Saturday, September 11, 2010

Director Clive Donner Passes On

Clive Donner, who began his film career as an editor and became one of the notable directors of the British New Wave, passed at the age of 84 on 7 September 2010. He had Alzheimer's disease for many years.

Clive Donner was born in London on 21 January 1926. It was while he was still attending Killburn Polytechnic that he made his first film, an 8 millimetre short about a boy's sports club. Following graduation he became a cutting room assistant at Denham Studios. During World War II  Mr. Donner served in the Royal Navy. Following the war he went back to Denham Studios. He served as part of the editorial department on the films On Approval (1944), The Way Ahead (1944), and Oliver Twist (1948). In 1950 Mr. Donner received his first credit as a full fledged editor on the film Madeline. The next several years he served as the editor on A Christmas Carol (1951), The Card (1952), Meet Me Tonight (1952), Genevieve (1953), The Million Pound Note (1954), The Purple Plain (1954), and I Am a Camera (1955).

It was in 1957 that Clive Donner received his first credit as a director, on the film The Secret Place. Two years later he directed the film Heart of a  Child. For the next few years Mr. Donner directed episodes of various television shows, including Danger Man, The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre, and Sir Francis Drake. It was in 1962 that Clive Donner's breakthrough film was released. It was part of the British New Wave, a "kitchen sink"  film in which four young men are persuaded to form a rock group. Some People was a somewhat realistic view of youth in England in the pre-Beatles era.

It would be Clive Donner's next film which would get him noticed. Released in 1963, The Caretaker was an adaptation of the Harold Pinter play of the same name. Another "kitchen sink" film, The Caretaker featured Robert Shaw as a quiet young man who takes in an old derelict and eventually makes him his home's caretaker. With The Caretaker Clive Donner entered the height of his career. His 1964 film Nothing But the Best was Mr. Donner's departure from "kitchen sink" into the dark comedy associated with Swinging London. The film centred on Alan Bates as Jimmy Brewster, a young man who will literally do anything to be successful. Clive Donner followed Nothing But the Best with his first Hollywood film, What's New Pussycat (1965). With a screenplay by Woody Allen, What's New Pussycat featured Peter O'Toole as a man who seeks help with his love life (too much of a love life, not too little) from a psychiatrist who has his own share of problems (played by Peter Sellers). What's New Pussycat was a hit at the box office and also received good reviews.

His next film, Luv (1967), was a bit of misfire, despite a cast which featured Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May. It scored with neither audiences nor critics; however, his next film would be somewhat of a success. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968) was a coming of age comedy made at the tail end of the Swinging London era. Unfortunately, Clive Donner's next film would virtually kill his film career. Alfred the Great (1969) bombed at the box office and was raked over the coals by critics. He would not make another film until Vampira (entitled Old Drac in the United States) in 1974.

Most of the remainder of Clive Donner's career was spent in television. He directed a critically acclaimed television adaptation of Geoffrey Household's novel Rogue Male, the telefilm Spectre (a pilot for a Gene Roddenberry series that never materialised), and a television remake of The Thief of Baghdad. Mr. Donner briefly returned to film with The Nude Bomb (1978--based very loosely on the TV show Get Smart) and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981). Neither film did well with the critics or at the box office. Clive Donner spent the next several years directing such telefilms as Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Pimpernel, To Catch a King, A Christmas Carol, Arthur the King, Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly, and Babes in Toyland. In 1988 he returned to film with the relatively well received Stealing Heaven, based on the romance between Abelard and Heloise. In 1990 Clive Donner's last film was released, the short "Arrivederci Roma". Clive Donner spent the rest of his career in television. He directed the telefilms Not a Penny More Not a Penny Less and Terror Stalks the Class Reunion. His final work as a director was on the 1993 mini-series Charlemange (it was not a high point of his career).

Clive Donner will be best remembered for his work during the Sixties. Arguably his best films (The Caretaker, Nothing but the Best, What's New Pussycat) were directed during this era. Mr. Donner had a gift for capturing the spirit of the times, whether it was in his earlier "kitchen sink" dramas or his later Swinging London films. It is important to remember that his career did not end in the Sixties, as he would do several good television movies later in his career. While his feature films, except for Stealing Heaven, made in his later years, were nothing remarkable, such television movies as Rouge Male, Spectre, and The Scarlet Pimpernel were very well done, so much so they are nearly the equal of his earlier work in feature films. While admittedly his best work was done in the Sixties, Mr. Donner's career did not end there.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bonanza Creator David Dortort Passes On

David Dortort, best known as the creator and long time executive producer on the classic television series Bonanza, passed Sunday at the age of 93.

David Dortort was born David Katz in Brooklyn on October 23, 1916. His father, Beryl Dortort, had changed his surname to Katz after coming to the United States from Eastern Europe.

Mr. Dortort attended Boys High in Brooklyn.  He studied American history and creative writing at the City College of New York. After graduation he married Rose Seldin in 1940, who persuaded him to change his surname back to the original family name of Dortort. David Dortort was drafted shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and served in the United States Army. Mr. Dortort performed such special services as beginning an Army newspaper and setting up performances of Hollywood entertainers at an Army hospital.

Following the war his first novel was published,, Burial of the Fruit in 1947. In 1949 his second novel was published, The Post of Honour.  Burial of the Fruit  was optioned as a film and Mr. Dortort had hoped to write the screenplay, but the project fell through. It was this that would encourage Mr. Dortort to learn to write for the screen. In 1952 he received his first movie credit, writing the screenplay for the film The Lusty Men; however, it would be in television that Mr. Dortort would spend most of his career.

In 1953 David Dortort received his first television credit, for an episode of Racket Squad. In the Fifties he would go onto write episodes of The Public Defender. Fireside Theatre, Climax, Waterfront, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Screen Directors Playhouse, Lassie, Studio 57, and Panic. He wrote several episodes of The Restless Gun and served as the show's producer for the entirety of its run. He also wrote the screenplays for the movies Rerprisal (1956), The Big Land (1957), and A Gift for Heidi (1958).

It was in 1958 that NBC asked David Dortort to create a Western which the network itself produced. From his knowledge of history, Mr. Dortort knew the gunslinger had actually played a very minor role in the Old West, so he consciously set out to develop a series which would not focus on the gunfighter as many Western series did at the time. Mr. Dortort then pitched to NBC the idea of a series based on a ranch in Nevada following the 1859 strikes of gold and silver at Virginia City's Comstock Lode. Not only would the series feature a hero who was not a gunfighter, but it would have no less than four heroes--a father and his three sons by his three late wives. Mr. Dortort encouraged NBC to film the new series in colour, taking advantage of the frequent on location shooting.

Bonanza debuted on September 12, 1959 on NBC. Initially it aired on Saturday night against Perry Mason on CBS. Its ratings were low its first season, although they rose enough in its second season that it ranked #17 among all shows for the Nielsens for the 1960-1961 season. It was in its third season Bonanza was moved to Sunday night. For that season Bonanza rose dramatically in the ratings, becoming the #2 show on the air for the year. By the 1964-1965 season Bonanza was the number one show on the air, a position it held for three years running. It would become the first show ever to rank in the top five for nine consecutive seasons. Such success would lead to other Westerns set on ranches, including The Big Valley  In all, Bonanza would run fourteen years, making it the second longest running Western network TV series, after Gunsmoke. This makes Bonanza possibly the most successful American television show of the Sixties.

David Dortort would create another Western for NBC, The High Chaparral. The series debuted in 1967 and ran until 1971. The series was historic as one of the first to feature regulars of Hispanic descent who were not out and out stereotypes. David Dortort also served as producer on that series. In 1980 David Dortort and author Evan Hunter developed the mini-series The Chisholms from his own novels. Mr. Dortort also served as producer. Mr. Dortort would go onto produce the telefilms Bonanza: The Next Generation (1988), Bonanza: The Return (1993) and Bonanza: Under Attack (1995), each continuations of the original series. In 2001 he served as the executive producer on Ponderosa, the short lived prequel to Bonanza which proved controversial with some fans.

David Dortort accomplished something few other television writers ever could. He not only created and produced his own series, but he created and produced one of the most successful shows of all time. Indeed, Bonanza still airs all over the world; in the United States it is part of the regular schedule of TV Land. Its characters (Ben, Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe) long ago became part of American pop culture, and for many the ranch house on the Ponderosa is as familiar was their own homes (my brother can actually name where objects are located in the ranch house without even consulting any episodes). While The High Chaparral would not see the success of Bonanza, it broke new ground with regards to the portrayal of Hispanics on the small screen. Indeed, in this it followed Bonanza, which often featured episodes attacking prejudice against other ethnicities. While many television writers have created shows over the years, only a few have created series as successful as Bonanza and fewer still have broken new ground while doing so.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Bit of News

I was going to do a full fledged entry today, but I am still a bit under the weather (sinusitis) and I am worried about my cat Midnight. Last Tuesday Midnight developed a limp in his right leg. By Friday evening he has lost use of his rear legs. He does seem healthy otherwise. He is alert, has been eating well, has been using the restroom (metaphorically speaking), and can actually move pretty far on his front legs. Today he has been to move his right leg, although not enough to walk upon it. Not being able to get him to the veterinarian over a holiday weekend, I want to get him there tomorrow. I am thinking given his relative health and the fact that movement is slowly returning to his rear legs it is going to be something easily treatable. Still, I can't help but being concerned for him and a bit sad that he is not able to move around like he used to (he was always the most active of our cats).

In other news, Elizabeth Page Bissette has a page dedicated to her great uncle, the legendary pulp writer Norvell Page and the creator of The Spider. The Norvell Page Page is a must for anyone who is a fan of The Spider, the works of Norvell Page, or the history of the Page family (one of the First Families of Virginia). Elizabeth also kindly republished my article on The Spider's 75th anniversary from A Shroud of Thoughts, "The Spider Turns 75." Even if you are not familiar with The Spider or the career of Norvell Page, I encourage you to check it out. There is a good deal of fascinating material that would interest even people who have never read a pulp novel!

In yet other news, I must sadly report that this week begins our peak period at work. As usual I will publish my usual minimum of three posts a week (with any luck more) , but I will probably only be able to do my typical in depth articles on the weekends (provided no one dies--this year has been like that). I do apologise to my few regular readers!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two Classic Soda Commercials

Tonight two of my favourite television shows were on (Leverage and Mad Men) and I feel a little under the weather. I thought then I would simply leave you with two classic soda commercials which were spun off into two hit songs.

First up is the classic Diet Pepsi commercial from 1967. The tune playing in the background is "Music to Watch Girls By." It was turned into a hit instrumental by The Bob Crewe Generation, going to #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. A version with lyrics was later performed by Andy Williams, going to #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 also in 1967.

Second up is possibly the most famous Coca-Cola commercial of all time. The "Hilltop" ad was first aired in 1971. The song featured in the advert, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," was later expanded (with all references to Coke dropped) and became a hit record for The New Seekers. It went to #7 on the Billboard charts.