Saturday, July 16, 2011

Doctor Who and Rose: "Run to Me"

Those of you who are familiar with Doctor Who know that ever since the show debuted in 1963, The Doctor has been accompanied by a number of companions, most of whom have been young and female. And while most of The Doctor's companions have been very attractive, The Doctor never once fell in love with any of them--that is, until Rose Tyler.

Played by singer and actress Billie Piper, Rose was The Doctor's first companion when the show was revived in 2005. As the series progressed it became readily apparent that Rose was in love with The Doctor. In fact, she was the first companion to ever express the desire to remain with him for the rest of her life. And even given The Doctor's tendency to play his cards close to his vest, it would eventually become apparent The Doctor was in love with Rose too. To me the romance (platonic though it was) between The Doctor and Rose is one of the great romances in the history of English language television.

It is for that reason I decided to create a music video which uses clips from Doctor Who centred on their relationship. The song I used is "Run to Me" by power pop band Material Issue. The song was originally recorded by The Bee Gees for their album To Whom It May Concern and released as a single from that album in April 1972. Material Issue recorded their version for The Bee Gees tribute album Melody Fair, released in 1994.

Here I must point out that this is the first video I have ever edited (I studied to become a director, not an editor). I did it on a compute with barely enough memory to handle video editing (I really need to upgrade my RAM) and using Windows Movie Maker at that (not the best tool for editing video). I then apologise if the quality isn't always what it should be!

Here, then, without further ado, are The Doctor, Rose, and Material Issue with "Run to Me."

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Game of Love and Death: Margaret Lockwood and The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Director Alfred Hitchcock was best known for his blonde leading ladies. Indeed, as a lad discovering the movies of Alfred Hitchcock I had thought that every single leading lady in his films was blonde. I was then in for a bit of a surprise when I first watched The Lady Vanishes (1938). Here was a film in which the leading lady was decidedly not blonde. Indeed, the leading lady reminded me of Vivien Leigh, on whom I had a crush ever since I first watched Gone With the Wind (1939).  It should come as no surprise, then, that I was immediately taken with Margaret Lockwood, the brunette beauty who starred in The Lady Vanishes as Iris, the wealthy young playgirl on a train who investigates the disappearance of an elderly passenger (Dame May Whitty).

While Margaret Lockwood was new to me upon my first viewing of The Lady Vanishes, she was hardly new to film when she starred in the movie. She had made her debut on stage at the age of only 12, playing a fairy in a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Holborn Empire in London. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her film debut in the 1935 version of Lorna Doone. By the time she starred in The Lady Vanishes, she had already appeared in several films, including Dr. Syn (1937) and Bank Holiday (1938).  Along with Bank Holiday (1938), it was arguably The Lady Vanishes which would propel Miss Lockwood's career to the astronomical heights it reached in the Forties (at least in the United Kingdom).

The Lady Vanishes  was based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.  It was that same year that Ted Black of Gainsborough Pictures purchased the rights to the novel at the insistence of screenwriter Frank Laudner. Mr. Laudner and his writing partner Sidney Gillat then set to work on a screenplay. American expatriate director Roy William Neil was assigned to the project and in August 1936 a crew as sent to Yugoslavia to shoot exteriors for the film. Unfortunately, Fred Gunn, the assistant director shooting the exteriors, broke his ankle in an accident. It was not long before the police investigating the accident learned that Mr. Gunn was part of a British film crew. At the time Yugoslavia insisted on approving any film made in the country, lest it give less than stellar impression of the nation. After reading the first few pages of The Lady Vanishes, Mr. Gunn and the film crew were promptly deported. In the end the whole experience would result in Gainsborough cancelling the film.

Fortunately, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat would find a way for the film to be made.  Mr Gilliat was working as an assistant to author and screenwriter Walter Mycroft, who knew and had worked with Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Mycroft got the script to Mr. Hitchcock . Upon reading the script, Mr. Hitchcock cancelled all of his projects and insisted on filming The Lady Vanishes. Indeed, the director only insisted on minor changes from the original script.

As odd as it might seem now, Margaret Lockwood may not have been the only actress considered for the role of Iris. Newspapers at the time reported both Lilli Palmer and Nova Pilbearm were being considered for the part. It was Ted Black who suggested Margaret Lockwood for the role. She was  already under contract with Gainsborough and she was already popular with audiences. Alfred Hitchcock gave Miss Lockwood a screen test and she got the part. Margaret Lockwood was actually a fan of Ethel Lina White's novels, which generally dealt with young women who become involved in some sort of intrigue.

Margaret Lockwood's leading man would be Sir Michael Redgrave. The two actors did not know each and, in fact, would not meet until a charity ball at the Royal Albert Hall right before shooting commenced. It was on the first day of filming that Alfred Hitchcock decided to shoot the scene in which Iris and Gilbert (Sir Michael Redgrave's character) meet. Because of the particular scene in which Mr. Hitchcock shot them first, like their characters, then, Miss Lockwood and Mr Redgrave were somewhat unsure of each other for a short time. In the end, however, they got along quite well.  Margaret Lockwood also got along very well with Alfred Hitchcock. Having worked with Carol Reed, who was very detailed in his direction, she was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Hitchcock hardly offered any direction at all.

The Lady Vanishes was shot in a little over a month, on a shoestring budget, and shot on a set that was only ninety feet long.  Despite these hurdles, The Lady Vanishes became a critical and financial success in both the United Kingdom and the United States. In fact, it would be the success of The Lady Vanishes  that would allow Alfred Hitchcock to move to the States. Along with Bank Holiday it would also bring Margaret Lockwood one step closer to superstardom. After Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes, Miss Lockwood would generally play the lead in her films. What is more, she would star in some of the most successful British films of the Forties.

Of course, today Miss Lockwood is well known for playing the villainess in many films, the best known being The Wicked Lady (1945). In the Thirties, however, she was still playing sensible, down to Earth girls. In some respects, the character of Iris Henderson is no different. Indeed, she is returning to England after an extended holiday to get married. When elderly, fellow passenger Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) disappears and everyone denies her existence, however, Iris proves to be a very different character from those Miss Lockwood had previously played. In fact, she proves to be an intelligent and very capable investigator.  Iris was strong willed, determined, and independent. She corresponds quite well to Edna Best's character, Jill Lawrence, in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and in some ways can be seen as a forerunner to even more independent heroines such as Modesty Blaise in comic strips and Mrs. Cathy Gale and Mrs. Emma Peel on the TV series The Avengers.

Bank Holiday and The Lady Vanishes were turning points in Margaret Lockwood's career. By the mid-Forties she would be the most popular star in Britain.  The films in which she appeared were among the most successful in the United Kingdom at the time, including The Stars Look Down (1939), Night Train to Munich (1943), and, of course, The Wicked Lady (1945). Of course, The Lady Vanishes may not have simply given Margaret Lockwood a higher profile, but it may have affected the sort of characters she played. Afterwards  the characters she played would tend to be independent, strong willed women like Iris.  This would hold true even after Miss Lockwood began playing "wicked ladies." Indeed, it must be pointed out that her two most famous roles, that of Iris in The Lady Vanishes and The Wicked Lady have intelligence, independence, and resourcefulness in common, even if one (Iris) is good and the other (Barbara) is evil. The far reaching effects of The Lady Vanishes may have even extended to later in Miss Lockwood's career, as barrister Harriet Peterson was intelligent and independent much as Iris was. 

In the end, then, The Lady Vanishes was a pivotal film in Margaret Lockwood's career for more reasons than being a successful film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It did more than give Miss Lockwood a higher profile and insure success for her in the coming years. It would in many ways shape her career for years to come.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sitcom Writer Sam Denoff Passes On

Sam Denoff, who wrote some of the best episodes of  The Dick Van Dyke Show and co-created That Girl, passed on 8 July 2011 at the age of 83. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Sam Denoff was born in Brooklyn, New York on 1 July 1928. He  and his long time collaborator Bill Persky had initially set out to be songwriters. They wrote jingles for DJ William B. Williams, then at New York City radio station WNEW. Their most famous work may have been "Let's Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn," a protest against the team moving to Los Angeles. It was in 1950 that Messrs. Denoff and Persky first worked in television, writing on the first episode of the legendary Your Show of Shows.

They would not work in television again until 1963 when they wrote an episode of McHale's Navy. The same year they started writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show. They would win an Emmy for the episode "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" and would be nominated for the episode "The Ugliest Dog in the World." In 1964 Messrs. Denoff and Persky, along with series creator Carl Reiner, would win the Emmy for Writing Outstanding Achievement in Comedy or Variety for various episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show.  The writing team also served as producers on the show.

Following their success on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sam Denoff and Bill Persky would create That Girl. The sitcom That Girl starred Marlo Thomas as aspiring actress Ann Marie, who must take various temp jobs in order to make a living. The sitcom was revolutionary in being the first American comedy series to centre on a single woman who was on her own and was not working as a domestic. Messrs. Denoff and Persky would then create Good Morning, World. Sadly, it would only last a season.

In the Seventies the writing team would adapt the classic play The Man who Came To Dinner for The Hallmark Hall of Fame. They created the short lived series Lotsa Luck starring Dom DeLuise. Sam Denoff would serve as  a producer n such short lived series as The Montefuscos, Big Eddie, and Turnabout. In the Eighties Mr. Denoff served as a producer on It's Gary Shandling's Show. In the Nineties he wrote episodes of Harry and the Hendersons. His last work was writing episodes of Life With Bonnie in 2002.

The team of Sam Denoff and Bill Persky was definitely one of the greatest writing teams in the history of television comedy. The two of them wrote a huge number of episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, many of which were the show's very best. With Bill Persky he also created That Girl, and the two of them wrote many of the episodes of that show. Few television writers could lay claim to having written for and produced two classic shows, and having created one of them. Together they created classic bits of comedy that will be remembered for years to come.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Late Great Sherwood Schwartz

Sherwood Schwartz, best known as the creator of Gilligan's Island and a man who wrote for everything from The Bob Hope Show on radio to The Red Skelton Show on  television, passed today at the age of 94.

Sherwood Schwartz was born in Passaic, New Jersey on 14 November 1916. He had planned on becoming a medical doctor and received a bachelor's degree at New York University. He was working on his master's degree when he dropped all plans of becoming a physician. To make a living he looked to his older brother Al, who at the time was writing for The Bob Hope Show, then less than a year old. He asked his brother if he would show Mr Hope some jokes if he wrote them. His brother consented, Sherwood wrote some jokes, Al showed Bob the jokes, at which point Sherwood was hired as a gag writer on The Bob Hope Show.

Sherwood Schwartz wrote for The Bob Hope Show for four years, whereupon he joined the United States Army during World War II. He wrote for Armed Forces Radio, including work on such shows as Command Performance, Jubilee, and Mail Call.  Following the war Mr. Schwartz returned to writing for radio shows Stateside, with stints on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alan Young Show, and Beulah.

It was in 1953 that Mr Schwartz entered television, writing episodes of I Married Joan. He then went to work on The Red Skelton Show. Despite staying with the show eight years, Sherwood Schwartz never got along with Mr. Skelton and, in fact, had it written in his contract that he would not have to meet with him. Mr. Schwartz would also work as the script consultant on My Favourite Martian during its first season.

 It was partially to escape from working on The Red Skelton Show that Sherwood Schwartz decided to create his own show. That show was Gilligan's Island. Gilligan's Island would not have a smooth trip to the small screen, with the network CBS interfering even before he show hit the air. It would have no smoother sailing once it debuted. While Gilligan's Island would receive high ratings, it also received some of the worst reviews of any show since The Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, although it was a favourite with viewers from the beginning, the lambasting Gilligan's Island received from critics would affect its survival. It was cancelled after three seasons to make way for Gunsmoke, which had been cancelled, but then given a reprieve at the order of CBS CEO Wiliam S. Paley. The wretched reviews Gilligan's Island had received from critics had earned the ire of Mr. Paley, so CBS's programmer knew he would not care if they cancelled it. Gilligan's Island would go onto what may have been the most successful syndication run of all time.

Sherwood Schwartz would go onto create another fantastic comedy like Gilligan's Island. Entitled It's About Time, the series centred on two astronauts who are tossed back in time to the Stone Age and find themselves living with a family of cavemen. Numbering Imogene Coco among its cast, It's About Time would not be a success. It lasted only for the 1966-1967 television season.  Mr. Schwartz's next series would be somewhat more successful. The Brady Bunch debuted in 1969 and ran for five years before going onto a highly successful syndication run.

Sadly, Sherwood Schwartz would never repeat the success of Gilligan's Island or The Brady Bunch. Dusty's Trail, starring Bob Denver in the title role, was essentially a Western version of Gilligan's Island, with every character corresponding to one on the earlier show. It lasted only one year in syndication. The various revivals of The Brady Bunch in different forms, all lasted less than a season. Harper Valley lasted only a little over a season, at 30 episodes. The pilots Scamps (with Bob Denver running a daycare) and Invisible Woman were never picked up as series. Even shows on which Mr. Schwartz was credited only as a producer and not as a creator would not repeat his earlier successes. Big John, Little John and Together We Stand both lasted less than a season. The last regular series on Mr. Schwartz was involved was yet another Brady Bunch revival, The Bradys, in 1990.

Here it must be pointed that Sherwood Schwartz also wrote or co-wrote the themes for most of his shows, including Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. Indeed, his theme to It's About Time is perhaps better remembered than the show itself. There are many who were alive when the show aired who remember the theme, but do not remember the show at all!

While Sherwood Schwartz would see little success after the Seventies, one cannot assume that his career was not extremely successful. The number of television writers and producers who have only one hit series are very few. Those who have two, as Mr. Schwartz had, are exceedingly rare. And then one must consider the number of years Sherwood Schwartz spent writing for such it shows as The Bob Hope Show on radio and The Red Skelton Show on television. What is more, it must be also be considered that Sherwood Schwartz not only had two hit shows, but two of the most successful shows of all time. If Gilligan's Island isn't the most successful show in syndication of all time, it must be in the top five (if not the top three). The Brady Bunch would not enjoy the phenomenal success in syndication which Gilligan's Island did, but it is still one of the most successful shows ever in syndication.

I must confess I was never a fan of The Brady Bunch, even as a child, but I love Gilligan's Island even to this day. Indeed, I can see in Gilligan's Island something which the vast majority of critics could not see in 1964. Gilligan's Island is a fantastic work of absurdist comedy. Of course, the show is preposterous. It was meant to be. Gilligan's Island is a show, not unlike The Beverly Hillbillies or The Monkees, in which the humour emerges not simply from slapstick or word play, but from the sheer outlandishness of its plots. What the critics of 1964 saw as a silly, even stupid sitcom was actually very sophisticated in its execution. Indeed, the critics missed one important fact of Gilligan's Island--it was funny. When it comes to comedy, it is better to be stupid and funny than intelligent and unfunny. Fortunately, Gilligan's Island was never as stupid as critics claimed and it was always funny.

Of course, it is easy to get fixated on Gilligan's Island when discussing Mr. Schwartz's career, but he did much more than writing about the Castaways. He wrote many of the classic sketches on The Red Skelton Show and, with his fellow writers, won an Emmy for the show in 1961. He wrote for years in radio on some of the best known shows of the time, including The Bob Hope show and The Alan Young Show. With regards to television, I can say that from the episodes I have seen on the net, It's About Time was a hilarious show. It was on par with Gilligan's Island, even if it was not as successful. And while I still don't like The Brady Bunch, I cannot deny that it has an appeal for a huge number of people.

Critics despised Sherwood Schwartz's two most successful shows. And even today there are those who, perhaps in an attempt to appear intellectually superior, will dismiss them as junk. What they fail to realise is the sheer brilliance of Mr. Schwartz. He wrote very funny material and created shows with lasting appeal. Indeed, he was a very intelligent man. In his book Inside Gilligan's Island, he not only related the history of the show, but showed keen insight into the history of television and how the industry works. I owe Mr. Schwartz a great deal of gratitude in that he coined a term I had been seeking for years, a term to describe those outlandish comedies, from the blantantly fantastic (Bewitched) to those that were simply a bit far out (The Beverly Hillbillies): imaginative comedies. The simple fact is that with that book Mr. Schwartz not only provided me with a useful term for so many sitcoms I love, but he inspired me as a pop culture buff. He made me realise that the history of shows often considered "silly" by critics is worth preserving. The simple fact is that A Shroud of Thoughts might not exist without him.