Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Late Great Larry Hagman

There are those eulogies that are extremely difficult for me to write. This is one of them. I grew up watching I Dream of Jeannie when it was rerun daily here in mid-Missouri. I also watched Dallas loyally. Larry Hagman was one of my favourite actors both when I was a lad and now that I am an adult. I not only appreciated his performances as Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie and J. R. Ewing on Dallas, but also in the many films he made, including Fail-Safe (1964) and In Harm's Way (1965). He was an incredible actor who play almost anything, from comedy to drama, from heroes to villains. Sadly, Mr. Hagman died last night, 23 November 2012, at the age of 81, of complications from cancer. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Larry Hagman or interact with him in any way, I almost feel as if I have lost a close friend.

Larry Hagman was born on 21 September 1931 in Weatherford, Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. His mother was Mary Martin, who would become a screen and stage legend in her own right. His father, Jack Hagman, was an accountant and district attorney. His parents divorced when he was five years old. When Mary Martin signed a contract with Paramount in 1938, young Larry Hagman stayed with his maternal grandmother in Texas. He attended the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Los Angeles, California and later moved with his mother to New York City where she was pursuing her acting career. In 1946 he returned to Weatherford and attended Weatherford High School. There he participated in school plays and took drama classes. When he graduated high school in 1949 it was his mother, Mary Martin, who suggested he take up acting as a profession.

Larry Hagman started his acting career in Dallas, serving as a  production assistant and acting in small parts at Margo Jones' Theatre there. He made his Broadway acting debut in a part in a production of Taming of the Shrew in 1951. In 1952 he was drafted in the United States Air Force. He served in London and spent most of his time entertaining American troops in both the United Kingdom and Europe.

After his service in the Air Force ended in 1956 Larry Hagman appeared in an off-Broadway production of Willam Saroyan's Once Around the Block. In 1957 he made his television debut as a guest star on the show Decoy. In the late Fifties he would guest star on such shows as Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Harbourmaster, Sea Hunt, The United States Steel Hour, and Diagnosis: Unknown. He had recurring roles on the weekday serials The Edge of Night and Search for Tomorrow. On Broadway he appeared in Comes a Day, God and Kate Murphy, The Nervous Set, and The Warm Peninsula.

In the Sixties Larry Hagman made his film debut in Sette contro la morte in 1964.  In the Sixties he would go onto appear in such films as Ensign Pulver (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), In Harm's Way (1965), The Group (1966), and Up in the Cellar (1970). It was also during the Sixties that he would be cast in one of his best known roles, that of Major Anthony Nelson on the television series I Dream of Jeannie. Although it only did moderately well in the ratings in its first run on NBC, the series would become one of the most successful shows in syndication of all time, not only in the United States and Canada, but around the world as well. He also guest starred on such shows as The Defenders, The DuPont Show of the Week, Mr. Broadway, The Rogues, Love American Style, and Night Gallery.  In 1962 and 1963 he also appeared on Broadway in The Beauty Part.

In the Seventies Larry Hagman appeared in such films as The Hired Hand (1971), Beware! The Blob (1972), Antonio (1973), Harry and Tonto (1974), Stardust (1974), Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), The Big Bus (1976), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Cry for Justice (1977), Chequered Flag or Crash (1977), and Superman (1978). On television he had the lead role in the short lived shows The Good Life and Here We Go Again. It was in 1978 that he began another of his best known roles, that of J. R. Ewing on Dallas. The show proved to be a veritable phenomenon, not only becoming the number one show for a time, but running a total of thirteen years as well. He guest starred on such shows as Dan August, The Name of the Game, Medicinal Centre, Police Woman, Lucas Tanner, McCloud, Harry O, Ellery Queen, Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, McMillan and Wife, and Sword of Justice. He reprised his role as J. R. on guest appearances on the Dallas spin off Knot's Landing.

In the Eighties Larry Hagman appeared in such films as S.O.B. (1981), Jag rodnar (1981). In the Nineties he appeared in the films Nixon (1995) and Primary Colours (1998),. He was one of the lead characters on the short lived show Orleans. In the Naughts he guest starred on The Simpsons, Nip/Tuck, and Somos cómplices. In the teens he resumed his role as J. R. Ewing on the successful revival of Dallas on the cable channel TNT. He also guest starred on Desperate Housewives and appeared in the film Flight of the Swan.

For many Larry Hagman will forever be Major Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie. I must confess that I am one of them. As I said earlier, as a lad I watched the show every day. Other might identify him more as J. R. Ewing on Dallas, his other well known role. While Larry Hagman will always be identified with both those roles, the fact is that he had an incredible career in which he played a large number of parts over the years. Indeed, although his two best know roles are from television, he was a bona fide movie star, appearing in Fail-Safe, In Harm's Way, S.O.B., Nixon, and may other films. With regards to movies Larry Hagman did just about everything, from B movies to major feature films.

And while Larry Hagman may be best identified with honest, hard working astronaut Tony Nelson and evil, conniving oil executive J. R. Ewing, he actually played a wide variety of roles. In Primary Colours he was Governor Picker, a politician who appeared to be honest, straight talking, and wholesome, but had more than his fair share of secrets. In Fail-Safe he played Buck, the president's translator, so convincingly that one could believe Mr. Hagman actually knew Russian.  Over the years he played everything from good guys to bad guys and everything in between. He was a great actor, although sadly not recognised as such often enough.

What is more, Larry Hagman was not only a great actor, but from all reports a true gentleman. Such co-stars as Barbara Eden, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray have all described him as one of the nicest, most compassionate men one could ever meet, and one with a slight mischievous streak at that. Those fans who were lucky enough to meet him or otherwise interact with him have also testified that he was a incredibly nice man. With Larry Hagman's death,then we have not only lost a truly great actor, but also a truly great gentleman as well.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Pin Ups

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that for the 4th of July, Halloween, and the Yuletide I post vintage pin ups of famous actresses and models related to those particular holidays. It never occurred to me that there would be pin ups for Thanksgiving, even though it makes sense. From the Twenties into the Fifties the studios would regularly take pin up shots of their starlets to promote their careers, and a good number of these pin up pictures has seasonal themes. It only makes sense that they would not overlook Thanksgiving! I discovered these while looking for more Halloween pin ups this year.

I feel I have to apologise that none of these are of the great Ann Miller. There seem to be pin up pictures of her related to every holiday (usually multiple ones), but I could find none with a Thanksgiving theme! As unlikely as it seems given the sheer number of pin up pictures of Ann Miller, she never did one with a Thanksgiving theme! Anyhow, without further ado, here are the pictures.

First up is Adelle August, a starlet with a short career in the Fifties. Probably the best known movie in which she appeared was  My Sister Eileen (1955).

Next is Barbara Bates. Her career was very strong in the Fifties and she appeared in such high profile films as Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and All About Eve (1950), in which she played Phoebe.

Next is Barbara Nichols, a minor rival of Marilyn Monroe best known for playing brassy blondes. She appeared in several movies over the years, including The Pajama Game (1957), Pal Joey (1957), and Where the Boys Are (1960), as well as TV shows from The Jack Benny Programme to Batman.

Next is Marilyn Monroe. I don't think I have to explain who she is.

Finally, I think you'll recognise this pin up. This is Vera-Ellen.  For those of you who don't recognise her, she was a musical star of the Forties and Fifties. She appeared in such films as The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), On the Town (1949), and White Christmas (1954).

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's Much Too Early for Holiday Movies

Yesterday afternoon my brother and I noticed something odd on television. ABC Family, The Hallmark Channel, and Lifetime were all showing Christmas movies.  ABC Family showed the Disney version of A Christmas Carol and something called Snowglobe. Hallmark was showing something called Matchmaker Santa and Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage. Lifetime was showing made for TV movies with titles like Christmas Child and Nothing Like the Holidays. Most of the day TBS showed movies that really matched no season, but then right before The Wizard of Oz they showed the classic Christmas special How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Sadly, I have no idea how long these channels have been showing holiday themed programming or if other channels have been doing it as well. Either way my brother and I both agreed it is too early to be airing Christmas movies.

Indeed, it is not only a full month before Christmas, but it is not even Thanksgiving. While I realise that there are those people who might be willing to watch Yuletide films in mid-November, I would guess that they are a very small minority. Most people I know have been complaining about the Christmas themed commercials that seem to have started up the day after Halloween and yet others are complaining that radio stations are already playing Christmas carols. Given that a majority of people seem to dislike Yuletide themed commercials and Christmas carols before Thanksgiving has even passed, I doubt that most people would tune into these holiday themed movies. It makes me wonder just how small the audiences watching ABC Family, The Hallmark Channel, and Lifetime must have been this weekend.

Indeed, there are two very good reasons that come to the top of my head as to why people don't want to watch Christmas movies or listen to Christmas carols in mid-November. I'm neither Jewish nor Christian, but the famous quote from Ecclesiastes comes to mind:  "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun." The simple fact is that most people identify the Yuletide with the month of December. Let's face it, Christmas Day does fall on 25 December, just a few days after the winter solstice. What is more, this has been the traditional date for Christmas for centuries. Before that, the pagan festival called Géol in Old English and Jól in Old Norse, from which our modern Christmas borrows many of its traditions and imagery, appears to have fallen in late December. Not only has the holiday always fallen in mid-December, but prior to the 20th Century it ran for twelve days, from the eve of December 24 (Christmas Eve) to 6 January (Twelfth Night or the Feast of Epiphany).  Is it little wonder that people are not in the mood for the Yuletide in mid-November. It is well over a month before the holidays are celebrated and have been for centuries!

I've already stated the second reason that many Americans do not want to hear about Christmas before Thanksgiving. Quite simply, it is not even Thanksgiving yet! There was a time that Thanksgiving was its very own holiday. It had its own traditions and its own customs peculiar to it. It was a distinct holiday from Christmas. Now it is true that even before the term "Black Friday" was coined that the Friday after Thanksgiving was considered the first official day of Christmas shopping. And it is true that from the very beginning the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus. Even then, however, Thanksgiving was a holiday with its own personality and its own imagery. In the old days one never saw people decorating their houses for Christmas before Thanksgiving and, even now, with merchants and television commercials trotting out Yuletide cheer well before Thanksgiving, most people will wait until after Thanksgiving to decorate their homes for the holidays. It is then little wonder most people have no desire for Christmas commercials, movies, or carols before Thanksgiving.

Indeed, that is why the fact that at least three cable channels were showing Yuletide movies before Thanksgiving bothers me so. It seems to me that Thanksgiving is losing its personality and hence losing its status as its own holiday. For the past many years it has been treated by many merchants and now apparently cable channels as well as a mere extension of Christmas. It is a trend that I certainly find disturbing.

Unfortunately, I can think of no reason why the cable channels would start showing Christmas movies so early. Unlike the mercantile industry, the many television outlets have nothing to sell but commercial air time. Sadly, those commercials probably will not be seen by most people if they are scheduled during a Christmas movie airing on 18 November. Worse yet, November is a sweeps month, a period during which the ratings for various programmes will determine what advertising rates the many TV outlets can charge for certain time slots. If a channel then shows Christmas movies on 18 November, I suspect they will do poorly in the ratings. And if they do poorly in the ratings, then they will find themselves having to charge less for commercial air time.

While I suspect that the vast majority of viewers did not watch the Christmas movies that aired yesterday and I suspect that most viewers probably found the airing of them in mid-November objectionable, I don't know that cable channels won't continue this trend. The complaint about retail stores trotting out Christmas goods and Christmas advertising has existed for decades. In the 1974 special It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, the Peanuts gang visited a store around Easter only to be confronted with Christmas displays and a banner reading, "Only 246 shopping days until Christmas." Even in the Seventies, then, people were complaining about retail establishments starting in on Christmas much too early and yet those decades of complaints have not prevented stores from putting out Christmas ornaments as early as September and scheduling holiday themed commercials to start on 1 November. It is for that reason that I have to doubt that cable channels will cease airing Christmas movies prior to Thanksgiving. In fact, regardless of how bad the ratings may be, I have to wonder that other cable channels won't join in.

Of course, I could be wrong. It is possible that ratings for the various Christmas movies that aired yesterday were so low that the cable channels airing them will decide not to make that mistake again. I honestly believe that television executives turn a deaf ear to viewers' complaints more often than not, but they almost never ignore the ratings. I do hope that is the case, as the airing of Christmas movies this time of year doesn't only seem horribly out of place, but it also seems like another nail that corporate American is trying to drive into the coffin of Thanksgiving.

(BTW, the cartoon above is by Randy Bisch of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I've seen it many times on the web, but I don't think I have ever seen it credited).