Friday, August 24, 2012

Muppeteer Jerry Nelson Passes On

Jerry Nelson, who provided the voices of such Muppets as Sgt. Floyd Pepper of Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, Kermit's nephew Robin, and Dr. Julius Strangepork of Pigs in Space as well as The Count Von Count of Sesame Street, passed today, 24 August 2012, at the age of 78. He suffered from emphysema.

Jerry Nelson was born on 10 July 1934 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He grew up in Washington, D.C. He trained under the legendary puppeteer Bil Baird. It was in 1965 that Mr. Nelson first worked with Jim Henson, helping out on The Jimmy Dean Show (which featured Rowlf the Dog). In 1969 he provided the voice of the Second Stepsister in Jim Henson's television special Hey, Cinderella. He also participated in further Muppet projects, including The Great Santa Claus Switch, Tales from Muppetland: The Frog Prince, and Tales from Muppetland: The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.

It was in 1970 that he joined the cast of Sesame Street. Starting with the Count Von Count's debut in 1972, Jerry Nelson operated and voiced the puppet. While he would cease operating the Count in 2004, he continued to do the character's voice until this year (the upcoming season will be the final one to feature the voice of Jerry Nelson. He also provided the voice of other Sesame Street characters, including Mr. Snuffleupagus,  Herry Monster, Mr. Johnson, and others.  While Jerry Nelson worked on Sesame Street, he continued to work with The Muppets. He provided the voice of various Muppets in Muppet specials, and it was in 1975 on The Muppet Show pilot "Sex and Violence" that he originated the voice of Floyd Pepper, as well as providing the voices of such assorted characters as Muppet versions of Gene Shalit and Thomas Jefferson. In the Muppets' single season on Saturday Night Live in 1975, he provided the voice of Scred.

The Muppet Show debuted in 1976 and Jerry Nelson would provide the voice of several Muppets. In addition to Floyd Pepper (bassist for The Electric Mayhem), he also provided voices for such Muppets as Dr. Julius Strangepork (featured in Pigs in Space), Robin the Frog, and various chickens. He participated in various Jim Henson produced TV specials, including Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Muppets Go Hollywood, John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years, A Muppet Family Christmas, and The Muppets at Walt Disney World. Beyond The Muppet Show he was involved in other Jim Henson produced TV series, including Fraggle Rock (where he provided the voice of Gogo Fraggle), The Jim Henson Hour, and Mupppets Tonight (where, in addition to his usual characters, he was the voice of Statler).

As part of the Muppets troupe, Jerry Nelson also worked on the many Jim Henson produced movies, including The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Muppets from Space (1999).  He also appeared in films outside of those associated with Jim Henson Productions or Sesame Street. He appeared in the films The Nail Gun Massacre (1985), The Radicals (1990), and RoboCop 2 (1990). While he retired in 2004 from all but providing the voice of The Count on Sesame Street, Jerry Nelson's last work, besides providing the voice of The Count on Sesame Street, was for the movie The Muppets (2011) in a voice cameo as a telethon announcer.

There can be little doubt that Jerry Nelson was one of the greatest puppeteers of all time. He had an extremely versatile voice, that could produce everything from the Bela Lugosi impersonation he used for The Count to the laid back, beatnik voice of Sgt. Floyd Pepper to Robin the Frog's more boyish voice. What is more is that Jerry Nelson could not do a wide array of voices, but he could also sing. In fact, he even released his own album, Truro Daydreams, in 2009. Jerry Nelson was an important part of The Muppets' history and provided the voices of some of their most memorable characters. As The Count he educated generations of children. He won't be forgotten.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The 100th Anniversary of Gene Kelly's Birth

It was 100 years ago today, on 23 August 2012, that Gene Kelly was born. Alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers he is perhaps the most famous dancer of all time. Today, 60 years after he first appeared on film, Gene Kelly is still a household name. Most of his films are still shown on television and many are available on DVD. His films Singin' in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951) are often counted among the greatest movie musicals of all time. In fact, Singin' in the Rain is considered by many to be the greatest film musical of all time, period.

There can be no doubt that Gene Kelly's continued popularity is due to a number of factors. Chief of these may be summed up in a quote from Mr. Kelly years and years ago, "If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I'm the Marlon Brando." Of course, the quote points to the fact that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have been compared to each other from the beginning, something that I think may be a bit unfair. Both were great dancers and both were very different in their styles. That having been said, the quote points not only to a significant difference Mr. Kelly had from Mr. Astaire, but also one of the chief reasons for his appeal. The image that comes to most people of Fred Astaire is that of a man in a top hat and tails with a cane. It is also the image one gets of many male dancers before Gene Kelly. It is an image that brings to mind not simply sophistication and savoir faire, but to a degree that of the upper classes of the early 20th Century.

When most people picture Gene Kelly, I imagine they do not picture him in a top hat and tails. In fact, the image in their mind of Mr. Kelly is likely to vary. They might picture him in the sailor uniform he wore in Anchors Aweigh (1945) or On the Town (1949) or they might picture him in the polo shirt he wore in An American Paris or even one of the suits he wore in Singin' in the Rain, but in almost every case it is a fashion that the common man might have worn in the mid-20th Century. The image of Gene Kelly is then much more middle class or working class than Fred Astaire or other male dancers of the time. Indeed, while many of the characters Mr. Kelly played in his career were in occupations that might not be that of the average man (a club owner in Cover Girl, a baseball player in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, an artist in An American in Paris, an actor in Singin' in the Rain, et. al.), most of them had working class or middle class backgrounds. This made it easier for the average man on the street to identify with Gene Kelly's characters. Many men may have found it easier to identify with Gene Kelly as a sailor or Gene Kelly as a struggling artist with a working class than Fred Astaire as a dance in top hat and tails. In this respect Gene Kelly's famous quote may be inaccurate. Gene Kelly wasn't the Marlon Brando of dance, but the Jimmy Stewart of dance. He was dance's version of Everyman.

In keeping with playing Everymen, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were responsible for removing musical numbers from the sound stage and putting them into real life locations. Portions of On the Town were filmed on real life New York locations, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Rockefeller Centre. Even when Gene Kelly's films were not shot on location (which was most of them), dance numbers were often set in ordinary places: the famous "Singin' in the Rain' sequence from the film of the same name on an ordinary city street; the "Tra-la-la (This Time It's Really Love)" sequence from An American in Paris in a Paris flat; the "I Like Myself" sequence in a roller rink from It's Always Fair Weather; and so on. Not only were the musical sequences in Mr. Kelly's films an integral part of the film, but they were usually set in common, everyday places. This would further make Gene Kelly's characters Everymen with whom the  average person could identify.

While Gene Kelly generally played average men and his routines were often set in common, every day places, his dancing style was both athletic and energetic. He not only incorporated ballet into his routine and the tap dancing generally expected of screen dancers, but he also incorporated leaps, flips, and other acrobatics. He even danced on roller skates in It's Always Fair Weather. That Gene Kelly's style of dance would be particularly athletic should be no surprise given his background. Growing up in Pittsburgh he played hockey and baseball. At age 15 he played for a semi-professional ice hockey team and at one time he had aspirations to play professional baseball. Regardless, it is quite possible that Gene Kelly's more athletic style of dance may have appealed more to the average man of the mid-20th Century than other styles of dance.

While Gene Kelly may have been a dancer with whom the average man may have more identified, he also had an appeal for women that went beyond his Everyman characters and his athletic style of dance. Quite simply, Gene Kelly was a very handsome man. In fact, I think it can be said that if Mr. Kelly had not been a talented dancer, then he might have had a career in movies a leading man. Arguably, Gene Kelly was as handsome as many of the romantic leads of the era, including Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, and Clark Gable.

Of course, while Gene Kelly was a great dancer and good looking, one must not overlook the fact that he was a very good actor. He not only had perfect timing as a dancer, but as a comic actor as well. He could tell a joke or perform a comic routine as well as many professional comedians could Many of his best films, from Anchors Aweigh to Singin' in the Rain, hold up well today because they not only function as musicals, but as comedies as well. Indeed, any doubt about Gene Kelly's abilities as a comic actor can be erased by merely watching him in the movie What a Way to Go! (1964), in which he plays one of the funniest characters in the film, comic Pinky Benson. Mr. Kelly also did well in dramas. He gave a very good performance in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), as well as Inherit the Wind (1960--some people think he is miscast, but I disagree). In the end it can be said that Gene Kelly was quadruple threat--someone could act, sing, dance, and direct.

Sadly, except for some of the films in which he himself starred, Gene Kelly's career as a director probably has not played much of a role in his continued popularity. This is sad, as he was a very good director. With Stanley Donen he directed On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and It's Always Fair Weather, but he directed many fine movies on his own. Among the films Mr. Kelly directed were Invitation to the Dance (1957), Gigot (1962), A Guide for the Married Man (1967) , and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).

Gene Kelly died in 1996 at the age of 83, but in the sixteen years since his death he shows no signs of being forgotten. If you ask the average person to name a dancer from the movies, chances are they will either answer Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, or Ginger Rogers. His movies are still shown on television somewhat frequently and most of them are available on DVD. Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris are even shown in theatres from time to time. If Gene Kelly is still popular, it is perhaps because he was a dancer and actor who could appeal to almost everyone, an Everyman with an athletic style of dance who performed on screen in everyday places. Ultimately, Gene Kelly made the movie musical even more accessible than it already was, and for that he continues to be popular.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

William Windom and Tony Scott Pass On

William Windom

Prolific actor William Windom died on 16 August 2012 at the age of 88. He was  a regular on the shows The Farmer's Daughter and Murder, She Wrote, and guest starred in series ranging from Star Trek to Newhart.

William Windom was born on 28 September 1923 in New York City. He was named for his great grandfather, Congressman and United States Secretary of the Treasury William Windom. He attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. During World War II he served in the United States Army as a  paratrooper with Company B, 1st Battalion 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division in the European Theatre. During the Allied occupation of Germany, Mr. Windom enrolled in the Biarritz American University in France. It was there that he became interested in drama. After being demobilised and returning to the United States, William Windom attended Fordham University, where he studied theatre.

Afterwards William Windom found work on stage in New York City. He made his Broadway debut in 1946 in King Henry VIII. He would return to Broadway several times, appearing in such productions as What Every Woman Knows (1946), Alice in Wonderland (1947), A Girl Can Tell (1953), Mademoiselle Colombe (1954), The Grand Prize (1955), Double in Hearts (1956), The Greatest Man Alive (1957), and Viva Madison Avenue! (1960).

William Windom made his television debut in a The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse production of Romeo and Juliet in 1949 as Tybalt. In the Fifties he guest starred on such shows as Lights Out, Masterpiece Playhouse, Omnibus, Robert Montgomery Presents, Westinghouse Desliu Playhouse, and Play of the Week

In the Sixties Mr. Windom made his film debut in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. He appeared in the films Cattle King (1963), For Love or Money (1963), One Man's Way (1964), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Hour of the Gun (1967), The Detective (1968), The Angry Breed (1968), The Gypsy Moths (1969), and Brewster McCloud (1970). On television he played the lead role in the sitcoms The Farmer's Daughter and the short lived, but critically acclaimed My World and Welcome to It. He guest starred on such shows as The Detectives, Checkmate, Cheyenne, Bus Stop, The Donna Reed Show, Thriller, Combat, The Twlight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, The Invaders, Bonanza, The Virginian, and The Mod Squad. He appeared in the historic television film Prescription: Murder, the first appearance of Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo.

In the Seventies he appeared on such shows as That Girl, Alias Smith and Jones, All in the Family, Cannon, Cade's County, The Waltons, Columbo, Ironside, Night Gallery, Banacek, Gunsmoke, Love American Style, Mission: Impossible, The F.B.I., Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, McMillan & Wife, Quincy M.E., Kojak, and Dallas. He was a regular on the show Brothers and Sisters. He appeared in such films as The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Fools' Parade (1971), Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972), Echoes of a Summer (1976), Mean Dog Blues (1978), and Goodbye, Franklin High (1978).

In the Eighties William Windom was a regular on both Murder, She Wrote and Parenthood. He appeared on such shows as The Incredible Hulk, Barney Miller, Fantasy Island, Trapper John M.D., The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Airwolf, Newhart, and Amen. He appeared in such films as Separate Ways (1981), Last Plane Out (1983), Grandview, U.S.A. (1984), Means and Ends (1985), Prince Jack (1985), Welcome Home (1986), Street Justice (1987), and Funland (1987).

From the Nineties into the Naughts William Windom appeared on such shows as L.A. Law, Murphy Brown, Burke's Law, Providence, and JAG. He appeared in such films as Committed (1991), Sommersby (1993), The Thundering 8th (2000), Raising Dead (2002), Dismembered (2003), and Just (2006).

William Windom has often been described as playing Everyman characters, but in truth the roles he played throughout his career were a bit more diverse. Certainly the characters he played in his three best known television series (The Farmer's Daughter; My World and Welcome to It; and Murder, She Wrote) were Everymen, but he could also play characters who were much darker. One of his best performances was in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine," in which he played Commodore Decker, a 22nd Century Captain Ahab willing to do anything to destroy a weapon capable of destroying planets. In To Kill a Mockingbird he made an impressive film debut as the prosecuting attorney willing to convict an innocent man despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Mr. Windom also did admirable turns in TV shows ranging from The Twlight Zone (on which he guest starred multiple times) to Columbo. Over the years he played everything from a priest to medical doctors to gunfighters. He was a very versatile actor and one who gave a great performance every time, whether he was in a sitcom or major motion picture. It is little wonder William Windom was so prolific. He was so very talented.

Tony Scott

Tony Scott, who directed such films as Crimson Tide (1995), True Romance (1993), and Spy Game (2004), committed suicide on 19 August 2012 by leaping from the Vincent Thomas Bridge into the Los Angeles Harbour. He was 68 years old.

Tony Scott was born on 21 June 1944 in North Shields, North Tyneside, Northumberland. One of his two older brothers was famous director Ridley Scott. He was educated at Stockton-on-Tees. He was still a boy when he had his first professional experience in film, appearing in Ridley Scott's first short film, "Boy on a Bicycle." Mr. Scott studied painting at Sunderland Art School, Leeds College of Art and Design and the Royal College. With doubts in his mind about being able to make a living writing, Tony Scott went to work for his brother Ridley Scott's film and television production company Ridley Scott Associates (RSA). Tony Scott would spend the next many years directing commercials for RSA.

It was in 1969 that Tony Scott directed his first film, the short subject "One of the Missing." That same year he served as cinematographer on Mireille Dansereau's short "Forum." In 1971 Tony Scott directed the short "Loving Memory." Most of the Seventies he would spend directing commercials, with the exception of an episode of Nouvelles de Henry James.

It was in 1983 that Tony Scott made his feature film debut as a director with the film The Hunger. In the Eighties he would follow it with some of his most successful films, if not the best received by critics: Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Revenge (1990), and Days of Thunder (1990). In the Nineties Mr. Scott directed the films The Last Boy Scout (1991), True Romance (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), The Fan (1996), and Enemy of the State (1998). He also directed two episodes of the show The Hunger. In the Naughts he directed Spy Game (2001), Beat the Devil (2002), Man on Fire (2004), Agent Orange (2004), Domino (2005), Deja Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), and Unstoppable (2010).

I cannot say that I was a huge fan of Tony Scott's films. In fact, I actually dislike what may be his two most popular films, Top Gun and Days of Thunder. That having been said, it was not because of Mr. Scott's direction. Tony Scott was technically a very good director and one who was particularly suited to the action genre in which he worked. His high energy camera work often made his films more exciting than if they had been directed by someone else. Indeed, when he had the proper script, Tony Scott was capable of turning out some very fine action films. The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, and Crimson Tide, all very well done action movies, were perhaps the pinnacle of his career. At least they were the films he made that I enjoyed the most. He would also make one of my favourite spy movies of the past 25 years, Spy Game, notable for its very realistic portrayal of espionage. Tony Scott was capable of producing some very good work when he had the right script and the right actors. It is very sad to know that he is gone.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Late Great Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller, the legendary comic with a self deprecating sense of humour, died yesterday at the age of 95. While she was hardly the first woman to ever do stand up comedy, she was definitely one of the most influential. Her career spanned six decades.

Phyllis Diller was born Phyllis Driver on 17 July 1917 in Lima, Ohio. When she was young she was interested in classical music, theatre, and writing. She attended the Sherwood Conservatory of Music in Chicago for three years, then attended Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio. Her plan was to become a music teacher. While at Blufton College she met Sherwood Diller. The two married in 1939. Phyllis Diller would never teach music. Instead the couple moved to California where she went through a variety of jobs. She was an inspector at a United States Navy air station for a time and wrote a shopping column for a San Leandro, California newspaper. She also wrote advertising copy for an Oakland department store.

Although she would become one of the most legendary comics of the late 20th Century, it could be said that Mrs. Diller stumbled into a show business career by accident. She was known for injecting humour into her advertising and also known for her sense humour working in the promotions department at radio station KROW in Oakland. In November 1952 she was given her own, local, 15 minute show, Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker.  She later went to work in the promotions department of the radio station KSFO in San Francisco. From the early to mid-Fifties as Phyllis Diller's reputation as someone who was very funny spread, she began performing at parties and PTA meetings. On 7 March 1955 she made her debut as a stand up comedian at  legendary comedy club The Purple Onion in San Francisco. From there Mrs. Diller's career began to grow, as she was booked in nightclubs across the nation. It was in 1958 that she made her first national television appearance on the game show You Bet Your Life, where she proved to be a match even for the legendary Groucho Marx.

During the Sixties Phyllis Diller's career grew by leaps and bounds. She made her first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar in 1961 and appeared two more times. She would be a regular guest on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Palace, The Dean Martin Show, and The Tonight Show. She also appeared on such shows as Art Linkletter's House Party, Match Game, What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, Hollywood Squares, The Mike Douglas ShowThe Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and several Bob Hope specials. She guest starred on such shows as Batman, That's Life, Get Smart, and The Good Guys. She starred in two series of her own: the sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton and the variety show The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show. Mrs. Diller would also appear in films during the Sixties. She made her movie debut in the movie Splendour in the Grass in 1961. She would go onto appear in The Fat Spy (1966), Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966), Hollywood Star Spangled Revue (1966), Eight on the Lam (1967), The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968), Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968), and The Adding Machine (1969).  She provided the voice of The Monster's Mate in Mad Monster Party (1967).

In the Seventies Mrs. Diller was a guest on such shows as This is Tom Jones, The Dick Cavett Show, The Jim Nabors Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Kraft Music Hall, The David Frost Show, The Ken Berry "Wow" Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, The Flip Wilson Show, The Gong Show, The Muppet Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah! She guest starred on such shows as The Red Skelton Show, Love American Style, CHiPS, and The Love Boat. She appeared in the film The Sunshine Boys (1977). In the Eighties she appeared on such shows as The Alan Thicke Show, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, Madame's Place, Family Feud, Match Game, Hollywood Squares, Body Language, and Super Password. She guest starred on The Jeffersons, As The World Turns, Tales from the Darkside, Glitter, Night Heat, and 227. She appeared in the films Pink Motel (1982), Doctor Hackenstein (1988), and Pucker Up and Bark Like a Dog (1990).

From the Nineties into the Naughts Phyllis Diller appeared on such shows as Vicki, The Tonight Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Madtv, Pyjama Party, The Wayne Brady Show, Larry King Live, Dennis Miller, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Celebrity Ghost Stories. She guest starred on such shows as Blossom, Cybill, Boys Meets World, Diagnosis Murder, Emily of the New MoonBoston Legal, King of the Hill, The Drew Carey Show, Even Stevens, Life with Bonnie, and Family Guy. She appeared in such films as Wisecracks (1992), Peoria Babylon (1997), A Bug's Life (1998), The Debtors (1999), Everything's Jake (2000) , The Last Place on Earth (2002), Hip! Edgy! Quirky! (2002), Bitter Jester (2003), Goodnight, We Love You (2004), Motocross Kids (2004), West from North Goes South (2004), The Aristocrats (2005), Madman Muntz: American Maverick (2005), Forget About It (2006), Unbeatable Harold (2006), Knock Knock with Fred Willard (2006), Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) , Celebrity Art Show (2008), How to Live Forever (2009), When the World Breaks (2010),  I Am Comic (2010), and  Looking for Lenny (2011).

As a comedian and performer Phyllis Diller was nearly unstoppable. Her first local, television show was in 1952. Her final work was in 2011. And while many performers slow down as they get older, Phyllis Diller kept busy. Indeed, she made more movies in the Naughts than she did in the Sixties! She never retired and just kept on working.

Of course, the reason Mrs. Diller's career lasted so long and that she remained very busy throughout that career is that she was simply one of the funniest women to ever live. The strength of her humour was that it was all so believable. Phyllis Diller came across as an average housewife, talking about her husband Fang and his family, all the while talking about her dislike of housework and  poking fun at her appearance (even though in real life she actually was not a bad looking woman). Her on stage persona was someone all of us could relate to. In not taking herself seriously, she allowed us not to take ourselves seriously too. Beyond her wholly believable and sympathetic persona, Phyllis Diller was very skilled in her craft. She had such impeccable timing that she could deliver one liner after one liner and get a laugh every time. What is more, she had an incredible ability to improvise. She could come up with lines off the top of her head that the average gag writer might spend a night trying to develop.

Previous female comics had taken a more relaxed approach to comedy, but Phyllis Diller took the more animated approach of her male counterparts. Not only did this make her a match for them, but it also opened the doors for other female comedians with similar, aggressive approaches. Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin, and many other female comics owe a good deal to Mrs. Diller. Not only was Phyllis Diller a very funny woman with a long career, then, but she was also a true pioneer in comedy.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Naming Names: The Rise & Fall of Confidential Magazine Part Two

Confidential was not only the most notorious gossip magazine of the Fifties, but perhaps of all time. Founded in 1952 by publisher Robert Harrison, by 1955 it had a circulation of around 5 million. What is more, it had grown in power to the point to where it could even bully Hollywood. With a network of informants ranging from brothel madams to low level actors, not to mention private detectives and lawyers on its payroll, Confidential had a knack for uncovering facts about major stars that the studios might not want the public to know. Worse yet, the magazine would reveal these facts in stories laced with innuendo and suggestion. Even when the kernel of fact in any given story was not that serious, the innuendo could be very damaging. By 1955 Hollywood considered Confidential a serious threat to its stars' careers.

It was in 1955, then, that Hollywood began to fight back. The first shot in what would become a long running battle was fired by prominent attorney Jerry Giesler, who had defended Errol Flynn in his infamous statutory rape case and who had defended producer Walter Wanger when he was accused of shooting an agent for allegedly paying too much attention to wife, actress Joan Bennett. In July 1955 Jerry Giesler filed a lawsuit on behalf of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, whom Confidential had alleged was having an affair with her African American chauffeur. Jerry Giesler threw down the gauntlet before the magazine, saying, "My clients have decided to fight...We'll hound them through every court in the country.  We'll file civil libel suits and criminal libel complaints...The smut is going to stop."  Robert Mitchum (whom the magazine claimed attended a party naked) and actress Lizabeth Scott (whom Confidential claimed spent her time off work with "baritone babes," a euphemism for lesbians), both Jerry Giesler's clients, also sued the magazine in mid-1955.  While Doris Duke would win her lawsuit, Robert Mitchum's case would eventually be dismissed and Lizabeth Scott would simply drop her lawsuit.

Confidential would also be hit from a front far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. On 27 August 1955 Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield issued a "withhold from dispatch" order that barred the magazine from being sent through the mails, presumably because the Post Office thought the magazine violated its rules about obscene materials. Robert Harrison responded with a lawsuit for not informing Confidential of the order, not holding a hearing before issuing the order, and failing to give any grounds for issuing the order. Confidential would win the lawsuit, but throughout 1956 the magazine would fight the Post Office over each issue. Confidential won every time.

Hollywood would also fight Confidential on other fronts besides the courtroom. Long running fan magazine Photoplay would launch its own attack on Confidential and its imitators in its July 1955 issue. While Photoplay mentioned neither Confidential nor the other scandal magazines by name, it did attack the ethics of the magazines and indicated that it thought such publications were manipulative. Photoplay would also give the stars an arena from which they could counter accusations made by Confidential and its imitators. In its January 1956 issue Photoplay published an article on Robert Mitchum and his lawsuit against Confidential. In the February 1956 issue of Photoplay Kim Novak was able to answer charges that Confidential had made that she had basically slept her way into stardom. In the February 1957 issue of Photoplay Rory Calhoun responded to the story in Confidential about his juvenile delinquency, emphasising that he had long since reformed.

Hollywood also responded to Confidential with a film that dealt with a similar, although fictitious, gossip magazine. Slander (1957) featured Van Johnson as a children's show entertainer whose criminal past is exposed by a scandal magazine called Real Truth (the plot would seem to be inspired by the story published in Confidential about Rory Calhoun's past). While Slander outlined the techniques used by Confidential and other scandal magazines of the time, no effort was made to examine the popularity of such magazines. Instead the movie plays out largely as a morality play about good and evil with the publisher (played by screen heavy Steve Cochran) so reprehensible that even his mother disapproves of what he does for a living.

Of course, it was not just movie stars that Confidential targeted. The magazine would publish stories on other public figures as well. In 1956 Confidential published a story that outed President Eisenhower's former Appointments Secretary and then lecturer at the University of Miami, Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr., as a homosexual. He wound up resigning his position at the University of Miami. Then Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles was also outed as a homosexual by the magazine in an article published in March 1956. Mr. Welles consulted attorneys about suing the magazine for $1 million, but he desisted when they informed him that the legitimate press could then publish details from the Confidential article.

Regardless, Hollywood remained the prime target of Confidential and Hollywood continued to fight back. The turning point was 1957, when the film industry would finally strike some firm blows against the magazine. It was in May 1957 that California Attorney General Pat Brown gave into pressure from Hollywood and decided to try to indict Robert Harrison, Confidential magazine, and its fellow scandal magazines for criminal libel and the publication of obscene materials. It was then on 15 May 1957 that a grand jury indicted Robert Harrison and Confidential magazine on charges of criminal libel, conspiracy to circulate lewd and obscene material, conspiracy to circulate material pertaining to abortions (then illegal in the state of California), and conspiracy to circulate material pertaining to male rejuvenation. Among the star witnesses at the grand jury trial were former Confidential employee Howard Rushmore, who was only too eager to spill the beans on his former employer, Liberace, and actress Maureen O'Hara (more about Miss O'Hara later).

Having been indicted, Robert Harrison and Confidential could now be tried before a petit jury for the crime of criminal libel. Before the case proceeded to trial, however, one of the biggest movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood would make her own attack against the magazine. In the February 1957 issue of Confidential it was alleged that actress Maureen O'Hara and a "Latin Lothario" had sex in the balcony of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The story was not a cover story and, in fact, was buried in the contents of the magazine. Regardless,  Miss O'Hara was outraged. Not only did she testify before the grand jury in May, but on 9 July 1957 Maureen O'Hara initiated a libel lawsuit against Confidential.  Initially she asked for only $1 million, but later she increased the amount of damages to $5 million. At first Miss O'Hara had the support of the film industry. In fact, two other celebrities also sued the magazine about the same time: Liberace for the notorious story from Confidential's July 1957 issue, "Why Liberace's Theme Song Should Be 'Mad About the Boy'," and Dorothy Dandridge for a story claiming she had sex in the woods. Ultimately Liberace and Miss Dandridge would settle with the magazine and Maureen O'Hara discovered she was going to receive no help from the film industry whatsoever.

Regardless, Miss O'Hara continued with her lawsuit. When the representatives from  Confidential testified, they gave the exact date that they claimed the incident between Maureen O'Hara and her alleged lover took place at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1954. Maureen O'Hara found it simple to prove the accusation false. She simply showed her passport, which was dated and stamped, showing she was at that time in Spain shooting Fire Over Africa. In the end Maureen O'Hara achieved something no other star before her had--she defeated Confidential in a court of law. Miss O'Hara's victory over the magazine would prove instrumental in its downfall.

It was only a little over a month after Maureen O'Hara had initiated her lawsuit against Confidential that the criminal libel trial against the magazine began on 15 August 1957. While the movie industry was eager to destroy Confidential, they became very nervous when the magazine's attorney Arthur Crowley announced his intention to subpoena 200 different stars. Hollywood knew all too well that the trial would mean dredging up potentially damaging stories published in the past few years in the magazine. Many big name actors went into hiding or left the state of California entirely to avoid testifying at the trial. Regardless, the trial would not be without witnesses for either the defence or the prosecution. Among the celebrities who did testify were Maureen O'Hara, the woman who would help bring Confidential down, and Dororthy Dandridge. Once more former Confidential employee Howard Rushmore was the star witness. Other witnesses ranged from a prostitute paid by Confidential for information to producer Paul Gregory.

It was on 16 September 1957 that the trial went to the jury. The jury deliberated for 15 days at the Mayflower Hotel in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it was on 1 October 1957 that the jury announced that they were unable to come to a verdict, with seven jurors for conviction and five for acquittal. The judge then declared  a mistrial. The prosecutor expressed a desire for a retrial, but it would never come to pass. It was in November 1957 that Robert Harrison agreed to stop covering the lives of Hollywood stars. In return, all charges were dropped by the state except for conspiracy to circulate lewd and obscene materials, for which the magazine paid a $10,000 fine.

Even if Confidential had not backed off coverage of movie stars, its days were probably numbered. It was in 1958 that Maureen O'Hara would achieve her victory over the magazine, crippling it further. With ongoing libel suits, Confidential would have had to have surrendered to Hollywood sooner or later. Regardless, no longer able to print the sort of lurid stories it once had about Hollywood stars, Confidential rapidly lost its once huge circulation. It was in May 1958 that Robert Harrison sold Confidential to Hy Steirman, who tried to avoid any sort of celebrity gossip. The once powerful Confidential would change formats and owners several times over the years, limping along until it finally folded in 1978. It was that same year that the magazine's founder, Robert Harrison, died.

Howard Rushmore, the other major player in the saga of Confidential magazine, would not last much longer after the magazine's trial. It was on 3 January 1957 that Howard Rushmore shot his wife and himself following an argument in a taxi cab. He had apparently been suffering depression after his wife had left him only two days before Christmas. Others who played major roles in the history of Confidential would have much happier fates. Maureen O'Hara, the first actor to ever defeat a scandal sheet in court, would continue to have a successful career, making her last appearance in a  television movie in 2008. Liberace would also continue to have a long and successful career. Throughout his career he continued to deny accusations of homosexuality. It was in a 2011 interview that close friend Betty White confirmed that the pianist was indeed gay.

While Confidential would enjoy only a relatively brief period of success, it would forever change the shape of celebrity gossip. Until the Fifties fan magazines and even gossip magazines were dependent upon the Hollywood studios for pictures and stories about movie stars. Confidential created new ways of gathering information about the stars through a network of paid informants. Since the magazine could not rely on the studios for pictures of the stars, it had to obtain photographs taken through other means. Eventually this would lead to the development of the phenomenon known as paparazzi. And while there was a good deal of controversy over the contents of Confidential, it would change what was considered acceptable for gossip magazines to print. Throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, both gossip magazines and even the mainstream press would no longer shy away from covering scandals about the stars. Indeed, some stars would even seem to court scandal, with the idea that it could actually help, rather than hinder, their careers.

While Confidential and even a few of its competitors would limp along through the Sixties and even the Seventies, new gossip magazines and scandal sheets in the same mould would arise to take their place. The National Enquirer had originated as a broadsheet,  The New York Evening Enquirer, in 1926. In 1953 it was transformed into a tabloid with its focus firmly on gore and violence. In 1957 it went national and changed its name to The National Enquirer. It was in 1967 that The National Enquirer shifted from its "Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her" type stories to celebrity gossip firmly in the tradition of Confidential. In 1974 it would be joined by a competitor also in the tradition of Confidential, The Star. Today it is impossible to escape celebrity gossip in the mould of Confidential. It has even invaded the web in the form of TMZ and

While the past 60 years since the founding of Confidential have seen even more gossip outlets founded in its image, it remains perhaps the most scandalous magazine ever published.  Much of what Confidential published does not seem that scandalous today, but for the era in which it was published it was downright shocking. This was the era of the Lavender Scare, when homophobia was at its height and homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It was a time when interracial marriages (at the time termed miscreation) were still illegal in many states. It was a time when premarital sex was still frowned upon and any hint of adultery could end a star's career. In that respect, Confidential went much further than any of its successors, such as The National Enquirer or The Star, ever did. Sadly, the days when celebrities' private lives could remain private are long since gone.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Naming Names: The Rise & Fall of Confidential Magazine Part One

Even in the 20th Century celebrity gossip was nothing new. The gossip column as we know it today took shape in late Victorian London. The now long defunct London evening newspaper The Star was the first publication ever to include a gossip column. Other newspapers in the United Kingdom and the United States would follow suit, until they were relatively common in the early 1900's. The success of gossip columns would see the rise of gossip magazines, the first perhaps being Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip in 1914.  Celebrity gossip would become so popular in the early to mid 20th Century that  such gossip columnists as Louella Parsons, Walter Winchell, and Hedda Hopper would become celebrities themselves. It was in the 1950's, however, that a new sort of celebrity gossip arrived on the scene, one that was dark, often malicious, and more often than not salacious. It arrived in the form of Confidential.

Confidential was a gossip magazine first published in December 1952. While it would run until 1978, the heyday of Confidential was in the Fifties, when it was viewed as a serious threat by Hollywood. Confidential operated by publishing articles that contained a little bit of fact and a whole lot of innuendo. What is more, Confidential would publish stories that no other gossip column or magazine before would ever think to publish. Accusations of homosexuality, interracial romances, promiscuity, and marital infidelity (all of which were exceedingly scandalous for the era) were par for the course in the average issue of Confidential.

Confidential was the brainchild of publisher Robert Harrison. During the Forties he published such girlie magazines as Whisper and Eyeful. By the early Fifties. however, Harrison's girlie magazines were declining in circulation. It was when he was watching the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce hearings (which looked into organised crime) on television that Robert Harrison had the idea for Confidential. The hearings, which exposed the private lives of noted gangsters, received extremely high ratings, leading Harrison to believe that a magazine that did something similar might sell quite well.

With the slogan "Tells the Facts and Names the Names," Confidential sought to expose the private scandals of public figures (politicians, sports figures, movie stars, et. al.). In fact, for its first two issues Confidential did not focus on Hollywood. There were stories about President Harry Truman and boxer Sugar Ray Robinson mixed in with stories about racketeering, political scandals, and what can only be described as oddities. This would begin to change even as the earliest issues of the magazine were published. In April 1953 Confidential ran a story that attacked singer Josephine Baker, who had criticised gossip columnist Walter Winchell, while at the same time lauding Winchell. Pleased with the story, Winchell promoted the magazine in his newspaper column over the next several months. What is more, Walter Winchell began to secretly collaborate with Confidential, leaking rumours to them that could not be printed in more respectable publications.

If the link between Confidential and Walter Winchell were not enough to steer the magazine towards a strong focus on Hollywood, its third issue would. The third issue featured Marilyn Monroe prominently on the cover along with the headline "From a Detective's Report--The Real Reason for Marilyn Monroe's Divorce." The story inside claimed that Miss Monroe was cheating on then husband Joe DiMaggio with 20th Century Fox co-founder Joe Schenck. With that issue alone the circulation of Confidential, which had started with a run of 150,000 copies, jumped to 800,000. The course of Confidential was then set--its sights would be firmly on Hollywood.

One would think a gossip magazine would tend to be apolitcal, but in its early days Confidential had a definite right wing slant. It often targeted liberal celebrities, and attacks on the "Communist menace" were not unusual in the magazine. Much of the reason for the magazine's right wing slant is that it employed conservative journalist Howard Rushmore. Howard Rushmore had been a member of the CPUSA and a reporter for The Daly Worker in the Thirties. In the Forties he switched sides and became an anti-Communist crusader writing for Hearst's New York Journal-American. He was a star witness in the House Un-American Activities Committee's 1947 hearings into Communism in Hollywood. He later served as one of Senator Joseph McCarthy's researchers. He would eventually have a falling out with both Senator McCarthy and the Journal-American. Rushmore would eventually have a falling out with Confidential as well, although sources differ as to the reasons. According to some Robert Harrison refused to let Rushmore print a piece critical of Eleanor Roosevelt and so Rushmore quit. According to others, Confidential was going to hire a liberal writer to balance out Rushmore's conservative articles. According to yet others, it was over a simple salary dispute. Regardless, Howard Rushmore would prove pivotal in the magazine's downfall later on.

Confidential would come to operate like a well oiled machine. Robert Harrison developed a network of call girls, waiters, bellboys, journalists, private detectives, and even minor actors who would provide the small bits of fact which Confidential could elaborate with a good deal of innuendo. Confidential also took full advantage of recent advances in surveillance technology. New, smaller, more easily hidden cameras and even electronic bugging devices were used to gather what little information the magazine needed for its stories. Of course, Confidential needed only the tiniest bit of truth to create a story. As stated earlier, the magazine would take one tiny fact and then proceed to lace it with innuendo. Frequent use of both puns and alliteration was made. More often than not, Confidential operated on suggesting that something unseemly had happened, rather than stating outright that something scandalous had occurred. What is more, Confidential skirted libel and obscenity laws as closely as it possibly could. While its stories were often salacious, they could never be considered as only appealing " prurient interests," part of the definition of obscenity at the time. And because the stories often contained a kernel of the truth, for a time celebrities would be unlikely to sue the magazine for libel.

Ultimately Confidential would prove to be extremely successful in a very brief  amount of time. With its particular combination of sin and sex, its circulation would reach 5 million by 1955. What is more, it inspired scores of imitators, including Hush-Hush, On the Q.T., Uncensored, Naked Truth, and so on. Robert Harrison even turned his girlie magazine Whisper into a gossip magazine, often reprinting articles from Confidential. Not only  would Confidential prove to be a hit on newsstands, but it also developed some leverage over Hollywood, In 1955 Confidential threatened to publish a story that would have exposed Rock Hudson as a homosexual, something which could have effectively ended his career. Mr. Hudson's agent Henry Wilson avoided this possible public relations nightmare by providing Confidential with information on Rory Calhoun's arrests for armed robbery while he was young and Tab Hunter's arrest at a party in 1950.

The sad fact was that Confidential had grown to the point where its stories could have major repercussions for Hollywood. In a news story published in November 1955, legendary journalist Jack Olsen told how some Southern exhibitors had resisted booking movies starring Ava Gardner because of an "exposé" published in Confidential about an alleged affair with Sammy Davis Jr. He also told how another, unnamed actress, who had once played "sweet young thing types," would never be cast in such roles again after a Confidential story about her "nighttime escapades." While in the end Confidential would not destroy the careers of any major stars, the fact that Hollywood believed that it could do so showed just how powerful the magazine had become. For decades the film industry had wielded considerable power over such fan magazines as Photoplay and Motion Picture Classic and such industry publications as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Hollywood not only had no power over Confidential, but regarded it as a serious threat.

While Confidential had reached a circulation of millions in a few scant years and was powerful enough to bully even Hollywood, its days were numbered even while it was at its peak. The still powerful film industry would not take the magazine's smearing of its stars lying down and individual stars were not about to have their reputations ruined by a scandal sheet. When Confidential was at its height, Hollywood started to fight back.