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."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Late Great Harry Morgan

Harry Morgan, who appeared in films from Holiday Affair (1949) to Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) and TV shows from December Bride to M*A*S*H, died today at the age of 96. A prolific actor, Mr. Morgan appeared in over 100 movies.

Harry Morgan was born Harry Bratsberg on 10 April 1915 in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated from Muskegon High School with plans to become a lawyer, but while attending the University of Chicago he developed an interest in theatre. He made his debut on Broadway in the play Golden Boy in 1937. From the late Thirties into the early Forties he appeared in such plays as The Gentle People (1939), Thunder Rock (1939), Heavenly Express (1940), and The Night Before Christmas (1941).

In 1942 Harry Morgan moved to California. He was discovered by a talent agent in a production of Hello Out There by William Saroyan in Santa Barbara. He was signed to 20th Century Fox. In his early years he used "Henry Morgan" as his stage name, but he later changed it to "Harry Morgan" to avoid confusion with radio satirist Henry Morgan. Mr. Morgan made his film debut in To the Shores of Tripoli in 1942. His big break would come in 1943 when he appeared as Art Croft in The Ox-Bow Incident. During the Forties he appeared in such films as Wing and a Prayer (1944), State Fair (1945), Dragonwyck (1946), All My Sons (1948), The Saxon Charm (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Holiday Affair (1949), and Dark City (1950).

In the Fifties Harry Morgan would expand into television, making his debut in an episode of The Amazing Mr. Malone  in 1951. He was a regular in the role of Peter Porter on the sitcom December Bride and its spin off Pete and Gladys. He guest starred on such shows as Cavalcade of America, The 20th Century Fox Hour, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He continued to appear in films, including Scandal Street (1952), High Noon (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), The Glen Miller Story (1954), Strategic Air Command (1955), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Cimarron (1960).

In the Sixties Harry Morgan was a regular on The Richard Boone Show, Kentucky Jones, and Dragnet. He guest starred on Ensign O'Toole, Have Gun--Will Travel, The Untouchables, The Virginian, Dr. Kildare, and Love American Style. He appeared in such films as How the West Was Won (1962), John Goldfarb Come Home (1965), Frankie and Johnny (1966), What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), The Flim-Flam Man (1967), and Support Your Local Sheriff (1970).

In the Seventies Mr. Morgan played the regular role of Colonel Sherman T. Potter on M*A*S*H, as well as  a regular role on Hec Ramsey. He guest starred on such shows as Night Gallery, The Partridge Family, and Gunsmoke. He appeared in the films The Barefoot Executive (1971), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Scandalous John (1971), Charley and the Angel (1973), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), The Shootist (1976), and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.

In the Eighties Harry Morgan reprised his role as Sherman Potter on the spin off After M*A*S*H and he had a regular role on Blacke's Magic. From the Eighties into the Nineties he guest starred on such shows as You Can't Take It With You, Murder She WroteThe Twilight Zone, The Simpsons, and 3rd Rock From the Sun. He appeared in such films as Dragnet (1987), Family Plan (1997), and Crosswalk (1999).

If Harry Morgan is best known for his role as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H, it is perhaps because he was so good at playing such characters, characters who were acerbic and firm, yet ultimately kind hearted. Indeed, among the best scenes in Holiday Affair from 1949 is one in which Mr. Morgan played a police lieutenant very similar to Colonel Potter. His roles in Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter would also be similar. Even his television roles were similar--Pete Porter of December Bride and Pete and Gladys was essentially a younger version of Sherman T. Potter. While Harry Morgan had a gift for playing such characters, it must be pointed out that he played a wide variety of roles in his career that were often very different from Colonel Potter. In The Big Clock (1951) he convincingly played a quiet but nonetheless threatening bodyguard. In Inherit the Wind (1960) he played a small town judge forced to hear what could have been the trial of the century. In The Shootist he played an understandably nervous marshal who must deal with a gunfighter played by John Wayne. Harry Morgan played a variety of roles, not all of them sarcastic yet soft hearted characters. Indeed, although now best known for his comedy roles, it must be pointed out that Mr. Morgan was equally adept at drama. Very few actors had as diverse a career as Harry Morgan, a man who played in both notable films and notable TV shows. If he had a long, prolific, and diverse career, it was simply because Mr. Morgan was a man of very great talent.