Saturday, October 22, 2011

Radio's Poet Laureate Norman Corwin Passes On

Norman Corwin, who wrote, produced, and directed radio plays of such quality for CBS that he became known as "the poet laureate of radio," passed on 18 October 2011 at the age of 101.

Norman Corwin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 3 May 1910. He began his career as a newspaper journalist with The Greenfield Daily Recorder-Gazette. Two years later he took a job with The Springfield Republican. At the same time Mr. Corwin was working at The Sprinfield Republican, he read the nightly news at WBZA. While at WBZA he debuted his first radio show, Rhymes and Cadences, on which he read poetry.  He later moved to New York City where he wrote publicity for 20th Century Fox. It was at this time that he approached what would be come the radio station WXQR with the proposal of a poetry show. Poetic Licence  would catch the attention of CBS, who hired him in 1938 as their director of dramatic programmes.

Norman Corwin would have an immediate success with Norman Corwin's Words Without Music. It was the first time a writer's name was used in the title of a radio show. CBS would later put him in charge of The Columbia Workshop. It aired without a sponsor and without interference from the network. Norman Corwin would later be given the show Columbia Presents Corwin. Throughout his years in radio he wrote some of the best known and critically acclaimed radio plays of all time. "We Hold These Truths" was commissioned by the United States government for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. He wrote "On a Note of Triumph" as a morale booster for the nation and its troops late during World War II. Although best known for his more serious works, Mr. Corwin was also known to work in humour. "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas" was a perfect example of this. It was a rhyming play about a demonic scheme to do away with the holiday.

Mr. Corwin would also work in film. In 1943 he wrote the morale booster film Forever and a Day. In 1944 he provided the story for the film Once Upon a Time. In 1950 he would expand into television with a teleplay with The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. The Fifties would see him working as a writer in some capacity on such films as The Blue Veil (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Moby  Dick (1956), No Place to Hide (1956), and The Story of Ruth (1960). He wrote screenplay for Lust for Life (1956), for which he received an Oscar nomination.

In the Sixties he wrote the films as Madison Avenue (1962) and The General and The Cockeyed Id (1964). He also wrote episodes of the series F.D.R.  The Seventies saw Norman Corwin with his own television show, Norman Corwin Presents, which ran for one season in 1972. He also wrote two Broadway plays: The Rivalry (1959) and The World of Carl Sandburg (1960).  Mr. Corwin later return to radio, producing radio dramas for National Public Radio.

Larry Gelbart, the veteran of Caesar's Hour who brought M*A*S*H to television, referred to Norman Corwin as "the Bard of Broadcasting." He was widely known as "the poet laureate of radio." There can be no doubt that Mr. Corwin deserved these titles. He was among the first creators in mass media to have nearly total control of his work, not only writing but producing and directing his radio shows as well. He was also one of the first creators in radio or television to deal with serious issues in his works. He would become an inspiration not only for Larry Gelbart, but also such other television writers as Rod Serling, Gene Roddenberry, and Norman Lear.  Norman Corwin demonstrated that not only could radio aspire to be more than melodramas and music, but that it could even be high art. In a career spanning decades, he left a mark as no other radio writer could.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Disney Artist Mary Blair's 100th Birthday

You may not recognise her name, but chances are you have seen her work.  Mary Blair drew concept art for the Disney classics Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Cinderella.  She also worked on advertising campaigns for products ranging from Maxwell House coffee to Pepsodent tooth paste.  Mary Blair was born on this date 100 years ago in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Born Mary Browne Robinson, her family moved to Texas when she was very small and moved to California when she was seven years old. She attended San Jose State College, then won a scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.  In 1934 she married fellow artist Lee Blair. After graduation she took a job with MGM's animation unit.  It was in 1940 that she joined her husband Lee at Disney.

Initially at Disney she worked on the "baby ballet" sequence of the never released second part of Fantasia, as well as on an early version of Lady and the Tramp. She was part of the Disney expedition that went to South America in 1941. There she painted water colours of what she saw. Because of her work in South America she was named art supervisor on Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. She also served as art supervisor on Make Mine Music. Following World War II, she worked as part of the animation department on Song of the South, Melody Time, So Dear to My Heart, The Adventures of Icabod and Mr.  Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

Following Peter Pan Mrs. Blair left Disney to pursue a career as a freelance graphic artist. She worked on advertising campaigns for Nabisco, Persodent, Maxwell House, and Beatrice Foods among others. She also illustrated books for Golden Books, as well as designed sets for Radio City Music Hall's Christmas shows. She served as colour designer on the 1967 movie musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

At the request of Walt Disney himself, Mary Blair worked on the attraction "It's a Small World." She also created the mural art for the Tommorowland Promenade and similar murals.

Mary Blair died at the age of 66 on 26 July 1978 at the age of 67. The cause was a cerebral haemorrhage.

There can be no doubt that Disney owes Mary Blair an enormous debt. She brought modern art to the studio and revolutionised the look of their films. Before Mary Blair, the look of most Disney films was definitely realist, drawing inspiration from such illustrators as Normal Rockwell and artists as Thomas Hart Benton. Mary Blair broke away fro Disney's realist tradition, utilising abstract shapes and bold use of colours. In fact, it is for her mastery of colour that Mary Blair is perhaps best known, a mastery seen in her work with Disney, her commercial art, and her fine art. The influence of Mary Blair was particularly strong in the late Twentieth Century, as it could be felt in everything from the Pop Art of the Sixties to advertising to animated films.

Mary Blair's influence can still be felt on animation to this day. Both Pixar and Disney show her influence, as can be demonstrated by such films as Up and The Princess and The Frog. If Mrs. Blair was one of Disney's favourite artists, it is perhaps because she opened him up to a world much more fantastic than those of his earlier films. It was a world of astounding colours and incredible shapes. Even at a studio as influential and esteemed as Disney, Mary Blair was a singular talent.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Silent Star Barbara Kent Passes On

Barbara Kent, an actress whose career spanned the Silent Era and the early talkies, passed 13 October 2011 at the age of 103.

Barbara Kent was born Barbara Cloutman in Gadsby, Alberta. In the early Twenties her family moved to Hollywood, California. Following her graduation from Hollywood High School, Miss Kent made her film debut in Flesh and the Devil in 1926. The next few years she appeared in several movies, including No Man's Law (1927), The Drop Kick (1927), and Modern Mothers (1928). She made a smooth transition into talkies. In fact, two of her films started as silents and became talkies--Lonesome (1928) and The Shakedown (1929). She appeared opposite Harold Lloyd in his first talkie, Welcome, Danger (1929). Over the next few years she appeared in such films as Feet First (1930), Indiscreet (1930), Emma (1932), Vanity Fair (1932), Oliver Twist (1933), and Guard That Girl (1935). She retired from film in 1935.

Barbara Kent is not as famous now as Louise Brooks, let alone Clara Bow or  Gloria Swanson, but she was a verified star of the Silent Era and a very talented one at that. She held her own against no less than Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil and kept up with Douglas Fairbanks in Modern Mothers. Miss Kent proved to have a gift for comedy, proving a perfect match for Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger and Feet First. Her career was brief, spanning only about nine years, but she was a well known actress in the Twenties and Thirties and one not without talent. Sadly, she was also one of the last survivors of the Silent Era.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yet Another Tirade Against Facebook

I hope all of you will forgive me, but I am writing another tirade against Facebook. Last month Facebook made changes to its news feed which resulted in possibly more outrage on the part of users against the site than ever. Users' anger at Facebook was so great that it was even covered extensively in the media. Indeed, I have had a few friends who have stopped using Facebook entirely, either deactivating their accounts or simply abandoning them. Sadly, Facebook has done nothing to correct what has obviously been a mistake on their part. In fact, if anything, they have made things worse.

The source of most users' ire was a change to the news feed to where the top of one's news feed is dominated by "Top Stories," stories determined by Facebook's algorithm to be "interesting" to the user. Obviously there are two problems with Facebook's idea of "Top Stories." First, I doubt that any algorithm is going to be determine what is a top story with much success. Indeed, my brother has complained that his "Top Stories" have generally been what he calls "picture messages"--jpegs with no actually picture, but simply some slogan or saying. He would much rather see status updates as his "Top Stories." He has been unmarking the "picture messages" as "Top Stories" and is slowly seeing status updates shown in his "Top Stories," but it has been a very slow process. Another problem is that almost none of his favourite pages are showing up in his "Top Stories," forcing him to create a list of nothing but his favourite pages (more on that in a bit).

Second, regardless of how good Facebook's algorithm is in determining what is interesting to users, most users I know (including myself) want their news feed in strict, reverse chronological order. I detest the idea of "Top Stories," no matter how interesting, being at the top of my page. I want my news feed displayed with the newest posts at the very top. It is the fact that the news feed is no longer in strict, reverse chronological order that many users are angry with Facebook. And why some have even deserted it.

Earlier I mentioned that my brother's favourite pages were not showing up in his "Top Stories." This could be a serious problem for Facebook. For those who do not know what a Facebook page is, it is basically a profile for a business, organisation, band, or celebrity. In other words, it is more or less a means of connecting with one's customers or fans on Facebook. If pages are not showing up in "Top Stories," then, that is a bit of a problem. I cannot imagine most corporations, many of who advertise on Facebook, being too happy about that. And if they are unhappy enough, they could well withdraw any advertising from the site. Quite frankly, I would not blame them.

While users are still angry over the whole concept of "Top Stories," the past few weeks I noticed another change Facebook has made that prevents the news feed from being displayed in strict chronological order, Quite simply, Facebook started grouping posts in any given topic together. I openly despise this as I want my news feed in strict, reverse chronological order. Indeed, it seems to me that in grouping posts belonging to one topic together than any given post could well get lost in the shuffle. I have actually found myself visiting friends' profiles and noticing posts I did not see earlier because they had been grouped together with other "similar posts." I might also point out that Facebook's algorithm for determining when posts are similar is flawed. Quite simply, a week ago I noticed that posts on either "New York Comic-Con" and "Mid-Ohio Comic-Con" were grouped together as referring to "San Diego Comic-Con!" Granted, they are all comic book conventions, but that does not mean they are all the same. Indeed, they all take place in three different cities!

Now I know that are those who will maintain that one should not complain about a site that is allegedly free. For such critics, I will simply quote my last tirade against Facebook: "First, for many of us Facebook has become the primary means by which we connect to certain friends. I would be more than happy if every one of my friends on Faebook would move to Google+ or stay in touch by email or even Twitter. Sadly, I do not think that is going to happen. In the end, then, one must simply put up with the many changes Facebook makes if one wants to stay in touch with certain people on a regular basis. Second, Facebook is not really free. It is supported by advertising paid for by brands of products many of us purchase. In effect, then, Facebook's users are paying for Facebook any time they buy a brand that advertises there (which is pretty much every brand there is these days). I would then say that gives users a right to complain any time Facebook makes changes which displease them. Third, if one believes that one cannot complain about Facebook because "it is free," then he or she must also accept that one cannot complain about the commercial broadcast networks because they are also free. If I disconnected my cable tomorrow, I could still receive NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox free of charge with an aerial. Does that mean I cannot complain if NBC decided to cancel Parks and Recreation tomorrow? According to these people it would mean I could not. After all, I am getting it "free"--never mind the networks are financed by advertising from many brands that I buy."

 Now I am not going to deny that Facebook has not done some things right of late. They have given users a greater ability to direct their posts to specific individuals or groups of people so that every single one of their friends do not see it (particularly useful if one does not want to annoy everyone with endless Farmville posts). And I personally like the idea of Facebook Music. I actually enjoy seeing what my friends listen to and being able to share what I listen to with them. But these are only two small improvements that are minimal when compared to how Facebook has screwed up the news feed.

Several years ago MySpace made the error of making changes that were largely unpopular with its users. The site soon found itself losing users to the then simpler and easier to use Facebook. It would seem that Facebook is currently going down this same path, making  changes to the site that users do not like and that actually reduces the functionality of the site. I do not think it takes a fortune teller to see that it might not be long before Facebook finds itself in the same position as MySpace. I doubt that it will happen over night, but then it did not happen over night with MySpace either. In a few years Facebook might find itself just as much of a graveyard as MySpace is now, its users having abandoned it for Google+ or some other simpler and easier to use social networking site that has yet to even be introduced. It would seem to be that unless Facebook reverses the changes it has made to the news feed and goes back to a simple news feed in reverse chronological order, this could well be the beginning of the end for the site.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Network Chopping Blocks

 It would seem that the 2011-2012 season has not been a banner year for the broadcast networks. It is only mid-October and already four new shows have been cancelled. This might not seem unusual to many, except when one considers that for much of the Naughts the networks were content to let new shows air until December or January until placing them on their chopping blocks. The only exception to this rule has been Fox, who always seemed to can at least one show before mid-October (often, before the end of September).  In an odd twist, however, Fox is the only broadcast network which has yet to cancel anything this season.

To a degree the start of the 2011-2012 season reflects the start of the 2010-2011 season. By this time last season three shows had been cancelled (Lone Star on Fox, Outlaw on NBC, and My Generation on ABC). This was a sharp contrast to the prior two seasons when only one or two shows were cancelled. During the 2009-2010 season only two shows had been cancelled by this time. During the 2008-2009 season only one show had been cancelled by this time. It would seem then that the cancellation of three to four shows by mid-October is a fairly recent phenomenon.

What makes this year's cancellations even more interesting is that two of the shows cancelled were sitcoms that received dramatically lower ratings than the shows preceding them. NBC's adaptation of the British show Free Agents had an average rating of 1.0, a dramatic drop from the average rating of 2.2 of Up All Night, the show preceding on NBC. It is little wonder then that NBC cancelled the show as of 6 October. As to where the viewers went, I suspect that they switched over to Subugatory on ABC, Suburgatory has averaged a rating of 3.2, up from the show preceding it, The Middle, which has averaged about 2.8. I rather suspect that those viewers who didn't simply find something to watch on cable, DVD, or DVR then switched to ABC.

Of course, what is puzzling to me about the cancellation of Free Agents is that NBC ordered a full season of Up All Night as of 4 October. This puzzles me as Up All Night only has an average rating of 2.2, respectable enough but hardly spectacular. Indeed, it has consistently come in third in its time slot. It seems to me that if NBC was not going to give Free Agents a chance, then they would have moved much more cautiously with regards to Up All Night. I could see ordering a half season, but not a whole season. It is not as if it going to suddenly start beating Survivor and The Middle  in the ratings.

The other sitcom that saw a dramatic drop in the ratings from the show preceding it was CBS's How to Be a Gentleman. How to Be a Gentleman averaged about a rating of about 2.6, down from the established hit The Big Bang Theory, which averaged a rating of 4.6. While this is a dramatic drop, I must still say I am a bit surprised that CBS cancelled the show after only two episodes. How to Be a Gentleman soundly beat Parks and Recreation on NBC, which averaged a rating of 2.1. It also beat Charlie's Angels on ABC and The Vampire Diaries on The CW. As the number 2 show in its time slot, then, it seems odd to me that it did get cancelled, despite losing much of the audience of The Big Bang Theory. The show as thrashed by critics, but then it seems to me that it hasn't been since the days of William S. Paley that CBS worried too much about the quality of a show (let's face, Yes, Dear ran for years). As to where the audience for The Big Bang Theory went, I am thinking that they must have switched over to the second half of X-Factor, watched something on DVD or DVR, or simply turned off the sets. Sadly, they did not apparently switch over to Parks and Recreation, which is one of the best sitcoms on the air right now (for that matter, I think Community is far better than The Big Bang Theory).

While the cancellation of How to Be a Gentleman came as a surprise to me, I was not surprised when I heard the news of the first show to be cancelled. The Playboy Club debuted on NBC with only a rating of 1.6, soundly beating by Hawaii Five-O on CBS and Castle on ABC. Its second weeks its ratings dropped by 19 percent. By its third episode it only pulled a rating of 1.2. It was cancelled by 4 October.

The cancellation of the revival of Charlie's Angels on ABC came as no surprise either. The show debuted with a somewhat respectable 2.1 rating, which dropped the following week to a rating of 1.5. The ratings dropped even further in the next two weeks. In the end it was even beaten by The Vampire Diaries on The CW.

As to why Free Agents, The Playboy Club, and Charlie's Angels did so poorly in the ratings, I suspect much of it may have do with the quality of the shows. I watched both Free Agents and The Playboy Club and I was not impressed with either. In my humble opinion Free Agents committed the cardinal sin of a sitcom--it just was not funny. I did not even laugh once. Critics gave the show mixed reviews at best. Of course, here it is must be pointed out that I found Up All Night unfunny as well, even though critics seemed to have given it better reviews. My own thought is that the reason it received better ratings at the beginning (ratings which have since fell) is its cast--the show stars the ever popular Christina Applegate and SNL veteran Maya Rudolph fresh from her success in Bridesmaids. If not for its cast, I have to wonder Up All Night would not have been gone by early October as well.

As to The Playboy Club, I don't think there can be much debate that it was a bad show. Even if one could overlook the many inaccuracies (if the producers had done any research they apparently threw it out the window), the show was very poorly written. Critics appear to have agreed with me, referring to the show as everything from "cheesy" to "boring." Regardless, anyone expecting a sex filled romp (which would have been unrealistic anyway) was probably sorely disappointed.

I saw neither Charlie's Angels nor How to Be a Gentleman. My brother watched Charlie's Angels and he liked it, nothing that while he would necessarily call it a "good show" it was at least fun and entertaining. A friend of mine said that she thought it was all right for what it was. Critics were a lot less forgiving, giving it on the whole even worse reviews than The Playboy Club. Personally, I have to suspect critics may have been overly hard on the show, but if then it is possible that audiences agreed with them. Its ratings did plummet rather rapidly.

As to How to Be a Gentleman, It also received generally negative reviews. In fact, at the web site Metacritic, users on the whole rated the show lower than professional critics. It is perhaps little wonder that it lost much of the lead in of The Big Bang Theory. While I still do not think its ratings warranted enough for it to be cancelled, it could be that CBS took notice of viewers' reaction to the show. Any show that viewers hate more than critics probably wouldn't be popular with network programming executives.

While I am willing to give Charlie's Angels the benefit of the doubt, it seems to me that Free Agents, The Playboy Club, and How to Be a Gentleman were bad shows (The Playboy Club was really bad) and as a result they received dismal ratings. This is probably complicated by the number of choices viewers have today. Thirty years ago any one of these shows might have survived despite their poor quality, simply because in 1981 viewers more or less had a choice of the networks, something on VHS, or maybe HBO or an independent station. Today there are hundreds of cable channels, DVDs, and the time shifting capacity of the DVR (for all I know a lot of people may have been re-watching some other show during Free Agents). It seems to me that it might now be harder for bad shows to survive. Of course, I must admit that my theory is very flawed, as it fails to explain how so many reality shows survived in the Naughts (I do not think anyone can claim The Simple Life was great television), but it seems the only explanation of how these shows received such low ratings and were cancelled after so very few episodes.

Of course, the next questions is whether or not this is a trend developing in broadcast network television whereby several shows are cancelled before mid-October. After all, it happened last year as well. Honestly, I am not sure that we can tell if it is going to be a trend in the Teens or not. Two years is not a very big sample and next season could be very different. Indeed, it might be significant that Fox has cancelled nothing yet this season. Fox has traditionally been the first network to cancel a show in any given season and usually it does so even before 30 September. The fact that it did not do so this year could be more significant that the other networks did. At any rate, it will be interesting to see what the start of the 2012-2013 season will be like. One thing I would advise the broadcast networks--as if you should not do so already, make sure the shows you air are actually good.