Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Late Great Dick Giordano

Comic book artist and editor Dick Giordano passed today at the age of 77. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Richard Giordano was born on July 10, 1932 in Manhattan. He was still very young when he was introduced to comic books by one of the first true comic books to exist: Famous Funnies. He would go onto become a huge fan of the character Batman. He was particularly impressed by Batman #1, spring 1940, which featured the first appearance of The Joker, a character who frightened the young Mr. Giordano. It also convinced him he want to work in the field of comic books. He also enjoyed the characters of Blackhawk and Captain America. He was an avid fan of radio shows, in particular The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum, and Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy. He started drawing while very young, encouraged a good deal by his parents. It was his eighth grade art teacher who advised he enrol at New York's School of Industrial Arts. He did so when he was fourteen.

Dick Giordano graduated from the School of Industrial Arts in 1950. He then looked for a job within the comic book industry. In 1951, after months of rejections, Mr. Giordano went to what he thought was the office of a comic book company, only to find out it had moved. Only one person remained, a man who claimed to be a comic book writer. He looked over Mr. Giordano's portfolio and told him he should visit comics packager Jerry Iger. The Iger Studio was a firm which was hired by comic book companies to letter and ink comic book panels. During the Golden Age they had worked for Quality Comics, Fox Comics, and others. By the Fifties they created content for Fiction House, the publisher of the popular Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger himself). Mr. Giordano started out more or less as an errand boy in the Iger Studio office, before finally graduating to inking. Among the comic books he inked was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

Dick Giordano's next job would come as the result of his father, a cab driver. One of his father's fellow cab drivers, Harold Philips, was brother in law to Charlton Comics editor Al Fago, creator of such funny animal characters as Atomic Mouse. Philips invited both Mr. Giordano and Fago to his New Year's Party, knowing Mr. Giordano was a comic book artist. Fago was impressed by Mr. Giordano's work and promised to start assigning him freelance work. He received enough work from Charlton Comics to quit his job at Iger Studio. At Charlton Mr. Giordano worked on such comic books as Racket Squad in ActionSpace Adventures, and  Hot Rods and Racing Cars. In 1955 Charlton Comics was restructured, at which point he ceased to be a freelancer and became one of Charlton's staff. During this period Mr. Giordano worked on such titles as Scotland Yard and Wyatt Earp, as well the company's brief 1955 revival of The Blue Beetle. After Al Fago left Charlton over a disagreement with management, Dick Giordano was made the assistant to new editor Pat Masulli. After a year in the position Mr. Giordano was unhappy, so Masulli offered him a deal whereby he could freelance for Charlton under various pseudonyms (this was done because Charlton's management would not have liked such an arrangement).

In the early Sixties, without Charlton's management knowing, Dick Giordano also accepted freelance work from Stan Lee of Atlas Comics (soon to be renamed Marvel Comics) and other companies. With his brother in law Sal Trapiani, Mr. Giordano did freelance work for Dell, DC, and the American Comics Group. He worked on such titles as Dr. Who, Hogan's Heroes, Get Smart, and the little known Beatles comic book published by Dell. He did his first work for DC at this time, on The Brave and the Bold #65, May 1965, which teamed up The Flash and The Doom Patrol. By 1965 Mr. Giordano was the managing editor at Charlton Comics. It while he was editor that he introduced Charlton Comics' "Action Hero" line, which included such characters as a new version of The Blue Beetle, Sarge Steel, The Question, Peacemaker, Judomaster,  and Peter Cannon...Thunderbolt.

It was in 1968 that Mr. Giordano became part of DC Comics' staff. Initially he worked on such titles at DC as Aquaman, The Secret Six, The Creeper, The Teen Titans, and Young Love, among others. He would later ink a few issues of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' groundbreaking Green Lantern/Green Arrow. in 1971 Dick Giordano left DC Comics to found Continuity Associates with Neal Adams. Continuity Associates was a packager which provided storyboards for movies and advertising art, but also provided content for Charlton Comics and Marvel Comics. During this period Dick Giordano would work for DC on Batman and Wonder Woman. He also provided the Sons of the Tiger feature for Marvel's black and white magazine The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.

It was in 1980 that new publisher Jeanette Kahn brought Dick Giordano back to DC Comics. Initially he edited the Batman line of comic books. In 1981 he was made managing editor at DC and in 1983 Vice President/Executive Editor. With editor Paul Levitz and Jeanette Kahn, Giordano remade DC Comics by reenvigorating such features as Batman, Justice League of America, Superman, Teen Titans, and Wonder Woman. By 1993 Mr. Giordano, Levitz, and Kahn would launch the Vertigo imprint. Mr. Giordano continued to ink, including work on Crisis on Infinite Earths and The Man of Steel miniseries. By the mid-Eighties Mr. Giordano became a outspoken champion for creator's rights.

In 1993 Dick Giordano went into semi-retirement. He inked the Modesty Blaise graphic novel for DC in 1994, issues of Birds of Prey, Catwoman and Batman: Gotham Knights, and The Power of Shazam graphic novel. He drew several issues of The Phantom published in Europe and Austrailia, and helped Bob Layton launch Future Comics in 2002. He wrote the book Drawing Comics with Dick Giordano, outlining his artistic techniques.

Dick Giordano is rightfully called a comic book legend. As an editor he encouraged the careers of Denny O'Neil, Jim Aparo, John Byrne, Steve Skeates, and many others.  As an inker he was among the best in the business. His style would influence such artists as Terry Austin, Bob Layton, Mike DeCarlo, Joe Rubenstein, and others. Mike Gold even referred to him as the "..the godfather of modern inking style." Dick Giordano also always maintained a strong connection with the fans, through the letters columns of the various comic books he edited over the years and his monthly "Meanwhile..." column in DC titles during his tenure as managing editor and later Executive Editor there. From the testimony of his fellow artists and writers in the comic book industry and fans alike, he was also one of the kindest, most considerate gentlemen one could ever hope to meet. Quite simply Dick Giordano was not just a great artist and great editor, he was also a great human being.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Johnny Maestro R.I.P.

Johnny Maestro, the lead vocalist of The Crests and later  The Brooklyn Bridge, passed on March 24 at the age of 70. The cause was cancer.

Johnny Maestro was born on May 7, 1939 in Brooklyn. He grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan. In 1956 The Crests, founded by J. T. Carter, chose Maestro as their lead vocalist. The Crest would sign with Joyce and had a minor hit with "Sweetest One" in 1957. The Crests later moved to the Coed label, where they achieved their biggest hit, "Sixteen Candles," in 1958. The Crests would have further hits with "A Year Ago Tonight," "Trouble in Paradise," "Six Nights a Week," "Step By Step," and "The Angels Listened In."

It was in 1960 that Johnny Maestro went go solo, adopting the name "Johnny Maestro." He had a few hits such as "Model Girl" and "What a Surprise." In 1967 Johnny Maestro joined The Del-Satins as their new lead vocalist. It was in 1968 that The Del-Satins met a seven piece brass ensemble called The Rhythm Method. The two groups decided to merge. The group then became known as The Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge would have a hit with "The Worst That Could Happen," which went to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968. Unfortunately, they never repeated the success of their debut single. They released six more singles, among them "Blessed Is The Rain," "Welcome My Love," and "Your Husband, My Wife." The Brooklyn Bridge released four albums before being dropped by the Buddha label. Although the group no longer had a recording contract, they continued to perform. In 1989 they released a holiday album entitled Christmas Is... From 1993 to 2007 they released five more albums.

I always enjoyed The Crests' songs with Johnny Maestro as their lead vocalist. And while I have never heard very many of The Brooklyn Bridge's songs, I always liked "The Worst That Could Happen." Johnny Maestro was a very good singer, with a remarkable range. More importantly, he was capable of endowing songs with emotion in a way only a few singers can. By way of example, "The Worst That Could Happen" was originally recorded by The Fifth Dimension, but their version is inferior to the one recorded by The Brooklyn Bridge, precisely because it lacks the feeling Johnny Maestro put into the song. When it came to doo wop, he was one of the best.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Late Great Robert Culp

Robert Culp, best known for his role in Sixties spy series I Spy, passed this morning following a fall at his home. He was 79 years old.

Robert Culp was born on August 16, 1930 in Oakland, California. He attended the College of the Pacific, Washington University in St. Louis, San Francisco State College, and the University of Washington drama school, but never graduated. Mr. Culp moved to New York and appeared in off Broadway productions. He debuted on television in 1953 on You Are There. He guest starred on Robert Montgomery Presents, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The United States Steel Hour.

It was in 1957 that Robert Culp guest starred on Zane Grey Theatre in the episode "Badge of Honour," playing the role of Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. Robert Culp as Hoby Gilman was spun off into his own series, Trackdown, that fall Gilman was the only law in the town of Potter, Texas, although his job often took him abroad. Various episodes were directed by both Sam Peckinpah and Richard Donner. Mr. Culp wrote his first television series episode for Trackdown, "Back to Crawford," in 1959.  The character of Josh Randall, played by Steve McQueen, first appeared on Trackdown in 1957 and was spun off into the series Wanted: Dead or Alive the following season. Trackdown ran for two seasons and 70 episodes.

After Trackdown left the air, Robert Culp guest starred on such shows as The Dupont Show with June Allyson, General Electric Theatre, Tate, Johnny Ringo, Outlaws, The Westerner, Rawhide, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, The 87th Precinct, Death Valley Days, The Outer Limits, Bonanza, Combat, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He appeared in the films PT 109, Sunday in New York, The Raiders, and Rhino. Mr. Culp wrote episodes of Cain's Hundred and The Rifleman.  He was considered for the role of Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but had to decline the offer because he was committed to another project. He would make a guest appearance on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 1964, however, as well as The Outer Limits, Gunsmoke, and Mr. Novak.

While Robert Culp missed the chance to play superspy Napoleon Solo, he would play a superspy in another major, Sixties spy drama. Robert Culp was cast as Kelly Robinson, a spy working undercover as an international tennis pro, in the series I Spy. Comedian Bill Cosby was cast as Robinson's partner, Alexander Scott, a spy whose over was that of Robinson's trainer and coach. In casting Bill Cosby, I Spy became a ground breaking series. It was the first drama to feature an African American in a lead role. The relationship between Scott and Robinson was as revolutionary as the casting of Bill Cosby. Not only were the two men equals, with neither one subservient to the other, but they were also extremely close. This reflected the real life relationship between Messrs. Cosby and Culp. The two men would become best friends in a relationship that spanned nearly forty years. Indeed, Bill Cosby said of Mr. Culp, "The first-born in every family is always dreaming for an imaginary older brother or sister who will look out for them. Bob was the answer to my dreams."

I Spy was set apart from other spy series, such as The Avengers, The Wild Wild West, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., in its emphasis on realism. The show featured no advanced gadgetry, no Bondian villains, and no plots to take over the world.  In fact, I Spy sometimes focused on the darker side of the spy game and dealt with such serious subjects as heroin addiction, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and so on. Despite this, I Spy had a good deal of humour, particularly stemming from the relationship between Scott and Robinson. The series also had its fair share of comedic episodes, including one in which Boris Karloff played a scientist who thinks he's Don Quixote and another in which Jeanette Nolan played a scrappy government official whom Robinson and Scott must kidnap. The series was unique in that it was actually filmed on location in exotic places ranging from Athens to Mexico.

Mr. Culp made his directorial debut directing an episode of I Spy. He also wrote eight episodes for the series, one of which he was nominated for an Emmy. I Spy proved very popular, running for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968. It ended its run only as a result of a disagreement producer Sheldon Leonard had with NBC regarding the show's time slot.

During the run of  I Spy Mr. Culp guest starred in an episode of Get Smart parodying I Spy entitled Get Smart. Following the series he had a starring role in the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969. He appeared in the film Hannie Caulder in 1971. He directed and starred in the film Hickey and Boggs in 1972, once more playing opposite Bill Cosby. Throughout the Seventies he appeared in such films as A Name for Evil (1973), The Castaway Cowboy (1974), Inside Out (1975), Sky Riders (1976), Breaking Point (1976), The Great Scout and Cathouse Thurscay (1976), Cry for Justice (1977), and Goldengirl (1979). He guest starred on the TV shows Columbo, Shaft, Mrs. Columbo, and Police Story. He appeared in several TV movies, including playing the lead in the unsold pilot Spectre.

In the Eighties Robert Culp was a regular on the TV series The Greatest American Hero, playing FBI agent Bob Maxwell. The series ran for five years from 1981 to 1986. He guest starred on the shows Murder She Wrote, Hotel, Matlock, Who's the Boss, The Cosby Show, and The Golden Girls, as well as appeared in several TV movies. He appeared in the films National Lampoon's Movie Madness (1982), Turk 182 (1985), and Big Bad Mama II. From the Nineties into the Naughts Mr. Culp appeared in the films Timebomb (1991), The Pelican Brief (1993), Panther (1995), Spy Hard (1996), Uncondiational Love (1999), Wanted (1999), Dark Sumer (2000), and The Assignment (his last appearance on screen, set to be released later this year). He was a semi-regular on Everybody Loves Raymond, playing Ray's father in law. He guest starred on the shows Jake and the Fatman, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Lonesome Dove: the Series, The Nanny, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Cosby, Burkes Law, Spy Game, and Cosby  He returned to the role of Kelly Robinson, playing opposite Alexander Scott, in the TV movie I Spy Returns in 1994.

Robert Culp was truly a triple threat. He could act, write, and direct, and did all three well. As an actor he was extremely versatile. In Trackdown he played the somewhat serious gunslinger and Texas Ranger Hoby Gillman. In I Spy he played Kelly Robinson, a playboy who often acted rather than thinking things out. In Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice he played the sexually adventurous documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders. Mr. Culp cold play heroes such as Hoby Gillman and Kelly Robinson, and he could play villains such as Captain Shark in his guest appearance on Man From U.N.C.L.E. with equal ease. As a writer for television he was extremely talented, writing some of the best episodes of Trackdown, The Rifleman, and I Spy. Robert Culp was also a consummate professional. Every time he lost the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series to Bill Cosby, he expressed pride rather than envy. Among television actors and movie actors, Robert Culp was a talent with which to be reckoned. Few were ever his equal.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's 100th Birthday

It was on this day, 23 March, 1910, that director Akira Kurosawa was born in Shinagawa, Tokyo. He was a director, screenwriter, editor, and producer. In a career that spanned 57 years, he directed thirty movies. He was an assistant director or second unit director on twenty five more. Kurosawa is often counted as one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time. There are those, not few in number, who would count him as the greatest director of all time.

Akira Kurosawa was  born to Isamu and Shima Kurosawa, the youngest of eight children. His father was a veteran officer in the army who became an athletic advisor, descended from a long line of samurai. His mother was a member of an Osaka merchant family. His father was drawn to the culture of the west, incorporating it into his athletic programmes he ran at school. He also took his family to see movies from the west on a regular basis. Such family outings had a profound effect on the young Akira. As a teenager Akira Kurosawa learned calligraphy and studied painting. In the end, however, he would not find success as a painter. Kurosawa failed the entrance exam into art school and afterwards drifted from such jobs as contributing to a radical newspaper and working as a commercial artist. It was in 1936 that he learned of an apprenticeship programme for directors operated by the studio PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory), one of the two companies that would become Toho. He became an assistant director and screenwriter to one of Japan's greatest directors of the time, Kajiro Yamamoto.

Under Yamamoto's tutelage Akira Kurosawa worked on twenty four movies as an assistant director or second unit director. His first stint in the director's chair would be for some scenes in Uma (1941). Deemed physically unfit, Kurosawa did not serve in the army during World War II. His first few movies were made under the supervision of the Japanese government and sometimes contained outright propaganda. He made his directorial debut with Sugata Sanshira in 1943. After the defeat of Japan, Akira Kurosawa broke with traditional Japanese cinema and made films much in the mould of the west. His first film after the war, Waga seishun ni kuinashi (1946) was openly critical of the former Japanese government. Yoidore tenshi (1948 Drunken Angel) would be his first of many collaborations with the great actor Toshiro Mifune. It is also the first film that is recognisably a movie by Akira Kurosawa, with most of the hallmarks of hies directorial style in place. Rashomon (1951) would not only be Kurosawa's first chanbara movie ("sword fight movie" or, in western parlance, "samurai movie), but the movie which introduced him to audiences in the west. In 1954 what may be the most famous chanbara movie of all time and a film many consider to be Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece (and in my humble opinion the single greatest movie of all time) Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai) was released. If Rashomon had not already done so, Shichinin no samurai established Akira Kurosawa has one of the greatest directors in the world. Since then it was not unusual for Kurosawa's films to be released in the west and to be very successful in the west as well.

Unlike many directors given the label, Akira Kurosawa was a true auteur. He not only directed his films, but wrote, edited, and produced them as well. Because of his autocratic command on the set he was nicknamed "Tenno (literally "Emperor"). He was well known for his perfectionism. Believing brand new costumes did not look realistic, he would make his actors wear their costumes on a daily basis weeks ahead of shooting. In Kumonosu-jô (1957 Throne of Blood) Kurosawa used real arrows fired by expert archers, some of which came within inches of lead actor Toshiro Mifune. While known for his dictatorial directing style, at the same time Akira Kurosawa was very loyal to his friends and collaborators. He often worked with the same group of actors, particularly Toshiro Mifune. Fumio Hayasaka composed the scores for most his early films. After Hayasaka's death, Masaru Satō scored most of his films. A sign of Kurosawa's loyalty can be seen in his friendship with Ishirō Honda (best known as the director of the Gojira/Godzilla movies). Working as an assistant director to Kurosawa early in his career, he returned to this position with Kagemusha (1980). Indeed, one of the sequences in Dreams (1990) is rumoured to have been directed by Honda.

During his long career, Akira Kurosawa developed a distinctive directorial style, one in which he most often looked at movie frames with a painter's eyes. He often used multiple camera to shoot action scenes from different angles. He also made extensive use of the telephoto lens for basically two reasons. The first is that he though the telephoto lens made for better looking frames. The second it that he though that by placing the cameras at some distance from the actors, this would produce better performances from them. He was well known for using the elements to heighten the mood of scenes, from the rain in the climactic battle of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) to the snow in Ikiru (1951).

Although best known for his chanbara movies such as Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) and Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa worked in a variety of genres. Nora inu (1949 Stray Dog) was an outright film noir, in which a detective (Toshiro Mifune) searches for his stolen Colt pistol. Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel) was a gangster movie. Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (Rhapsody in August) was a drama. Akira Kurosawa not only worked in a variety of genres, but he also adapted works that would be most unexpected for a Japanese director. Hakuchi (1951 The Idiot) was an adaptation of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Donzoko (1957 The Lower Depths) was based on the play by Maxim Gorky). Akira Kurosawa sometimes turned to the Bard. Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood)was based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, while Ran was based on Shakespeare's King Lear.

Despite working in a wide variety of genres, certain themes appear in Kurosawa's films over and over again. The struggle between good and evil  lies at the heart of many of his films. Indeed, it is at the centre of his most famous work, Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai), in which samurai must defend a village against bandits. Many of his films also focused on man's efforts to realise self actualisation. This also lies at the heart of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai), in which the samurai (particularly Toshiro Mifune's character Kikuchiyo)  must look deep inside themselves to become the heroes they were meant to be. The idea that reality can often mask the truth also occurs in his films. It is most obvious in Rashomon, in which four witness give vastly different accounts of a crime.  It also occurs in Yojimbo, in which Kuwabatake Sanjuro plays one crime lord against the other.

 Although Kurosawa dealt with often weighty themes and his films are quite rightfully called "epics," he never lost sight of realism in regards to his characters. Kurosawa's characters are often all too human, with flaws and weaknesses all their own. Indeed, one of the ways in which Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) was revolutionary was its treatment of samurai. In previous chanbara films, the samurai were treated as idealised characters with no imperfections, much as cowboys once were in American Westerns. In Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) the samurai are all too human. They even joke about hiding or running way in battle, things which were extremely dishonourable under the samurai code of bushido. Of course, in the end they fight and some of them die as heroes defending the village against the bandits.

Akira Kurosawa revolutionised chanbara movies in his treatment of the samurai in Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai), but he was an innovator in other ways as well. With Rashomon he introduced a new sort of plot to both eastern and western audiences, one in which audiences give vastly different accounts of a single event. Rashomon would be remade as The Outrage in 1964. The plot of Rashomon has since become one of the basic plots of movies and television, utilised in movies ranging from Vantage Point to One Night at McCool's, and TV shows ranging from All in the Family to Fraiser. The plot of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) would become one of the archetypal plots of films in both the east and the west. It was the first movie in which a group of heroes are gathered together for a single goal. It was remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and has influenced films ranging from The Dirty Dozen to The Professionals to A Bug's Life.

Not surprisingly given his influence, some of Akira Kurosawa's films have seen multiple remakes. Yojimbo would be unofficially remade as Fistful of Dollars, givinig rise to the spaghetti western in the process, and still later it would be remade as The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984), Inferno (1999),  and Last Man Standing (1996). Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958 The Hidden Fortress) would be a profound influence on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and would be remade as Kakushi Toride no San-Akunin: The Last Princess (2008). Dodesukaden (1970) was loosley remade as Street Trash (1987).  As mentioned above, both Rashomon and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) have been officially remade a few times and unofficially remade (or plagiarised) many more times.

Akira Kurosawa would have an enormous influence of filmmakers. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have acknowledged their debt to him. Martin Scorsese once said of Kurosawa, "His influence on filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable." Hong Kong director John Woo acknowledged Kurosawa as " of my idols and one of the great masters." Perhaps only Hitchcock and Truffault can match Kurosawa in terms of his influence on modern cinema, and perhaps not even them.

Akira Kurosawa died on  6 September, 1998. He left behind an enormous legacy in the form of his films, which continue to be influential to this day. The Akira Kurosawa Foundation was founded in December 2003 to contirbute to the art of film. In commemoration of his 100th birthday, the AK100 Project was launched, with the goal of exposing young people to the great work of Akira Kurosawa. Last year Anaheim University opened the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film. Today Google's logo was even redisgned in honour of Kurosawa's 100th birthday. Akira Kurosawa was most certainly one of the most influential directors of all time. And for some of us, he was simply the greatest director of all time.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Movies That Pick Me Up

 Evey: “Does it have a happy ending?”
V: “As only celluloid can deliver.”
(the movie V For Vendetta)

Not long ago Kate did a post on movies that instantly pick her up. It was such a fun post that I thought I would make my own list of movies that instantly cheer me up every time I see them. This list is by no means complete, as there are many movies that pick me up every time I see them, no matter how down I may feel (indeed, the above quoted V For Vendetta is among them); however, these are some of the films I like the best when I need a pick me up.

Arsenic and Old Lace(1944)

Short of It's a Wonderful Life, this is my favourite Frank Capra film of all time. I certainly think it is his funniest movie of them all. It is most certainly a black comedy, in which Mortimer Brewster's (Cary Grant) sweet natured aunts have a rather dark secret. It is almost one of the few American farces that works really well, with the situations set up in the first few minutes soon spiralling out of control. Of course, as with any good farce, everything turns out well in the end. The movie has a great cast, with Cary Grant in the lead, and Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre playing supporting roles. It also benefits from a brilliant script by the great Julius Epstein.

The Black Swan (1942)

This is quite simply the greatest pirate movie of all time. Set in Jamaica during the Golden Age of Piracy, the movie stars Tyrone Power as Captain Jamie Waring, a pirate who finds a crisis on his hands when England makes peace with its old enemy, Spain. The movie has plenty of derring do, with Power at his swashbuckling best. It also has what may be one of the greatest ship to ship battles of all time.

The Crimson Pirate

Quite possibly the second greatest pirate movie of all time, The Crimson Pirate is also a steampunk movie before there was steampunk. Burt Lancaster stars as Captain Vallo, the Crimson Pirate, who finds himself caught up in a rebellion. Along the way he receives some assistance from Professor Elihu Prudence (James Hayter), who has some decidedly advanced technology for the 18th century. Burt Lancaster had worked as a circus acrobat, and he puts his skills to good use in this film. The Crimson Pirate also features Christopher Lee in one of his earliest roles on film. Exciting, humorous, and filled with acrobatics and some technology far in advance of the 18th century, this movie is just plain fun.

Duck Soup (1933)

This is the Marx Brothers at their manic best. The film's plot centres on the small, bankrupt country of Freedonia, much in need of financial assistance and under threat from a takeover by neighbouring Sylvania. The comedy comes fast and furious in this film, with some of the Marx Brother's best bits, including the much imitated mirror scene. The movie clocks in only at 68 minutes, but it has enough plot and enough comedy for another three movies!

The Great Escape

Based on the true story of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III (although heavily fictionalised), The Great Escape boasts an all star cast and some of the greatest action scenes in the history of film. The Great Escape also boasts one of Steve McQueen's greatest performances, as Captain Virgil Hilts "the Cooler King." While not all of our heroes live in the end, the film is still inspiring in portraying one of the greatest moments in the history of World War II

A Hard Day's Night/Help!/Yellow Submarine

I list all of these films together because so often I watch them together, one after the other. Each one features the music of The Beatles, even if all of them do not feature The Beatles themselves in prominent roles (The Beatles did not provide their own voices in Yellow Submarine). A Hard Day's Night was the first Beatles movie, a virtually plotless film in which The Beatles travel from Liverpool to London for a TV show. The comedy is fast and frantic, with some truly hilarious lines and situations. It also features some of the best songs ever performed by The Beatles. Help! continued with the fast and furious comedy of its predecessor. It also served as a great parody of the spy films of the day, in which The Beatles must go on the run after Ringo is given the sacrificial ring of a cult parodying the Thugee. Not only are there some truly funny (and surreal situations), but Help! features one of the best soundtracks of all time. The Beatles' involvement in Yellow Submarine was minimal at best, but the film captures the spirit of The Beatles so well that is is often counted as a genuine Beatles movie. Indeed, Yellow Submarine even features the fast and frantic humour that worked so well in A Hard Day's Night and Help!, as well as some truly amazing visuals. The soundtrack could be one of the greatest of all time, featuring songs from Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.


There is a line of thought that claims that Head is nothing like the TV series The Monkees, even though it stars The Monkees. As I see it, however, there are only two real differences between the two. The first is that Head has no plot whatsoever, while the average Monkees episodes did have plots. The second is that Head is often much darker than the average Monkees episode. Beyond these facts, however, Head is in many ways very much like The Monkees. Indeed, the nature of the comedy is very much the same, with jokes coming fast and furious, accompanied by non sequiturs, sight gags, breaking the fourth wall, surrealism, jump cuts, and often strange camera angles.Head also features parodies of various film genres, something which frequently appeared on the TV series. Head is a truly surreal film, with some very strange moments (the one that comes to mind are The Monkees romping through Victor Mature's hair). It is also a very funny film with some of the best songs The Monkees ever recorded.

Hot Enough For June

Hot Enough for June was one of the earliest spy parodies of the Sixties. It is also one of the best. Much of what makes this film so great is that it doesn't simply parody James Bond, as so many films of the era did, but instead takes a jab at the classic Hitchcock spy thrillers as well. Another thing which makes this film so great is the performance of Sir Dirk Bogarde as Nicholas Whistler. As Whistler, Bogarde reacts as most of us would if caught in the middle of the spy game--he is quite out of his depth and simply trying to get out of the whole thing alive. Whistler's efforts to stay alive and in one piece lead to some truly hilarious situations, making Hot Enough for June one of the funniest spy parodies ever made.

Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)

Not only the greatest action film ever made, but in my humble opinion the greatest film ever made, period. If the plot in which seven samurai protect a village of farmers against a band of marauders seems familiar, it is because it is also one of the most influential films of all time, having been imitated endlessly. Shichinin no Samurai is not a simple minded action film, but a very intellectual film in which the villagers are no mere victims and the heroes are not always perfect. It is also one of the most inspiring films of all time, in which the often very flawed samurai ultimately become the heroes they should be. No remake, no imitator, has ever matched Shichinin no Samurai in its sheer quality as a work of art.

Singin' in the Rain

Not only the greatest jukebox musical of all time, but quite possibly the greatest musical of all time as well. Singin' in the Rain has some truly great songs, drawing upon the catalogue of songwriters Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. It also has some of the greatest dance sequence ever filmed (Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence has to be seen to be believed). What makes Singin' in the Rain so great, however, is that it is also a very good comedy. Set in the period of transition from silent movies to talkies, Singin' in the Rain features some hilarious lines and some truly funny situations. Indeed, the script by Betty Comden and Arthur Green is so well written, that Singin' in the Rain would have been a great film without the songs and dance sequences!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Children's Author Sid Fleischman Passed On

Sid Fleischman, Newbury winning author of more than 50 children's books, passed on March 17. The cause was cancer. He was 90 years old.

Sid Fleischman was born on March 16, 1920 in Brooklyn, but grew up in San Diego, California. As a child he studied magic and by his teens he even performed on vaudeville. He published his first book, Between Cocktails, a collection of magic tricks written for his fellow magicians, when he was only 19. During World War II he served in the Naval Reserve aboard a destroyer escort. Following the war he graduated from San Diego State University in 1949. His first suspense novel, The Straw Donkey Case, was published in 1948. He continued to write mystery and suspense novels while working as a reporter at the San Diego Journal and later the editor of a small magazine. In 1951 he took up writing full time. His novel Blood Alley would be adapted as the 1955 movie of the same name. His novel Counterspy Express was adapted as the 1958 movie Spy in the Sky.

In all, Sid Fleischman would publish nine mystery and suspense novels and one Western for adults. It would be in 1962 that his career would change with the publication of his first children's novel Mr. Mysterious & Company in 1962. His second children's book, By the Great Horn Spoon, would be adapted as the 1967 Disney film The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. His novel The Whipping Boy won the Newberry Medal. In all, Sid Fleischman wrote fifty children's books. He also wrote nonfiction works for juveniles, including biographies on Mark Twain and Houdini, as well as a book on magic for young people, Mr. Mysterious' s Secrets of Magic. His biography The Abracadabra Kid was published in 1996.