Saturday, February 27, 2010

Joan Bennett's 100th Birthday

Perhaps no actor ever had as diverse a career as Joan Bennett. It was not simply that she saw success on stage, in movies, and on television, although she did. It was more a case that she played a large variety of roles, often very different from each other, and did so very well. She started out playing blonde ingénues (blonde being her natural colour) before playing brunette femme fatales. Towards the end of her career she often played the mother figure. In between she played an enormous array of different parts, everything from a naive blonde to a dangerous seductress to a caring mother to the head of a witch's coven. And in every case she did so with a sincerity and conviction of which only few actors are capable.

Joan Bennett was born 100 years ago today, on February 27, 1910. It could literally be said that she had acting in her blood. Her father was Richard Bennett, star of the stage and a matinee idol of the early Silent Era. Her mother was Adrienne Morrison, an actress on stage and in early silents. Her maternal grandfather was stage actor Lewis Morrison. Her maternal grandmother was actress Rose Wood, whose lineage in acting reached all the way back to 18th century England. Before her, her older sisters also became actresses. Constance starred in such films as Topper and Two Faced Woman. Barbara met with less success, appearing in a few silents. Miss Bennett attended St. Margaret's, a private school in Waterbury, Connecticut and later L'Hermitage in Versailles, France. She married for the first time when she was only sixteen. She divorced her husband, John Marion Fox, later saying that he was a drunkard and a playboy, when she was only 18.

Joan Bennett made her film debut when she was only six, alongside her parents in the film Valley of Decision, released in 1916. She also appeared in a small part in The Eternal City when she was only 13. Despite this, she had no intention of going into the family business. At age 18, however, she found herself divorced with an infant daughter. In need of work, she accepted a role in her father's play Jarnegan, making her Broadway debut in the process. The novice actress received good notices and Miss Bennett's acting career officially began. She played small parts in Power (1928) and The Divnie Lady (1929) before being cast as the female lead in Bulldog Drummond. Under contract to Fox, Miss Bennett generally played blonde ingénues, such as the love interest in the 1930 version of Moby Dick, although there were exceptions.  In The Trial of Vivienee Ware she played the acccused murderer of the title. In Me and My Gal she gave one of the best perfromances of her early career, as a wisecracking waitress. A shift in her career would occur when she made Little Women at RKO, released in 1933. Miss Bennett's performance in the film attracted the attention of independent filmmaker William Wanger. Wanger not only signed her to a contract, but also acted as her manager as well.

Under contract to Wanger, Miss  Bennett no longer played blonde ingénues,  but more substantial roles. In 1935 she played a psychiatrist's young wife who was experiencing a psychotic break in Private Worlds. In Big Brown Eyes, released in 1936, she played a reporter helping her police officer boyfriend (Cary Grant) on a case involving jewel thieves. Joan Bennett was one of the actresses in the running for the role of Scarlet O'Hara. For a short time she was one of the front runners for the part, but lost it in favour of Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh (who was ultimately cast in the role).

It would be in 1938 that Miss Bennett's career would take a major change. It was that year that Walter Wagner had a hit with Algiers, which introducing the United States to dark haired beauty Hedy Lamarr. Thinking to capitalised on Miss Lamarr's mystique, Wanger and director Tay Garnett convinced the naturally blonde Miss Bennett to go brunette for the part of Kay Kerrigan. in Trade Winds.  With her newly dark locks, Joan Bennett soon found herself cast in new roles. She appeared in the crime drama The House Across the Bay in 1940 and the political melodrama The Man I Married in 1940. It would be 1941 that would establish Joan Bennett in the sort of roles for which she is now best known, as a film noir femme fatale.

It was in 1941 that Miss Bennett played Cockney prostitute Jerry Stokes in Fritz Lang's Man Hunt. She nad Lang would work together again in 1944's The Woman in the Window, playing mystery woman Alice Reed. They worked together in arguably their best film, 1945's Scarlet Street, in which she played blackmailer Kitty March. Joan Bennett also appeared in Lang's 1948 film noir fairtyale Secret Beyond the Door. She appeared in films noir directed by other directors as well, including Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947) and  Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment (1949). In between these films Miss Bennett appeared in such movies as Nob Hill and Colonel Effingham's Raid. In 1950 Joan Bennett's career would change again, as she played the mother in the films Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951).

Sadly, just as William Wanger had helped spur Joan Bennett's career, he would also bring it nearly to a halt. The two had married in 1940.  It was in 1950 that Wanger shot her agent of twelve years, Jennings Lang, claiming that the two were having an affair. Both Lang and Miss Bennett strenuously denied that they had an affair and stated that their relationship was only one of business. Miss Bennett blamed Wanger's actions on stress brought on by their financial woes. Wanger's attorney pleaded temporary insanity and he served a three month sentence at a minimum security prison farm. Unfortunately, the damage was done and Miss Bennett's career would never be the same.

Increasingly, Joan Bennett's appearances were on television. She made her television debut on Nash Airflyte Theatre in 1951. Throughout the decade of the Fifties, she appeared on such shows as General Electric Theatre, Climax, Playhouse 90, and Pursuit. In 1959 she played the mother in the short lived series Too Young to Go Steady. She also appeared often on stage, and toured in such plays as Susan and God, Bell, Book and Candle, Once More With Feeling, The Pleasure of His Company, and Never Too Late.Sadly, her movie career was nearly at non-existent. From 1951 to 1960 she appeared only in Highway Dragnet, We're No Angels, There's Always Tomorrow, and Desire in the Dust.

The Sixties saw Joan Bennett appear both on television and the stage, but in only one film (and that one was linked to a television series). She guest starred on an episode of Mr. Broadeway in 1964 and on Burke's Law in 1965. In 1966 she was cast as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. In the course of the series she not only played Elizabeth, but three other members of the Collins clan in the show's various time travel story arcs. In the end she was only one of three actors who appeared in the series from its beginning to the end. She also appeared in the feature film aon the series, House of Dark Shadows, released in 1970.

Following Dark Shadows Miss Bennett appeared in the telefilms Gidget Gets Married (1972), The Eyes of Charlie Sand (1972), Suddenly Love (1978), This House Possessed (1981), and Divorce Wars: A Love Story. She guest starred in an episode of the short lived show Dr. Simon Locke. Her last big  screen appearance was in the cult horror film Suspira, released in 1977. She died on December 7, 1990.

Joan Bennett was one of those few classic actors I first encountered not in their movies, but on a television series. That series was Dark Shadows, the Gothic serial that was a phenomenon for a time and the only soap opera I ever loyally watched. Miss Bennett's talents as a dramatic chameleon were put to good use on the show, as she not only played the matriarch of the Collins clan in the Sixties and early Seventies, but other members of the Collins family throughout the ages. Perhaps no other actress could have accomplished this with such finesse. Later I discovered her classic films, Scarlet Street, Man Hunt, Father of the Bride, Little Women, and so on. If I had not known better, it would have been hard to believe that it was the same actress playing those various roles. Indeed, while Joan Bennett's transformation from ingénue to femme fatale to a change in hair colour, I think she could have accomplished it with her natural blonde locks. After all, Miss Bennett was of such talent that she could easily play an innocent one film and a seductress in the next. Few other actresses in the history of film were ever that versatile.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

With the possible exception of the London Metropolitan Police (better known as Scotland Yard) and the Texas Rangers, perhaps no police force is as well known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (often abbreviated RCMP). The Mounties have been heroes in novels, comic books, movies, and TV shows. They have been spoofed in cartoons, parodied on skit comedy shows, and even sang in musicals. Dressed in their distinctive Red Serge, they are arguably the most recognisable police force in the world, even more so than other famous police forces such as Scotland Yard and the Texas Rangers.  The RCMP hve are referred to as both Mounties and as The Horsemen, and as everyone knows, they always get their man.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police emerged as the result of two earlier Canadian police forces. The Dominion Police was created in 1868 following the assassination of journalist, poet, and politician Thomas D'Arcy McGee. In many ways they were the equivalent of the United States' Secret Service. The Dominion Police guarded the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, served as bodyguards for politicians, and even functioned as an intelligence service (they infiltrated the Fenian Brotherhood in Canada). In 1911 they would assume responsibility for guarding the naval yards at Esquimalt and Hallifax, as well as the national fingerprint bureau.  During the First World War they also coordinated the efforts of Canadian security and police agencies to enforce the War Measures Act. The Dominion Police's jurisdiction only extended to the eastern provinces of Canada.

The other, in many ways direct ancestor of the RCMP was the Northwest Mounted Police. The Northwest Mounted Police was founded in 1873 in an effort to tame the Northwest Territories. In the 1870's the Northwest Territories were very much a part of the Wild West. In particular, an illegal whiskey trade had arisen in the Northwest, which not only resulted in violence among he white settlers, but problems with the Native population. The whiskey trade would lead directly to the Cypress Hills massacre, in which wolfers and whiskey  traders, fueled by illegally purchased alcohol, attacked a Nakoda camp, resulting in the deaths of 23 Nakoda and one wolfer. Because of the massacre, Canada moved to form a police force for the Northwest Territories. Originally to be called the Northwest Mounted Rifles, Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald signed the new force into law as the less militaristic sounding "Northwest Mounted Police."

The Northwest Mounted Police was modelled to some degree after the Royal Irish Constabulary, one of the first national police forces. And although a police force, it was organised after British cavalry units, complete with red uniforms. The Red Serge of RCMP originated with the Northwest Mounted Police. The classic red uniform (not actually worn in the field, but worn for ceremonial purposes) was not the only thing the RCMP inherited from the Northwest Mounted Police. The phrase "The Mounties always get their man" originated because of the Northwest Mounted Police. The phrase goes back to a story in the Fort Benton Record (out of Montana) in April 1877, only four years after the police force was formed.

The Northwest Mounted Police was only meant to be temporary, but as time passed it became a permanent fixture. In fact, by 1903 their jurisdiction included the Yukon and extended to the Arctic coast. It was in June 1904 that King Edward VII officially recognised the police force, making them the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. In 1905 their jurisdiction was expanded to include the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It was in 1919 that the Canadian Parliament passed legislation by which the Royal Northwest Mounted Police would absorb the Dominion Police to become a national police force. It was then on February 1, 1920 that the two police forces were merged to become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police would be responsible for enforcing federal laws across all of Canada. Throughout the 1930's the RCMP would assume more responsibilities, including including fingerprints, a photograph section, a forensics laboratory, and firearms registration. From the Fifties until the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was created in 1984, the RCMP handled a good deal of Canada's security and intelligence operations.

As mentioned earlier, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police inherited their distinctive red uniform from the Northwest Mounted Police. Contrary to many Hollywood movies and TV shows, however, it must be pointed out that the Red Serge is not worn as part of the Mounties' everyday dress while on duty. Instead the Red Serge is reserved for ceremonial occasions, such as the musical rides (for which the Mounties are well known), ceremonial parades, national and civic ceremonies, and such events as funerals and weddings. The only time while on duty a Horseman might wear the Red Serge is while providing security at a special event. Surprisingly, the famous Stetson, wide and flat brimmed "Mountie hat" for which the RCMP are known was not a part of the original Northwest Mounted Police uniform. Originally the pith helmet, was the official headgear of the Mounted. The pith helmet being impractical for the Canadian West, however, most Mounties wore cowboy hats or the famous Stetson Mountie hat while on duty. Indeed, at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the contingent of Mounties wore the unofficial Stetson rather than the official pith helmet. It was around 1904 that the Stetson was made the official headgear of the Northwest Mounted Police.

As important as both the Northwest Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been in Canadian history, it should be no surprise that they would figure prominently in Anglophonic pop culture. Indeed, the Mounties would often be the heroes of books, comic strips, movies, and television shows. Indeed, little more than twenty years had passed when short stories and novels featuring the Northwest Mounted Police began to appear. Roger Pocock, who served in the Northwest Mounted Police, wrote one of the earliest short stories to involve the Mounties, "Lean Man," published in 1887. His novel, The Cheeful Blackguard, also centred on the NWMP.

While Popock wrote one of the earliest Mountie stories, it was arguably John Mackie the author who invented Northwestern "Mountie fiction." Mackie had served in the Northwest Mounted Police  from 1888 to 1893, and he used his experiences in his works. Mounties take centre stage or at least occupy a prominent place in such novels by Macke as The Devil's Playground (1894),  Sinners Twain (1895), The Heart of the Prarie (1899), The Prodigal's Brother (1899), The Rising of the Red Man (1904), and Canadian Jack (1913).

Almost concurrently with Mackie's career was that of another writer who included Mounties in some of his stories and novels, although they did not occupy centre stage. Jack London was an American who went to the Klondike during its gold rush. Those experiences would provide fodder for many of his stories and even novels.  Mounties figure in such stories as "To the Man on the Trail (1899)" and "The 'Fuzziness' of Hoockla-Heen (1902)," and the mounted also figure in his novels White Fang and Call of the Wild. Ralph Connor, Bernard W. Sinclair and Gilbert Parker were other writers who wrote early works featuring the Mounties, well before the NWMP gave way to the RCMP.

By the Thirties the Northwestern or Canadian Western was well established as a genre, so much so that there were even pulp magazines dedicated to it. North-West Stories was published from 1925 to 1952 by Fiction House was perhaps the most popular. Its success inspired other Northwestern magazines which featured Mounties as heroes, including Complete Northwest Novel Magazine and Real Northwest Stories. It was not unusual for standard Western pulp magazine, such as Street and Smith's Western Stories, to include stories featuring the NWMP and RCMP.

By the Thirties the Mounties were popular enough to produce multi-media successes. The book Renfrew of the Royal Mounted by Laurie York Erskine was published in 1922. It spawned  successful series of books, ten in all, as well as seventeen short stories Erskine wrote for The American Boy magazine. From 1936 to 1940  there was a Renfrew of the Mounted radio show. Six Renfrew of the Royal Mounted movies were produced between 1937 and 1940, in which Renfrew sang not unlike a singing cowboy. These films were later edited into a television series in 1953, with some additional material added.

Another fictional Mountie would also become a multi-media success. Stephen Slesinger created the character of Dave King of the RCMP, and licensed the Zane Grey byline for King of the Royal Mounted. King of the Royal Mounted debuted on Februay 17, 1935 as a Sunday comic strip. By March 1936 King of the Royal Mounted went daily. The comic strip ran until 1955. In 1936 the first of five Big Little Books was published. From 1937 to 1958  King of the Royal Mounted appeared in various comic books, including his own title from 1952 to 1958. Dave King of the RCMP appeared in the feature film King of the Royal Mounted in 1935, and in the serials King of the Royal Mounted, (1940),The Yukon Patrol (1942), and King of the Mounties (1942).

That King of the Royal Mounted should provide fodder for one feature film and several serials should prove no surprise, as Mounties appeared in the movies even before Mountie fiction had fully coalesced as a genre. The first movie featuring the NWMP was Rider of the Plains, produced in 1910 by the Edison Moving Picture Company. Cameron of the North West Mounted Police, based on Ralph Connor's novel, was an early Canadian film produced in 1912 by film pioneer Ernest Shipman. It proved immensely popular. Another early film about the Mounties was O'Malley of the Mounted, made in 1921 and starring the legendary William S. Hart. The film was remade in 1936 starring George O'Brien in the title role

At the moment Hollywood alone has produced over 200 movies featuring the NWMP or RCMP. For the most part these have been action movies or dramas, such as Cecil B. DeMille's 1940 North West Mounted Police, starring Gary Cooper. Strangely enough, the Mounties have figured in other genres of film. Rose Marie originated as an operetta on Broadway in 1924. It was filmed twice in 1928 alone and again in 1954, although the best known film version remains the 1936 version starring Jeanette MacDonald as Marie and Nelson Eddy as Sgt. Bruce of the Mounties. Sadly, Nelson Eddy singing "Indian Love Call" remains one of the most popular images of the Mounties. Even Shirley Temple appeared in a movie about the NWMP, Susannah of the Mounties, based on the book by Muriel Dennison.

Radio would produced what may have been one of the most successful fictional Mounties. Challenge of the Yukon debuted on the home of radio shows The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, WXYZ in Detroit, on February 3, 1938. The series centred on Sgt. William Preston and his lead sled dog Yukon King in the Yukon of the 1890s. In November 1951 the title of the radio show officially became Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. The radio show ran until June 1955. From 1951 to 1955 Dell Comics published a comic book, entitled Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. A television adaptation of the radio show debuted in 1955 and ran until 1958. There were also trading cards.

Sgt. Preston of the Yukon and Renfrew of the Mounted would not be the only television shows featuring Mounties. Debuting in 1959, R.C.M.P. was a drama centred on the Horsemen that ran for a single season on the CBC, BBC, and the Australian Broadcasting Company. Sadly, it failed in American syndication. A more successful show about a Mountie was Due South.  The series grew out of a telefilm of that title which aired on CTV in Canada and on CBS in the United States. Receiving good ratings in both countries, Due South debuted as a TV series in 1994. It aired from 1994 to 1995, at which point CBS cancelled the still popular series. Making enough of a profit in Canada and the UK to do so, another eighteen episode season was made to air in the 1995-1996 season. After a hiatus of one year, CTV brought Due South back in 1997 for one last, 26 episode season. It aired in syndication in the United States. Centred on a Mountie in Chicago, the show became known for its sensitive handling of characters and remains a cult show to this day.

Portrayed so often in Anglophonic pop culture, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been parodied from time to time. For the most part this has been in animated cartoons, the most famous of which may well be Dudley Do-Right. Well before Dudley made his first ride, there were animated parodies of the Mounties. In 1942 the struggle between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd was transferred to the Canadian North in the short "Fresh Hare," in which Elmer was a Mountie pursuing Bugs. In Tex Avery directed the short  "Northwest Hounded Police," featuring Droopy as a Mountie pursuing Avery's Wolf character.

Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties made its first appearance as a segment of The Bullwinkle Show in 1961. The concept actually dated back to 1948, conceived by Alex Anderson (along with Rocky and Bullwinkle) when Jay Ward was about to enter television animation. The series centred on Dudley Do-Right, a none too bright Mountie who often defeated his archenemy Snidely Whiplash in spite of himself. Although in love with his commanding officer Inspector Fenwick's daughter Nell, she hardly acknowledged Dudley, much preferring his horse named, well, "Horse."

 In all, 38 Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties  were made. The Dudley Do-Right segments were popular enough to be reran as the Saturday morning series The Dudley Do-Right Show in 1969 and later syndicated. In 1999 a live action film based on the carton was released. At least in the States, Dudley Do-Right may be the most famous fictional Mountie of them all.

Dudley Do-Right was not the only Mountie to figure in American animation of the Sixties. Klondike Kat was a segment which debuted in 1963 on Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. Klondike Kat was an anthropomorphic cat and a Mountie who was in constant battle with an anthropomorphic mouse and apparently a Québécois (from his accent anyway) Savoir Faire (whose catchphrase was "Savoir Faire is everywhere!"). Like Dudley Do-Right, Klondike Kat was none too bright, and more often defeated Savoir Faire out of sheer luck. The Klondike Kat segments would reappear on Underdog after that series moved to CBS in 1966. In 1968 when the Underdog segment Go Go Gophers received its own series, Klondike Kat was one of the segments of that show.

The RCMP would also figure in one of the most famous skits from Monty Python's Flying Circus. "The Lumberjack Song" included a chorus of Mounties. The Mounties become confused and disturbed as the lumberjack's lyrics become more, well, outré. In the film ...And Now for Something Completely Different they eventually pelt the lumberjack with rotten eggs.

"The Lumberjack Song" would not be the only song to involve the RCMP. On their self titled debut album,  Blue Öyster Cult included a song entitled "I'm on the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep," which portrays an outlaw fleeing the RCMP across the frozen north. The band remade the song as "The Red and The Black" on their second album, Tyranny and Mutation. A Native group called North End Connections recorded their song about being pursued by the Mounties entitled "The RCMP Always Chases Me."

This is only a very small sampling of the NWMP and the RCMP in pop culture. As mentioned earlier, Hollywood has made over 200 movies featuring Mounties and the Canadian film industry many more. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have existed for over eighty years now, while the Northwest Mounted Police existed for nearly fifty years before that. In real life they continue to be one of the most famous police forces in the world and an important of Canadian law enforcement. It is safe to say that even more Horsemen will appear in books, movies, and TV shows in the next eighty years.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Actress Caroline McWilliams R.I.P.

Actress Caroline McWilliams, who was a regular on Soap and Benson, passed on February 11 at the age of 64. The cause was complications from multiple myeloma.

Caroline McWilliams was born in Seattle, Washington, but was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a bachelor's degree. Her first appearance on television was a guest appearance on the short lived Western Dundee and the Culhane. In 1969 she joined the cast of the soap opera The Guiding Light, on which she appeared until 1975. In 1970 she made her Broadway debut in the play The Rothschilds. In 1974 she appeared on Broadway again in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. in 1975 she appeared in a revival of Boccacio. The next few years she guest starred on such shows as Kojak, Quincy M.E., Barney Miller, The Incredible Hulk, and Project U.F.O.

In 1978 Caroline McWilliams became a regular on Soap, playing Sally. When the character of Benson was spun off into his own self titled show in 1979, she joined the cast, playing Marcy Hill. After Benson went off the air in 1981, McWilliams guest starred on such shows as Hill Street Blues, Night Court, St. Elsewhere, The Comedy Factory, and Cagney and Lacey. She appeared in the films Jake's M.O. and White Water Summer. In 1989 she was a regular on the short lived show Nearly Departed.

In 1990 Caroline McWilliams appeared in the movie Mermaids. She guest starred on the show Sisters and had a brief recurring role on Beverly Hills 90120. She guest starred on Home Improvement, Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and Murphy Brown. She had a brief recurring role on Judging Amy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Death Does Not Take Holidays

Anyone who read this blog lately will have noticed that nearly every post was a eulogy of some sort. Indeed, since January the majority of posts have been eulogies for those with some impact on pop culture who have died. New York Magazine proclaimed the summer of 2009 "the Summer of Death," and I in turn proclaimed last year to be "the Year of Death," but now I fear I was wrong. Of the 37 posts I have written this year, 26 have been dedicated to individuals who have recently died. At  the rate things are going, I suspect more pop culture icons will died in 2010 than 2009.

Indeed, in writing this blog I concluded long ago that the idea that celebrities die in threes was erroneous. Sometimes only one celebrity will die, other times only two. This year it seems as if they are dying in droves. A Shroud of Thoughts seems to be proof of that, as it seems as if lately I cannot go without writing at least two, usually more, eulogies a week. And this is even considering I have ground rules as to whom I eulogise. First, they must have had some significant impact on pop culture (I exclude sports figures for the reason that I do not view sports as part of pop culture). Second, their sole claim to fame must not be that they were a political or religious figure. While certain political and religious figures do have an impact on pop culture, the fact that they tend to be controversial is the reason for their exclusion from this blog. Indeed, I will even avoid eulogising pop culture icons if they tend to be overly controversial (this is why I never eulogised Michael Jackson). Third, since this is my blog, they must have had a significant impact on myself. This is why I have never eulogised country music singers or many artists. They had no real impact on me. Of course, even given these criteria, it seems as if I have written many, many eulogies of late.

Of course, the question remains as to why I should eulogise pop culture icons at all. To answer this, I think we must look at the position pop culture icons occupy in our lives. I do disagree with those pop culture theorists who believe that celebrities are the gods of our day. With the exception of a few distraught individuals, I don't think any of us actually worship celebrities in the full sense of the term. Housewives do not offer sacrifices to George Clooney and rock fans do not pray to Pete Townshend. That having been said, I do think that our society's regard for celebrities is in some way analogous to ancient and not so ancient religions. Quite simply, while pop culture icons may not be the Óðinn or Zeus of our day, they may be the Sigurðr or Herakles of our day. That is, we tend to view them as heroes, individuals touched by the gods, God, destiny, or what have you with talents beyond that of the average man. While modern day pop culture icons do not save the world or battle the forces of evil, they do have a large impact on the average person in the same way the heroes in the old stories did. They take our minds off the daily stress of our lives, cheer us up when we are sad, and in some instances may even influence an individual's choice in careers (an enormous number of NASA scientists became such because they read Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon as kids). When a pop culture icon dies, it is then much like losing a hero, an individual who has had an enormous impact on our lives.

While I do think we today tend to regard pop culture icons as people once did the heroes of old, I also think there is another dynamic at work that causes us to mourn celebrities when they died. This dynamic is a product of mass media, that of the illusion of familiarity. Mass media emerged with the invention of the printing press. The printing press allowed for the mass production of books, and in turn led to the development of the magazine and newspaper. Not only did this result in ideas and philosophies spreading much more swiftly than before, but it also created the cult of celebrity in its earliest form. Now individuals could read about their favourite writers, poets, musicians, artists, and so on, to the point that they almost felt as if they knew them. The development of new mass media, such as motion pictures, radio, and television would only increase this illusion of familiarity. The simple fact is that pop culture icons play such a large role in our everyday lives that we come to think that we know them, even when we do not. Indeed, the average person might never think of referring to his or her pastor as Parson Brown or his or her physician as Dr. Robert, but may well be inclined to refer to his or her favourite celebrities by their first name (just look at The Beatles, they are always John, Paul, George, and Ringo). When a beloved celebrity dies, then, it often feels as if one has lost a close friend, even though he or she might never have met that celebrity in his or her life.

The combination of these two dynamics, the hero worship bestowed on pop culture icons and the illusion of familiarity created by mass media, are the reasons we tend to mourn celebrities so. Using myself as an example, I must say that the past week was a very depressing one for me. It is not that my life itself was so bad, but simply that four of my favourite pop culture icons died within days of each other (Doug Fieger, Dale Hawkins, Kathryn Grayson, and Lionel Jeffries). I did not know any of these individuals personally, yet I mourned them as if I did. At the same time, it felt as if someone significant in my life had passed. Quite simply, my grief was brought on by a combination of hero worship and the illusion of familiarity.

My own personal hope for 2010 is that the number of celebrities dying does slow down. It is true that I do not know such individuals personally. And it is true that they do not exist on any higher plane than any of the rest of us. Regardless, like everyone else I will mourn their deaths and miss them terrible. Like everyone else in modern society, I do not want to see any more of my favourite celebrities die.