Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year 2011

Today is the final day of 2011 and I cannot say that I am unhappy to see this year go. From a personal standpoint this has not been a particularly good year for me. Indeed, 2011 will always be to me the year that my best friend died. It was on 12 June of this year that my friend Brian passed on. I must confess that I still am mourning him and I still miss him a good deal. This past holiday season was a particularly difficult one for me because of that.

Even if my best friend had not died, however, it would be hard for me not to view 2011 as a year of death. Many of my favourite celebrities died this year and in such quantities that I swear I spent the first six months of this year writing eulogies in this blog. I am guessing the big news as far as celebrity deaths go this year was the passing of screen legend Elizabeth Taylor. As much as I loved Elizabeth Taylor, however, she was not the celebrity I mourned the most this year. Indeed, there were others I mourned more and a few I actually shed tears over. I am guessing that many of us felt the passing of Peter Falk more intensely than we did Miss Taylor. The reasons go far beyond the fact that he played Lt. Columbo. Mr. Falk was a multi-talented actor who also had a career not only on television, but on the screen and stage as well.  I believe many of us also mourned a good deal over Jane Russell. Miss Russell was well known for her physical attributes, but it was for her wit and her talent that we all loved her. She was both on screen and off screen the perfect combination of brains, beauty, and wit. Of course, she was not the only beautiful brunette to pass this year that I found myself mourning. Elaine Stewart was an actress on whom I had a crush since childhood. She was beautiful and quite versatile. I think because of her beauty her talent was often underestimated, something I hope will change in coming years.  I also found myself mourning John Neville. Most people probably knew him as Baron Munchausen from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), but he played may more roles, including Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Terror (1965) and the Well Manicured Man in The X-Files.

Others of my favourite actors worked primarily in television. This was particularly true of James Arness. Most of us know him as Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke, but Mr. Arness also appeared in such films as Big Jim McLain (1952), The Thing (1951), and Them! (1954). What made me feel Mr. Arness's death even more acutely was that he left behind a letter in which he thanked his fans for his career. It's the only time I have ever seen an actor do that. This year also saw the passing of what may have been the most popular of The Doctor's companions on Doctor Who of all time. Elisabeth Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith on Doctor Who. She was the first of The Doctor's companions to whom I was ever exposed and she still one of my favourites. In fact, in my humble opinion Sarah Jane ranks alongside Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Honey West as far as independent female characters who could think for themselves on television. Arguably Cliff Robertson was as much of a film actor as a television actor, but it was on television where I first encountered him. He was a frequent guest star on television shows in the Sixties, including The Twilight Zone and Batman. Of course, he also had an extensive career in film, appearing in such movies as PT 109 (1963), Sunday in New York (1963), and Charly (1968).

Of course, actors were not the only celebrities who died this year. Director Sidney Lumet, who helmed such films as 12 Angry Men (1957), Fail-Safe (1964), Serpico (1973), and Network (1976) , passed this year. This year also saw the passing of screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, whose screenplays for Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) turned Hammer Pictures from an obscure British studio into the studio most identified with horror movies besides Universal. The world of television saw the passing of three men who had a huge impact on my life and on Anglo-American pop culture. Sherwood Schwartz created Gilligan's Island, arguably one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. David Croft co-created several successful sitcoms, including Dad's Army, Are You Being Served, and 'Allo 'Allo. Bert Schneider was the co-producer of The Monkees. He went onto produce some of my favourite films, including Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Five Easy Pieces (1970).  The world of comic books was also hit hard this year. Les Daniels, the comic book historian died at a terribly young age of 68. Jerry Robinson, the creator of The Joker and well known advocate for creator rights, also passed this year. Legendary comic book artist and writer Joe Simon, who created Captain America and other characters, died only months after his creation finally saw life on the big screen in a major motion picture.

While there were many deaths this year, in many ways 2011 was unremarkable as far as pop culture goes. The biggest movies this year were primarily sequels--Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two, a third Transformers movie, a fourth Twilight movie, and so on. Even when a movie wasn't a sequel, it was often a remake (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or based on existing properties (the various superhero movies and so on). If anyone wants to use a year as an example of the possibility that Hollywood has run out of idea, 2011 could well be it.

Fortunately, television would at least make an attempt to be original in the 2011-2012 season, although the quality of the end results were often questionable. On the surface The Playboy Club was something different for NBC. Unfortunately, it was also very, very bad. Similarly, its fellow period piece Pan Am was something that ABC usually would not do. Unfortunately it was also a bit of a disappointment. The major networks have made more of an effort to air genre shows this year. Early in the year NBC aired The Cape, a superhero drama that lasted rather briefly. This season NBC and ABC debuted two very different shows that draw upon fairy tales (Grimm and Once Upon a Time). While the networks at least seem to be experimenting with different sorts of shows, they also seem to have lost all tastes when it comes to sitcoms. When it comes to the 2011-2012 season, it may be remembered as the Season of the Banal Sitcom. Up All Night, Whitney, and How to Be a Gentleman also seemed to demonstrate that NBC and CBS have forgotten what a good sitcom is. Indeed, his might be particularly true of NBC. Late this year NBC shelved the best comedy on television, Community, but is keeping the frightfully unfunny Up All Night and Whitney  on the air!

There is somewhat better news in the world of music, particularly for those of us who worry that Justin Beiber and The Jonas Brothers may be taking over the world.  Indeed, tween heartthrobs figured in none of the top ten albums. What is more, some of the top ten albums came from vocal talents who can actually sing. Adele, Lady Gaga, and Michael Buble held the top spots for the year. Even better, rock music seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Albums by both Coldplay and Mumford & Sons ranked in the top ten. Another upside is that not one of the top albums was by a rap artist, something those of us fear that particular musical genre could make a comeback have to be thankful for. On the downside, the top ten albums of the year worldwide also included what I call "pop rubbish." Both Rihanna and Beyonce had albums in the top ten.

Whatever the impact had on myself personally, I have to say it was not overly remarkable year with regards to pop culture. While television and music seem to be improving, motion pictures seem to be stuck in a rut of sequels. I suppose we can only hope that movies follow the course of television and music in trying something different. Sadly, that might not be 2012, as there seem to be more sequels on tap.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Has 12 Days!

Yesterday I went to WalMart. The huge Christmas tree that one saw just as he or she walked into the store was gone. There was no trace of holly to be seen. Worse yet, there was no eggnog in the dairy section, nor were there any cherry cordials anywhere in the store. It was as if as far as WalMart was concerned, Christmas was over.

Now I now that some reading this may point out that yesterday was 29 December, four days after Christmas Day. While this is true, it ignores the fact that Christmas is not one day, but a festival that is twelve days long. Traditionally Christmas took place from the evening of 24 December (Christmas Eve) to the day of 6 January (Twelfth Day). And while I must confess no one outside of churches seems to have recognised the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas in my lifetime, when I was a lad there was at least some recognition that the period between 26 December and 1 January was part of the Christmas season. Oh, radio stations generally ceased playing Christmas music after 25 December and most TV outlets would not show holiday oriented specials and movies after 25 December. But all businesses would keep their Christmas decorations up, including their trees, until at least 2 January. In the days when I was growing up, it was generally recognised that New Year's Day was a part of the Christmas season, even if almost everyone stopped celebrating the holidays before Epiphany.

Of course, WalMart apparently forgot that Christmas lasts twelve days long ago. While I seem to recall that even as recently as the Naughts they kept their ornaments up longer, I also remember an advert they ran back in the Naughts beginning 26 December (it may have first aired on 25 December for all I know). The commercial began, "Now that the holidays are over..." Ummm, it's not even New Year's Day yet! From the commercial it would appear that WalMart believed the holidays ended with Christmas Day. The fact that they had no ornaments up in the store yesterday demonstrates that they apparently have not learned any differently since that advert aired.

I would not be so irritated at WalMat for taking down their Christmas decorations so early if they did not put them up so early as well. I went to WalMart on 1 November this year. I was confronted by the huge Christmas tree at the front of the store and Christmas music playing over the intercom. One would have thought it was the middle of December! Going by this, I almost believe that WalMart thinks the holiday season begins the day after Halloween and ends on Christmas Day. No, it doesn't. In fact, I think the vast majority of Americans do not think of it as "Christmas time" until Thanksgiving at the earliest. Many of us don't think of it as the holiday season until much later!

Now I'm guessing many reading this might ask why celebrating the Yuletide at least until New Year's Day is such a big deal. Well, for me there are several reasons. The first is simply tradition. Until the 20th Century, when the holiday season became convoluted with the holiday shopping season, Christmas was observed as a festival that lasted for the traditional twelve days. The song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was first published relatively recently, in 1780 in England. Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, makes reference to the twelve days of Christmas. Even when I was a growing up there was some recognition that Christmas did not end with Christmas Day. It has only been the past twenty years that certain merchants and media outlets have forgotten that Christmas is twelve days long and New Year's Day is a part of the Christmas season. In ignoring this tradition we effectively break with the past, we break with what our ancestors practised for years. This sets up what could be a dangerous precedent. If we forget the twelve days of Christmas, what is to keep us from forgetting Christmas all together?

The second reason is that Christmas is essentially a winter holiday. In both the United States and the United Kingdom its imagery deals with winter--snowmen, snowflakes, sleighs, and so on. Now winter does not begin until 21 December or 22 December. In insisting that the "holiday season" runs from 1 November to 25 December, then, WalMart and other merchants are placing the bulk of the Yuletide during autumn! Unless we are willing to change Christmas imagery to fallen leaves and pumpkins (not unlike Halloween and Thanksgiving), then we need to keep the Yuletide in its proper season.

Of course, that brings me to the third reason for observing the Twelve Days of Christmas. In the United States, at least, we already have holidays that take place in autumn. Both Halloween and Thanksgiving are very big holidays here in the States, and both are closely tied to their season. Unfortunately, for many years Thanksgiving has been in danger of losing its own identity. Almost all major stores have their Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving, if not as early as WalMart (who put them up 1 November). Worse yet, in the past some networks and cable channels have aired Christmas movies on Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is very much in danger of becoming just another part of an overly long Christmas season. Given how early many stores are putting up Christmas decorations and start selling Christmas ornaments, I have to wonder that in a few years Halloween may not be as well! Of course, if society began observing the Twelve Days of Christmas again then we probably would not see stores putting up Christmas ornaments until later, adn Thanksgiving would remain its own special day rather than an mere extension of the "Christmas" season.

As to my fourth reason for celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, it is simply that I believe the average American needs a break after a long year of work. The way we celebrate Christmas now the average American does not receive much of a break Far too much emphasis is placed on shopping for gifts to be given on 25 December. making a time that should be one of joy all too stressful for the average American. If we celebrated the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, then gifts could be given on any of the twelve days, not just Christmas Day. This would give people more time to shop for gifts, which would reduce the amount of stress people experience during the holidays. I might also point out that it could also bring in more money for retailers like WalMart who seem to turn Christmas into an autumn holiday!

Of course, there are signs that at least the period between 25 December and 1 January may be increasingly regarded once more as part of the holidays. At least since the early Naughts the DMX Holidays and Happening digital music channel has continued to play Yuletide tunes until 31 January when it switches to what I can only describe as "party music." Various television outlets have also shown signs of regarding the period between 25 December and 1 January as part of the Christmas season. This week AMC showed The Polar Express several nights in a row beginning with the night of 26 December. Oxygen showed the movie Elf this week, after 25 December. This trend has been taking place for a few yeas now, so one can only hope that it continues to grow.

Indeed, I am hoping it will continue until even WalMart, the veritable Grinch of late when it comes to the holidays, realises the error of their ways. It is bad enough that WalMart seems to believe that 1 November is a good time to put up Christmas decorations. It is even worse that they think 26 December is the day to take them down. Christmas is a winter holiday, not an autumn one, and it should be observed as such!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The "Thin Man"/"It's a Wonderful Life" Connection

(Warning: This post deals with some very important plot points in the "Thin Man" films. If you have not seen all of the "Thin Man" movies, then, you would be advised to skip this post. Here There Be Spoilers!!!)

Last Thursday Turner Classic Movies showed a "Thin Man" marathon. That is, they showed all six "Thin Man"  movies back  to back. Of course, it is also the holiday season, which means NBC showed the classic It's a Wonderful Life multiple times. In watching both "The Thin Man" marathon and It's a Wonderful Life I learned something I should have realised long ago given how many times I've watched the films. Quite simply, "The Thin Man" movies and It's a Wonderful Life are connected more than one would think. Several actors who would go onto appear in It's a Wonderful Life appeared in "Thin Man" movies. It was not a small number of actors who did so, nor was it always actors who played only supporting roles in It's A Wonderful Life who appeared in "Thin Man" movies. Indeed, both leads appeared in "Thin Man" movies before they ever appeared tin It's a Wonderful Life.

Of course, the most obvious connection between "The Thin Man" series and It's a Wonderful Life is not through actors but through writers. Husband and wife writing team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich wrote the first three "Thin Man" movies--The Thin Man, After The Thin Man, and Another Thin Man. They also wrote the screen play to It's a Wonderful Life with Frank Capra. If It's a Wonderful Life has so many great lines, then, it is because it was written by writers who had written more than their fair share of witty lines.

Beyond sharing the writing team of Hackett and Goodrich, the first movie in the series, The Thin Man, also shared an actor with It's a Wonderful Life. Charles Williams may be best known to many as Cousin Eustace from It's a Wonderful Life, George's cousin and clerk at the Bailey Building and Loan. In The Thin Man he had an uncredited role as a fighter manager.

While Charles Williams had only a bit part in The Thin Man and only a supporting role in It's a Wonderful Life, After the Thin Man would feature none other than George Bailey himself, Jimmy Stewart, in a major role that was as different from George as one could get. Jimmy Stewart plays David Graham, who has long carried a torch for Nora Charles' cousin Selma (Elissa Landi). In the end we learn David is not only some poor guy suffering from a case of unrequited love, but he is stark raving mad. Indeed, Jimmy Stewart, who played self sacrificing George Bailey, is guilty of murder in After the Thin Man! Mr. Stewart would not be the only actor from It's a Wonderful Life to appear in After the thin Man. Ward Bond, who played Bert the Cop, appeared in a very small role as a party guest!

Like After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man would also feature two actors who would go onto appear in It's a Wonderful Life. Sheldon Leonard played Nick the Bartender in It's a Wonderful Life. In Another Thin Man he plays a much more sinister character, Phil Church, who has been threatening Colonel McFay (C. Aubrey Smith).  Phil Church has very little in common with Nick, as he is even more menacing than Nick was in the reality in which George Bailey was never born! In addition to Sheldon Leonard, one of the police detectives in Another Thin Man is also played by an actor with a minor role in It's a Wonderful Life. Dick Elliot played the man on the porch who urged George Bailey to kiss Mary Bailey "...instead of talking her to death" and then complains, "Youth is wasted on the wrong people!"

Like After the Thin Man, Shadow of the Thin Man featured one of the leads of It's a Wonderful Life. Donna Reed played Molly Ford, girlfriend of the murder victim, Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson). Miss Reed would be the only actor in Shadow of the Thin Man who would go onto appear in It's a Wonderful Life, but the next "Thin Man" movie would make up for this. No less than three actors who would appear in It's A Wonderful Life appeared in The Thin Man Goes Home, although none of them would be in major roles. Sara Edwards, who played Mary's mother (Mrs. Hatch) in It's a Wonderful Life, played a passenger on a train. Tom Fadden, who played the bridge caretaker in It's a Wonderful Life, played another train passenger. Charles Halton, who played Carter the Bank Examiner in It's A Wonderful Life, had a slightly larger role as R. T. Tatuam, one of the employees of banking tycoon Sam Ronson (Minor Watson).

Song of the Thin Man would be the last "Thin Man" film, but like After the Thin Man, Shadow of the Thin Man, and Another Thin Man, it would have a very strong link to It's a Wonderful Life. Gloria Grahame, Violet Bick herself, played Fran Page, a very sultry jazz singer. Al Bridge, who appeared as the sheriff in It's a Wonderful Life, appeared as Nagle the Waterfront Policeman. Charles Sullivan, who played a bartender at Nick's in the reality in which George Bailey was not born, played a police sergeant.

As can be seen, it's not a simple case of character actors appearing in minor roles in both the "Thin Man" series and It's a Wonderful Life. The two leads of It's a Wonderful Life each appeared in a  "Thin Man" movie (Jimmy Stewart in After the Thin Man and Donna Reed in Shadow of the Thin Man). Two important members of It's a Wonderful Life also appeared in "Thin Man" movies--Sheldon Leonard in Another Thin Man and Gloria Grahame in Song of the Thin Man. One major member of the cast of It's a Wonderful Life appeared in a minor role in a "Thin Man" movie--Ward Bond in a bit part in After the Thin Man. And then there are the bit players who appeared in small roles in both the "Thin Man" series and It's a Wonderful Life: Dick Elliot, Sam Edwards, Charles Halton, and so on. Even discounting the fact that Hackett and Goodrich wrote the first two movies, there is never anything less than one degree of separation between any given "Thin Man" movie and It's a Wonderful Life.

Today it must seem unusual for so many actors who would go onto appear in It's a Wonderful Life to have appeared in "Thin Man" films. It would be something like several members of the cast of, say, Serendipity (2001) having appeared in "James Bond" movies (admittedly it's hard seeing John Cusack saying "I expect you to die, Mr. Bond...."). What is even more remarkable it that the "Thin Man" movies and It's a Wonderful Life were produced by two different studios--the "Thin Man" movies by MGM and It's a Wonderful Life by Capra's own Liberty Films. It becomes even more remarkable when one considers that Frank Capra had not even worked for MGM by the time It's a Wonderful Life  was produced. Why then are there so many connections between the "Thin Man" films and It's a Wonderful Life?

Much of it is the fact that the "Thin Man" movies were the "James Bond" movies of their day. While most series films were cheaply produced programmers, the "Thin Man" movies were very much "A" pictures. This meant that not only were the leads played by big name stars (William Powell and Myrna Loy), but that MGM would use the best of their young talent. Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Gloria Grahame were probably all cast because they were seen as up and coming stars by the studio. Frank Capra, as a director of some importance, would naturally cast big names as his leads in It's a Wonderful Life. Indeed, he had worked with Jimmy Stewart on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As to character actors such as Sheldon Leonard and Dick Elliot, it should come as no surprise that they would appear in both the "Thin Man" movies and It's a Wonderful Life. First, we must consider the fact that character actors generally played a specific type. Sheldon Leonard was known for playing thugs and gangsters, so he was a natural choice for Phil Church. Now he might seem like an odd choice to play Nick the Bartender, except when one considers Nick's  behaviour in the reality in which George was not born--he was not a nice guy. Second, character actors tended to work frequently and in a wide array of  movies, everything from programmers to major feature films. While the leads of It's a Wonderful Life appear in two "Thin Man" movies, many of the actors who played lesser parts probably appeared in other series as well. In other words, It's a Wonderful Life probably has connections to everything from "The Falcon" series to the "Blondie" series (actually, it has at least one connection to the "Blondie" series--Penny Singleton appears in a major role in After the Thin Man).

Regardless, when one becomes aware of the connections between It's a Wonderful Life and the "Thin Man" movies it makes for some rather interesting viewing. Indeed, my favourite could well be After the Thin Man. Not only do we get to see George Bailey as a psychotic killer, but we get to see Bert The Cop as a party guest. One has to wonder what the folks in Bedford Falls would think....

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Movies That Aren't Holiday Movies

Most people if asked to define what constitutes a holiday movie would probably define it as "any movie set at Christmas or any movie in which Christmas plays a pivotal role in the plot." On the surface this sounds like a very good definition. Indeed, I would be inclined to agree with it myself. The problem is that there are movies that fit this description that are not generally considered Christmas movies and ones that do not that are.

A perfect example of a holiday film that is not often counted among holiday films is Billy Wilder's classic The Apartment (1960). The movie takes place from about early November to New Year's Eve, thus encompassing the whole holiday season. What is more, both Christmas and New Year's Eve play pivotal roles in its plot; however, for whatever reason it is not often included in lists of holiday movies. Indeed, I have seen the movie shown in July nearly as often as in December. While I am not about to complain about The Apartment being shown all times of year (it is one of my favourite films), it seems to me that it should be counted as a holiday favourite in the same way that It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 24th Street (1947) are.

Another movie that has in the past been excluded from lists of holiday movies is Love Actually (2003). Like The Apartment its plot encompasses nearly the whole holiday. And like The Apartment Christmas plays a pivotal role in its plot. Despite this, the first time I ever saw the film was on the USA Network in July. That wasn't an isolated incident either, as I have seen it at other times of year. Here I want to stress I am not going to complain, as I love the film, but it seems to me it is an ideal movie for the holiday season. Fortunately, unlike The Apartment, I think Love Actually is becoming regarded as a holiday classic, even if TV stations and cable channels neglect to show it over the holidays. Quite simply, I know a good many people who watch it every Yuletide (myself included)!

Another film not often regarded as a holiday movie is Die Hard (1988). Die Hard is set during the holiday season and given that a Christmas party is taking place the holiday does play a role in its plot. In fact, it is hard picturing it set during any other time of year. While I know of many who regard The Apartment and Love Actually as holiday movies, I know very, very few people who regard Die Hard as such. I suspect it is because it is an action movie.  The emphasis in Die Hard is not so much on holiday cheer as it is on action. Still, the fact remains that the movie does take place at Christmas and the holiday plays a role in its plot. For that matter, it does have subplots which fit the holiday (McClane's reconciliation with his wife, Powell's redemption).

While there are movies that are set at the holidays and in which the holidays are central to the plots that are not considered holiday movies, strangely enough there are movies that actually have little to do with Christmas beyond relatively few scenes that are considered such. Among these are Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Indeed, Meet Me in St. Louis takes place from the summer of 1903 to the spring of 1904. The movie then touches upon several seasons besides Christmas. Admittedly, the climax is set at Christmas, but the holiday itself only has little bearing on the plot. For all extents and purposes the Christmas ball of the climax could have been set at spring or summer with very little change to the plot. In fact, it can be argued that Halloween played a more pivotal role in the movie! Now while the holiday standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was introduced in the film, that really does not seem to me to be enough to qualify it as a holiday movie. As much as I have always enjoyed Meet Me in St. Louis, I fail to see why it is shown so much in December. It could easily be shown in October or March as well.

Similar to Meet Me in St. Louis is a movie considered one of the Christmas movies, Holiday Inn. The plot of Holiday Inn unfolds over roughly two years and covers much more than just the Yuletide. Indeed, while Christmas does play a pivotal role in its plot, so do many other holidays (including Valentine's Day and the 4th of July). It would be hard to argue against the film being shown at Christmas, but at the same time it seems to me that it could be played at nearly any holiday. Indeed, I rather doubt it was the intention of Paramount to create a Christmas film with Holiday Inn. Despite its close connection to the holiday now, it was originally released in August! Regardless, one could argue that Holiday Inn is a film for all holidays, not just the  holidays.

At least Meet Me in St. Louis  and Holiday Inn do touch upon Christmas. There is one film that at least the media connects to Christmas, if no one else does, that has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday. Every  year ABC shows The Sound of Music (1965) on or around Christmas Eve and several channels have done so before it. Despite this, The Sound of Music has no scenes set at Christmas, Christmas does not play a pivotal role in the film, nor do I think Christmas is even mentioned in the movie! The airing of The Sound of Music at the holidays actually does irritate me, not simply because I dislike the movie, but because it seems to me that they should be showing something that has more bearing on the holiday. While Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday Inn only touch upon Christmas, I can appreciate why they are shown at this time of year. I cannot understand why The Sound of Music is shown. If one is going to show The Sound of Music on Christmas Eve, then why not The Ten Commandments or Mary Poppins or Gunga Din?! Heck, Alien has much to do with the holidays as The Sound of Music.

In the end I suppose what is a holiday movie for any given person is largely a matter of perception. Indeed, despite my words regarding Holiday Inn above, I do see it as a Christmas movie, thus violating my own definition of the term. If some do not consider The Apartment  as a holiday film, then I assume it is because they do not perceive it as such. Of course, I am still puzzled to ABC and other television outlets considering The Sound of Music holiday fare, but then I also have trouble seeing "My Favourite Things" as a Christmas song too.... I suppose some things just defy explanation.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cyd Charisse For Christmas

I'm feeling a bit down tonight, so in lieu of a full fledged blog post I'll leave you with something much better--holiday themed pin ups featuring the leggy Cyd Charisse.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" by She & Him

One of my favourite versions of the classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is one of the latest. She & Him reverses the roles, with Zooey Deschanel taking the role of the wolf and M. Ward taking the role of the mouse. That having been said, I don't think Zooey would have to beg me to stay inside with her and away from the cold!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Favourite Modern Christmas Carols

Monday I posted a video of "Merry Christmas Will Do" by Material Issue. It happens to be one of my favourite modern Christmas carols (modern defined here as anything after 1960).  I then thought I should go ahead and share my top five favourite modern Christmas carols ("Merry Christmas Will Do" would be number six) in reverse order (from #5 to #1).

At number five is, of all things, a cover of a Mariah Carey song. If you're like me, then you did not particularly care for Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" nor any of its various covers over the years. Fortunately, it was several years ago I discovered it was actually a good song just waiting to be discovered, and it was one of my favourite bands who discovered it. Here then is My Chemical Romance's cover of "All I Want for Christmas is You."

At number four is "Don't Shoot Me, Santa" by The Killers. BTW, the video was directed by Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds

At number three is another cover song, although in this instance it is not a cover a Yuletide song. "Christmas is All Around" originated as a parody of The Troggs' "Love is All Around" in the movie Love Actually. In the context of the film "Christmas is All Around" is a holiday single released by washed up rock star Billy Mack, played by Bill Nighy. Although in the movie Billy consistently derides the song, I not only think it is very good, but possibly the best cover of "Love is All Around" ever performed.

At number two is "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon. The song was released in the United States in December 1971, not long before Christmas. As a result it failed to make an impact on the Billboard charts. Due to a publishing dispute its release in the United Kingdom was delayed, so that it was released in December 1972. There it did somewhat better, peaking at #4 on the UK singles chart. While it is one of my favourite holiday songs, I must confess I sometimes find myself crying when I hear it. John Lennon having been murdered in December, the song was receiving airplay at the time.

My favourite modern, holiday song of all time is "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. It was the only original song included on the 1963 Christmas compilation album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. Originally Ronnie Spector was meant to sing it, but her vocals seemed a bit lacking, so Darlene Love sung the song instead. Although it is now considered a classic (in December 2010 Rolling Stone named it number one in its list of the Greatest Rock and Roll Christmas Songs), "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" flopped on its initial release. It has since been covered several times by other artists and Darlene Love performs it each year on The Late Show with David Letterman

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Goodwill Towards Men?

Those of you living in the United States may have seen Best Buy's "Game On" adverts, in which people try to top Santa Claus when it comes to giving gifts. To many these commercials may seem like mildly amusing spots of no importance. As for myself, I find them somewhat disturbing. To me they portray gift giving as a competition, in which the importance in giving gifts is not their significance to the individual but instead the amount of money spent on gifts and the sheer number of gifts given. Indeed, to me they point to something that has disturbed me for some time. I think that the meaning of the holidays may well be getting lost in the crass commercialism and consumerism that now accompanies the season.

Of course, complaints about the commercialisation of Christmas are nothing new. Complaints about commercialism with regards to the Yuletide have existed as far back as the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street in 1947.  It seems to me that as the years have gone by such commercialism has grown even worse, to the point that not only is too much emphasis placed on the buying of expensive gifts, but people are becoming downright rude and even aggressive during the one time of year when they should be treating everyone else well. One need look no further than an incident this past Black Friday, in which a woman in Southern California pepper sprayed fellow shoppers at a WalMart simply because she wanted an Xbox gaming console. If this was simply an isolated incident one could simply dismiss it, but the plain truth is that acts of violence throughout the United States while shopping occur with alarming frequency on Black Friday and other times during the Christmas shopping season. Quite simply, it seems to me that people are putting more emphasis on buying expensive gifts than on the goodwill towards one's fellow man that is central to the season.

The phrase "goodwill to men (often accompanied by the phrase "peace on Earth") " has long been associated with Christmas. The line "peace on Earth, goodwill to men" occurs in various Christmas carols, most notably Longellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The phrase has its origins in Luke 2:14 from the Christian Bible, which reads "Glory to God, and on Earth peace, and goodwill towards men." That having been said, the idea of "goodwill towards men" during a holiday season in December probably pre-dates the advent of Christianity. Modern Christmas in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand owes a good deal to the pre-Christian, Germanic holiday called in Old English Géol and in Old Norse Jól--modern English Yule. Not only was Yule a time of gift giving and merriment, it was also a time of peace and goodwill. Violence appears to have been forbidden during the holiday. In Svarfdæla saga a man postponed a duel until three days after the Yuletide. Grettis Saga referred to Yule as "..greatest mirth and joyance among men." Even if one is not Christian (as I am not), to celebrate the holidays without expressing goodwill towards one's fellow man is then ignoring one of the most ancient, most central, and perhaps most important aspect of the season.

Of course, I suppose some might point out that we should always treat one's fellow man with goodwill, regardless of the time of year. I certainly cannot argue against that. That having been said, I see no harm in having a time of year when goodwill towards men is emphasised, so as to serve as a reminder of how we should behave all times during the year. Whether the pagan Yule of centuries ago or the Christmas of more recent centuries, I think that was one of the purposes the holiday served.  Sadly, I think it is this goodwill that has been lost in the crass commercialism and consumerism that developed during the late 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century. Quite simply, the emphasis is being placed entirely upon the wrong things during the holidays.

Here I must point out that I do not believe that gift giving is one of those wrong things being emphasised during the holiday season these days. Gift giving was a part of the pagan holiday of Yule and has been a part of Christmas for centuries. The problem is not an emphasis being placed on the giving of gifts, but on how much those gifts cost and how many gifts are given. Indeed, as a child it seems to me that gift giving was actually more common. One did not simply give gifts to those in one's nuclear family, but one's extended family as well. That having been said, the gifts given were not expensive Xboxes and IPhonees, but gifts of a much simpler nature. My aunts would bake cookies and candy to give as gifts during the holiday. My godmother always gave our family a fruitcake. As a child I received hand sewn Christmas stockings. As a child I appreciated all of these gifts. Even though they were not expensive, they showed that the individuals giving them had placed time and effort in creating them. Indeed, as an adult some of my most prized gifts have not been very expensive--DVDs of my favourite movies from the $5 bin at WalMart, a calendar of pinup art, and so on.

The problem is then not the gift giving at the holidays, but the idea that one should buy expensive gifts and buy many gifts with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed the average American for nearly the past 100 years. The purpose of giving gifts at the Yuletide is to show one's appreciation for others, not to show how much money one can spend or to buy a more expensive gift than others. Gift giving should be an extension of showing goodwill towards one's fellow men, not a competition to see whose gifts cost the most.

Sadly, I do not know if there is any way of returning to a time when goodwill played a significant role in the holidays without a total sea change in the way Madison Avenue and corporate America approaches the season. As long as companies insist on emphasising the cost of gifts and how much one buys, there will more incidents such as pepper spraying fellow shoppers just for an XBox and very little goodwill to be seen in sight. This is sad to me as not only in emphasising crass consumerism has Madison Avenue and corporate America reduced goodwill during the Yuletide, but in reducing the goodwill that should be inherent in the season they have also taken away much of its joy and fun as well.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Merry Christmas Will Do by Material Issue

One of my favourite rock 'n' roll Yuletide songs and one of the very few that is actually power pop--"Merry Christmas Will Do" by Material Issue

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Good Modern Holiday Movies

For many of us movie buffs it must sometimes seem that truly good holiday movies are a thing of the past. Indeed, the Yuletide films of the past thirty years often seem like a miserable lot. They range from romantic comedies that are mediocre at best to inane comedy fantasies to inept attempts to revive the themes of holiday classics of old. To those of us who do not want to watch Elf (2003) for the 200th time that it has been shown on the USA Network, it must seem that truly good Christmas movies are a thing of the past.

Fortunately, there have been a few, if very few, truly good movies that have touched upon the holidays since When Harry Met Sally was released in 1989. Here is my short list of truly good holiday movies by the year in which they were released.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): I honestly believe that there has never been a bad Muppet movie made. This is particularly true of The Muppet Christmas Carol. While many comedic re-tellings of Charles Dickens' classic have relied upon low humour and cheap laughs, like The Muppets' other movies The Muppet Christmas Carol is a class act all the way. Indeed, the movie actually follows Mr. Dickens' novella very closely, adding only a bit of comedy and a bit of song. Aside from The Muppets themselves, The Muppet Christmas Carol features an inspired bit of casting--Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge. As might be expected, Mr. Caine delivers a great performance. The Muppet Christmas Carol also has a great soundtrack, with songs written by Paul Williams. In the end, it could well be the only truly good adaptation of A Christmas Carol made in the past twenty years.

While You Were Sleeping (1995): Anyone who has read this blog know that I am not a huge fan of modern day romantic comedies. If good holiday movies are a rarity these days, good romantic comedies are even rarer. Most modern romantic comedies seem to me to be trite, shallow, and, well, not very funny. Fortunately, While You Were Sleeping is one oft he exceptions. Not only is While You Were Sleeping a good romantic comedy, but a good holiday movie as well. The film centres on Lucy Moderatiz (played by Sandra Bullock), a token taker for the Chicago Transit Authority, who saves a man's life on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the man is in a coma and Lucy is mistaken for his fiancee. As might be expected, complications upon complications develop from there.

 What sets While You Were Sleeping apart from other modern romantic comedies is that it has a very good script and an excellent cast featuring not only Miss Bullock, but Bill Pullman, Peter Boyle, Glynis Johns, and Jack Warden. In fact, the movie reminds me of the classic romantic, screwball comedies of old, so that would actually make a good companion piece to the classic romantic, screwball, holiday comedy Christmas in Connecticut (1945). Indeed, while many modern romantic comedies seem to be written exclusively for women, like the romantic comedies of old While You Were Sleeping can be enjoyed by both sexes with equal enthusiasm. 

Serendipity (2001): Fortunately, While You Were Sleeping is not the only good romantic comedy released in the past twenty years. It is not even the only good romantic, holiday film. There is also Serendipity. Indeed, Serendipity could be one of the romantic movies insofar as it deals with the existence of true love itself. The movie centres on Jonathan Trager (John Cusack), who meets Englishwoman Sara Thomas (Kate Beckinsale) during the Christmas shopping season. The two spend a pleasant evening together, but at the end Sara decides that they should let fate decide if they should be together. She writes her name in a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, while Jonathan writes his on a $5 bill. Seven years later Jonathan and Sara are in relationships with other people, which is naturally when that copy of Love in the Time of Cholera finds its way back to Jonathan.

Serendipity benefits from an excellent cast. Aside from the two leads (John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale), the cast features Jeremy Piven, Molly Shannon, and Eugene Levy. The film is also very well written, with fully developed characters rather than the cardboard cut outs that populate most modern romantic comedies. What is more, Serendipity is one of those few modern romantic comedies which both men and women can enjoy. Indeed, it is the only romantic comedy made in the past twenty years I can remember that is mostly told from the male point of view!

Love Actually (2003): Although it is often called a romantic comedy, Love Actually is in reality a comedy set during the Yuletide that follows ten different storylines exploring the various forms of love, from romantic love to familial love to friendship. As a result there is no single character who can truly be said to be a main character, so that Love Actually is very much a film with an ensemble cast. For decades it seemed to me that only Robert Altman could execute such a film and do it well, but Robert Curtis proved he could do such a film very well too. Indeed, he not only directed the film, but he wrote it as well.

Love Actually is such a well done film that it is actually hard to pick just one element that makes the film so great. It truly is more than the sum of its part. Mr. Curtis's screenplay is both intelligent and funny, with just enough sentiment to make the film touching without being schmaltzy. The film also has an incredible cast, including Bill Nighy as washed up rock star Billy Mack, Hugh Grant as a lovestruck prime minister of the United Kingdom, Liam Neeson as a stepfather coping with his wife's death and advising his stepson on how to handle a crush, and many others. The film also features some incredible photography from Michael Coulter. I don't believe London has ever looked so beautiful on film before or since. Of course, that brings me to another point. The film is almost entirely a British production, featuring a mostly British cast. This makes Love Actually a must watch film for any Anglophile. Here I must put in a word of warning that Love Actually is not exactly family viewing. There is material in the film that would be inappropriate for younger viewers.

Regardless, Love Actually is a very well done film that not only evokes the holiday spirit very well, but captures the essence of London and explores the various types of love in great fashion as well. Of the films I have mentioned here, it may well be the one destined to become a classic.

The Polar Express (2004): There can be no doubt that The Polar Express is an incredible technical achievement. Indeed, it was the first film ever almost entirely shot using performance capture technology. The end result is that for its time The Polar Express had the most realistic looking characters of any computer animated film.  Indeed, it may have been the realistic look of the movie's characters that alienated many critics at the time (as an example, Paul Clinton of CNN referred to the characters as "creepy"). Nearly a decade later, when such realism in computer animated films is much common, the film is much better appreciated and has developed a cult following.

Indeed, even at the time those critics who were a bit creeped out by the film's characters admitted that it had amazing visuals. Even today when computer animation is much more advanced, The Polar Express is still impressive visually. If The Polar Express was simply a visually stunning, but empty technical achievement, however, it would not have achieved cult status in the seven years since its release. Instead The Polar Express is a paen to Christmas of the past, at a time when crass consumerism had not yet taken over the holiday and goodwill to one's fellow man was still very much a part of the holiday. Although the time period is never made clear in the film, it would appear to be set sometime in the Fifties or Sixties. Herpolsheimer's department store is still the primary centre of holiday shopping in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the hometown of the protagonist), while the technology, fashion, and even the music (except for an anachronistic appearance by Steve Tyler--apparently Santa's elves had Aerosmith before the rest of us) point to an earlier era.

That is not to say that The Polar Express is simply another mindless exercise in glorifying Christmases of the past. It is a movie of some depth, even going so far to explore some of the darker aspects of the holiday, including the greed that often accompanies the receiving of gifts and the inequity of good, but poor children not always having the happiest of holidays. The film also has the benefit of truly great vocal performances by its cast, including Tom Hanks (in multiple roles as the Conductor, the film's protagonist, and Mr. C. himself) and Michael Jeter (in his last performance). In the end The Polar Express is a well done film that can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Late Great Joe Simon

Legendary comic book writer and artist Joe Simon died yesterday, 14, December 2011, at the age of 98.  With partner Jack Kirby, Mr. Simon created Captain America, The Boy Commandos, The Newsboy Legion, and The Fly. Messrs. Simon and Kirby virtually created the romance comic book genre with the title Young Romance in 1947. On his own Joe Simon created Blue Bolt, Brother Power, and Prez.

Joe Simon was born Hymie Simon in Rochester, New York on 11 October 1913. His mother disliked the name "Hymie" so much that she insisted on calling him "Joseph" until it was finally accepted as his name. Mr. Simon took to art while very young. He drew cartoons and comic strips for the newspaper at Benjamin Franklin High, which he attended. After he graduated from high school Mr. Simon took a job as assistant art director at The Rochester Journal-American. After two years he took job as an artist at The Syracuse Herald. At age 23 Joe Simon moved to New York City. His first job there was with Paramount Pictures, where he retouched publicity photos of movie stars. Mr. Simon also did freelance work for the various magazines published by McFadden Publications. It was the art director at McFadden Publications, Harlan Crandall, who recommend to Joe Simon that he could find plenty of work in the young industry of comic books. It was then that Joe Simon took a job with comic books packager Funnies Inc.

Among Mr. Simon's first comic books would be stories for a publisher who would have a significant impact on his life--Martin Goodman, the head of what would later become known as Marvel Comics. Joe Simon wrote stories for Daring Mystery Comics #1, January 1940. In doing so he created the characters The Firey Mask and Trojak the Tiger Man. While working for Funnies Inc. Mr. Simon's best known character may have been Blue Bolt, created for comic book publisher Novelty Press. Eventually Joe Simon would go to work for Fox Publications as an editor in chief, working on such titles as The Blue Beetle. It was at Fox Publications that Mr. Simon would meet artist Jack Kirby, the man who would become his business partner for many years and his friend for decades.

The team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon would leave Fox Publications to go to work for Martin Goodman at what would later become known as Marvel Comics. There Mr. Simon would become an editor; however, their biggest impact at the company, perhaps their biggest impact in the history of comic books, would be the creation of Captain America. It was in 1940 that Joe Simon made a sketch of a character he initially called "Super American." Mr. Simon decided the name would not work and soon renamed the character "Captain America." He gave Captain America a boy sidekick, named "Bucky" after his friend Bucky Pierson. Martin Goodman not only gave his approval for the character, but also dictated that he should debut in his own title (something unprecedented at the time). Captain America Comics soon became the company's best selling title (even selling more than such magazines as Time) and Captain America became the company's most popular character.

Unfortunately the success of Captain America would not guarantee that Simon and Kirby would remain with Martin Goodman. The pair believed that Mr. Goodman was not paying them the percentage of the profits from the character that he had promised. As a result the two of them moved to National Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) in 1941. It was at National Comics Inc. that Simon and Kirby would revamp the characters of Sandman and Manhunter. It was also at National Comics that they would create The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion. The team would also freelance for other companies as well, working on the first issue of Fawcett Publications' Captain Marvel Adventures.

During World War II Joe Simon enlisted in the Coast Guard while his partner Jack Kriby was drafted into the United States Army. With cartoonist Milt Gross, Mr. Simon would be assigned to create a comic book that would help drive up enlistment in the Coast Guard, Adventure is My Career. Following World War II Joe Simon and Jack Kirby resumed their partnership. The two would help Crestwood Publications develop a new comic book imprint, Prize Comics, under which they published a Western title, Boy's Ranch, and an early horror title, Black Magic. It was also under the Prize Comics imprint that the team created what is believed to be the first romance comic book, Young Romance. The team also created The Fighting American for Crestwood in 1954.

It would be a salesman at Crestwood who would encourage Simon and Kirby to found their own comic book company. Mainline Publications would founded in either 1953 or 1954. It would ultimately publish four titles: Bullseye (a Western title), Western Scout, Foxhole (a war title), and In Love (a romance title). Unfortunately, Mainline Publications would not prove successful and ended at the end of 1955. Worse yet, Crestwood Publications failed to pay Simon and Kirby for their work for the company. After the team's attorneys reviewed the company's finances, they determined Crestwood owed them $130,000 for work done over the past seven years. Crestwood paid them $10,000. At the same time the comic book industry was starting to fail in the wake of the moral panic over comic books in the early Fifties, which led to a slump in sales in the mid-Fifties. Simon and Kirby then dissolved their partnership, although the two remained friends.

While Jack Kirby remained in the comic book industry, Joe Simon went to work in commercial and advertising art. The two would reunite in 1959 when they collaborated on The Double Life of Private Strong and created The Fly at Archie Comics. In 1960 Mr. Simon founded the satirical magazine Sick, providing the magazine with material for over a decade.  In the Sixties he also worked as an artist for the advertising agency of Burstein and Newman. In 1964 he became the art director for Burstein, Phillips, and Newman. In 1966 Simon and Kirby reunited to work for Harvey Comics. There they revived The Fighting American for a single issue. Mr. Simon also worked on Harvey's titles Unearthly Spectaculars and Double-Dare Adventures.

In 1968 Joe Simon would return to National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics Inc.). There he created Brother Power the Geek.  In 1973 he teamed with artist Jerry Grandenetti to create Prez, a series about a teenage United States president. In 1974 Simon and Kirby reunited for one last time, working on a new Sandman title for National Periodical Publications. With Jerry Grandenetti, Mr. Simon would do two one-shots in the company's try-out title, 1st Issue Special: The Green Team: Boy Billionaires and Outsiders.

In 2003 Joe Simon reached an agreement with Marvel Comics whereby he would receive royalties for the merchandising and licensing of Captain America and he and the late Jack Kirby would always be credited as the character's creator.

If Joe Simon had only created Captain America and done nothing else, he would still have had an enormous impact on comic books. As it is, both in combination with Jack Kirby and on his own, Joe Simon would have an enormous impact on comic books in the Golden Age and later. In fact, it is quite possible that the only man to have more impact on comic books than Messrs. Simon and Kirby was the legendary Will Eisner. Not only did Simon and Kirby create Captain America, they also created the two most popular boy gang features (The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion), created the first romance title (Young Romance), created an early horror title (Black Magic), and much more. Of course, the reason Joe Simon would have such an impact on comic books was simple. Both with and without Jack Kirby, Joe Simon's work was always excellent. In the Golden Age and later Mr. Simon created stories and art that was far ahead of many of his peers. Joe Simon was utterly unique in the field of comic books and I doubt the industry will ever see another writer and artist like him ever again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bert Schneider Passes On

Bert Schneider, who was executive producer on The Monkees with Bob Rafelson and produced such films as Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Picture Show (1971), passed Monday, 12 December 2011 at the age of 78 from natural causes.

Bert Schneider was born on 5 May 1933 in New York City. He was the son of Columbia Pictures executive Abe Schneider. He attended Cornell University, but dropped out. He later went to work for his father, who was then the head of Screen Gems, the television division of Columbia Pictures. In 1965 Mr. Schneider left Screen Gems and founded Raybert Productions with Bob Rafelson. Raybert Productions' first project was the television series The Monkees. The Monkees  drew heavily upon The Beatles' movies A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), as well as the Marx Brothers' films, the French New Wave, and other diverse sources. Although The Monkees would not do well in the ratings, the show would prove to be a lasting success.  It would be rerun on both CBS and ABC on Saturday mornings before entering a very successful run in syndication. It would eventually be rerun on MTV in the Eighties, creating a whole new Monkees craze, and would later be released on DVD.

The success of The Monkees would lead Bert Schneider and Bert Rafelson into the motion picture industry. Their first film, Head (1968) starring The Monkees (directed by Mr. Rafelson), would bomb at the box office, but would later become a cult film with its fair share of critical acclaim. Their next film would be both a box office and a critical success. Easy Rider  (1969) was not only a box office success, but proved to be one of the most influential movies of the past forty years.

 Over the next several years Bert Schneider would produce several critically acclaimed movies over the years, including Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), the documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), Days of Heaven (1978), and Broken English (1981). With Bob Rafelson, Mr. Schneider would win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for The Monkees in 1967 and, with Peter Davis, he would win teh Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Hearts and Minds.

Bert Schneider was one of the mavericks who shook up Hollywood in the late Sixties. Along with such figures as Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Philip Kaufman, and others, Mr. Schneider was a leader in "New Hollywood," a movement in the late Sixties and the early Seventies in writers and directors controlled the creative content of their movies. As a result, films produced by "New Hollywood" often dealt with subjects never covered by the old Hollywood studios and even dealt with the counter-culture. In the end the American movie industry would be changed forever. Indeed, while the pioneers of the "New Hollywood" movement generally worked within the studios, the movement would lead to the development of the independent film industry as we know today.

Not only was Bert Schneider a leader in New Hollywood, but he produced some very influential films. Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, and even Head would have a lasting impact that is felt today. Indeed, the influence of all four films can still be seen in independent films to this day. All four films told unconventional stories on relatively small budgets, thus paving the way not only for New Hollywood but the independent films of the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts.

Of course, here it must be pointed that, along side Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider was a revolutionary even when he was an executive producer on The Monkees. Too often The Monkees has been dismissed as a mere imitation of A Hard Day's Night. Not only did The Monkees actually owe more to Help! than A Hard Day's Night, but it would go far beyond either film in terms of surrealism and stylistic touches. The Monkees incorporated touches from the French Nouvelle Vague and often utilised such techniques as slow motion, fast motion, solarisation, distorted focus, and so on. Not only was The Monkees utterly unique at the time it first aired, but there has never been another show quite like it since its debut.  The show would have a lasting impact, particularly in the development of rock video.

Speaking for myself, I have to say I cannot measure the impact Bert Schneider probably had on my life. He produced three of my favourite movies of all time: Head, Easy Rider, and Five Easy Pieces. What is more, he produced my favourite sitcom of all time, The Monkees. Ironically, it is probably The Monkees that had the most impact on me. Not only would the show influence my tastes in sitcoms for the rest of my life, but it had a huge impact on my tastes in music as well. If I am a power pop fan today, it is not only due to The Beatles and The Who, but due to The Monkees as well. I then owe both Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson a good deal for what I am today.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gift Ideas For the Vintage Male

The holidays are a time of gift giving and it is often the case that people are puzzled as to what to buy the men in their lives. Fortunately, this is much easier if one has a vintage male in his or her life. While the average male can present even other men with problems when it comes to buying gifts, the vintage male is much easier to buy for.

Of course, here I suppose I should define what a vintage male is. A vintage male is a man who is not only fascinated by earlier eras, but whose tastes often run to those eras too. While most vintage males have a broad interest in the past, they will usually gravitate towards one era or another. Using myself as an example, while I love the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, it is the Sixties that has always fascinated me. Most of my favourite bands come from that era, including The Beatles (my favourite band of all time), The Who, The Kinks, The Monkees, and so on. Many of my favourite movies also come from that era, particularly British kitchen sink dramas and other British films form the early to mid-Sixties. I even love the fashion from the era. Given a choice between dressing like Fred Astaire in the Thirties or Terence Stamp in the Sixties, I would choose to dress like Mr. Stamp. Regardless, the fact that most vintage males are drawn to one era over others makes buying gifts for them relatively easy.

Before I go on to what would be good gift ideas for vintage males, I should point out what not to buy as a gift for a vintage male. I know this is true of myself and it seems to hold true for most of my fellow vintage males, but it is a good idea to follow when buying gifts for them: except for clothing and toiletries do not buy them anything practical. Unless the vintage male in your life simply enjoys working in the shop or fixing things, do not buy them tools. As much as Black and Decker in their adverts might like you to believe that all men would like nothing more than a band saw, chances are unless your vintage male is also Mr. Fix-It, the gift won't be appreciated. My attitude towards such things is twofold. First, I can buy tools myself. Second, to me buying a tool for a man is something like buying a blender for a woman--it's a gift based on gender stereotypes that shows not much thought was put into the gift!

Ruling out anything practical as a gift for the vintage male, then what should one buy him? I think the following are good ideas.

Books: Books are perhaps the easiest gift one can buy the vintage male. Not only do most vintage males I know love to read, but since they are usually interested in certain subjects and certain eras, they are very easy to buy books for. Using myself as an example, I have a small library of books dealing with Swinging London (everything from the Mod subculture to the Kray Twins), as well as a rather large number of biographies on various movie stars. When buying books for a vintage male as a gift, then, one simply buys books on what interests him. If the vintage male in one's life is a huge fan of The Who, then he will probably appreciate books on the band. If the vintage male in one's life always fancied Grace Kelly, then he would probably appreciate a biography on her.

Of course, so far I have discussed non-fiction. Fiction can be a bit trickier when it comes to buying gifts for the vintage male. Most of us have our favourite genres of fiction we read and others that we cannot stand. This can become even more complicated when one takes into account the various authors a vintage male might like or dislike. As an example, I have loved fantasy fiction since I was a lad. I love Michael Moorcock, Stephen R. Donaldson, and, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien. That having been said, I think fantasy author Terry Brooks is a total hack. In other words, just because a vintage male likes novels about vampires does not mean he will appreciate The Twilight Saga as a gift! If one considers buying a vintage male fiction, then, one should not only learn what genres he likes, but what authors as well!

Classic Films or Television Programmes: Speaking for myself, I would rather have a DVD of a film I dearly love from the $5.00 bin at WalMart (or the equivalent at Tesco in the UK) than an expensive piece of jewellery I might never wear. One of my most prized Yuletide gifts I ever received was a set of episodes from The Adventures of Robin Hood my brother gave me several years ago. He only paid about $5.00 to $6.00 for the set, but I prize it more than I would have a much more expensive gift. The reasons are simple. The Adventures of Robin Hood has been one of my favourite shows of all time and it shows that my brother actually put some thought into the gift. Indeed, those episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood actually helped me get through a very bad break up several years ago!

Of course, here I must point out that when buying classic films or TV shows for a vintage male, one must take into account his tastes in film and television. This goes beyond catering to the specific eras in which he in interested, but also take into account the particular genres he likes. For example, let us say one is buying a DVD as a gift for a vintage male who is fascinated by the Forties, but who also likes science fiction and dislikes romance movies. The vintage male in our example might well appreciate a DVD of Forbidden Planet, even though it was released in the Fifties, more than he would a copy of Now Voyager, even though it was released in the Forties (personally I love both movies). Quite simply, one should be familiar with a vintage male's viewing habits before buying him any DVDs!

Classic Music: Just as I would rather have a DVD of a favourite movie than a much more expensive gift, I would also prefer a copy of a favourite album than a much more expensive gift. Most vintage males love music and like me would appreciate a CD of their favourite album. That having been said, in some ways buying music as a gift is in some ways trickier than buying movies. In my experience musical tastes tend to vary more in people than tastes in any other medium. What is more, musical tastes in any given person can be very broad, embracing several different genres of music, to very narrow, embracing only a few or even one genre of music. Using myself as an example, I have very broad tastes in music. While my favourite genre of music would probably be power pop, I also love heavy metal, mid-20th Century pop (think Doris Day and Frank Sinatra), jazz, rhythm and blues, and many others. In fact, the only three genres I actively hate are rap, modern day country, and disco, and there are even a few songs in the latter two genres I like. I would be as happy with Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours as I would My Chemical Romance's Danger Days: The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys. That having been said, not every vintage male has tastes as broad as mine. I have a friend whose tastes run, quite simply, to classic rock. He likes Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and most all rock 'n' roll produced before 1980. His tastes really don't go beyond the classic rock genre, so that buying him a Frank Sinatra album, let alone a Snoop Dog album, would probably be a very bad idea!

As with DVDs, then, one should know something of a vintage male's tastes in music before buying him an album as gift. One of my most prized Yuledite gifts as a lad was my first copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which my sister bought me. I don't think I would have appreciated it quite as if she had bought me a Conway Twitty album...

Alcohol: Most vintage males appreciate the finer things in life, so that unless he is a teetotaller, he will appreciate fine liquor as a gift. Here I must stress the word fine. Even if the vintage male in one's life drinks Budweiser regularly, I doubt he will appreciate a case of it for Christmas or Hanukkah. Again, as with movies and music, one should put some thought into a gift of alcohol. Tastes in liquor tend to vary from person to person, even brother to brother. My favourite liquor is Tennessee bourbon, although I also enjoy wine and mead. My brother doesn't particularly care for bourbon, Tennessee or otherwise, and very much prefers mead or wine. And when it comes to wine, he prefers white wine to red wine. One should obviously find out what sorts of liquor a vintage male likes before buying some for him as a gift.

Here I must point out that when buying liquor as a gift that quality is not always equal to price. Here in Missouri our German wineries produce many fine wines that taste much better than the more expensive wines produced in the California wineries (all of which taste like vinegar to me). The fact that more expensive liquor often does not taste as well as less expensive liquor also holds true for bourbon, gin, vodka, and practically every sort of alcohol under the sun. That having been said sometimes cheap alcohol does taste much worse than the more expensive alcohol. I would not giving recommend giving MD 20/20 to anyone except perhaps to one's worst enemy.

Of course, with alcohol one has concerns that one does not have with DVDs or CDs. Quite simply, one should never give liquor as a gift to anyone with a drinking problem.  Obviously giving Jack Daniels Black Label No. 7 to an alcoholic is not a good idea.

Clothing: As I pointed out above, most vintage males love the finer things in life and this includes clothing. Indeed, it is one of the few practical gifts that a vintage male would appreciate. The problem is that clothing can cost a good deal, making it a very impractical gift if you are on a limited budget. A good three piece suit can cost $600 to over $1000. Even a fine shirt can cost anywhere from $25 to over $100. Obviously a lot of clothing would be a very expensive gift if one is part of the middle class. That having been said, however, this does not mean that one cannot buy clothing as a gift. While this is not true of all vintage males, many of us appreciate ties, the finest of which can be bought even if one is on a budget. While suits may be out of the reach of most of us in the middle class as a Yuletide gift, one can often find very good shirts through EBay, Amazon, and other online venues at a much cheaper price than one would in the stores. I've actually found Ben Sherman shirts at EBay for $15 that would generally run for as high as $79 in a store.

Here I must point out that as with music and DVDs, one should take into account the tastes of the vintage male for whom one is buying. My fashion sense runs more towards the Mods of mid-Sixties England, so that a skinny tie or a Ben Sherman shirt would be ideal for me. That having been said, if a vintage male's favourite era is the Forties, he might appreciate the skinny tie, but he might not care much for a Ben Sherman shirt! Beyond taking into account tastes in clothing, I must add one more caveat with regards to buying clothes as gifts for the vintage male. Do not buy him socks! It seems to me that among men socks are perhaps the least appreciated gifts of them all. I suspect it goes back to when we were all lads and the first Christmas gift from our parents we always opened was, well, socks! Men, like boys, would rather have toys.

Jewellery: If television adverts are to be believed, jewellery is something men give women. That having been said, men like jewellery too, especially vintage males. Of course, as with clothing, jewellery can sometimes be costly. Obviously the average person is not going to be able to afford to buy the vintage male in his or her life a diamond ring. That having been said, there are many more affordable choices. A ring with the vintage male's birthstone will be more affordable than one with, say, a ruby or a diamond as the stone. Similarly, there is a wide array of jewellery available to men that is not traditionally worn by women. Very handsome tie tacks and cuff links may be found at affordable prices and may often be more appreciated than a more expensive ring, especially if the vintage male in one's life loves clothing.

Of course, when buying jewellery for the vintage male, one must take into account his tastes. I have always preferred silver to gold  and I have never liked big, gaudy stones. My brother tends to prefer gold to sliver, although like myself he doesn't care for big, gaudy stones. Similarly, while some men might love cuff links, they might not particularly care for rings. One should definitely go to the trouble of finding out what the vintage male likes in jewellery before buying him any.

Toiletries: Most vintage males I know like to be clean and like to smell good. Various toiletries would be a good idea as gifts for the vintage male. Of course, here I must add a word of warning. Since cologne is one of those stereotypical gifts we all seemed to buy our fathers as children, no toiletry should ever be the only gift one gives a vintage male for the holidays. Even if the vintage male for whom one bought the cologne or bath wash appreciates the gift, the fact remains that it could be perceived as a gift to which one did not place much thought. If one is going to buy  vintage male cologne or another toiletry as a gift, then, make sure it is to accompany another gift, such as a DVD, CD, or shirt.

Of course, here I must point out that tastes in cologne and other toiletries tend to vary more even than tastes in music do. And often women and men will disagree on what smells good. I had a girlfriend who loved the smell of Axe (Lynx in the UK). Personally I think it makes one smells too perfumey--I much prefer Old Spice! If one wants to buy any man cologne, let alone the often more picky vintage male, one should probably find out what he likes first.

Here I must stress that this is hardly a complete list and vintage males do vary a good deal in what they might like as a gift. Among the various things I like are old guns, but I very seriously doubt that every vintage male would appreciate a vintage Colt M1911 as a present! While I think the advice I offer above is quite good, the best piece of advice I can offer anyone seeking to buy a gift for a vintage male is simply to get to know his interests, what he likes and dislikes, and what he thinks would make a good gift. If one does that, chances are he will appreciate any gift one buys him. And he will certainly like it better than a band saw or another pair of socks!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Alan Sues R.I.P.

Comic actor Alan Sues, best known as part of the cast of Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, passed on 1 December 2011 at the age of 85.

Mr. Sues was born on 7 March 1926 in Ross, California. As a teenager he jumped a fence at Paramount Studios and watched a scene from Holiday Inn being shot. It made such an impression on him that he decided to go into acting. Alan Sues served in World War II in the United States Army. He studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Mr. Sues made his debut on Broadway in 1955 in Tea and Sympathy. He made his movie debut in The Helen Morgan Story in 1957. In the Sixties he appeared in such films as The Wheeler Dealers (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), and The Americanisation of Emily (1964). On television he appeared on The Twilight Zone, The Wild Wild West, The Doris Day Show, and Love American Style. In 1968 he joined the cast of Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. His best known characters on the show were Uncle Al the Kiddie's Pal, a children's show hot with a constant hangover, and Big Al, an overly effeminate sportscaster. While on Laugh In he began appearing in commercials for Peter Pan Peanut Butter as a very flamboyant Peter Pan.

In the Seventies Alan Sues appeared on Broadway again in Sherlock Holmes, playing Professor Moriarty. He appeared in such shows as CHIPS. Time Express, and Fantasy Island, as well as the movie Oh Heavenly Dog.  In the Eighties he was the voice of The Dragon in The Reluctant Dragon (1981) and he appeared in the movie Snowballing (1984). He appeared on television in The Brady Brides and Punky Brewster. In the Nineties he guest starred on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and in the film Lord of the Road (1999). In 2009 he appeared in the film Artificially Speaking.

Alan Sues was one of the reasons that Rowan and Martin's Laugh In remains a classic. He was outrageously funny, with humour that just seemed to come non-stop. This suited him perfectly to the fast pace of Laugh In. Mr. Sues' flamboyant brand of humour was put to good use elsewhere as well, whether it was the commercial for Peter Pan or his bit as the Court Clerk in Move Over, Darling. He was a very funny man and he will be missed.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ken Russell Passes On

Flamboyant director Ken Russell passed on 27 November 2011 at the age of 84.

Ken Russell was born on 3 July 1927 in in Southampton, Hampshire. He spent much of his childhood watching movies in the cinema. He attended Pangbourne College, a nautical school in Pangbourne, Berkshire. He served for a time in the Merchant Navy and in the Royal Air Force. He studied dance and then in his late twenties he became a photographer. It was because of his freelance photography that in 1959 he was hired by the BBC. There he made several documentaries, including several segments of Monitor and Omnibus (the British series, not to be confused with the American series of the same time). He also directed several of his own short films, starting with Peepshow in 1956.

It was in 1963 that Mr. Russell directed his first feature film, French Dressing, which was very loosely based on Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman. The film was a critical and box office failure, leading Ken Russell to continue his work at the BBC. His second feature film would be a bit more successful, the third instalment of the Harry Palmer series, Billion Dollar Brain (1967) starring Michael Caine. He followed Billion Dollar Brain with one of his best known films, Women in Love (1969). Women in Love would not only establish Mr. Russell as a director, but also one who was not afraid of controversy and even self indulgence. Arguably it was in the Seventies that Ken Russell was in his prime. It was in that decade that he directed his controversial film The Devils (1971), The Boy Friend (1971), Tommy (1975--an adaptation of The Who's rock opera), Liztomania (1975), Valentino (1977), and Altered States (1980).

Mr. Russell's output slowed in the Eighties. In that decade he directed such films as Crimes of Passion (1984), Gothic (1985), and Lair of the White Worm (1988). The Nineties saw Mr. Russell work primarily in television, directing only two feature films in that decade: Whore (1991) and Lion's Mouth (2000). The Naughts saw Ken Russell return to feature films, directing such movies as The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century (2002), Revenge of the Elephant Man (2004), and Boudica Bites Back (2009).

Ken Russell has always been a director about whom I have had mixed feelings. In my opinion he was capable of brilliant work, but at the same time he was given all too much to such self indulgence that some of his films just do not make a whole lot of sense. For me Mr. Russell was at his best when he reined his more flamboyant tendencies on concentrated on the film's script and characters instead of filling the screen with bizarre imagery. Mr. Russell could make very good, if outré movies which I enjoyed very much. I am still impressed by such movies as Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy, Altered States, Crimes of Passion, Gothic, and Lair of the White Worm. That having been said, he could also make movies that even someone with as often odd tastes as myself could not stand (Lisztomania comes foremost to my mind). Despite Ken Russell's flaws, I do have to confess that he was a genius and even in his worst films there were often amazing visuals.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Late Great Jerry Robinson

Jerry Robinson, the legendary cartoonist credited with creating The Joker and co-creating both Robin and Alfred in the Batman comic book feature, passed today at the age of 89. In addition to working in comic books, newspaper strips, and political cartoons, Mr. Robinson was also a highly regarded comics historian and an early creators' rights advocate.

Jerry Robinson was born on 1 January 1922 in Trenton, New Jersey. At the age of 17 Mr. Robinson was selling ice cream at a resort in the Catskills when Batman co-creator Bob Kane noticed the white painter's jacket he was wearing, which was covered with his own illustrations. Mr. Kane offered Mr. Robinson a job working on the Batman feature as an inker and letterer. Robinson would soon become an important fixture on the Batman feature, to the point that he probably contributed more to the character's mythos than anyone except Bill Finger. He is credited with having co-created the character of Robin with Bill Finger, the character of Alfred with Bob Kane, the character of Two-Face with Bill Finger, and the villains Tweedledee and Tweedeledum with Don Cameron. While there has been some dispute over the creation of the character, most comic book historians credit Jerry Robinson with the creation of The Joker.

A year after Jerry Robinson had been hired by Bob Kane, he and Bill Finger were hired away by Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would become DC Comics Inc.). While he would work on other features for the company, he continued to work on Batman until 1947. Mr. Robinson would also work for other comic book publishers, including work on London for Lev Gleason,  and The Green Hornet for Harvey from 1942 to 1943. At National Periodical Publications (the company that would become DC Comics Inc.) he worked with friend Mort Meskin on The Vigilante and Johnny Quick from 1946 to 1949. From 1944 to 1946 Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin ran their own studio that produced material for the short lived Spark Publications, including Atoman.

In the Fifties Jerry Robinson taught at the School of Visual Arts. He also worked at  the company that would eventually become Marvel on everything from romance to war comic books. With writer Sheldon Stark he created the newspaper strip Jet Scott, which started in 1953. In 1963 Jerry Robinson created his long running political newspaper strip Still Life. A year later he created another newspaper strip, Flubs and Fluffs. He also created the political comic strip Life with Robinson. Between Still Life and Life with Robinson, Jerry Robinson was a political cartoonist for 32 years. In the Sixties he contributed to several Dell comic books, primarily such TV show adaptations as Rocky and Bullwinkle and Lassie.

In 1973 he published The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, a history of newspaper comic strips.In 1978 he founded the Cartoonists and Writers Syndicate. In the Seventies Jerry Robinson would prove pivotal in the fight for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to receive compensation from DC Comics Inc. for their creation. He would be an advocate for creators' rights ever since then. In 1999 Jerry Robinson co-created the manga series Astra with Shojin Tanaka and Ken-ichi Oishi.

Jerry Robinson would also create one of the most impressive collections of Golden Age comic book art ever to exist. As a young man working in the comic book industry he would retrieve the work of his peers from the trash and preserve them.  In the end he kept pieces that would be displayed at museums and even sold at auction for very high prices.

As mentioned earlier, there was some dispute over whether Jerry Robinson created The Joker. Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman with Bob Finger, always maintained that Bill Finger brought him a photograph of Conrad Veidt from the movie The Man Who Laughs (1928) and that he created the character based on that. According to Jerry Robinson, he sketched a Joker playing card as a part of the concept of a new Batman villain. He showed the sketch to Bill Finger, who told him that it reminded him of Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs. Mr. Finger then brought in photographs from the movie for Mr. Robinson. Mr. Robinson then created the visual look of The Joker based on those photos, while Mr. Finger fleshed out the character. Most comic book historians agree with Jerry Robinson's account of the creation of The Joker. Indeed, it must be pointed out that until the Sixties Bob Kane denied that Bill Finger even had a role in the creation of Batman, making his reliability somewhat questionable.

Even Bob Kane would not dispute that Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson created the character of Robin. Mr. Finger suggested to Jerry Robinson that they create a character with whom youngsters could identify. Jerry Robinson  took inspiration from the movie The Adventures of Robin Hood and named the new character "Robin." The costume was based on  N. C. Wyeth’s illustration “Robin Meets Maid Marian.” The character proved successful, to the point that he inspired a trend towards youthful sidekicks in the Golden Age of  comic books.

Regardless, even if Jerry Robinson had not created The Joker, he would have a lasting impact on Batman, having a role in the creation of Robin, Alfred, and Two-Face. In fact, even though Bob Kane co-created Batman, it is arguable that Batman as we know him to day (indeed, as he was known by 1943), is largely the product of Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Gardner Fox (the legendary writer who first introduced gadgets such as the Batarang into the feature). Beyond Jerry Robinson's contributions to Batman, it must be acknowledged that he was a great cartoonist. Still Life and Life with Robinson number among the best political comic strips of all time. He also contributed art to books and even to Playbill. He took photographs worldwide, many of which have been displayed for exhibition. As if that was not enough, he was a great comics historian. Beyond amassing an impressive collection of Golden Age art, he also wrote the book on the history of newspaper comic strips.

Going beyond Mr. Robinson's work as a cartoonist, he was also a pioneer in the field of creators' rights. It was largely due to Jerry Robinson that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would receive from DC Comics Inc. a deal that gave them annual payments and even provided for their heirs. And it was after repeated calls from Jerry Robinson that DC Comics Inc. finally agreed to give Messrs. Siegel and Shuster credit on all works involving Superman. Jerry Robinson also worked on behalf of oppressed political cartoonists worldwide.

In fact, Jerry Robinson was something much rarer than an extremely talented and legendary cartoonist. He was by all accounts a true gentleman. Everyone I know who ever had the opportunity to meet or speak with him have spoken of his kindness and decency. Artist Neal Adams, who worked with Jerry Robinson in the legal battle to get compensation for Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster for the creation of Superman, said in a statement to The Los Angeles Times,  ”Jerry didn’t hesitate a moment, ever, if he had a chance to help someone.” Jerry Robinson was a man who genuinely cared for others, something which was shown in his fight for creators' rights and his work on behalf of oppressed political cartoonists.

As for myself, I owe Jerry Robinson more than I can ever know. It is not a simple case that Batman is my favourite comic book character of all time and Mr. Robinson made valuable contributions to Batman's mythos. The simple fact is that Batman got me into comic books, which led to me wanting to write comic books, which led to me simply wanting to be a writer. To a very large degree, then, I owe much of what I am to Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. The simple fact is that without Jerry Robinson I might never have become a writer. Indeed, this blog would not even exist. I have no idea if Mr. Robinson can hear me, but on behalf of all of us whom he inspired, I would like to say, "Thank you."