Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Late, Great Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper, who directed and starred in Easy Rider and portrayed Frank Booth in Blue Velvet passed today at the age of 74.The cause was complications from prostate cancer.

Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas on May 17, 1936. After World War II his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and later moved to San Diego County, California. He started acting in high school plays and won a scholarship to the National Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego

 Dennis Hopper graduated from Helix High School in 1954. He made his television debut that same year in an episode of Cavalcade of America. In 1955 he guest starred on the shows Medic, The Public Defender, and The Loretta Young Show. His guest shot as an epileptic on Medic resulted in a contract with Warner Brothers. His first film with Warner Brothers would also be his movie debut, Rebel Without a Cause. It in the film Mr. Hooper played one of the gang who menaces James Dean's character. Meeting James Dean would have a profound effect on Mr. Hooper's life. He was so impressed with Mr. Dean's acting style that it would influence his own. In fact, Hooper told Vanity Fair in a 1977 interview, "The most personal tragedy in my life was Dean. I was 19 years old and had such admiration for him."

In 1955 Dennis Hopper appeared in an uncredited role in the film I Died a Thousand Times. That same year he appeared in the TV shows King's Row, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, and Screen Director's Showcase. He also appeared in the film Giant, playing the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as an adult. It would be the last time he would act with James Dean. Over the next few years he would guest star on such shows as Cheyenne, Conflict, and Sugarfoot. He also appeared in the film Gunfight at the OK Corral and The Story of Mankind in 1957. It would be on the film From Hell With Texas that his career would take a turn for the worse. Taking James Dean's style of Method Acting to heart, he refused to say his lines and move precisely the way director Henry Hathaway wanted him to.  Hathaway demanded take after take until Mr. Hopper finally gave in to him. The incident earned Mr. Hopper a reputation for being "difficult" and led to Warner Brothers dumping him.

From the very late Fifties into the mid-Sixties, most of Dennis Hopper's work was in television. He guest starred on Zane Grey Theatre, The Rifleman, The Millionaire, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Naked City, 87th Precinct, Wagon Train, The Twilgiht Zone, The Defenders, Petticoat Junction, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke. He appeared in a few movies, such as Key Witness  (1960), Night Tide (1961), The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys (1964), and Tarzan and Jane Regained...Sort of (1964). In 1965 director Henry Hathaway gave Mr. Hopper another chance and he was cast in a small part in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965).

The late Sixties saw Dennis Hopper guest star on more television shows, including The Time Tunnel, Combat, The Guns of Will Sonnett, and The Big Valley. He also appeared in a mixture of low budget and major motion pictures, including Queen of Blood (1966), The Trip (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967),  The Glory Stompers  (1968), Panic in the City (1968), and Hang 'Em High (1968). He also made an uncredited appearance in Head (1968), the debut film of Bob Rafelson and The Monkees' only film.

It was in 1968 that Dennis Hopper directed his first film, the legendary Easy Rider. Produced by Peter Fonda and starring both Mr. Fonda and Mr. Hooper, the film would not be seen until the Cannes Film Festival in May 1969 (where it won the award for best film by a new director) and would not be released until July 1969. One of the first films to embrace the counterculture, Easy Rider proved to be both influential and successful at the box office. It was one of the films which ushered in the New Hollywood of the very late Sixties into the Seventies. Life magazine referred to Dennis Hopper as "Hollywood's hottest director.."

In 1969 Dennis Hopper also appeared in the film True Grit. For his next directing effort, Mr. Hooper went to Peru to shoot The Last Movie. Unfortunately, the film would not be nearly as successful as Easy Rider, either at the box office or with critics. Although upon its release in 1971 it won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, most critcs tore the film apart. It would even be pulled from theatres. He would not direct another film until Out of the Blue in 1980.

The Seventies saw Dennis Hopper appear in such films as The Other Side of the Wind (1972), Crush Proof (1972), Kid Blue (1973), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Tracks  (1977), Der amerikanische Freund ( which he played Patricia Highsmith's criminal mastermind Tom Ripley),  L'ordre et la sécurité du monde (1978) , Couleur chair (1978),  and Les apprentis sorciers (1977). He had a memorable role in Apocalypse Now playing a hippie photojournalist who is very nearly as mad as Colonel Kurtz. (Marlon Brando). In 1980 Dennis Hopper directed and appeared in Out of the Blue. On television he appeared in the mini-series Wild Times as Doc Holiday.

In the Eighties Dennis Hopper appeared in such films as Reborn (1981), King of the Mountain (1981), Rumble Fish (1983), The Osterman Weekend (1983), White Star (1983), Euer Weg führt durch die Hölle (1984), Slagskämpen (1984), O. C. and Stiggs (1985), My Science Project (1985), The American Way (1986), and The River's Edge (1986). In 1986 he appeared in two of the most significant roles of his career. One of these was the role of Gene Hackman's assistant in Hoosiers, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The other was the role for which he should have been nominated for an Oscar, that of the psychotic villain Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Frank Booth was a villain as the movies had never seen before, his tastes running to inhaling nitrous oxide and sado-masochism. It would be a role that would change Mr. Hopper's career, as he increasingly played a number of bizarre villains. Mr. Hopper finished the Eighties appearing in such films as Running Out of Luck (1987), Black Widow (1987), Straight to Hell (1987), The Pick-Up Artist (1987), Blood Red (1989), Chattahochee (1989), Flashback (1990), and Catchfire (1990). On television he appeared in the television movies Stark and Stark: Mirror Image. He also directed the films Colours (1988), Catchfire (which due to a dispute with the studio was credited to Alan Smithee), and The Hot Spot (1990).

Dennis Hopper began the Nineties playing the racist Paris Trout in the movie of the same name (1991). He also appeared in the movies The Indian Runner (1991), Eye of the Storm (1991), Sunset Heat (1992), Boiling Point (1993), Red Rock West (1993), True Romance (1993),Chasers (1994), Speed (1994), Search and Destroy (1995), Waterworld (1995), Carried Away (1996), Basquiat (1996), The Blackout (1997), Top of the World (1998), The Prophet's Game (1999), Edtv (1999), and Held for Ransom (2000). On television he appeared in the TV movies Samson and Delilah and Jason and the Argonauts.He directed the films Chasers (1994) and Homeless (2000).

In the Naughts Mr. Hopper appeared in the films Ticker (2001), Choke (2001), The Piano Player (2002), The Night We Called It a Day (2003), Out of Season (2004), The House of 9 (2005), Memory (2006), Swing Vote (2008), and An American Carol (2008).  He set to appear in The Last Film Festival to be released later this year. On television he was a lead on the short lived series Flatland, a recurring character on the first season of 24, one of the lead characters on the short lived series E-Ring, and a regular on the Starz series Crash. He guest starred on the series Las Vegas.

For much of his life Dennis Hopper made more headlines for his alcoholism and his drug habits than he did for his career. In many respects this is sad, as Mr. Hopper was capable of delivering great performances even when he was drinking heavily and using drugs. James Dean had given him the advice, "Well, you have to do things, not show them. You have to take a drink from the glass, not act like you're drinking. Don't have any preconceived ideas. Approach something differently every time." Mr. Hopper took that advice to heart and his career benefited form it. Indeed, if Dennis Hopper played many psychopaths during his career, it was perhaps because he was capable of making any character seem convincing and realistic. Indeed, it must be pointed that while he was best known for playing psychopaths, he played many more sorts of roles, including Gen Hackman's assistant in Hoosiers, Frank Sinatra in The Night We Called It a Day, and, of course, Billy in Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper was a versatile actor of considerable talent. Indeed, he was one of the best actors of the last half of the 20th Century.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Paul Gray of Slipknot Passes On

Paul Gray, founding member and bassist of the heavy metal band Slipknot, passed on Monday, May 24 at the age of 38. He was found dead in a room at the Town Place Suites in Urbandale, Iowa. Reportedly his body was found near a bottle of pills and a hypodermic syringe. Authorities have said that the autopsy indicated no signs of foul play, although toxicology results will not be returned for another four to six weeks.

Paul Gray was born in Los Angeles, California on April 8, 1972. His family moved to Des Moines, Iowa when he in his youth. It was in 1992 that vocalist Anders Colsefini, percussionist Shawn Crahan, and bassist Gray formed Painface. The band recorded a demo entitled The Basement Sessions, which included an early version of the song "Slipknot" which would eventually be recorded by the band of the same name. Painface broke up later in the year. It was in September 1995 that Colsefini, Crahan, and Gray regrouped to form the band The Pale Ones. The band added members along the way and it was in late 1995 or early 1996 that drummer Joey Jordison suggested they rename the band "Slipknot" after the song. It was during this period that they initially wore makeup and then switched to masks, which they thought would draw attention away from themselves and towards their music.The band members would eventually be known by numbers from 0 to 8, as well as their names (Paul Gray was Number 2).

It was on Halloween 1996 that Slipknot released the independently produced Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat. Only around 1000 copies were produced. The album mixed genres from heavy metal to jazz to funk. It was in 1998 that Slipknot recorded a demo which was sent to various record labels. It was in July 1998 that Slipknot was signed to Roadrunner Records. Their self titled debut album with Roadrunner featured the hits "Wait and Bleed," which went to #34 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and "Spit It Out," which went to #28 on the UK singles chart.  The album itself went to #51 on the Billboard albums chart.

It was in 2001 that Slipknot released their second album Iowa. Iowa did better than the prior album, hitting #3 on the Billboard album chart. The song "My Plague" from the album was nominated for the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance. The song "Left Behind" hit #30 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. It was also nominated for the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance.

During 2003 Paul Gray as Unida's bassist on their tour. The following year Slipknot released Vol. 3 (The Subliminal Verses). The album performed better than any of their previous albums, going to #2 on the Billboard album chart. The album contained the hit song "Before I Forget." It went to #32 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart, #11 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart, and #35 on the UK Singles chart. It also won the Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance. In 2005 Paul Gray was a part of the Roadrunner United project, an album celebrating the label's 25th anniversary and featuring artists from the label's history.

In 2007 Gray was a guest on Drop Dead, Gorgeous' second album, Worse Than Fairy Tale. In 2008 Slipknot released All Hope is Gone. The album went to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 200 and the UK albums chart. The album included the songs "Psychosocial," which went to #7 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, "Dead Memories," which went to #3 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and "Snuff," which went to #2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. It was also in 2008 that Paul Gray appeared on the Reggie and the Full Effect album Last Stop: Crappy Town.

While I cannot say I am a huge fan of Slipknot, I have liked a good deal of their work. And I have always admired Paul Gray as a bassist. In fact, he was one of the most versatile bassists of the late Nineties and Naughts. On Slipknot's earlier releases he used the slapping style characteristic of funk and soul. He would still use it at times on later releases. He also used the fingerstyle technique, plucking the bass strings directly with his finger. On most of the group's more recent releases he used a pick. He was a very good songwriter, contributing a number of songs over the years to Slipknot. Indeed, such a loss is Paul Gray that I have to wonder if the band will even survive.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Paint It, Black" by The Rolling Stones

If I made a list of my top ten favourite songs of all time, chances are that "Paint It, Black" by The Rolling Stones would be in that list. I definitely know it is my favourite song by The Rolling Stones. I am apparently not alone in thinking it is a great song. Rolling Stone placed it at #174 on their "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list (which I would say is ranking a bit low--I'd put it in the top ten).

While "Paint It, Black" is attributed to Jagger/Richards, as many of The Rolling Stones' hits were, it was actually a collaborative effort of the band. According to The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, the song took shape when Bill Wyman was playing the organ in parody of the band's first manager, Eric Easton, who had been a cinema organist. It was Brian Jones who added the song's legendary sitar riff. The song's rather dark lyrics were written by Mick Jagger.

"Paint It, Black" was released as a single on 7 May, 1966 in the United States and on 13 May, 1966 (a Friday, fittingly enough) in the United Kingdom. The song hit #1 on the United States' Billboard Hot 100 chart, #1 on the UK Singles chart, and #1 on the Canadian RPM chart. It was the first hit rock song in the United States to ever feature a sitar. It was also the debut single from The Rolling Stones' album Aftermath in the United States. The album was  released 15 April, 1966 in the United Kingdom and 20 June, 1966 in the United States. Interestingly enough, the title was meant to be "Paint It Black," without a comma. Keith Richards had said that the comma was added by Decca, their recording label.

According to Bill Wyman's autobiography, when asked what "Paint It, Black" meant, Mick Jagger said, "It means paint it, black." That having been said, an analysis of the song's lyrics seems to indicate that the song is sung from the point of view of a man whose lover has just died. The opening words of the song, "I see a red door and I want it painted it black" would seem to be a reference to the door of an Anglican church, whose doors are traditionally painted red. Churches are, of course, often the site of funerals. Another clue could be the line, "I see a line of cars and they're all painted black," which could refer to a funeral procession (hearses traditionally being black). Indeed, it is following the line "I see a line of cars and they're all painted black" that he most obvious possible reference to death comes, "with flowers and my love both never to come back." Quite simply, both his love and the flowers are being taken away by the hearse.

Yet another clue could be the line "Like a newborn baby it just happens everyday." People are born everyday. They die everyday too. Another clue could be the line "I could not foresee this thing happening to you," i.e. he could not foresee her death. Finally, another fairly obvious clue that the song is about the loss of a loved one are the lines, "If I look hard enough into the settin' sun/My love will laugh with me before the mornin' comes." This indicates that the only time he can now be with his love is in the night, when he is either dreaming or remembering her.

Over the years "Paint It, Black" has been covered a number of times. Indeed, the first cover versions emerged the very year it was released. In 1966 alone it was covered by both Chris Farlowe and The Standells. In 1967 it was covered by Eric Burdon and The Animals on their album Winds of Change. Burdon would cover the song again with War in 1970. Both times he somewhat altered the arrangement and the lyrics. The song would later be covered by Deep Purple (1988), Echo and The Bunnymen (1988), Marc Almond (1998), W.AS.P., and many, many others.

Below are some clips of a few of the versions of the song. First up is the original by The Rolling Stones, performed live in 1966.

Next up is The Standells' version, from 1966.

Here is The Animals' version from 1967. As much as I like The Animals, I have to confess I don't care much for their version of the song.

Finally, here is the version by heavy metal band W.A.S.P.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Late, Great Art Linkletter

Legendary host of the long running shows People are Funny and Art Linkletter's House Party, Art Linkletter, passed today at the age of 97.

Art Linkletter was born Gordon Arthur Kelly on July 16, 1912 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was less than a month old when his parents abandoned him at the door of a local church. He was adopted by Fulton John and Mary Linkletter, a preacher and his wife. He not know he was adopted until he was twelve, when one day he was rummaging through his father's desk. It was around the time that Mr. Linkletter was five years old that the family moved to San Diego, California.

During his childhood, Art Linkletter took  a diverse number of jobs. Graduating from high school at age 16, Mr. Linkletter decided he wanted to see the world. Starting out with only $10 to his name, he travelled the United States by hitch hiking and hopping aboard freight trains. He worked a number of different jobs, from busboy to meatpacker to working in a bank. Upon his return to California, Mr. Linkletter attended San Diego State College, intending to become an English teacher. He participated in a number of different extracurricular activities, including playing on the basketball team and handball team, and swimming on the college's swim team. His life would be forever changed when during his junior year he was hired as announcer on local San Diego station  KGB. When he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1934, he no longer wanted to be a teacher. Instead, Art Linkletter stayed at KGB, where he eventually became the station's chief announcer.

Art Linkletter went onto work at a San Francisco station, and then in 1942 to Hollywood to seek opportunities there. Initially he met with little of the success he had known earlier in his career. This would change when he met John Guedal, who would go onto create the game show You Bet Your Life. Together they made an audition tape for an audience participation show which would use Mr. Linkletter's ability to elicit humour from almost anyone to good use. Entitled People Are Funny, the show would debut on April 10, 1942 on NBC Radio. Oddly enough, Art Linkletter was the original host--Art Baker was. It was on October 1, 1943 that Mr. Linklletter replaced Mr. Baker. The series proved so successful that it was the basis of a 1946 movie musical of the same name. It would run on radio until 1960.

People are Funny would not be Mr. Linkletter's only hit show. In 1944 General Electric decided it wanted to sponsor its own, daily audience participation show. John Geuedal contacted GE and pitched the idea of a show with the ever popular Art. Linkletter. Art Linkletter's House Party debuted on CBS radio on January 15, 1945. Unlike People are Funny, the emphasis on House Party was less on stunts and more on chatting with the audience, cooking segments, and celebrity interviews. Its most famous segment was "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," in which Mr. Linkletter would interview children in hope of humorous responses. It ran on radio until 1967.

Both People are Funny and Art Linkletter's House Party moved to television. House Party made its television debut in 1952, and ran until 1970. People are Funny made its television debut in1954. It ran until 1960, although episodes were reran until 1961. From 1950 to 1952 he was the host of Life with Linkletter. From  1965 to 1966 he was the host of Hollywood Talent Scouts. In 1998 he was co-host of Kids Say he Darnedest Things, based on the famous House Party segment. Throughout the years Art Linkletter appeared on many others shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Benny Programme, The Steven Allen Show, The Bob Cummings Show, You Bet Your Life, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, I've Got a Secret, What's My Line, The Lucy Show, Hollywood Squares, The Dean Martin Show, Batman, and Larry King Live. In 2005, when he was 93 years old, he opened Disney Land's 50th anniversary celebration.

Art Linkletter dabbled in acting over the years. He guest starred on such shows as Zane Grey Theatre, General Electric Theatre, Wagon Train, and The Red Skelton Show He also appeared in a few films including, People are Funny and  Champagne for Caesar. His last appearance on film was in the documentary When the World Breaks, which centres on the outburst of creativity during the Great Depression. It made its debut in February of this year at the Sedona International Film Festival.

 Over the years Art Linkletter wrote a number of books, including Kids Say the Darnedest Things (based on the House Party segment), Confessions of a Happy Man (his autobiography), Women are My Favourite People, I Didn't Do It Alone (another autobiography), and Old Age Is Not for Sissies, among others.

When Art Linkletter was in his heyday, critics were mystified by his appeal, believing he was bland and not pariticularly appealing.  Audiences disagreed, so that his shows were on for literally years. What the critics missed was Mr. Linkletter's  uncanny ability to put anyone at ease, thus getting them to open up about their thoughts or even perform the most outrageous stunts. In many ways he was the world's greatest straight man, asking adults and children alike questions that would lead to a punch line even Mr. Linkletter did not know ahead of time. Indeed, it must be pointed out that in many ways Art Linkletter was a pioneer of reality shows. The focus of both People are Funny and House Party was in getting people to be themselves in front of a camera. That having been said, while Mr. Linkletter was a pioneer in reality television, none of his shows were exploitative in the way that modern reality shows were. Instead, they were wholesome, funny, and even touching. Unlike many of today's reality show producers, Mr. Linkletter saw the good in people and sought to bring that out, not bring out the worst in humanity.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Television Series Finales (or) You Can't Make Everyone Happy

Last night the series finale (fittingly entitled "The End") of Lost aired in the United States. The finale gave ABC its best ratings outside of the Oscars in two and a half years. An average of 13.5 million viewers watched the finale, earning it a 5.8 rating and a 14 share. So phenomenal was ratings for Lost last night that it buried its competition on the other major networks. The series finale's were double that of second place NBC and third place Fox, and three times that of fourth place CBS. Thus far "The End" is easily  the highest rated season finale for 2009/2010, easily beating the second highest finale, that of Grey's Anatomy.

While the series finale of Lost received solid ratings, it is another question as to whether viewers were satisfied with the series conclusion. Critics seem to be divided on the episode. Robert Bianco of USA Today (whom I have to admit is right, for once) gave  "The End" a four star review. James Poniewozik of Time (a critic I trust a bit more) called "The End" a "....moving, soulful finale." Mike Hale of The New York Times said the finale felt like "...a bit of a cop out." Mary McNamara of The Los Angeles Times only gave the finale one star in her review. Going by blogs and social media sites, viewers also seem divided on the finale (for the record, I loved it). Of course, even if the majority of viewers had hated "The End," it would not be the first time a series finale would be so despised.

Indeed, the whole idea of a television series having a definite conclusion was not even very old when a particular series ended in such a way that brought howls of protests from viewers. Although I may be wrong,  I think the first series to have a definite conclusion, at least in the United States, was The Fugitive. The series finale of The Fugitive, airing on August 22, 1967 and August 29, 1967, received incredible ratings and received rave reviews from critics and viewers alike. This would not be the case a few months later when another legendary series came to its end in the United Kingdom. The Prisoner featured Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, a secret agent captured and imprisoned in a mysterious place called The Village, where they try to find out why he resigned and what information he knew. The series did very well in the ratings and viewers well expected a finale in which Number Six would have a showdown with a Dr. No style villain who would be Number One in The Village. That is not what they saw.

Instead, the final episode of "Fall Out" which aired on Feburary 1, 1968, on ITV  owed more to Antonin Artaud than Ian Fleming. Not only was the finale definitely not a  Bondian showdown with a diabolical mastermind, but it was an exercise at times in surrealism that created more questions than it answered. Among other things , "Fall Out" had the original Number Two from the first episode (Leo McKern) resurrected,  Number Two (Leo McKern) and Number 48 (Alex Kanner) placed on trial, Number Six finally meeting Number One (who turns out to be, well, himself), Number Six feeing Number Two and Number 48, and Number Six finally leaving The Village. "Fall Out" was hardly the straight forward ending that many viewers had wanted, and the final third of the episode in particular was ambiguous and open to a number of interpretations.

To say "Fall Out" created controversy would be to put it mildly. Almost as soon as the episode went off the air, ITV was besieged by viewers who were either outraged or baffled by what they had seen. Viewers demanding an explanation for "Fall Out" even hounded Patrick McGoohan at his home to the point that he had to go into hiding for a time.

As strange as the series finale of The Prisoner was, it may well have been surpassed by the final episode of Twin Peaks. Created by director David Lynch, Twin Peaks had been an outright phenomenon when it debuted, garnering huge ratings and a good deal of media coverage. Unfortunately, it suffered a precipitous drop in ratings in its second season, in part because ABC moved it around the schedule. For the series finale, David Lynch returned to direct, which turned out to be as mystifying as any of his movies, if not more so. The final episode, "Beyond Life and Death," had protagonist Special Agent Dale Cooper enter the mysterious Black Lodge which seems to defy both space and time. Cooper encounters doppelgängers of the dead, bargains for the life of  Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) with his own soul,  faces his own doppelgänger, and becomes part of the eternal struggle between good and evil. Not only were many viewers mystified by "Beyond Life and Death," but many were disappointed by the episode. Perhaps the only reason the season finale to Twin Peaks did not generate a good deal of controversy is that by then only the most loyal viewers were watching. Indedd, it only finished third in the ratings against reruns on both CBS and NBC.

Compared to the series finales of The Prisoner and Twin Peaks, the series finale of The Sopranos, "Made in America (aired June 10, 2007),"  was much more straight forward. Indeed, it can not be said that it was the bulk of the episode which upset viewers, so much as it was the way the episode ended. Much of the episode dealt with the fallout from the war between the New Jersey based DiMeo family (led by Tony Soprano) and the New York based Lupertazzi family. In the final moments of the episode Tony Soprano (James Gandofini) gathered with his family for dinner in a restaurant. While there, a man continuously stares at Tony, until at last the man goes to the restroom. It is  as Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) enters the restaurant and joins the family and Tony looks up that the screen abruptly turns to black. While the majority of critics gave the episode positive reviews and even praised the ending, the reaction of fans was decidedly mixed. Many fans loved the endings, feeling it fitted the shows. Many other fans thought the ending was both abrupt and unsatisfying. Either way, the last few minutes of "Made in America" were endlessly debated and analysed.

Looking back at some of the more unusual series finales, it is only to be expected that the finale of Lost would receive mixed reactions from critics and fans alike. In fact, when compared to the finales of The Prisoner and Twin Peaks in some respects reaction to the finale of Lost has been fairly positive. At the very least Jerry Lieber, J. J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof have not had to go into hiding. At least not yet.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Over the years there have been many movies and TV series based on the character of Zorro, a champion of the people against tyrannical rulers in Spanish Colonial California. No less than Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was the first to play the masked avenger. Later such men as Robert Livingston, Alan Delon, Rodolfo de Anda and even Anthony Hopkins would play the role. Guy Williams starred as Zorro in a Fifties series of the same name. For myself, however, out of all the actors to play the masked man, Tyrone Power  Jr. will always be El Zorro.

Zorro first appeared in the novella The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, serialised over five issues in All-Story Weekly in 1919. Even in his first appearance, Zorro boasted many of the characteristics we associate with him. He was Don Diego de la Vega, a nobleman who masquerades as an effete fop by day and fights injustice by night as the cunning El Zorro. That having been said, there were also some subtle differences from the Zorro we know today. In The Curse of Capistrano Zorro wears a sombrero and a cloth mask that covers his face. He also did not leave behind the mark of a "Z"--the mark of Zorro--as a sign of his presence.  It would be the first motion picture to feature Zorro that would establish his appearance as we know him now, as well as his practice of carving the mark of Zorro on almost any surface, sometimes even his enemies.

It was on February 5, 1919 that four of the biggest names in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford founded United Artists, whose goal was to place more control over the movie making process in the hands of the artists who made them. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. would have a difficult time deciding what should be the first movie released by United Artists. The romantic comedies which had made him a star were not doing nearly as well as they once had. Fairbanks then decided to make a dramatic shift his career, from romantic lead to action star. He came upon the novella The Curse of Capistrano in All-Story Weekly and decided to adapt it as the motion picture which would be called The Mark of Zorro. The Mark of Zorro would be the first movie ever released by United Artists.

Released on November 27, 1920, The Mark of Zorro proved to be an enormous success and of great historic importance. It would almost single handedly establish the swashbuckler genre in film. It also transformed Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s career. Once a romantic lead, Fairbanks became the star of several swashbucklers, including The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). His swashbucklers were so successful that to this day he is still identified with the genre. The Mark of Zorro (1920) would also bring changes to Zorro and shape the character as we know him today. In the film Zorro dressed in a black cordobés, a black mask covering only the upper half of his face, a black cape, and black clothes. Johnston McCulley liked the appearance of Zorro in the movie so much that he garbed Zorro in the same costume in every subsequent story. It would also be the film which would introduce the mark of Zorro, which McCulley also incorporated in all subsequent Zorro stories. Indeed, in the wake of the success of the movie, The Curse of Capistrano would be retitled The Mark of Zorro.

 In the following years even more movies were made featuring Zorro and Johnston McCulley wrote even more stories featuring the character. Zorro was the first superhero and it would only be a few years before pulp magazines and comic books began publishing similar characters. Indeed, Bob Kane acknowledged The Mark of Zorro (1920) as one of the primary inspirations for Batman. The characters are certainly similar: wealthy men (Don Diego de la Vega and Bruce Wayne) who pretend to utter idiots by day while fighting crime by night.

In the meantime Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sold his rights to The Curse of Capistrano to 20th Century Fox. Oddly enough, the film's working title was The Californians (one would have thought Fox would have wanted to take advantage of the Zorro name from the beginning).It is known that William A. Drake and  Dorothy Hechtlinger both worked on treatments  for the film. Ultimately the original novella would be adapted by Garrett Fort (who had adapted the classic Universal version of Frankenstein) and Bess Meredyth (who had written the screenplay for Charlie Chan at the Opera), with the screenplay being written by John Taintor Foote (who would go on to write Notorious). As for the casting, Darryl Zanuck initially suggested Richard Greene play Zorro. Of course, Greene would go on to fame as another classic swashbuckling hero, Robin Hood, in the British TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood in the Fifties.

In the end of the role Don Diego de la Vega and Zorro went to Tyrone Power Jr.. Power was a rising star at Fox, having appeared in In Old Chicago (1937), Suez (1938), and Jesse James (1939). In some respects Tyrone Power Jr. was an odd choice to play Zorro. Not only had he never appeared in a swashbuckler before The Mark of Zorro, but he had never even handled a sword. A story bandied about by the studio that his mother, actress Patia Powers, was a fencing champion who had taught her son was patently false. Regardless, he proved ideal in the role of Zorro. Not only did he have the dashing good looks necessary to a swashbuckling hero, but he also proved to be a natural with as sword.

After years of stating that director Rouben Mamoulian would never work on his lot as he was too independent, Darryl F. Zanuck chose him as the director of The Mark of Zorro. After reading the script, which he knew Zanuck had worked upon and a script he hated,  Mamoulian initially told his agent he would not direct the film. Zanuck then met with Mamoulian. Zanuck told Mamoulian he could have the script rewritten, after which Mamoulian brought up Zanuck's practice of cutting a film after a director had finished it.  Zanuck refused to let Mamoulian have final cut, whereupon the director started to walk out the door. Ultimately Mamoulian did receive final cut.

As a director Rouben Mamoulian was a minimalist who definitely took a "less is more" approach. In such films as the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Queen Christina (1933), and Becky Sharp (1935), he showed a definite preference for subtlety over flashy theatrics. For that reason the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro shows a marked contrast to the 1920 version and Errol Flynn's many swashbucklers, all of which featured over the top action.  An example of Mamoulians' subtlety at work was given in the book Rouben Mamoulian by Tom Milne and is cited on TCM's article on the film.  In the sequence Zorro effortlessly infiltrates the mansion of Qunintero (J. Edward Bromberg) to threaten him and just as effortlessly leaves the mansion. There are no flashy theatrics, there is no over the top of action. Such an approach is actually more in keeping with the actual character of Zorro, a masked avenger who works by night and uses stealth to his advantage, than an extravagant action sequence would have been.

Tyrone Power Jr.'s performance as Zorro complimented Mamoulian's direction perfectly. Both Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Errol Flynn played swashbucklers who took a devil -may-care attitude to life, throwing off wisecracks as they duelled the bad guys through swordplay. While as Zorro Tyrone Power Jr. does utter the occasional one liner, his Zorro is much more serious and reserved than any of Fairbanks or Flynn's characters. Again this is much more fitting for a masked avenger who works by night.

Of course, it must also be pointed out that while Mamoulian took a minimalist approach to the action in the film, The Mark of Zorro had no shortage of exciting action sequences. Indeed, connoisseurs of swordplay on film consider it among the best sword fighting films ever made. The sword fights were choreographed by fencing instructor Fred Cavens, who had choreographed the fencing in the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940). Basil Rathbone was already a master swordsmen. And while he had never handled a sword, Tyrone Power Jr. proved a quick study. Even Rathbone was impressed, later stating, "Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat." While Fred Cavens' son Albert doubled for Power in some scenes, much of the actual sword fighting on the screen was performed by none other than Tyrone Power Jr. himself.

Beyond Tyrone Power Jr. and Basil Rathbone (at home as a reprehensible villain in a swashbuckler), the rest of the cast also gave superb performances. Eugene Palette, who had played Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, was quite convincing as Fray Felipe, the friar who delivers the gold Zorro takes from the wealthy oppressors back to the poor. Gale Sondergard gave a bravura performance as Inez, Quntero's wife, who is so ambitious and power hungry she could have given Lady Macbeth a run for her money. Among the most impressive performances is given by the beautiful and still terribly young (she was only 17 at the time of the movie's release) Linda Darnell. The Mark of Zorro  was only her fifth film, yet as Lolita Quintero, both Don Diego and Zorro's love interest, she gives a surprisingly convincing and mature performance.

The Mark of Zorro proved to be a hit when it was first released in 1940. In fact, it  was so successful that it marked a shift in Tyrone Power Jr.'s career towards swashbucklers, much as the 1920 version had changed Fairbanks' career as well. Over the next few years Power would make such swashbucklers as The Black Swan (1942), Captain from Castille (1947), and The Black Rose (1950). Over the years the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro would become regarded as a classic, so much so that to this days fans argue over which is the quintessential version of Zorro on screen, Fairbanks or Power's version. As for myself, Zorro will always be Tyrone Power Jr. While he was not the first actor I ever saw as Zorro (That would be Guy Williams), he was arguably the best.