Saturday, January 7, 2012

The 100th Anniversary of Charles Addams' Birth

It was 100 years ago today that Charles Addams was born. He was quite possibly the most famous cartoonist to ever have his work appear in The New Yorker, well known for his at times macabre cartoons. Over time a family of recurring characters would begin appearing in his cartoon: a tall, slender, dark haired woman; her shorter, stout husband ; their two children; a Frankensteinian butler; and so on. Colloquially these recurring characters became known as "the Addams Family." With the classic 1964 television series based on the cartoons, the name became official.

Charles Addams was born on 7 January 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey. He started drawing at an early age, a pursuit in which his father encouraged him. He drew cartoons for Westfield High School literary magazine, Weathervane. After high school he attended Colgate University in Hamilton, New York and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He later studied at the Grand Central School of Art in New York City. In 1933 he went to work for the magazine True Detective, where among other things he retouched photos of corpses so there was no blood.

It was on 6 February 1932 that his first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker. It was in 1938 that the first cartoon that identifiably featured members of the Addams Family appeared--a vacuum cleaner salesman's encounter with Morticia and Lurch (who at this point had a beard). Charles Addams' cartoons would appear in The New Yorker from that point forward until his death. Of course, The New Yorker was not the only publication to feature Mr. Addams' work. Charles Addams' illustrations also appeared in Collier's, LifeMademoiselle, TV Guide, and others. It is important to know that not all of Mr. Addams' cartoons featured the Addams Family, although almost all of them tended to be absurdist or macabre in nature and most often both.

During World War II Charles Addams served the Signal Corps Photographic Centre in New York, where he made animated training films for the United States Army. Bob Montana of Archie Comics fame, fellow New Yorker cartoonist Sam Cobean, dramatist William Saroyan, and Canadian cartoonist James Simpkins also worked in the Signal Corps Photographic Centre.

Both during and following World War II Charles Addams' popularity as a cartoonist and illustrator grew. His first anthology of drawings, Drawn and Quartered, was published  in 1942. It would be followed by eight more anthologies of his cartoons. He also provided illustrations for Afternoon in the Attic, an anthology of John Kobler short stories. He also compiled Dear Dead Days, a scrapbook of grotesque images ranging from Victorian woodcuts to old medicine show advertisements.

The popularity of the Addams Family cartoons may have made either a television or motion picture adaptation inevitable. It was in 1963 that television producer David Levy was walking with a friend down 5th Avenue in New York City and passed a display of Charles Addams' books in a store window, including Homebodies, which featured a portrait of the entire Addams Family. Mr. Levy realised that that the Addams Family cartoons could provide the basis for a hit TV series. He approached Charles Addams with the proposal of the TV series, which Mr. Addams approved. Charles Addams provided names for the various characters, as well as brief descriptions of each of them (prior to the TV series, none of the Addamses were named). While it is often assumed that  Thing (a disembodied hand)  was created for the series, this was not the case. Thing appeared as early as 1954, as a disembodied hand changing records on a phonograph in the Addams mansion. Only Cousin Itt was created for the show, although he appeared in the cartoon before the TV series. At the suggestion of David Levy, Charles Addams added a hair covered creature. The new character made his debut in the 12 October 1963 issue of The New Yorker, the cartoon featuring the character answering a phone with the words, "This is it speaking." David Levy add an extra "T" to the characters' name and he became "Cousin Itt."

Although The Addams Family woud only run for two seasons, it would become a cultural phenomenon all its own. In the Seventies there would be a reunion telefilm, Halloween with The Addams Family. The Seventies would also see an animated series based on both the cartoons and the TV show. The Nineties would see two major motion pictures, a new animated series, a TV movie, and a new live action series. In 2010 musical based on the cartoons and the TV series debuted on Broadway. Most recently Universal obtained the rights to Charles Addams' drawings with the goal of a stop motion picture based on them with Tim Burton set to produce it.

Even prior to the television series, however, Charles Addams had an impact on Anglo-American pop culture. Edward Eager's fantasy novel Knight's Castle referred to "Chas Addams (which is how Mr. Addams always signed his drawings). Alfred Hitchock was known to be a fan of Mr. Addams' cartoons, so it should come as no surprise that Mr. Addams in mentioned in North By Northwest (1959)--Cary Grant's line,"The three of you together. Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw." It is a common assumption that the house in Psycho (1960) was inspired by the Addams mansion (the two do admittedly look a good deal alike).

Except for possibly James Thurber, Charles Addams may well have been the most famous cartoonist to ever appear in The New Yorker on a regular basis and he was most certainly the most famous whose success emerged from the appearances of his work in that magazine. As to why Charles Addams' cartoons, both those featuring the Addams Family and those that did not, became so popular, it is perhaps for the same reason that Ronald's Searle's St. Trinian's School cartoons and fellow New Yorker cartoonist Edward Gorey's work also attained popularity. Quite simply, the work of all three men allowed people to face our very worst faces and laugh at them. The Addams Family poised to spill boiling oil on carollers, a skier going through a tree without harm, an octopus rising from a manhole to grab an innocent victim, these images allowed us to laugh at death. In the mid to late 20th Century, when the threat of nuclear destruction sometimes seemed imminent, Charles Addams put us all at ease by bringing us face to face with the grotesque and making us to see the humour in it.

Of course, Charles Addams' most popular creation was the family that bears his name. Most certainly the Addams Family helped society laugh at death, but their appeal goes even further than Mr. Addams's other cartoons. The Addams Family were an extended family who enjoy the bizarre and the macabre. Even though it is apparent even in the cartoons that they are a family of means, they are still very much outsiders when it comes to society. Despite this, the Addams Family can hardly be said to be dysfunctional. Morticia and Gomez not only love each other, they are very openly affectionate. Despite some very odd hobbies, their children, Pugley and Wednesday, are well taken care of.  They also care for members of their extended family--Grandmama and Uncle Fester (in the original series he was Morticia's uncle, not Gomez's brother). The Addams Family were proud of their eccentricities. In fact, they were a much healthier extended family than many more "normal" nuclear families. Quite simply, the Addams Family not only allowed us to laugh at the macabre, they also told us that it was all right to be different and that was all right to even be proud of those differences. Indeed, the Addams Family made it clear that it was better to go one's own path than it was to simply conform to society's expectations.

Certainly, Charles Addams never conformed to society's expectations.  Over the years he never toned down his cartoons nor did he look for success elsewhere. When the television series came about, it was David Levy who went to Mr. Addams, not the other way around. Much like the family he created, Charles Addams was a success because he was different, because he chose his own path and worked in his own style. Even if there had never been an Addams Family TV series, Charles Addams would still be one of the most famous cartoonists of the 20th Century.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Danny Thomas at 100

When I think of early television situation comedies, two names come to mind. The fist is Lucille Ball, the star of I Love Lucy. The second is Danny Thomas, star of Make Room For Daddy (also known as The Danny Thomas Show).  It was 100 years ago today that Danny Thomas was born.

Sadly, while Lucille Ball is still well known, it seems to me that Danny Thomas has almost been forgotten. Oh, most people my age and a little younger still know who Danny Thomas is, even if they have never seen an episode of Make Room For Daddy, but I fear most younger people have no idea who he is, let alone just how much of a television pioneer he was. In many respects Make Room For Daddy was as revolutionary as I Love Lucy, and in some respects it was even more so. What is more, Danny Thomas was not only the star of his own sitcom like Lucy, but also like Lucy he was a television producer who would have a hand in some of the most influential TV shows of all time.

Danny Thomas was born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz on 6 January 1912 in Deerfield, Michigan to Lebanese parents. He began his career as a comic performing under an Anglicised version of his given name, "Amos Jacobs Kairouz." In 1932 he started performing on the radio show The Happy Hour on WMBC in Detroit, Michigan. By 1938 he had moved onto working in radio in the bigger market of Chicago. In 1940 he was offered a three year deal at the 4100 Club in Chicago that would pay much more than his work in radio did. Not particularly wanting his family and friends to know he had returned to working in clubs, he adopted a new stage name by combining the two names of his brothers--"Danny Thomas."

Fortunately, the 4100 Club would provide Mr. Thomas with his big break. He was spotted there by Abe Lastfogel of the William Morris Agency, who signed him to a USO tour featuring Marlene Dietrich and got him a part on Fanny Brice's radio programme The Baby Snooks Show. He would later join the cast of the radio show The Bickersons. In 1947 Danny Thomas would make his motion picture debut in The Unfinished Dance. He would go onto appear in Big City (1948), I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), and the 1952 version of The Jazz Singer. While he received good notices for his works in motion pictures, Danny Thomas's future would lie in another medium.

Having rejected the advice of three different studio to have plastic surgery performed on his admittedly large nose and tired of working night clubs, Danny Thomas looked for work in the television industry. His initial job in television was as one of the hosts (along with Jack Carson, Jimmy Durante, and Ed Wynn) of Four Star Revue on NBC. Neither Danny Thomas nor the show's other rotating hosts would remain with it for long. After its first season NBC changed the show's name to All Star Revue and replaced the rotating hosts with various big name, guest hosts.

Fortunately, Mr. Thomas's agent, Abe Lastfogel, would insure that he would continue to have a career in television. Quite simply, Mr. Lastfogel made it a condition that the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) would have to take Danny Thomas if they wanted the then bigger star Ray Bolger (most famous as the Scarecrow on The Wizard of Oz). ABC had not been particularly impressed with Danny Thomas's performance on NBC's Four Star Revue and insisted that any show he in which he starred must be a sitcom. Mr. Thomas, producer Lou Edelman, and writer Mel Shaverson developed a premise for a sitcom that drew upon Mr. Thomas's own life as a nightclub performer with a family. In fact, it was Danny Thomas's wife who gave the show its title. While Mr. Thomas was on tour she would allow their children to sleep with her. When Mr. Thomas returned from touring, the children would then have to "make room for daddy."  Make Room For Daddy then centred on fictional nightclub performer Danny Williams and his family--wife Margaret (Jean Hagen), son Rusty (Rusty Hamer), and daughter Terry (Sherry Jackson).

On paper Make Room For Daddy sounds a lot like other domestic comedies of the era, such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, but in reality it was something wholly different. At the time most television fathers were inevitably either level headed straight men (Father Knows Best may be the best example) or total bumblers (The Stu Erwin Show). In contrast Danny Williams was neither. Danny could often be the source of comedy on the show, but at other times he could be the level headed father figure. He was in many respects a more realistic view of fatherhood and the forerunner of such TV dads as Andy Taylor (The Andy Griffith Show) and Cliff Huxtable (The Cosby Show).

Make Room For Daddy was also set apart from other domestic comedies of the time in that it often incorporated song and dance routines into its episodes, giving  the show much in common with I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show (which Danny Thomas produced). Although often classed as a domestic comedy, Make Room For Daddy was as much a show biz comedy as it was anything else. Indeed, this brings me to another way in which Make Room For Daddy differed from Father Knows Best and other domestic comedies. Quite simply, Make Room For Daddy was much more of an ensemble comedy. Episodes did not simply focus on Danny, his wife, and his children, but on their housekeeper Louise (played originally by Louise Beavers and later by Amanda Randolph) , members of the extender family (especially Uncle Tonoose, played by Hans Conried), Danny's manager Charlie (played by Sid Melton), and so on. To a degree this makes Make Room For Daddy the direct forerunner of other ensemble comedies, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, and so on.

Make Room For Daddy was revolutionary in other ways as well. Like other shows of the era, Make Room For Daddy featured an African American domestic (played by Louise Beavers and later played by Amanda Randolph). Unlike many other shows of the time, the character of Louise was treated with much more respect. In fact, I remember an interview in which Danny Thomas told how the network really did not want him to express affection towards Louise (such as hugging her and so on). Mr. Thomas refused to comply. To him Louise was both a human being and a member of the Williams family.

In all Make Room For Daddy would run for twelve years and undergo several changes. Jean Hagen left the show after the third season to pursue her film and stage career. Margaret was then written out of the show as having died and Danny Williams spent the following season as a widower. In the fifth season Danny Williams married Kathy "Clancey" O'Hara (Marjorie Lord) and Clancey brought her daughter Linda (Angela Cartwright) into the marriage. In the 1957-1958 season Make Room For Daddy moved to CBS and was given the new title of The Danny Thomas Show. ABC had lost interest in the show, which was a grave error on their part. At CBS The Danny Thomas Show rose into the top ten rated shows where it remained until Mr. Thomas ended the show after twelve seasons.

Even if one does not regard Make Room For Daddy a revolutionary sitcom on the level of I Love Lucy, there can be no doubt of Danny Thomas's contributions to television history as a producer. It was during the first season that Sheldon Leonard became a director on the show.  An actor best known for his roles as gangsters and heavies (perhaps most familiar today to audiences as Nick in It's a Wonderful Life), Mr. Leonard wanted to break into directing and production. During the third season Mr. Leonard was promoted to the show's producer. Eventually Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard founded their own production company, one which would produce some of television's most legendary shows. From the late Fifties into the Sixties Messrs. Thomas and Leonard would produce such shows as The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bill Dana Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. The Andy Griffith Show was a spin off of Make Room For Daddy, an episode of which served as a back door pilot for the show. Danny Thomas himself cast Mary Tyler Moor as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. While many younger people today may have never heard of Make Room For Daddy, nearly everyone has heard of The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Without Sheldon Leonard, Danny Thomas would produce shows such as The Guns of Will Sonnett and The Mod Squad.

Danny Thomas would continue to perform very nearly until his death. In 1970 he appeared in a continuation of Make Room For Daddy called Make Room For Granddaddy. He later starred in the short lived series The Practice  (not to be confused with the legal drama of the same name), I'm a Big Girl Now, and One Big Family. His last appearance was a guest shot on Empty Nest in 1991--the year that he died.

Danny Thomas was not simply a great comic actor and legendary television producer. He was also a humanitarian. Indeed, he founded St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a non-profit hospital and research facility focused on children's diseases.

Although Danny Thomas is not remembered today as he should be, there can be no doubt of his contributions to television. Make Room For Daddy was a revolutionary sitcom which pioneered ensemble comedies and gave the world a more realistic view of fatherhood than its contemporaries. As a producer Danny Thomas gave us legendary, character driven comedies, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show, that would surpass the success of his own show. As a humanitarian he founded St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Danny Thomas was a fine human being and a towering figure in the history of television. It is something that we should not soon forget.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sword Master Bob Anderson R.I.P.

Bob Anderson, who choreographed sword fights in movies from Master of Ballantrae (1953) to Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and served as a stunt double in many more, passed on 1 January 2012 at the age of 89.

Bob Anderson was born on 15 September 1922 in Gosport, Hampshire, England. He was very young when he took up fencing. In his early Twenties he joined the Royal Marines. During World War II he served in the Mediterranean. Following the war Mr. Anderson taught fencing as an instructor for the various services. He won competition with the bayonet, épée, foil, and sabre. He competed in the sabre event at the World Championships in both 1950 and 1953. In 1952 he he represented the United Kingdom in fencing at the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. A noted fencer, he was asked to work with Errol Flynn on The Master of Ballantrae at Pinewood Studios. Bob Anderson both choreographed fights for the film and served as a stunt double for nearly all of Errol Flynn's opponents.

The Master of Ballantrae would be the beginning of a long career for Mr. Anderson in film. Over the years he worked in various capacities on many films, including Crossed Swords (1954), The Moonraker (1958), The Guns of Navarrone (1961), From Russia with Love (1963), Carry On Pimpernel (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Kidnapped (1971), the first Star Wars trilogy, Highlander (1987), The Princess Bride (1987), The Three Musketeers (1993), The Mask of Zorro (1998), and Lord of the Rings. He also served as sword master on the TV show Highlander. He also served as the coach for the British national fencing team for 30 years.

It  is well known, at least among Star Wars fans, that it was Bob Anderson who wielded Darth Vader's light sabre in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Mr. Anderson's career went far beyond Star Wars, as he can be credited with choreographing some of the incredible sword fights in cinematic history. In fact, Bob Anderson should not perhaps be remembered best for doubling as Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies, but instead the duel between Westley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) in The Princess Bride. While the scene was helped a bit by special effects, most of it was simply Mr. Anderson's skill as a sword master. Indeed, it can be said that with little doubt that movies from Crossed Swords to Highlander would not have been nearly as exciting without Bob Anderson's expertise. If any man deserved the title of "sword master," it was certainly Bob Anderson.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The 120th Brithday of J.R. R. Tolkien

It was 120 years ago today that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province, part of South Africa).  The son of a bank manager and a professor versed in the English language, he would become one of the most famous English writers of all time. In fact, it is quite possible that J. R. R. Tolkien is the most famous fantasy writer of any nationality. Both The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings number among the best selling books of all time.

Born in South Africa, Mr. Tolkien spent the majority of his childhood in England. It was while his mother, brother, and himself were visiting family in England that his father died from rheumatic fever in South Africa. The family lived for a brief time with Tolkien's maternal grandparents in Kings Heath, Birmingham, then moved to Sarehole, Worcestershire. The environs of Sarehole would prove to have a lasting impact on young Tolkien, influencing the fictional Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Tolkien studied at Exeter College, Oxford, initially studying Classics before changing to English Language and Literature. During World War I he served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, eventually being invalided to England after contracting trench fever. In 1920 he became a Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds. He eventually became the youngest man to ever become a professor there. In 1925 he became a Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1945 he became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford.

It is perhaps fitting that J. R. R. Tolkien was born on the anniversary of the birth of Jacob Grimm, the German philologist and mythologist. Although known to the public at large as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Mr. Tolkien was also an influential philologist and mythologist in his own right. Indeed, in many respects he was almost as influential as Jacob Grimm himself.  His lecture Beowulf: The Monster and The Critics may well be the most influential work on the poem of all time. In 1936 there was a tendency for scholars downplay the fantastic elements (such as Grendel and the dragon) in Beowulf in favour of viewing the poem merely as a source of  Germanic tribal history. Mr Tokien not only argued that the fantastic elements were a necessary part of the poem, but also encouraged its study as a work of literature than merely a source of history. If Beowulf is today regarded as the first great narrative of the English language, it is largely J. R. R. Tolkien we owe for that.

While J. R. R. Tolkien would make many other contributes to Anglo-Saxon philology and the study of the English language, it is for his fiction that he is best known. Published in 1937, The Hobbit proved to be a success, so much so that its publisher asked Mr. Tolkien for a sequel. That sequel would eventually prove even more wildly successful than The Hobbit. The first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, was published in 1954. While The Hobbit was almost an immediate success, it would take time for The Lord of the Rings to become the phenomenon it is now. While it sold well in hardback, The Lord of the Rings would not be published in paperback until the Sixties. Following its publication in the Fifties and into the early Sixties, The Lord of the Rings was primarily read by fantasy and science fiction fans.

To a large degree this would change because of the unauthorised publication of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. In 1965 Donald A. Wollheim of Ace Books believed he had found a loophole in American copyright law whereby Lord of the Rings was not protected under copyright in the United States. Ace Books then published an unauthorised edition of the novel. Both Mr.Tolkien and his fans were outraged with Ace Books to the point that Ace Books withdrew their edition from circulation and paid a royalty payment to Mr. Tolkien. In the meantime Ballantine Books published an authorised edition. Regardless, the unauthorised edition of Lord of the Rings fuelled interest in the novel to the point that it became a fad. By 1967 The Lord of the Rings was particularly popular with the hippie subculture in the United States. Fortunately The Lord of the Rings would not remain the province of fantasy fans and hippies for long, and in the end the book would become the third best selling book of all time worldwide (surpassed only by A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).

 Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well J.R. R. Tolkien's other works, would have a lasting impact on Anglo-American pop culture. It was largely because of the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings that the fantasy genre experienced phenomenal grown in the Seventies and Eighties. It was because of The Lord of the Rings that such novels as The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and  such fantasy series as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson met with success. Of course, there would be outright imitations of The Lord of the Rings as well, the most notable (and perhaps the worst) being the Shannara series by Terry Brooks. The first role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons owed a good deal to The Lord of the Rings, as did many of its successors. Even rock music would be influenced by The Lord of the Rings, with bands from Led Zeppelin to Rush drawing inspiration from the novel. The novel was also adapted as three major motion pictures (or there volumes in one long motion picture, if you prefer) and has provided the inspiration for several role playing games.

I must confess that I have not escaped the influence of Tolkien myself, having read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as various other Tolkien works. As a lad my first reading material tended to be comic books and reprints of old pulp magazine novels (such as Doc Savage and The Shadow). My interest in works that often contained fantastic elements led me to reading science fiction, but even as a child  I didn't always find the genre satisfying. Too often science fiction novels tended to be dry reading material, concentrating more on science and technology than characterisation or action. The Lord of the Rings opened up a new world for me, not only featuring a well developed fantasy world, but three dimensional characters as well. While I had already read Robert E. Howard's fantasy stories before I read The Lord of the Rings, it would be Tolkien would lead me to read the works of such fantasists as Michael Moorcock, Lord Dusany, Lloyd Alexander, and others.

Mr. Tolkien would prove to be an influence on me beyond my tastes in fiction. It did not take me long after I developed an interest in Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon history that I learned of Mr. Tolkien's contribution to their study. While we'd studied portions of Beowulf (in translation, of course) in school, it was Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that led me to a true appreciation of the poem. With regards to the study of Old English literature, I must say that I owe a good deal to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Today, 120 years after his death, J. R. R. Tolkien remains one of the best selling of all time. An Oxford professor who studied Old English language and literature, his works are now studied at universities world wide. His influence can be seen in everything from literature to movies to music. The son of a bank manager born on Jacob Grimm's birthday went much further than any student of Old English literature and language could ever hope to.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Late Great Ronald Searle

Ronald Searle, who created the St. Trinian's School cartoons and with Geoffrey Willans co-created the Molesworth series of books, passed on 30 December 2011 at the age of 91.

Ronald Searle was born in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England on 3 March 1920. He started drawing when he was only five years old. He left school when he was 15, at which point he drew cartoons for The Cambridge Daily News.  In 1939 he enlisted in the Corps of Royal Engineers. He trained for two years at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology. It was in 1941 that the first St. Trinian's School was published in the magazine Lilliput

Mr. Searle was station in Singapore in January 1942. Unfortunately, Singapore fell to the Japanese a month later. He was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. Initially he was incarcerated in the Changi Prison in Singapore. Later he served as slave labour on the Siam-Burma Death Railway in the Kwai jungle. During his imprisonment he contracted both beri-beri and malaria. Mr. Searle documented the conditions of his imprisonment in drawings that he hid in bamboo tubes, mattresses, and other places. Had they been discovered Mr. Searle would have most certainly been executed. Several of the drawings would be published in The Naked Island by Russell Braddon (who was also held as a prisoner by the Japanese).  Most of the drawings would appear in Mr. Searle's book Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945, published in 1986.

Following the war Ronald Searle resumed drawing St. Trinian's School cartoons in 1946, although they tended to be much darker than they had been before the war. The cartoons were set at St. Trinian's School, where the schoolgirls were not only not exactly well behaved, but sometimes down right homicidal. The cartoons and their gallows humour proved popular enough to be published in several collections. The cartoon series also provided inspiration for a series of  four movies in the Sixties, one movie in the Seventies, and a new series of films in the Naughts.

It was in the early Fifties that Geoffrey Willans approached Ronald Searle with a proposal to illustrate a series of  books based on a series of columns he had written for Punch.  The result was the Molesworth series of books, which followed the misadventures of schoolboy Nigel Molesworth at St. Custard's School. The first book in the series, Down with Skool! A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and their Parents, was published in 1953. The series would provide inspiration for two sequels written by Simon Brett portraying Moleswoth as an adult, and a BBC Radio 4 serial, Molesworth, which portrayed Moleswoth in middle age.

In 1955 Ronald Searle became the illustrator for the theatre column of Punch, for which he provided a humorous cartoon adaptation of The Odyssey in 1956.  In 1957 he made the short animated film "Energetically Yours." In 1960 he became the first non-American to win the Reuben Award given by the National Cartoonist's Society. Throughout the Fifties into the Sixties he provided illustrations for magazines ranging from The New Yorker to Life to TV Guide. In 1961 he left cartooning for a time and moved to Paris. There he worked as a reporter for both Life and Holiday. He also worked in film. He had designed the titles for the first few St.Trinian's films and also did titles for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), and Scrooge. He served as production designer on the full length animated film Dick Deadeye or Duty Done (1975).

Ronald Searle also published a good number of books unrelated to either St. Trinian's School or Molesworth, both on his own and with various collaborators.

I am not sure that it is enough to say that Ronald Searle was the greatest British graphic artist of all time. Quite simply, he was one of the greatest graphic artists of all nation and of all time. He was a cartoonist who easily ranks alongside such greats as Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and James Thurber. Like any truly great cartoonist Ronald Searle combined artistic skill with an incredible sense of humour. It was present in everything from the St. Trinian's School cartoons to his lesser known works. Throughout his lifetime he proved incredibly influential, influencing such diverse artists as Quentin Blake, John Lennon, and Matt Groening. If few cartoonists ever reach the levels of success that Ronald Searle did, it is perhaps that there have been so few that possessed his incredible talent.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The American Holiday Season

With the American holiday season pretty much at an end, my mind has turned to the holidays celebrated in the United States. Namely, I think that our holidays tend to be spread apart rather oddly. Three of the biggest holiday celebrated in the United States all fall in the last three months of the year (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and whatever early winter holiday one celebrates--Christmas, Hanukkah, and so on), while at other times of the year there are large gaps between the holidays most Americans celebrate.

It wasn't this way in medieval Europe or Great Britain, where holidays tended to be spread more or less evenly apart. Consider the traditional holiday calender celebrated in medieval England.  Candlemas fell on 2 February, at a time roughly between Christmas and Easter. Lammas on 1 August was only about 45 or so days after Midsummer (24 June, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist according to the Church). In between the major holidays were days celebrated in honour of various saints and the various local fairs that were held from time to time. Sadly, many of these days would fall into disuse in England, not to mention much of Europe. By the time the United States was founded many of these former holidays were no longer celebrated.

It is perhaps because of this that holidays celebrated in the United States are somewhat unevenly distributed.  Much of this is complicated by the fact that in the United States many of the Federal holidays are not celebrated by most of the populace, while many of the holidays celebrated by the populace are not Federally recognised. For me the perfect example of a Federal holiday not celebrated by most of the population is Labour Day. It is a holiday that has no real rituals connected to it in much of the country. At most some might go to the beach or hold a barbecue. There are no great Labour Day traditions. For many it is merely a day off and for many more--those the day is meant to honour--it is not even that. Labour Day can be contrasted with Halloween, a holiday that is not recognised by the Federal government. Despite having no Federal recognition, a good many people celebrate Halloween, perhaps most people. It is a holiday that also has its own traditions (trick or treating and so on) linked to it and even its own imagery (jack o'lanterns, black cats, bats, et. al.). I dare say, even if they don't get the day off, for many people Halloween is a real holiday, while Labour Day is not.

When one takes into account the actual holidays that Americans celebrate, the gaps between holidays can become extreme. Consider the months following New Year's Day. In January there is Martin Luther King Day, but it is more a day that one observes and remembers important people than it is a day that one celebrates and has fun--a very important day, no doubt, but not one filled with joy and family togetherness. The same holds true for President's Day in February. Now there are St. Valentine's Day in February and St. Patrick's Day in March, but both of these are highly specialised holidays. Those without a significant other tend to be left out of St. Valentine's Day--how can one celebrate a day devoted to romance and giving gifts to one's beloved when one doesn't have a beloved? St. Patrick's Day is in some ways even more specialised. Unless one is Catholic or Irish, one has little reason to celebrate the day. Given Martin Luther King Day and President's Day are more days one observes rather than celebrates, and not everyone celebrates St. Valentine's Day or St. Patrick's Day, that leaves a huge gap between the end of the holiday season and the next holidays celebrated by most Americans (which I assume would be Easter for Christians or equivalent holidays for other faiths, and Purim for those who are Jewish).

There is an even bigger gap in the late summer and early autumn, when there are not even traditional holidays of the specialised type such as St. Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. Between the Fourth of July and Halloween there are only Labour Day and Columbus Day, two holidays recognised by the Federal government that no one celebrates. The gap between the Fourth of July and Halloween is only filled by Rosh Hashanah celebrated by those of the Jewish faith and the various late summer and autumn fairs held locally among the various states. It is for that reason I've often thought that late summer and early autumn tend to be one of the glummest times of year! Of course, once one hits Halloween there are four holidays in a row (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah./the Yuletide/et. al., and New Year's Day) in a space of only three months.

Of course, I suppose one might ask why any of this matters. Well, my thought is that holidays serve an important role in society. They give us a break from the everyday routine of work and give us a chance to enjoy ourselves. Quite simply, they are an escape not unlike watching a movie or reading a book, but of a longer period. Indeed, there is a reason that many Americans look forward to Halloween and Thanksgiving. Sadly, such breaks or escapes from our everyday routine are rather unevenly distributed in the American schedule. As I pointed out earlier, there is a big gap in the summer where the only holiday is Labour Day, which I suspect the average American doesn't regard as a real holiday at all.

Unfortunately, I doubt that there is very much that can be done about the gaps in the American holiday schedule now. I rather doubt that Americans would start celebrating Lammas or any of the old, traditional holidays. At the same time I cannot see Americans adopting any new holidays that would fill the gaps, except for perhaps Dr. Seuss's birthday (which seems well on its way to becoming a national holiday) .  And sadly, I cannot see anyone making an effort to pump any sort of joy into Labour Day. In the end, I suppose we Americans are simply stuck with the holidays we already have, unless someone can develop some that can fill the gaps.