Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hedy Lamarr: Geek Sex Symbol

When most people today think of sex symbols for science fiction, fantasy, comic book, and horror geeks, such names as Jessica Alba (star of various genre films and  the TV show Dark Angel), Kate Beckisale (star of the Underworld film franchise),  and Milla Jovovich (star of various genre films). If they're knowledgeable about science fiction, fantasy, and horror films they might also think of Fay Wray, Sybil Danning, Caroline Munro, and Barbara Steele, among others. That having been said, there is one name that might not occur to anyone but geeks: classic film star Hedy Lamarr.

On the surface it might seem unusual for Hedy Lamarr to be beloved by fans of of science fiction, comic book,  fantasy, and horror, even though during her lifetime she was often considered "the most beautiful woman in the world." After all, she was not a scream queen with many horror movies to her credit such as Fay Wray, Evelyn Ankers, Anne Gwynne, Gloria Stuart, or Hazel Court, nor did she have key roles in popular science fiction, fantasy, or horror films the way that Ann Francis, Barbara Rush, Julie Adams, or Raquel Welch did. Indeed, Miss Lamarr never starred in a film that could be considered to belong to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Nonetheless, she is a sex symbol popular with geeks. In fact, of actresses from the Golden Age, Hedy Lamarr may be the most popular geek sex symbol short of Fay Wray.

Miss Lamarr's status as a geek sex symbol may not seem that unusual when one considers that many geeks, especially older geeks, are also classic film buffs and connoisseurs of vintage pop culture. This makes perfect sense when one considers how many horror fans were introduced to the genre through the classic Universal horror movies of the Thirties and Forties (not to mention the films Val Lewton produced for RKO in the Forties), science fiction fans were introduced to the genre through such classic films as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Metoropolis (1956), and many comic book fans sought out the old movie serials of the Thirties and Forties featuring well known comic book characters. Having watched genre films from the Thirties and Forties, many geeks then started watching movies from that era in other genres. Before long many science fiction, horror, comic book, and fantasy geeks became full fledged classic movie geeks, and would most certainly have encountered the heavenly Hedy Lamarr along the way.

Here I must point out that movies would not be the only gateway into the world of classic film among comic book, science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks. During the Sixties and Seventies many novels from the old pulp magazines were being reprinted. For that reason many geeks of a certain age grew up reading pulp novels featuring such characters as Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Spider. These geeks would naturally seek out other material from the Thirties and Forties, including Old Time Radio and classic films. Again, sooner or later these geeks would see Hedy Lamarr on the screen and she would have the same effect she had on many men--they would be utterly enthralled.

Of course, this does not explain why Hedy Lamarr, an actress who never appeared in a science fiction, fantasy, or horror film, would be more loved by geeks than other screen beauties. While Hedy Lamarr was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, so too were Vivien Leigh, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly, yet none of them has the following among geeks that Miss Lamarr does. Even Marilyn Monroe, often counted as the most popular sex symbol of all time, is not loved as much by geeks as Hedy Lamarr is.

One of the reasons that comic book fans, if not science fiction, fantasy, and horror fans, are so enthralled by Hedy Lamarr is that she provided the basis for one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time. The creative team of the comic book character Batman in the earliest years (creator Bob Kane, creator Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson) were all film buffs. After all, Batman himself was based in part on Douglas Fairbanks' classic swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1920) and the 1930 mystery film The Bat Whispers. Jerry Robinson initially created Batman's archenemy The Joker based on a playing card and further refined the character's appearance after Bob Kane showed him stills of Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Motion pictures, and more specifically Hedy Lamarr, would provide the inspiration for Batman's second best known opponent. Bill Finger and Bob Kane based The Catwoman on a combination of Bob Kane's cousin Ruth Steel and actress Hedy Lamarr, with a bit of Jean Harlow thrown in for good measure. It would seem that Jean Harlow may have contributed little more to the character than her personality, as  illustrations of Catwoman from the Golden Age of Comic Books look remarkably like Hedy Lamarr. Both had oval shaped faces crowned by a head of long, wavy, dark hair. Both also had smouldering eyes (well, Catwoman's eyes were as smouldering as Golden Age comic book illustration would allow) and full, pouty lips. Despite changes in artists over the years (as is well known, Bob Kane employed many ghosts), Catwoman would continue to resemble Hedy Lamarr until the Sixties when a certain Julie Newmar played the character on the television series Batman. Regardless, it is because of Hedy Lamarr's influence in the creation of Catwoman that actress Anne Hathaway studied Miss Lamarr for her role as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Of course, this does not entirely explain the Hedy Lamarr cult that exists among geeks. After all, other comic book and comic strip characters have been based on famous actresses. Silent film star Louise Brooks, the centre of her own celebrity cult, would provide the basis for no less than two comic strip characters: Dixie Dugan and Italian comic strip character Valentina. Lola Lane, who played fictional reporter Torchy Blane in series of movies in the Thirties, provided part of the inspiration for Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane. Bob Kane always claimed that Marilyn Monroe (before she was famous) was the model for Batman's on again, off again girlfriend Vicki Vale. Brigitte Bardot apparently provided the inspiration for French comic book character Barbarella. While Louise Brooks, Marilyn Monroe, and Brigitte Bardot do have their fans among geeks, it would appear that they have nowhere near the following among geeks that Hedy Lamarr does.

It would seem that the primary reason that Hedy Lamarr boasts a large following among science fiction, fantasy, comic book, and horror geeks is that she achieved something very few actors, male or female, ever had. Quite simply, she invented something that would revolutionise modern society. It was in 1941 that Miss Lamarr had an idea of a new torpedo guidance system. Radio guided torpedoes had been tested during World War I and were later improved upon in the Thirties. The problem with guiding a torpedo through radio signals is that if the enemy located the signal, they could effectively jam it. In that case, the torpedo would not reach its target. Hedy Lamarr's idea was to have both the radio transmitter and radio receiver for torpedoes hop from frequency to frequency, thus making them much harder to jam.

In June 1941 Miss Lamarr took her idea to her neighbour, composer George Antheil, who had utilised automated control of pianos in his composition Ballet Mécanique. Together they developed a means of frequency hopping that utilised a piano roll of the type used for player pianos to shift or "hop" between 88 different radio frequencies. It was on 11 August 1942 that Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil were granted US Patent 2,292,387 for their "secret communication system." Unfortunately, Miss Lamarr and Mr.Antheil's invention would not be implemented by the United States Navy, who argued that the equipment necessary for it would be too bulky (George Antheil argued that it could be small enough to fit inside a watch). The United States Navy would eventually utilise Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's invention during the blockade of Cuba in 1962. Their idea of frequency hopping would provide the basis for such modern day technology as mobile phones, GPS, Wi-Fi, and many other technologies.

To a degree Hedy Lamarr's idea of frequency hopping was hardly new. Nikola Tesla had intimated at it in patents he had filed in 1900 and 1903. In  his book Wireless Telegraphy German physicist  Johannes Zenneck also referred to hopping frequencies. Various other patents for frequency hopping would be filed in Germany and the United States in the Twenties and Thirties. That having been said, Miss Lamarr and Mr. Antheil's patent would be rediscovered in the Fifties when various companies were developing CDMA or code division multiple access, a channel access method used for GPS and the basis for various channel access methods used by mobile phones (such as cdmaOne, CDMA2000, and WCMDA). While others may have conceived of frequency hopping before Hedy Lamarr, arguably it was Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil's patent that would have the most impact on modern wireless technology. In other words, much of today's technology, from Wi-Fi to mobile phones, might not exist had it not been for Hedy Lamarr! Sadly, neither Miss Lamarr nor Mr. Antheil would ever make any money from it.

Miss Lamarr was quite serious about inventing. She had an entire room in her home devoted to inventing, including a drafting table, tools, reference books, and everything she needed for her hobby. What is more, the "secret communication system" Hedy Lamarr developed with George Antheil was not her only invention. She also developed an anti-aircraft shell fixed with a proximity fuse that would use radar to detect the target and detonate at a predetermined distance away. It was never put into practical use. Miss Lamarr also invented a better box for facial tissues (such as Kleenex) and a new sort of traffic light, but neither of these inventions got very far.

It is perhaps primarily because Hedy Lamarr invented a secret communication system that would form the basis for modern wireless technology that she has become a sex symbol for geeks. First, while all science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks are not necessarily fans of technology, enough are that there are huge cults in geekdom dedicated to the personalities who had a hand in developing that technology, from Ada Lovelace to Alan Turing. Many geeks would love Hedy Lamarr simply for having developed the idea of frequency hopping. The fact that she was also one of the most beautiful women in the world raises her to the status of a sex symbol among geeks. Second, many geeks are drawn to intelligence in a woman as much as beauty. Hedy Lamarr had a talent for maths from childhood and an innate grasp of the possibilities of technology. What is more she was able to apply her intelligence not only to the invention of a secret communication system, but also other inventions as well. Given that Miss Lamarr was as intelligent as she was beautiful, she is then perhaps the perfect sex symbol for geeks.

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful women in the world. She also provided inspiration for one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time, Catwoman. She also invented a secret communication system that would provide the basis for our wireless technology today. While it may not seem obvious on the surface why she would appeal to science fiction, fantasy, and horror geeks. once one looks at her life and her career as an inventor it becomes obvious. Fay Wray was beautiful and could scream better than anyone. Hazel Court had an astounding figure. But it was Hedy Lamarr who was the perfect combination of beauty, brains, and a talent for mathematics and technology.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dish Network, AMC, DirecTV, and Viacom

There are times that I am thankful that I subscribe to the cable television company that I do. While there have been some changes to our channel line up over the years, at no point have I ever lost channels en masse due to a fight between the cable company and an entertainment media company. This does not seem to be the case for subscribers to the two largest satellite television companies, who seem to get into a major struggle with some entertainment media channel each year.

Indeed, this summer has seen no less than two such fights. The first and the one that perhaps made the most news is between satellite television company Dish Network and media entertainment company AMC Networks. On 1 July 2012 Dish Network dropped the various AMC Networks channels (which include AMC, IFC, WETV, and the Sundance Channel) with the claim that the ratings were too low for the price AMC Networks was asking for their channels. AMC Networks has charged that Dish Network actually dropped its channels because of an unrelated lawsuit that was brought against Dish Network by Voom Networks, a property of AMC Networks' former parent company Rainbow Media Holdings LLC (a lawsuit which some analysts are now urging Dish Network to settle).

This is not the first time that Dish Network has been involved in a carriage dispute. In 2006 Dish Newtork dropped Lifetime Television in a dispute over fees. At the time Lifetime was a very high rated cable channel with a very loyal following. This resulted in outrage on the part of Lifetime's viewers and after a month Dish Network wound up restoring the channel.  In August 2009 Dish Network filed a breach of contract suit against ESPN alleging that ESPN offered a better deal to Comcast and DirecTV. Curiously, in September 2009 Dish Network moved ESPNU from its "America's Top 250" package to its "America's Top 120" package, although they insisted the move had nothing to do with the lawsuit. In just the past few years Dish Network has had fights with the Weather Channel, Fox, and Inspiration Network.

Not surprisingly, from what I have seen many Dish Network subscribers were outraged by Dish Network's decision to drop the AMC Networks channels. I have seen numerous tweets, posts on boards, and posts on social networks criticising the satellite company for doing so. Quite simply, people want to be able to such popular shows on AMC as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. While it is true that one can watch these shows online, it seems most people prefer to watch them on television. Given the amount of venom I have observed directed at Dish Network, then, their claim to have dropped the AMC Networks channels because of low viewership rings a bit false in my ears.

Indeed, I must point out that for the year 2011 AMC ranked #17 in the top 20 highest rated cable channels. This is actually quite impressive when one considers that there are literally hundreds of cable channels in the United States. Now I realise that IFC, WETV, and the Sundance Channel may not be particularly high rated (at least when compared to AMC, TNT, USA, and the like), but I rather suspect that they are higher rated than some of the channels Dish Network does carry.  Angel Two? DIY Network? Daystar? These are some of the channels that Dish Network carries in its most basic package. To get the USA Network, TNT, the History Channel, and other high rated cable channels one would have to get a higher priced package! It seems to me that if Dish Network was truly concerned about channels with low viewership, then they would drop some of these lesser known channels or, at least, they would not offer them in their most basic package.

Now I am not going to say that Dish Network removed the AMC Networks channels because of their lawsuit with Voom (even if it does seem suspicious), but I still have to doubt their motives. I honestly do not believe that Dish Network is concerned with the possibility that in having to carry IFC, WeTV, and the Sundance Channel along with AMC that they might have to pass those costs onto the customer.  I rather suspect it is more the case that Dish Network simply wants to increase its own bottom line by trying to force AMC Networks to ask for less. In others, the carriage dispute between Dish Network and AMC could be less about keep costs for subscribers low than it is about Dish Network's profit margin. Of course, the catch is that if enough Dish Network customers cancel their subscriptions because of the loss of AMC, Dish Network could lose a lot of money in the deal. I know that they may well have lost prospective customers. I know if I was looking to subscribe to a satellite television company, I would not subscribe to one that does not carry AMC. Indeed, I rather like having IFC and the Sundance Channel as well!

While Dish Network has an ongoing carriage dispute with AMC Networks, DirecTV is currently engaged in a carriage dispute with Viacom, who owns such channels as Nickelodeon, TV Land, MTV, VH1, and so on. At the centre of the dispute are an increase in the prices Viacom is asking of DirecTV to carry their channels. According to Derek Chang, vice president in charge of content at DirecTV, Viacom is asking for a 30% increase, an amount that come out to an extra billion dollars. He maintains that such an amount in far in excess of the ratings of Viacom's channels for the past year. Viacom has claimed that the deal is a a fair one and would only amount to a few cents for each subscriber As of last night, around 16 channels owned by Viacom, including Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV, and VH1 were dropped by DirecTV. In response Viacom has pulled much of its online content.

Like Dish Network, DirecTV has had its fair share of carriage disputes over the years. In 2009 DirecTV dropped Versus, with the result that its owner Comcast and DirecTV engaged in an battle of words for several months before reaching an agreement. In 2010 DirecTV dropped G4 (another Comcast channel), citing low viewership. This time the dispute was never resolved and G4 remains unavailable on DirecTV. In late 2011 DirecTV nearly had a carriage dispute with News Corporation. It announced that it might drop such News Corporation channels as FX, National Geographic Channel, Fox Movie Channel, and so on. In this instance the two companies reached an agreement before any channels were dropped.

Now one would think that viewers would be outraged at the loss of Viacom channels on DirecTV. After all, Viacom owns some of the highest rated cable channels in the United States. For the year 2011 Nickelodeon and MTV both ranked in the top twenty highest rated cable channels. Given the ratings of Viacom's various channels, it is perhaps not surprising that I have read news reports about viewer outrage. I have also read of people outraged at Viacom for pulling its online content.

That having been said, unlike the outrage at Dish Network over dropping the AMC Networks channels, I have not personally seen or heard anyone angry at DirecTV over dropping the Viacom channels. In fact, despite the ratings that Nickelodeon and MTV get, the reaction I've gotten from many people is that they don't watch any Viacom channels, at least with any regularity. For myself, I must confess I might watch TV Land once in a great while and more rarely Spike, VH1, or BET, but I do not watch them on a regular basis in the way that I do the USA Network, TNT, or AMC. Not only have I seen many state that they don't watch many of Viacom's channels, I have seen many say that they wouldn't miss the Viacom channels at all.

Indeed, the general consensus I have seen on the various social media networks is that people seem to be siding with DirecTV. The simple fact is that I have observed people express the feeling that Viacom is simply asking too much to be carried on DirecTV. I also have to admit that is my opinion too. I would be willing to pay more for AMC, the USA Network, or Turner Classic Movies (my favourite cable channel of them all), but I would not be willing to pay more for any of the Viacom channels (not even TV Land, which ceased being a classic television channel long ago). In fact, there are some of the Viacom channels I would just as soon not be on my cable channel (the entirety of the MTV Networks except for the VH1 channels). Now I do have to point out that this is hardly a scientific approach The sort of people with whom I associate on social media sites are hardly going to be the types to watch The Jersey Shore. Still, in the end it seems to me that whatever outrage there may be over DirecTV dropping the Viacom channels is not nearly as large as that over Dish Network dropping the AMC Networks channels.

In the end I suppose carriage disputes are inevitable, at least where the major satellite television companies are concerned (if my cable company ever got into a carriage dispute, they must have resolved it swiftly--I don't recall ever losing channels en masse before). That having been said, I think it is important that the satellite television companies and the media companies do not forget the customer. Sadly, I think they may have. Outrage at Dish Network started growing the moment they announced they were dropping AMC, yet they went ahead and did so. While I have not witnessed any outrage at DirecTV dropping the Viacom channels, I am guessing there were many unhappy customers this morning. There also appear to be many who are angry at Viacom for removing their online content. It seems to me in the debates over fees, ratings, and so on, the customer is getting forgotten. This is hardly a good thing. Indeed, I have to wonder that the longer Dish Network goes without AMC and the longer DirecTV goes without the Viacom channels, that they won't lose more and more customers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Andy Griffith Films

Andy Griffith was best known as the star of the TV shows The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock. And there can be no doubt that much of his success in his career was due to television. That having been said, he was a film star before The Andy Griffith Show ever debuted. Even after The Andy Griffith Show had ended its run, he would continue to appear in motion pictures from time to time. In fact, his greatest performances are often to be found on the big screen rather than the small one.

Andy Griffith's film roles ranged from dramas to comedies, from villains to buffoons. Here, then, are some of the films in which he appeared.

A Face in the Crowd (1957):  By 1957 Andy Griffith's star was on the rise. He was already a popular monologist, his comedy record "What It Was, Was Football" having sold almost 800,000 copies in 1954. He had already conquered both television and Broadway, having starred in the U. S. Steel Hour's adaptation of the novel No Time For Sergeants by Mac Hyman and the 1955 Broadway adaptation thereof. In 1957 he would make what might well be one of the most impressive film debuts of all time, in A Face in the Crowd.  The character of Lonesome Rhodes played by Mr. Griffith was not only starkly different from the hillbilly Will Stockdale in No Time For Sergeants, but also of Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, he was different from nearly any character Andy Griffith would ever play, even the villainous roles he would perform from time to time.

Lonesome Rhodes was a thoroughly unsavoury drifter with a gift for folksy humour, singing, and playing the guitar who is discovered by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) of KGRK. Given his own radio show, Rhodes eventually gets his own nationally broadcast television. Unfortunately, as Rhodes' popularity grows in leaps and bounds, so too does his ego and his lust for power. Andy Griffith gives a bravura performance as Lonesome Rhodes, perhaps the best of his career. Mr. Griffith was all too convincing as Rhodes not only grows more egomaniacal  and more power hungry, but a bit paranoid as well. In fact, Andy Griffith's performance is the best in the film, which is really saying something given Patricia Neal's impressive turn as Marcia Jeffries and Walter Matthau's strong performance as Mel Miller. Not only should Mr Griffith have been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Lonesome Rhodes, but he should have won it as well.

No Time for Sergeants (1958):  No Time For Sergeants was the motion picture based on the teleplay and Broadway hit that turned Andy Griffith into a star. Having played Will Stockdale several times on stage, it should come as no surprise that Mr. Griffith gave one of his most impressive performances in the film. In No Time For Sergeants, country bumpkin Will Stockdale is drafted into the United States Air Force. To complicate matters, Will is not particularly bright, something which creates many of the situations in the plot. Indeed, Will can be considered the prototype for both Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies (although not as educated--I doubt Will could recite his multiplication tables) and Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. (although not as bright).

While I would not say that Andy Griffith's performance as Will Stockdale is as impressive as his performance as Lonesome Rhodes, it is a great performance nonetheless. While Mr. Griffith often played characters from the country, these characters were usually endowed with both intelligence and a kind of folksy wisdom. Will possesses neither of these traits, yet Andy Griffith fully realises him the same way he fully realised the much more intelligent Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock. Here I must point out that Andy Griffith wasn't the only one to give an impressive performance in the film. Nick Adams also gives a solid performance as near sighted Ben Whitledge, who wanted to be in the infantry like his many ancestors and who more often that not winds up paying for Will's lack of intelligence. Nick Adams was convincing as Ben, so much so that one has to wonder how different Mr. Adams' career would have been had he not insisted on handsome, leading man type roles and not led a somewhat tumultuous private life.

Onionhead (1958): Onionhead is a largely forgotten film today. In order to capitalise on the success of No Time for Sergeants, Onionhead was marketed as a straight comedy. In truth, it is a comedy-drama that has more in common with Mr. Roberts than No Time for Sergeants. It is perhaps for that reason that it did very poorly at the box office. In some respects Onionhead is a disappointment having followed A Face in the Crowd and No Time for Serageants. In fact, in some respects the film is uneven. That having been said, Andy Griffith does give a good performance in a role that is a much more normal one than that of either Lonesome Rhodes or Will Stockdale.

In Onionhead Andy Griffith plays Al Woods, an Oklahoma college student who joins the Coast Guard after a fight with his girlfriend. Andy Griffith's performance as Al Woods does not stand out in the way that his performances as Lonesome Rhodes or Will Stockdale, but that is only because it is a much more subtle performance in many respects. Al is a reasonably intelligent individual, although one who is headstrong and has a bit of a temper. Andy Griffith is quite convincing in the role, one that is different from his better known ones. The movie also features a strong performance from Walter Matthau, Red Widoe, the galley chief.

Angel in My Pocket (1969):  Like Onionhead, Angel in My Pocket is a largely forgotten film. After eight years on The Andy Griffith Show, Mr. Griffith decided to return to motion pictures. He signed a three film deal with Universal. Unfortunately, Angel in My Pocket would be the only film made. In the film Andy Griffith played Samuel D. Whitehead, a newly ordained pastor assigned to his first church in a small town. In some respect, then, Angel in My Pocket might seem like it was designed to capitalise on the success of The Andy Griffith Show. Like Mayberry, Wood Falls, Kansas is filled with eccentric townsfolk. And like Mayberry, the citizens of Wood Falls have their fair share of feuds, gossip, and family secrets. Angel in My Pocket  is filled with the sort of folksy humour found in The Andy Griffith Show. It is there that the similarities between Angel in My Pocket and The Andy Griffith Show end.

The simple fact is that while The Reverend Samuel D. Whitehead is similar in some respects to Sheriff Andy Taylor, he is in many ways very different. Having been the sheriff of Mayberry County for many years, Andy Taylor was more or less in control of Mayberry and the surrounding county. Those many times when things did get out of control, one was guaranteed that Andy would have the situation in hand very shortly. In contrast, Reverend Whitehead is a man totally out of his depth. While Andy can usually corral the sometimes rambunctious residents of Mayberry, Sam increasingly finds his efforts to help his congregation and the townspeople put him at odds with them.

While Angel in My Pocket is not a great film, it is a pleasant and somewhat funny one. Sadly, for whatever reason the film bombed at the box office. In fact, it did so poorly that Andy Griffith decided not to do another two films for Universal and returned to working in television. As to Angel in My Pocket, since its initial release it has popped up on television from time to time. It has never even been released on video.

Hearts of the West (1975): To a large degree Hearts of the West is also a forgotten film. This is a shame as it is a very funny movie that anyone who loves Hollywood of the Thirties will enjoy. Hearts of the West centres on Lewis Tater, a writer who moves to Hollywood only to become a B Western star under the screen name Neddy Wales. The film does a fairly good job of capturing the look and feel of 1930's Hollywood, as well as the low budget Westerns they made then. In the film Andy Griffith plays Howard Pike, an old cowboy star using the screen name Billy Pueblo. Mr. Griffith's Pike/Pueblo is crusty and full of grit, none the worse for wear after years in Hollywood. Much like Hearts of the West itself, Andy Griffith's performance in the film is underrated. Although it might not be of the same quality as his performance as Lonesome Rhodes in A Face In the Crowd, Mr.Griffith's turn as Howard Pike/Billy Pueblo is one of his best.

Rustler's Rhapsody (1985): Rustler's Rhapsody is not a great film. I very seriously doubt it will ever be counted as a classic. That having been said, it is an amusing film (particularly for aficionados of the singing cowboys of the Thirties and Forties) and one that is fairly original. The central conceit of Rustler's Rhapsody is a portrayal of singing cowboy movies if they were made today. To this end Tom Berenger plays Rex O'Herlihan, a true blue, singing cowboy who never shoots to kill. Unfortunately, this puts him at a bit of disadvantage against the more modern bad guys, who have no qualms against killing.

The head of those bad guys is played by none other than Andy Griffith. Colonel Ticonderoga is a ruthless cattle baron who controls the town and is intent on driving the local shepherds out of the area. Andy Griffith's portrayal of Colonel Ticonderoga is nearly perfect, capturing the spirit of the many villains of the old Gene Autry and Roy Rogers films, right down to a bit of overacting. Having played villains in various television movies in the Seventies, Andy Griffith puts that experience to good use in playing a bad guy who is truly over the top.

Waitress (2007): I must confess that I have never seen Waitress. That having been said, I have read more than once from people I trust (including former VH1 host and fellow film buff Bobby Rivers) that Mr. Griffith gave an Oscar worthy performance in the film. In the movie Andy Griffith played Old Joe, owner of Joe's Pie Diner. I have always meant to see this film and comments form my fellow film buffs in the wake of Andy Griffith's death have reminded me that I must do so soon.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Late Great Ernest Borgnine

There are those actors whose careers are so long and who are so prolific that it is hard to picture there ever having been a time when they were not acting. One of those actors was Ernest Borgnine. His career spanned over sixty years. It included everything from Marty (1955, for which he won an Oscar) to the television show McHale's Navy to The Dirty Dozen (1967) to Red (2010). Sadly, Ernest Borgnine died today at the age of 95. The cause was renal failure.

Ernest Borgnine was born in Hamden, Connecticut on 24 January 1917. His mother and father separated when he was very young, so that Mr. Borgnine spent a few years of his early life in Italy. Eventually his parents reconciled and he spent the remainder of his childhood in New Haven, Connecticut. At age 18 Ernest Borgnine enlisted in the U. S. Navy, where he served as a gunner's mate. During his service he earned the he Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Following his service in the Navy, Mr. Borgnine considered what he wanted to do with his life. It was his mother who suggested that he go into acting.

Mr. Borgnine studied acting at the Randall School of Drama in Hartford, Connecticut. He later joined the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. It was in the late Forties that he moved to New York City to pursue acting. He made his film debut in the 1951 in China Corsair. He made his television debut in a 1951 episode of Captain Video and His Video Rangers. He appeared on Broadway in Mrs. McThing in 1952. During the Fifties he appeared in such films as The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), The Mob (1951), The Stranger Wore a Gun (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Marty (1955), The Catered Affair (1956), The Vikings (1958), Torpedo Run (1958), and Man on a String (1960). He appeared in the television shows Shadow of the Cloak, The Lone Wolf, The Ford Television Theatre, Waterfront, Make Room for Daddy, Zane Grey Theatre, and Laramie.

In the Sixties Ernest Borgnine played the lead role of Lt. Commander Quinton McHale on the TV series McHale's Navy. The show proved to be a hit, running for four years and producing two feature films (although the second one had little to with the show and did not star Ernest Borgnine). He also appeared on such shows as Alcoa Premeire (on which the character of Quinton McHale first appeared, in the dramatic episode "Seven Against the Sea"), G. E. Theatre, Wagon Train, Run for Your Life, and Get Smart. He appeared in such films as Go Naked in the World (1961), The Last Judgement (1961), Barabbas (1961), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Oscar (1966), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Adventurers (1969), and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970).

In the Seventies Mr. Borgnine appeared in such films as Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971), Willard (1971), Bunny O'Hare (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Emperor of the North (1973), Sunday in the Country (1974), Hustle (1975), Crossed Swords (1977), Convoy (1978), The Double McGuffin (1979), The Black Hole (1979), and Super Fuzz (1980). He starred on the short lived series Future Cop. He appeared on the TV show Little House on the Prairie and in the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Eighties Mr. Borgine appeared in a lead role on the TV show Airwolf. He also appeared on such TV shows as Magnum P.I., Matt Houston, Highway to Heaven, and Murder She Wrote. He appeared in such films as Escape form New York (1981),  High Risk (1981), Deadly Blessing (1981), Code Name: Wild Geese (1984), Moving Target (1988), The Big Turnaround (1988), The Opponent (1988), and Tides of War (1990).

In the Nineties Ernest Borgnine had a regular role on The Single Guy. He also voiced the recurring role of Mermaidman on SpongeBob Squarepants. He appeared on such TV shows as The Commish, Home Improvement, Pinky and the Brain, The Simpsons, Jag, and Early Edition. He appeared in such films as Captiva Island (1995), Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996), McHale's Navy (1997), Gattaca (1997), Small Soldiers (1998), BASEketball (1998), Mel  (1998), Shadows of the Past (1999), Castle Rock (2000), and Hoover (2000). From the Naughts into the Teens he appeared in such films as Whiplash (2002), September 11 (2002), The Long Ride Home (2003), Barn Red (2004),Oliviero Rising (2007), Enemy Mind (2010), Red (2010), Snatched (2011), and The Lion of Judah (2011). His final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, was just released this year. He appeared on such television shows as Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven, Family Law, and ER. He last voiced Mermaidman in an episode of SquareBob Spongepants in 2011.

Ernest Borgnine was possibly one of the most prolific actors of his era and certainly an actor with one of the longest careers. He made his screen debut when he was 34. His last film was released when he was 95. It was a remarkable career in which he played nearly every role one can possibly play, with the possible exception of romantic lead (although arguably his turn as Marty Piletti as Marty could be counted as such). He was one of those actors who lit up the screen any time he was on, and who never gave a bad performance in his life. Indeed, he was a consummate professional. No part was too small and no material was beneath him. He put his heart into every performance he ever gave, whether it was playing Marty in the critically acclaimed film of the same name, Quinton McHale on McHale's Navy, or himself on The Simpsons. He could also perform in a vast array of material. Over the years Ernest Borgnine played in nearly every film genre there was, from drama (Marty) to comedy (McHale's Navy) to  Westerns (The Wild Bunch) to science fiction (The Neptune Factor) to horror (Burnt Offerings) to war films (The Dirty Dozen).

While much of Ernest Borgnine's success as an actor was due in a large part to his devotion to his craft and his professionalism, much of it was due to his versatility as well. Many lesser actors who looked like Ernest Borgnine might have found themselves typecast as heavies or comic actors, but Mr. Borgnine played a wide array of roles in a number of different film genres. He did play his fair share of villains, especially early in his career. He was impressive as both Fatso  Judson in From Here to Eternity and Bart in Johnny Guitar. Later he gave a memorable performance as Shack, the sadistic train conductor in Emperor of the North. That having been said, while Ernest Borgnine could be impressive as a villain, I suspect he will be remembered  for his many other roles. Indeed, when I think of Ernest Borgnine I think of his more sympathetic roles--the soft hearted butcher Marty in the film of the same name, the working class father worrying over his daughter's wedding in A Catered Affair, the cabbie in Escape from New York, Frank in Another Harvest Moon, and others. Not only did Ernest Borgnine play many more or less ordinary people, but he also played his share of heroic roles, including General Worden in The Dirty Dozen, Fletcher in Code Name: Wild Geese, the Amish farmer forced to defend his family in Violent Sunday, and others. Ernest Borgnine could take any role, whether it was a villain, a hero, or an ordinary guy, and make it entirely his own. Indeed, he had a gift of taking what could have been a flat role in the hands of a lesser actor and giving it humanity.

In the end, because of his talent, Ernest Borgnine was a character actor capable of playing both leading roles and supporting roles. This made him a rarity in Hollywood in the decades of the late 20th Century, and such actors as Mr. Borgnine are even rarer now. Indeed, it is a tribute to Ernest Borgnine's talent that while he played a bit part in his film debut in 1951, in his final film, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, he played the lead. Not many actors, let alone character actors, can boast of such an achievement, let alone a career as long as that of Ernest Borgnine.