraced the counterculture. He painted the fronts of two of the more famous Chelsea shops--Granny Takes a Trip and Hung On You. Afterwards  he formed the graphics team Hapshash and the Coloured Coat with Nigel Waymouth. Hapshash and the Coloured Coat designed psychedelic posters with influence from art noveau for such music artists as Pink Floyd, The Incredible String Band, Jimi Hendrix, and so on. They also created posters that were distributed by Osiris Press ( a publishing arm of The International Times) and several editions of the legendary magazine Oz. In 1967 English and Waymouth, with Guys Stevens,  even released their own music album as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat: Featuring the Human Host and the Heavy Metal Kids.

It was in 1969 that Michael English moves way from psychedelia towards a different direction. His new style tended towards hyper-realism. He created series of limited edition prints, published by Edward Booth-Clibborn, entitled Food Synaethetics and Rubbish. By 1973 he had left prints behind and began painting on canvas. It was at this point that he began to focus on man made objects, including such subjects as a Coca-Cola bottle cap, motorcycles, buses and so on. Over the years he would create adveryising imagery for companies ranging from British Airways to Porsche to McDonalds. He created two sets of stamps for the British Mail. In 1995 he was hired by the BBC to seve as artistic director on a proposed adaptation of Gormenghast. In this planned adaptation, the actors would have appeared against virtual sets generated entirely on a computer. The escalating costs of the project forced the BBC to end it.

Whether it is the psychedelia of his later career or the hyper-realist pieces of his later career, Michael English was among the most talented artists of the late 20th century. Throughout his career, from the Sixties to the Naughts, there was a starkness to his work that simply caught the eye. He was also a versatile artist. English was able to move from psychedelia to hyper-realism, and later return to psychedelia for his work for McDonalds. It is sad that he died much too young.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Television & Film Producer Daniel Melnick Passes On

Television and film producer Daniel Melnick passed on October 13 at the age of 77. He had been suffering from lung cancer. Melnick had helped launch the classic TV show Get Smart and produced the movie Straw Dogs, among others.

Daniel Melnick was born on April 21, 1932 in New York City. He attended the New York City School of Performing Arts and New York University. Afterwards he served in the United States Army. He began his career in television in 1954 with CBS as a staff producer. It was in the late Fifties that he moved to ABC, where he scheduled such shows as 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, The Flintstones, and The Fugitive. He partnered with David Susskind and Leonard Stern in  the production company Talent Associates. According to Buck Henry, it was while Melnick was with Talent Associates that Melnick suggested that the company capitalise on "...the two biggest things in the entertainment world today" — James Bond and Inspector Clouseau." The result of this request was the series Get Smart. While Melnick was with Talent Associates, the company also produced East Side/West Side, Mr. Broadway, He & She, and NYPD. It was while he was with Talent Associates that he produced his first feature film, Sam Peckinpah's controversial motion picture Straw Dogs.

It was in 1972 that Melnick joined MGM. By 1974 he was the studio's head of production. While Melnick was the head of production of MGM, the studio produced such films as Network and The Sunshine Boys. Melnick moved from MGM to Columbia, where the studio produced such films as The China Syndrome, California Suite, and Midnight Express. He served as a producer on All That Jazz and  Altered States, before forming IndieProd Productions, which produced such films as Roxanne, Punchline, Mountains of the Moon, and Blue Streak.

Both as a television producer and a film producer, Daniel Melnick was known for intelligent, often daring entertainment. On television he was the impetus for the creation of Get Smart and one of the producers of He & She. In film he produced such films as Straw Dogs, All That Jazz, and Midnight Express. Both the television shows and the feature films he produced were well done and literate, much more intelligent than most other TV series and movies. In 1990 he told The New York Times, "What I try to do is identify and work with the most talented people I can get." Looking at his career, it would seem he did exactly that.