Friday, January 4, 2013

The Age of Television Period Pieces

 In the history of American television, with the exception of Westerns and war dramas, period dramas and comedies have been a rarity. Relatively few have been hits and very few are remembered. Indeed, unlike other genres, it is fairly easy to name the majority of the successful period pieces outside of Westerns and war dramas that have aired on American television from the late Forties to the Naughts: The Untouchables, The Waltons, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Crime Story, The Wonder Years, and That Seventies Show. It is then rather remarkable that the past several seasons have seen two shows set in the past that have become outright phenomena. In the United States Mad Men debuted in 2007 on AMC and became a breakout hit. Downton Abbey debuted on ITV in 2010 and became a hit there. It later debuted on PBS in the United States in early 2011 where it repeated its success. As might be expected with two hit television period pieces, others have followed suit.

Of course, period pieces have traditionally been more common on British television than American television, so it should come as no surprise that at least three of the recent hit period pieces in the United States come from British television.  Downton Abbey originated on ITV in the United Kingdom. The Hour, centring on a British public affairs show on the BBC in the Fifties, originated on BBC Two and aired in the States in BBC America. Call the Midwife, the show centring on midwives in the Fifties, originated on BBC One. That having been said, the past several year have seen several home grown period pieces become hits on American television.

The vast majority number of period pieces on American television the past many years have aired on cable. Boardwalk Empire debuted on HBO in September 2010, before Downton Abbey even hit American shores, and proved to be a hit. The series is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 1930's. The Starz series Magic City was perhaps not as successful as Boardwalk Empire, but did well enough to be given a second season. Debuting on Starz in 2012, it centres on a hotel in Miami in the Sixties. AMC boasts one other period piece besides Mad Men, the Western Hell on Wheels. Hell on Wheels debuted on the channel in 2011 and focuses on the building of the transcontinental railroad. Copper is BBC America's first original production and debuted on the channel in 2012. It centres on police officers in New York City in the 1860's. It proved to be their highest rated series ever besides Doctor Who.

Despite the popularity of period dramas on PBS and the various cable channels, the broadcast networks have not made much of an effort to capitalise on the new popularity of period pieces in the past few seasons. In the 2011-2012 season only two period pieces debuted on the broadcast networks. One of the two was the disastrous Playboy Club, set in the Chicago Playboy Club in the Sixties. The series crashed and burned in about a month, perhaps because of bad scripts and historical inaccuracies. It aired on NBC. The other was Pan Am, a show that focused on a crew working for that airline in the Sixties. ABC cancelled it after only one season. This season so far only one new period piece has debuted on the broadcast networks. Vegas is set in Las Vegas in the early Sixties and is essentially a highly fictionalised account of the real life Sheriff Ralph Lamb. Unlike both Playboy Club and Pan Am, it appears to be doing well in the ratings.

Vegas may not be the only period piece on the American broadcast networks for very long. NBC signed Downton Abbey creator Lord Julian Fellowes to create a show set in New York City in the late 1800's, The Gilded Age. Another period piece set to air on NBC is Crossbones, a pirate drama created by Luther creator Neil Cross. Set to air in the 2012-2013 season on NBC is Dracula, a series based on Bram Stoker's novel and set in the late 1800's.  ABC also has period pieces in development, including Big Thunder (about a mining town during the Gold Rush), Finn & Sawyer (which features Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer as young men in New Orleans), and Highlanders (set in medieval Scotland with the Scots fighting off invading Vikings). Strangely enough, the one of the three older networks to actually have had success with a period piece (Vegas), CBS, does not seem to have any in the works at the moment.

While the American broadcast networks are giving period pieces another try, there are yet more British period pieces making the trip across the Pond. Ripper Street is set in Whitechapel, London following the Jack the Ripper murders. It debuted on the BBC in December 2012 and is set to debut on BBC America this month. Endeavour, a series set in the 1960's and featuring Inspector Morse when he was young, is set to air on ITV this year. The pilot aired on Masterpiece Mystery, so that the series itself will probably make its way across the Atlantic as well.

So far I have only talked about British and American productions, but the Canadians have also produced a hit period drama. Murdoch Mysteries debuted on CityTV in 2008 and proved to be quite successful. The series centres on detective William Murdoch in Toronto, Ontario in the 1890's. It has aired on PBS stations in the United States and it is available streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S. as well. It has developed a bit of a cult following in the United States.

Of course, the question is, "Why have period dramas proven popular on American television in the past few years?" At least one reason could be the simple fact that American television has always rushed to emulate success. In the 1955-1956 season when the Westerns Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp proved to be hits, the broadcast networks rushed to make Western. Quite naturally, when Mad Men proved to be a hit, one would expect other cable channels and the broadcast networks to emulate its success. Indeed, it must be noted that a suspicious number of recent period dramas have been set in the Sixties (Playboy Club, Pan Am, Magic City, Vegas). Downton Abbey appears to be having the same effect. While the broadcast networks are not rushing to make Edwardian dramas, it is notable that some of the shows in development are set in none too distant Victorian Era (Dracula) and one of them comes from Downton Abbey's creator himself (The Gilded Age).

Cable channels and the broadcast networks' rush to emulate success is only part of the answer, however, as it does not entirely explain the success of Mad Men, Murdoch Mysteries, and Downton Abbey. While much of their success is probably due to the fact that they are well acted and well written shows, I suspect that much of the reason for their success may go a bit deeper. Quite simply, the Naughts saw both the British and American economies collapse. In such times of turmoil it is typical for people to turn to what are called "comfort shows," which much like "comfort food" offers solace to individuals under stress. The phenomenon was observed in the United States following the 9/11 attacks, after which older television shows on the broadcast networks rose in the ratings.

While comfort shows are generally old favourites to which people turn in times of trouble (Bonanza and The Avengers are comfort shows for me), they can also be shows set in periods that people think of as simpler or, at least less troubled, times. Older people with fond memories of the Sixties might well tune into Mad Men to recapture a bit of what they may feel were happier times. Younger people may tune into Downton Abbey as a means of escape; for about an hour they can escape the hardships of the Teens and enter an Edwardian world that seems in some ways less stressful. Period dramas can then act as a comfort shows for many, giving them a chance to escape the present into a past which they may or may not actually have lived through.

Regardless, it would seem as if the current cycle towards period pieces is not going to end any time soon. Indeed, it would appear that it may just be getting started. With several period dramas still doing well in the ratings and with several more on the way, the Teens could be remembered for its cycle of period dramas in the way that the Fifties are for its cycle of Westerns or the Sixties for its cycle of spy shows.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Patti Page R.I.P.

Patti Page, one of the most popular singers of the 1950's, passed yesterday at the age of 85.

Patti Page was born Clara Ann Fowler on 8 November 1927 in Claremore, Oklahoma, a small town outside Tulsa. She was working in the art department of  KTUL in Tulsa, Oklahoma when an executive heard her sing and asked her to take over a show sponsored by Page Milk Company. On the show she was called "Patti Page," after the show's sponsor. She kept the name even after she left the show to perform with the Jimmy Joy Band.

Miss Page was signed to Mercury Records in 1947. Her first single, "Confess," went to #12 on the Billboard singles chart. She followed it up with several other hits, including "Say Something Sweet," "So In Love," "With My Eyes Wide Open, I'm Dreaming," and "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine." The year 1950 would prove to be a banner year for her. It was that year Patti Page had her first number one single, "All My Love (Bolero)." That same year she would have her biggest hit, "Tennessee Waltz," which hit number one on the Billboard singles chart and stayed there for thirteen weeks. From the Fifties into the Sixties Patti Page would have a long string of hits, including "Mockin' Bird Hill," "Detour," "I Went to Your Wedding," "You Belong to Me," "Why Don't You Believe Me,"  "(How Much Is That) Doggie In the Window," "Allegheny Moon," and "Old Cape Cod." Miss Page appeared frequently on television in the Fifties. on shows from All Star Revue to The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1953 she was on Scott Musical Hall. In 1955 she was the host of a syndicated show called The Patti Page Show. In 1957 she hosted The Big Record. In 1959 she was the host of The Patti Page Oldsmobile Show.

Unfortunately with the coming of rock 'n' roll, Patti Page's career went into decline. While she still had hits in the late Fifties, they did not do quite as well on the charts. From 1960 to 1966, her only major hit was "Hush... Hush Sweet Charlotte." It was not long before "Hush... Hush Sweet Charlotte" was released that she signed with Columbia Records. While her songs with Columbia Records did not do particularly well on the Billboard Hot 100, they were often quite successful on the Adult Contemporary chart. Among her songs that did well on the Adult Contemporary chart were "Gentle On My Mind," "Little Green Apples," and "Stand by Your Man."

It was in 1970 that Patti Page returned to Mercury Records. She remained with them for about three years and shifted her career towards country music. She had hits on the country chart, including "I Wish I Had a Mommy Like You," "Give Him Love," and "Hello, We're Lonely." In 1973 she returned to Columbia Records, where she released a few more country singles. Starting in 1974 Miss Page went on a five year hiatus. In 1980 she signed with Plantation Records. In 1981 she hit the top forty on the Billboard Hot 100 when "No Aces" went to #39.

Miss Page would only release a few more singles, and one more album (Brand New Tennessee Waltz in 2000). She continued to perform well into the Naughts and was the host of an interview programme on the "Music of Your Life" radio network.

There can be no doubt that Patti Page's phenomenal success was largely due to her voice. She had a beautiful alto voice that was to listening what silk is to touch. What is more, she had a sincerity about her singing that allowed her to perform such songs as “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” without sounding silly. It must also be pointed that Miss Page was highly adaptable when it came to music styles. Her biggest hit, "Tennessee Waltz," not only hit the pop chart, but the country and rhythm and blues charts as well. Over the years she performed everything from novelty songs (“How Much Is That Doggie in the Window") to pop standards ("So in Love") to jazz ("Nevertheless"). Few performers had voices as beautiful as that of Patti Page, and very few were ever as adaptable as her with regards to music styles.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year 2013 Pin Ups

Today is the first day of 2012 and to start the New Year off right I thought I would share with you some classic New Year's pin ups of actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

First up is Janet Leigh, welcoming in 1955.

Next is Marilyn Monroe wishing the Marines a "Happy New Year."

Next we have Julie Adams ringing in 1954.

Rita Hayworth is Miss 1941.

Yvonne DeCarlo makes  lovely calendar girl for 1945.

Lastly, we have the leggy and lovely Ann Milller.

Happy New Year!!!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Farewell, 2012

Twenty twelve is nearly over. I think it might be too soon to totally access the year as it was. I think sometimes it takes some distance to grasp what the most important events of any year was. Still, with the end of the year we often want to summarise what happened throughout that year, and I have generally done so at the end of each year in this blog.

I think fewer celebrities died in 2012 than in 2009, 2010, or 2011, but the year saw much bigger names pass. Indeed, for me 2012 will always be the year that Davy Jones died. His death is one of only a few before (John Lennon, John Entwistle, and Doug Fieger) that impacted me as if someone I knew personally had died. I still find myself on the edge of tears. The simple fact is that I have always been a huge Monkees fan, and while Mike Nesmith is my favourite Monkee, I always loved Davy as well.

Of course, while Davy may have been the biggest name for me to have died, he was by far not the only one. As I said earlier, if fewer celebrities died this year, the names were bigger, with actors who saw success in multiple media. We might think of them primarily as the stars of legendary TV shows, but Andy Griffith, Jack Klugman, Larry Hagman, Ernest Borgnine, and Henry Morgan all saw success in motion pictures as well. Some of them even saw success on the Broadway stage. With regards to television, several other actors best known for their work in that medium also died, including Jonathan Frid, Sherman Hemsley, George Lindsey (Goober on The Andy Griffith Show), Ben Gazzara (another actor who had success in film and on stage as well, but perhaps best known for _Run For Your Life_), Richard Dawson, Frank Cady, Mary Tamm, Peter Breck, and Caroline John. The year also saw the passing of Dick Clark, a giant in American television. Not only was he the host of American Bandstand for years, but he was also a producer responsible for many shows of the year. Twenty twelve also saw the passing of Gerry Anderson, who was responsible for such shows as Thunderbirds, U.F.O., and Space: 1999. William Asher, perhaps best known as the producer of Bewitched, also died this year.

Twenty twelve also saw the deaths of several movie stars, of which my favourite was Ann Rutherford. She was one of my childhood crushes and, not only was she was a talented actress, but everyone I know who had met her has said she was one of the nicest people one could meet. Miss Rutherford was one of the last links to the Golden Age of Hollywood. One of the last links to the Golden Age of British Cinema would die this year as well. Dinah Shelton not saw success in British film, but also later on television as well. Herbert Lom was one of the last remaining links to the Golden Age on either side of the Atlantic, an actor who saw success in both the UK and the US, and in both television and film as well. Like Herbert Lom, Jean Simmons was also a link to both the Golden Ages of Hollywood and British Cinema, having starred in several classic films on both sides of the Pond. Several other movie stars died during the year, including Celeste Holm, William Windom, Michael Clarke Duncan, Victor Spinetti, and Dorothy McGuire all died as well.

Davy Jones was not the only famous musical performer to die during the year. Levon Helm founded one of the most legendary bands of all time, The Band. Jon Lord was with Deep Purple in its heyday, having previously played with The Artwoods and late Whitesnake. Robin Gibb was one of The Bee Gees, who produced a string of hits in the Sixties and Seventies (although I like to forget their years spent in disco). Dave Brubeck was a legend in modern jazz. The year also saw the passing of two legendary crooners, Tony Martin and Andy Williams.

It was also a year when legendary artists died. While Moebius was known to the general public for his work in film, he was responsible for the legendary Western comic strip Les Aventures de Blueberry. Sheldon Moldoff was a Golden Age comic book artist, known for his work on "Batman" and "Hawkman" and who created the character The Black Pirate. Joe Kubert was also known for his work on "Hawkman," although perhaps better known as the creator of Sgt. Rock.

Twenty twelve also saw the passing of several writers. Perhaps there was no bigger name than Ray Bradbury, the fantasist who wrote such classics as Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles. Gore Vidal, who worked in the Golden Age of Television and then went onto write several historical novels, also died.  Nora Ephron made her name with her essays and articles before writing screenplays for filmssuch as When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail. Maurice Sendak was a writer and illustrator of children's books, most notably Where The Wild Things Are. Helen Gurley Brown was the editor of Cosmopolitan for years and the author of several books.

Of course, 2012 was more than just a year of deaths. In fact, I might also remember it as the "Year of Viral Songs That I Hate." In the summer "Call Me Maybe" was played to the point of nauseating those of us who didn't like the song from the start. In the autumn, as if to prove to us that there could be something worse, "Gangnam Style" became a global phenomenon. Fortunately there was still some good music out there. Released in late 2011, "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees proved there was still an audience for power pop, hitting #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 early in the year. "We Are Young" by fun was actually released in September 2011, but it would not take off until this year. In the end it hit the #1 spot in the Billboard Hot 100. These two songs give me hope that rock might once more overtake the record charts that of late have been dominated by rather generic pop and rhythm and blues. That's not to say that there are not good R&B acts out there. I actually enjoy much of Adele's work.

As far as movies go, 2012 appears to have been dominated by characters who have been around for decades. The two top films of the year thus far were Marvels' The Avengers (one of who, Captain America, has been around since the Forties) and The Dark Knight Rises (featuring Batman, who has been around since 1939). Skyfall came in as the fourth highest grossing film of the year so far, becoming the highest grossing James Bond film of all time. The recently released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the eighth highest grossing film. Beyond the fact that characters who have been around for fifty, sixty, and even seventy years dominating the box office, it would seem that the year was dominated by what can only be described as epics. The two top grossing superhero movies were epic in scope, as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by its very nature. There was even an epic musical, Les Miserables. The box office was saw the start of a new franchise based on a series of young adult novels. The Hunger Games was the third highest grossing film of the year. For those of who do not believe real vampires sparkle, the Twilight franchise came to an end with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, which is very good news indeed.

I think 2012 was a fairly good year for television. Indeed, in the way of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey it seems to me that the British are making further incursions into American television. Although it did not repeat the success of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife proved quite successful when it aired on PBS. Doctor Who has only grown in popularity in its years since its revival. What is more, The Doctor has a gorgeous new companion in the form of Jenna-Louise Coleman. Another example of what could be a British invasion of American television could be the BBC America series Copper. Although set in 1860's New York, the series was an American-British co-production. Over all I am happy with the shows that debuted on cable this year. A&E actually took a break from their horrible reality shows to air Longmire, a modern day Western mystery series. A revival of Dallas (a continuation rather than a re-envisioning) debuted on TNT. On the downside, Leverage ended its run on TNT this year after five years (it remains one of my favourite shows). Even the broadcast networks seem to be improving. While NBC's Revolution was a disappointment (poorly written and not particularly plausible), NBC gave us Chicago Fire, another show from producer Dick Wolf. CBS debuted Vegas, a show set in late Fifties/early Sixties Las Vegas that functions a combination Western and crime show. I am hoping Vegas might mean the broadcast networks might finally move beyond the bland sitcoms and lawyer shows they insist on debuting each year and into more a greater variety of types of shows.

Over all, I cannot say 2012 was a remarkable year beyond the many big names in entertainment we lost. Except for music (in which we had two bad songs hit become viral...), I don't think it can be said to be a bad year or a good year either one. Of course, as with any year good or bad, I think I can speak for us all when I say I hope 2013 is even better.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cliff Osmond and Fontella Bass Pass On

Cliff Osmond

Character actor Cliff Osmond died 22 December 2012 at the age of 75. The cause was pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Osmond appeared in many films made by Billy Wilder late in his career, including Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974).

Cliff Osmond was born Clifford Osman Ebrahim on 26 February 1937 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was raised in Union City, New Jersey and graduated from Dartmouth College. He made his television debut on an episode of The Dupont Show of the Week in 1962. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in How the West Was Won (1962). Throughout the Sixties he appeared in such movies as Irma la Douce (1963), The Raiders (1963), Wild and Wonderful (1964), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Three Guns for Texas (1968),  and The Devil's 8 (1969). He appeared on such TV shows as The Rilfeman, Dr. Kildare, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wagon Train, 77 Sunset Strip, My Living Doll, The Red Skelton Hour, Laredo, Batman, Ironside, The Flying Nun, Gunsmoke, and The Mod Squad.

In the Seventies Mr. Osmond appeared in such films as Sweet Sugar (1972), Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), The Front Page (1974), Sharks' Treasure (1975), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), and Hangar 81 (1980). He appeared on such shows as The Chicago Teddy Bears, McMillan and Wife, Here's Lucy, All in the Family, Police Story, Emergency, The Bob Newhart Show, Kojak, and Vega$.

From the Eighties into the Nineties he appeared in such films as Lone Star Bar & Grill (1983), In Search of a Golden Sky (1984), and For Which He Stands (1996). He appeared on such TV shows as Hart to Hart, Trapper John M.D., Mama's Family, Matt Houston, Civil Wars, and Bodies of Evidence.

Cliff Osmond was also a screen writer. Among other things he wrote episodes of Street of San Franciscio and Serpico, as well as the films Power Play (1978) and The Penitent (1988). He also directed the films The Penitent (1988) and Bxx: Haunted (2012).  Mr. Osmond also taught acting, and in 2010 he published a book on acting and his life Acting is Living: Exploring the Ten Essential Elements in any Successful Performance.

Cliff Osmond was a gifted character actor, such that one could not really say that there was a specific character type for which he was best known. On My Living Doll he appeared as a pool shark, Fat Sam. In the movie The Front Page he appeared as a police officer, Jacobi. In The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again he appeared as wild west outlaw Wes Hardin (although it was a humorous take on the legendary outlaw). Over the years he appeared in everything from Billy Wilder comedies to cheap horror movies to Westerns. Indeed, he sometimes appeared in a major motion picture and a B-movie in the same year! Cliff Osmond was a consummate actor who was devoted to his craft, and it showed.

Fontella Bass

R & B singer Fontella Bass, best known for the hit song "Rescue Me," died on 26 December 2012 at the age of 72. The cause was complications from a recent heart attack.

Fontella Bass was born on 3 July 1940 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the daughter of  gospel singer Martha Bass. She took to music at a young age, even providing piano accompaniment for her mother. She toured with her mother until she was sixteen, when she left gospel to perform rhythm and blues.  She was seventeen when she began performing professionally at the Showboat Club near Chain of Rocks, Missouri Eventually she would play with blues guitarist Little Milton.  Originally playing piano with Little Milton's band, she went onto provide vocals as well.

Fontella Bass signed with Bobbin Records. While she would see some success in the St. Louis area, her records with Bobbin did not perform particularly well. After two years with Little Milton she left his band and went to Chicago. It was in 1965 that she was signed to Checker, a subsidiary of the legendary Chess Records. Her first singles, Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” and “You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone)," were duets with Bobby McClure. Both did well on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart. Her third single would be her best known song and biggest hit. "Rescue Me" reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a hit in the UK as well, where it reached #11.

Fontella Bass released four more singles on the Checker label. While they did relatively well on the R&B chart, none of them matched the success of "Rescue Me." After only two years with Chess Records she left the label in a dispute over royalties owed to her. In 1969 she and her husband Lester Bowie moved to Paris, where she recorded two albums with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She late returned to the United States and released a solo album, Free, in 1972. Sadly, Free bombed on the charts. She then retired from singing professionally, except for the occasional vocal on her husband's albums and singing gospel music with her mother and her brother David Peaston.

Fontella Bass's career would be revitalised when there there was renewed interest in her records in the Nineties and Naughts. A greatest hits album, Rescued: The Best of Fontella Bass, was released in 1992. Over the years she would release three more albums: No Ways Tired (1995), Now That I Found a Good Thing (1996), and Travellin' (2001).

While Fontella Bass may not have a long career in rhythm and blues, she was still one of the genre's best singers. Her voice was powerful and emotive, and there can be no doubt that much of the reason for the success of "Rescue Me" was her powerful vocals. While others have covered the song, none have matched Miss Bass's vocals.